Muslim scholars have long identified two types of jihad (lit. “striving” in God’s cause): an outer form of jihad and an inner one. The outward jihad refers to state-sanctioned military force (i.e. armed combat), which is waged defensively to protect both religion and realm; or offensively to combat tyranny, or protect the innocent and defenceless against unjustified aggression. As for the inner jihad (jihad al-nafs), it is the struggle to oppose the ego (nafs) and its impulses, until it is in submission to God. That this inner jihad is known as the “greater” jihad, as per mainstream Sunni scholarship, has raised some objections in our time. What follows is an explanation of why there needn’t be a concern about such a designation, and why objections to it are simply misplaced. The following nine points, I hope, get to the crux of the matter:
1. In regards to the overall schema of jihad, al-Raghib al-Asbahani, a notable scholar of the fifth Islamic century, wrote: ‘Jihad is of three types: striving against the apparent enemy; against the devil; and against the ego (nafs). All three types are included in the words of God, exalted is He: And strive hard in God’s path with all the striving that is due to Him. [22:78]’1 A few centuries on, and a similar abstract is offered by Ibn al-Qayyim: ‘Jihad is of four types: jihad against the ego, against the devil, against the disbelievers, and against the hypocrites.’2
2. Jihad against the apparent enemy; which is to say, jihad against hostile, belligerent disbelievers, finds its equivalence in another Qur’anic term: qital (“fighting”, “armed combat”). It is in this sense that the Qur’an charges: Fight for the sake of God those who fight against you, but do not transgress. God does not love the aggressors. [2:190] The rules of jihad as military warfare are stipulated in the manuals of Islamic law (fiqh) as well as the fatwas of recognised and qualified bodies of contemporary jurists.
3. Many verses in the Qur’an extol the virtues of seeking to purify the soul. One group of verses states: By the soul and Him that formed it, then inspired it with its depravity and piety. He is indeed successful who purifies it, and he is indeed ruined who corrupts it. [91:7-10] Another offers these tidings: But those who feared the standing before their Lord and curbed their soul’s passions, the Garden is their abode. [79:40-41] Also in this context are these words of the Prophet, peace be upon him: ‘The fighter in God’s path is one who strives against his lower soul/ego in obedience to God (al-mujahid man jahada nafsahu fi ta‘ati’lLah).’3 Thus this inward jihad refers to the personal struggle against one’s ego so as to overcome temptations, false desires and spiritual vices, as well as internalise acts of worship like prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, dhikr and almsgiving. This inner jihad, or spiritual striving, is referred to as mujahadah.
4. Now for the tricky part. One lionised hadith states that the Prophet, peace be upon him, having returned from a military campaign with his companions, said: ‘You have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.’ When asked what the greater jihad was, he replied: ‘A person’s jihad against his desires.’4 However, according to classical hadith masters and specialists, this hadith is weak (da‘if). Which is to say, such words cannot authentically or reliably be ascribed to the Prophet, peace be upon him. Or to put it another way, the likelihood of the Prophet not having said these words is far far greater than the likelihood of him having uttered them.
Al-Bayhaqi says after citing it: ‘This is a chain containing weakness.’5 Al-‘Iraqi relays the same ruling in his hadith verification of the Ihya.6 While Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani states: ‘It is related via ‘Isa b. Ibrahim; from Yahya b. Ya‘la; from Layth b. Abi Sulaym: all three are weak. Al-Nasa’i recorded it in al-Kuna as the statement of Ibrahim b. Abi ‘Abla, a famous successor (tabi‘i) of Syria.’7 Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali declares the hadith to be weak, but relates it as the saying of the above Ibrahim b. Abi ‘Abla.8 In more recent times, al-Albani made a thorough analysis of the hadith’s various chains, declaring the hadith to be unreliable (munkar).9 As for ‘Ali al-Qari and al-Suyuti, they both recorded the hadith in their respective dictionaries of weak and fabricated hadiths.10
5. The above analysis concerns the chain (isnad) of the hadith. As for its meaning, then many scholars point out how the meaning is sound in terms of the inner jihad, jihad al-nafs, having primacy over the outer jihad. The hadith may also be read in a way that gives it a completely false meaning, which is the one I’ll tackle first. Thus, if one takes the hadith to mean that the outer “lesser” jihad is inconsequential or of little worth; or that the inner “greater” jihad replaces it or is an alternative to it, this is utterly false and at odds with the very Qur’an itself. From such a perspective, Ibn Taymiyyah said about the hadith: ‘It has no basis, and none of those who are an authority (ahl al-ma‘rifah) in the words and deeds of the Prophet, peace be upon him, have reported it. Jihad against the disbelievers is one of the greatest of deeds; in fact, it is the best of the optional deeds a person could perform. God, exalted is He, says: Not equal are those of the believers who sit [at home], other than those who have a disabling hurt, with those who strive in the cause of God with their wealth and their lives. God has conferred on those who strive with their wealth and their lives a rank above the ones who sit [at home]. To both has God promised goodness, but God has preferred those who strive over those who do not with an immense reward. [4:95]’11 There is also the hadith: A man asked: O Messenger of God, guide me to a deed equivalent to jihad. He replied: ‘You do not have the ability.’ He went on to say: ‘Do you have the ability, from the time the person leaves for jihad [until he returns], to go into the mosque and pray without stopping and fast without a break?’ The man said: Who has the ability to do this?12
6. The hadith undoubtedly has a sound meaning, in that the inner and outer jihad are both great and of tremendous merit, but the inner jihad has primacy over the outer; and so is “greater”. A number of scholarly statements testify to this fact, including Ibn al-Qayyim who, avoiding the terms “lesser” and “greater”, noted about the verse: As for those who strive in Us, We will guide them to our paths. [29:69]: ‘The most obligatory jihad (afrad al-jihad) is jihad against one’s ego (nafs), desires (hawa), the devil (shaytan), and worldliness (dunya). One who wages jihad against these four in obedience to God, will be guided by God to the paths of His good pleasure which, [in turn], shall lead to His Paradise. One who neglects jihad shall be veiled from guidance to the degree he forsakes it.’13
7. Explaining why jihad al-nafs has such a rank and distinction, Imam Ibn Taymiyyah stated: ‘Jihad against the ego and desires is the basis for jihad against the disbelievers and hypocrites. Indeed, one cannot do jihad against them unless he first wages jihad against his ego and desires; then he goes out and fights them.’14 Tragically, this simple truism seems to have been lost on many of those who have spent the best past of their years waging war against the preeminence of jihad al-nafs!
8. Al-Munawi adds another dimension as to why the inward jihad is greater, or more obligatory, than the outward one. He says: ‘It is the greatest form of jihad; for fighting the disbelievers is a collective duty (fard kifayah), while jihad against one’s own ego is a personal obligation (fard ‘ayn), at all times, on all who are legally responsible: Truly the devil is an enemy to you, therefore treat him as an enemy. [35:6] So fight in the path of God. You are not responsible except for your own soul. [4:84]15
9. Those who’ve dealt with the issue of the greater and lesser jihad have usually been of two camps. There are those who have sought to sweep the tradition and prophetic history of military jihad under the carpet, in favour of a purely spiritualised reading of “striving” in God’s cause. Such apologetics are usually proffered by those who feel the need to gratify modernist (or now liberal) notions of religion and non-violence; those, both Muslim and non-Muslim, with either colonised minds, staggering ignorance, or lacking all academic honesty and integrity. In contrast, there are those, again Muslim and non-Muslim, who insist upon surface readings of the Quranic verses relating to jihad, devoid of the juristic nuances found in fiqh manuals and contemporary Muslim juristic thought. Unlike the watered-down readings of the first group, this one seeks to make Islam synonymous with violence, war and terror, and perpetuate animosity between peoples so as to serve their political agendas. Both these misreadings, liberal and extremist, must be categorically rejected and repudiated.
Conclusion: The above verses, hadiths and scholarly quotes should have helped lay to rest the anathema some seem to have about the primacy of jihad al-nafs. Yet this need not be the case. For although the commonly cited hadith about it isn’t authentic, other evidences testify to its centrality in a believer’s overall worship of God. Thus the affair is as Ibn al-Jawzi decisively proclaimed: ‘I reflected over jihad against the ego (jihad al-nafs) and realised it to be the greater jihad.’16
1. Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Beirut & Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 208; under the entry, j-h-d.
2. Zad al-Ma‘ad (Berut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 3:9.
3. Al-Tirmidhi, no.1671, where he graded the hadith hasan sahih. However, he narrates it without the final phrase, ‘in obedience to God.’ This additional phrase is found in Ibn Hibban, no.4707, and is sahih. Cf. al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), 2:81; no.549.
4. Al-Bayhaqi, Kitab al-Zuhd al-Kabir (Beirut: Dar al-Janan and Mu’assasah al-Kutub al-Thaqafiyyah, 1987), no.373; al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Tarikh Baghdad (Egypt: Matba‘ah al-Sa‘adah, 1929), 13:494, with the wording: ‘Jihad of the heart.’
5. Kitab al-Zuhd al-Kabir, p.165; no.373.
6. Al-Mughni ‘an Haml al-Asfar (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Tabariyyah, 1995), 2:709; no.2584.
7. Al-‘Asqalani, Takhrij al-Kashshaf (Beirut: Dar al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1997), 4:114; no.33.
8. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:489.
9. Al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah wa’l-Mawdu‘ah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), 5:478-81, no.2460.
10. Al-Qari, al-Asrar al-Marfu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.211; al-Suyuti, al-Durar al-Muntathirah (Riyadh: University of Riyadh, 1983), no.245.
11. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 11:197-8. Stating that the hadith ‘has no basis (la asl lahu)’ conventionally means the hadith is chainless which, in this case, is incorrect. For the hadith does indeed have a chain, albeit flawed. Declaring that no hadith authorities have recorded it is another erroneous claim. For al-Bayhaqi and al-Khatib both relate it in their respective works.
12. Al-Bukhari, no.2785. Something similar is related by Muslim, no.1876.
13. Al-Fawa’id (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2001), 177.
14. Cited by Ibn al-Qayyim, Rawdat al-Muhibbin (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 1996), 475-6, where he begins by insisting: ‘Even if jihad against one’s desires was not greater than jihad against the disbelievers, it is certainly not lesser than it. A man once asked al-Hasan al-Basri, may God have mercy on him: O Abu Sa‘id! What is the best jihad? He said: “Your jihad against your desires.” I once heard our Shaykh remark …’ He then goes on to cite the words of Ibn Taymiyyah above.
15. Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 4:511.
16. Sayd al-Khatir (Egypt: Dar al-Yaqin, 1998), 122.