Jihad From Theology To Practice And Back
Complex, contested and misunderstood, the concept of jihad, commonly referred to as ‘holy war,’ is central to the Islamic belief system. Lacking either conceptual or practical clarity, however, it has become a catch-all term used and abused by jihadists as well as their enemies in a battle for the theological and political landscape of Islam and world politics.
Integral to the course of Islamic history over the past 14 centuries, jihad has evolved and been reinvented numerous times. It variously served defenders of the Islamic faith in a spiritual sense and in armed battle against external forces. It is in the latter form that it confronted our collective imagination through the carnage of 9/11, drowning nuance and objectivity in the face of an overwhelming threat.
The equation of jihad with the indiscriminate violence espoused by groups like al Qaida, however, is a gross oversimplification of a theologically and historically complex concept. A more accurate and balanced understanding requires us to transcend self-serving rhetoric and embrace the murky world of place and purpose in religiously framed conflicts.
The word ‘jihad’ itself is usually translated as ‘struggle’ or ‘effort’ and most broadly defined as “striving in the way of God”. This can either be understood as a ‘fight’ against one’s own spiritual shortcomings (what some have called the ‘greater jihad’), or as a physical struggle for the sake of the Islamic community (the ‘lesser jihad’).This ambiguity is primarily a consequence of the concept’s varied use in Islamic texts and sources. Alfred Morabia notes that in the Quran alone the concept is discussed 35 times: 22 refer to general effort, 10 to warlike activity and three to spiritual effort.
Furthermore, as Michael Bonner, a renowned scholar of Islamic history argues, time and place have had a profound effect on the way it has been practiced over centuries. He argues that “jihad has never ceased changing […]. If it ever had an original core, this has been experienced anew many times over.”
While the more Sufi-leaning interpretation of jihad as a spiritual struggle is not universally accepted, the interpretation that prizes the physical act of war is also contested, particularly on the defensive-offensive axis. Does Islam condone, even demand that pious believers engage in battle to defend Islam? Are offensive wars in the name of the faith allowed? And crucially in the context of the activities of al Qaida’s leadership who has the right to call for jihad and lead it and what, indeed, should be its aim?
Jihad, in classical Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence was associated with a missionary push according to Danish scholar Patricia Crone; rooted in a position of strength and stemming from a perceived communal duty to reveal the Islamic faith to non-believers. As she notes though, it was largely a tool, even if violent, of conversion, not submission. It was associated with Arab imperialism or defensive wars against invaders, most famously 14th century Mongols. Jihad was declared by rulers and pursued as a communal duty; authority and legitimacy of the effort was paramount.
Periods of conquest or war, however, did not stem from a religious directive but were tied to pre-Islamic, often tribal dynamics and the expansionary logic of successive Islamic empires. The concept of jihad was then, as it is now, a convenient, unifying and inspiring cloak under which such wars could be fought. Many of these may have been fought with altruistic and spiritual motives in mind (indeed many considered that they were saving people by allowing them to see the truth through Islam), but as in any effort undertaken by man, often became tainted by distinctly unholy things like greed, pride and power.
A key problem in our understanding of jihad is, as Bonner notes, our “assumption of near-total continuity in Islam; between practice and norm and between history and doctrine.” It is also, as others point out, the difficulty of distinguishing between active and reactive strains in the practice of jihad. Waves of a more activist jihad may have characterised the missionary wars of pre-modern Arabia (tied, among other things, to the creation of Saudi Arabia), but as Islam lost its civilisational vigour, culminating in the fall of the Ottoman Empire, it became increasingly reactive and defensive.
Associated with the rise of a politicised Islam in the Middle East in the early 20th century and to unprecedented turmoil in the physical and psychological surroundings of most Muslims at the time, radical Islamists came to see jihad as a legitimate tool to defend the community and the faith from illegitimate rule and westernisation. Through a selective reading of the concept in religious texts, Islamic jurisprudence and past practice, a minority of Muslims removed jihad from its broader historical narrative, pushing the logic of religiously sanctioned violence to an unprecedented extreme.
For the forefathers of Osama bin Laden’s shade of jihad, chief among them Sayyid Qutb, it was precisely this context of perceived decline of Islamic culture and power, coupled with oppression by secular dictators, that gave rise to a radical Islamist agenda centered on the concept of violent jihad. Qutb, an Egyptian ideologue tied to the Muslim brotherhood in the 1950s but radicalised in Egypt’s notorious prisons, believed that all of human society had become tainted by a pre-Islamic barbarism. Fellow Muslims who did not see his reality, were ignorant non-believers and therefore legitimate targets in a holy battle for the soul, authenticity and future of the faith.
Drawing from the defensively formulated jihad of a prominent 14th century scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah, Qutb overlooked the fact that Taymiyyah had written in the context of a defensive war against Mongols and was much more nuanced in his treatment of the concept. For Qutb,
jihad was an individual duty on par with the central duties of the Islamic faith, declared in opposition to religious and secular leaders in the name of a world revolution.
Modern jihadists, including al Qaida’s top leaders, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, drawing from Qutb’s absolutism but taking it even further, see reality as a battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and jihad as total war waged by ‘vanguard’ warriors that have ‘seen the light.’ Hoping that their example of piety, and commitment to indiscriminate violence would inspire a mass rising against the status quo in Muslims land, they see the solution to the ills of the Muslim community in the recreation of the spiritual and social order of the early Muslims in the form of a new Islamic empire.
Other jihadists, most notably Imam Samudra, the ‘Bali bomber,’ argued that globalisation has changed the nature of warfare, justifying the expansion of the traditionally restrictive understanding of armed jihad. In more general terms the argument that the forbidden, including the killing of civilians, is justified by necessity has been voiced by many. Modern jihadists see necessity in the injustices suffered by Muslims in the hands of the US, UK and Israel in particular and see them and their citizens as legitimate targets.
A maturing debate
Although the wish to see a unified Islamic empire reborn is not confided to jihadists, their willingness to sacrifice anyone in the name of this vision has, in fact, not only tainted relations between the West and Muslims but also alienated the Muslim street. The abstract nature of al-Qaida’s struggle has caused, in Fewez Gerges’ assessment, bin Laden to lose the battle over the hearts and minds of Muslims. Gilles Kepel, an authority on the concept of political Islam, has identified the remoteness of the enemy of al Qaida’s jihad as a key cause for this disconnect. The sheer brutality of attacks like 9/11 and the sectarian violence in Iraq is most certainly another.
More fundamentally, the selectiveness of the jihadist reading of the principles of the Islamic faith, particularly their justification for indiscriminate violence, does not resonate with most Muslims who see their faith as compassionate and reality as more complex. A prominent Pakistani cleric, Tahir ul-Qadri, recently declared an ‘intellectual jihad’ against terrorism by means of a 600-page legal ruling: “I am trying to bring [the terrorists] back towards humanism. This is a jihad against brutality, to bring them back towards normality.”
Overlooking centuries of Islamic scholarship, has, moreover, uprooted the modern jihadist narrative from a firm line of religious authority that most Muslims rely on. While the concept remains central to an understanding of defense and self-improvement in the faith, bin Laden’s radical reading ignores the fact that, as Muhammad Asad, a renowned convert turned Islamic scholar and diplomat, contends “every verse of the Quran must be read and interpreted against the background of the Quran as a whole.”
Yet jihadist absolutism has an appeal that cannot be brushed aside. In an age of unprecedented divisions, fragmentation, poverty and violence, supporters of al Qaida’s supposedly defensive agenda see answers in a highly instrumental understanding of religious morality; an empowering alternative to the dissonance and confusion that modernity, alienation and political stagnation can cause.
But the debate over the truth, theory and practice of jihad is becoming more vigorous. The illegitimacy of declaring fellow Muslims ‘non-believers’ has formed the core of most repudiations of jihadist argumentation. Others have focused on the transformative potential of a concept that calls for unity and peace rather than fragmentation and war. The internal debate is, to Roel Meijer, senior fellow at the Clingendael’s Diplomatic Studies Programme, indicative of a phase of maturation in Islamic thought. Maturity may create space for a new narrative that respects the centrality of the imperative to strive for the betterment and rightful defense of the Islamic community while acknowledging the inherent complexities of the world and the need to look beyond reactive campaigns of violence. Outside observes would be well advised to do the same.
By Kaisa Schreck