Spiritual Jihad: A Path for the 21st Century?

A Nursi Chair Conference

November 13-14, 2015

John Carroll University

Dolan Center for Science and Technology

Donahue Auditorium

November 13, 2015

7:00pm-8:00pm Keynote Address

Michael Sells, Ph.D

The John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago

“Umm Musa:  Revelation, Struggle, and Speaking Truth to Power in the Qur’anic accounts of the life of Moses”

**Registration is not required to attend**

November 14, 2015

 9:00-9:25 Coffee and Arrivals

9:25-9:30 Opening Remarks

9:30-10:45 Panel 1: Qur’anic and Historical Roots of Spiritual Jihad

Alan Godlas, Ph.D

University of Georgia

Spiritual Jihad as the Greater Jihad and Lesser Jihad: A theological and psychological approach

Rooted in Qur’an, hadith, discussed by hadith and Qur’an commentators, and developed extensively by Sufis and Sufi-oriented Muslims among both Sunnis and Shi’is, the idea of spiritual jihad in the sense of jihad that is truly fi sabil Allah and neither fi sabil il-nafs (for the sake of the ego-self) nor fi sabil al-Shaytan (for the sake of Satan), consists of the guiding principle of the greater jihad of striving against one’s al-nafs al-ammara (for the sake of striving for greater awareness or closeness to God) together with the lesser jihad of all forms of effort in the the world, a lesser jihad spiritualized by its being governed by the greater jihad. Although criticized by some hadith commentators and anti-Sufis who rejected the notion that spiritual jihad was the greater jihad—spiritual jihad is comprised simultaneously of the greater jihad of striving to remember God and of embracing unconditional gratitude to God for God’s merciful sustenance (although there are a plethora of ancillary practices that facilitate spiritual jihad); as well as the lesser jihad of striving in the world. Spiritual jihad is particularly important and necessary not simply because the nafs overtly urges people to act in an evil way (reinforced by the Satanic refusal to acknowledge the khalifal nature of Adam), but because the nafs, unbeknownst to most, distorts one’s perception because it programs us to view the challenges in our lives through the limited viewfinders of the primitive human fight or flight instinct and though conditioned perceptions learned in early childhood. Such a cognitive disorder tends to provoke one to act in an egotistical or evil manner even when has good intentions. Both these overtly and covertly evil tendencies of the nafs are rooted in attachment to other than God—and hence are also rooted in conditional love of God as well as rejection of gratitude to God when one is facing circumstances in one’s life that are not in harmony with one’s primitive programming and the conditioning of one’s ego-self. In an Islamic context that sees the purpose of life as being worship of God (understood as direct knowledge and love of God), culminating in actualization of God’s qualities as far as is humanly possible, together with the cultivation of beautifully virtuous actions—the methodology of spiritual jihad to achieve such purposes consists most importantly of greater jihad effort at each moment to free oneself from the compulsions of the nafs, in principle by remembering God’s unconditional and all-encompassing mercy (rahma) and by embracing unconditional gratitude to God for the fact that at each instant human consciousness consists of a new tajalli (theophany) of a quality of God (comprised of material/mulki and suprasensible/malakuti dimensions, the latter being rooted in unconditional rahma), a tajalli by which we are sustained at each moment. Following such a method recapitulates, in the context of each new theophany, Adam’s grateful answer of “Yes” (balá) to God’s primordial question of “Am I not your Lord-Sustainer” (alastu bi-rabbikum). In addition, responding with such a method increases the likelihood that one will be able to respond by means of a spiritualized lesser jihad to whatever way these theophanies present themselves to us in our world, whether they are easy or difficult for us to deal with (whether lutfi or qahri). Moreover, in this spiritual jihad, where our lesser jihad is accompanied and governed by our greater jihad response, we do not respond to our world by the primitive human instinctive response of “flight or fight” or by the conditioning of one’s nafs engrained in one’s early childhood (i.e, fi sabil al-nafs). Rather, in this spiritual jihad, we respond in our lesser jihad to the lesser but still extremely significant quandaries of our world by means of the wisdom (hikma) and blessed energy (baraka) that comes from tasting the unconditional mercy that consequently increases the likelihood that we will be able both to see outside the cognitive box of the nafs‘ conditioning and to have the will and energy to act constructively and beautifully in the world.


Asma Afsaruddin, Ph.D

Indiana Universtiy

Qur’anic Sabr and the Internal/Spiritual Jihad

This paper will discuss the attribute of sabr or patient forbearance, much extolled in the Qur’anic as the internal/spiritual and most enduring aspect of human struggle (jihad) in the world.  After briefly discussing some relevant verses in the Qur’an and their exegeses, I will then turn to the writings of al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111) on the importance of this attribute and it’s cultivation.  From this discussion it will become clear that the Qur’anic sabr is what became reformulated as jihad al-nafs in later tradition and therefore constitutes the earliest dimension of jihad.


Paul Heck, Ph.D

Georgetown University

Medicine for the Ills of the Self: Kitāb Iʿānat al-Mutawajjih al-Miskīn of Aḥmad Zarrūq (d. 1494 in Misrata, Libya)

In this presentation, I consider a little known work by the name of “Assisting the Humble on the Way to the Path of Victory and Empowerment” (Iʿānat al-Mutawajjih al-Miskīn ila Ṭarīq al-Fat wa-l-Tamkīn). Its author, Aḥmad Zarrūq (d. 1494), is well-known. Born and educated in Fez, he combined knowledge of law and prophetic traditions with spiritual endeavors and is known today for having developed a religious vision that could be described as reformist Sufism. His life, however, was not without political controversy. He opposed the revolution of 1465 against the ruling Marinids, calling it a jihad for gain and denouncing its use of violence against Jews. He also criticized revolutionary violence elsewhere in Morocco during his day. Zarrūq cannot be categorized as pacifist, but it is important to understand more fully the religious vision that led to his reservations regarding too hasty a recourse to violence as a solution to political problems. As a first step towards that goal, I will examine Kitāb Iʿānat al-Mutawajjih al-Miskīn, which is a tightly constructed treatise on methods for treating waywardness within the soul, which is the essence of spiritual jihad. My goal will be to share a taste of how this treatise functions almost as a medical treatise for treating the ills of the self.


10:45-11:00 Coffee Break

11:00-12:15 Panel 2: Spiritual Jihad in Modern Islam

Osman Kobo, Ph.D

The Ohio State Universtity

My Rosary is My Sword: The Peaceful Jihad of Sheikh Aboubacar Sawadogo

This article examines the peaceful jihad of Sheikh Boubacar Sawadogo during French colonial rule in what is today Burkina Faso. Using a combination of oral sources and French colonial records, the paper highlights how Boubacar Sawadogo developed a new approach toward peaceful conversion and coexistence with French administrations that allowed him to convert a large number of people to Islam despite the apprehension of French colonial administrators. Arguing that violent jihad is an aberration in Islam that often interfered with personal spiritual growth, Boubacar and his follows emphasized the inner individual and collective spiritual transformation that attracted new converts. As a result of this approach, the Muslim population of Burkina Faso grew from a mere 12% in 1920 to 35% in the 1940s when the Sheikh passed away. This remarkable success occurred despite French repression and the active proselytism of the Catholic Church since 1900. By the time of independence in 1960, the Muslim population had reached 45%. Today, Burkina Faso, is considered a majority Muslim nation and Boubacar Sawadogo is credited with laying the foundation for the tradition of religious coexistence prevalent in the country till today.


Irfan A. Omar, Ph.D

Marquette University

Ijtihad as Intellectual Jihad: Renewal of the ‘Spirit of Islam’ in Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s Thought

Jihad and ijtihad are related terms and are rooted in the Qur’an. For Maulana Wahiduddin Khan they are key to understanding Islam’s central message: i. e. striving to realize God in one’s self and peacefully inviting others to do the same. The taqlidi (blind following) attitude has caused Muslim societies to become stagnant; ijtihad can deliver them from this spiritually dilapidated state of being. This paper examines Maulana Khan’s understanding of ijtihad as part of his discussion of issues requiring jihad. The rejection of ijtihad is directly related to the perversion of the notion of jihad giving rise to terms such as “jihadi” and “jihadism” which are synonymous with violence and terrorism and quite contrary to the spirit of jihad itself. In his work, Masa’il-e ijtihad, Khan contends that ijtihad must be perceived as a foundational task for Muslim scholars today and it should be undertaken with a critical view of Muslims’ past intellectual heritage (‘ilm wa tahqiq received from the salaf) which has been taken at face value for too long. This is the “intellectual jihad” that is urgently needed to renew the “spirit of Islam” among Muslims.


Zeki Saritoprak, Ph.D.

John Carroll University

Spiritual Jihad as a model to be followed by Muslims: Reading Nursi’s Last Message

In the last letter that Nursi sent to his students, he clearly states that now is the time of spiritual jihad and that there is no longer any space for physical jihad. This is not simply a dying wish, but it is something to which Nursi frequently refers. We find in this last letter and other of Nursi’s writings reference to the Qur’anic verse which says “No one is carrying the burden of another” (6:164). Nursi uses this verse to make the following argument. In our time, people often kill because of their hatred. Many people can be killed for the sake of one criminal. Therefore, according to Nursi, there is no justification for physical jihad. While revenge is permitted in the Qur’an, in the few instances where Nursi discusses retribution, he says that this is a very oppressive rule. Nursi argues that while you have a right to do this, it is better to forgive and indeed forgiving has become necessary in the modern age. This paper examines the writings of Nursi, especially his last letter that he wrote to his students before his death, to come to a conclusion on Nursi’s view of the necessity of spiritual jihad and why material jihad is not applicable in our time.


12:15-1:30 Lunch

1:30-2:45 Panel 3 Diversities of Spiritual Jihad 

Martin Nguyen, Ph.D

Fairfield University

Prostration and Protest: A Theology of Malcolm X

This paper seeks to articulate a contemporary Muslim theology based upon a theological figuration of Malcolm X. In the interest of enriching the modern Muslim theological discourse further, I am situating the notions of “prophetic experience” and tajdīd (“renewal”) within the Muslim American context. I do so by developing a theology of protest based upon the remembered life of Malcolm X. Hence, the question is not who is Malcolm X, but what might his life have to offer a theology aimed at spiritual refinement and social protest in the present era? I am more interested in constructing an ethically oriented and contextually-sensitive theology of prostration and protest inspired by Malcolm X than identifying or delineating Malcolm X’s historically lived theology. I argue that his resistanceto the failed or failing rule of law can serve as an ethical compass for modern Muslim theology. Additionally, his personal struggles with God and faith provide a model of theological action. My case is built upon the speeches, writings, and autobiography of Malcolm X as well as the figurations of him imagined by other scholars. I use the various re-imaginings of Malcolm X (my own included) to redefine notions of belonging, resistance, and righteousness.


Lucinda Mosher, Th.D

Hartford Seminary

Waging the beautiful struggle: Christian approaches to spiritual jihād
While, since New Testament times, Christian soteriology has wrestled with questions of the efficacy of “works” (as opposed to salvation by faith alone), nevertheless much has been written in every era about how to live life in a Godward direction—that is, on how (in Christian terms) to engage in spiritual jihad. This paper will discuss several Christian approaches to spiritual jihad—each of which has many ardent adherents: the Rule of St Benedict, dating from the 6th century, meant originally as a guide to the monastic life, but—since the mid-20th-century at least, in use to provide structure and guidance for laypersons; St Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, which date from the 16th century and remain in wide used for spiritual retreat and renewal programs; and Quaker theologian Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth—which, since its first publication in 1978, has sold more than one million copies. It will explain the tools for spiritual striving advocated by these three programs, in light of the insights offered by Mysticism: A Study in the Nature of Development of Spiritual Consciousness, Evelyn Underhill’s landmark study of the contemplative’s progress toward deep relationship with God.


Elliott Bazzano, Ph.D

LeMoyne College

The College Classroom as a Locus of Spiritual Jihad: Reflections on Sufism, Teaching, Learning

Is learning a spiritual endeavor? As an undergraduate I remember chatting with a colleague who said writing essays was a type of spiritual experience for him. I agreed, but I didn’t particularly like writing essays. Over the years, though, it recurred to me that academic writing could be deeply, even spiritually, moving precisely because of the struggle involved—to think and write clearly despite the messy process of learning. Today, as a full-time professor, I find similar struggle in teaching. Given the theme of this conference, as well as my personal and academic interests in mysticism, my presentation will thus frame the college classroom as a locus of spiritual jihad. I will draw on my experiences as a college instructor and student as well as on Sufi authors such as Ghazali and Rumi to argue that learning can indeed be a spiritual struggle, regardless of metaphysical or religious commitments.


2:45-3:15 Coffee break

3:15-5:00 Practicing Spiritual Jihad Today (and Tomorrow)

Ozgur Koga, Ph.D

Claremont School of Theology

Spiritual Jihad in the Context of the Contemporary Religion-Science Discussion

The article traces some implications of the doctrinal aspects of Islamic spirituality for tha contemporary discussion on the reconciliation of religious and scientific claims on the nature of reality. It departs from the assumption that a more constructive dialogue between religion and science can occur in a comprehensive metaphysical framework that can relate humanity’s experiences in both fields adequately, tenably, and coherently. The doctrinal aspects of Islamic spirituality, I believe, offer some basic principles that can be applied to this discussion such as (1) the world is situated between existence and nothingness, itself nonexistent; (2) the world is created a new at each moment; (3) the world is a multiplicity of loci for ever-changing and unceasing manifestations of divine qualities or, in other words, phenomena are nothing but theophanies “eroded” by and manifested on the mirror of nothingness. These premises provide a solid grounding for the construction such a metaphysical framework that can specify the complex dimensions of God-cosmos relationship in a way that addresses religious concerns and does justice to the methodology of scientific inquiry.


Ori Soltes, Ph.D.

Georgetown University

Spiritual Jihad with Myself and for Others:  Islam within an Interfaith World

This paper will begin with a brief reference to the three primary forms of jihad–within myself, to make myself a better muslim; within the Muslim world; and beyond the Muslim world–and their various spiritual, verbal and other modes of engagement. It will turn from this to the idea of loving–one’s self and others–in order to pose the question–the problem–of whether, if I am convinced that my spiritual path is correct, I can desist, concerning those I love, from engaging in jihad to pull them onto my path. It will turn, thirdly, to the challenge of the mystic–to achieve oneness with God–and what that means and how it may be achieved. Central to the method is the emptying of one’s self of the self-focus to which all humans are inherently subject. Thus, fourthly, this paper will propose that when personal and inter-personal jihad are harnessed to mystical (for example, Sufi) intentions, in which one empties one’s self of self, of ego-bound convictions, true interreligious dialogue becomes both possible and desirable as an aspect of internal, spiritual jihad, as evidenced in the writings, among others, of Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi and Fetullah Gulen.


Mustafa Gokhan Sahin, Ph.D

The Atlantic Institute-Atlanta

Spirituality and Social Justice in Islam

Contrary to many ascetic interpretations of spirituality that do not see any connection between spiritualty and social justice, Islamic spirituality sees the two as intrinsically connected. Sufi scholars like, among others, Ibn ‘Arabi and Said Nursi argue that this world is a representation of the divine names of Allah. If God has done what is beautiful through his creation, human beings have to strive (jihad) to achieve what is beautiful in their relationships with God and other creatures. It is a demanding task that can only be accomplished by those who can fully recognize what the true goal of Islamic spirituality is: to go beyond the veil of the mundane. This paper will cover the nexus between spirituality and social justice in the light of certain Sufi principles that are required during this process and argue that only true spirituality can bring social justice


Pim Valkenburg, Ph.D.

Catholic Universoty of America

Poverty and Frugality as Characteristics of Spiritual Jihad: An Interfaith Perspective
Spiritual traditions in the world of Islam like to circumscribe the greater Jihad as a struggle against the downward tendencies of our soul (nafs). In this respect, it is relevant to look at voluntary poverty and frugality as characteristics of spiritual Jihad that are very relevant in a contemporary world in which the glamour of exuberant richness and the abuse of our natural resources threaten to lead humankind away from its true destiny. From a Christian theological perspective, I will look at some resources in the Islamic tradition that may help us to realize the importance of interfaith collaboration in spiritual jihad. In the first part of my paper I will reflect on the meaning of the boast “God is poor and we are rich” (Qur’an 3:181) and contrast this to Al-Ghazali’s reflections on human dependence and God’s needlessness. In the second part of my paper I will reflect on the meaning of frugality in Said Nursi’s spirituality, and connect it to the spirituality of the Hizmet movement.


The event is free and open to the public, but registration is requested. Please use the form below to register.

Posted on August 12, 2015