Daniel Pipes has an interesting piece in FrontPage today, discussing David Cook’s new book Understanding Jihad, which I have not yet seen. In his review, Pipes succintly sums up the history of the concept of jihad in Islam, showing the hollowness of claims that it has always primarily represented a spiritual struggle:
The Koran invites Muslims to give their lives in exchange for assurances of paradise.
The Hadith (accounts of Muhammad’s actions and personal statements) elaborate on the Koran, providing specific injunctions about treaties, pay, booty, prisoners, tactics, and much else. Muslim jurisprudents then wove these precepts into a body of law.
Muhammad’s conquests: During his years in power, the prophet engaged in an average of nine military campaigns a year, or one every 5-6 weeks; thus did jihad help define Islam from its very dawn. Conquering and humiliating non-Muslims was a main feature of the prophet’s jihad.
The Arab conquests and after: During the first several centuries of Islam, “the interpretation of jihad was unabashedly aggressive and expansive.” After the conquests subsided, non-Muslims hardly threatened and Sufi notions of jihad as self-improvement developed in complement to the martial meaning.
The Crusades, the centuries-long European effort to control the Holy Land, gave jihad a new urgency and prompted what Cook calls the “classical” theory of jihad. Finding themselves on the defensive led to a hardening of Muslim attitudes.
The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century subjugated much of the Muslim world, a catastrophe only partially mitigated by the Mongols’ nominal conversion to Islam. Some thinkers, Ibn Taymiya (d. 1328) in particular, came to distinguish between true and false Muslims; and to give jihad new prominence by judging the validity of a person’s faith according to his willingness to wage jihad.
Nineteenth century “purification jihads” took place in several regions against fellow Muslims. The most radical and consequential of these was the Wahhabis’ jihad in Arabia. Drawing on Ibn Taymiya, they condemned most non-Wahhabi Muslims as infidels (kafirs) and waged jihad against them.
However, there are some elements of this analysis about which I have questions. Read on:
European imperialism inspired jihadi resistance efforts, notably in India, the Caucasus, Somalia, Sudan, Algeria, and Morocco, but all in the end failed. This disaster meant new thinking was needed.
Islamist new thinking began in Egypt and India in the 1920s but jihad acquired its contemporary quality of radical offensive warfare only with the Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966). Qutb developed Ibn Taymiya’s distinction between true and false Muslims to deem non-Islamists to be non-Muslims and then declare jihad on them. The group that assassinated Anwar El-Sadat in 1981 then added the idea of jihad as the path to world domination.
Does jihad’s “contemporary quality of radical offensive warfare” refer to the idea that true Muslims must fight against false Muslims, or Islamists against non-Islamists? Or is the point that jihad is “radical offensive warfare” the contemporary innovation? The latter can’t be so, since — as this very analysis shows — jihad has been conceived of as radical offensive warfare since the time of Muhammad. But the idea that Muslims declaring jihad against Muslims is a contemporary innovation is also false. This has occurred throughout history: the Muslim Mongols fought the Abbasids, the Abbasids fought the Fatimids, etc. etc. etc.
If anything, it is the “Islamist”/”non-Islamist” distinction that is the innovation. As this analysis shows, in earlier times every Muslim was a forthright Islamist, in that he knew that it was part of his religion to fight to extend Islam’s political power.
In fact, Qutb and other contemporary jihad theorists such as Maududi were not innovators, but radical traditionalists who were fighting to restore what had been the mainstream understanding of jihad that had prevailed throughout most of Islamic history. You can find this explained in my book Onward Muslim Soldiers.
The article continues:
The anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan led to the final step (so far) in this evolution. In Afghanistan, for the first time, jihadis assembled from around the world to fight on behalf of Islam. Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian, became the theorist of global jihad in the 1980s, giving it an unheard-of central role, judging each Muslim exclusively by his contribution to jihad, and making jihad the salvation of Muslims and Islam. Out of this quickly came suicide terrorism and bin Laden.
Again, to attribute all this to Azzam is ahistorical. Travel for jihad is nothing new. For example, as I show in my forthcoming book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) (Regnery), jihadis assembled from around the world in the tenth century to wage jihad against the Byzantines. Saif al-Dawla, ruler of the Shi’ite Hamdanid dynasty in Aleppo from 944 to 967, appealed to Muslims to fight the Byzantines on the pretext that the Byzantines were taking lands that belonged to the House of Islam; this appeal was so successful that Muslim warriors traveled to Hamdanid lands from as far off as Central Asia to fight in the jihads.
Nor is suicide terrorism an innovation: such operations are a feature of Islamic history: John Paul Jones encountered suicide attacks by Muslim Turks in 1788!
“…for it was the intention of the Turks to attack us and board us, and if we had been only three versts further the attempt would have been made on the 16th [June 1788] (before the vessel of the Captain Pacha ran aground in advancing before the wind with all his forces to attack us,), God only knows what would have been the result…The Turks had a very large force, and we have been informed by our prisoners that they were resolved to destroy us, even by burning themselves, (in setting fire to their own vessels after having grappled with ours.) [note added by Jones: Before their departure from Constantinople, they swore by the beard of the Sultan to execute this horrible plan…if Providence had not caused its failure from two circumstances which no man could forsee.”]
That’s from John Paul Jones’ Letter to Prince Potemkin, June 20, 1788, from Life and Character of John Paul Jones-A Captain in the Navy of the United States, John H. Sherburne, 1825, p. 308.
Pipes concludes that “the current understanding of jihad is more extreme than at any prior time in Islamic history.” That may be, but just how that understanding is more “extreme” than that of previous times remains unclear. I have ordered Cook’s book and am looking forward to receiving it.