RELIGION: Jihad to win `war of ideas`
Waleed Al Ansary

COLUMBIA, SC, USA, March 20, 2006

Over 80 percent of Americans believe that economic aid can play a key role in the battle against extremism. In the current climate of `clashing cultures` and `wars of ideas`, it becomes vital that American aid to the Muslim world be smart in its approach to this matter. To do so, understanding a basic principle of Islamic theology for economic development may help.

The Koran, the sacred scripture of Islam, suggests that to struggle for a living is as important as defending one`s faith. The Prophet Mohammed stressed this fact when he defended a young man who went to work instead of joining a defensive battle. The Prophet indicated that working to support oneself and one`s family is striving in the way of God.

According to this view, every aspect of life is sacred. Nothing is outside of the scope of the Divine, and no aspect of life is profane, for everything is attached to God. What would seem the most mundane activity has religious significance, implying that work should fulfill a hierarchy of spiritual and other needs. It is in the nature of humanity to work, to provide for loved ones, to find satisfaction in meaningful work, so God can therefore not require us to do otherwise.

Accordingly, we can derive three purposes of work, as suggested by E.F. Schumacher, the renowned Christian economist (who was influenced by contemporary Islamic philosophers). Firstly, to provide necessary and useful goods and services. Secondly, to enable us to use and thereby perfect our gifts. And thirdly, to liberate ourselves from our own inborn egocentricity by cooperating with and serving others.

In Islam, working for any of these three objectives is considered jihad. Jihad is a much-misunderstood term that simply means `to strive` or `to exert oneself`.

Although jihad can indicate the defense of the Muslim community from invasion by foreign forces, the Prophet referred to this form as the `lesser` jihad: upon returning from the battle of Badr, which had threatened the very existence of the young Muslim community, he said, `You have returned from the lesser jihad [back] to the greater jihad`. The greater jihad that he was talking about is the inner struggle to integrate the whole of life around a sacred center.

Thus work - whether it be the outer work of defending one`s country, the work of supporting oneself and one`s family, the art one creates, or the inner work of spiritual growth - can communicate spiritual truth and presence.

Violent radicalism in the Muslim world deviates from the Islamic intellectual heritage in order to thrive around an abused interpretation of jihad. With the help of Muslim community leaders and clerics, reinstating the idea that jihad encompasses the spiritual significance of physical work and not only defensive battle can play a major role in eliminating these conditions in much of the Muslim world.

This represents a major intellectual challenge, however, not only within the Muslim world but also in the West. It requires recovering the Islamic intellectual heritage largely neglected in the former and no less than a paradigm shift in the latter, where the stigma of speaking of religion and science in the same breath, with all this implies for production processes, is ignored.

Fortunately, leading thinkers such as Wolfgang Smith, author of The Quantum Enigma: Finding the Hidden Key, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, author of Science and Civilization in Islam, are addressing this challenge, and it is hoped that others will follow suit.

An approach to economic aid that is supported by visionary Muslim leaders who explain the fullness of the meaning of jihad to their communities, and that targets economic sectors and professions deemed attractive and needed in different cultures as opposed to the mere opening up of developing countries to the importing of the much-mistrusted `americana`, may well help in winning the `war of ideas`.

Waleed Al Ansary is assistant professor of Islamic Studies, department of religious studies, University of South Carolina, Columbia. Acknowledgement to Common Ground News Service - Partners in Humanity