OK, don’t freak out. I’m not advocating a Brazilian-martial-arts-based holy war on infidels here. Jihad simply means “struggle” in Arabic and carries no inherent connotation of religion or violence. If you don’t know what capoeira is, please read the Wikipedia entry.
Capoeira Jihad is a concept I came up with last year when I was really getting into capoeira, training four to five times a week. I also happened to be taking an extremely time-consuming Arabic class at Columbia.
The term came to me one day while doodling capoeira moves in my notes during a History of the Middle East lecture by Columbia luminary Rashid Khalidi. (When you’re playing capoeira, especially in the beginning, it’s constant frustration; when you’re not playing, it’s all you can think of.) Jihad was on the vocabulary list that week in Arabic class, and even though I had already heard that “holy war” is only one context in which the word is used, I was astounded to find the variety of contexts in which the word could be relevant. They ranged from light to heavy — one can yujaahid (the verb) to complete a mountaineering trip or one can yujaahid for women’s liberation — and from the personal to the political. A Christian, Jew, Muslim or anyone else can practice jihad.
It dawned on me that capoeira is a kind of jihad. It was started, it is thought, by enslaved Brazilians of African descent who may have needed to disguise their self-defense training as dance. Throughout its history, capoeira has always been associated with struggle and liberty. It was a game from the streets, practiced by poor people who had little political power. Capoeira gave them an outlet for their yearnings for movement, a form of expression and a way to stay remarkably, physically strong. As it became a sport of the favelas in the last century, it became a struggle against the oppression of poverty and hopelessness. Youths who devote hours a day to capoeira in slums today continue to struggle against the draw and pressure of street life.
But you don’t have to be oppressed in one of these acute social ways to find that capoeira can be a form of jihad for liberation. I remember a Nigerian student at an Islamic university in Syria explaining to me once how al-Qaeda had gotten the concept of jihad wrong. The most important jihad, he said, is the struggle with oneself. Certainly, capoeira is such a struggle. It is a struggle to master the body, for discipline in training and playing, and to be both loose and powerful at the same time. To know a balance of aggression, evasion, feigning and playfulness.
To me, this is the kind of struggle for balance and clear intention that’s worth aiming for not just while playing capoeira, but also in all aspects of life. And I hereby inaugurate it as my personal theme for 2009.
Here’s a clip that exemplifies my concept of capoeira jihad (I like that it’s entitle “self-dominance”):