Jul 302009

This is the “Introduction” to the third edition of the book Jihad in the Qur’an

There has been much disagreement and differing views about what Islam really teaches. This debate has not raged between Muslims and non-Muslims only, but different Muslim groups have also adopted contradictory views, so no wonder that non-Muslims do not share one common understanding. Jihad is one of those hotly contested Islamic concepts, having generated so much disagreement and diametrically opposed interpretations. In the Western media, jihad is often used in Islamophobic contexts where it is presented as denoting the killing of innocent people, often non-Muslims, by militant Muslimsfor a political cause. An additional slant occasionally put on this definition makes this killing the fate of those who resist being forced into embracing Islam. Yet many Muslims argue, as this book does, that jihad is a concept about spiritual development that has no more to do with violence than, say, nationalism or democracy. These have also been abused to justify committing all kinds of violence, including starting devastating wars. There are a number of causes for the development of such contrasting views of jihad.

First, although the Qur’an is the only sacred book of Islam, it is not the only source used to derive Islamic teachings from. The other main source is the compilations of sayings and doings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, known as “hadith.” These reports — which are also referred to as “sunnah,” which means “way of life” — were first recorded almost 100 years after the Prophet and contain inconsistent and even contradictory accounts. Different Muslim groups disagree about which compilations are more authentic, with the two biggest branches of Islam, Sunnism and Shiasm, adopting different sources of hadith.

But even scholars within any one school of thought or denomination differ on the authenticity of various alleged Prophetic sayings and doings! Yet all agree that many sayings and actions attributed to the Prophet have been fabricated by various people over time for a variety of purposes. Nevertheless, hadith has been extensively used for interpreting and extrapolating the Qur’an and as the second source of legislation in Islam. For instance, punishment by stoning is not mentioned in the Qur’an, but its adherents argue that its reports in hadith establish its legitimacy. Similarly, the Qur’anic concept of jihad has been understood in various ways by different groups and individuals partly due to their influence by hadith.

This is why I focus in this book on studying the concept of jihad in the Qur’an. The Qur’an is the undisputed source of Islam and authority on all of its aspects. With its exclusive emphasis on the Qur’an, this book sets itself apart from other studies of jihad which, at best, mix with the Qur’an secondary religious and historical sources or, at worst, focus on them. I have quoted a few Prophetic sayings that are in line with Qur’anic verses I discuss. But I have consciously avoided using Prophetic sayings or any other sources to reach conclusions that the Qur’an does not explicitly support. Using only the Qur’an reveals a picture of jihad that is very different from its common image.

This source of misunderstanding jihad has claimed both Muslim and non-Muslim victims.

Second, in some Muslim countries and communities, the elite of religious leaders have adopted misguided views of Islamic concepts such as jihad. The potentially devastating influence of these twisted views is then realized by uninformed, often poorly educated, followers. These followers are separated from the reality of their religion by the scantiness of their knowledge of Islam — something that is sustained by their passive surrender to their misleading leaders. Their understanding of, say, jihad, is whatever they are taught by those leaders. This poor leadership is, at times, the result of genuine ignorance and poor understanding of Islam and, at others, the consequence of deliberate manipulation of Islamic teachings for power and personal gains.

There is a substantial difference between the effects of the ignorance of the average Muslim and the person who takes a pseudo educational and/or leading role in society. The latter creates a much wider audience, possibly of non-Muslims as well as Muslims, for his distorted version of Islamic teachings. This problem is made worse by the fact that so many Muslims inherit and accept a passive attitude toward self-education, relying uncritically and almost entirely on the teachings of whatever past or contemporary clerics or scholars they happen to know or learn about. Like any student, the seeker of knowledge needs teachers, but it is equally important that these teachers are genuine. The Qur’an enjoins on the Muslim seeking knowledge proactively. This involves more than total and uncritical reliance on the opinions of a couple of scholars. All of this is best illustrated in this Prophetic saying: 

He who initiates a good practice will earn a reward for that and a reward equal to the rewards of those who follow it, without the latter’s rewards reducing. He who initiates a bad practice will earn a sin for that and a sin equal to the sins of those who follow it, without the latter’s sins reducing. (Musnad Ahmad, saying 19719)

This tradition emphasizes the big responsibility of the teachers and the effect that they can have on society. At the same time, it does not take away the responsibility from those who follow pseudo teachers. A genuine learner would carefully scrutinize any claim made by a book, teacher, or any source of information. Commitment to seeking knowledge is an intrinsic part of Islam, and one aspect of this commitment is the careful examination of the available sources of information.

This source of misinformation about jihad has influenced mainly susceptible Muslims who follow such false leaders. But the West has also treated such leaders as legitimate presenters of jihad. Western media could have been a lot better informed about Islam and fairer in presenting it, but it has not been more culpable than those ignorant Muslims that it uses as sources of information on Islam.

Third, from its early days, Islam was subjected to deliberate distortion by followers of competing religions, mainly Christianity and Judaism. This propaganda continued down the centuries, although religion became only one of its drivers. Political and economic interests as well as a sense of cultural superiority have maintained those myths about Islam and make them deep-rooted in the Western mind. This is what the author of Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages says: 

There can be little doubt that at the moment of their formation these legends and fantasies were taken to represent a more or less truthful account of what they purported to describe. But as soon as they were produced they took on a literary life of their own. At the level of popular poetry, the picture of Mahomet and his Saracens changed very little from generation to generation. Like well-loved characters of fiction, they were expected to display certain characteristics, and authors faithfully reproduced them for hundreds of years. (Southern, 1978: 29)

Some Western commentators have tried to ignore this centuries-long trend of misinformation to try and suggest that the issues the world, by which they mean the Western world, currently has with Islam and Muslims are issues of today. Acknowledging that hostility to Islam has always occupied some space in the Western psyche would not produce an interesting and simplistic enough theory that explains international conflicts for those who prefer simplicity to accuracy and truth. For instance, in an article expressively titled The Age of Muslim Wars, professor Samuel Huntington, advocate of the controversial “Clash of Civilizations” theory, made the following sweeping statement: 

Contemporary global politics is the age of Muslim wars. Muslims fight each other and fight non-Muslims far more often than do peoples of other civilizations. Muslim wars have replaced the cold war as the principal form of international conflict. These wars include wars of terrorism, guerrilla wars, civil wars and interstate conflicts. These instances of Muslim violence could congeal into one major clash of civilizations between Islam and the West or between Islam and the Rest.

Throughout history, the West continued to see Islam in negative images that reflected what was considered to be bad and evil at the time. Myths about Islam took different forms in different periods in history. The inferiority of Islam was always considered a fact, though its supposed proof changed with time. Karen Armstrong (2001: 43) cites a couple of modern stereotypical images of Islam: 

We constantly produce new prototypes to express our apparently ingrained hatred of “Islam.” In the 1970s we were haunted by the image of the immensely rich oil sheikh; in the 1980s by the fanatical ayatollah; since the Salman Rushdie affair, “Islam” has become a religion that spells death to creativity and artistic freedom. But none of these images reflects the reality, which is infinitely more complex. Yet this does not stop people from making sweeping and inaccurate judgements.

Clearly, this source of distortion of jihad has affected non-Muslims.

Four, while it can be seen as one form of the third cause, I would list “double standards” as a separate source for the distorted image that the West has successfully cultivated and maintained of Islam. Treating Islam and Muslims one way and others in a different way contributed to the development of the misunderstanding of jihad among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It prevented the latter from taking an objective view about jihad, but it also alienated many Muslims, driving some of them to extremism and ultimately terrorism in which they use the concept of jihad to justify their atrocities. The decades-long devastating injustice that the Palestinians have endured as a result of Israeli aggression, which has received full support from the West, has been the source of a considerable amount of suffering and unrest for the whole world. Many terrorists have been driven to committing atrocities as a result of seeing this kind of injustice being inflicted for years on millions of people they identified with.

One common form of double standards is to link evil committed by Muslims to Islam but not do the same in the case of other groups and beliefs. Ancient and modern history provides so many examples of national, political, and religious leaders, representing various political persuasions and religious faiths, inciting violence against their opponents and those who did not share their beliefs. Yet not all those political philosophies and religions get tarnished because of what individuals who believed in them did or said. Christianity is one case in point. The massacre of many thousands of Muslims at the hands of Christians in places such as Serbia, Kosovo, and Chechnya did not earn the religion of those who committed atrocities any association with terrorism. Of course, any such connection would have been wrong and unfair, but the same logic should be applied in the case of Muslims who commit evil acts. Alas, it is double standards in its ugly display.

Those double standards are also behind the insistence of those who supposedly oppose “terrorism” on using this term without defining it! Defining terrorism would expose those who would like to use the term conveniently, showing them at least as terrorist sympathizers but at times as terrorists themselves.

Take “suicide bombing” as another example. Suicide bombers often indiscriminately kill innocent people, and it is right to condemn such atrocities. But is it really worse than, say, cluster bombs? Israel has used the latter regularly, killing many more than suicide bombing has done. Yet the use of cluster bombs does not evoke as much negative image, abhorrence, and condemnation. What about the use of depleted uranium against Iraq and its devastating effect on the population? But even traditional weapons can be worse than suicide bombing. And what about raining tons of traditional bombs, as the USA, Israel, and their allies do in their wars? Why would this not be seen as appalling and criminal as “suicide bombing”? The reason is the same that lies behind not defining “terrorism.” Self-righteousness and self-interests are the main drivers for these and all forms of double standards.

These are the four main causes for the very different views of the reality of jihad.

The objective of this book is to explain the concept of jihad according to the Qur’an. Naturally, the book quotes extensively from the Qur’an. In some places it may even read like a commentary on Qur’anic verses.

Because of the nature and structure of the Qur’an, which I discuss in Chapter 1, the relevant verses about jihad are found throughout the Qur’an. By collating all those verses and looking at them together, it is possible to see in those verses common themes and complementary meanings that might not be visible when the verses are studied separately.

I have tried my best to make this book self-contained, requiring no knowledge of the Qur’an or Islamic history and thought. All necessary information and explanations are given where needed to make this focused study an easy read.

Here is a brief look at the book’s seven chapters and two appendices.

Chapter 1 provides necessary background information for the investigation of the concept of jihad. It first gives a brief biography of Prophet Muhammad. Next, it introduces the Qur’an — the book that was revealed to the Prophet and is the sacred book of the religion of Islam. The chapter concludes by explaining Islam. This term denotes the one religion that God revealed to all the prophets He sent.

In Chapter 2, the general meaning of the Arabic word jihad is first examined. This term refers to exerting efforts, involving some form of “struggle” and “resistance,” to achieve a particular goal. Qur’anic jihad is a special case of jihad where the efforts are exerted in practicing Islam. Qur’anic Jihad can be divided into “armed jihad” and “peaceful jihad.” The former, temporary form of jihad refers to the Muslims’ reaction to armed aggression. Peaceful jihad is mainly the Muslim’s permanent struggle against the evil desires within the self. It also covers the peaceful struggle against any form of evil in the world. The common belief that jihad means “holy war” is wrong and misleading. This misunderstanding reflects the failure to notice, among other things, that the Qur’an uses mainly the term “qital” when talking about fighting an enemy. This Arabic word means “fighting.”

Armed jihad is examined in Chapter 3. It was fourteen years after the revelation of the Qur’an before God granted the Muslims permission to fight back aggression and defend themselves. The ultimate aim of armed jihad is peace. God has attached many strings to His permission to the Muslims to resort to arms in response to violent aggression. Muslims are prohibited from committing aggression. Their response must be measured and proportionate. Armed jihad must not be used for any purpose other than self-defense. It is not, for instance, for forcing people into Islam. Chapter 4 studies peaceful jihad. While it covers the peaceful struggle against any source of evil, the main form of peaceful jihad is the person’s struggle against the inferior drives of his lower self. This kind of jihad is essential for spiritual development, so the Muslim must never abandon it. Various aspects of the struggle against the lower self are examined in this chapter.

Reducing jihad to its armed form only, thus ignoring peaceful jihad, involves misreading references to jihad in some verses as meaning armed jihad when they actually mean jihad in general, both armed and peaceful. This is explained in Chapter 5. Another cause for this misunderstanding is confusing the terms “jihad” and “qital.”

After examining various aspects of jihad in the Qur’an in the previous chapters, jihad in today’s world is investigated in Chapter 6. Peaceful jihad is as essential a practice for the Muslim today as it was in the past. The Muslim, in fact, must live in a permanent state of struggle against his/her lower self.

The way armed jihad is being applied reflects much misunderstanding of this form of jihad and ignorance of the rules that govern fighting in Islam. The concept of jihad has been misused and abused by various Muslim individuals and groups. Some have portrayed it as the means to establish an Islamic state. Others have used it to justify their or other Muslims’ vengeful responses to aggression. The term jihad is also often used today by various Muslim groups to describe their role in any armed struggles. Many have failed to understand that armed jihad applies only in particular circumstances.

Misunderstanding today’s world can only worsen the consequences of that mix of misunderstanding and ignorance. The double standards of the West, its tolerance of the suffering of Muslims in various parts of the world, and its involvement at times in injustices against Muslims have contributed directly to the abuse of the concept of jihad by some under the name of Islam.

The Qur’an promotes and calls for peace. Muslims need to put more efforts in establishing peace. They can achieve with peace more than they can do using any other means.

In addition to the ongoing struggle against the lower self, one other major form of jihad today is the struggle to remove all misconceptions about Islam and educate people about this great religion. This is as important a duty on every Muslim as any of the fundamentals of Islam.

Chapter 7 summarizes the conclusions drawn throughout the book and reaffirms the reality of jihad.

The book has two appendices. Appendix A lists all Qur’anic verses that contain any variation of the term jihad. A short chronology of the life of Prophet Muhammad is given in Appendix B.

For easy reference, the book includes an index of all of Qur’anic verses quoted or cited in the book and another index of names and subjects.

The book uses a number of styles. Each Qur’anic verse has been followed by a combination of two numbers identifying its sura or “chapter” and its position in that chapter. For instance, the combination 4.172 refers to chapter 4, verse 172.

Although I have consulted some English translations of the Qur’an, the translations in this book are mine. I always use my own translations of the Qur’an as translation is an act of interpretation, reflecting the translator’s understanding of the text. For Biblical quotes, I have used the King James Version.

Square brackets have been used to enclose explanatory texts that are needed to clarify the translation. Alternative texts, such as the English meaning of a term that is quoted in its Arabic origin, are enclosed in parentheses.

The book uses a number of different printing styles. Different fonts have been used for the main text, Qur’anic verses, and Biblical passages. Roman transliterations of Arabic terms are in italics.



Copyright © 2009 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Notify of

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments