III. FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS
Early in the 20th century, the Islamic world was not only weak, and in disarray, but its weakness and disarray could not be hidden from the view of the most educated and thoughtful Muslims. They had contact with Europeans; some of them had traveled, and could compare for themselves the political, economic, intellectual and social progress in Europe, with what they saw in the Ottoman Empire, or other lands where Muslims lived. Some of these people concluded that Islam needed to be “reformed.” Indeed, the highwater mark of Islamic “reformation” – such as it was – was that period 1900-1930, when Islamic societies did not possess the accident of oil wealth to hide their own failures, and to buy the services of Western diplomats, government officials, business men, journalists, and academics to churn out a steady stream of apologetics that confused the vast non-Muslim public, and managed to play to the mingled resentments, sense of victimization (a victimization that was keenly felt by Muslims for, in their mental makeup, they had been taught that it was proper and necessary for Islam, and for Muslims, to dominate and to rule, and so any deviation from that well-merited position seemed not merely wrong, but against the right ordering of the universe).
A handful of soi-disant Muslim “reformers” arose, and they sensed, as do some of those who claim nowadays to be on the cusp of reform, that the word “Jihad” was a problem. When those “reformers” were addressing powerful non-Muslims, whose goodwill they needed, they denied that “Jihad” meant anything like aggressive warfare. And when they were attempting to persuade other Muslims that “something” had to be done, they also denied that the word “Jihad” meant what Muslims had always taken the word to mean. Despite more than 1200 years of textual evidence, and Muslim behavior prompted by, based on, that textual evidence, these “reformers” offered the argument that the primary meaning of “Jihad” was a “spiritual struggle.” Indeed, Sheikh Muhammad Rida maintained that it was non-Muslims who were responsible for the aggressive, militant definition of the word. Self-assuredly defining “Jihad” as a “spiritual struggle,” Rida argued, that others, the Infidels, had given Muslims a mistaken understanding of their own word. Exactly how it could have happened, that in all the centuries of Jihad-conquest, and calls for Jihad, and discussions of Jihad, it had somehow all been a colossal misunderstanding based on things presumably bruited about by those non-Muslims living in Mesopotamia and Syria and Judea, and then the same crazy definition of “Jihad” was whispered in innocent Muslim ears, leading those warriors astray, by those whom they had come to conquer in Christianized North Africa, and then in Spain, or in the other direction, the false definition of “Jihad” was whispered by Zoroastrians in Persia, and the falsity repeated to the Muslim conquerors of Afghanistan and then of Hindustan, and then of course of Byzantium, and then again, the Seljuk and after them the Ottoman Turks were subject to the same false definition of “Jihad.” In other words, the Jihad-conquest of Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Hindu lands and peoples was all based on a misunderstanding of what “Jihad” was all about – a misunderstanding caused, unbelievably, by the victims of that “Jihad” themselves. If only they had told the truth to Muslims about what “Jihad” meant, everyone could have saved themselves a great deal of trouble. Rida knew that “Jihad” meant “spiritual struggle,” but many other poor Muslims had been led astray into a mistaken understanding by non-Muslims. Exactly why non-Muslims would have wished to have done this remained, in the writings of Rida and other “reformers,” a mystery.
In an article on “Jihad” in Moslem World (Vol, 2, 1912, pp. 348-349) the scholar W. R. W. Gardner described the tortuous logic-chopping of such early 20th-century “reformers” as Muhammad Rida and Chiragh Ali [boldface in the excerpts below are mine]:
There is undoubtedly a feeling, if not a belief among many Westerners that a Moslem regards it as a duty binding on him in accordance with the literal command of the Koran, to kill any and every unbeliever whom he may meet once jihad has been proclaimed. Sheikh Rida acknowledges that this conception of the duty of a Moslem during jihad may have been in the past, and may even now be common among the ignorant or less educated Moslems, but he says that much of this feeling has been the result of mixing with foreigners (non-Moslems), who have had the mistaken idea of what Moslems mean by jihad, and that this mistaken idea of these non-Moslems has crept into Moslem minds, and has thus given apparent support to the belief that this is really a Mohammedan conception of one’s duty in jihad.
Gardner points out that while a very few Muslims – precisely the kind of educated, westernized, plausible Muslims among whom both real, and feigning, “reformers’ were to be found – may have believed, or allowed themselves to believe, or pretended to believe, that “Jihad” meant something other than violence directed at Infidels, almost all Muslims had acted, in time and space, as if they did not agree:Let us note here that it is because this conception of the duty of a ‘believer’ in time of jihad is, as a matter of fact, the common belief of the ignorant Moslems (as the Sheikh admits, and for practical purposes it matters not how it arose), and because the ignorant Moslems form the greater part of the population in any Mohammedan land, that the non-Moslem subjects and residents in any land under Moslem rule have come to fear the word ‘jihad’, and to appeal to the more enlightened to be careful in their use of it. For they know that however it may be used by educated writers, the common people understand by it, attack on non-Moslems, and believe that it is their duty to destroy as many as possible of these unbelievers. Further, they know well how easy it is for an ignorant mob to get out of hand, especially when, rightly or wrongly, it believes that any action which has as its object the glory of God and the better establishment of the true religion, would be looked upon by those in authority with a lenient eye, if not with actual sympathy…For the question of what jihad is cannot be settled by reference alone to the etymology of the word jihad. The Koran plainly teaches in many passages, notwithstanding claims put forward by Chiragh Ali, the duty of fighting for the faith or ‘in the way of God’, by using the word qatala, and El Zamakhshary…says, ‘Fighting in the way of God is jihad for the glorifying of his word and the strengthening of the Religion’. And whatever may be the etymological meaning of the word jihad, there can be no gainsaying the fact that it is sometimes used in the Koran in the sense of warlike actions, a warfare for the sake of the Faith…Is war for the extension of Islamic rule also jihad? In considering this point, not much light is to be got from the writings of the more recent Moslem authors, such as those we have quoted. They simply deny that it is a principle of Islam that jihad may include wars of aggression. By denying this, they do not prove anything…For what we are considering is, what Mohammedanism is and has been- that is, what orthodox Mohammedanism teaches concerning jihad, founding its doctrine on a certain definite interpretation of those passages in the Koran which speak of jihad. Until the newer conceptions, as to what the Koran teaches as to the duty of the believer towards non-believers, have spread further and have more generally leavened the mass of Moslem belief and opinion, it is the older and orthodox standpoint on this question which must be regarded by non-Moslems as representing Mohammedan teaching and as guiding Mohammedan action. We may sympathize strongly with the newer ideas…we may hope that those who advance these ideas may succeed in having them generally accepted by Mohammedans; but … it is the older and narrower orthodox conception of Muhammad’s teaching alone, which we can as yet regard as representing the views and practice of Islam with regard to jihad on this question of aggressive war. And the words of …Chiragh Ali are such that we need not spend any time in trying to prove that orthodox Mohammedanism believes and teaches that, according to the Koran, it is the nature of jihad to be aggressive. Let us quote his words again: ‘The Mohammedan Common Law is wrong on this point when it allows unbelievers to be attacked without provocation.’ We take then as proved, the statement that Mohammedan Common Law allows unbelievers to be attacked without provocation… Moslem World (Vol, 2, 1912, pp. 348-349)
One can understand the difficulty of these “reformers” in dealing with immutable texts. They did not want to draw the obvious conclusion that Islam could not be reformed. In the case of Muhammad Rida, he attempted to convince his Muslim, and non-Muslim audience, that non-Muslims, intent on believing that “Jihad” is aggressive and threatening, are actually responsible for convincing peace-loving, spiritual-struggling, Muslims that “Jihad” means something militant and dangerous. It is the non-Muslims, in Rida’s version of Islam, who are responsible for giving Muslims all those bad ideas. Gardner, who knew Islam, and was writing at a time when truths now seldom told were then obvious to all serious non-Muslim students of Islam, pointed out the absurdity of Rida’s position.
As for Chiragh Ali, who dismisses what he calls, in charmingly misleading fashion, “the Mohammedan Common Law” (i.e. the Shari’a), which, he says, “is wrong on this point when it allows unbelievers to be attacked without provocation.” This statement is breathtaking, he, Chiragh Ali, appears to admit that the Shari’a “allows unbelievers to be attacked without provocation.” He follows up this bold admission by something even more startling for a Muslim; he claims that in doing this the Shari’a – the Holy Law of Islam – is flatly “wrong.” In fact, he permits himself a boldness here no contemporary reformer would ever permit himself.
Yet Chiragh Ali does not tell us how the Shari’a, the product of many scholars, who constructed it out of the principles derived ineluctably from Qur’an and Sunnah (the latter, in turn, drawn from the Hadith and the Sira)” could possibly be wrong, or if it is wrong, then those jurisconsults, those Qur’anic commentators, were also wrong – or perhaps even more unacceptable, what Muhammad did was wrong.
But what non-Muslims do not realize is that Chiragh Ali allows for his own escape clause. For “attacked without provocation” may have a much narrower meaning in Islam than non-Muslims would suspect. Just as “defensive” action can include, for example, attacks on Infidels who put up the slightest resistance to the spread of Islam – for example, a Muslim might well regard bombs in the Paris metro as “defensive” acts because the French government has banned hijabs in schools, which can be easily interpreted as “resistance” to the spread of Islam – so at times simply being a non-Muslim might constitute a kind of “provocation.” How else can one interpret the attack on the inoffensive Jewish farmers of the Khaybar Oasis, who had done nothing to oppose Muhammad and his followers, but simply offered the promise of booty? Their primal sin was that they were Jews, and other Jews had, according to the sira, opposed Muhammad’s message. The attack on the Khaybar Oasis marked a new step in the history of Muhammad, and therefore in the history of Islam. It became clear that “Jihad” could now be waged on non-Muslims simply because they were non-Muslims, and as non-Muslims who had the opportunity, but did not take it, to become Muslims, they could be depicted as an “obstacle” to the spread of Islam. And if they were such, then Jihad could be declared, and they be attacked, and their wealth and women seized.