The Greater Struggle

As soon as you feel good about yourself, know that the devil has got you, because he is made from fire and he understands the nafs better than you.  

-Shaykh Mohammed Amin Kholwadia

When I read in the news last week about the inflammatory Defeat Jihad ad campaign hitting New York City buses, I couldn’t help marvel at how poorly Muslim thinking and preoccupation is represented in the media. It made me ponder the widely known story whereby the Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) once welcomed home troops returning after an expedition. “You have returned from the lesser struggle to the greater struggle”, he is reported to have said to them. When the companions asked him what he meant by the “greater struggle”, he clarified: “the struggle against (the desires of) oneself”.

This story is so widespread and so well diffused into Muslim discourse that it could very well be one of the most cited traditions (hadith) in our times. It is all about the battle with the nafs, the “urging self”. Libraries of Islamic literature are filled with books written by masters of the subject such as Imam Ghazali, sermons abound with the idea, poets have wrought verse about it for centuries. Even I felt compelled to craft a riddle on it two weeks ago. (Seriously, take a look! 🙂

To better understand the idea of the greater jihad, I’d like to lean on what I think is one of the most beautiful modern day lyrical poems in the English language on the topic – Yusuf Islam’s Angel of War. Mr. Islam takes the idea of the greater jihad and embellishes it with the mundane vocabulary of warriors and warfare. But to the seasoned reader/listener, every verse has a remarkably subtle reference to the nafs.

The poem reads as a dialogue between a hypothetical angel of war and a young man who Mr. Islam aptly refers to as a soldier boy. That the poem was cast into song in the tune of his original number, My Lady D’arbanville, dating back to his days of rock-stardom, is no mere coincidence in my opinion, but certainly inconsequential.

Oh, angel of war, what am I fighting for?
If death comes tomorrow, inform me before 
Inform me before

Oh, young soldier boy, I’ll tell you what I know

If peace is your wish, to battle you must go 
To battle you must go

Oh, angel of war, please, make it clear to me

Which is my side and who is my enemy? 
Who is my enemy?

Oh, angel of war, within myself I see

The battle has started, what will become of me? 
What will become of me?

Oh, young soldier boy, you’re wiser than you seem

Look into your heart and keep your motives clean 
And keep your motives clean

Oh, angel of war, what weapons do I need?

Lest I may perish, that I may succeed 
That I may succeed

Oh, young soldier boy, if you protect the poor

Let truth be your armour and justice be your sword 
And justice be your sword

Oh, young soldier boy, the war that you wage

If it’s for your ego, it will die in rage 
It will die in rage

Oh, angel of war, how can I tell for sure

Pride’s not the reason that I’m fighting for 
That I’m fighting for

Oh, angel of war, when I look at me

I’m fearful to confess, the enemy I see 
The enemy I see

Oh, young soldier boy, now you can go to war

I’ll see you tomorrow and a boy you’ll be no more 
A boy you’ll be no more

Here are a few insights I have gleaned from this poem.

  • “O Young Soldier Boy” could be anyone, and is meant for the reader/listener to identify with. Its repetition in every verse is almost taunting, but is clarified in the closing couplets.
  • “If peace is your wish, to battle you must go”. This is the overarching theme. If you seek peace then you must wage war. But as the following couplet goes, against who? “Who’s my enemy?” That does not come out until the penultimate couplet.
  • Truth as an armor… for the soul. And justice as a sword… for how can justice smite unjustly.
  • The closing couplets confirm that one remains a boy – a soldier boy – for as long as one has not recognized that one’s self, one’s nafs, is one’s greatest enemy.
This sort of self-control and introspective battle-readiness is related in countless stories of the prophets and in the biographies of the pious predecessors. Two powerful examples follow.
The First Example
The story of young Ali, the prophet’s cousin (God be pleased with him) when he accepted a duel from the massive Amr son of Abdi Wud is a glowing example of self-restraint that was witnessed by hundreds. The duel begins with Amr and his companions mocking Ali on account of his short stature and youth. It is a classic David and Goliath duel. Ali wields the Zulfiqar to eventually overcome the giant, and straddle his chest. His dagger is inches from being thrust into Amr’s throat when Amr, in a last show of defiance, spits into the younger man’s face.
Now, picture this: you’re surrounded by enemy soldiers even as you duel the strongest of them, while your own remain watchful beyond a broad trench. You are young and strong and the obvious underdog in this poorly balanced match. But then you subdue your adversary by skill and agility, and find yourself the victor in the duel. And then the defeated man insults you, hoping it will bring you to expedite his death. 
But what does Ali do?

Ali restrains his dagger, gets off the giant’s chest and steps back. When Amr asks him why he had not slain him, Ali responds that had he slain him then, it would have been out of an anger he felt towards Amr, and not out of love for and service to God.

Now that is the greater jihad. This of course upsets Amr even more, so he picks up his sword and attacks Ali again, and so the story goes. A poetic rendition of the entire incident is here if you like: http://www.khamuk.com/2012/11/blog-post.html

The Second Example
The ultimate story is that of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Almighty God be upon him) when he visits the leaders of the city of Taif seeking their support in his mission. It was a difficult time in the Prophet’s life. His only supporter and protector, his uncle Abu Talib, had died earlier in the year, and his other pillar of support, his beloved wife of twenty-five years, Khadijah, had died a couple months later. His companions in Makkah were being sought out and harassed for professing their belief in one God. The poorer among them were tortured, many killed without restraint. 
At this time, the prophet hears that the people of Taif may be sympathetic to his cause. So off he goes to meet with them. They swiftly reject him, but they don’t leave it at that. As he exits their city, the leaders send word to the children and youth playing about to band together and stone him even as he departs the city. So the prophets runs. But he is unable to dodge the rain of stones flying into his face from every direction as he makes his way through mobs of deriding youth, shouting and flinging rocks at his person. 
When he finally gets out of stone’s throw, he sits down on a rock and wipes away the blood and sweat dripping down his face. In that moment of weakness and grief, the Angel of the Mountains comes to the Prophet, and asks his leave to bring the two mountains on either side of Taif together that they may crush the city and all within it. 
The prophet’s response is packed with a subtlety befitting one who has vanquished his self at many levels. He informs the angel to leave them be, as he sees the possibility that their children may one day believe (and that did come to be). And then he raises his hands in supplication to God and says, “My Lord, if you are not upset with me, then I am alright with what you have decreed”. Now that is an introspective war waged against a nafs already at peace and in full submission. Make whatever sense of that as you may. 
And that is the greater jihad in the deepest sense of the term. The peace that we seek (whoever and wherever we be) does not lie in defeating jihad. Rather it stubbornly lies in understanding and embracing it. 
As for the misguided engaged in the mindless slaughter of innocents all around the world, whatever faith or ideology or political force they claim an allegiance to, it is time for them to look hard at themselves, into themselves, and to take in what they see.
Oh, angel of war, when I look at me
I’m fearful to confess, the enemy I see 
The enemy I see.

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