The tradition of “jihad” in Islam has often been distorted to mean “holy war” against others. In fact, Muhammad himself was explicit about its true meaning. He said, on returning from a battle: “We are returning from the lesser jihad, to the greater jihad, the struggle with our own selves.”
Jihad means spiritual warfare, that is, to go to battle with one’s demons and adversaries inside oneself. It means effort on the spiritual path, that which is necessary to struggle against evil. As one commentator puts it. The first and most essential jihad which the Muslim must carry on is within himself/herself in a never ceasing effort at self-improvement and self-purification. This is known as jihad bil nafs (striving with the self).
In her autobiography, The Legacy of Luna, Julia Butterfly tells a story that explains the difference between a soldier and a warrior. Julia sat in an ancient tree for two years to keep loggers from destroying it. When she first climbed the tree, she was joined by a young man–but he only lasted three weeks in the tree. Why? Because he was so radically angry at the loggers, his “enemies,” that he “just seemed to sink deeper and deeper into despair and anger…. Day by day, he seemed to grow more drawn. His already deep-set eyes and his striking cheekbones and thick eyebrows were a part of him when I met him, but as the onslaught wore on, his cheeks and eyes sunk in more and more He started looking like a skeleton, his skin stretched tight over the bondes underneath. His life seemed to be draining away in front of my eyes.” After twenty-five days, this young man left the tree-sit.
Why was Julia able to endure? She had a spiritual practice that took her beyond her anger. I began to pray. I know that if I didn’t find a way to deal with my anger and hate, they would overwhelm me, and I would be swallowed up in the fear, sadness, and frustration. I knew that to hate and strike out was to be a part of the same violence I was trying to stop. And so I prayed, ‘Please Universal Spirit, please help me find a way to deal with this, because if I don’t it’s going to consume me.’
Julia was the warrior; her companion was merely a soldier. Julia comments: You see that a lot in activists. The intense negative forces that are oppressing and destroying the earth wind up overcoming many of them. They get so absorbed by the hate and the anger that they become hollow. I know I didn’t want to go there. Instead, my hate had to turn to love–unconditional agape, love. One day, through my prayers and overwhelming amount of love started flowing into me, filling up the dark hole that threatened to consume me. I suddenly realized that what I was feeling was the love of the earth, the love of Creation.
Adapted from Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths, pp. 415, 419f
Also see Matthew Fox, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine, chapter 5 on “Spiritual Warriors,” pp. 77-104.
What lessons do you learn from the story of Julia Butterfly and her testimony here? Do you practice the “greater jihad”?
One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths
Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.“Reading One River, Many Wells is like entering the rich silence of a masterfully directed retreat. As you read this text, you reflect, you pray, you embrace Divinity. Truly no words can fully express my respect and awe for this magnificent contribution to contemporary spirituality.” –Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit
The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine
To awaken what Fox calls “the sacred masculine,” he unearths ten metaphors, or archetypes, ranging from the Green Man, an ancient pagan symbol of our fundamental relationship with nature, to the Spiritual Warrior….These timeless archetypes can inspire men to pursue their higher calling to connect to their deepest selves and to reinvent the world.
“Every man on this planet should read this book — not to mention every woman who wants to understand the struggles, often unconscious, that shape the men they know.” — Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of The Left Hand of God