Jihad, as near as I can make it, is essentially two sets of doctrines, one relating to war and the other relating to daily life. On the practical level, most of us do not get up in the morning and go start a war, regardless of our opportunities, so it is the concept of jihad in daily life which is culturally dominant.
If I follow what I've read correctly, and my reading has been shallow rather than deep, then Islam construes life as a struggle, and the name for this struggle is jihad.
A basic resource that I looked at was the article on jihad in the 2005 Edition of Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia, an article contributed by one Adam Jacobs.
Jihad talking about daily life, rather than about war is to be understood "as an individual's inner, spiritual struggle against vice, passion, and ignorance."
To me, as an outsider, looking at a more or less unknown religion from a considerable distance, the basic concept seems understandable: to construe life as a struggle and to see religion as an instrumentality for coping with that struggle.
The Encarta article digs into the ins and outs of jihad, including this holy war business, but that is not where I want to go. What I want to present is an excerpt from some e-mail correspondence that I received from someone in the Islamic world explaining how the concept of jihad works in her life, this correspondence starting after I'd been writing something about Islam on my website. (Write about Islam and, naturally enough, Islam writes back.)
When I sat down to write this piece I had a vague recollection of having received a single "life is a struggle" e-mail a couple of years back, just that, but, when I hunted out the relevant file, I discovered that I'd exchanged a number of e-mails with this person who was sending me her thoughts to share with the world, and who styled herself in various ways, signing off at one point as "the Queen of Sheba".
Very busy years, those intervening months, so I can understand why I'm looking at this record of forgotten e-mail correspondence more or less as a stranger.
December 2003 is the month of the e-mail exchange, the war in Iraq boiling away in the background, and I had, at the time, good intentions to learn more about Islam, something that I never did, in part because I ended up with topics of more pressing personal importance that I had to gen up on.
Well, back then, back in my days of good intentions, the following is, in part, what I received from my Islamic correspondent. My British-based correspondent got going by saying she is not the ideal Muslim and citing her own vanity and idleness. Then, having entered that caveat, proceeded:
"Your comments however prompted me to share my own feelings as a muslim.
"What is Islam? Literally, 'Islam' means 'Submission (to God and no other)'. Islam to me means being as good a person as I can, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It means abstinence in the belief that what is not given in this life will be rewarded to us in the next. It means thoughtfulness. What goes around comes around. We aren't all-knowing. We have weaknesses. We are responsible for each other, even if we live on opposites sides of the world in disparate cultures. It means cleanliness. Patience. Equality. Acceptance. It means awareness that there are ALWAYS consequences, either in this life or the next.
"Above all, it means Peace. And it means Jihad.
"Islam is Jihad. Life is Jihad. What is Jihad? The Western doctrines would have me believe it means 'Holy War'. Hence the image of Islam being a warlike religion.
"Jihad actually means 'Struggle'. All the things i listed in my description of Islam, all those things are a struggle to achieve or maintain in this day, age and in this society. I think it's been that way since the dawn of man.
"For me Jihad, and Islam, is the struggle of making the right decision. Shall i wash the dishes and clear up now so my mum will come downstairs to a clean kitchen? Or shall i curl up in front of the fire and act like i'm not well. Shall i tart up and go to that party where all but maybe one person attending is genuine and bearable to be around and actually a friend and won't be chatting me up or marking me as competition? Do i NEED more shoes, even though they have gorgeous diamante straps, or do i need to pay a bill instead? Which charities should i give to this month, and how much can i REALLY afford to give them? Do i really want to show this much cleavage? What are these E-numbers listed on the packaging of my food? When i buy from this company, where is my money going? What is the shape of society at the moment, where is it headed and what will it be when my children are my age imply a series of images from over the decades of man's more destructive and mindless actions."
So there it is, for what it is worth, my own small part of the dialog, to the extent that there is a dialog ... something which, having had it kicking around in the back of my mind for a couple of years now, I'm pleased to be able to share.