Every religion has to juggle with certain of its beliefs or practices that seem untenable to those outside the faith. For Christianity in these days of libertinism, certainly the doctrines of biblical, sexual morality need to be explicated reasonably. And certainly there are the old standard theological questions dealing with the Trinitarian nature of God and with the Incarnation. Islam, too, has its own set of issues to wrestle with.
Primary among them, in this day and age, is the call to jihad. It’s fascinating to watch Muslim apologists juggle with the meaning of this term. Some tell us, for instance, that the root meaning of jihad is “struggle or exertion,” which is true. They claim that its primary application in Islam is to the spiritual struggle against sin and temptation in the heart of the believer, which is false. Others acknowledge that historically, jihad has applied to fighting unbelievers, but only in cases of self-defense, which also is false. Still others argue that jihad once had a central place in the worldview of Islam, but that in our modern day context it is only a vestigial concept which plays no key role in the religion today, which again is also false. Part of what clouds the picture presently is that Shariah law prescribes that the only one authorized to call the Muslim community to offensive jihad is the Caliph. Since the last generally recognized caliphate ended in 1924 with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, Islam has had no caliph to rule and direct the ummah (the worldwide Muslim community). Yet we see multiple Muslim groups which claim that they are engaged in legitimate jihad against the infidel world, principally the West. How is this possible?
Within Islamic legal theory, while the call to conquer new territory is up to the sole discretion of the Caliph, the mandate to fight those who have waged war on the Islamic world is a standing obligation of all able-bodied Muslims. Many of the jihad efforts we have witnessed in the last thirty years have been justified by the claim that the non-Muslim (especially Western) world has initiated hostilities against Muslim societies through globalization of immorality by means of Hollywood, the internet, universal human rights agendas, etc., and by the imposition of US and other allied troops on Muslim territories. Jihad, thus, becomes a defensive struggle and needs no authorization.
For those unsure that jihad holds a central place in Islamic thought, let me share a few pertinent facts. Shariah law, codified by the 10th C AD, contains a major section dealing with the implementation of jihad – do’s and don’t’s on the battlefield and against enemy forces. It is clear in the reading of Shariah that jihad deals exclusively with warfare, both defensive and offensive. The moral struggle of the heart is not considered. Since orthodox Muslims understand Shariah to be the full and final divine law, not open to change, the view of jihad as “holy war” is enshrined in Islamic legal thinking. The four Sunni schools of law that contributed to the shaping of Shariah together anchored this jihad section on 95 verses found in the Qur’an, verses which according to traditional scholars are still in full force. This is the largest number of Qur’anic verses cited as support for any section of Shariah.
The word jihad or its cognate forms appears 28 times in the Qur’an (which is about the size of the New Testament). Certainly some of these appearances do not refer to warfare, but when the term is combined with the phrase “fi sabil Allah” (in the way of, or for the cause of Allah), it unmistakably means the use of force to defeat the enemies of Islam. A sister word that appears in the Qur’an even more often is qital (and its cognates), some 33 times. Qital means more literally to go to battle, fighting with a weapon to defeat the foe. There can be no question that Allah in the Qur’an commands Muslims to wield the sword against his enemies. Sura 2:216 even has Allah declaring that “qital was preordained for you (Muslims), something in Allah’s mind even before sending Muhammad into the world.
The biographies of Muhammad detail his involvement in over 70 raids or battles, sometimes leading the charge, sometimes commanding his forces as a general. He showed no aversion to killing or to seeing his soldiers killed in battle. In general, the biographies of the prophet as well as the Hadith reports concerning Muhammad and jihad revel in his military prowess and ruthlessness against enemies.
And those enemies were numerous. The Qur’an lists at least five groups against whom jihad is to be waged:
- Those who attack Muslims first
- Infidels (kuffar – this word means not so much unbelievers as “anti-believers,” i.e., those who have rejected Muhammad and his claims)
- Polytheists (mushrikun – those who have committed idolatry by associating something in the creation with the one and only God)
- The People of the Book – Jews and Christians who have rejected Muhammad and his message (both groups are cursed by Allah in the Qur’an and doomed to torture in hell
- Stubborn Muslims and hypocrites – separatists, cowards, defectors, traitors, apostates
Why would anyone rally to Muhammad in this call to jihad? Well, Muhammad promised the rewards of shared booty from those defeated – a great way to amass earthly wealth with relatively little effort (for those not killed in battle) – and for those who died, Allah’s promise was that they would inherit the Gardens of Paradise and all the sensual pleasures a hedonist could imagine. And of course, it’s always fun to be on the winning side – after a few setbacks, Muhammad’s band started winning numerous battles, and these victories convinced many able-bodied Arabs that they were losing out by not joining the parade. Before long, Muhammad had amassed a following far superior to any other on the Arabian peninsula. The armies of Islam became an unstoppable force in the region.
It is beyond question that jihad as “holy war” is woven into the fabric of Islam and can’t be stripped from it without unraveling the whole garment. So what we are left with is apologists who seek to convince us that jihad doesn’t mean what it means, or that it doesn’t apply any longer. While they continue juggling, suicide bombers don their jackets, knife-wielding terrorists shout Allahu akbar, imams preach Friday messages urging Muslims to kill the infidels, front organizations plan for the infiltration of non-Muslim societies and the ultimate implementation of Shariah law.
The purpose of circus jugglers is to entertain and offer distraction. In this present civilizational circus, I think we’ve been distracted enough. It’s time to leave the tent and get back to reality.