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Jihad in the Modern World

Le Jihâd: Les textes fondateurs de l’islam face à la modernité (2nd edition revised)

By Johan Bourlard

Publisher: Volume VI of Studia Arabica. Editions de Paris

Pages: 216

Price: €24

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, R.I.P., was a Contributing Editor of the NOR. Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York, she published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

In this important work, the title of which can be translated as Jihad: The Foundational Texts of Islam in the Face of Modernity, Belgian historian Johan Bourlard provides a thorough account of jihad, a doctrine essential to Islam. Fourteen centuries after the death of the Islamic “prophet” Muhammad, jihad remains a major obstacle to the full integration of Muslims into modern society. (Modernity is defined here as a democratic system that guarantees fundamental liberties to each person, notably the liberty to believe, not to believe, and to change belief, as well as a clear separation between religion and the state.) Bourlard insists that Westerners need to know what the three foundational texts of Islam — the Qur’an (Islamic scripture), the Sunna (hadiths, or sayings of Muhammad), and the Sira (a ninth-century biography of Muhammad) — teach about jihad. In these texts, jihad is presented as jihad fi sabil Allah, armed combat in the path of Allah. As such, it has been embraced by caliphs, imams, and muftis, as well as by philosophers and mystics, based on the principle that Islam is universal and must spread over the entire world, either by teaching or by force.

Muslims believe jihad to be an obligation of the whole community (umma), though it is enough if only some persons fulfill it. The term jihad has always retained a martial meaning, especially in the Salafist movement, which requires a return to ancient sources. Since the 18th century, Wahhabism has prescribed a strict following of Sharia, or Islamic law, and has presented jihad as the best way for Muslims to recover the power they had in their early days, when they spread their religion across half the globe. In the 19th century, some Muslim thinkers, like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Rashid Rida, spoke of spreading Islam by peaceful means, but al-Afghani preserved the option of martial jihad against colonial powers, and Rida justified the call to jihad (against Armenian and Chaldean Christians) by the Ottoman caliph in World War I. In 1928 the Muslim Brotherhood emerged with the slogan “The Qur’an is our constitution, combat is our road.” Its leader, Sayyid Qutb, taught that jihad was not only for defense but also for offense, as it could be used to destroy political and material powers that prevent the spread of Islam. As such, jihad is an obligation without limits that will last until the whole world submits to Islam, for the state of war between Dar al-Islam (Muslim-dominated regions) and Dar al-Harb (non-Muslim regions) is “morally necessary.”

After every Islamic terrorist attack in the West, the public is told that such terrorists are “extremists,” not true followers of Islam, which is described as a “religion of peace.” Sometimes a verse from the Qur’an is cited to prove this claim, such as Sura 5:32, that murdering an innocent man is like having killed all men. The very next verse (Sura 5:33), however, is typically not cited. It says that those who sow corruption on earth are to be killed, crucified, or maimed. In the Qur’an, sowing corruption is the crime of which Christians and Jews are accused: Christians are charged with shirk, or “associating” another divinity (Jesus) with God (cf. 5:72-73, 116), while Jews are charged with tahrif, or falsifying their scriptures (cf. 2:75-79; 4:46; 5:13, 44). Another tolerant verse that is often cited is Sura 2:256, that there is to be “no constraint in religion.” In its context, however, this verse applies only to Muslims, not to non-Muslims, who are called adorers of demons. Nor does it apply to apostates, who, according to the Sunna (Bukhari 56:149), are to be executed. Besides, verse 2:256 is abrogated by Sura 9:5, the “verse of the saber,” which orders the pursuit of Jews and Christians until they humiliate themselves and pay jizya, a heavy tribute.

Whenever tolerant verses in the Qur’an are contradicted by warlike verses, Muslims are to follow the theory of abrogation (naskh), based on Sura 2:106, and regard the earlier verses as nullified by the later ones. The verses that are abrogated (mansukh) are always the peaceful ones, because they supposedly come from an earlier period when Muhammad was preaching in Mecca from 610 to 622, while the ones abrogating them are from a later period when Muhammad was a political and military chief in Medina from 622 to 632. Thus, the “verse of the saber” abrogates over a hundred peaceful verses. Ninth-century Persian interpreters of the Qur’an made the division of verses between Mecca and Medina, privileging those concerning jihad.

The two other important sources of the doctrine of jihad are the Sira, the official biography of Muhammad by Ibn Hisham (d. 834), in which armed conflict takes priority, and the Sunna, the hadiths that are the second source of Sharia after the Qur’an. Although they contain only human words (unlike those in the Qur’an, which Muslims believe are the words of Allah), hadiths have near equal authority to the Qur’an. A collection of hadiths of the first rank is that of Bukhari (d. 870), who has two books of hadiths on Muhammad’s military expeditions: book 56, kitab al-jihad, which spans 199 chapters, and book 64, kitab al-maghazi, which spans 89 chapters. There is no essential difference between jihad and maghazi as both are armed expeditions. In Bukhari, Muhammad participated in roughly 65 such military campaigns in one decade.

While in Medina, Muhammad and his followers, the Muhajirun, or emigrants, formed an alliance with the Ansar, or auxiliaries. Their original pact was political and included Jews, but it soon became religious. To subsist, the fledgling Islamic community conducted jihads for pillage and tribute, and these campaigns were seen as authorized by both Allah and Muhammad. First, they raided a caravan and then attacked the town of Badr in 624, where they put 70 captives up for ransom. Bukhari has 12 chapters of hadiths on this topic in book 64. Then they expelled the Quaynuqa Jews from Medina, at which time Muhammad “received” the Qur’anic verses accusing Jews of tahrif. Muhammad then commanded his followers to pray toward Mecca instead of Jerusalem, and he ordered the assassination of a number of poets who had ridiculed his preaching in satires.

In 625 Muhammad lost the battle of Uhud, after which he expelled a second Jewish tribe from Medina, accusing them of plotting to kill him. In 627 a third Jewish tribe asked for help from the Qurayshite Arabs, but their assault on Medina proved a failure. In punishment, over 600 men of the last Jewish tribe were killed, and their wives and children sold as slaves. Muhammad then led an expedition against the wealthy Jewish community of Khaybar to reward his men. In the Qur’an, when Allah incites his believers to martial combat, he tells them their victory will be greater if they invoke his name in battle, as in Allahu Akbar. This is called the Takbir and is often used by contemporary terrorists. It is said to have been used by Muhammad himself when he attacked Khaybar. In 630 Muhammad conquered Mecca, and all the Arab tribes began to submit to Islam. Non-Muslims were banished from Arabia in 632, and to this day there is no toleration of any other religion there.

After Muhammad’s death, the caliphs conquered both the Byzantine and Persian empires. In just one century, they created an empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Indus. They sacked Rome’s two major basilicas, St. Peter and St. Paul, and two popes were made to pay heavy tribute to the invaders from 844 to 882. From the coast of Provence, Muslims attacked and pillaged cities and monasteries in Europe until they were expelled from that foothold in 975. They remained in Spain, however, and they destroyed Santiago de Compostella in 997 and the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009.

Bourlard asks: How can Muslims be liberated from the ideology of jihad so as to be integrated into modern society? Some have tried to do it by minimizing the martial aspect of jihad, redefining it as jihad al-akbar, spiritual combat against one’s own evil passions. But this view is absent from the Qur’an and from the six canonical collections of the Sunna. It was developed four centuries after the birth of Islam by the 11th-century mystic al-Ghazali, but even he didn’t set aside martial combat, for, he said, “Some people cannot be touched by the truth except by means of a whip or spear.” The 20th-century Sudanese thinker Mahmoud Mohammed Taha went further than al-Ghazali, embracing jihad purely as interior combat, and he wished to make the Qur’an’s warlike verses to be of temporary value, with its peaceful verses to be universal and eternal. The result? In his mid-70s he was declared an apostate by religious authorities and decapitated in 1985. In Bukhari 96:28, anyone who modifies Islam is liable to a death sentence.

Some more recent Muslim thinkers want to re-examine Islam in light of reason and science, somewhat like the ninth-century Mutazilites, who privileged free will and reason. They see the Qur’an as created by men, not as the uncreated word of Allah, and they regard it as a book constructed over the course of two centuries. They have no audience among Muslims, however, and are faced with the murderous hostility of traditional and institutional Islamic authorities.

Other new thinkers want to Islamicize the modern world by invoking equality, pluralism, and tolerance as a ruse to advance their own ideology, which is opposed to these modern values. As Bourlard shows, they have their warrant from Muhammad, who regarded the ruse as the supreme weapon of jihad.

When Muhammad said war was nothing but a game of ruse and deception (cf. Bukhari 56:157), he meant it. He even allowed his followers to criticize and insult him before his enemies to gain their confidence. Feigning friendship with non-Muslims was also permitted by the doctrine of kitman (dissimulation). Today, the game of kitman can be observed in the use of double language. Bourlard mentions as an example the Turkish professor and diplomat Eklemeddin Ihsanoglu. In a 2006 article about the restoration of an enlightened Islam, Ihsanoglu seems to denounce terrorism, but he actually denounces only fitna, or sedition against fellow Muslims. The ruse continues when Muslims pretend to embrace human rights but limit them by the principles of Sharia. In the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, adopted in 1990 by members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, for instance, Article XII says that every person can express his thoughts and convictions within the limits prescribed by the law. But this is kitman, as Sharia severely limits freedom of speech when it comes to critique of Islam. For Muslims, there is no acceptance of the equality of all men independent of their religion because those who adhere to Islam assume they have more dignity than others.

Le Jihâd: Les textes fondateurs de l’islam face à la modernité presents much more about jihad than I am able to cover here. This book needs to be translated to help Westerners get over their mistaken notion that all religions are alike and peaceful. Both scholars and ordinary citizens need to confront the otherness of Islam.


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