Julius Evola on Two Types of Jihad: the Greater and the Lesser Holy War

We keep hearing from the Right that Muslims are engaged in an actual holy war, in which they plan to invade the West via the refugee programs, set up Sharia law, suicide bomb us when all else fails, and then take European women into their harems and breed with them, by rape if needed. 

The Left counters with a more spiritual interpretation of Islam—that the holy war is meant to be fought within one’s soul, and that conservatives and nationalists miss the deeper significance of texts that discuss it. As “proof” that violent verses in the Koran shouldn’t be used to judge Muslims, they quote verses from Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy at Christians opposed to Muslim refugee resettlement in the West, apparently unaware that Christians don’t follow the Old Testament. 

In truth, both sides are correct: Some Muslims, like Sufi orders, take a nonviolent, esoteric interpretation of the texts. But others, like the high numbers of Muslim youth in Europe who support suicide bombing, obviously take the concept of jihad as a literal war. 

Julius Evola provides insight into the differences between these two interpretations of Islam. But rather than distinguishing between two groups of people who interpret the religion differently, Evola shows how both interpretations often exist simultaneously within Islam. 

Evola notes that the distinction is from the Prophet Mohammed himself, who wrote after a warrior expedition, “I return now from the lesser to the greater war” (Metaphysics, qtd. on pg. 44).  

The Greater Holy War

In the greater holy war, man struggles against his internal enemies or internal demons. More precisely, “it is the struggle of man’s higher principle against everything that is merely human in him, against his inferior nature and against chaotic impulses and all sorts of material attachments” (Revolt, 118). The enemy—in the form of instinct, animalistic yearnings, and emotions—must be bound in chains in order to achieve liberation. 

The greater or holy war is fought against the enemy within, “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” (Metaphysics, 44).

This same concept has been seen across many cultures, such as in the West during the Crusades. This was seen particularly in ascetic, chivalrous orders like the Knights Templar and Knights of Saint John: “In their rising up in arms against each other, Islam and Christianity gave witness to the unity of the traditional spirit” (Revolt, 123).

This Islamic method is from the same solar origin as that formulated in the Bhagavad-Gita. Indeed, this passage from the Koran sounds like it could come from the Gita: “Fighting is obligatory for you, as much as you dislike it” (2:216; qtd. in Revolt, 119). 

And the concept of dying in battle and being rewarded in Heaven with 72 virgins is not so different from warriors in Norse mythology being escorted by valkyries to Valhalla. That being so, we mustn’t discount Muslim warriors as legend. Unlike Christians and pagans in the West today, Muslims are aware that they’re fighting a holy war and taking advantage of the naïveté of Europeans and Americans, who tend to error on seeing the best in everyone. 

The Lesser Jihad as a Path to the Greater

The lesser holy war (el-jihadul-ashgar) is waged against an enemy population with the “particular intent of bringing ‘infidel’ populations under the rule of ‘God’s Law’ (al-Islam)” (Revolt, 118). It is clearly an exoteric war, and at times the enemy is called a “barbarian” or “inferior race” (Metaphysics, 44). 

However, it’s important to note that sometimes both holy wars are waged simultaneously. In Islam, “holy war” and “the path of God” are “interchangeable terms” (Metaphysics, 45). Evola says that a feature of heroic traditions like Islam, is that they prescribe the lesser holy war “as an instrument in the realisation of the ‘greater’ or ‘holy war’; so much so that, finally, both become one and the same thing” (Metaphysics, 45). 

By engaging in war and near- or certain-death, the jihadi gives an outer form to his inner struggles against the purely human. Engaging in a lesser holy war, such as a suicide bombing, “becomes almost a ritual action that expresses and gives witness to the reality of the first.” When one is on the battlefield, he must conquer the fear of death, as well as feelings of self-preservation, cowardice, and compassion. Because the orientation of the war is spiritual (i.e., the warrior will end up in Heaven), it maintains a spiritual dimension rather than descending into a barbaric and meaningless bloodbath—at least for those who are Muslim. In fact, “Those who have experienced the ‘greater holy war’ during the ‘lesser holy war,’ have awakened a power that most likely will help them overcome the crisis of death; this power, having already liberated them from the ‘enemy’ and from the ‘infidel,’ will help them avoid the fate of Hades” (Revolt, 120). 

In Evola’s view, a common feature of heroic traditions is the prescription of the lesser holy war as a means of realizing the goal of the greater holy war. In fact, “finally, both become one and the same thing” (Metaphysics, 45). Such is the meaning of stories of men on the battlefield being transformed into gods. 

Evola compares to this a kind of amor fati, similar to Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith.” It is:

a mysterious way of . . . heroically resolving one’s own destiny in the intimate certainty that, when the ‘right intention’ is present, when all indolence and cowardice are vanquished, and the leap beyond the lives of oneself and others, beyond happiness and misfortune, is driven by a sense of spiritual destiny and a thirst for the absolute existence, then one has given birth to a force which will not be able to miss the supreme goal. (Metaphysics, 47-48)

Evola describes how the greater and lesser holy wars interact and merge into each other:

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. (Metaphysics, 45-46)

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What does this mean for Westerners today? Obviously there are admirable, heroic, and authentic aspects of Islam, particularly in the esoteric interpretations. Islam’s adherents around the world are admirable for maintaining their religious traditions—such as praying five times a day—even in modern societies. 

But it’s imperative to not discount the exoteric warfare that’s very real, and the support it receives among even “moderate” Muslims. Perhaps Islam will undergo a reformation, but it’s not looking like that will happen anytime soon. Until then, Christians and Western pagans must revive their own heroic spiritual traditions, those that allowed it to prevent the spread of Islam into Europe in the Middle Ages. War is understood to be barbaric and horrific, and after the horrors of the first two World Wars, Vietnam, Korea, and Iraq/Afghanistan, it’s understandable that we want to avoid it. Perhaps reviving the spiritual dimension of warfare in our own traditions will make it more palpable in times like this, when fighting back is the only option remaining. 

Notes:

Evola, Julius. Metaphysics of War. Arktos Media, 2011. 

Evola, Julius. Revolt Against the Modern World. Inner Traditions, 1995.

Image: Jean-Joseph Dassy, Robert de Normandie at the Siege of Antioch. 1850. 
The Siege of Antioch took place during the First Crusade, in 1097 and 1098. 

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