There’s no doubt that while the current events in the Middle East may give pause to what people may think about Islam and Muslims, there’s a continuing growth in anti-Muslim, Islamophobic events and discourse within our politics, media, and public sphere. Given the atmosphere, fostering more educational and interfaith opportunities is hardly a novelty in our society. Yes, there are more faith communities, academic institutions, and local governments that have increased their multicultural efforts to curtail misunderstanding and bigotry. Unfortunately, the opportunity to broaden awareness while encouraging open dialogue and engagement is often limited by sporadic news stories that heighten the ongoing mistrust of Islam and Muslims, especially here in the United States. Even more disparaging is that there are individuals and groups on all levels of society that are invested in making Islam and Muslims to not only be considered “the other”, but inherently juxtaposed our nation’s virtues, promise, and existence.
With this threat of coexistence, one of the most charged words misconstrued in meaning and prompted as oft-reliable fearmongering tool is the term “jihad”. It’s prominently expressed as some violent reaction, or even a sacred defensive act of ceasing the lives of people who are not Muslim. To extinguish the word’s misuse has been a lofty goal for nearly 50 years, no matter the workshops, presentations, or frank conversations to distinguish what jihad really means.
And yet, people of EVERY background live jihad in some way, major or minor, in their lives every day. How is this? It so happens that as a young Muslim in the late 90s, I learned the essence of jihad’s meaning, etymology, connotation and context in the folds of the Islamic faith. Very early on in my new found practice as a Muslim, I independently and voluntarily adopted this assumed nefarious, militaristic charged word as my Muslim name. Since then, I’ve made it a point to distinguish its true essence whenever I speak with people who are concerned with its “threat”.
I took my shahada, the proclamation of accepting Islam as my faith, in April 1998 while I was a high school junior. I had some knowledge about Islam and Muslim culture, yet I’ll admit that some of what I knew—albeit well-intended and good hearted—was off. One significant error was assuming that upon becoming a Muslim I must change my name (this is false, since every name with a nice meaning is legitimate in Islam). Even though I knew I wouldn’t legally change my name, I wanted to have one.
I befriended a Palestinian grocer who shared literature on Islam with me and my best friend at the time, who also became Muslim. He was willing to answer any question we had. And so, one day, it occurred to me I wanted to retain the meaning of my given name Gerald, of Teutonic origin meaning “mighty spear” or “spear ruler”. Loving this strong name and its meanings, I asked my friend the grocer what word in Arabic, or at least a Muslim name, had a synonymous meaning. He took a moment to consider it, and then replied “Jihad”. I asked for the spelling, and seeing how I liked its sound and the letter formation (I love linguistics), I assumed Jihad as my adopted Muslim name.
However, my affection for my newfound name was short lived. Shortly after this, events in Persian Gulf erupted where the media’s reporting made frequent use of the term “jihad”, defining it as “holy war”. Even given my new found faith, I was troubled that my name was an infliction of violence and intended death by fellow Muslims toward people of other faiths. I didn’t want to associated with this, even though a “mighty spear” or “spear ruler” could very well had given off the same profile for the old Germanic people in history. I already felt that I wanted to be an intermediary of peace, love and mutual respect for all backgrounds, so the violent images jihad depreciating life and harmony exclaimed in print through words and complimentary photos with captions alarmed me. I was bothered and disturbed so much that I ultimately decided that I would no longer go by Jihad.
Shortly after making this decision, I gained the acquaintance of a Muslim brother who solicited my help in selling his inaugural newsletter issue. One the first page was an article entitled “The Significance of Jihad”. It was in this perspective that the writer shared what jihad truly means within Islam—to strive or struggle for the sake of God. He went on to give clear examples that reminded me of times in my life, and in the present moment, where I made earnest efforts, through actions and thoughts, to be the most faithful servant for my Lord. In remembering those experiences—reflecting joy and despair, certainty and doubt, maturity and mindlessness—tears flowed from my eyes because in that moment I realized that God revealed to me what I witnessed in the lives I’ve come to love, admire, or pity. He instilled in the sense of striving, the will to struggle and become stronger in the will to live, in all humanity. Jihad is our constant striving to be closer to Him, to achieve our purest sense of being His beloved, no matter our shortcomings in sin against His will or beauty of selfless worship, humility and love for Him.
I reclaimed my Jihad by renaming myself Jihad.
I found that the adage affirming “everything happens for a reason” rings so true in my life, and my identity as Jihad has proven to be one of the most exemplary ways this reminder reveals a timeless truth and wisdom. I have found myself in situations where Jihad has empowered me to continue persevering through personal trials and extenuating circumstances. My efforts to advocate for those in need or stand up for social justice bear Jihad’s essence of constant remembrance of serving God despite obstacles or weariness. I have the unique jihad of often discussions how my naming myself Jihad as a 16 year old on the edge of 17 made it evident catalyst in my personal, professional and social spheres to embrace questions from people who doubt a positive jihad truly exists. Even in the midst of small gestures like maintaining a good diet or sharing a genuine smile with others are all considered acts of Jihad so my mind, body and soul can be more able to do more good for myself and others. Indeed, the most enduring example of Jihad I live every day is remembering and cherishing God’s boundless love and mercy to fuel my deeds. Every person is worth love and respect regardless of my inhibitions or biases to treat someone with more respect or disdain based on what they do or say.
The latter point is very important. People who may hate me, other Muslims, or other people based on who we are, how we look, what we do, what we believe, or our life stories and chapters yet to be written, sometimes speak louder than those who truly want to strive against such hatred. Those bad vibes and misgivings about our humanity’s capacity to prevail over stark differences that divide us ultimately can cease life altogether. We all have to struggle no matter our station in life, whether we gain involuntarily certain stations of living or through our choices result in every moment in our full biographies. Universally, I believe all would assume that this is true in some fashion. Possibly my most defining jihad was the one where I decided to own my life’s course taken and path yet to be paved. With that, my Jihad is being the best Jihad I can be.