David Cook: Understanding Jihad

Johannes Kandel

David Cook. Understanding Jihad. University of California Press: Berke- ley, 2005, 288 pp., ca. 22.50 €.

“Islam is peace”. This sentence could be heard especially frequently after September 11 th , 2001, from groups within organized Islam in Germany. It was said that there was no “holy war” in Islam, that “jihad” was to be understood as a moral-spiritual “effort” to walk “on the path of God” (“Great Jihad”). It was proclaimed that Islam abhors every kind of violence against human beings, apart from the right to self-defense (“Small Jihad”). The word “Islam”, of course, has the same linguistic root (s-l-m) as the word “salam” (peace), but is really a different word, and means “submission, devotion”. Sura 5:32 also was quoted frequently, and in a shortened version: “If someone kills another person (…) it is as if he had killed all human beings.” The obvious intent was to persuade the uninformed non-Muslim that Muslims in no case could be violent criminals and terrorists.

Religious scholar David Cook, from Rice University in Houston, Texas, has written a commendable work on the subject of “jihad” that brilliantly refutes talk of a throughout “peaceful” Islam. Muhammad himself was not only a “spiritual” leader of the Muslim community in Medina, but also a political leader and military commander. Thus, from 622 until his death in 632, he took part (on average) in nine warlike actions (battles, raids, and internal conflicts) per year (p. 6). In regard to the treatment of the subject in the Qur’an, Cook arrives at the sobering result that, here, we “have be fore us a highly developed justification for conducting war against ‘the enemies of Islam’” (p. 11). With competence and a keen eye for the essential, Cook unfolds the complex history of jihad in Islam. He shows the contexts of concrete historical developments, and the reflections upon them in the writings of legal scholars. The triumphal conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries, the conflicts with the Crusaders (from the tenth to the thirteenth century), the defeat at the hands of the Moghuls (thirteenth century), the Reconquista in the fifteenth century, the numerous internal Muslim struggles, the second wave of Islamic conquest from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, and the resistance to colonialism and imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have found their expression in the diverse conceptions of jihad among legal scholars.

Jihad occupies a prominent place in all six “canonical” collections of Hadith. It is represented as the obligation on the part of every Muslim to fight for the dissemination and the final global victory of the “House of Islam” (Arabic: dar al-Islam) over the “House of War” (Arabic: dar al-harb). Cook lays out in detail the arguments of prominent legal scholars (some Sufi authors, al-Shafii, al-Sarakhsi, Ibn Taimiyya, al-Ghazali, Ibn Arabi, Ibn Hazm, al-Kasani, al-Haythami, and others). The reasons for war, declaration of war, conduct of war, the treatment of the vanquished, the distribution of the spoils of war (among others, the enslavement of women and children), and negotiations for peace are investigated in detail in the classical literature. Whoever dies in battle for Allah is a “shahid” (martyr), to whom a rich reward in Paradise is granted (pp. 27 ff.). This body of writings is cited to the present as a justification for violence against the “enemies of Islam” or “apostates”. Cook states that the interpretation of jihad during the first centuries of Islam” [was] “no less directly aggressive and expansive” (p. 30). Cook writes that Islam was not spread, as is often claimed, by use of the sword. Nevertheless, the “conquests and jihad” [had] “created the preconditions for conversion or the call to conversion” (p. 30). The interpretations of jihad by spiritual Islam (Sufism) that increasingly are emphasized today are, in the author’s opinion, suitable only up to a point as evidence proving the “peaceful” character of Islam, for, although Sufis in the ninth and tenth centuries emphasized the alternative of the “Great Jihad” (as a moral-spiritual effort to combat one’s own personal passions), the “Sufi warriors” in no way doubted (pp. 44 ff.) the legitimacy of the militant (“small”) jihad. The “jihad of the soul” was not considered as a “replacement” for an armed, military effort (so the famous legal scholar al-Ghazali). It is not without a certain irony that Western, non-Muslim authors (for example, John Esposito) of all people, whether out of ignorance of tradition or with purely apologetic intent, overemphasize the spiritual, “peaceful” character of Islam (pp. 39 ff.).

Cook sketches the modern development of the concept of jihad from the nineteenth century to the present day, that is, from the “modernists” Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and his student Rashid Rida (1865-1935) to the jihadists gathered around Osama bin Laden. Abduh and Rida spiritualized jihad, but, differently than the Sufis in the ninth and tenth centuries, accepted it almost exclu sively as the proclamation of the truth of the Islamic faith. Here, the close connection between jihad and “da’wa” (mission) is emphasized. Only in the very limited case of defense is violence said to be justified as jihad (p. 97).

The question of who might be authorized to proclaim jihad, and whether jihad might be “offensive” or “defensive”, or both, has been discussed repeatedly. Cook cites numerous examples to document how broad the range of militant action was that was characterized as jihad, and how willfully legal scholars, political ideologues, and rulers handled the classical texts. The Wahhabites in the eighteenth century declared their campaigns of conquest to be a “purifying” jihad carried out against other Muslims. The African legal scholar Dan Fodio, who fought for the consolidation and expansion of Muslim rule in West Africa at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, defined jihad as a threestep process of the erection of the rule of “pure Islam” on the pattern of the example of the Prophet Muhammad: first, the “true Muslims” withdraw from their “unbelieving” environment (“hijra”), form Islamic islands, and, from this base, begin the struggle for supremacy (p. 77). This is the strategic blueprint of the Islamists, above all for those advocating the Islamization of Europe, as the attentive reader easily can discover through study of their writings. The Grand Moghul of India, Aurangzeb (1658-1707), attempted to justify his predations and oppressive measures against the Hindus as jihad, and the Indian rebellion against the British in 1857-58 was seen by the Muslim side as jihad, although the great Muslim scholar and reformer Sayyid Ahmed Khan (died 1898) preferred a non-violent interpretation of jihad (p. 81). In Dagestan, Ghazi Muhammad led a ji had against the Russians, and Abd al-Qadir fought under the flag of jihad against the French colonial power. The legendary “Mahdi” (Mohammed Ahmed) considered himself to be Allah’s chosen tool for the struggle beginning in 1881 against the British and “apostate” Muslims. The Russian-Persian wars of 1808-1813 and 1826-1829 also were jihad, in the opinion of Persian legal scholars. Finally, in World War I, the Ottoman Empire declared its struggle against the Al-lies (Great Britain, France, Russia, USA) to be jihad, a unique event in the history of interpretation of jihad, since here Muslims fought together with “Christian” powers against other Christians (p. 92).

Cook’s analyses of the politization and radicalization of the understanding of jihad, as it developed beginning with the fathers of Islamism (the Indian Abu-l Ala al-Maududi and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb), are very revealing. The theses put forward by the Egyptian Islamist Muhammad Farrag (“al-Farida Gha’iba” – “The Neglected Duty”, pp. 107 ff.) have influenced the form of an Islamist understanding of jihad just as decisively as the experiences of the self-proclaimed “mudjahidin” (warriors) in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia. Jihad in the sense of war for global rule is shifted to the center of Islam in the jihadist visions of an Osama bin Laden (pp. 97 ff.). Islam thus becomes permanent jihad. Belief or unbelief is decided on the basis of one’s view of jihad. The struggle against “unbelievers” and “apostates” is the chief duty of the “true” Muslim. Suicide attacks are reinterpreted as “martyrdom” for Allah and justified by reference to Koran suras (2:207 and 2:96), and the death of innocent Muslims as well as non-Muslims is accepted willingly. Whoever sacrifices himself “for Allah” will taste the delights of Paradise.

The author comes to a sobering conclusion. Since, as he writes, the jihadist interpretation has not been rejected in the inner-Islamic discourse as incompatible with the classical texts, it must be considered as just as legitimate as other, “peaceful” conceptions. Nevertheless, the “majority of contemporary Muslims”, he states, is not ready within the framework of political reality to follow the jihadist conception; it, however, remains the ideological focus of marginalized groups. The conception of a “militant jihad” will not disappear because “there is too much evidence” [for it] “in Arabic-Muslim sources”, and because it represents “one of the most important proofs of the truth of Islam” for Muslims to the present day (p. 165). The Sufi, peaceful interpretation, the author says, has had practically no significance in real terms because it never left the level of Sufi theory. Only Western scholars and Muslim apologists have claimed an impact for it in concrete history. The close association of religion and political power and the memory of the conquests in the “glorious” Islamic past, which is considered to be proof of the truth of Islam, have impeded a critical confrontation with the concept of militant jihad.

Militant jihad will continue to play a central role for the religious and political orientation of Muslims in the Islamic world and in the diaspora as long as this painful debate does not begin in earnest.