The Sanskrit word dharma appears frequently in Hindu and Buddhist devotional writing, but its meaning is hard to pin down. Here is a list of definitions culled at random from the internet:
1. A divinely ordained code of proper conduct.
2. From the Sanskrit – dhar for ‘hold’, ‘uphold’. There are involved entries for its meaning amongst Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists.
3. Righteousness, justice, law, duty.
4. Right action, truth in action, righteousness, morality, virtue.
5. a) The teachings of the Buddhas (generally capitalized in English); b) duty, law, doctrine; c) things, events, phenomena, everything.
The last one is the real clincher: “everything”. But, generalizing from the different sources, the meaning of “dharma” might be approximated by “religious duty”. It does not necessarily consist of actions required by the believer’s religion. Like Christian charity, it is the behavior which flows naturally when one’s religious faith is strongly and sincerely held.
In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who is on the road to enlightenment, but remains in the world until all the others around him have also awakened. Thus, all the actions he performs while he remains in samsara (the cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth) constitute dharma. Dharma is simply what an enlightened person does.
The analogue in Christianity might be “service” or “ministry”. Once again, here are some definitions of “ministry” culled from the Web:
1. Gospel-inspired activity (generally referring to an individual rather than a group), with an emphasis on the attitude and approach brought to it.
2. A service recognized, approved, and institutionalized by the Church for the [building] up of the Body of Christ.
3. Service to God rendered by the church and by individuals through the power of the Holy Spirit. All the faithful participate in ministry by virtue of their baptism.
4. Ministry is the use of a person’s gifts and talents, time and energy, in the service of others. It involves the exercise of roles designated by the Church to fulfil its mission in different works of service, such as in worship, teaching, leadership, the sacraments, welfare, and stewardship.
One of the longstanding arguments within Christianity concerns “salvation though works” versus “salvation through faith”. The former asserts that it is the performance of his religious duty, i.e. his ministry, which saves a man’s soul. But the latter insists that salvation occurs by the grace of God via the Holy Spirit, and ministry is simply what a spirit-filled Christian does.
So what would be the analogy in Islam? What word best describes the Muslim’s religious duty? Browsing the internet turns up the following definitions of the word jihad:
1. Arabic for “Holy war”, that is, a war based on the clash of ideologies.
2. The struggle to establish the law of God on earth, often interpreted to mean holy war.
3. Mostly used in Muslim writing to denote ‘holy war.’ However, in mystical literature, this term was interpreted in its root sense of ‘exertion’ and came to mean an inner struggle for purification.
4. From the verb jahada, to struggle. Effort or striving in God’s path. When it refers to the individual effort to conquer himself or passions, it is called greater jihad. When it refers to the communal effort at a defensive war against the enemies of Islam, then it is called lesser jihad. A person who wages jihad is called a mujahid.
5. A striving for perfection, frequently used within Islam. Usually, the term refers to an internal struggle that a person has with their imperfections. The term is also used to refer to a defensive war. Some radical Fundamentalist Muslims and the Western media often interpret the term as a synonym for an aggressive “holy war.”
6. Is an Arabic word that means “striving in the way of God.” This striving can take a number of forms, including the daily inner struggle to be a better person. However, jihad is often used to refer to an armed struggle fought in defense of Islam.
7. (Arabic): Islamic holy war Just for laughs, go check out the MSA version, which, by the way, is a form of taqiyya*. Jihad is primarily the offensive spread of Islam and/or expansion of its territorial borders through violent force of arms. This is called jihad al mubadahah (offensive jihad). It is sanctioned in the Qur’an*, in the hadith*, and in Islamic law. It is utilized when the peaceful offer of conversion to Islam is refused. Jihad is incumbent on all able-bodied Muslims, and to die in jihad as a shahid*, fighting the infidels in God’s name, is regarded as the highest honor.
Notice the dhimmified definitions from Religious Tolerance and PBS (#5 and #6), which repeat the taqiyya that jihad prescribes a defensive war only, and that anything else is a Western “misinterpretation”. Somehow, in crashing jetliners into the Twin Towers, Islam was only defending itself.
In any case, jihad is the religious duty of every faithful Muslim. The Buddhist or the Hindu or the Christian is compelled by his faith to perform good works, but the Muslim is required to take up the sword and shed the blood of unbelievers for the sake of his faith.
It would be an interesting exercise in comparative religion to determine how the different faiths arrived at their diverse conceptions of what sacred duty entails. Islam arose in a harsh and unforgiving desert culture, and so became a harsh and unforgiving religion. Yet Judaism arose in almost the same environment, and from it came Christianity. Christianity and Buddhism flowered in completely different environments, and yet arrived at the idea of compassion as the duty of the faithful.
One presumes that new converts are drawn to Hinduism or Christianity if their hearts are already inclined towards compassion, whereas Islam would have more appeal for the disaffected, the brutalized, and the marginalized. It is no surprise that Muslim converts in America are made more readily in prison than anywhere else.
Jihad is the natural behavior flowing from the faithful of Islam. It is simply what a good Muslim does.