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Is Islamic Jihad Comparable to Buddhist Mindfulness?

"Mindfulness" (Pali: sati) is the attentive awareness of reality, especially in the present moment and as "right mindfulness" (Pali: samma-sati) is part of the Noble Eightfold Path, the principle teachings for achieving the end of suffering. As a practise, this awareness is expressed as a calm study of feelings, objects of thought and perception, and the act of thinking (a type of meta-cognition). It is argued that "[a] key innovative teaching of the Buddha was that meditative stabilisation must be combined with liberating discernment." [1]

Adopted in contemporary psychology, a practise of mindfulness is used for obsession-compulsive disorders, anxiety, depression relapse, disordered eating, and drug addiction [2]. Both critics and advocates [3] of right mindfulness emphasise that it must be integrated with other aspects of the Eightfold Path, especially the triad that comes with the division of mental composing (samadhi), i.e., effort, mindfulness, concentration.

With Islamic concept of "jihad", or struggle, contemporary misconceptions may come to mind. For most people in our context, it generated images of religious fanaticism, of military endeavours, of violence. This is mostly however derived from what is described as a "lesser jihad" (al-jihad al-asghar), the outward struggle against the enemies of Islam, which must be contrasted with "greater Jihad" (al-jihad al-akbar), the striving within a person for self-improvement [4]. The famous hadith from al-Khatib reads as follows:

"We were told by Layth, on the authority of 'Ata', on the authority of Abu Rabah, on the authority of Jabir, who said, 'The Prophet (salallaahu 'alayhee wa sallam) returned from one of his battles, and thereupon told us, 'You have arrived with an excellent arrival, you have come from the Lesser Jihad to the Greater Jihad - the striving of a servant (of Allah) against his desires.'"

Even in the context of the lesser jihad, this can take a violent or non-violent form, although the former is expressed in the overwhelming majority of lesser jihad cases [4]. War, at least according to the Qur'an, is meant to be self-defensive (Qur'an 22:39-40) and to protect the innocent who are being oppressed (Qur'an 4:75). There are some radical Islamic scholars who refer to sections of the Qu'aran that refer to a more aggressive war (specifically Qur'an 9:5), but it is difficult to see how these can refer to anything but the conflict in the early days of conflict against Arabic pagans.

However it is the greater, internal, jihad that some potential comparison with Buddhist mindfulness can be made. Of course, there is one major difference which must be immediately be stated: as with with other dharmic religions, the Buddhist approach is more orientated towards an adaptive detachment from the world whereas, along with the Abrahamic religions, the Islamic approach is more orientated towards conscious mastery [6]. Nevertheless, with Islam the hadith of the greater jihad - which is prone to debate regarding its authenticity among Islamic scholars, as are all hadiths - has been notably popular among a number of Sufi orders (which itself can vary from the liberal to the extremely conservative).

This difference in popularity and disposition is no accident. Sufism's orientation towards the inner practise of direct worship with the divine is has obvious similarities with the meditative practises in Buddhism, and there is an interesting structural correlation with the equivalent emphasis on inner and outer peace and religious tolerance. As for their own status, the Sufis are defined by mainstream Islam some as being a integral part of Islam [7], by others as a universal method that non-Muslims can receive instruction to, and by others still to be an opponent of Islam - there have been numerous contemporary examples of attacks on Sufi shrines and mosques, especially in Pakistan, and in Iran where the state has engaged in closures of shrines, arrests, and has even considered banning on Sufism [8].

Another tradition which bares some consideration for comparison is itjihad, the reflective process by which an individual makes a decision of Islamic law (sharia) by their own effort (jihad), without following (taqlid) the rulings any school (madhhab) of jurisprudence (fiqh). The tradition was significantly reduced in prominence following the efforts of certain theologians [9]. In the mainstream Islamic traditions of Sunni and Shi'a Islam, only certain individuals (mujtahid) were deemed to have sufficient scholarly and personal comptenence to engage in itjihad.

At least only Islamic scholar, Amir Ali, make a very strong case that that makes the strongest case that "jihad" should be understood entirely in terms of conscious effort and striving in any field of endeavour, and rejects the association of jihad with holy war entirely, confidently claiming: "We challenge any researcher or scholar to find the meaning of "jihad" as holy war in the Qur'an or authentic Hadith collections or in early Islamic literature" [10]. To their extensive review of the Qu'ran and Hadith, jihad refers to the struggle of divine submission, resisting peers and temptations, engaging in good acts, expressing the Islamic message, etc.

Interfaith considerations often encounter challenging situations to associate extremely different religious traditions, outlooks, and worldviews. These difficulties should not serve as an excuse however to avoid attempts to describe the unity of existence, regardless of particular outlooks. In this example, an attempt to find connections between the tradition of jihad in Islam and mindfulness in Buddhism can only be described as the most brief, initial, cursory, and even speculative sketch. Nevertheless, it can be said with some certainty that Muslims and Buddhists engage in a practise of reflective situational awareness as a pathway to deeply considered decisions and engage in resultant action. The fact that there also seems to be similarity in the procedures used to obtain this state should also provide an opportunity for further investigation. The greater challenge, which must be a "mindful struggle" if one can forgive the combined phrase, is to overcome the existing contextual and historical differences in favour of common improvements in knowledge and practise.

[1] Alexander Wynne, "The Origin of Buddhist Meditation" Routledge, 2007, page 73.
[2] John J. Miller, Ken Fletcher, Jon Kabat-Zinn, "Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders", General Hospital Psychiatry, Volume 17, Issue 3, May 1995, Pages 192-200
[3] Zen Buddhists in particular are critical of "mindfulness" as being idealist and distracting from being.
[4] Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, The History of Baghdad, FP c1050. Quotation from Muhammad al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami` al-Saghir (ed. Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah), commentary on the Jami` by Imam al-Suyuti vol.4 pg. 511
[5] Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam, University of Chicago Press, 1988, p. 72. and William M. Watt, Islamic Conceptions of the Holy War in: Thomas P. Murphy, The Holy War, Ohio State University Press, 1974
[6] An excellent recent summary of Max Weber's ideal types of religion can be found in Pawel Zaleski "Ideal Types in Max Weber's Sociology of Religion: Some Theoretical Inspirations for a Study of the Religious Field", Polish Sociological Review No. 3(171)/2010
[7] Alan Godlas, Sufism's Many Paths, University of Georgia, 2000
[8] Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: Iran, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2009
[9] Especially al-Ghazali, c.f., The Incoherence of the Philosophers.
[10] Amir Ali, Jihad Explained, Mattaqun Online

Presentation to the St. Michael's Uniting Church Interfaith group by Lev Lafayette, Sunday 17th March, 2013