Sunday, October 19, 2008

Understanding Jihad

Victor Edwin: What do Muslims really think when they speak about jihad?
Herman Roborgh: In Arabic, jihad literally means 'effort', that is, to exert oneself in some way or another. Within the context of Islam, jihad has the meaning of exerting oneself for the sake of God and this exertion can be made in many different ways. For example, by giving charity and feeding the poor, by giving more attention to prayer, by controlling one's self and showing patience and forgiveness in the face of offenses, or by gaining authentic knowledge. Another way of exerting oneself in the way of God is by physical fighting to stop oppression and injustice

VE: David Cook comments that in reading Muslim literature - both contemporary and classical – one can see that the evidence for the primacy of spiritual jihad is negligible. Is the claim of spiritual jihad made only by western scholars who study Sufism and by those who work for interfaith dialogue?
HR: References to spiritual jihad are to be found in the earliest traditions of Islam itself and do not originate from western scholars who study Sufism or from those who work for interfaith dialogue. For example, after his companions had returned from a military campaign in defense of the community in Medina, the Prophet Muhammad said: "We have returned from the lesser (asghar) jihad to the greater (akbar) jihad."1 This is a clear indication from the time of the Prophet Muhammad himself that the so-called 'spiritual' form of jihad was considered greater (akbar) than the military form of jihad, which was considered 'lesser' (asghar).
Furthermore, the earliest commentators on the Qur'an state clearly that references to military forms of jihad in the Qur'an are always made within a specific context and relate to specific groups of people. References to jihad in the Qur'an are never meant to provide Muslims with a general permission to attack Jews and Christians.2 After the Prophet Muhammad's death, the two factors most influential in accounting for conversion to Islam were not military jihad but Sufism and trade. "The mystic and the merchant were the most successful 'missionaries' of Islam."3 Only in recent times has the relationship between Zionist and jihadi groups become strained. According to Shah-Kazemi, "even so fierce a critic of Islam as Bernard Lewis cannot but confirm the facts of history as regards the true character of Muslim-Jewish relations until recent times."4 I would say the evidence goes against the view that the overwhelming majority of classical theologians, jurists and traditionalists understood the obligation of jihad in a military sense. In other words, throughout the history of Islam, jihad has been more often understood as 'struggle' or 'effort' in the widest sense of the term, as I explained earlier.

VE: What could be the underlying reasons for what is referred to as Islamic terrorism in India and the rest of the world?
HR: The term 'Islamic terrorism' does not refer to anything that can be documented and so should not be used to describe what some Muslims do who resort to acts of terror. The underlying reasons for what some Muslim do when they commit acts of terror could be the intense anger many Muslims feel about the political and military aggression of the developed West towards Middle Eastern countries, especially towards Palestine and Iraq. A common perception of Muslims is that these Western powers are motivated by their own need for power and influence in the world in order to guarantee the supply of energy. Western powers are also perceived to operate according to double standards, advocating democracy and human rights in Muslim countries provided these support and bolster Western national interests. While no form of terrorism can ever be justified, terrorism by Muslims could perhaps be understood as an ex-pression of the intense frustration felt by oppressed and humiliated Muslims who resort to extreme acts of terror as the only response that is left for them to make
Military or violent jihad is not the product of the classical tradition of Islam but a creation of modern ideological thinking. Although the causes of terrorism cannot be found in the classical tradition of Islam, the detrimental effects of globalisation may contribute to an understanding of the roots of terrorism. The recent Congregation of the Society of Jesus found the roots of violence in the loss of sovereignty and national respect. Perhaps violence perpetrated by Muslims could be explained in these terms as well: A political consequence of globalisation has been the weakening of political sovereignty experienced by many nation-states all over the world. Some states feel this phenomenon as a particular type of global marginalisation and the loss of national respect. Transnational interests, unconstrained by national laws and often abetted by corruption, frequently exploit the natural resources of the poor. Powerful economic groups foment violence, war, and arms trafficking. The Decrees of General Congregation 35, Decree 3, par 26.

VE: Are Muslims doing enough to counter terrorism? What have they done so far?
: Many Muslims themselves feel they are not doing enough to counter terrorism. During one of the recent Doha debates (, Muslims who won the debate were arguing that many Arab countries were not doing enough to promote democracy and education or to speak out against the misappropriation of Islam by Islamist movements. Many Muslims reject the way that the classical sources of Islam are being misinterpreted in the world today and are expressing their views on the web

VE: In what ways can the government and civil society respond to the problem of terrorism?
: Terrorism takes on a different form in each country or region. There is, therefore, no single response to the phenomenon of terrorism. Governments should never lose sight of the fact that the majority of people (in this case, Muslims) are opposed to violence and would cooperate with any suitable methods of responding to terrorism that do not end up oppressing people and using the same violent methods that the terrorists themselves use.

VE: Recently, you have studied the work of a scholar from Azamgarh in India called Amin Ahsan Islahi, who later moved to Lahore in Pakistan and wrote a nine-volume commentary on the Qur'an that is well known throughout the Muslim world of the sub-continent. What does this commentary say about the military form of jihad ('fighting in the way of God') mentioned in the Qur'an (Surah Baqarah, verse 190)?
HR: Islahi understands the Qur'an against the background of the moral and political victory of the Muslims over their enemies, the Quraysh, who were the political leaders of Mecca during the lifetime of the Prophet. Islahi sees the Qur'an as providing the 'action-plan'5 for the moral and political victory of Muslims in the modern world. For Islahi, the Qur'an contains important instructions that contemporary Muslims need to follow in order to achieve a similar political victory. However, Islahi attributes such victory to rather narrow religious categories of piety and obedience to the will of God rather than to broader considerations of moral integrity and professional competency. Consequently, readers of Islahi's commentary on the Qur'an could conclude that, just as the Prophet Muhammad achieved victory in his lifetime, Muslims in the world today can and should achieve a similar political victory. Furthermore, they could assume that moral and political victory should be achieved only by political or military means and overlook the fact that the Prophet spent many years undergoing various kinds of hardship in Mecca during which he did not engage in political or military activities at all but displayed such human qualities as understanding, tolerance and patience. Professor Siddiqui, who teaches at Aligarh Muslim University, argues that the patience and tolerance of the Prophet during this early period of his life should be an example for Muslims in countries where they form the minority today.6 Even after the Prophet left Mecca and moved to Medina, he used a variety of means to deal with the on-going conflict between Muslims and unbelievers in a peaceful way. The jihad activity arising out of Medina was not primarily of a military nature. According to David Dakake, "the notion of a militant Islam cannot be supported by any educated reading of the source materials, be they the Qur'an and its commentaries, the hadith tradition, or the early Islamic historical works."7 Readers of the commentary by Islahi that I studied should be careful not to draw conclusions about jihad that are not based on the earliest source materials. If not read carefully, Islahi's commentary could lead a hasty reader to conclude that the jihad advocated in the Qur'an is primarily of a political or military nature.
Furthermore, students of Islahi's commentary could assume that the Prophet Muhammad's subsequent victorious return to Mecca could be repeated in the modern world simply by the strength of one's religious conviction and commitment – thereby neglecting the political and social competency that such a victory demands. Real competence is based on adequate knowledge and experience. The Prophet Muhammad was successful because of the delicate combination of his human qualities with his religious faith. His followers will not be successful without combining human and religious qualities and skills in a similar way. Relying on religious fervour alone and neglecting to cultivate other essential human qualities will not result in true progress. In the multicultural societies of today, any 'victory' or success that tries to bypass efforts to promote inter- religious understanding and harmony will be short lived

1 A hadith quoted in David Dakake, "The Myth of a Militant Islam", in Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition – Essays by Western Muslim Scholars, edited by Joseph E.B. Lumbard, Indiana: World Wisdom, 2004, p. 3.
2 Cf. David Dakake, ibid, p. 10, where he explicitly mentions al-Tabari (839-923 C.E), one of the earliest and most famous of the Qur'anic commentators.
3 "Recollecting the Spirit of Jihad", by Reza Shah-Kazemi in Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, ibid, p. 126.
4 Ibid, pp. 127-28.
5 Islahi uses the Urdu word 'naqsha' which I have translated as 'action plan'. Cf. Islahi's commentary on the Qur'an: Tadabbur-i-Qur'an, by Amin Ahsan Islahi, Lahore: Faran Foundation, 1984, Surah Al Hud, volume 4, p. 137.
6 Cf. The Prophet Muhammad – A Role Model for Muslim Minorities, by Muhammad Yasin Mazhar Siddiqui, Leicestershire: The Islamic Foundation, 2006.
7 David Dakake, "The Myth of a Militant Islam", in ibid, p. 28.

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