Saturday, May 23, 2009

About jihad

In David Nicolle’s Osprey™ Campaign book Hattin 1187: Saladin’s greatest victory, there is (p.8) this comment:
The concept of jihad as war against the infidel, long dormant, was revived by 12th-century Sunni Muslim scholars.
Now, as a simple reaction to the arrival of the Crusaders, in the context of the region, this makes sense. The Sunni Abbasid caliphate had long been in decline, the Shi’a Fatimid caliphate of Egypt had neither been particularly militarily efficient or aggressive and had, until the arrival of the Crusaders, lacked significant Christian neighbours. The conjunction of military effective Sunni rulers and Christian neighbours had not occurred in Egypt and Syria for some centuries, so, when it did, it was natural that jihad-as-holy-war would get a revival among Sunni scholars.

This is a longstanding pattern in Islam. We commonly see the revival of jihad-as-holy-war and use of ghazis (jihadi religious volunteer warriors) when there is the conjunction of militarily effective Islamic rulers and Christian or other unbeliever neighbours. The Maghribi (North African) dynasties invading Al-Andalus used ghazis, particularly the C12th Almohads. Ottomans used ghazis regularly in their wars of conquest in Anatolia and the Balkans from the C14th onwards; the last Khwarazamshah (an Iranian Muslim ruler) was known as al-Ghazi (‘warrior against infidels’) because of his enthusiasm for military resistance against the pagan nomads of the steppes (unfortunately, said steppe pagans came to be led by Genghiz Khan: the Khwarazamshah state did not survive the interaction). The example of the Mahdist state in C19th Sudan I have already mentioned in my previous post. The contemporary jihadi, if one takes terrorism to be a new way to be militarily effective and the ‘global village’ as making us all neighbours, are reviving a very old pattern.
The concept of jihad-as-holy war has always been part of the intellectual and cultural armoury of Islam – indeed, of its original founding and spread from Arabia – and, as such, available for recall and re-use.

Jihad-as-inner struggle
In David Nicolle’s Hattin 1187: Saladin’s greatest victory there is also this passage:
The responsibilities of rulers were also described in a number of books known as ‘Mirrors of Princes’, and one of the most interesting was written by an anonymous Syrian living near the Crusader frontier a year or so after Saladin’s death. It went into great detail about jihad and although the best jihad was still against evil in one’s own heart, fighting the unbeliever came a good second.(pp8-9).
This also makes sense. Islam is first and foremost a religion about submission to God. So, of course, the most important struggle is the inner spiritual one. Which concept of jihad gets stressed to what extent is going to change according to purposes and circumstances. If you are not near unbeliever-ruled territories, or are militarily ineffectual, or are not primarily a military figure nor trying to appeal to military figures (or are trying to put on a good face to unbelievers), well, talk a lot about jihad-as-inner-struggle. Conversely, if you are militarily effective, or trying to appeal to military figures, and are near unbeliever-ruled territory, then jihad-as-holy war is going to get much more of a run.

But, in the world of politics and events, the theology of pietism (inner struggle) is simply not going to cause the same ructions as the theology of military action.

Moreover, the concept of jihad as holy war is much more integral to Islam than crusading is to Christianity. The Prophet himself said those who die fighting the infidel go to Paradise. Islam started as a religio-military exercise. Jesus never preached crusade in that sense and Christianity spent its first three centuries spreading without military action (or state assistance) as a purely missionary exercise.

Of course, Christianity caught up with the idea that having the reigns of power was a good thing and eventually got around to blessing military action and even (after a millennium) launching specifically religious wars with the First Crusade. Two militarily aggressive monotheisms in often-violent interaction: if one of them got the idea, the other was bound to catch it sooner or later. But the notion of crusading as religious war eventually died within Christendom as a serious exercise and the term itself has since been secularised. The notion of jihad as holy war never died out in Islam. Nor has it been secularised.

After all, secularisation is hardly a natural concept in Islam. Jesus’s dictum render unto God the thing that are God’s, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars’ has no equivalent among the sayings of the Prophet. Even the Christian marriage with Roman power underwent a profound shock with the sack of Rome, so much so that St Augustine, in reaction to said shock, developed an entire theology of religious authority as separate from the vicissitudes of worldly power. A theology that stood the Church in good staid as it dealt with secular weakness (in the early Dark Ages) and secular power later on.

So, should we judge Islam by the jihadis? Of course not. Are they using ideas that are part of Islam? Of course they are. (See my earlier post on Andrew Bostom's compilation The Legacy of Jihad.)

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