Environmental Jihad

The Spiritual Significance of Jihād in Islamic Economics: The Need for a New Economic Paradigm

By: Waleed El-Ansary

I begin with three questions: What is the spiritual significance of jihād?  What does this have to do with Islamic economics? Why does a proper understanding of jihād show the need for a new economic paradigm for the modern world?[1]Regarding the first question, the meaning of jihād has unfortunately been obscured by the Western image of Islam as the “religion of the sword.”[2]Although jihād relates to the defense of the Islamic world from invasion by non-Islamic forces, and thus represents a form of just warfare (tragically inverted by violent extremists),[3] it also has a much broader meaning as a form of economic and spiritual activity. Upon returning from the battle of Badr, which threatened the existence of the Islamic community, the Prophet of Islam said, “You have returned from the lesser jihād to the greater jihād.” This greater battle, which describes the inner meaning of jihād, is the struggle to integrate the whole of life around a Sacred Center. In fact, jihād is derived from the root j-h-d, whose primary meaning is “to strive” or “to exert oneself,” and corresponds to similar doctrines in most of the world’s major religious traditions.[4] Within Christianity, this inner struggle is indicated by Christ’s statement, “Think not that I come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword.”[5]

“Applied to Islamic economics and in answer to the second question, the Qur’ān teaches that to struggle for a living is tantamount to defending the community in battle.”

Applied to Islamic economics and in answer to the second question, the Qur’ān teaches that to struggle for a living is tantamount to defending the community in battle.[6] Before the Battle of Badr, the Prophet saw a young man with a strong physique running to his shop through the area that the Prophet was marshalling his men for battle. Someone remarked that he wished the youth would use his strength to ‘run in the way of God’ by joining them to defend the Muslim community from its enemies. The Prophet responded, “If this young man runs with the intention of not depending on others and refraining from begging, he is in the way of God. If he strives for the livelihood of his weak parents or weak children, he is in the way of God. If he tries to show his health out of pride, he is in the way of the devil.”[7]

This saying of the Prophet demonstrates that exertion to support oneself and family is a form of jihād that has a spiritual significance and should be performed as “an act of worship as if [one] were praying.”[8] Far from merely serving to maintain one’s physical and material wellbeing, work for pious Muslims involves the edification of human nature in all its fullness, requiring that right actions in economic activity be combined with right intentions in order to actualize their spiritual dimension, following the “Straight Path” (al-sirāt al-mustaqīm). In fact, the Divine Law in Islam gives religious meaning to all acts that are necessary for human life.[9] Accordingly, work must somehow support us in attaining our highest aspirations as human beings, including our spiritual destiny, rather than prevent us from realizing them by engaging in completely tedious and degrading activity that prevents us from realizing our human dignity.

Division of Labor in Islam

The division of labor and coordination of economic activity required by Islamic (and many other religions’) economic systems must have a spiritual and not simply a corporeal significance. Some division of labor is required to provide any society with its necessary and useful goods and services, requiring that some members of the community perform various tasks, functions and professions. Other collective and civic duties (fard kifā’i), such as building orphanages and hospitals, are analogous. If no members of the community fulfilled these needs, each member of the community would be held spiritually accountable. Such division of labor, both in the personal and collective sense, is a duty under Islamic law, not simply a pragmatic possibility.

“The division of labor and coordination of economic activity required by Islamic (and many other religions’) economic systems must have a spiritual and not simply a corporeal significance.”

Moreover, all forms of labor and service must allow space for the expression of human creativity, and the realization of personal satisfaction in its intrinsic meaning and usefulness. Thus, each member of society can perfect his or her God-given talents, and become good stewards of the vitality and worthwhile heritage of the community, as well as Nature itself. However, an extremely high or overspecialized division of labor that employs too few of man’s faculties can have serious social costs by constraining the proper development of human talents and skills that benefit individual workers, their families, and society. Adam Smith stated:

“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. The man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations… has no occasion to exert his [creative talent and improve his] understanding… He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become… but in every improved and civilised society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”[10]

A division of labor that stultifies the minds of laborers leads to a lopsided and unjust form of development that fails to provide most people with psychological and spiritual fulfillment. A disequilibrium between meeting the corporeal, but not spiritual needs of mankind, can only persist in the short or medium-term. “Equilibrium on the socio-economic plane is impossible to realize without reaching that inner equilibrium which cannot be attained save through surrender to the One and living a life according to the dictum of Heaven.”[11]

The Role of Islamic Intellectual Sciences

“Islamic metaphysics and sciences of nature based on sacred scripture and its subsequent inspired commentaries applied to everything in the productive processes—from architecture and urban planning to the artistry of clothing, and the design of personal living and communal working space. The same principles of traditional sciences applied to everything, including social organization and the treatment of animals, plants, and the environment.”

While Islamic laws of religious and economic practices set the conditions for providing mankind’s needs for products and services, it is the Islamic intellectual sciences, with their vision of man’s integral place in the cosmos—grounded in physical, psychological and spiritual reality—that allow for modes of work that can meet the needs of man for both bread and the Spirit.[12] Islamic religious laws provide the necessary approach, but Islamic intellectual, productive, and artistic sciences are also necessary, because the norms and principles of art, which are also derived from the Quranic revelation, govern the making of things in a traditional Islamic economy.[13] The Qurʾān is not only the source of rituals, ethics, and social institutions, but is also the source of the knowledge of reality. From this point of view, what humankind makes, or humankind’s art, should also communicate a spiritual truth and presence analogous to Nature, which is God’s art. “The ethical aspect of work in this case embraces also the aesthetic.”[14] Production and service are conceived as spiritual disciplines in which work is not only a means of livelihood but also a product of devotion. As Coomaraswamy asserts, “Every man is a special kind of artist,” the artist is not “a special kind of man.”[15] 

A necessary condition for making things in traditional Islam is consciousness of one’s mortality and complete dependence on the Absolute, a kind of “spiritual poverty” (faqr) or humility.[16] Spiritual preparation involving prayers and spiritual contemplation were an integral part of the creative process for traditional Muslim craftsmen, whose products combined utility and beauty with spiritual truth and presence.[17]

Islamic metaphysics and sciences of nature based on sacred scripture and its subsequent inspired commentaries applied to everything in the productive processes—from architecture and urban planning to the artistry of clothing, and the design of personal living and communal working space. The same principles of traditional sciences applied to everything, including social organization and the treatment of animals, plants, and the environment. The link between work, spiritual education, and sacred ambiance forged by the Islamic intellectual sciences were crucial to meeting all of mankind’s needs by ineluctably integrating religion, economics, arts and crafts, and indeed all of civilization. This approach to work must conform to the nature of things, and bringing us into conscious alignment with reality, because “[A]ction by definition manifests God, and … the creature can therefore do nothing that does not in some way affirm God.”[18]

The traditional Islamic guilds of various trades and crafts transmitted the Islamic doctrines and practices on the division of labor, production, and market exchange that allowed man to live in harmony with himself, his community, and nature. This observation is not intended to suggest a restoration of the specific practices of the historic Islamic economic models, but they can serve as a source of inspiration for restoring ethics and the edifying dignity of work to our contemporary economic practices.

“The link between work, spiritual education, and sacred ambiance forged by the Islamic intellectual sciences were crucial to meeting all of mankind’s needs by ineluctably integrating religion, economics, arts and crafts, and indeed all of civilization.”

Honorable and noble intentions, in addition to making a living, were clearly important in the traditional Islamic economic system, tightly integrating ethics and economics. The guild approach to production, service, and social organization entailed a system of coordination between members. Traditional craftsmen accepted the duty to supply their goods at just and stable prices, since the appropriate division of labor and its fruits was a duty, not just the unintended result of an “efficient” market.[19] To avoid over-supply or under-supply of the market at a particular time, a master craftsman would postpone or accelerate taking on extra apprentices while other qualified craftsmen had insufficient or excess work, respectively. Maintaining this equilibrium of supply and demand in Islamic economies was critical, not only for meeting the craftsmen’s physical needs through reliable employment and steady income, but also for satisfying the guildsmen’s spiritual need for dignity and pride in the service and products they provided consumers.

Law and Jjihād for Ethical Economics

Traditional Islamic (and other religious) societies provide a model of the integration of ethics and economics through their organic union of market and non-market institutions. For example, Islamic law encourages charity in many forms, whether through permanent endowments (such as waqf) or specific charitable donations (such as zakāt), which spiritually purify one’s wealth—and gives rise to an Islamic “gift economy,” through which needs of the disadvantaged are met outside the “market economy.”

E.F. Schumacher, who corresponded extensively with Muslim philosophers and scientists on religion and economics,[20] identified three objectives of work related to the hierarchy of spiritual and other needs in any religious approach to economics:

First, to provide necessary and useful goods and services.

Second, to enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards.

Third, to do so in service to, and in cooperation with, others, so as to liberate ourselves from our egocentricity.”[21]

In Islam, all three of these objectives are forms of jihād applicable to what humanity does and what humankind makes, and are necessary for an ethical economics.[22] Islamic economic law is relevant to all three of Schumacher’s objectives. The first objective defines necessary and useful goods and services while excluding “noxious markets” such as pornography and gambling (or speculation). And Islamic economic law establishes the external conditions for fulfilling the second and third objectives. However, the intellectual and esoteric dimensions of Islam are necessary for realizing the latter objectives, perfecting our talents as stewards, and working cooperatively to liberate ourselves from our egocentricity.

Of course, all economists recognize Schumacher’s first objective of work, and Adam Smith acknowledged the second objective to some extent, noting the potentially degrading and dehumanizing effects of an extremely high division of labor. But other classical economists such as David Ricardo and James Mill strongly opposed this view, denying the existence of such harmful effects. They asserted that all types of work are homogeneous in terms of human development.[23] These thinkers also denied the possibility of work as a form of spiritual jihād that could liberate anyone from egocentricity and realize their spiritual destinies. They only acknowledged the first objective of work—production and service. These various positions have critical implications for the link between ethics and economics and the extent to which economic realities can be governed by their own logic, pointing toward an answer to the third question on the need for a new economic paradigm. As Robert Foley has pointed out, the modern economic approach bases itself on a view of

. . . modern society as made up of two spheres: an economic sphere of individual initiative and interaction, governed by impersonal laws that assure a beneficent outcome by pursuit of self-interest; and the rest of social life, including political, religious, and moral interactions that require the conscious balancing of self-interest with social considerations.[24]

This is sometimes called the “separate domain” argument, namely, that the motivations of the “actors,” whether ethical or not, have nothing to do with whether a market economy generates “beneficent” outcomes. In response to such propositions, Gandhi stated that, “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” is one of the greatest delusions of our time.[25]

“A prevailing preoccupation with the accumulation of wealth is self-defeating, often converting the joy and blessings of wealth into a sort of envious misery—because somebody else will always have more.”

From a religious point of view, we are not merely human beings “having” and “doing” things, we are humans aspiring to “be” all that we can be, which includes transcending the state we find ourselves in—to realize our highest potential as human beings, not just as intelligent animals that consume and reproduce and destroy our environment for our grandchildren. Ignoring questions of intrinsic meaning in work and spiritually productive cooperation leads to a destructive growth in production, consumption and pollution (corruption of the earth, or fasād fi’l ard to use the Quranic expression), and a diminution of the potential of workers, craftsmen, and artists (and all other providers of useful goods or services) to realize their dignity as human beings made in the image of God. A prevailing preoccupation with the accumulation of wealth is self-defeating, often converting the joy and blessings of wealth into a sort of envious misery—because somebody else will always have more.

Worldviews and Islamic Economics: Material vs Spiritual

From the perspective of Islamic economics, solutions to the mounting crises in our current environmental, economic and social/psychological domains (such as crime, suicide and the moral degradation of our culture) require changing our way of life, of the way we look at the world, and the way we look at ourselves—ultimately the way we understand reality.[26] Accordingly, the root cause of our environmental economic and socio-economic ailments is the prevailing mechanistic and materialistic worldview, with a scope of scientific inquiry absurdly limited to the grossly physical realm. This truncated worldview ignores the higher orders of reality that ultimately determine man’s destiny and current well-being. Instead, it generates scientific, technological, political, economic and other social structures that do violence to man and nature, by ignoring nearly everything necessary for a harmonious and just society. These structural injustices, in turn, generate patterns of economic instability and environmental degradation that manifest themselves in specific financial and economic crises, on the one hand, and ecological catastrophes on the other.

“From the perspective of Islamic economics, solutions to the mounting crises in our current environmental, economic and social/psychological domains (such as crime, suicide and the moral degradation of our culture) require changing our way of life, of the way we look at the world, and the way we look at ourselves—ultimately the way we understand reality.”

This abbreviated worldview and its corresponding structures also promote the erosion of non-market values, leading to “the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.”[27] When “everything is for sale,” markets may corrupt and degrade the very goods that are being marketed:

Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Auctioning seats in the freshman class to the highest bidders might raise revenue but also erode the integrity of the college and the value of its diploma. Hiring foreign mercenaries to fight our wars might spare the lives of our citizens but corrupt the meaning of citizenship… [W]hen we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use. [28]

Degradation in this context means treating something

…in accordance with a lower mode of valuation than is proper to it. We value things not just “more” or “less,” but in qualitatively higher and lower ways. To love or respect someone is to value him/her in a higher way than one would if one merely used [them like prostitutes].[29]

Central to this argument “is the idea that goods differ in kind; it’s therefore a mistake to value all goods in the same way, as instruments of profit or objects of use.”[30]

Islamic economics is therefore defined as “applied ethics,” understood broadly as applying both individually and structurally, which acknowledges the aesthetic aspect of work, and spells out the consequences of violating spiritual, ethical and aesthetic principles in our economic affairs. If such principles are necessary for socio-economic and environmental equilibrium, then ignoring or diverging from those principles makes no sense and subverts and destroys any hope of a just, harmonious, efficient, and environmentally sustainable economy.[31] The “separate domain” argument is not only false; it is pernicious. At stake is the starting point of economic theory, for an economic system that is unsustainable in the long-term and intrinsically unstable in the short-term is unintelligible in its own terms, just as disease is not intelligible except in terms of health, the loss of which leads to death.

“Islamic economics is not reducible to a combination of modern economic theories and Islamic economic law any more than traditional Islamic medicine can consist of a distorted combination of conventional allopathic medicine with elements of Muslim medical ethics.”

Islamic economics is not reducible to a combination of modern economic theories and Islamic economic law any more than traditional Islamic medicine can consist of a distorted combination of conventional allopathic medicine with elements of Muslim medical ethics. Moreover, a similar hybrid approach to economics (often espoused in popular studies and publications on Islamic economics) is inadequate for anything beyond the treatment of symptoms. Such an attempt at synthesizing Western and Islamic economics fails because they cannot be integrated, and cannot adequately address the structural issues between traditional Islamic science, technology and production processes and those of modern, Western, and scientistic secular materialism.

Another related problem is that current Islamic economics literature does not adequately refute the claim that mainstream, or “neoclassical,” economic theory can accommodate any “instrumentally rational,” that is, internally consistent set of values or tastes. If that claim were true, then the Islamic sciences would have nothing to say about how neoclassical theory reduces needs to wants and values to tastes.[32] But this reduction eliminates the distinction between “necessary and useful goods and services” in the first objective of work (let alone the distinction between intrinsic “good” and “evil”), thereby rationalizing trade-offs with Schumacher’s second and third objectives of work—perfecting our gifts as stewards of humanity and nature, and submitting the lowest elements of our souls (egos) in obedience to God’s will for our ultimate felicity. This agnostic economic view of ethical neutrality reinforces the secularization and degradation of the human spiritual jihād through engagement in ethical production, service and exchange processes.

“An honest debate over the analytical tools for evaluating the ethical implications of economic assumptions and policies is critically needed. Fortunately, the Islamic sciences of nature and ethical social cohesion have important implications for such a critique of the analytical tools of neoclassical economic theory.”

The neoclassical claim of accommodating choice and preferences, without regard to ethics, fosters libertarian policies that claim to be ethically neutral, but, in fact, embrace hedonism as the prevailing economic policy while avoiding substantive philosophical debate over this covert objective. This obfuscation in honestly describing economic theory leads to prescriptive failure in economic policy. An honest debate over the analytical tools for evaluating the ethical implications of economic assumptions and policies is critically needed. Fortunately, the Islamic sciences of nature and ethical social cohesion have important implications for such a critique of the analytical tools of neoclassical economic theory. This problematic theory was largely imported from Newtonian mechanics and nineteenth century physics, and frozen in place, while ignoring the revolutionary discoveries of more modern physics refuting Newton, such as those of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrödinger. [33]

The jihād that Islamic economists must now undertake is to intensify debate among scholars and the public at large regarding the fact that the Westernized modern worldview of economics is in desperate and urgent need of a new economic paradigm—a paradigm based on fostering an economic system that meets all of the needs of mankind for engaging in their jihād of work in a way that mediates the objectives of work described by Schumacher, and recognized in traditional Islamic societies for centuries.

Dr. Waleed El-Ansary is University Chair in Islamic Studies at Xavier University, where he teaches courses on comparative religion, Islamic studies, and religion and science. He holds a Ph.D. in Islamic and Religious Studies from George Washington University and M.A. in Economics from the University of Maryland. His research focuses on the intersection of religion, science, and economics. He has authored numerous publications, including “Islamic Environmental Economics and the Three Dimensions of Islam” in his co-edited volume Muslim and Christian Understanding: Theory and Application of A Common Word. His recent work includes a book sponsored by a UNESCO-based organization, the Aladdin Project. 

This article originally appeared on Maydan on March 23rd, 2017.

[1]Thanks to Darrell Blakeway for reviewing and editing this offering.

[2] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Traditional Islam in the Modern World (London and New York:  KPT, 1987), 28.

[3] See Waleed El-Ansary, “The Economics of Terrorism: How Bin Laden Has Changed the Rules of the Game,” in Joseph Lumbard (ed.), Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition: Essays by Western Muslim Scholars, 197-241.

[4] See for instance Whitall Perry, A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom (Cambridge: Quinta Essentia, 1971), 391-412.

[5] Matthew, 10:34 (a challenge to slay one’s ego and love one’s neighbor above all, and despite the harm he or she may have done to you).

[6] See for instance Muhammad Abdul-Rauf, A Muslim’s Reflections on Democratic Capitalism (Washington, D.C.:  American Enterprise Institute, 1984), 5.

[7] Al-Ghazzali, Ihyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn (New Delhi:  Kitab Bhavan, 1982), vol. 2, 54.

[8] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam (San Francisco: The Aquarian Press, 1994), 98.

[9] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam in the Modern World: Challenged by the West, Threatened by Fundamentalism, Keeping Faith with Tradition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2012), 55.

[10] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776, V.1.178. It is worth noting that Smith’s reservation regarding the division of labor does not appear in the first edition of the Wealth of Nations, but was added in subsequent editions. Smith seems to have had second thoughts about the salubrious effects of the minute division of labor.

[11] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “Review of Ethics and Economics—An Islamic Synthesis,” Hamdard Islamicus 5/2 (Summer, 1982), 89–91: 89.

[12] “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4).

[13] See for instance Amanda Coomaraswamy and Roger Lipsey, Selected Papers—Traditional Art and Symbolism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978); or Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning (Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, 2009).

[14] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Traditional Islam in the Modern World (London: Kegan Paul International, 1994), 43. He also notes that ḥusn, the root of iḥsān (excellence) in Arabic, also means both “beauty” and “goodness” . . ..

[15] See Rama Coomaraswamy (ed.), The Essential Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, 2004), 124.

[16] For the man who has acquired faqr, its immediate consequence is “detachment with regard to all manifested things, for the being knows from then on that these things, like himself, are nothing, . . .  .” René Guénon, “Al-Faqr or ‘Spiritual Poverty’,” Studies in Comparative Religion 7/1 (Winter 1973), 16–20:16.

[17] Yusuf Ibish, “Traditional Guilds in the Ottoman Empire: An Evaluation of their Spiritual Role and Social Function,” Islamic World Report (1999): 6.

[18] Frithjof Schuon, The Eye of the Heart (Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom Books, 1997), 15.

[19] See for instance Volumes 17 to 19 on prices (al-asʿar; sing. siʿr) in Ali Gomaʿa (ed.), Revealing the Islamic Economic Heritage (Takshīf al-Turāth al-Islāmī al-Iqtisādī) (Cairo: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1997).

[20] See Waleed El-Ansary, ed., Not by Bread Alone: E.F. Schumacher and the Perennial Philosophy (Bloomington: World Wisdom, forthcoming, 2018).

[21] E.F. Schumacher, Good Work (New York:  Harper & Row, 1979), 3-4.

[22] As Nasr points out in an essay on Islamic work ethics, “Work carried out in accordance with the Sharīah is a form of jihād and inseparable from the religious and spiritual significance associated with it.”  Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Traditional Islam in the Modern World, 35.

[23] For an excellent survey of classical and neoclassical approaches to work in the history of economic thought, see Ugo Pagano, Work and Welfare in Economic Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1985).

[24] Robert Foley, Adam’s Fallacy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 1.

[25] Quoted in E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, 24.

[26] See for instance Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s“Islam and the Preservation of the Natural Environment,” lecture at Georgetown University, Qatar, Center for International and Regional Studies, January 6, 2009.

[27] Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), 7.

[28] Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, 9.

[29] Elizabeth S. Anderson, “Is Women’s Labor a Commodity?” Philosophy and Public Affairs 19/1 (Winter 1990), 72–92: 77, as quoted in Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 94.

[30] Michael J. Sandel, Justice, 95.

[31] See for instance John Medaille, The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Market Place (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2007), Part I.

[32] See for instance Lutz and Lux, The Challenge of Humanistic Economics (Menlo Park, California:  The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc., 1979).

[33] For a critique of the analytical tools of neoclassical economic theory in light of the Islamic sciences of nature, see Waleed El-Ansary, “The Quantum Enigma and Islamic Sciences of Nature: Implications for Islamic Economic Theory.”.

Environmental Jihad

Environmental Jihad
Environmental Jihad

By Shajuti Hossain

One must think twice, maybe three times, before using religious terminology. Words that are commonly used in the media to describe “religiously motivated” acts of violence are of special concern.

I recently got an email with the subject, “Environmental Jihad?” from the League of Conservation Voters, a nonprofit that promotes pro-environment policies. It said, “Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson just called our climate action campaign ‘an environmental jihad.’ We need every LCV supporter to help us push back. Tell him to apologize for his offensive rhetoric and stop blocking congressional action on climate change now.”

Upon reading this email, I laughed with disgust. Not because I am an environmentalist (although I am quite a fervent one), but because I am a Muslim. I and every other Muslim I have spoken to have always learned that “jihad” is “the struggle to please God.” Examples included giving charity even when money is tight and visiting the sick even when time is short. These are the acts of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) that Muslims must follow.

Muslims frequently and contentedly hop on this struggle bus when our intention is to please God. Helping a friend move out even though we haven’t gotten much sleep is jihad, because God says to use our resources for the benefit of others. Waking up at 6:00 a.m. on weekdays to work out is jihad, because God says to take care of our bodies. Visiting our parents on weekends even when college life begs us to stay on campus is jihad, because God said to be dutiful to our parents.

My career goal is to be an environmental policy-maker and that is jihad, because I am struggling to protect human beings from the devastating effects of environmental degradation. Jihad is not committing acts of terror, suicide or corruption, even if the Muslims with the loudest voices these days say so. Since they do not understand the concept of jihad, the rest of us, whether Muslim or not, must educate ourselves and others of its true meaning before we use it as a negative term or as an insult.

It is unfortunate to hear Sen. Johnson, like the mainstream media, use the word “jihad” negatively. One cannot blame him, because the media has accepted and spread a distorted definition of the word. Then again, one cannot put the entire blame on the media either, because people with Muslim names are propagating a misinterpreted definition through their actions. Regardless of the blame, those of us who want to use the term “jihad” must make sure we use it appropriately to avoid turning a spiritual, self-reflective and inspirational word into a word that implies intolerance and hate.

Other phrases in the news, such as “Islamist” or “Islamic extremist” or “Islamic fundamentalist” also have negative associations, even though they actually have positive meanings. Did the journalists and politicians who use these phrases even stop to think what these phrases really mean? “Islam,” which literally means “submission,” comes from the word “salaam” which means “peace.” Do journalists and politicians know that they’re condemning “pacifists” and “submission-ists?” Granted, there are some people out there who call themselves Muslim and say they are killing in the name of Islam, but they are ruining the peaceful message that Muhammad brought to us from God. Why can’t we call these terrorists “apostates” or “heretics” or just leave religion out of the equation?

Muhammad always emphasized taking the middle, or moderate, path and to stay away from any kind of extreme. So a true Islamic extremist is actually moderate.

Politicians, the media and those who strive to think and speak more intelligently must think about the true definitions of jihad and Islam in order to do justice to these beautiful terms. The general public expects politicians to lead with respect and expects the media to provide accurate information. If policy-makers and journalists want to stay true to their work, they must do their research. They can begin by substituting “pacifist” or “moderate” for “Islamist,” “Islamic extremist” or “Islamic fundamentalist” and think about how that sounds. That will prompt them to use a more appropriate phrase to describe those who tarnish the image of a religion that emphasizes peace, unity, tolerance, self-improvement, knowledge, helping others and trusting God. They can thereby use religious terminology more carefully and appropriately while educating themselves and others.

This article was originally published September 13, 2013 on The ChroniclePhoto credit from Peter Blanchard