Jewish sages on “lesser jihad” and “greater jihad”

Svend White

Posted Mar 31, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Jewish sages on “lesser jihad” and “greater jihad”

by Svend White

Just stumbled across a mindblowing fact that’s so sensational I’m tempted to selfishly hoard for an academic article someday rather than blog about it now.  Fortunately for you, dear Reader, it’s too juicy for me to keep to myself.

There is a famous hadith wherein the Prophet, peace be on him, tells followers returning from a battle, “You have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad…the struggle against one’s self [nafs].”  This tradition is one of the classic sources for the widespread interpretation of Jihad as a primarily personal spiritual struggle against ones own sinful inclinations and only secondarily a military conflict.  (Incidentally, on this point, Islamophobes eagerly endorse the worldview of jihadis and fundamentalists, arguing that this longstanding reading is a fringe “Sufi” reading, despite the fact that it is implied by numerous verses in the Quran.)

Obviously, this prophetic saying has inspired countless Muslims for centuries, but it turns out it and other Sufi teachings have even been borrowed by Jewish sages and incorporated in their own spiritual teachings.

Muslim Influences on Judaism

Muslim influence can sometimes be found far from Arabia.  The first book of Eastern European Hasidism, Toledot Yaakov Yosef by Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, disciple of the Baal Shem Tov (1780) twice includes the saying:  “The wise man has said:  You have returned from the minor war, now prepare yourselves for the major war”.  That is, prepare for spiritual struggle which is more important than any material struggle. This is a well-known Sufi saying, usually attributed to Muhammad.  It probably found its way into Hasidic tradition through its appearance in Rabbenu Bachya’s Duties of the Heart.  Rabbenu Bachya included many Sufi teachings and stories in his work, ascribing them to anonymous sages. (see Paul Fenton, “Judaeo-Arabic Mystical Writings of the XIIIth-XIVth Centuries”, in Golb, Judaeo-Arabic Studies (1997), 89.)

Personally, I’ve long been struck by how philosophically kindred Hasidism seems to the Sufi tradition in Islam, but I couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic confirmation of the shared spiritual heritage of Islam and Judaism than this.  Everyone who’s reasonably well informed knows about the deep parallels between Islamic shariah and Jewish halakha, and it’s a fact that Islamic scholars have borrowed deeply from Jewish religious sources to flesh out details of pre-Islamic history, but who would’ve guessed that Jewish scholars had freely borrowed from Sufism in this manner?

And the fact that these Jewish scholars were not only inspired by Islamic mysticism but specifically by Islamic teachings on jihad—yes, jihad—is doubly intriguing and delicious, as it not only displays a deep affinity for and awareness of Islamic thought, but shows that great Jewish mystics customarily viewed as apolitical pacifists could understand warfare in much the same way as traditional Muslim scholars.

How do you explain that, Mr. Spencer? 

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