Understanding Jihad - The PipeLineNews Review

Understanding Jihad
Dr. David Cook, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Rice University
Published 2005 by U.C. Press
259 pages
$19.95 U.S., Amazon

By William A. Mayer, E&P PipeLineNews.org

January 22, 2007 - San Francisco, CA - PipeLineNews.org - In the space of less than 300 pages, Dr. Cook's Understanding Jihad fleshes out the historical development of the politically and religiously charged term, jihad.

Because the West had not been observant, jihad came into common parlance on a September morning a little over six years ago. Since then it has been defined in so many ways, often with clear intent to deceive, that for many it has nearly lost its meaning.

Devoid of judgmental proclamations and scrupulously researched and annotated, Cook's compendium serves to reveal the origin of the word as well as its historical development as a central Islamic concept.

The author starts as one might expect, with the Quranic justifications for jihad, which Cook defines as "religiously significant warfare."

The Quran is replete with references to warfare that serves a religious purpose, among them:

"Then, when the sacred months are over, kill the idolators wherever you find them, take them [captive], besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every point of observation." Sura 9:15

"Fight those among the People of the Book who do not believe in God and the Last Day, do not forbid what God and His Apostle have forbidden, and do not profess the true religion until they pay the poll-tax out of hand and submissively." Sura 9:29

In this usage "People of the Book" are Jews and Christians and the poll tax, known in Arabic as the jizya was imposed upon conquered [dhimmi] peoples who were required to offer it in a subservient manner, a testament to their lowly societal status.

Drawing from this Quranic evidence professor Cook presents the unambiguous nature of this type of warfare as well as its centrality within the religion.

"In summarizing the teachings of the Quran with regard to the subject of jihad, it is important to emphasize that we have a very martial and well developed teaching here?the Quran nonetheless presents a well-developed religious justification for waging war against Islam's enemies." p 10-11

"With only few exceptions?Islam has become the majority faith only in territories that were conquered by force" p 13

The classical Islamic literature outlining the sayings and pronouncements of Mohammed - the hadith - intensively deals with the concept of jihad; as Cook underlines, some of the earliest of these works are entirely devoted to the subject. Quoted below is al-Mubarak, thought to be the earliest of these Muslim scholars, dating from the eighth century.

"The slain [in jihad] are three [types of men]; a believer, who struggles with himself and his possession in the path of God, such that when he meets the enemy [in battle] he fights them until he is killed. This martyr (shahid) is tested, [and is] in the camp of God under His throne; the prophets do not exceed him [in merit]." Kitab al-Jihad Abdallah b al-Mubarak [d. 797]

Mubarak sought to further embellish the Quranic concept of jihad:

"Behold, God has bought out for the believers their lives and their possessions, promising them paradise in return, [and so] they fight in God's cause, and slay, and are slain." Sura 9:111

Cook notes that "psychological preparation for victory or defeat is also a theme of the hadith literature?we find a great many reference to poetry, flags, and slogans intended to aid the fighters. Probably the most popular slogan Allahu akbar! [God is greater!] is usually said to precede Muslim advance into battle."

Thus the hadith literature follows closely and therefore complements the Quranic references to religious based warfare. It is a firmly established element of the religion and was intensively written about through the end of the first millennium. Despite arguments put forth by contemporary Western apologists for Islam, there can be no doubt that the central meaning of the word refers to violent physical warfare and not to the loosely defined and general idea of "struggle" or even a still innocuous, "inner struggle."

Though the idea of a "greater jihad" one involving a struggling internally to do the will of Allah was dealt with, primarily by Muslim ascetics especially the Sufis, it by no means supplanted the original meaning. When jihad was discussed generally it was understood to mean religiously condoned warfare.

Of the professional apologists for Islam - people of the ilk of Dr. John Esposito [director of the Saudi Wahhabist funded - $20 million - Prince Waleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University] who persist in trying to confuse the issue, arguing that the meaning of jihad is somehow unclear, professor Cook wryly observes that such efforts are never seen in the languages spoken in Islamic countries; it would be rejected in those locales because those audiences fully understand the implications and meaning of jihad, having grown up with it.

Apocalyptic themes in Islam served as motivators for early warriors, so that they would understand the bargain that they were called to and that the end of days was near and that their cause would be soon rewarded.

In Islam's middle period [1000-1500] the concept of jihad was further developed, in order to take into account the reality that - as opposed to Islam's first 400 years where its armies were most often victorious - Muslim warriors could not only lose, as was the case later with the Christian re-conquest of Spain, but that entire Muslim populations might also find themselves a minority living under non-Muslim rule.

It is at this time where we see increased references in the literature to the treatment of women, children and prisoners, probably out of hope of better treatment for these same groups in cases where Muslim armies had been defeated and Islamic rule had come to an end.

The eighteenth century saw the dawning of, as Dr. Cook states, "probably the most radical of all the anti-Muslim jihad movements was that of Muhammad b 'Abd al-Wahhab."

In the movement named after him, Wahhabism is a fundamentalist movement that preaches the "purification" of Islam. Today, Wahhabism dominates the religious landscape of Saudi Arabia and is actively promoted by the House of Saud. Its characteristics are an uncompromising nature which rejects significant number of other Muslims, calling them apostates; something seized upon by Osama bin-Laden as he critiqued "apostate," nominally Muslim "regimes."

The almost casual manner in which the Wahhabis branded other Muslims with whom they had religious differences, as unbelievers and then targeted them for conquest was without historical precedent.

Though Wahhab was not a theologian, contributing almost nothing to the intellectual body of jihad theory, he was nonetheless vastly important, merely for the ruthless actions taken against his Muslim neighbors.

Jihad again needed to be redefined in the twentieth century in light of popular Marxist criticisms of the West's "imperialism."

Given Islam's violent origin and subsequent military conquest wasn't it also subject to similar questions? And moreover wasn't it disingenuous to claim, apologetically that jihad was primarily defensive in nature?

As Understanding Jihad points out, Rashid Rida an Egyptian had a response, further clarifying the meaning of jihad:

"Our religion is not like others that defend themselves?but our defense of our religion is the proclamation of the truth and the removal of the distortion and misrepresentation of it."

This blurs the lines between defense and offense to the point where they become irrelevant.

Such explanations did not go far enough to satisfy all, as was the case with Egyptian Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Banna likened peace to acceptance of Allah and jihad as the process whereby that might be attained.

"God obligated the Muslims with jihad not as a means of aggression nor as a vehicle for their personal desires, but in order to protect the proclamation [of Islam], as a surety of peace, and as a means to fulfill the great mission whose burden has been take up by the Muslims, which is the mission to guide people to the truth, Islam."

On par with Al-Banna, the other pivotal Egyptian theorist [the American educated] Sayyid Qutb, also extended the idea of offense to mean the defense of Islam.

"It is the right of Islam to move first, because Islam is not the belief of a [single] group, nor the system of a state, but the way of life of God and a system for the world. Thus it has the right to move to destroy impediments, whether systems of circumstances, that rob the person of the freedom to choose. It does not attack individuals in order to compel them to embrace its creed, but it attacks systems and circumstances in order to liberate the individual from false influences that corrupt the nature [of man] and prevent freedom of choice."

This is an all-encompassing conceptualization of jihad.

Under it, any belief structure outside of Islam is seen as an impediment to the ability of people to be able to freely choose and therefore questions of defensive war versus offensive war become largely moot. This doctrine justifies a perpetual state of conflict which exists between the Muslim and non-Muslim world.

Dr. Cook's research isolates the Palestinian Islamist Abdallah Azzam as perhaps the key radicalizing intellectual force in recent times, propounding a theory of globalizing jihad and putting it into practice.

To do so Azzam quickly abandoned the Palestinian cause - seeing its goals as too limited - deciding instead to go to aid the growing mujahidin fighters in Afghanistan and moving to Pakistan to be in the thick of the ongoing jihad. Azzam realized that Afghanistan could serve as a incubator, producing jihad fighters armed not only figuratively in a theological and spritual sense but also in fact, becoming an irregular army.

Understanding the imbalance between Western and at the time Soviet bloc military power on one hand and the paucity of forces and advanced weaponry available to radical Muslims, he seized upon the concept of shahid, the holy martyr , an integral part of today's asymmetrical warfare.

"The life of the Muslim [community] is solely dependent on the ink of its scholars and the blood of its martyrs. What is more beautiful than the writing of the umma's history with both the ink of a scholar and his blood." p 129

"History does not write its lines except with blood. Glory does not build its lofty edifices except with skulls. Honor cannot be established except on a foundation of cripples and corpses." p 129

Strong stuff, but indicative of the key trend in the modern development of jihad theology, which has served to strip off much of the pretense and caution that shrouded the concept previously.

Cook's conclusions regarding jihad are well founded and laboriously notated.

"There is no lack of evidence concerning the Muslim practice of jihad. The classical and modern works on the subject are voluminous, and they are documented by an examination of Muslim actions as recorded by historians. There can be no reasonable doubt that jihad is a major theme running through the entirety of Muslim civilization and is at least one of the major factors in the astounding success of the faith of Islam?after surveying the evidence from classical until contemporary times, one must conclude that today's jihad movements are as legitimate as any that have ever existed in classical Islam." p 163-164

Cook also notes that there is no significant difference between bin-Laden's form of jihad and those referred to the earliest and middle periods both historically in fact as well as theologically.

But for the fact that bin-Laden's jihad was not declared in a fatwa by a recognizable imam there is no intellectual difference between modern and historical jihads.

Acting on public ignorance, Western apologists including all of the self-appointed organizations and most of the spokesmen for American Muslims have spun a myth around Islam's "religiously significant" brand of warfare, arguing a conception of jihad that would have no meaning where it offered, in their own languages before the overwhelming majority of Muslims living outside of America and Europe.

In a way it's a method of discerning intent, which immediately should call into question the motives of those doing such obvious spinning, because the truth is that defining jihad non-threateningly as merely an "internal struggle" - a concept briefly visited by a minority of Sufi ascetics a millennium ago and expressed as the "greater jihad" - ignores the preponderance of Islamic history which defines it plainly as religiously sanctioned warfare.

What to do, that is the question.

Given the degree to which those who should be discussing Islamism and its motive force, jihad are bound by multicultural concerns, they are in that same measure rendered mute at worst or dissembling at best - institutionally the Western press and organizationally, Islamist groups representing themselves as moderates; CAIR and its brethren ISNA, ICNA, MSA etc., coming to mind.

This breeds misunderstanding and ignorance. The reluctance to have a public discussion of these loaded terms has not surprisingly allowed those whose actions enable the Islamists [fill in the blank(s)] to increasingly carry the day.

A public that does not understand that jihad is inextricably bound with Islamism, thoroughly militarizing the radical interpretation of the Muslim religion, will find itself quite challenged to understand the stakes that are represented in places such as Iraq.

Regarding Iraq and stepping back a bit one can grasp the symmetry and parallel nature of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the current American war in Iraq as it might have been seen through Azzam's eyes.

Viewed from a Western and especially American perspective, Iraq represents a unique and historic opportunity [almost universally ignored by war critics] serving as a flame drawing scattered bands of mujahidin from around the world to the killing fields where they can then be decimated. Such a perspective might well be more profitably and forcefully presented to the public by American political and military leaders were they up to the challenge.

1999-2007 William A. Mayer/PipeLineNews.org LLC, all rights reserved.