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Greater Jihad


It is widely recognised in Islamic scholarship that the greatest and most pivotal form of jihad of all, jihad al-asghar (the greater jihad), relates to the inner transformation of the self. This is because the Qur'an emphasises that the best form of change advocacy is not simply through preaching, but through change-practice. By, essentially, "being the change" one wishes to see in the world, one then becomes able and qualified to communicate that vision of change in society. 

There is some controversy over the most oft-cited hadith, whose chain of narration is weak. After his companions returned from a military campaign, the Prophet reportedly told them: 

“You have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” They inquired: "What is the greater jihad?" He said: “A person’s jihad against his carnal desires.” 

Ironically, anti-Muslim extremists like Robert Spencer and Pam Geller, as well as some Muslims, argue that the weakness of this hadith means it must be rejected, and there there is no such recognition in Islam of jihad as a fundamentally spiritual activity.

However, there are many other traditions that essentially confirm the same thing. The hadith attributed to the Prophet in Sunni traditions can be found in similar wording as a saying of one of the successors to the companions:

Ibrahim b. Abi ‘Ablah said to some people who had just returned from a military campaign: “You have returned from the lesser jihad. But what have you done about the greater jihad?” They asked: "What is the greater jihad?" He replied: “Jihad of the heart.” (al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Tarokh Baghdad [Egypt: Matba‘ah al-Sa‘adah, 1929], 13:494)

Unless it is to be inferred that a respected successor to the companions, Abi 'Ablah, was simply innovating (bidah) ideas into Islam without justification, we must consider that he was in fact imparting to his co-religionists a teaching of the companions, passed down from the Prophet.

Rather than this hadith being an isolated occurrence of no value, other sources show that it illustrated core Islamic teachings that were widely understood at the time by those with knowledge.

For instance, an authenticated hadith of the Prophet states:

“The fighter in Allah’s path is the one who strives against his lower self (nafs) in obedience to Allah - al-mujahid man jahada nafsahu fi ta'ati'lLah.” (The hadith is reported and graded hasan [sound] in Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.1671, but without the final phrase, "in obedience to Allah." But it is recorded with that phrase elsewhere with a reliable chain of narration, such as in Ibn Hanbal, al-Musnad, no. 1234.)

Here, the Prophet defines the mujahid primarily as one who strives to exert his "lower self," the carnal matrix of base instincts and impulses, into compliance with the ethical architecture of "obedience to Allah," that is, conduct reflective of the Divine Names and Qualities. This, then, is what is meant by 'jihad al-asghar' - the Greater Jihad - and it is considered Greater simply because it is fundamental and primary to all of Islam.



The Qur'an and hadith thus show that jihad has both inner and outer dimensions, which are intimately interrelated. The inner jihad constitutes  a struggle against one's own egoistic tendency to turn away from Reality and to deify one's own selfish or egoic passions.

The egoistic stage of being or consciousness, one which is therefore blind to Reality, and out of harmony with the Divine Will is referred to in the Qur'an as al-nafs al-ammarah (Qur`an 12:53). The term al-nafs is translated as 'self', 'ego', 'soul', among other terms. Al-ammarah is a verbal derivation of amr, which means command. Al-nafs al-ammarah is often mistranslated as simply meaning 'the self that urges evil,' but this is a potentially misleading and oversimplifying translation. The term more accurately denotes a state of being that is for the most part on 'autopilot', driven or 'commanded' by itself, that is, its own base instinctive impulses, urges and desires. It is in this context of a state of being that is entirely self-oriented and whose actions are entirely directed by its own internal drives that the Qur'an warns of a state of nafs capable of doing 'evil.'

Greater jihad, which is really the essence which underlies Islam as such, and all Islamic acts, is the movement of the human being to direct and contain these base impulses so that they align with the ethical values reflecting the Divine Names and Qualities. That does not imply that these impulses are simply suppressed or repressed, but rather that their true nature is brought into the full light of awareness, so that human consciousness reclaims the freedom of will to make decisions that are not in thrall to these impulses. 

This movement, the second stage of being or consciousness identified in the Qur'an, begins with the act of conscience, sustaining awareness of one's destructive spiritual condition: al-nafs al-lawwamah (Qur`an 75:2). This refers to a stage of consciousness that increasingly recognises the impulsiveness of these drives, and as such is able to move consciousness and will to a level that is beyond the automated subservience to their demands. 

The third stage enabled by this movement of consciousness is depicted by the Qur'an as a culmination point consisting of a state of surrender to Allah, which constitutes the awakening of the human spirit: al-nafs al-muta'minnah (Qur'an 89:27). In this state of being, consciousness has moved to a point where it has been able to reach an equilibrium where natural drives are aligned with the Divine Attributes of Love, Justice, Generosity, Compassion, Truth, and so on. At this stage, consciousness ceases to be in thrall to, blinded by, and hopelessly driven by natural impulses and instincts, but now becomes a driver in which those impulses and instincts find their harmonious outlet and expression through activity that is ethically aligned with the Divine Reality. 

It is this state of being that is referred to when the Qur'an addresses the goal of reaching a state of 'surrender' or 'submission' (which is what the word Islam means):

"O you who believe! Mind Allah as he should be minded, and die not except in a state of Islam [surrender]." (Qur'an 3:102)

"Gain mastery over yourself if you are true to your faith in Allah." (3:139)

The goal of the Greater Jihad, the jihad of the self, is to purify one's consciousness and being to the extent that it can reach an inner equilibrium reflecting the Divine Names and Qualities. This accounts for the famous saying of the Prophet,  

"Cultivate the attributes of Allah." (Ibn al-Arabi, 308, note 122), 

and the hadith ul-qudsi (saying of the Prophet that directly relays Divine Wisdom, but is not part of the Qur'an): 

"My earth does not encompass Me, nor does My heaven, but the heart of My servant, the person of true faith, does encompass Me." (315, note 7) [Cited in John Andrew Morrow, Islamic Images and Ideas: Essays on Sacred Symbolism (McFarland, 2014).

Thus, far from justifying an aggressive and arrogant attitude, the Qur’an requires precisely the opposite:

“... the servants of the Beneficent are they who walk on the earth in humility and when those who do not know address them, they say: Peace.” (25:63) 

Incidentally, this Qur'anic verse is one among several explicitly urging Muslims to greet others with 'Salam' ("peace"), especially if they are non-Muslim or unfamiliar with Islam. This contradicts the widely held myth justified with reference to fabricated hadith (which must be rejected as they contradict the Qur'an) claiming that the greeting of 'Peace' is only to be used exclusively between Muslims.