Monday, January 10, 2005

"The great jihad has begun"

Following his landslide victory in yesterday's Palestinian "elections", Israelis are in an uproar over Abu Mazen's victory speech:

The small jihad is over and the big jihad has begun. We are facing tough missions - how to build a state of security where people live a dignified life."

"The big jihad has begun" - this is our moderate peacemaker?

Though I'm plenty skeptical of Abu Mazen's intentions, this particular phrase is in fact encouraging.

"Jihad" is Arabic for "struggle". Islamic tradition, in particular the mystical Sufi tradition, distinguishes between two types of jihad, the "lesser jihad" (al-jihad al-asghar) and the "greater jihad" (al-jihad al-akbar). The lesser jihad is understood as referring to the physical battle against the enemy. The greater jihad, by contrast, is understood (by Sufis at least) as the "struggle against oneself," one's own inner struggle against sin and temptation.

In Jewish terms, the concept of the lesser jihad recalls the saying from Pirkei Avot, "Who is mighty? He who subdues his passions" (4:1).

To those who understand his references, then, Abu Mazen is telling the Palestinians that the time for military battle against Israel has ended, and they must now focus inwards on building their society, on national development and other forms of nonviolent accomplishments.

If this is his true intention, and the public follows him, Israelis may genuinely have cause for optimism.

Update (11 Jan.): SoccerDad is skeptical about my interpretation, citing scholar Daniel Pipes: "In premodern times, jihad meant mainly one thing," namely the use of force to expand the territory under Muslim rule at the expense of territories ruled by non-Muslims."

This may be so; the aim of Pipes's essay is to rebut the claim that jihad does not and never has connoted military struggle. But what interests us here is not the premodern meaning of the term jihad, or even its primary contemporary meaning, but rather the contemporary meaning of Abu Mazen's reference to the "lesser jihad" and the "greater jihad". Here, Pipes seems to lend support to my position:

The second variant [meaning], usually associated with Sufis, or Muslim mystics, was the doctrine customarily translated as "greater jihad" but perhaps more usefully termed "higher jihad." This Sufi variant invokes allegorical modes of interpretation to turn jihad's literal meaning of armed conflict upside-down, calling instead for a withdrawal from the world to struggle against one's baser instincts in pursuit of numinous awareness and spiritual depth.

Regardless, I remain skeptical both of Abbas's intentions and of his ability to lead his society accordingly. If the "lesser jihad" is over because the Palestinians believe they have won the military phase of the struggle, as evidenced by Israel's intended retreat from Gaza and northern Samaria - an unfortunately highly plausible interpretation - then the cause for optimism is weak indeed. If, similarly, the armed struggle is to be suspended tactically to give Israel enough quiet to allow the "disengagement" to proceed smoothly, strengthening the Palestinians' position for the next phase of the struggle, we must brace ourselves for difficult times to follow.


Jack said...

In the end I think that this question is one that cannot be easily forecast. Only time will tell if Abbas has the stones to try and bring peace or if he is like Pipes said a greater threat than Arafat.

Zman Biur said...

"The stones"? Interesting choice of words.

Still, if our enemies decide to prefer nonviolent resistance to armed struggle, I'm in favor. Even if it doesn't bring peace any closer.