While my wife and I were missionaries in West Africa, our children attended day care with a little girl named Jihad. At the time I thought it was a strange name (and this was before September 11, 2001, when Jihad entered the Western world’s lexicon). I have since learned that jihad, to put it simply, means struggle; any kind of struggle, but particularly a struggle for the faith. Jihad could include the struggle to get up in the morning, the struggle to resist a particularly tempting sin, or the armed struggle to defend Islam. This latter meaning is what raises people’s concerns today. With Islamist groups around the world continuing to cause fear (the latest apparition occurring in Mali, where French forces are helping the Malian army drive Islamists from major centers), there is plenty to be concerned about. But lately, I have been learning that jihad, as it is used in the Quran, refers to a defense of the Muslim community. This makes me wonder if certain groups, most notoriously al-Qaeda, have misused and abused the concept of jihad.
Islam may be a powerful religion today of more than 1.6 billion followers, but it got off to a shaky start. Muhammad was not initially accepted as a prophet of a new religion in his hometown of Mecca. His tribe, the Quraysh, did not believe his revelations nor did they want their lucrative trade in polytheistic religion to be curtailed. Eventually, Muhammad left with his fledgling band of followers and found a more receptive community in Medina. The people of Medina were called the Ansars or helpers because they welcomed the Muslims. Muhammad faced continuing threats from Mecca, as well as from people in Medina who did not accept the new faith. To further complicate matters, a large and vibrant Jewish community in Medina did not accept Muhammad as their prophet. (Revelations in the Qur’an about Jews and Christians become decidedly more negative after their refusal). The threats to Muhammad’s new found community led him to encourage his followers to defend themselves and defend their faith.
Those of us who believe in Just War Theory should be able to understand the need for a community to defend itself. Sadly, certain elements in the Islamic world have taken jihad and used the concept to promote terrorism. In their twisted perspective, Islam needs defending from the West. That may be the sad reality, but it doesn’t have to be the only narrative available to us.
Jihad is one of many issues that would be best dealt with in conversation and dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Rather than allowing the media to influence the thinking of both groups in isolation, Muslims and Christians should come together to dialogue on issues that are important to us today. When we dialogue together, we understand each other better, and create a shared narrative of understanding. Misunderstanding and conflict will only continue if we allow fringe groups to write the narrative. Would it not be better to listen to Muslims explain what jihad means to them, and then share with them different Christian responses - from Just War to pacifism? The challenge we face is how to define terms such as jihad that continue to shape our world today. That should not be done in isolation.
One of Salaam Project’s goals is to encourage Inter-faith dialogue. We encourage churches to seek dialogue with Muslims in their community. We are also adding this component to many of our seminars and conferences. For more information on this, please see our website www.crcna.org/salaam or contact Greg Sinclair at firstname.lastname@example.org.