Morior Invictus -
"In death, unconquered..."
I have been away from the wide world of weblogging for an extended summer hiatus. For those of you who might know me and care, Shannon, Lupe and I moved from the south side of Chicago to the south suburbs of Boston in June. I have taken a job as a consultant at a law firm which is working on the 9-11 litigation; although sadly leaving the University of Chicago and some great friends in Bridgeport. Compounded with this transition was the blessed birth of a healthy baby boy on Sept. 4. Jack Daniel is a handsome little guy and seems to have, thankfully, not only got his mom's good looks but her saintly personality.
I have had to put my translation on hold, and the frustration of giving it up has prevented me from blogging. Not to mention the fact that so much was happening in our lives, I didn't even know how to begin writing about it. And I clearly have had no time to write about or translate anything else. However, I have recently begun working on another paper for the University of Chicago on the concept of jihad in the sermons of Ali b. Abi Talib. Or more specifically, on the concept of piety in the Amir al-Mu'mineen's sermons on jihad. Being away from Hyde Park, and in the cooperative environment of the law firm in which I work, has made me realize the importance of writing "in a community." I have therefore decided to switch gears, temporarily, from my translation, (which I promised my shaykh I would finish and I will,) and begin publishing a few pages of this paper for the comments, questions and criticism of whomever may care to read and respond. And perhaps more personally important, to have an informal forum and journalistic medium to express my ideas, even if no one is listening.
The Concept of Taqwā in ‘Alī Ibn Abī Tālib’s Sermons on Jihād
"فإنَّ الجِهادَ بابٌ مِن أبوابِ الجَنَّةِ فَتَحَهُ ﷲُ لخاصَّةِ أوليائِهِ وهو لِباسُ التَّقوَى ودِرْعُ ﷲِ الحَصينَة ُ وَجُنَّتُهُ الوَثيقَةُ ."
“Jihād is one of the doors of paradise which God opens to chosen ones of His closest friends. It is a robe of piety, the impregnable armor of God and His trustworthy shield."
Because the four years of ‘Alī Ibn Abī Tālib's caliphate were marred by the first and the most ideologically divisive, civil war in Islam's history, it is not surprising that social and armed conflict are prominent themes in many of the sermons, letters and sayings collected in the Nahj al-Balāgha
- the vast majority of which were composed during this violent period of unrest in the early Ummah. However, ‘Alī's use of the word jihād, when exhorting his followers to enter into the brutish, human business of war (al-harb,) battles (al-malāhim,) and killing (al-qitāl,) is noteworthy. What are we to make of a quote like the famous one from ‘Alī’s twenty-seventh sermon, “On Jihād,” with which this essay began? What role does piety (taqwā) play in sermons that speak of combat? How does it change the tone of these speeches which were delivered before such gruesome battles?
Of course, it is a well known and well established fact that the Arabic root (j-h-d)’s semantic range of meaning includes not only "going to war," but just as often the "exertion of any pietistic effort" (al-ijtihād) or even "faithfully enduring some trial, tribulation or adversity" (al-majhada.)
After a close reading and literary analysis of passages, taken exclusively from ‘Alī’s sermons about going to war, this article will demonstrate that the concept of jihād therein is framed by the Amīr al-Mu’minīn’s even more copious exhortations to a piety (taqwā) which is rooted in the act of fearing God (taqā) and constantly remembering our own death's inevitability. This pious fear of God which makes a soldier unafraid to die is the moral quality that makes him so virtuous; and an example to be followed in the spiritual life of every Muslim. Of course, this thematic framing of jihād in the context of taqwā does not dilute the martial meaning of the word. It cannot be denied that the immediate, historical context of ‘Alī’s sermons on jihād were the very bloody battles of the first civil war. Instead, the use of religious language in ‘Alī’s speeches during the war augments our understanding of his definition of piety – as more than the mere possession of faith, but a committed willingness to take decisive action in that faith's defense. Indeed, the universal lesson of ‘Alī's sermons, appropriately classified as "calls to arms," is that we should all live with the kind of faith for which we are ready to die.
Piety clearly plays a leading role in ‘Alī’s sermons about going to war. And it dramatically changes the way we understand his concept of jihād in at least two ways. The first is literal and the second is allegorical. On the one hand, the Amīr al-Mu‘minīn’s use of religious language and emphasis on piety in his sermons on jihād affect our understanding of his justification and preparation for engaging in armed combat. This literal reading is perhaps one of the earliest examples of an Islamic just war theory. On the other hand, in an allegorical sense, the commander of the faithful’s sermons on jihād can be read as exhortations to all believers, men and women, young and old, to zealously pursue pious lives and daily combat forces of sin and evil which seek the corruption of human souls in the world. Jewish and Christian mystics have often read the military psalms of David in just such an allegorical way.
This essay will deal with both the literal and the allegorical interpretations of ‘Alī’s sermons on jihād and describe the role piety plays in each. In the literal sense of these sermons and the historical context of the first civil war, I will demonstrate that ‘Alī’s emphasis on piety and moral virtue in his justification and preparation for war is one of the earliest examples of an Islamic just war theory (after the sayings and example of the prophet Muḥammad, of course.) In describing this literal interpretation of jihād, I will give examples of ‘Alī’s moral justification, physical preparations, and rules for engagement in armed conflict. In the allegorical sense of these same sermons, I will demonstrate that ‘Alī’s allusive use of religious and pietistic language in his exhortations to jihād opens the sermons up to another level of interpretation, one which calls all people to holiness by spiritually combating sin and evil on the battlefield of their own souls. In describing this allegorical interpretation of jihād, I will give examples of ‘Alī’s extensive use of metaphors (al-isti‘ārāt) (like the beautiful and oft-quoted, “Jihād is one of the doors of paradise, a robe of piety, the impregnable armor of God and His trustworthy shield”) which expand the semantic range of the orations and encourage interpretations that go beyond their immediate, literal meaning.
It is difficult to separate these two levels of meaning in ‘Alī’s sermons, because his eloquent use of figurative language is so common in them all. For this reason, I will divide my analysis of ʿAlī's sermons on jihād into three general themes: 1) on going to war and its justification; 2) on preparing and training for war; 3) and exhortations to jihād. And in exploring the role of piety in each of these three subjects, there will be occasion to describe both literal and allegorical interpretations of each sermon.
On Going to War and Its Justification:
Labīb Bayḍūn’s topical concordance of the Nahj al-Balāgha, published in Damascus in 1978, is an extremely helpful resource for students of ‘Alī Ibn Abī Ṭālib's sayings on a given subject. In selecting passages for this essay, I have relied heavily on the outline and verses which Bayḍūn provides in the eighteenth chapter, so candidly entitled: “On war (al-ḥarb,) battles (al-malāḥim,) and killing (al-qitāl.)” It is interesting that Bayḍūn does not include jihād in this chapter title even though the word appears frequently in many of the quotations which he cites therein. It is indicative of an essential difference between ʿAlī's use of the words war, battles and killing on the one hand, and jihād on the other. The former group of near synonyms refers to the savage, unfortunate behavior of humanity in its fallen state. But the word jihād is so semantically connected to a pious fear of the Lord (taqwa) that it elevates the word's meaning in both the literal and allegorical ways already described. In the literal sense, ʿAlī's calls for jihād differ from other battle cries because they are appeals for a just war waged in a virtuous manner. The religious weight of the word jihād in this tragic context reminds Muslims that even in the ruthless human business of war, there is an example of justice and virtue to be imitated. In the allegorical sense, this same religious weight of the word jihād appeals to the ancient scriptural meaning of a holy war fought on a spiritual battlefield where both angels and demons fight for and against human souls.
In his introduction to chapter eighteen, Bayḍūn says: "‘Alī, who was never defeated in battle, would not begin to fight until he called his adversaries to the truth (yada‘ū ilā- l- ḥaqq) and showed them proof by reminding them of God's signs. If they rejected (him) after this, (still) he was slow to go to war - wanting to extinguish dissension and avoid bloodshed, seeking tranquility, harmony and peace." 
This prefatory remark reveals another important dimension of the word jihād as it is used in ʿAlī's sermons. Before a commander can justify going to war, he must sincerely converse with his enemies, honestly calling them to witness the validity and moral imperative of his message. From the sermons of the ‘Amīr al-Muʿminīn, we can distill three essential conditions which must be met before justly engaging in any war. They are the eloquent expression (balāgha), impassioned exhortation (da‘wa) and faithful witness (shahāda) of the truth. These three activities are not only pre-conditions of a just war. They are also the basic justification and ultimate goal of any war which is piously pursued.
‘Alī b. Abī Tālib (d.40/661), Nahj al-Balāgha, compiled by Sharīf al-Radī (d.406/1015),
edited by Husayn al-A‘lamī (Beirut: Mu’assasat al-A‘lamī li-l-Matbu‘āt, 2003).
See Appendix I for a comprehensive study of the root (j-h-d) and its semantic range of meaning in ‘Alī's sermons collected in the Nahj al-Balāgha.
Examples are too numerous to provide a detailed list at this time. Indeed, a whole book could be devoted to the subject in either one of the two traditions. However, St. Anthony of Egypt, St. John of the Cross and Thomas Merton are at least three examples of ancient, medieval and modern Christian mystics who would metaphorically read the psalms in such a way.
Labīb Wajīh Bayḍūn, Taṣnīf Nahj al-Balāgha, (Damascus: Maktabah Usāma Karm, 1978), p. 231.