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

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?   

  • Saleem

    Refreshing. It makes sense that the Jewish scholars would leave their Muslim references nameless – lest they inadvertently give credit to the Prophet Muhammad.

  • Purvisthemuslim

    Wow.. this is amazing. I’ve always felt that Judaism is the religion that is closest to Islam. Unfortunately, the amount of Antisemitism that exists in the Muslim community is disgusting. It makes me optimistic to see a post like this one on a Muslim blog.

  • abusinan

    Problem here is then that plays into the hands that the Hadith really is nothing more than Sufi inspired and doesnt hold sway with the rest of the Islamic world.
    I find the idea to be rubbish anyway, but that is exactly what they will say, that your link to Hasidism proves this.
    I have always thought that the proper link in the modern world should be between religious Jews and Muslims. I have always felt closer to Jews than Christians.

  • Rachel

    Fascinating!! :-)
    (And actually not especially surprising to me; this makes perfect sense — though of course I would say that, being the kind of Jew that I am. *g*)

  • rebecca m

    abu sinan– similarly, I’m jewish and find islam to be the other religion most accessible (and lovely) to me.

  • dawud

    abusinan – you don`t have a future as a hadith scholar. The isnad is considered weak, but ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, in Fath al-Bari, considered to be the best commentary on Sahih-al-Bukhari, wrote: “the isnad of the hadith may be weak, but the meaning is strong” – ie, scholars trust that the Prophet said it due to confirmation from other hadith and statements from the Sahaba, but don’t consider the narration as found in Sahih Bukhari with the isnad given to be strong. Big difference there.

  • abusinan

    You dont have a future in reading comprehension. If you read my post I simply pointed out that Svend’s tying of this Hadith’s supposed Sufi/mystical background with Jewish mysticism would support Islamophobe’s assertions that the Hadith is simply a Sufi invention and not valid for Muslims, hence not a true indicator of what Jihad is or isnt.
    Like I said in the original post, I deny the alleged Sufi invention of the Hadith and see it as a valid Hadith for all Muslims.
    Read the posts with comprehension in mind before you attack. You’ll be less likely to wrongly attack others and less likely to make a fool out of yourself.
    Mafee Adab Dawud. Allah Ma3ak.

  • Chris Kepler

    Great collection of spiritual teachings and conspiracy videos/dvds

  • rawi

    Fascinating! Since Muslim-Jewish cross-fertilization in the Medieval is more widely recognized and understood, it’s interesting to see these traces as late as the 18th century. It may be worth noting, also, the influence of Baal Shem Tov – and Hasidism in general – on the philosopher Martin Buber, who was a staunch supporter of a bi-national solution for Jews and Arabs in Palestine.
    Good examples are really too many to note. There was Bahya ibn Paquda (the 11th c. ethicist and famous author of Duties of the Heart, “Kitab al-hidaya ila faraid al-qulub”), about whom someone said he was “so steeped in Islamic traditions that an Arabic reader could easily think he was a Muslim”. Maimonides’s son even wrote defensively about borrowing from Muslim mystics, arguing that the truth of their teachings should not be affected by their outward religious affiliations.

  • T.O.Shanavas

    Muslim Influences on Judaism
    Jewish Historian, S.H.Goiten states:
    “The Jews took their full share in this great Middle-eastern mercantile civilization [Islamic civilization], in particular from tenth to thirteenth centuries; and it was at that time and in that part of the world that Judaism itself received its final shape.” [Ref: “A Mediterranean Society.” By S.H. Goiten. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967, Pages. 6-7]. Other historians repeat the same story.
    American historian philosopher, Will Durant, agrees with S.H.Goiten’s statement of, “Judaism itself received its final shape” in the early Muslim empire:”
    “Saadia ben Joseph al-Fayyumi …grew up in Egypt…Saadia took a leaf or two from Moslem theologians, and followed their methods of exposition, even, now and then, the details of their argument. In turn his work permeated the Jewish world, and influenced Maimonides. ‘Were it not for Saadia,’ said ben Maimon, ‘the Torah would almost have disappeared.’” [Ref: “The Story of Civilization” by Will Durant. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950, Vol. 4. Pages.367-368).

  • dawud

    abu sinan, I wasn’t attacking – you’re taking things far too harshly, which may be function of the internet:
    i just read these words: “Problem here is then that plays into the hands that the Hadith really is nothing more than Sufi inspired and doesnt hold sway with the rest of the Islamic world.”
    without a caveat there that it’s not true, I just commented on what’s known about the hadith. Incidentally, I would have thought that would be relevant to bring up whether you had questioned it or not, but I thought your comment was useful to refer to. Please don’t read it as an attack, and don’t take it as a personal insult. Pardons if you read it that way, but there are a lot of ‘hadith scholars’ (particularly of the ‘salafi jihadi’ school who read things in precisely the way you put it above), and it’s useful to ask them whether they’ve even read Imam Tabari or ibn Hajar al-asqalani or any of the other well-known hadith commentators…

  • diana

    “Everyone who’s reasonably well informed knows about the deep parallels between Islamic shariah and Jewish halakha…”
    Correct, but halakha clearly states that “the law of the land is the law” (that is, the secular law of the land where Jews reside trumps halakha).
    Where does it say this in shariah?

  • diana

    Also, how is it mindblowing if “”Everyone who’s reasonably well informed knows about the deep parallels between Islamic shariah and Jewish halakha…”
    I mean, yeah. So what? Mindblowing to you, old news to the rest of us reasonably well-informed old farts.

  • svend

    True, Diana. There are obviously also very important differences on the political side. For the last two millenia, Jews have lived as minorities and, thus, never had the option of making halakha the law of the land.
    This is incidentally something that I think Jews have benefitted greatly from intellectually if not socially. They’ve had to grapple with issues of pluralism and, in a way, modernity itself from the very beginning whereas for Muslim jurists residing in mostly Muslim-majority (or Muslim-ruled) socieities it was never necessary to seriously grapple with these questions until modern times and globalization.
    Before Westerners start crowing, Christian cultures weren’t all that much more “ahead” on this score but they happened not to have comparable juridical traditions, which lent naturally to division of church and state. Also, I think it must be acknolwedged that many of the “Western” freedoms we now extoll resulted not from the natural evolution of Christian culture but rather the secularization (in this case, de-Christianization) of Western life.
    That’s not intended as a criticism. I happen to think that the West lost far more than it gained when it turned away from Christianity as a basis for its collective identity.
    But the political distinction you right note shouldn’t blind us to how *profoundly* kindred both in practice and in spirit shariah and halakah are, especially compared to Christian tradition with its overt rejection of the authority of the “Law” in people’s daily lives.
    Had Muslims likewise been disenfranchised religious minorities struggling for authonomy and security in a non-Muslim run world, I bet we’d have seen very similar developments within Islamic jurisprudence.

  • diana

    “For the last two millenia, Jews have lived as minorities and, thus, never had the option of making halakha the law of the land.”
    Yes, and this followed 2 failed & ruinous rebellions against the Romans.
    The basic issue is: Muslims are now living as minorities in the West. Politics aside, which I do not wish to engage in, they will have to create a sustaining way of life that defers to the non-Muslim majority. The fact is, they already do defer to it.
    (I have been aware of the Islamic/Jewish symbiosis since I was 14 and thus my mind was not blown by this revelation. The older you get, the more difficult you find to sustain that “mindblown” mentality.)
    Another route from Sufi thought to Hasidism may have been Ottoman Palestine. Plenty of Hasids made their way there, esp. to Safed. Also Sufism was pretty popular in Ottoman Palestine, I think.

  • svend

    I find it “mind-blowing” not so much for its religious implications but for the dramatic way it refutes some commonplace lazy assumptions about Islam being alien to other Western religions.
    I’m glad this isn’t news to you. I’m sure being older and wiser–not to mention being the product of educational standards that were probably higher than ours are today–helps a lot, but I’m confident that most people regardless of age would find this quite counterintuitive if not shocking.
    Also, to the extent that people generally are aware of similiarities between Islam and Judaism they tend to focus just on behavioral rules. This is a reminder that there’s much more to be mined here than dietary restrictions.

  • svend

    It just occurred to me that I neglected to note some important nuances re: the observation that shariah is intended as the law of the land.
    It’s true that the notion of shariah *not* being dominant is a new one, but you one needs to bear a few facts in mind when considering that:
    1) Shariah like halakha was not designed for use in a modern nation state. It is a legal system, but it’s not “law” in the sense we tend to use it today in the West. The modern nation state totally changes the equation, a point made by Abdullah an-Naim.
    2) Shariah does not apply itself to non-Muslims. It assumes from the outset that non-Muslims will be governed by their own religious traditions.
    3) While this isn’t a simple question, shariah *does* require Muslims to observe the law of the land where they live, assuming it does not contravene core Islamic principles. (The same can be said of Judaism and Christianity.) In fact, many Islamic jurists have held that it was preferable for to obey a *wicked* and *unjust* ruler than rebel and, it is assumed, create discord and instability in society. There are tensions here, but Shariah is at heart very pragmatic and its priority, at least according to some key theorists, is maintaining law and order and peace in society, not imposing Islamic values. And these ideas were formulated long before the encounter with teh West, pluralism, secularism, etc..

  • S.

    WRT the Sufi influence on 18th century Hasidism, obviously there was no direct influence. The great/ lesser jihad motif, however, was introduced to Jewish literature via the aforementioned Bahya ibn Paquda, whose Judeo-Arabic work on ethics, which was translated into Hebrew during his lifetime, as “Chovas Halevavos/ Duties of the Heart” became–and remains–enormously influential among Jews. This was where the particular rabbi got the story; in the original work, of course, it came from the hadith.