The Concept of Holy War

(- in Islam:

an Inheritance of the Persian Tradition)

(from "Metaphysics of War")




[...] Historically, in order to comprehend what concerns us here, it must first be understood that the Islamic tradition, rather than having such a unique metaphysical point of origin, is essentially dependent upon its inheritance of the Persian tradition - Persia, as is well known, having possessed one of the highest pre-European civilizations. The original Mazdaist conception of religion, as military service under the sign of the 'God of Light', and of existence as a continuous, relentless struggle to rescue beings and things from the control of an anti-god, is at the centre of the Persian vision of life, and should be considered as the metaphysical counterpart and spiritual background to the warrior enterprises which culminated in the creation by the Persians of the empire of the 'kings of kings'. After the fall of Persia's power, echoes of such traditions persisted in the cycle of medieval Arabian civilization in forms which became slightly more materialistic and sometimes exaggerated, yet not to such an extent that their original elements of spirituality were entirely lost.

We bring up traditions of that kind here, above all, because they introduce a concept which is very useful in clarifying further the order of ideas set out in our latest articles; namely, the concept of the 'greater' or 'holy war', as distinct from the 'lesser war', but at the same time as related to the latter in a special manner. The distinction itself derives from a saying of the Prophet, who, returning from a warrior expedition, declared: "I return now from the lesser to the greater war."

The lesser war here corresponds to the exoteric war, the bloody battle which is fought with material arms against the enemy, against the 'barbarian', against an inferior race over whom a superior right is claimed, or, finally, when the event is motivated by a religious justification, against the 'infidel'. No matter how terrible and tragic the events, no matter how huge the destruction, this war, metaphysically, still remains a ‘lesser war'. The 'greater' or 'holy war' is, contrarily, of the interior and intangible order - it is the war which is fought against the enemy, the 'barbarian', the 'infidel', whom everyone bears in himself, or whom everyone can see arising in himself on every occasion that he tries to subject his whole being to a spiritual law. Appearing in the forms of craving, partiality, passion, instinctuality, weakness and inward cowardice, the enemy within the natural man must be vanquished, its resistance broken, chained and subjected to the spiritual man, this being the condition of reaching inner liberation, the 'triumphant peace' which allows one to participate in what is beyond both life and death.

Some may say that this is simply asceticism. The greater, holy war is the ascesis which has always been a philosophical goal. It could be tempting to add as well: it is the path of those who wish to escape from the world and who, using the excuse of inner liberation, become a herd of pacifist cowards. This is not at all the way things are. After the distinction between the two wars there is their synthesis. It is a feature of heroic traditions that they prescribe the 'lesser war', that is to say the real, bloody war, as an instrument in the realization of the 'greater: or 'holy war'; so much so that, finally, both become one and the same thing.

Thus, in Islam, 'holy war' - jihad - and 'the path of God' are interchangeable terms. The one who fights is on the 'path of God'. A well-known and quite characteristic saying of this tradition is: "The blood of heroes is closer to the Lord than the ink of scholars and the prayers of the pious."

Once again, as in the traditions already reviewed by us, as in the Roman ascesis of power and in the classical mors triumphalis, action attains the value of an inner overcoming and of an approximation to a life no longer mixed with darkness, contingency, uncertainty and death. In more concrete terms, the predicaments, risks and ordeals peculiar to the events of war bring about an emergence of the inner 'enemy', which, in the forms of the instinct of self-preservation, cowardice, cruelty, pity and blind riotousness, arise as obstacles to be vanquished just as one fights the outer enemy. It is clear from this that the decisive point is constituted by one's inner orientation, one's unshakeable persistence in what is spiritual in this double struggle, so that an irresistible and blind changing of oneself into a sort of wild animal does not occur, but, instead, a way is found of not letting the deepest forces escape, a way of seeing to it that one is never overwhelmed inwardly, that one always remains supreme master of oneself, and, precisely because of this sovereignty, one remains able to affirm himself against every possible limitation. In a tradition to which we will dedicate our next article, this situation is represented by a most characteristic symbol: the warrior is accompanied by an impassive divine being who, without fighting, leads and guides him in his struggle, side by side with him in the same war chariot. This symbol is the personified expression of a duality of principles, which the true hero, from whom something sacred always emanates, maintains unceasingly within himself.


As if by a circular path the reader is thus brought back to the same ideas which were examined in our previous writings on the subject of tradition, whether classical or Nordic-medieval: that is to say, to the idea of a privileged immortality reserved for heroes, who alone, according to Hesiod, pass on to inhabit symbolic islands, which image forth the bright and intangible existence of the Olympians.

Additionally, in the Islamic tradition, there are frequent references to the idea that some warriors fallen in the 'sacred war' are in reality not dead, in a sense which is not symbolic in any way, and which need not be referred to supernatural states cut off from the energies and destinies of the living. It is not possible to enter into this domain, which is rather mysterious and requires the support of references which would ill befit the present article. What we can say definitely is that, even today, and particularly in Italy, the rites by which a warrior community declares its most heroically fallen companions still 'present' have regained a special evocative force. He who begins from the belief that everything which, by a process of involution, retains today only an allegorical and, at best, moral character, whereas it originally possessed the value of reality, and every rite contained real action and not mere 'ceremony' - for him these warrior rites of today could perhaps provide material for meditation, and he could perhaps approach the mystery contained in the teaching already quoted: that is, the idea of heroes who really never died, and the idea of victors who, like the Roman Caesar, remain as 'perpetual victors' at the centre of a human stock.



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