Jihad Double Trouble

For centuries now, the cry of “Jihad!” has stirred up fear and religious fervor. With Islam gaining an ever-growing political presence, both critics and friends of Islam have weighed in on what this provocative word “really” means. Public responses from non-Muslims have tended to cluster around the extremes. At one end are those who see jihad as a central tenet of Islam which sanctions, and even encourages, ongoing violence against non-Muslims. On this view, Islam is itself a clear and present danger, both on the world stage and in our own backyard.

At the other end are those who see jihad as nothing more than a spiritual struggle. A Muslim who heeds the call of jihad may decide to resist materialism, or dedicate himself to helping those in need, or strive to teach non-Muslims that Islam is, after all, a caring, loving, peaceful religion. All of these are perfectly legitimate ways in which a Muslim may embark on his own personal jihad. He may admit that there were armed conflicts in the early days of Islam, but will insist that this was done humanely and in self-defense. He will deny that Palestinian suicide bombers and Al Qaeda represent a true expression of Islam. This is the precisely the view advocated by the PBS documentary, Muhammed: Legacy of a Prophet, which first aired on Dec. 18, 2002.

Neither of these views is quite right, but I still see reason for concern. At one level, I am concerned that jihad is at least a potential source for religiously motivated violence. At another, deeper level I am concerned that the attempts to impose a kinder, gentler face on Islam are frighteningly similar to the efforts at compromise we have seen within “Christendom” and even within the Lord’s church. What is the truth about jihad?

First, it is clear from Islam’s authoritative texts, including both the Qur’an and hadith (various sayings attributed to Mohammed), that the original notion of jihad always involved a literal struggle against unbelievers. At times it included all-out warfare, not only when unbelievers attacked Muslims (Qur’an, 2:217, 8:19,39), but also when they refused to come under Muslim rule (Sahih Bukhari, 4:53:386). Bloodshed might be avoided if the other side agreed either to convert or pay a special tax (Sahih Muslim, 19:4294). Mohammed forbade the intentional killing of women and children, but the death of pagan children in the “fog of war” was no great loss (Sahih Muslim, 19:4320,4322). Holy warriors who survived were promised a share of the spoils; martyrs would receive an exalted place in Paradise (Sahih Bukhari, 1:2:25,35).

Despite these facts, some might take jihad to represent nothing more than a relict of primitive Islam. On this interpretation, Mohammed intended only to create a safe haven for his new religion. Indeed, the Qur’an urges Muslims to fight until there is no more oppression (2:193), and to seek peace if the enemies of Islam seek peace (8:61). It is easy to understand, then, how a third-generation, middle class Muslim, living and worshiping freely in the United States could safely ignore the call to undertake a violent jihad against his fellow suburbanites. But it is just as easy to see how a Muslim could interpret “oppression” in fairly broad terms and take the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and the hefty support of Israel by the United States, as justification for war against both nations. Further, in making a safe haven for Muslims, the early followers of Mohammed intended to rid Arabia of Jews, Christians, and pagans (Sahih Muslim, 19:4366). Again, it is easy to see how a strict Saudi Muslim, like Osama bin Laden, could take offense at the presence of non-Muslim troops on the Arabian peninsula.

So it seems reasonable to expect the average Muslim here in America to live peaceably, as long as his religious freedoms are not under threat. At the same time, we need to realize that Muslims have a religious motivation to wage war in response to persecution and oppression. It would be wrong to characterize Islam as an essentially peaceful religion. Yes, the aggressive moves to convert, subdue, or expel non-Muslims in the early days of Islam may be read as belonging only to a certain place and time. This is not so strange. After all, Christians take certain historical contingencies into account when placing limits on Biblical practices (such as miracles or foot washing). And yes, the terrorist acts of 9/11 barely fit the model of warfare waged by Mohammed in seventh-century Arabia. But no, the talk of jihad in Islamic scriptures cannot be “spiritualized” away: the texts clearly permit violent struggle when Muslims believe that the conditions for “just war” have been met.

It is in this effort to spiritualize jihad that I find a second source of trouble. When an Islamic fundamentalist calls for a jihad against the United States, I might question his grounds for going to war. When a Muslim condones the acts of 9/11, I might wonder how he gets around Mohammed’s injunctions against the killing of women and children in broad daylight. In all this, however, I do not question the principle that a devout believer would want to ground his faith on a text which he takes to be authoritative. Indeed, for Muslims, the Qur’an was Mohammed’s greatest miracle. Is it not the case for Christians, also, that the Word of God grounds our faith (Rom. 10:17)? So when I hear a politician or denominational minister or university professor explaining to the world that Islam is fundamentally peaceful, and that a few misguided Muslims should toe the line and take jihad in purely spiritual terms, I do not rejoice because the same approach may be used to marginalize my own faith.

Muslims are being told what to believe, and the source of that interpretation comes from the progressive or reformist wing of Islam. It is the same tactic that has been applied already to conservative Christianity. We have been told that the Bible should take a back seat to scientists when they speculate on the origins of man and the Universe. We have been told that our preaching against certain “lifestyles” is hateful. We have been told that our effort to make converts among people of other faiths is offensive. We have been told that our practice of church discipline is morally “outrageous.” We have been derided as “fundamentalists” for our lack of concession to the latest fads and fancies of contemporary American religion.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no sympathy with jihad or Islam. However, I do not wish to see Christians employ the interpretation of reform-minded Islamic scholars to defang and declaw the teachings of Mohammed. It is all very well to hold any believer’s feet to the fire when it comes to the specifics of his or her faith, but committed Christians should not rush to indict conservative Islam on the basis of Islam’s most liberal theology. Why do we so strongly resist the idea that Christianity is guilty of persecution, mass murder, and waging war in the name of God, as Muslim critics often allege? Because our authoritative text, the New Testament, never permits such behavior on the part of the Lord’s church. How could we come to the conclusion, shared by so many Muslims, that jihad is a nothing less than a literal, holy war against non-Muslims? Because the authoritative texts of Islam repeatedly couch jihad in terms of violent struggle. When we take the side of reformist Islamic scholarship, and when we speak disparagingly of “Islamic fundamentalism,” we tip our hats to the intellectual elite.

In summary, the doctrine of jihad is a source of real concern. Sure, a Muslim living in his Detroit suburb may relish his freedom to worship, and see no need to wage holy war. In such cases we have no need to fear a danger that is neither clear nor present. And yet other Muslims, living in other parts of the world, may not enjoy the same peace, nor feel so hesitant in answering the call of jihad. I am further troubled by the attempts to spiritualize the notion of jihad, not only because it doesn’t fit the textual evidence, but also because it represents a certain mindset that puts no stock in a plain reading of important religious narratives. As Christians engage Islam, we should be wary of sailing under the flag of our intellectual and theological foes. It is not always the case that the enemy of our enemy is our friend.

[A version of this article appeared in Gospel Advocate June 2003, pp. 24-25.]

© 2002 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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