Jihad: The True Belief
by Stephen Schwartz
Ed Hayes is described as a "student of Islam," but his fairly perfunctory analysis of jihad on openDemocracy is of the kind often produced by people with only a superficial knowledge of the religion and its history.
Let me begin by pointing out that I am something other than a student of Islam: I am a Muslim.
The word jihad has of course become a source of misunderstanding in the west, but confusion about the concept is not limited to those non-Muslims who use it as a scare word. Both Muslims and non-Muslims who limit their discussion of jihad to the typical distinction between the jihad of war and the jihad of personal striving, foster another (and in many respects equally negative) error.
Those who, in the Muslim global community or umma, propagate the view that military jihad may be waged indiscriminately, by whoever proclaims his right to do so, and who add to this falsehood the criminal claim that military jihad comprises acts of terror against civilians, bear much more responsibility for the use of jihad as a scare word than the worst Islamophobes in the west.
Obviously, these Islamophobes would not be able to function without the ammunition handed to them by bad Muslims or munafiqin (hypocrites). Introducing a new, foreign concept like jihad into the common western vocabulary is no easy task, even with the immense resources of governments, media, and public relations. Misunderstanding of the term jihad would not exist without the extensive campaigns of terrorist bodies like Islamic Jihad in Egypt and elsewhere. These groups misused the term, and traditional Muslims are now forced to pay the bill, so to speak, in terms of western fear and contempt toward the faith of Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Bad theology, flawed politics: the rotten Saudi regime
The flaw in Hayes' commentary is that it lacks the historical and juristic context necessary for comprehending any Islamic concept – because Islam is not simply a set of citations, whether from the Koran or from other aspects of the blessed Sunnah. Islam is based on reason as well as revelation, and to understand its principles one must grasp the origins and nature of the debates that have accompanied them.
Hayes' failure to provide context for his presentation is exemplified by his citation, without further comment, of Ibn Taymiyya, whom he describes neutrally as a "13th century Syrian scholar." In reality, Ibn Taymiyya is a highly controversial figure in the history of Islam. Hayes cites his definition of jihad as "to do one's utmost – all that one possibly can, in order to do that which God loves and repel that which he hates." But none other than Osama bin Laden quotes Ibn Taymiyya to support his terror programme, as follows: "Nothing is a greater obligation than repelling the aggressive enemy who corrupts the religion and this world – except faith itself."
Hayes seems ignorant of Ibn Taymiyya's role as the predecessor of the modern, ultra-extremist Wahhabi sect of Islam, the state religion in Saudi Arabia, and its ultra-violent view of jihad. Traditional Muslims have serious problems with Ibn Taymiyya – in the first instance because he, like other extreme adherents of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, defined this effort to do what God loves (good) and repel what God hates (evil) in the manner of today's Saudi religious militia, the mutawwiyya. That is, they arrogated to themselves the capacity to judge good and evil beyond the guidance embodied in the Sunnah.
In reality, the Koran, the hadith (oral comments of the Prophet [pbuh]), and the corpus of Islamic law are notably restrained in their judgments of human action; they affirm that, finally, only the merciful and compassionate creator judges people's conduct. Further, traditional Islamic jurisprudence limits human authority to judge individual cases, except on the basis of precedent and analogy.
In an exchange with Ibn Taymiyya, the jurist Ibn Ata Allah al-Iskandari, a follower of Sufism or Islamic spirituality, and a representative of the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, brilliantly scored the narrow outlook of what we might call Islamic Puritans, in terms that could well describe the mentality of the Wahhabi-Saudi establishment today.
Ibn Ata Allah compared the extreme Hanbali belief in forbidding any behaviour that might lead to sin with "prohibit[ing] grapes because they are means to making wine, and castrat[ing] unmarried men because not to do so leaves in the world a means to commit fornication and adultery." It is said that at this comment both sheikhs, Ibn Ata Allah and Ibn Taymiyya, were moved to laughter.
But Ibn Ata Allah also pointed out that Ahmad bin Hanbal, founder of the school, "questioned the actions of some of his own followers who were in the habit of going on patrols, breaking open casks of wine (in the shops of Christian vendors or wherever they found them), and spilling their contents on the floor, beating up singing girls, and aggressively confronting people in the street. All of this they did in the name of enjoining good and prohibiting what is forbidden. However, [Ahmad bin Hanbal] had not given any fatwa that they should censure or rebuke all those people. Consequently, those followers of his were flogged, thrown into jail, and paraded mounted on the back of an ass, facing the tail."
Ibn Ata Allah described such vigilance patrols as "bad behavior which the worst and most vicious Hanbalis continue to perpetrate right down to our own day, in the name of enjoining good and prohibiting what is forbidden."
Unfortunately, such patrols are more prevalent than ever in Saudi Arabia, where until the recent aggravation of the country's internal crisis, all public and private space was terrorised by the mutawwiyya or "devotees," bearing the precise title, "the League for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice," and operating through local units, or Public Morals Committees, acting as Wahhabi eyes and ears among the masses. With Saudi backing, a similar body was established in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
In the wake of the Riyadh bombings of 2003, the figure of Ibn Taymiyya symbolised, in public discourse, the inner rot of the Saudi regime. An article in the reformist daily al-Watan was headlined, "Who is more important? The nation or Ibn Taymiyya"? Soon after it appeared, Jamal Khashoggi, editor of al-Watan and former deputy editor of Arab News, was dismissed from his post at the order of the interior minister, Prince Nayef.
The nature of military jihad
How, then, does this general context apply to the question of military jihad?
One thing is certain: military jihad cannot be written out of Islam or Islamic history to placate western sensibilities. The exalted Ottoman state, the greatest Islamic empire in history, pursued military jihad more successfully than any other Muslim power. Furthermore, in one of its most intelligent and humane actions, the Ottoman sultanate rescued the Spanish and Portuguese Jews from persecution at the end of the 15th century, and did so explicitly in the name of jihad against the cruelty of Christian rulers.
Nor can military jihad be edited out of the history of Muslim communities defending themselves from Christian aggression. While Sufis are frequently held up as the exemplars of the personal, inner jihad of striving for perfection, not all Sufis can be expected to be pacifists. Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi, leader of the Algerian Muslim struggle against the French 150 years ago, was a Sufi, who made protection of Christians and Jews his outstanding mission in times of war. The greatest Arab jihad fighter of his time, he wrote that Sufis found participation in jihad the most difficult duty they incurred as Muslims.
Until the recent campaign by Saudi agents of the extremist Wahhabi sect to subvert their struggle, the Chechens who fought against Russian imperialism were overwhelmingly members of two famous and combative Sufi orders, the Naqshbandis and Qadiris. Caucasian Muslim warriors against the Russians were the outstanding Sufis of the second half of the 19th century, exemplified above all by Imam Shamil, who, like Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi, made protection of non-combatants, especially civilian non-Muslims, the essential principle of the struggle. In addition, Shamil and his mujahideen (jihad fighters), along with other great heroes of jihad, always looked for ways to win victory without violence.
In traditional Islam, military jihad is a rational system of combat fought according to strict rules. Military jihad cannot be initiated or declared by local figures, political agitators, or bandit-like chiefs. It must be sanctioned by the caliph or emir al-muminin (commander of the faithful). Today, no figure in the Islamic ummah is granted this title; no caliphate exists that would grant authority to wage jihad.
This is one of several reasons why the Bosnian Muslims, although suffering horrific casualties and cruelties that many thought would never be repeated in Europe after the Holocaust, did not declare their righteous struggle to be a jihad; nor do the majority of traditional Muslims among the Chechens, who are undergoing ghastly atrocities at the hands of Vladimir Putin. Declaration of jihad outside the bounds of traditional Islamic law is a habit limited to political extremists, opportunists, adventurers, and terrorists. In addition, military jihad in traditional Islam was waged by regular armies against other regular armies, and seldom by irregulars or guerrillas; and it is never carried out against women, children, the aged, the infirm, and non-combatants in general.
Moreover, traditional Islam does not support jihad against non-Muslim rulers who do not "interfere with the call to prayer," i.e. those that do not obstruct the believers from the practice and preaching of the faith, from supporting their families and carrying out their business. By this standard, many western governments may legitimately demand the loyalty of their Muslim subjects. This may lead some to fantasies about the "house of war" (dar ul-harb) and "house of peace" (dar ul-Islam), another pretext for confusion in western media. But that must wait for another occasion.
A betrayal of Islam
The superficiality of Ed Hayes' comments is not limited to his remarks on Ibn Taymiyya. He has also made a distasteful comparison between the deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Salah-ud-din, the Muslim liberator of Jerusalem. Such parallels have become common among westerners who view Salah-ud-din as a fearful personage. In reality, however, Salah-ud-din was a Kurd, and therefore a representative of a nation massacred by Saddam. Furthermore, Salah-ud-din was, like the Turkish sultans, a friend of the Jews, whose first act in retaking Jerusalem was to order the reopening of synagogues that had been closed by the Christian crusaders. Indeed, the great Jewish philosopher and lawgiver Maimonides was Salah-ud-din's physician.
Hayes has also stated incorrectly that in Islam today "suicide bombing is often supported, as in the case of Palestinians and Chechens." In reality, the defence of Palestinian suicide terrorism represents a political incursion into Islam by a powerful interest group, centred in Saudi Wahhabi doctrine, that has betrayed the spirit of Islam in the interest of the struggle against Israel. It is seldom noted that Palestinian terrorism was a non-Muslim phenomenon until the 1990s. Before then, Palestinian terrorists were drawn from the ranks of leftist movements like Arafat's Fatah. Notwithstanding the great and understandable pressure on Arab Muslim clerics to support Palestinian suicide terrorism, Islamic opinion worldwide is by no means united on this topic.
And there is virtually no support in the umma for suicide terrorism by Wahhabi elements who have infiltrated the Chechen movement. While it may seem wholly counter-intuitive to westerners intoxicated by media and political Chechenophobia, the majority of Chechen fighters are traditional Muslims who pursue combat "in Allah's way," by honourable rules.
Above all, the "jihad" of Osama bin Laden, like that of Ibn Taymiyya before him, is waged first and foremost against Muslims, and especially against Muslim rulers that these upstarts have judged, by the standards of spurious piety, to be insufficient as believers. The lack of standing of Osama bin Laden to make such judgments is clear: he is credited by westerners with writing fatawa (plural of fatwa) when he lacks even the most basic religious credentials.
The fake "jihad" of the terrorists is an abominable betrayal of Islamic belief, Islamic tradition, Islamic history, and the achievements of Islamic civilisation. The valiant jihad fighters who led the Ottoman armies to the gates of Vienna were not marginal vagrants vomited up from the cities of Saudi Arabia, who decided one day to kill innocents out of fanaticism. They were normal men and disciplined soldiers. They would treat today's "Islamic" terrorists with the severity they deserve.