Inventing “Jihad”

Last week, in the wake of Russian-led investigation, it was reported that when Tamerlan Tsarnaev was in Russia last year he arrived there with “an avid interest in waging jihad.” Although friends and family tried to dissuade him from turning to militance, he is said to have come increasingly under the sway of radical Salafist rhetoric found especially on the internet.

This depiction fits in well with the overall religious profile that emerged of him in the press—he had apparently started to assert a more conscious Muslim identity, had taken to praying and had given up drinking alcohol. Coupled with his Chechen background and apparent interest in radical Islamist narratives, the very word “jihad” was enough, for the average news reader, to account for the violence he and his brother carried out in Boston.

After all, are not religious male Muslims supposed to carry out the military jihad against non-Muslims as an essential requirement of their faith?

Such popular perceptions of jihad are often predicated on the assumptions that a) jihad is relentless, bloody warfare to be waged by Muslims (en masse) against non-Muslims (en masse) until Islam occupies the whole world or till the end of time—whichever occurs first; and b) when Muslims argue that a true military jihad is only defensive and conditional while the internal, nonviolent jihad is continuous and unconditional, they are deliberately dissembling about the real nature of jihad and their religion.

It is not only anti-Islamic websites that list such perceptions; popular media and mainstream publications also contribute to the formation of such views. Militant Islamist websites and print literature reinforce such ideas. More sophisticated and/or sympathetic sources will often refer to the “greater” and “lesser” jihad—or the spiritual versus the physical jihad—and the greater importance of the former. However, the assertion that Muslims as a collectivity must continue to wage a military jihad against non-Muslims in order to expand Muslim realms while observing humanitarian codes of conduct against civilians is more or less accepted as a given, even by many specialists of Islam. The proof-texts invoked in support of such a position are medieval Islamic legal texts, which frequently did list such a requirement as part of the duties of the Muslim ruler and established furthermore an elaborate code of conduct for initiating war.

And this is where we must look deeper. Privileging the legal literature above other kinds of literature—particularly the exegetical literature on the Qur’an and ethical treatises—in discussions of jihad almost inevitably leads to the conclusion that it is primarily a collective military obligation incumbent upon able-bodied Muslim men in the service of state and religion. And because what we call Islamic law is assumed to be derived directly from the Qur’an and the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), such an obligation is assumed to be mandated by Islam itself.

But if we put on our historical glasses a considerably different picture emerges. The earliest connotations of jihad had to do with patient forbearance in the face of harm and stoic, nonviolent resistance to wrongdoing.

After the famous emigration to Medina from his birthplace Mecca, Muhammad received divine permission to fight in self-defense, according to Qur’an 22:39-40. Muslims after all had been physically and verbally attacked for publicly practicing their religion and driven out of their homes unjustly; they were allowed to fight back but only to the extent that they had been harmed. Recourse to defensive fighting was established for Muslims not for the sake of religion but for the protection of their lives and property, as well as potentially those of non-Muslims who faced similar persecution, according to Qur’an 22:39-40.

However, Qur’an 8:61 also warned that should the adversary refrain from fighting and incline towards peace, Muslims had to reciprocate. Another critical verse (Qur’an 2:190) unequivocally forbids Muslims from attacking the enemy first. Accordingly, early exegetes in particular insisted that Muslims could only fight back after they had been attacked—no ifs or buts—and had to put down their weapons when the other side did.

Some were also of the opinion that the Qur’anic command to fight was only applicable to the first generation of Muslims who were contemporaries of Muhammad, known as the Companions, since the historical referent in the verses that deal with fighting are the hostile pagan Arabs of Mecca.

Such understandings, however, could and did prove inimical to the process of empire-building, and the need was soon felt in official and certain legal circles to promote the military jihad as a religiously meritorious activity. This is precisely what happened during the expansion of the Islamic empire after the death of Muhammad during the late seventh and eighth centuries of the Common Era.

Certain hawkish scholars, starting already in the late seventh century, framed Realpolitik concerns focused on security and territorial expansion in overtly religious idiom and sought to create theological imperatives for fighting on behalf of empire (recent American history indicates how powerful such pseudo-theological narratives in service of the state can be). Thus we observe that later exegetes and jurists began to make frequent exceptions to the injunction against committing aggression contained in Qur’an 2:190 and preferred to understand the verse as mandating primarily non-combatant immunity without placing any restriction on the Muslim army’s ability to commence fighting.

This progressive watering-down in later exegetical and legal literature of the categorical Qur’anic prohibition against initiating hostilities is revealing of the triumph of political realism over scriptural fidelity.

Some scholars from the later period continued to dispute this cooptation of jihad in the service of Realpolitik. These scholars’ main area of contention was with the legal position which came to view lack of adherence to Islam, rather than aggression on the part of the adversary, as the casus belli for the military jihad, a position they regarded as unethical and morally impermissible.

These revisionist conclusions regarding the historical trajectory of jihad have profound implications for the contemporary period. First, they draw our attention to the multiple meanings of jihad that are prevalent in the literature and challenge a monolithic, reductive understanding of the term. Second, they establish the defensive and limited nature of fighting in the Qur’an as stressed particularly by exegetes, ethicists, and moral theologians. Third, they allow for the contextualization of the legal positions that legitimized offensive military activity as contingent responses to specific political circumstances—which cannot therefore be deemed to be normatively binding for Muslims.

Fundamental Islamic perspectives on peace and war are thus discovered to be closely aligned with modern international norms of waging war and making peace. Classical Muslim juridical literature on the topic of international relations and statecraft taken by itself can and has obfuscated these parallels to a considerable extent, since political realism more than ethics and moral reasoning frequently informed such a genre.

Consultation of a broader repertoire of sources allows one to retrieve multiple perspectives on the permissibility of military activity and allows one to better comprehend the historical reasons for the transformation of the Qur’anic defensive jihad into offensive imperial warfare over time. Such a project of recovery allows Muslims to subscribe to contemporary international norms of defensive, limited war and pursue the preferential option for peace as a moral imperative established by their own tradition.

Above all, it allows all to credibly and cogently challenge the views touted in extremist literature produced by both militant Islamist groups and virulent Islamophobes today that militancy masquerading as cosmic holy war is the primary and most authentic meaning of the complex and multivalent Arabic term “jihad.”