Peace with Realism

Home   Contents Site Map Links Search

The Problem of Jihad

The Roots of Holy War Within Islam

by Carlos

November, 2004


  1. Introduction
  2. Jihad in the Qur'an
  3. Jihad in the Hadith
  4. Jihad in the Shari'a
  5. Muhammad: The Jihad Begins
  6. Muhammad: The Jews and Jihad
  7. Notes
  8. Resources and Reading List


"Why do they hate us?"

Ever since 9/11 Americans have been puzzling over this question. We are still puzzling. No one seems to have found a satisfactory answer.

In his excellent essay addressing this question, Fareed Zakaria dismisses the easy answers:

The [answers] we have heard so far have been comforting but familiar. We stand for freedom and they hate it. We are rich and they envy us. We are strong and they resent this. All of which is true. But there are billions of poor and weak and oppressed people around the world. They don't turn planes into bombs. They don't blow themselves up to kill thousands of civilians. If envy were the cause of terrorism, Beverly Hills, Fifth Avenue and Mayfair would have become morgues long ago. There is something stronger at work here than deprivation and jealousy. Something that can move men to kill but also to die. (1)

This something is religion. Zakaria mentions it, but then limits its significance:

Nothing will be solved by searching for "true Islam" or quoting the Quran.... Every religion is compatible with the best and the worst of humankind.... Searching the history books is also of limited value.... To understand the roots of anti-American rage in the Middle East, we need to plumb not the past 300 years of history but the past 30.

"Every religion is compatible with the best and the worst of humankind" - but not all religions are the same. At this point Zakaria descends from insight to platitude - which is often a convenient refuge when a truth is too difficult to face. What exactly happened during the past 30 years? An Islamic revival, a return to values prevalent far more than 300 years ago, which cannot be fully understood without "searching the history books." How can one conceivably suggest that history is irrelevant? The ignorance of history is one of America's problems: because the country is so young in terms of world history, our perspective is far more limited than in other parts of the world. Americans need to know more history.

The modern Islamic revival is a key factor in the current conflict, and its roots go back centuries. Zakaria sees the answer to "Why do they hate us?" primarily in the failure of the Arab states to come to terms with modernity. However, in the battle with modernity, the role of religion is central.

In an essay that first appeared during the same month as Zakaria's, Andrew Sullivan insists that "this is a religious war":

We don't want to denigrate religion as such, and so we deny that religion is at the heart of this. But we would understand this conflict better, perhaps, if we first acknowledged that religion is responsible in some way, and then figured out how and why. (2)

Yet Sullivan also is not above circumlocution:

The terrorists' strain of Islam is clearly not shared by most Muslims and is deeply unrepresentative of Islam's glorious, civilized and peaceful past. But it surely represents a part of Islam - a radical, fundamentalist part - that simply cannot be ignored or denied.

In that sense, this surely is a religious war - but not of Islam versus Christianity and Judaism. Rather, it is a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity.

Sullivan is right to point out the injustice of equating Islam with terrorism. Islam does not speak with a single voice. But he romanticizes Islam's "peaceful" past. And is this really a war of "fundamentalism" against peaceful "faiths of all kinds"? It is not Christian fundamentalists who are strapping on explosive vests or beheading nonbelievers. Even the term "Islamic fundamentalism" is questionable. "Fundamentalism" is a word used to describe certain forms of Christianity, and does not translate well when applied to Islam.

A "Fundamentalist" Islam?

Conventional wisdom tries to split off "fundamentalist" Islam from Islam as a whole. The common view is that "fundamentalist" Islam is not really Islam, but an aberrant form that "hijacked" the true Islam. However, this kind of analysis does not work with Islam. Perhaps it works with Christianity: the exclusivism and intolerance of Christian fundamentalism bear little relationship to the actual teachings of Jesus. This is not so with "fundamentalist" Islam. The passionate zeal to conquer the infidel, the hallmark of Islamic "fundamentalists," goes straight back to Muhammad.

Here we must tread very carefully. There is no one form of Islam any more than there is just one form of Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism. What we are involved in is not - or at least does not need to be - a war between Islam and Western civilization. And it is certainly not - or does not need to be - a war between Americans and Muslims. However, what the West is up against is not merely an aberrant or "fundamentalist" form of Islam of relatively recent vintage. What now confronts the West is an expression of Islamic values that is as old as Islam itself.

Why is this important? Because even now, three years after 9/11, people are still obsessively asking, "Why do they hate us?" Why do some of our enemies hate us so much that they would even resort to suicide to kill as many of us as they can? To the Western mind, this is unfathomable. And the Western mind is ethnocentric: it loves to believe that all minds think like the Western mind.

So we in the West have found a solution we can live with: the belief that Islam is no different from Christianity or Judaism, that we all share the same values and want the same things. We like to think that what is attacking us has nothing to do with Islam - that it is something foreign to Islam that has "hijacked" it. We say to ourselves: Islam is really an innocent faith perverted by people who would use it to redress political grievances. Since Islam itself supposedly has nothing to do with this conflict, we can disregard it to focus on the "root causes" of the violence. Therefore, to solve the problem of terrorism, we can ignore religion and respond to the terrorists' grievances. We think it obvious that only a deep sense of desperation could drive a terrorist to commit suicide. And so, we conclude, we must alleviate his desperation, then hope he will revert to the "true" Islam, which of course poses no threat to the West.

This notion that anti-American terrorists practice a "hijacked" form of Islam is dangerous self-deception. It feeds the illusion that the Islam practiced in Riyadh, in Tehran, in Cairo, or on the West Bank is by nature tolerant and benign, and that only a few extremists are trying to distort it. There is no separating terrorist Islam from Islam. The religiously inspired anti-Western hatred the terrorists proclaim is not different from the religiously inspired anti-Western hatred that appears in the government-controlled media of Arab as well as some other Muslim countries. There is not just one single form of Islam, but that does not mean the intolerant forms, more pervasive than we might wish to imagine, are not real Islam. They are genuine, and they won't disappear even if the countries of the West change their foreign policies to placate them.

Many writers point to Wahhabism as the origin of today's militant Islam, with the implication that Islamic militancy is only about 250 years old. This does not explain the often equal virulence of Shi'ite Islam, which has nothing to do with Wahhabism. As for Wahhabism itself, it did not materialize from nowhere. It has roots in traditions and scholarship that are centuries old, including the great fourteenth-century scholar Ibn Taymiyya, and the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, which was founded in the ninth century. These in turn go back to traditions about Muhammad himself, the sunna, which includes sayings of and about the Prophet as well as the earliest biographies. This so-called "militant" Islam is as Islamic as any other form of Islam today.

Since the leading centers of "militant" Islam are Saudi Arabia, the land of Islam's origin and Islam's holiest cities and the heart of Sunni Islam, and Iran, the heart of Shi'ite Islam, it hardly makes sense to say that these forms of Islam have "hijacked" the rest. One might just as well accuse the Pope of hijacking Catholicism.

The Western mind, still brooding nervously over the questions "Why do they hate us?" "How could they do this?" does not sufficiently appreciate the depths to which religion can stir the passions over the course of a long history. Perhaps we can gain some insight by looking at Western religious history. The early Christian martyrs were also inspired by their faith to pursue death zealously. The difference is that early Christian tradition did not encourage martyrs to die by shedding the blood of nonbelievers. It was different with Islam. Yet in both cases, the passion of religion has been sufficient to make death seem preferable to life in this world.

Seeds of Intolerance

Here is an example of "militant" Islam. An Al Qaeda video claiming responsibility for the March, 2004 bombings in Madrid stated:

You love life and we love death, which gives an example of what the Prophet Muhammad said.

Is this far-fetched? An un-Islamic, alien distortion of the words of the Prophet? Here is what Muhammad said:

By the Being in Whose Hand is my life, I love that I should be killed in the way of Allah. (Sahih Muslim, 20:4631)

This statement of Muhammad is not unique. The earliest traditions contain many more like it. And as for its "context," this quote comes from a chapter of the Hadith (teachings of Muhammad) entitled, "The Merit of Jihad and Campaigning in the Way of Allah." It is all about jihad, whose original meaning really was "holy war." Islam's apologists love to accuse their critics of quoting passages out of context. We will have much to say about context later in this series. More often than not, context works against the interests of the apologists.

Some defend Islam by comparing it to Christianity, which at times in history was even more brutal. As for quoting from Islamic texts, one can quote many passages just as hateful and violent from the early Church Fathers.

However, there is a difference. Many changes in Christianity have occurred since the time of the Crusades. In 1965 the Second Vatican Council proclaimed:

[The Church] cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in his inexpressible mercy deigned to establish the Ancient Covenant.... What happened in [Christ's] passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today....

Mindful of her common patrimony with the Jews, and motivated by the gospel's spiritual love and by no political considerations, she deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source. (3)

One has yet to hear any comparable statement from any official organ within Islam. On the contrary, passages in the Qur'an denigrating Jews are still used today throughout the Muslim world to inflame anti-Jewish hatred. These hateful statements emanate not only from "fringe" groups within Islam, but from established and respected religious authorities.

And Jews are not the only target. Christians too are still persecuted throughout the Muslim world. On the day I am writing this (August 1, 2004), five Christian churches were bombed in Iraq. But persecution of Christians in Muslim countries is nothing new.

These facts are difficult to face. We don't like where they lead. We don't want to be at war with Islam. We don't have to be. As I have said, Islam speaks with more than one voice. But the so-called "militant" voice of Islam is an authentic voice. It is neither a fabrication nor an alien influence. We need to come to terms with this, to understand what is happening today in its proper historical context.

The Position of Israel

The historical context is important for seeing the Arab-Israeli conflict in its proper perspective. One common view is that solving this conflict is the key to peace in the Middle East, and by extension peace in the world. But history informs us that the jihad we are facing is much older than Israel. Even during the days when Muslims controlled the Holy Land, the jihad was raging. At first the grand prize was the Byzantine Empire, bastion of the Christian West. The Byzantines are long gone. Today the grand prize is America.

Israel is certainly not irrelevant. The Arab hatred of Israel is visceral. Today the "occupation" is most often invoked to rationalize it, but Arabs have passionately hated Israel long before 1967, the year Israel captured the "occupied territories" in a war the Arabs provoked. If one listens closely to Arab rhetoric, it is easy to discern that the term "occupation" really means Israel's very existence, its sovereign presence on any land anywhere in the Middle East.

The Middle East is the home of Islam. In its era of dominance Islam barely tolerated the Jews, but only if they remained dhimmi, subservient and second class. A sovereign Jewish presence in the home of Islam, with Jews governing Muslims instead of the other way around, is to Muslim sensibility an offense and a humiliation. Thus many Muslims consider Israel's destruction a sacred mission, for which they might even expect a heavenly reward.

Yossi Klein Halevi, a sensitive writer who feels a desperate need to establish a dialogue between Muslims and Jews, tells of his experience at an interfaith gathering:

A scholar in Muslim law who lectured at a local Islamic college spoke of the long history of friendship between Muslims and Jews: Maimonides had been influenced by Islamic philosophers; Muslim and Jewish mystics in medieval Egypt had learned from each other's devotions. Afterward I asked him whether Islam could reconcile theologically with Jewish sovereignty in any part of the Holy Land. "Forget about it!" he said. "It will never happen! Islam commands me to destroy the Jewish state." He explained that Islam divides the world into Dar el-Islam, the House of Islam, and Dar el-Harb, the House of War, or the territory controlled by non-Muslims. Any land, especially the Holy Land, that had once been controlled by Dar el-Islam and had passed into the hands of Dar el-Harb must revert to Muslim rule. (4)

The distinction between dar al-Islam and dar al-harb is of early origin and is written into Islamic law. An important manual of Islamic law (shari'a) defines dar al-harb, "enemy lands," as "areas in which the rules of Islam do not exist, such countries not holding its validity or believing in it." They are countries "with whom the Muslim countries (dar al-Islam) are at a state of war." (5) The term "House of War" means exactly what it says. According to Islamic law, the Islamic state's mission is to do whatever it must, through peace or through war, to incorporate the dar al-harb into the dar al-Islam.

And so Israel is hated because it was lost to dar al-Islam and must be returned. But Israel is not the center, the heart of dar al-harb; that distinction belongs to America. Because it is surrounded by Arab states, Israel is on the front lines of the modern holy war, but the war's objective is not merely Israel; it is the absorption of the entire dar al-harb into the dar al-Islam.

Two Timely Questions

In various forms two questions keep surfacing, and so we need to confront them:

If America stopped supporting Israel would the terrorists leave America alone?

Isn't the desperation of being occupied and oppressed the only possible explanation of why people become suicide bombers?

The answer to the first question is clearly no. The continuing jihad that has accompanied the Islamic revival has not departed from its original goal, the expansion of the House of Islam into the House of War. Israel is only a small piece of this jihad. If Israel is eliminated, it will only convince the jihadists that God approves their mission to win the world for Islam, and they will be emboldened.

The answer to the second question is also no. The terrorists who attacked the Christian churches in Iraq today were not victims of Israeli oppression. The suicide bombers who have been blowing themselves up in Iraq, and just recently in Uzbekistan, are not victims of Israeli opression. The Saudis who killed themselves flying into the World Trade Center were not victims of Israeli oppression. The Israel/Palestine conflict explains none of this, although it has been used to excuse all kinds of Arab aggression. These suicide attacks outside of Israel have a wider significance and a deeper root. This will become clearer after our examination of original Islamic sources and Islamic history.

The jihad of today is a resurgence of the jihad that began 1400 years ago. It is inspired by many of the same ideas, in new forms that have evolved with the passage of time. This jihad never really ceased. After the decline of the Ottoman Empire, when the United States and Soviet Union were the world's two dominant powers, it went into a dormant phase. But the currents of history are never static, and their shifting has brought the jihad once again into the foreground. Not without reason, the jihad claims credit for the demise of the Soviet Union. Its stated destiny is a like fate for the remaining superpower.

A Call for Tolerance

The premise of this series of articles is that the contemporary jihad is not something entirely new but must be understood in the context of history and the religious ideas that spawned it. The global jihad therefore expresses not an aberrant but an authentic voice of Islam. But it is not the only voice.

If we make the mistake of believing this jihad is something new, a reaction to Western behavior, we may be drawn to the false hope of thinking that changes in Western behavior can stop it. Appeasement of the jihadists will not stop them; it will only encourage them. They have a long sense of history, and feel themselves approaching the threshold of Islam's promise of world transformation.

Therefore in order to understand and respect what we are facing, we must see it for what it is. This jihad is not a modern invention. It is the power of Islam itself expressing and asserting Islam's demonic side. It is the expression of an authentic Islam that has become a voice of darkness.

But there are other voices. There are voices of reform, even though they may seem desperately few. Most modern-day terrorists may be Muslims, but Muslims are not terrorists. They, like other religious people, seek transcendence through the experience of the divine. This is true in all forms of Islam, but the Sufi tradition in particular has made great contributions to spirituality and tolerance. Sufism, however, is not mainstream Islam, which has unfortunately denigrated and often persecuted it. In spite of that fact Islam has inspired many expressions of light, and we need to recognize them and cherish them.

It should be possible to criticize ideas without attacking people, and that is the intent of these articles. They will present much criticism. But it is absolutely essential to hold an open mind, not to assume that all Muslims, especially those whom one meets in daily experience, espouse these ideas. They may not.

Who knows how many in the Muslim community might speak out for reform if they felt it were safe to do so? We must assume they exist, and we must do our best to support them. Many who have spoken out found their lives in danger, so we can only hope that others would speak out too if they felt safer. We can support them by not lumping all Muslims into one category, by not assuming that all Muslims are extremists. (Some moderate Muslim web sites are listed on this site's links page.)

Sometimes moderate Muslims are afraid to speak out because of threats of violence or even death. Sometimes their silence is due simply to passivity, or to lacking the energy of their extremist competitors. Asra Nomani describes how Islamic extremists took over a mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia, because the moderates did not have the stomach for confrontation:

Not long ago in my little mosque around the corner from a McDonald's, a student from the university here delivered a sermon. To love the Prophet Muhammad, he said, ''is to hate those who hate him.'' He railed against man-made doctrines that replace Islamic law, and excoriated the ''enemies of Islam'' who deny strict adherence to Sunnah, or the ways of Muhammad....

Like others who listened that day, I was stung by the sermon. It stands in chilling contrast to reforms taking place within Muslim communities nationwide. In fact, only months earlier at my mosque, my mother, sister-in-law, niece and I prayed in the main hall, an act of defiance that led to a reversal of the policy that women had to pray in a secluded balcony. Sadly, I have learned that the realization of an inclusive Islam is a fragile thing, even in this country....

Even though a majority of the mosque's membership, which is largely made up of West Virginia University students and staff members, is moderate, passivity by it and the board has allowed extremism to take hold. One board leader told me that the board doesn't want to ''get aggressive.''...

It saddens me that these Muslim organizations and my mosque leadership are reluctant to take a strong stand, because ending hate begins at home. If Muslims in America and elsewhere expect religious tolerance, we must ourselves enforce a zero-tolerance policy against preaching hatred and bigotry....

The goings-on in my small mosque may seem inconsequential, but we are a microcosm of the challenges moderate Islam faces throughout the world. If tolerant and inclusive Islam can't express itself in small corners like Morgantown, where on this earth can the real beauty of Islam flourish? (6)

We don't hear enough about the "reforms taking place within Muslim communities nationwide." Others are courageously calling for reform, writers like Irshad Manji, Mona Eltahawy, and Nonie Darwish. That so many of these are women is itself a commentary on the state of Islam today. But there is also Shaykh Abdul Hadi Palazzi, a bold voice for tolerance, who unfortunately has many detractors because of his Sufi background.

So it is not all bad, and it is not all hopeless. Painting Islam with a one-colored brush would be unfair also to those Muslims I have met and with whom I have been able to form deep bonds of friendship. It is important to recognize those Muslim voices, however few and faint they may seem, that are calling for genuine tolerance.

Unfortunately the forms of Islam gaining ascendance - and certainly those most influential in world affairs today - are the extreme, intolerant forms. These are most closely associated with the Arab world, Islam's original home. To argue that extremist Islam has "hijacked" the true religion is futile and irrelevant. Those calling for reform are, after all, reformers. They want to change the extremism Islam has inherited from the past. The more benign variants of Islam represent evolution and growth, and that is a good thing.

So I would like to extend an invitation to moderate Muslims. Please feel welcome to write to me, in a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect. If you believe in tolerance, then I would like to be in dialogue with you. If you feel that my views are too harsh or my judgments too severe, show me how to soften them while respecting the truth.

Looking Ahead

The following overview will show that in both teaching and practice, violent jihad has been central to Islam since its beginnings. The present upheavals involving Islamic extremists all over the world must be understood in this light. They represent a revival of this historic global jihad, an attempt to return to a time when Islam was dominant in the world and to extend that dominance even further.

The questions we must face include: Does jihad properly refer to an inner, spiritual struggle or to actual combat, and if the latter, does such combat take place only in self-defense (as Muslim apologists claim), or is it offensive as well? We will first look at some Islamic sources, notably the Qur'an, Hadith, and Shari'a, and then at how the ideas they contain were implemented throughout the history of Muslim conquest.

And finally, we will ask what all of this signifies for us today, as we confront the metamorphosis of the jihad in our own time.


Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
Peace with Realism