Defining jihad is like defining love. It’s a verb (in principle). Even used as the subject or object of a sentence, the word is active. No one will ever quite express the power of a holy struggle in a way that satisfies the minds and hearts of those who “answer the call of Jihād whenever the caller calls: ‘Saddle up, O cavalry of Allāh!,’” as al Qaeda’s religious tract, 39 Ways to Jihad to Serve and Participate in Jihad, phrases the impulse.

The legacy of jihad stretches back into the dark ages, back even past the fog of religious tradition and mythology that defines it. It is a mistake to assign the word “jihad” to any specific social group or ideology (like al Qaeda) and pretend that it is irrelevant to the emotions and realities of other cultures.

Jihad is used in many ways throughout Islamic literature, and understanding those ways elucidates the existential wants and fears that drive people into acts of insane violence. The “jihadis” bumbling around with mortars in the desert want to live forever in paradise, and they fear anyone who questions the feasibility of eternity. People who arm themselves with tools of war either fear something, or they want something (honor, admiration, et cetera), or both. Warriors, valiant and wonderful as they are, are invariably shackled by the chains of want and fear.

American warriors heard the caller call on 9/11. The caller, Bush II, said a number of convincing things. On television, his words captured my teenage imagination, and as a young god-fearing American I enlisted to help meet violence with violence.

I joined the U.S. Navy in 2004 to provide material aid to the American occupation of Iraq. Around the same time, just a few dozen miles away from my home, another American drew an opposite conclusion. Fueled by al Qaeda’s propaganda, Tarek Mehanna embarked on a journey to Yeman to better understand jihad. He heard a different call in his ancestral tongue, and he became immersed in certain Salafist (or Wahhabi) teachings. He translated al Qaeda’s propaganda, most notably 39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad, which defines jihad as “war against disbelief and the disbelievers.” In literature he promoted, the western pursuit of happiness (our apathy and obsession with lawn care) ruins the world, and judgment day seems as imminent as it seemed to Jesus 2000 years ago, when he said that god “will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

Orthodox monotheistic religious ministers obsess on this theme of judgement, aka ethnic/religious cleansing, a future ideal when certain people will be rewarded while everyone else is tortured eternally. It sounds vulgar, but a majority of people on earth profess to believe this. This nonsense about endtimes, the view that there will be some definitive devastating end to all of humanity is pervasive, even outside of the religious context. It seems we need existential fright, over global warming, over the potential impact of a massive meteorite, to galvanize our consciousnesses. We do work together well, but not very well. Given the fact that we have the technology right now for every individual on earth to live a relatively full and comfortable life, our selfish instincts really cause trouble.

Eventually, like death, the end of humanity will come. The best we can hope is to evolve into something else that will take charge of our planet and make it into a garden. We might view this earth as our spaceship. As George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, “The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.”

Life is short, but it does not need to be so brutal. We have technology to feed, house and cloth the entire planet. The purpose of life is not to follow religious leaders blindly to our deaths, but to seek god.

God is everything we do not know. It is all the right questions. It is awareness of our ignorance, and the desire to know. God is the limit of our imaginations. Seekers of god expand human consciousness and capacity. Don’t be fooled by those who make the oxymoronic claim to know god. The struggle to know is an act of submission, submission to the fact of ignorance, and the jihad is to better understand.

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