According to Barbara Stowasser, professor of Arabic at Georgetown University, “Jihad 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.”
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.” 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. And that doctrine has enjoyed an obvious revival over the past twenty years.
Source: Excerpted from “Jihad 101,” by Martin Kramer, Middle East Quarterly, (Spring 2002)