What inspired you to write Striving in the Path of God?
This project was born in the aftermath of September 11. Because of the violent, nihilistic actions of a few, militancy became increasingly associated with Islam and Muslims and conflated with the Arabic term jihad. Hastily compiled, sensationalist books were written to capitalize on these popular sentiments; and, unfortunately, because there was a demand for this kind of literature, some of these books sold quite well. A few of them were also written by genuine academics.
For several years after 9/11, it was one of my favorite pastimes to browse the bookstores in airports in particular to check out the latest screed that had been published on the topic. All of this stoked a desire in me to write a book-length monograph soberly exploring the many dimensions of jihad as evident in different genres of Arabic language primary sources and to anchor these understandings in specific historical circumstances.
Finally, after winning a couple of grants, I was able to go on two sabbatical leaves and start researching and writing this book in earnest. It has taken me about eight years to complete it because I really wanted to provide a much more extensive discussion of jihad in all its aspects in both the pre-modern and modern periods and cover as much historical ground as possible within the limits of a single book.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
I hope the book will convey to readers that Muslims throughout history have engaged in spirited discussions of the full gamut of meanings ascribed to jihad, particularly as the term is deployed in the Qur’an.
This is clearly evident in especially the rich commentary literature produced through the centuries. This literature, which started already in the first century of Islam and continues till today, is arguably the best source for tracing the shifting trajectory of meanings ascribed to this term in varying social and political circumstances. The early scholars in their interpretations stayed very close to jihad as portrayed in the Qur’an—that it has to do primarily with nonviolent resistance to wrongdoing, that fighting when it becomes necessary is of a limited, defensive nature and that Muslims must accede to peacemaking when the other side lays down its arms.
When the Qur’an describes how Muslims must resolutely fight back against a brutal and duplicitous enemy, it is already within the context of a battle underway and one that has been initiated by the adversary. The Qur’an categorically prohibits Muslims from starting hostilities, which it condemns as an illicit act of aggression. That some jurists close to the ruling elite in Syria and then Iraq sought to circumvent this categorical prohibition through legal and hermeneutical ruses—because frankly it got in the way of empire-building—reminds us that scripture can be made to yield multiple, competing meanings depending on who gets to do the interpreting.
Political loyalties, class, and gender have all been factors in shaping classical interpretations of the Qur’an. A diachronic comparison of early and late commentaries is highly revealing of the interpretive changes that crept in due to specific historical and political contingencies.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
I had to leave out the legal literature because the manuscript had already gotten too long. But now I am glad that it worked out that way—the legal corpus concerning the military jihad is the most written about on this topic and it is this kind of literature that has fostered the notion that the military aspect of jihad is its most important one. Jurists typically were concerned with issues of state security and international law and therefore the legal manuals customarily dealt with jihad through a Realpolitik lens.
If we are to achieve a more holistic understanding of what jihad is all about, we have to canvass many more different genres of texts, starting of course with the Qur’an and its exegesis, the hadith literature containing the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as works of ethics and edification that were concerned with the overall moral formation of the individual and reform of the larger society. By not focusing on the legal literature, I was able to incorporate these works at greater length in my study.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
Among the most persistent misconceptions is the conflation of jihad with another Arabic word qital, which means fighting. Fighting is indeed a part of jihad but it is only one component of it. Another essential component of jihad is sabr, which I translate as “patient forbearance,” and which I discuss at considerable length in the book. While defensive fighting—in response to a prior attack by hostile forces—is a temporary and conditional dimension of jihad, the practice of patient forbearance is an enduring and constant dimension of jihad. The basic meaning of jihad is struggle and striving in all aspects of human life, as the title of the book reminds, for which one always needs the attribute of patient endurance.
To reduce jihad to simply fighting is a terrible misrepresentation of the spectrum of meanings contained within this critical concept.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
I hope the book will appeal to a broad audience of both specialists and non-specialists. I do warn non-specialists in the introduction that the book may appear a bit dense, especially in the earlier sections with their close attention to complex Arabic texts and the insertion of diacritics throughout. I hope however they will persevere till the latter chapters which deal with modern contestations of the meanings of jihad and trace the genealogies of contemporary debates on this topic.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?
My main intention is to inform readers about the broad historical sweep of relevant discussions about jihad. If they are annoyed by the content of the book, so be it, although I hope they will find pleasure in reading it. In any case, I do hope that the book will contribute to the larger conversation about the parameters of jihad within and outside academia, and perhaps even in policy-making circles.
What alternative title would you give the book?
Simply “War and Peace in the Islamic Tradition,” since ultimately jihad is invoked in both these dichotomous situations. I may down the road produce a synopsis of the current book under this very title.
How do you feel about the cover?
Since I essentially chose it, I feel very good about it! I basically wanted an arabesque design with attractive colors that would be both understated and eye-catching at the same time.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
This book has consumed so many of my waking hours to date that I have not had a chance to think about an alternative to it. I am at the moment just relieved to have completed it and am eager to move on to my next project.
What’s your next book?
I plan to complete next a monograph by the title of “Contemporary Issues in Islam.”
This volume, already under contract with Edinburgh University Press, will consist of a series of linked essays dealing with contemporary debates among Muslims concerning issues such as negotiating modernity itself, Qur’anic hermeneutics; the politicization of Islam; gender issues, and not surprisingly, interpretations of jihad.
While the book necessarily focuses on the modern period, its central premise is that the contemporary situations in which Muslims find themselves in cannot be understood without exploring their continuities and discontinuities with the past, as remembered and interpreted in competing ways by Muslims themselves. As with Striving in the Path of God, this longue-durée approach de-reifies the Islamic tradition.
It further helps to undermine the often ideologically-motivated position that Islamic thought is univocal and ossified and that there is a fundamental “clash of civilizations” between a monolithic, frozen Islamic world and a monolithic but dynamic West. Part of the argument I will be making in the book is that if there is indeed a clash of world-views today, then that clash is to be found more among Muslims themselves rather than between Muslims and non-Muslims on a number of critical issues.