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Jihad: Interpreting Jihad

by James A. Beverley

Every discussion of Islamic militancy turns eventually to two fundamental concerns. First, how much is Islamism (that practiced by fundamentalist Muslims open to violence) rooted in the teaching and practice of the prophet Muhammad? Would he celebrate the work of Osama bin Laden? Second, are the violent jihads of our day sanctioned by the Qur'an and by the actions of early Muslim leaders?

The prophet himself engaged in many military battles and could be merciless to his enemies, even those who simply attacked him verbally. His original sympathies with Jews and Christians as “Peoples of the Book” gave way to a harsher treatment when they did not follow Islam. In one infamous episode, Muhammad cut the heads off hundreds of Jewish males of the Beni Quraiza tribe who did not side with him in battle. The prophet is quoted as saying, “The sword is the key of heaven and hell; a drop of blood shed in the cause of Allah, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer: whosoever falls in battle, his sins are forgiven, and at the day of judgment his limbs shall be supplied by the wings of angels and cherubim.”

In reference to the Qur'an, many have drawn attention to the famous passage in Surah 2:256: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” This verse fits well with other Qur'an verses in which jihad means personal and communal spiritual struggle or striving. But the Qur'an also uses jihad to mean “holy war,” and the language can be extreme. Surah 5:33 reads, “The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter.”

Both the example of the prophet and some emphases in the Qur'an provided warrant for Islam's earliest leaders to spread Islam by military conquest. Bloody expansionism was also justified through original Islamic law that divided the world into two realms: Dar al-Harb (the land of war) and Dar al-Islam (land under Islamic rule). Both Paul Fregosi's Jihad in the West and Jewish scholar Bat Ye'or's Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam document the reality of Muslim crusades long before the notorious Christian crusades of the Middle Ages.

Out of the vortex of these realities emerge two different perspectives among modern Muslims. Islamists consider their actions a true jihad or “holy war” against infidels and the enemies of Islam. They believe it is right to target America, “the great Satan.” Osama bin Laden believes that the Qur'an supports his campaign, that the prophet would bless his cause, and that Allah is on his side. But the vast majority of Muslims believe that nothing in Muhammad's life or in the Qur'an or Islamic law justifies terrorism.

Bernard Lewis, the great historian of Islam, noted in The Wall Street Journal that throughout history, Muslims have given jihad both spiritual and military meaning. Lewis also pays particular attention to the legal traditions in Islam about what constitutes just war. After noting the many limitations placed on military jihad, he writes, “What the classical jurists of Islam never remotely considered is the kind of unprovoked, unannounced mass slaughter of uninvolved civil populations that we saw in New York [on September 11, 2001]. For this there is no precedent and no authority in Islam.”

Sources: Excerpted from Christianity Today, (January 7, 2002)

James A. Beverley is professor of theology and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. He is author of Understanding Islam