Understanding the ‘Great Struggle’

Abbas Di Palma explains the process of spiritual development and why in a prophetic tradition it is described as the Great Jihad (struggle)

In a noble tradition it has been reported: “Indeed the Prophet sent out a battalion and when they returned he said: “Welcome to people who returned from the minor struggle and have yet to perform the major struggle”.

So it was asked: “O Messenger of God! What is the major struggle?” He answered: “The struggle of the self” (Furu’ al-Kafi, hadith 8180). The content of this narration is very interesting as it points out very profound meanings that help the faithful person, to better know him/herself and his/her objectives.

For example, a soldier in a battlefield witnesses very uncomfortable scenes while passing through many types of hardships and difficulties. However, the Prophet said that physical struggles are not the most important focus for a believer. Rather firstly and foremost the believer must know himself and struggle with his own soul.
What we are speaking of is a different type of struggle as the soul is not physical and consequently the battlefield of this combat won’t be physical too. Yes, there is a subtle correlation between the soul and body that cannot be overlooked especially in the first stage of this battle; the soul influences the body by intentions and predispositions while the body influences the soul by actions and continuous performance. It follows that the body inevitably takes part in the struggle of the self as some areas of the battlefield will include the physical sphere as well. These areas include the role of the ears, eyes, tongue, stomach, private parts, hands and legs. The believer, through his intentions and predispositions, should focus on the real need of these bodily parts and direct them towards lofty goals and not merely on the satisfaction of the animalistic exigencies. Therefore, he will engage in hearing everything that reminds him of God and he will abstain from hearing anything which distracts him from divine purposes. The same he will do with the rest of his bodily parts that we have mentioned.
Devilish temptations and wrong insinuations will try in different ways to eradicate good intentions and predispositions from the soul and it is here that the major struggle starts to take place. The soul should win the lower instincts and the satanic stimuli in order to directly witness the world of bliss and its spiritual realities. The pollution of the self should be removed because it is only through purification that things will be sharp and clear at all levels: through purification man is able to hear what he was not able to hear before, to see what he previously couldn’t see, etc. This does not mean “mortification of the flesh” because all the bodily parts are essential for the upliftment of the soul in our present state: in fact, they should be channelled towards their goal, not killed.
The Qur’an also points to the presence of a higher dimension transcending the body: “His is the creation and the command” (7:54). In general terms, the world of creation is quite well known to us but not much is known about the world of command. What we have been told is that in there is the abode of the spirit: “And they ask you about the spirit. Say: The spirit is from the command of my Lord and you have been given of knowledge except a little-” (17:85).
Although there is a difference between ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’, the reference to a higher station is explicit. It has been said that it is the station of the direct witnessing: “Indeed His command is when He intends a thing that He says to it ‘Be!’ and it is” (36:81). Some scholars have pointed out that this is the intended abode of the Prophet Abraham(a) when he said: “My Lord! Grant me discernment” (26:83). Accordingly, this Abrahamic invocation would mean: “My Lord, show me the things as they are, as they have been commanded to be, and not as they may seem or appear”.
The struggle of the self should aim towards this direction although it is not an easy way to go. Not surprisingly several traditions speak about the dangers of such a path; for example, some of them remind us of the presence of the ‘armies of the intellect’ and the ‘armies of ignorance’ which are involved in this conflict. If the soul wins these battles, it will move towards the spiritual world enjoying its fruits and benefits but if animalistic, satanic or illusory faculties overcome the soul, we won’t be able to move forward by any means.
Also, to win this battle not only means to make the soul not follow the lower instincts but to make every limb and part of the body follow divine pulses. This may happen after getting a new awareness of the body-soul relation that some have defined as an alternative spiritual-psychological approach or even a type of ‘spiritual anatomy’! Such an approach is based on the necessity of contemplation (tafakkur) and its outcomes. After having realised the need of a genuine relationship with God we need to deepen our contemplation which is what brings new knowledge to us.
The recipient of this knowledge, however, is not the brain as we are not talking here about a mere rational matter. Rather the recipient of such knowledge is the heart. It is through this knowledge that the heart changes and progresses along the path. So when the knowledge reaches the heart, it changes the state of the heart which in turn is the cause of the performance of an individual’s actions. Actions are in fact expressions of the state of our heart and not a by-product of the decision-making of the brain. In other words, good actions follow the state of the heart, the state of the heart depends on our knowledge and our knowledge is the result of a sound contemplation.
Many wise men throughout the history of humankind have said that reaching victory in this field is the noblest goal that can be achieved.


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