/ Spiritual Jihad as an Emerging Psychological Concept: Connections with Religious/Spiritual Struggles, Virtues, and Perceived Growth

Journal of Muslim Mental Health


Religious/spiritual struggles, defined as conflict or tension around religious and spiritual beliefs, practices, or experiences, have been associated with both distress and perceived growth. One type of struggle that may promote growth is spiritual jihad, which has been described extensively in Islamic literature. Although some people may associate the term jihad with violent acts, the term actually refers more broadly to struggle or hardship. Drawing from earlier Islamic writings, we frame spiritual jihad as a mindset that Muslims may adopt when coping with religious/spiritual struggles, particularly those of a moral nature. In spiritual jihad, the struggle focuses on a conflict between higher and lower parts of the self, with ultimate aims involving making good choices, behaving morally, and drawing closer to God. A closer investigation of the Qur’an and the hadith suggest that a mindset of spiritual jihad could encourage pursuit of virtues such as patience, forgiveness, gratitude, self-control, and positive action. Although empirical research is in the early stages, the concept of spiritual jihad has potentially valuable implications for researchers and clinicians interested in Islamic psychology. Our aim here is to build on earlier articles that have focused more narrowly on measurement by providing a theological and psychological framework for the conceptualization of spiritual jihad. Specifically, we will discuss spiritual jihad from the perspective of Islamic theology, examine links with psychological concepts such as religious/spiritual struggles and perceived growth, and briefly describe preliminary empirical evidence related to the construct.

Keywords: spiritual jihad, Islam, Muslims, religious/spiritual struggles, growth

Although a considerable amount of research has been conducted on the psychology of religion and spirituality in the past decade, most of this research has focused on individuals from Christian religious orientations and their constructs grounded primarily within a Western conceptual framework (e.g., Andrews, Watson, Chen, & Morris, 2017; Exline, Pargament, Hall, & Harriott, 2017). There is a need to expand the literature to individuals of other faith orientations and to explore concepts unique to such orientations. The emerging field of Islamic Psychology has highlighted the need for the examination and conceptualization of principles unique to Islamic traditions in order to contribute to contemporary Islamic thought and to improve psychological theory, research, and practice (Haque, Khan, Keshavarzi, & Rothman, 2016). This paper introduces and provides an overview on struggles and growth among Muslims, framed in terms of spiritual jihad. Prior psychological work on the construct of spiritual jihad has focused on a preliminary empirical examination of the construct (Saritoprak, Exline, & Stauner, 2018) and the development and validation of a spiritual jihad measure (Saritoprak & Exline, 2021). The current paper’s aim is to provide a more extensive theological and psychological elaboration of the construct. We will also refer to recently published empirical data suggesting preliminary support for the construct and its connections to indicators of struggle and perceived growth with a special emphasis on virtuous behaviors.

Theoretical Background

As the field of psychology investigates the influence of religion and spirituality on human mental and behavioral processes, a growing body of evidence suggests that religion and spirituality can be major sources of positive emotions and experiences. For example, many people find a sense of attachment security through a perceived relationship with God (Beck & McDonald, 2004; Granqvist & Kirkpatrick, 2013). Religion and spiritualty can serve as sources of comfort (Exline, Yali, & Sanderson, 2000), wellbeing (Smith, McCullough, & Poll, 2003), and meaning and purpose in life (Park, 2013). In addition, empirical studies have shown that religion and spirituality can play a significant role in helping people understand and deal with major life stressors (Ano & Vasconcelles, 2005; Pargament, 2011), and they often foster self-regulatory behaviors that promote increased health, wellbeing, and positive social behaviors (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009).

Although religion and spirituality are associated with many benefits, they can also be sources of struggle. Religious and spiritual (referred to herein as “r/s”) struggles occur when people experience tension or conflict around sacred matters related to the self, other people, and/or supernatural entities (for reviews, see Exline, 2013; Exline & Rose, 2013; Pargament, 2007; Stauner, Exline, & Pargament, 2016). These r/s struggles take several forms (Exline, Pargament, Grubbs, & Yali, 2014):

  • Divine struggles involve negative thoughts or feelings focused on a deity (which in most research has been the monotheistic God);
  • demonic struggles involve concerns about being attacked by malevolent agents such as a devil, evil spirit, or jinn;
  • interpersonal struggles refer to conflicts focused on religious people, groups, or institutions;
  • intrapersonal struggles encompass moral, doubt, and ultimate meaning struggles;
  • moral struggles involve concerns about adherence to moral principles and guilt around violating them;
  • doubt-related struggles involve distress that arises when people experience doubt, confusion, or questions about r/s topics;
  • Or ultimate meaning struggles occur as a result of concerns regarding a lack of a deeper meaning and purpose in life.

Many people can experience r/s struggles. Specifically, researchers have found r/s struggles in diverse cultural and religious groups. For example, Abu-Raiya and colleagues (2016) found that nearly 30 percent of Israeli-Jewish university students reported r/s struggles. In a study of Israeli-Palestinian Muslims, nearly 40 percent reported experiencing r/s struggles (Abu-Raiya, Pargament, Exline, & Agbaria, 2015). A large online survey of American adults (N = 18,398) suggested that Muslims (N = 118) and Hindus reported greater overall r/s struggles than Catholics, Protestants, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics (Saritoprak, Exline, & Stauner, 2016). Analyses of the Muslim subgroup from this online study (Saritoprak & Exline, 2016) revealed that Muslim participants endorsed moderate levels of r/s struggles across multiple domains, with moral struggles receiving the greatest endorsement.

The r/s struggles reflect tension and conflict surrounding core beliefs and behaviors. Thus, as might be expected, numerous studies have found r/s struggles to be linked with psychological distress (for reviews, see Exline 2013; Exline & Rose, 2013). For example, r/s struggles have been linked with anxiety, anger, and depression (Ano & Vasconcelles, 2005), suicidal ideation (Exline et al., 2000), and lower life satisfaction and happiness (Abu-Raiya, Pargament, Krause, & Ironson, 2015). Longitudinal studies suggest some support for the idea that r/s struggles predict increases in emotional distress over time (e.g., Pargament, Koenig, Tarakeshwar, & Hahn, 2001; Park, Brooks, & Sussman, 2009; Pirutinsky, Rosmarin, Pargament, & Midlarsky, 2011). Although we cannot infer a causal relationship between r/s struggles and emotional distress, the data suggest a strong connection.

Despite the connection between r/s struggles and distress, some studies also suggest that r/s struggle is associated with perceptions of psychological and spiritual growth. In general, individuals who find meaning in negative experiences show better psychological adjustment (Park, 2010) along with more resolution of struggles and associated reports of perceived spiritual growth (Desai & Pargament, 2015). Similarly, integration of religion into everyday life, religious support, and perceived support from God are all associated with reports of greater perceived growth (Desai, 2006; Pargament, Desai, & McConnell, 2006). Nevertheless, evidence for a connection between r/s struggles and perceived growth is inconsistent (for reviews, see Exline & Rose, 2013; Pargament et al., 2006). While some studies suggest a positive link between struggles and self-reports of growth (Pargament et al., 2000), others do not report a relationship (e.g., Phillips & Stein, 2007), and some studies even suggest a negative link (e.g., Park, Brooks, & Sussman, 2009). Perhaps, in some cases, struggle itself does lead to growth. However, the inconclusive findings raise the possibility that it may be the coping response to r/s struggle, rather than the struggle itself, that predicts perceptions of spiritual growth or decline (Exline & Rose, 2013; Exline et al., 2017). In this work, we will refer to perceived growth from r/s struggles as the perception of a positive change in either a spiritual or a secular domain as the result of a r/s struggle. Our aim is to explore the concept of spiritual jihad, a mindset that may foster perceived growth and the pursuit of virtue among Muslims coping with r/s struggles.

Spiritual Jihad

The r/s struggles and growth among Muslims is framed here in terms of spiritual jihad and recent empirical data suggesting preliminary support for the construct. It is important to note that the term spiritual jihad is used especially among Sufis and Sufi-oriented Muslims, specifically referred as “mujahada” (Neale, 2017), and may not necessarily be universal among Muslims. An alternate term may also be “jihad al-nafs.” Recently, other researchers within the field of psychology have proposed similar conceptualizations of the term jihad (Khan, Watson, Ali, & Chen, 2018). In order to maintain comparability with other scholarly work and maintain the emphasis on the spiritual component of jihad, the term spiritual jihad will be used throughout this article.

As described in related publications (Saritoprak et al., 2018; Saritoprak & Exline, 2021). The Arabic word jāhada which is derived from the infinitive noun jihād literally means “struggle” or “hardships” (al-Khalil, 1986). According to al-Khalil (1986), the root word of jahada refers to the effort to achieve a goal. Sources of Islam refer to various categories of jihad; In general, however, it can be helpful to consider two umbrella categories of jihad. The greater jihad (al-jihad al-akbar) refers to an internal spiritual strife against the animalistic, instinctual part of the psyche, or struggle in the path of God (Nizami, 1997) and/or against the workings of Satan. The lesser jihad (al-jihad al-asghar) refers to an external endeavor in the cause of Islam (al-Zabidi, 1987). For example, perhaps fighting for God’s cause in a military capacity, social justice service, or speaking out for the sake of God can be considered external manifestations of the lesser jihad. In the 7th century, after the Battle of Badr, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) stated, “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” When his companions asked the meaning of the greater jihad, Prophet Muhammad responded, “It is the struggle that one must make against the nafs” (al-Bayhaqi, 1996). In recent years, the lesser jihad (often stated simply as ‘jihad’) has become increasingly tethered to popular notions of Muslims and Islam. Specifically, the term jihad is often mentioned in relation to terrorism which has in turn promoted mainstream belief that terrorism is a fundamental feature of Islam (Turner, 2007). Such distortions not only result in the ignorance of lesser jihad’s status as being restricted to legitimate conflict, but they also fail to acknowledge the greater meaning of jihad in Islamic spirituality.

The greater spiritual jihad can promote spiritual growth and development in important ways. Spiritual jihad requires a conscious effort in struggling against evil commanding the psyche for the sake of God (al-Ghazali, 1982). Similarly, al-Bursawi (1990), a prominent commentator on the Qur’an, refers to spiritual jihad as “a sword used against the inner weaknesses” (p. 424) of the self. The nafs, popularly translated as the “self”, “soul”, or “psyche” (Abu-Raiya, 2012), is defined as the essence which possesses life, senses, and conscious motion (al-Jurjani, 1984). Scholars of Islam examining Qur’anic verses have proposed three incarnations of the nafs: nafs al-ammarah (12:53), nafs al-lawammah (75:2), and nafs al-mutma’innah (89:27). In the first, humans struggle against demands referred to as nafs al-ammarah. The commanding soul tempts the individual toward self indulgence, akin to the Freudian id. This is the most base of the three and the most corrupt form of the nafs in its demands to follow worldly desires and to give in to temptations of evil and Satan (al-Ghazali, 1982). Second, the struggle to better oneself and overcome the lowest grade of the nafs involves purification of the mind, body, and heart. This incarnation of the soul is referred to as the blaming soul, nafs al- lawwamah (al-Ghazali, 1982). The blaming soul transpires when it “goes against the evil commanding soul that obeys worldly desires” (Al- Ghazali, 1982). The blaming soul represents a pattern of increasingly conscious of one’s condition, condemning the commanding soul for following temptations, embracing oneself spiritually, and initiating spiritual jihad (al-Ghazali, 1982). This stage not only encompasses wrongdoings such as moral transgressions and sins, but also repentance, reconciliation, and recovery that ultimately can lead to a greater spiritual state. The grandest form of the soul reflects tranquility as moderator of base human desires such as greed, revenge, and impatience. Through the continuous guidance and remembrance of God, the self is a tranquil soul, nafs al-mutma’innah. The tranquil soul evolves when the human will acts harmoniously with Divine will, suggesting a complete submission before God and a sense of victory in one’s spiritual jihad (Ashraf, 2008).

Individuals experiencing differing incarnations may be struggling against transgressions in accordance with one’s own level. As the nafs progresses, it may include accountability of one’s thoughts and behaviors. Hence, what was once not a source of struggle may become a source of struggle and vice versa; each stage is qualitatively different in its struggles. Although spiritual jihad presumes struggling in a positive trajectory, it does not indicate that one will be free of struggles when a person progresses among its degrees. It is also important to note that one cannot guarantee a constant state of the nafs. One may fluctuate between grades of the nafs. However, incorporating a spiritual jihad approach reorient one toward progressing positively.

The nature of spiritual jihad is complex and nuanced and is likely to involve cognitive, behavioral, and emotional components. A spiritual jihad mindset, in part, may entail viewing the struggle as a desire of one’s nafs as a Divine test; the behavioral component could involve striving to act in accordance with this mindset. Successfully coping with the struggle and/or acting in accordance with the mindset may result in various emotional states such as contentment or a sense of satisfaction while ongoing r/s struggles may result in a sense of conflict or distress. For example, if resentment is a source of great challenge, a believer may view forgiveness as a Divine challenge and that continued resentment (even if justified) is a base desire of the nafs. Thus forgiveness for a higher sake and against the nafs yields a closer relationship with God. Both the thought and act of forgiving would be part of the process of struggling for growth purposes, referred to as spiritual jihad.

Many Qur’anic verses encourage intentional and ongoing engagement in spiritual jihad, such as “And those who strive for Us—We will surely guide them to Our ways. And indeed, Allah is with the doers of good” (29:69) and “And strive for Allah with the striving due to Him … So establish prayer and give zakah and hold fast to Allah...” (22:78). As speculated elsewhere (Saritoprak et al., 2018; Saritoprak & Exline, 2021), the belief in an ultimate reckoning on Judgement Day may motivate Muslims to strive toward bettering themselves as believers. In line with such assumptions, researchers attempting to measure the construct of spiritual jihad have found that in two samples (online and community), adult U.S. Muslims who identified with greater levels of Islamic religiousness were also more likely to endorse a spiritual jihad mindset (Saritoprak et al., 2018). Similarly, results from both secular as well as religious academic institutions in Pakistan revealed that Muslim students who identified with “greater jihad” were also more likely to report intrinsic religious orientation (Khan et al., 2018).

Implications for Struggle and Growth

Recent findings have suggested that having a spiritual jihad mindset in the face of hardships is associated with both struggle and perceived spiritual growth (Saritoprak et al., 2018). The authors propose that Qur’anic verses and following the model of the Prophet Muhammad encourage several virtuous behaviors associated with spiritual jihad, such as the cultivation of patience, gratitude, forgiveness, self-control, and positive action. For example, a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, “The real patience is at the first stroke of a calamity” (Bukhari, 1990), encourages the act of patience in the face of adversity. The pursuit of any of these types of virtuous behaviors could thus be seen as a reflection of a spiritual jihad mindset in response to struggles in life. We will briefly consider the relationship between spiritual jihad, religious and spiritual struggles, and perceived growth. In addition, we will explore the place that virtues hold in Islamic theology and also refer to psychological literature that suggests how virtues can relate to spiritual and psychological wellbeing. We will conclude with a discussion on spiritual jihad and psychological wellbeing.

Religious/Spiritual Struggles and Growth

Since the term “jihad” literally means “struggle,” the presence of struggle can be considered as a vital component in understanding spiritual jihad. The strife against one’s nafs may inevitably result in religious and spiritual (r/s) struggles. For example, a Muslim who is tempted to drink alcohol may struggle to follow Islamic prescriptions against it. Having a mindset of spiritual jihad may buffer r/s struggles by inspiring the individual to recognize the temptation as a desire of their nafs and consider the afterlife recompense for resisting their temptation.

Preliminary empirical evidence offers partial support for both of these hypotheses. Muslim participants from an online sample who endorsed a spiritual jihad mindset reported experiencing lower levels of r/s struggles across six types: divine, demonic, interpersonal, moral, ultimate meaning, and doubt-related (Saritoprak & Exline, 2017). Another possibility is that spiritual jihad might seem like a socially desirable mindset for some Muslims to endorse, as would low levels of r/s struggle. However, it is important to note that this connection between spiritual jihad and lower levels of r/s struggle was not found among Muslim participants recruited from local mosques, a sample that was, on average, more religious than the internet sample (Saritoprak & Exline, 2017). In fact, several significant associations were found in the opposite direction from those in the internet sample. In the community sample, religious/spiritual struggle correlated positively with moral, demonic, and divine struggles. Perhaps, within Muslims who are more devout, a mindset of spiritual jihad may be more clearly representing a deep engagement in r/s struggle.

A spiritual jihad mindset may also foster a sense of perceived growth, as individuals may intentionally embrace the experience of struggle for a higher purpose. For example, struggles may be endured for the sake of becoming closer to God or eliminating lower self tendencies. Supporting such claims, empirical evidence has suggested a positive, strong association between having a spiritual jihad mindset and experiencing both perceived post-traumatic and spiritual forms of growth (Saritoprak et al., 2018).


Virtue (or character) development holds an essential place in the Islamic tradition. The Arabic word tarbiyah refers to one’s upbringing and development in a manner that aligns with Islamic guidelines. An oft-cited hadith of the Prophet Muhammad reports that the mission of Islam’s prophet was “to perfect character.” Tarbiyah aims at shaping human social, moral, and intellectual development through a Qur’an-centered approach (Gulen, 2012). Similarly, tahdhib al-akhlaq refers to the cultivation of morals or refinement of one’s character (Zurayk, 1968). Prominent religious scholars in Islamic history have promoted the fostering of character development. Specifically, Ibn al-Jawzi claims that humans have the potential to surpass animals and reach highest ranks both in this world and the hereafter by disciplining the soul and restraining from impulses and desires (Jawazi, 2011). Similarly, Muslim philosopher Miskawayh suggests that the goal of human beings is to perfect their character by engaging in virtuous deeds and actions (Zurayk, 1968). Thus, the authors will discuss selected virtues as potential forms of spiritual jihad from both an Islamic and psychological perspective.

Patience. The cultivation of patience, referred to as sabr in Arabic, is a vital component of spiritual jihad. In the Islamic tradition, the essence of patience can be described as restraining oneself from wrongdoings, restricting objections and complaints in the face of adversity, and putting all trust in God (Turfe, 1996; Khan, 1998). The practice of patience has been regarded as the necessary frame of mind of the one who submits to the Will of God. This submission in the common Arabic noun, Muslim, is how believers of Islam define as the core of their religion (Turfe, 1996). The earliest examples of patience in the history of Islam can be traced back to the Meccans’ persecution of Prophet Muhammad. During such times of hardship, the Qur’anic verses (42:42–43) that were revealed to the Prophet encouraged Muslims to remain steadfast and endure the transgressions in a non-militant, forgiving manner (Afsaruddin, 2007). Similarly, patience is promoted among Qur’anic verses such as “Be patient—for your patience is not but with the help of Allah—do not grieve over them and do not distress yourself because of their plots” (16:127). The Qur’an recognizes the challenges of practicing patience: “And seek help through patience and prayer, and indeed, it is difficult except for the humbly submissive [to Allah ]” (2:45), and it promises rewards for those who are patient: “Twice will they be given their reward, for that they have persevered, that they avert Evil with Good, and that they spend (in charity) out of what We have given them” (28:54). More importantly, it is through patience that one earns the support and companionship of God, as evident in Qur’anic verses: “And obey Allah and His Messenger… be patient. Indeed, Allah is with the patient” (8:46). Moreover, the significance of patience is also emphasized in the hadith as Prophet Muhammad, “When you face them (i.e., your enemy) then be patient” (Bukhari, 1990) and “He who patiently endured the hardships and rigors of this city, (i.e. Medina), I would be his witness and intercessor on the Day of Resurrection” (Muslim, 2006). Islamic scholars promote a similar emphasis on patience. Ibn Abi’l-Dunya reports “A statement affirming the truth and patience in abiding by it is equivalent to the deeds of the martyrs” (as cited in Afsaruddin, 2007). Notably, the act of patience is not merely about the presence of suffering; it emphasizes the spiritual transformation that can occur as people undergo trials (Morris, 2007).

In psychological terms, cultivating patience fosters resilience in times of hardship which in turn can lead to promoting individuals to better cope with distress (Connor & Zhang, 2006). Patience, similar to an Islamic perspective, is viewed in psychology as a continuum of considering future outcomes and delaying immediate gratification (Strathman, Gleicher, Boninger, & Edwards, 1994). Patience can be considered a productive approach to dealing with emotions such as anger and frustration. Hence, it may promote a non-combative approach, a positive perspective, and increased tolerance of adversity. Research has linked patience with greater goal pursuit during times of hardship, greater wellbeing and positive emotion, and lower depression levels (Schnitker, 2012; Schnitker & Westbrook, 2014).

Yet, despite its potential benefits, the practice of patience could also be a source of struggle. In crisis, humans may be tempted to respond to feelings such as anger, hurt, and frustration in ways that later lead to regret and guilt. In the context of spiritual jihad, individual can struggle between the desire to express intense negative emotion and the desire to accept and put all trust in God. However, by having a mindset of spiritual jihad, people may be more likely to engage in acting in a patient manner.

When examining the association between spiritual jihad and the psychological construct of patience, Saritoprak and colleagues (2018) found that a broad-based sample of adult American Muslims (recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online crowdsourcing tool for collecting data) who endorsed having a spiritual jihad mindset also endorsed having greater levels of patience. Notably, however, this association was not found in a local small community sample of Muslims, who on the whole endorsed higher levels of religious commitment than those in the more broad-based sample referenced above. We can only speculate about the possible causes for this discrepancy; however, one possibility could center on the self-report nature of the patience measure. Perhaps Muslims who are more devout, and thus perhaps more deeply engaged in spiritual jihad, may be more able to see or report their struggles with patience rather than identifying themselves as being patient.

Gratitude. Gratitude, translated best as shukr in Arabic, is a key concept in Islamic spirituality. Gratefulness toward God and other people can be displayed through thankfulness, acknowledgement, and appreciation of blessings. Gratitude within Islamic spirituality leads to remembrance of God, an essential component of spiritual jihad which brings a religious lens on life experiences to conscious awareness (Godlas, 2015). Sincere thankfulness toward God entails being sincerely convinced that all of one’s existence, including accomplishments, physical appearance, and abilities, are from God. Such thankfulness can be reflected in one’s actions, speech, and heart in daily life (Gulen, 2001).

Themes of gratitude permeate the Qur’an and hadith. God instructs, “So remember Me; I will remember you. And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me” (2:152); the verse “And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed, ‘If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor]; but if you deny, indeed, My punishment is severe” (14:7) emphasizes the duty of thankfulness for humans, the resulting abundance of reward, and the sinfulness of ingratitude. Gratitude plays a significant role in the struggle toward spiritual growth as humans may not always engage in thankfulness. Hence, by striving to remember God and His favors, despite temptations to forget and live life with unawareness of the Divine, one engages in spiritual jihad.

A similar emphasis on gratitude is evident in these sayings of the Prophet: “Verily, Allah is pleased with the servant who praises Him when he eats and he praises Him when he drinks,” (Muslim, 2006) and “One who does not thank for the little does not thank for the abundant, and One who does not thank people does not thank God” (Muslim, 2006). The Prophet himself can be considered the paragon of gratitude, as he would stand in prayer until his feet became swollen. When companions asked him, “Why do you pray so much when God has forgiven all of your sins?” The Prophet replied, “Shall I not be a servant grateful (to my Lord)?” (Bukhari, 1990).

From a psychological perspective, gratitude has been considered as part of one’s greater framework of life, one which allows noticing and appreciating the positive in the world (Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010). Seligman (2003) describes gratitude as a form of the virtue transcendence. More importantly, researchers have found that unhappy individuals report lower levels of gratitude and life satisfaction (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004). Gratitude has been linked with lower levels of anger and hostility, and with increased emotional warmth, altruism, and trust (Wood, Joseph, & Maltby, 2008). It has been found to predict lower levels of anxiety, depression, and drug abuse (Kendler et al., 2003), and in the aftermath of traumatic experiences, gratitude has been associated with better life functioning including post-traumatic growth (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003; Kashdan, Uswatte, & Julian, 2006).

Nevertheless, from an Islamic perspective, striving to be grateful may also lead to r/s struggles. In difficult times, one may fail to find a positive side of life events. Difficulty finding a positive interpretation could lead to anger toward God or questioning of his Will. On the other side, in times of prosperity and happiness, one may see oneself as actually deserving such bounties, having a sense of entitlement (see Grubbs, Exline, Campbell, Twenge, & Pargament, 2018), and failing to appreciate that both burdens and blessings are from God. Focusing on God as the provider and sustainer of life may also prompt some to feel an uncomfortable feeling of powerless and lack of control. This may be specifically the case when Muslims are struggling to understand whether events occurred as a result of predestination or as a result of their own free will, concepts that are both core Islamic beliefs. The role of gratitude in spiritual jihad is to strive to genuinely embrace that both positive and negative aspects of life are from God and to actively express unconditional gratitude toward Him and to people, therefore not only benefiting oneself but also the greater community. Thus, those who are more likely to view their struggles from a spiritual jihad perspective may also be more likely to have greater levels of gratitude. As with patience, this positive connection between spiritual jihad and gratitude was found in a broad-based internet sample of adult American Muslims (Saritoprak et al., 2018) but not within the smaller, more devout community sample.

Forgiveness. The act of forgiving holds a significant place in Islamic theology and may be considered an important part of one’s spiritual jihad. As human beings are susceptible to sins, mistakes, and transgressions, forgiveness allows for the opportunity to engage in spiritual reformation. The motive behind forgiving others is to be aware of one’s own faults and pave the way toward one’s own forgiveness by God; the intention can be to forgive for the sake of God. Thus, forgiveness can foster not only one’s relationship with God but also with other individuals. Both God’s forgiveness and the human act of forgiving are emphasized in the Qur’an, as evident in the following verses: “And let not those of virtue among you and wealth swear not to give [aid] to their relatives and the needy and the emigrants for the cause of Allah, and let them pardon and overlook. Would you not like that Allah should forgive you? And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful” (24:22), and “If [instead] you show [some] good or conceal it or pardon an offense—indeed, Allah is ever Pardoning and Competent” (4:149). Similarly, Prophet Muhammad declared, “Be merciful to others and you will receive mercy. Forgive others and Allah will forgive you” (Tirmidhi, 1975), and “reconcile whoever cuts you off, give to whoever deprives you, and pardon whoever wrongs you” (Ibn Hanbal, 1895). Qur’anic verses and hadith emphasize that an aspect of receiving forgiveness from God is to forgive others. Nevertheless, the act of forgiveness may require great effort as one Qur’anic verse states, “And whoever is patient and forgives—indeed, that is of the matters [requiring] great self-discipline” (42:43).

Among modern psychological literature, forgiveness has been recognized as a positive and prosocial stance in the face of transgressions (for reviews, see Fehr, Gelfand, & Nag, 2010; Riek & Mania, 2012; Worthington, 2005). Researchers have found that individuals who tended to forgive others were more likely to be altruistic, caring, generous, and empathic (Ashton, Paunonen, Helmes, & Jackson, 1998) and were also more likely to be in relationships described as “close, committed, and satisfactory” (Tsang, McCullough, & Fincham, 2006). In terms of wellbeing, forgiving individuals report greater positive emotion and life satisfaction (for a review, see Worthington, Witvliet, Pietrini, & Miller, 2007). Forgiveness has been associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and unhealthy anger (Freedman & Enright, 1996; Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004). A lack of forgiveness, on the other hand, has been linked with rumination (McCullough, 2007), sustained anger, and distress (McCullough, Bellah, Kilpatrick, & Johnson, 2001; van Oyen Witvliet, Ludwig, & Vander Laan, 2001), and may also have negative effects on physical health (for a review, see Worthington & Scherer, 2004).

Despite its benefits, forgiveness may also be a source of spiritual struggle. Forgiving someone who has inflicted harm requires psychological effort and determination. It may not come readily to those who may have experienced deep hurt. Hence, from an Islamic perspective, the notion of forgiving for the sake of being forgiven may lead one to struggle between following one’s personal will and following God’s Will. This conflict may lead to feelings of moral guilt for putting one’s desires before the desires of God. Additionally, holding on to interpersonal anger could lead to anger toward God, as it may affect one’s perspective and outlook on life events. One’s spiritual jihad becomes the reconciliation and restoration of one’s relationship with others and God by giving and seeking forgiveness. As with gratitude and patience, our data from two samples of adult American Muslims showed a connection between spiritual jihad and greater reports of forgiveness in the broad-based internet sample but not within the local community sample (Saritoprak et al., 2018).

Self-control. The exercise of self-control is a fundamental aspect of one’s struggle against the nafs. There are no empirical studies examining the association between spiritual jihad and self-control. Within Islam, the act of self-control can be regarded as essential to deterence from sinful actions such as violence, greed, lying, cheating, arrogance, abandoning prayer, immodesty, injustice, illicit acts, addictions, and many more. Controlling against personal or social inclinations that hinder spiritual purification and damages one’s relationship with God is heavily emphasized throughout the Qur’an. The Qur’anic verse “But as for he who feared the position of his Lord and prevented the soul from [unlawful] inclination, then indeed, Paradise will be [his] refuge” (79:40–41) encourages humans to actively engage in the prevention of such inclinations. Similarly, the Qur’anic verse “O David, indeed We have made you a successor upon the earth, so judge between the people in truth and do not follow [your own] desire, as it will lead you astray from the way of Allah. Indeed, those who go astray from the way of Allah will have a severe punishment for having forgotten the Day of Account” (38:26) warns Prophet David of the consequences associated with self-indulgence. In his statement, “Paradise is surrounded by hardships and the Hell-Fire is surrounded by temptations” (Muslim, 2006), Prophet Muhammad also tied the act of resisting temptation for the sake of God to the rewards associated with such willpower.

In Islamic teachings, having willpower over one’s actions, emotions, and impulses is regarded as a vital human strength. For example, a popular hadith of the Prophet Muhammad says “The strong is not the one who overcomes the people by his strength, but the strong is the one who controls himself while in anger” (Bukhari, 1990), implying the importance of psychological over physical triumphs. A similar stance is observed in Islamic rituals and practices, as they incorporate a sense of inherent discipline. For example, the act of praying five times a day, fasting from all appetites and drink from sunrise to sunset in Ramadan, and giving obligatory annual charity encourage restraining from desires and exercising discipline in behavior.

Nevertheless, such acts of control and discipline can require great effort. In the Islamic tradition, it is through the remembrance of God that the process of controlling one’s negative inclinations becomes manageable. The Qur’anic verse “Indeed, those who fear Allah—when an impulse touches them from Satan, they remember [Him] and at once they have insight” (7:201) is an example of the importance of keeping God in the forefront of one’s mind.

Self-control not only plays a role in spiritual growth from a theological perspective but it can also play a role in one’s psychological wellbeing. From a modern psychological framework, self-control refers to the capacity for changing one’s emotional and behavioral responses, specifically to make such responses foster long-term pursuits and align with standards such as social expectations, ideals, values, and morals (Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007). Researchers have found self-control to be positively associated with secure attachment, positive adjustment, and favorable emotional responses and negatively associated with symptoms of psychopathology (Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004). Similarly, individuals with high self-control tend to have lower rates of criminal and delinquent behaviors (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990), less alcohol abuse and binge-eating concerns (Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996), better interpersonal relationships, and higher academic achievement (Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004). In fact, self-discipline has been found to be a stronger predictor of academic performance than intelligence (Duckworth & Seligman, 2006). Furthermore, regular exercise of self-control has been found to strengthen willpower through an increased resistance to depletion, thus enabling individuals to exhibit self-control in other unrelated areas (Baumeister, Gailliot, DeWall, & Oaten, 2006). In contrast, a lack of self-control has been associated with impulse-related concerns such as addictions, violence, unwanted pregnancies, overeating, overspending and sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994; Vohs & Faber, 2007). Similarly, within the literature of positive psychology, researchers have proposed temperance as being one of the six virtues of a person’s core characteristics (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), and self-control as a quality reflecting temperance which can be a protective trait against extreme impulses and emotions (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

The motivation underlying self-control has been considered to be a delay in immediate gratification. A delay in gratification may be particularly relevant for individuals with strong beliefs in an afterlife (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009). From an Islamic perspective, consciousness of God and the afterlife becomes a focal point that can help deter behaviors that risk significant negative outcomes. Hence, the exercise of spiritual jihad becomes the struggle against the desires of the nafs through self-control. On the other hand, attempts to exercise self-control may also lead to struggles. Foregoing pleasurable experiences may result in feelings of anger and resentment toward Islam or toward God. Moral struggles may arise when people face incongruities between what society views as acceptable versus what Islam views as acceptable, in addition to the gap between one’s actual behavior and those encouraged by Islam. One’s spiritual jihad becomes the practice of self-control in the striving to obey God’s commands and cleanse one of negative proclivities.

Positive action. A unique and prominent feature of spiritual jihad may also be engaging in positive action. Theologian Said Nursi referred to any work or action that may please God as positive action, such as promoting cooperation, brotherhood, and self-sacrifice (Crow, 2011). In other words, positive action is a manifestation of faith through nonviolence and service in order to promote public order and stability (Walton, 2015). According to Nursi, the spiritual struggle is deterring the nafs from self-interested, negative action, and pursuing altruistic, positive action (Vahide, 2003; Walton, 2015). This is reinforced by verses from the Qur’an: “Those who have believed and done righteous deeds—a good state is theirs and a good return” (13:29) and “It is those who hasten to good deeds, and they outstrip [others] therein” (23:61). Divergence from negative deeds is also encouraged: “And when they hear ill speech, they turn away from it and say, For us are our deeds, and for you are your deeds. Peace will be upon you; we seek not the ignorant” (28:55). The importance of positive action is promoted by Prophet Muhammad himself. For example, he stated, “Be conscious of Allah wherever you are. Follow the bad deed with a good one to erase it, and engage others with beautiful character” (al-Tirmidhi, 1975). He also stated, “Verily Allah does not look to your faces and your wealth but He looks to your heart and to your deeds” (Muslim, 2006). Prophet Muhammad even provided specific examples of what positive action may involve, as evident in these statements: “One who believes in Allah and the Last Day should not harm his neighbor, and one who believes in Allah and the Last Day should entertain his guest generously and one who believes in Allah and the Last Day should speak well or remain silent (Bukhari, 1990). Hence, a persistence of positive action in bettering oneself may become one’s jihad, thereby bettering the community. However, more empirical research is needed to fully understand the relationship between spiritual jihad and positive action.

In modern psychological terms, prosocial action has been defined as acts that promote or sustain the welfare of others (Schwartz & Bilsky, 1990). Such acts may include volunteer work, monetary donations, or altruistic interventions (for a review, see Weinstein & Ryan, 2010). Individuals who partake in cultural and community services are more likely to score high on engagement with neighbors and general trust (for a review, see Wilson & Musick, 1999). Adolescents who partake in prosocial activities such as voluntary service and church attendance show less engagement in delinquent behaviors such as using drugs and skipping school (Eccles & Barber, 1999). In a sample of older adults, volunteering was linked to decreased depression (Musick & Wilson, 2003) and increased life satisfaction (Hunter & Linn, 1981). In general, individuals who express benevolence in their actions report greater happiness and wellbeing (Krueger, Hicks, & McGue, 2001). As individuals express themselves prosocially, they may feel a sense of competence and autonomy, both of which are linked with wellbeing and happiness (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Chirkov, Ryan, & Willness, 2005).

The Qur’an and hadith and sunnah of Prophet Muhammad may be internalized motivating agents for positive action for many Muslims. Hence, despite the implications for wellbeing, Muslims may also experience struggle around issues of positive action. Guilt may arise when individuals decline works to benefit others for self-centered reasons. One may aspire to benefit others financially but may lack the resources to do so. Acts such as engaging in distrustful behavior, talking behind another’s back, or breaking promises could all result in r/s struggles related to one’s lack of prosocial action. Nevertheless, striving to engage in positive action can become a Muslim’s spiritual jihad, thereby potentially leading to the prospect of greater wellbeing in the long term.

Spiritual Jihad and Wellbeing

Just as religion, broadly speaking, can be a source of wellbeing, spiritual jihad may itself become a means to foster wellbeing. However, the connection with wellbeing may not emerge in a clear and direct way, especially when assessed in a cross-sectional manner. On the one hand, when there is tension regarding one’s core beliefs and behaviors (as could occur in the practice of spiritual jihad), the associated situations and inner conflicts could bring intense emotional distress. On the other hand, a spiritual jihad mindset could also be seen to provide an avenue to effectively manage such distress, as it allows one to make meaning of negative experiences and to cope in a proactive manner.

Consistent with these competing hypotheses, attempts to examine connections between a spiritual jihad mindset and indicators of emotional distress have not shown a clear pattern of connections. Some analyses using internet samples suggest small negative associations between a spiritual jihad mindset and both anxiety and depression when controlling for Islamic religiosity (Saritoprak et al., 2018). However, in a smaller, more devout community sample, these associations were not significant. Thus, there is need for more research investigating the relationship between spiritual jihad and wellbeing. On the other hand, other researchers examining the concept of self-jihad have also found the construct to relate positively with perceived life satisfaction (Khan et al., 2018). Given its potential connections with wellbeing, the notion of spiritual jihad may be important to consider when working with Muslim clients.

Concluding Remarks

The Arabic term jihad refers to struggle. There are two overarching forms of jihad in Islam: lesser and greater jihad. The greater jihad, contrary to popular notions, refers to an internal spiritual struggle against one’s nafs. It can occur in many forms, as it is unique to each individual’s life experiences. The current paper focused on dominant themes of the Qur’an and hadith that may promote spiritual jihad in the forms of patience, gratitude, forgiveness, self-control, and positive action. Spiritual jihad assumes that there will be hardships in attempting to achieve these qualities, as we are humans and struggle to live in virtuous manners at times. Struggle, however, is an innate component of spiritual jihad, as without the struggle component, the process of spiritual jihad would not occur. At the same time, the process involves more than merely the struggle component that is often referred to in the mainstream psychological literature. Spiritual jihad promotes self-monitoring and self-regulatory behaviors by requiring an examination of one’s words and actions. As one rebuffs the desires, inclinations, and temptations of their nafs for the purposes of growth, the individual engages in spiritual jihad by embracing the experience of the struggle for a greater purpose. Hence, even though the experience of spiritual jihad may be challenging while it is occurring, it may also be an important facilitator of spiritual growth, the cultivation of virtues, and perhaps, ultimately, greater wellbeing.

Yet any association between spiritual jihad and virtue may be a challenging one to detect, especially given the social desirability biases of self-report measures of virtue. We noted that in our own research with two samples of adult U.S. Muslims (Saritoprak et al., 2018), there was a divergent pattern of associations: Those in the more broad-based sample from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, who were only moderately devout on average and have typically participated in many research surveys, showed the expected positive associations between endorsement of a spiritual jihad mindset and self-ratings of patience, gratitude, and forgiveness. However, those in the smaller but more devout community sample, in response to the same Internet survey, did not show these same associations. Although we can only speculate about these differences, it is possible that those who were more devout were more deeply engaged in the struggle of spiritual jihad and were also less likely to give socially desirable answers. Perhaps they were more likely to see their own ongoing challenges with impatience, ingratitude, and unforgiveness, and thus were less like to portray themselves as having overcome these flaws. Other reports of virtues, rather than self-reports, might help to get around this difficulty. It is important to note that the ideas put forward in the current paper are in the preliminary phase and future studies investigating spiritual jihad are necessary in order to claim conclusive evidence.

In summary, empirical evidence thus far generally provides preliminary support for the emerging psychological construct of spiritual jihad. As a result, researchers and clinicians can begin to learn more about Islamic spirituality and the emerging field of Islamic Psychology. Our specific goal for this article has been to integrate theological and psychological work on spiritual jihad with preliminary empirical work on the topic. More broadly speaking, our hope is to highlight the importance of a more positive conceptualization of the term jihad and to participate in interdisciplinary efforts to open doors of further understanding multiculturalism.


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