12 May 2011

Jihad Revisited

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I ended the first half of this blog arguing that Sayyid Qutb’s (executed in Egypt in 1966) view of total and permanent war until Islam reigns supreme in the world was: 1) a throwback to the scholarly consensus of Muslim jurists and theologians in the classical period; 2) vigorous push back against the modern Islamic consensus since at least the eighteenth century (in the context of modern nation-states military jihad can only be justified in the case of foreign invasion). Let me unpack that here.

            For starters, this is news to many pundits today, and in particular those who are behind the push in Tennessee and a dozen other states to outlaw Sharia. I obtained a copy of the draft Tennessee bill, which states that “jihad and sharia are inextricably linked.” And then Article 8 of Section 1 reads:


“The unchanging and ultimate aim of jihad is the imposition of sharia on all states and nations, including the United States and this state; further, pursuant to its own dictates, sharia requires the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions and the imposition of sharia through violence and criminal activity.”


            Note how this is clearly stating that Sayyid Qutb’s interpretation of Sharia is the only possible one for any sincere Muslim – as if Islam, like every other religious traditions, isn’t subject to evolving and even competing interpretations at any given historical period! On the one hand, the authors say that this bill should not hinder Muslims from peacefully practicing their religion; on the other, rather more ominously, they warn that this “legal-political-military doctrine and system” is advocated by “tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of its followers around the world.” Scary!

            So a little history here is in order.

            The Prophet Muhammad, through preaching, diplomacy and war, had nearly extended Muslim control over the whole Arabian Peninsula and had initiated a couple campaigns in Syria by the time he died in 632. Taking advantage of two weakening empires to the north, Muslim armies fanned out and in the next few decades carved out an empire greater than Rome had ever seen – from Spain to India. Yet Islamic law, well ahead of its time, carefully circumscribed the ethics and practice of warfare: treaties must be honored, prisoners treated humanely, women, children, monks and rabbis spared, and the impact of the environment minimized (protecting trees and wells especially).

            Did Muslim armies always abide by these rules? Of course not; no army in the world lives up to its ideals. But we would do well to remember that during the Crusades, while King Richard the Lionhearted did not hesitate to catapult the severed heads of Muslim prisoners onto the Muslim army, the Muslim leader Salah Eddin’s war conduct was admired, and even legendary, to the point that he was considered “chivalrous” in Europe! Whereas the Crusaders killed absolutely everyone in sight (Muslims, Eastern Christians and Jews) when they first captured Jerusalem (1099), Salah Eddin managed to take it back in 1187 without killing a soul.

Having said that, Sayyid Qutb was indeed resurrecting the classical version of jihad. Whether you consult the official corpus of hadiths (sayings of and stories about the Prophet), the commentaries on the Quran, or the canons of the four schools of Sunni law – all the Islamic authorities of the medieval period until the eighteenth century agreed that the world was divided between the Abode of War and the Abode of Islam. Hence, the sword verses cancel out the more peaceful verses revealed earlier. What this means is that Muslims had a collective duty to extend their territories by means of war until the whole world came under the dominion of Islam. Since “there is no compulsion in religion” (Q. 2:256), no one in theory was forced to convert; but Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians (Hindus and Buddhists at times too) were given dhimmi status as “protected minorities” (including freedom to practice their faith, no military service in return for a poll tax, plus certain humiliating restrictions).

Then came western colonialism with its superior science, technology and weaponry, and Muslim populations found themselves – shockingly, and for the first time – at the bottom of the pile. So under the weight of military, economic and political defeat, and relentless accusations by Christians that theirs was a violent religion, Muslims started to read their texts differently. By the mid-twentieth century, Muslim authorities (the ulama) in Egypt, Indonesia and many other centers of learning had come to agreement that jihad has two dimensions. First, it’s the taming of one’s lower desires in the struggle to follow God’s path; and second, the outer dimension: when a Muslim country is invaded by a foreign power, jihad is incumbent on the nation to defend itself and repel the invader. The reality of a world made up of nation-states ideally living in peace had sunk in.

The hadith most quoted with regard to jihad today is the one in which Muhammad comes back from battle victorious. To the cheering crowds he says, “I have come back from the lesser jihad. Now starts the greater jihad.” Though this tradition was limited to Sufi (mystical) collections for centuries, it has now been adopted by nearly all Muslims as a prophetic call to focus on one’s spiritual life. But the “lesser jihad” has also taken a new turn. The Abode of Islam is any territory where Muslims are free to practice their faith, which today could be anywhere in the world. As for the Abode of War (apart from an invading army), leading jurists stopped mentioning it a good two hundred years ago.

Perhaps the most representative conservative Islamic body in America, ISNA (The Islamic Society of North America) occasionally issues legal rulings, as it did last December under the title, “Fatwa Against Religious Extremism.” It strictly condemns any violence done against innocent people, and especially as a result of suicide bombings. After quoting several verses in the Quran, it goes on to state three principles:


1. “All acts of terrorism targeting the civilians are Haram (forbidden) in Islam.

2. It is Haram for a Muslim to cooperate or associate with any individual or group that is involved in any act of terrorism or violence.

3. It is the duty of Muslims to cooperate with the law enforcement authorities to protect the lives of all civilians.”


These kinds of statements can be found in different forms, especially after 9/11, on all mainstream Muslims websites.

Since I started this two-part blog on jihad with the Old Testament, it is fitting for me as a follower of Jesus to close with his words, “Love your enemies,” and “Give unto Cesar what is Cesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Somehow, I cannot rejoice that a hardened murderer like Osama bin Laden was assassinated without the chance to defend himself in court. Likewise, I cannot in good conscience support the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by my government, whatever the motive – though I know that many Christians can do so in the name of “Just War Theory.”

We are back to hermeneutics – how we choose to interpret our sacred texts. Jihad for most Muslims today is about striving to obey God in every area of their lives and, in extreme cases, about giving their life to defend their country. In my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text: Muslims and Christians as Trustees of Creation, I argued that “empire” was always bad, because it involves subjugating other peoples. From the fourth century on (starting with the Emperor Constantine), Christians have often confused God and Cesar, with morally disastrous results.

For Muslims to condemn empire-building is a bigger stretch, as the Prophet himself initiated expansionist wars that led to a string of Muslim empires. Yet even here, with time and changing sociopolitical settings, I believe current notions of jihad are leading to this kind of religious reinterpretation. So let’s keep talking, and let’s keep striving together (or “jihading”) to make this world a more peaceful, God-like place!