Why don't scholars admit that holy war means war?

October 3, 2003

Jihad is a fundamentally martial concept, but, Daniel Pipes says, most US specialists on Islam paint it as a struggle for self-improvement and social justice and, in doing so, camouflage the very real armed threat it poses.

In June 2002, the faculty of Harvard College selected a graduating senior named Zayed Yasin to deliver a speech at the university's commencement exercises. When the title of the speech - My American Jihad - was announced, it quite naturally aroused questions. Why, it was asked, should Harvard wish to promote the concept of jihad - or "holy war" - just months after thousands of Americans had lost their lives to a jihad carried out by 19 suicide hijackers acting in the name of Islam?

Yasin, a past president of the Harvard Islamic Society, had a ready answer.

To connect jihad to warfare, he said, was to misunderstand it. Rather: "In the Muslim tradition, jihad represents a struggle to do the right thing."

His own purpose, Yasin added, was to "reclaim the word for its true meaning, which is inner struggle".

To be sure, Yasin was not a scholar of Islam, and neither was the Harvard dean, Michael Shinagel, who endorsed Yasin's "thoughtful oration" and declared in his own name that jihad is a personal struggle "to promote justice and understanding in ourselves and in our society". But they both accurately reflected the consensus of Islamic specialists at their institution, such as David Mitten, a professor of classical art and archaeology as well as faculty adviser to the Harvard Islamic Society, for whom true jihad is "the constant struggle of Muslims to conquer their inner base instincts, to follow the path to God and to do good in society".

Harvard's scholars are not exceptional in this regard. As I discovered through an examination of media statements by university-based specialists, they tend to portray the phenomenon of jihad in a remarkably similar fashion -the portrait, however, happens to be false.

A survey of two dozen scholars' contributions to US newspapers and television discussions (and specifically not their scholarly writings) shows that only one speaks candidly about jihad. Hamid Algar of the University of California, Berkeley, scorns the mealy-mouthed post-9/11 apologetics of his colleagues, whereby jihad is "redefined as a form of self-improvement -like kicking tobacco was an act of jihad".

Algar is refreshingly honest about his religion: "People keep saying: 'Islam is a religion of peace.' Well, that's true, but not under all circumstances." Of the other professors, just four admit that jihad has some military component and even they, with but one exception, insist that this component is purely defensive in nature. Thus, John Esposito of Georgetown University, Washington DC, perhaps the most visible academic scholar of Islam in the US, holds that "in the struggle to be a good Muslim, there may be times where one will be called upon to defend one's faith and community. Then [jihad] can take on the meaning of armed struggle".

To half a dozen scholars in my survey, jihad may indeed include militarily defensive engagements, but this meaning is secondary to lofty notions of moral self-improvement. Charles Kimball, chairman of the department of religion at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, puts it succinctly: Jihad "means struggling or striving on behalf of God. The great jihad for most is a struggle against oneself. The lesser jihad is the outward, defensive jihad." But an even larger contingent -nine of those professors surveyed -deny that jihad has any military meaning at all. For Farid Eseck, professor of Islamic studies at Auburn Seminary in New York City, jihad is "resisting apartheid or working for women's rights".

Finally, there are those academics who focus on jihad in the sense of "self-purification" and universalise it, applying it to non-Muslims as well as Muslims and treating it as something all Americans should admire. Bruce Lawrence, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, holds that non-Muslims should cultivate "a civil virtue known as jihad".

This accumulated wisdom of the scholars suggests that Osama bin Laden had no idea what he was saying when he declared jihad on the US several years ago and then repeatedly murdered Americans in Somalia, at the US embassies in East Africa, in the port of Aden, and then in New York and Washington DC on 9/11. It implies that organisations with the word "jihad" in their titles are grossly misnamed. But it is bin Laden, the jihad organisations and jihadists worldwide who define the term, not a covey of academic apologists. More important, the jihadists' understanding of the term is in keeping with its usage over 14 centuries of Islamic history.

In pre-modern times, jihad meant mainly one thing among Sunni Muslims, then, as now, the Islamic majority. It meant the legal, compulsory, communal effort to expand the territories ruled by Muslims at the expense of territories ruled by non-Muslims. In this prevailing conception, the purpose of jihad is political, not religious. It aims not so much to spread the Islamic faith as to extend sovereign Muslim power (though the former has often followed the latter). The goal is boldly offensive, and its ultimate intent is nothing less than to achieve Muslim dominion over the entire world. As for the conditions under which jihad might be undertaken - when, by whom, against whom, how war is declared, how it is ended and so on -these are matters that religious scholars worked out in excruciating detail over the centuries. But about the basic meaning of jihad -warfare against unbelievers to extend Muslim domains -Jthere was perfect consensus.

Jihad was no abstract obligation through the centuries but a key aspect of Muslim life. According to one calculation, Muhammad himself engaged in 78 battles, of which just one (the Battle of the Ditch) was defensive. Within a century of the prophet's death in 632, Muslim armies had reached as far as India in the east and Spain in the west. Important victories in subsequent centuries included the 17 Indian campaigns of Mahmud of Ghazna (971?-1030), the battle of Manzikert opening Anatolia (1071), the conquest of Constantinople (1453) and the triumphs of Uthman dan Fodio in West Africa (1804-17). In brief, jihad was part of the warp and woof not only of pre-modern Muslim doctrine but of pre-modern Muslim life.

That said, jihad also had two variant meanings over the ages, one of them more radical than the standard meaning and one quite pacific. The first, associated mainly with the thinker Ibn Taymiya (1268-1328), holds that born Muslims who fail to live up to the requirements of their faith are themselves to be considered unbelievers, and so legitimate targets of jihad. This tended to come in handy when (as was often the case) one Muslim ruler made war against another; only by portraying the enemy as not Muslim could the war be dignified as a jihad. The second variant, usually associated with Sufis, or Muslim mystics, was the doctrine customarily translated as "greater jihad" but perhaps more usefully termed "higher jihad". This invokes allegorical modes of interpretation to turn jihad's literal meaning of armed conflict upside-down, calling instead for a withdrawal from the world to struggle against one's baser instincts in pursuit of numinous awareness and spiritual depth. But as Rudolph Peters notes in his authoritative Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam (1995), this interpretation was "hardly touched upon" in pre-modern legal writings on jihad. In the vast majority of pre-modern cases, jihad signified one thing only: armed action against non-Muslims.

Things today are somewhat more complicated, as Islam has undergone contradictory changes resulting from its contact with western influences.

Muslims having to cope with the West have tended to adopt one of three broad approaches: Islamist, reformist or secularist. Secularists (such as Kemal Atatürk) reject jihad in its entirety. Islamists, besides adhering to the primary conception of jihad as armed warfare against infidels, have also adopted Ibn Taymiya's call to target putatively Muslim rulers who fail to live up to or apply the laws of Islam. Reformists reinterpret Islam to make it compatible with western ways. They have worked to transform the idea of jihad into a purely defensive undertaking compatible with the premises of international law. This approach, characterised in 1965 by the Encyclopedia of Islam as "wholly apologetic", owes far more to western than to Islamic thinking. In our own day, it has evolved into what Martin Kramer has dubbed "a kind of Oriental Quakerism", and it, together with a revival of the Sufi notion of "greater jihad", is what has emboldened some to deny that jihad has any martial component whatsoever, instead redefining the idea into a purely spiritual or social activity.

For most Muslims today, it is the classic notion of jihad that resonates.

This goes far to explain the immense appeal of a figure such as bin Laden after 9/11. Yasin may have assured his Harvard audience that "jihad is not something that should make someone feel uncomfortable," but this concept has caused and continues to cause not merely discomfort but untold human suffering.

Islamists seeking to advance their agenda in western, non-Muslim environments -for example, as lobbyists in Washington -cannot frankly divulge their views and still remain players in the political game. To avoid arousing fears and isolating themselves, these individuals and organisations usually cloak their true outlook in moderate language, at least when addressing the non-Muslim public. When referring to jihad, they adopt the terminology of reformists, presenting warfare as decidedly secondary to the goal of inner struggle and social betterment. Such talk is pure disinformation, reminiscent of the language of Soviet front groups in decades past.

An example of it was on offer at the trial of John Walker Lindh, the Californian teenager who went off to wage jihad on behalf of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. At his sentencing in October 2002, Lindh told the court that, in common with "mainstream Muslims around the world", he understood jihad as a variety of activities ranging "from striving to overcome one's own personal faults, to speaking out for the truth in adverse circumstances, to military action in the defence of justice". That a jihadist caught in the act of offensive armed warfare should unashamedly proffer so mealy-mouthed a definition of his actions may seem extraordinary. But it is perfectly in tune with the explaining-away of jihad promoted by academic specialists and Islamist organisations engaging in public relations.

For use of the term in its plain meaning, we have to turn to Islamists not so engaged. Such Islamists speak openly of jihad in its proper, martial, sense. Here is bin Laden: Allah "orders us to carry out the holy struggle, jihad, to raise the word of Allah above the words of the unbelievers". And Mullah Muhammad Omar, the former head of the Taliban regime, exhorting Muslim youth: "Head for jihad and have your guns ready."

It is an intellectual scandal that, since 9/11, scholars at US universities have repeatedly issued public statements that avoid or whitewash the primary meaning of jihad in Islamic law and Muslim history. It is as if historians of medieval Europe were to deny that the word "crusade" ever had martial overtones, instead pointing to such terms as "crusade on hunger" or "crusade against drugs" to show that the term signifies an effort to improve society.

Among today's academic specialists who have undertaken to sanitise this key Islamic concept, many are no doubt acting out of the impulses of political correctness and the multiculturalist urge to protect a non-western civilisation from criticism by making it appear just like our own. As for Islamists among those academics, at least some have a different purpose: they are endeavouring to camouflage a threatening concept by rendering it in terms acceptable within university discourse. Westerners struggling to make sense of the war declared on them in the name of jihad have every reason to be deeply confused as to who their enemy is and what his goals are. Even people who think they know that jihad means holy war are susceptible to the combined efforts of scholars and Islamists brandishing notions such as "resisting apartheid" or "working for women's rights". The result is to cloud reality, obstructing the possibility of achieving a clear, honest understanding of what and whom we are fighting, and why.

This is an edited extract from a new chapter in Daniel Pipes' book Militant Islam Reaches America , published by WW Norton on October 14, £9.99.

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