Before I lived in Turkey, I thought the word “jihad” was a word of hate and violence. I associated that word with crazed lunatics, suicide bombers blowing themselves up in public squares, and people flying airplanes into tall buildings.
But then I went to Turkey, and I started meeting people named Jihad!
I remember this one day in particular, when I met my first Jihad. He was my wife’s cousin (actually, his name was “Cihat,” the Turkish spelling of “Jihad”).
My wife and I went to this beautiful tea garden, one of our favorite tea gardens in all of Istanbul.
We met up with my wife’s cousin, his wife, and their kids. And this guy, this cousin, his name was Cihat!
Cihat carried himself with the pious, thoughtful nature of a deeply religious man. His wife had a conservative headscarf tightly wound around her head and neck, and she wore the plain, long, beige-colored overcoat even my new eyes recognized as the mark of a socially and religiously conservative woman.
Their kids, a young boy and a young girl, carried themselves in the poised, well-mannered way you often see in kids who are growing up in a religious household.
But this guy with the radical, violent name, he was just a big teddy bear. You could see it in his eyes, in his face, in the way he looked at his wife and kids. You could even hear it in the way he talked to me, a godless, heathen foreigner he had just met.
Cihat was one the gentlest souls I had ever met.
That afternoon, I was feeling a little confused, wondering, my god, how can this gentle teddy bear of a man have a crazy, violent, hateful name like Cihat? What on earth were his parents thinking? Did they even know what that word meant?
Turns out I was the one who didn’t know what that word meant. Because in the months that followed, I met tons of Cihats in Turkey. Cihat is actually a pretty common guy’s name in Turkey. It’s like being named Paul, or Mark, or Bob. And when someone comes up to you and says, “Hi, my name is Bob,” you don’t panic and run for the hills, do you?
So I figured, the parents must know something I don’t. After all, it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, parents love their children. No parent in the world is going to give his kid a hateful, violent name.
I decided to look into what this word meant, jihad. And here’s what I found…
The word “jihad” has multiple meanings. And yes, “violent war against an external infidel” is one of them. But that is not the primary meaning of the word. It is not the mainstream, popular meaning of the word.
The word jihad more often means “struggle to cleanse your own heart of sin.” It means to purge your heart of sin, to live God’s word in your own heart. Never mind the other people, just purify your own soul.
I didn’t go to some obscure, Middle East-loving, crazy peacenik source to find this definition. I just went to Wikipedia. I went to Wikipedia and typed in “jihad.” And then just to verify what I learned, I went to a couple other mainstream American websites like Yahoo, and Ask.com.
This other meaning, “purging your own heart of sin,” is a mainstream, widely-accepted meaning. In fact, it is the majority meaning of this word. Most of the people who use this word mean “purge the infidel within your own heart.”
Now, I’m not saying that suicide bombers are peace-loving, gentle souls. I am saying that for every crazed lunatic, there are thousands of gentle, loving souls who say jihad is about purifying your own heart. They are saying never mind the non-believers, our hands are full just living God’s words in our own hearts.
This phenomenon is common to pretty much every religion around the world. Take Christianity, for example. For every Christian who thinks Christianity is about grabbing a sword and slaying the heathens in the name of the Lord, there are thousands who say Christianity is about saying, “Never mind the heathens, my job is to purify my own heart.”
It means our conventional-wisdom, popular understanding of the word “jihad” is ridiculously myopic.
And if we’re myopic about that, what else are we myopic about?
When we meet someone else, someone from another religion, or another country, or another job or social class, it is our duty to that person to remind ourselves that our understanding of that person is probably incorrect.
And it is our duty to humanity to try to overcome that incorrectness.
After all, when we allow an incorrect understanding to drive our actions, those actions will be misguided. And even if we do reach our goal, we will probably find out, too late, that we have chosen the wrong one.