New Age jihad

From Martin Kramer, “Jihad 101,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2002, pp. 87-95. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

Jihad is perhaps the most loaded word in the lexicon of Islam’s relations with the West. Over the last twenty years, it has been invoked by a succession of Muslim movements to justify their violence. Terrorist groups, some of them infamous for suicide bombings, have even named themselves “Islamic Jihad.” And Usama bin Ladin described his terror campaign as a jihad. After September 11, America looked expectantly to its “experts” to explain what jihad means for those who invoke it.

They never got an answer. Instead, they were told that Usama had it all wrong: jihad has nothing to do with war or violence. Listening to the academics, jihad began to sound like a traditional self-help technique—perhaps an Islamic version of controlled breathing.

Consider, for example, a New York Times op-ed written by Roy Mottahedeh, the Gurney Professor of History and chairman of the Committee on Islamic Studies at Harvard. Mottahedeh began by citing Muslim clerics who had condemned September 11 as a violation of Islamic law. Indeed, some did condemn it. But then he made a leap. “Some politicians and imperfectly educated Muslim clerics have used the word jihad loosely in the sense of armed struggle,” he complained. But “this meaning is rejected by most modern Muslim scholars, who say it properly refers to the struggle against the distortion of Islam.” According to Mottahedeh, “a majority of learned Muslim thinkers, drawing on impeccable scholarship, insist that jihad must be understood as a struggle without arms.”9

Jihad—unarmed struggle? How so? Barbara Stowasser, professor of Arabic at Georgetown University, elaborated at a forum held on her campus in October. “Jihad,” she stated, “is a serious personal commitment to the faith,” a struggle against “evil intentions,” and a “working toward the moral betterment of society.” Only at the very end of the Qur’an is it used to denote armed struggle, and even then, she added, Muslims are enjoined only to engage in defensive war. In Stowasser’s view, al-Qa‘ida “goes against the majority of Islam and against most of Islamic legal theory.” They were a group that “picks and chooses in its approach to the Qur’an.”10

Well, of course they do, but so do the American scholars who have picked and chosen their way through the Qur’an and Islamic legal theory, in a deliberate effort to demilitarize both, or even to turn Islam into a pacifist faith—a kind of oriental Quakerism. This interpretation is as tendentious as al-Qa‘ida’s. Emile Tyan, author of the article on jihad in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, described this approach as “wholly apologetic.” “Jihad consists of military action with the object of the expansion of Islam,” he determined; presenting it as peaceful persuasion or self-defense “disregard[s] entirely the previous doctrine and historical tradition, as well as the texts of the Qur’an and the Sunna.”11 In fact, someone has to be “imperfectly educated” to argue that jihad must be understood as struggle without arms. As Rudolph Peters wrote in his book on the doctrine of jihad, it is the idea of pacifist or defensive jihad that is new; Islamists (like bin Ladin) are much closer to classical doctrine.12 And that doctrine has enjoyed an obvious revival over the past twenty years.

When it comes to explaining foreign terms, the usual business of scholarship is to show how their meanings range over time and space. The problem with the Islam “experts” is that they are so enamored of their subject that they feel compelled to shore up its defenses, to the point of posing as Islam’s reformers. It’s a professional deformation with a long history in Islamic studies. One might question whether the reform of Islam is the proper job of American university professors, who are paid to explain. But they prefer to plead and apologize, and who can stop them? If only real Islam did conform to the Islam of the American academy. Even New York’s skyline would attest to it.

9 Roy Mottahedeh, “Islam and the Opposition to Terrorism,” The New York Times, Sept. 30, 2001. The author was more cautious in a study that informed the op-ed: Roy Parviz Mottahedeh and Ridwan al-Sayyid, “The Idea of the Jihad in Islam before the Crusades,” in Angeliki E. Laiou and Roy Parviz Mottahedeh, eds., The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 2001), pp. 23-29.
10 Paul Dyer, “CCAS Hosts Open Forum: The War on Terrorism, The Middle East Dimension,” CCAS News, Oct. 2001, p. 7.
11 Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2 ed., s.v. “Djihad.”
12 Rudolph Peters, Islam and Colonialism: The Doctrine of Jihad in Modern History (The Hague: Mouton, 1979), p. 131. In fundamentalist and classical texts, “views on the relationship with unbelievers are essentially identical.”