Love Jihad

An American(ist) in Turkey
By Jon Pahl, Ph.D.

II. Love Jihad?

One of the most misunderstood concepts in Islam is the Arabic term jihad, literally, “struggle.” Usually in the Western media, based on a very limited sampling of Islamist thought, the term is translated as “holy war,” or used to refer to armed warfare by Muslims against infidels.

This is clearly the primary meaning ascribed to it by Christiane Amanpour in her interesting, informative, but unfortunate series of pieces on “God’s Warriors” currently airing on CNN (Go to: [Editor's note: scroll down for a separate blog entry on the CNN series]. Like so many journalists, Amanpour likes to give attention to extremists. This highly selective attention to religion’s public presence can alarm viewers, stoke stereotypes, and replicate policies that treat people of faith (notably those who disagree with one’s own ultimate concerns—whether articulated or not) as crazy or needing to be contained by force.

On a recent trip to Turkey, I encountered a number of Muslims who are struggling (pun intended) to offer a more balanced understanding of jihad. For these people of faith, the primary meaning of jihad is the internal effort of individuals and communities to live out lives of responsibility before God, and in relationship to neighbors and all creation. Call it the love jihad.

My hosts for this trip were members of a grass-roots movement inspired by Turkish Muslim scholar M. Fethullah Gülen. According to Gülen, “jihad means using all one’s strength, as well as moving toward an objective with all one’s power . . . and resisting every difficulty.”(62) Far from being a “holy war,” the “greater jihad” is an internal process. Gülen defines it as “the effort to attain one’s essence.”(62) The objective of jihad is not dominance, but peace. It is about “overcoming obstacles between oneself and his or her essence, and the soul’s reaching knowledge and eventually divine knowledge, divine love, and spiritual bliss.”(62)

The primary obstacles to be overcome by jihad are not infidels or enemies, but internal dispositions and habits. “Malice and hatred are the seeds of hell scattered among people by evil,” Gülen contends. (51)

Gülen recognizes that conflict is part of history: “There are always going to be battles.”(98) He cites as examples of just conflicts the Turks’ defense of their territory as the Ottoman empire declined, in battles such as at Canakkale and Tablusgarp—where Mustafa Kemal established his reputation. To clarify his realism, Gülen turns to satire: “You have come to make us civilized. That’s good of you. Welcome. Look, you’ve brought soldiers!”(98)

But defensive war is the “lesser jihad.” Only Westerners who are “consumed with hatred,” and “immature Muslims” mistake “holy war” as the primary meaning of jihad.

Thus, self-styled “jihadis” like Osama bin Laden and other terrorists receive direct criticism from Gülen. “The rules of Islam are clear. Individuals cannot declare war. A group or an organization cannot declare war. War is declared by the state.”(129) More directly: “A Muslim cannot say, ‘I will kill a person and then go to Heaven.’ God’s approval cannot be won by killing people.”(129) And on Bin Laden: “[He] has sullied the bright face of Islam. He has created a contaminated image. . . [and] replaced Islamic logic with his own feelings and desires. He is a monster.”(132)

Such criticism is founded, by Gülen, upon a verse from the Qur’an that he cites repeatedly: “If one person kills another unjustly, it is the same as if he or she has killed all of humanity; if one saves another, it is the same as if he or she has saved all of humanity.”(5:32)

The central means of jihad, in contrast to those who imagine it being violent, is love. “Whoever has the greatest . . . love is humanity’s greatest hero, one who has uprooted any personal feelings of hatred and rancor. . . . These lofty souls, who daily light a new torch of love in their inner world and make their hearts a source of love and altruism, are welcomed and loved by people. . . . Love, the most direct way to someone’s heart, is the Prophet’s way.”(49)

This love is theological, as well as psychological and social: “God created the whole of creation out of love and Islam has embroidered the delicate lacework of this love. . . . Love is the raison d’etre for the existence of creation.”(99)

Success at this love jihad—which begins by recognizing with gratitude the gift of life, leads not to violence, but to altruism. “People consciously participate in [God’s] symphony of love in existence, and developing the love in their true nature, they investigate the ways to demonstrate it in a human way. Therefore, without neglecting the love in their spirit and for the sake of the love in their own nature, every person should offer real help and support to others. They should protect the general harmony.”(124)

A love jihad, in short, leads to peace and all the other virtues. About their attainment in history Gülen is relentlessly hopeful: “Goodness, beauty, truthfulness, and being virtuous are the essence of the world and humanity. Whatever happens, the world will one day find this essence. No one can prevent this.”(54)

For the love jihad is, finally, for the vast majority of Muslims like those who hosted me in Turkey, and who will not be profiled on CNN, God’s own struggle for peace and justice, through the fragile vessels of human beings.

All quotes are from M. Fethullah Gülen, Essays-Perspectives-Opinions (Somerset, NJ: The Light, 2006).

Photo credit: Statue of Arete (Virtue), Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey, by the Author


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