Australia/Israel Review

Scribblings: The meaning of “Jihad”

Oct 29, 2013 | Tzvi Fleischer

Tzvi Fleischer


The meaning of “Jihad”

Religion, any religion, can be a source of spiritual fulfilment and guidance for ethical behaviour or a mandate for fanaticism, intolerance and violence. (That includes Judaism – followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane are a good example of the latter.) As Prof. Efraim Inbar, a religious man as well as a distinguished academic scholar, put it during his recent visit to Melbourne, all religious traditions have to “pick their verses.”

Pick the right verses and interpretations, and you get spiritual comfort, community and valuable ethics, pick the wrong ones and you get hate, terrorism, racism and other ugliness.

Unfortunately, Islam is currently suffering from a strong minority movement pushing the “wrong sort of verses” from the huge and diverse Islamic religious canon. The existence of positive, tolerant and ethically admirable Islamic verses and interpretations does not change this reality.

Take for example the important Islamic concept of “jihad”. It has become very common, a sign of sophistication even, to hear educated non-specialist individuals insisting that the word, which means simply “struggle”, refers in Islam to spiritual struggle to improve oneself and the wider community. And there are indeed Islamic verses and traditional interpretations to back this up.

However, both historically and contemporarily, the word “jihad” was and is overwhelmingly used to mean warfare on behalf of the community of Islamic believers, the Umma.
Some commentators on the subject will concede “jihad” can be used this way – but insist it means only defensive warfare.

This is not as benign as it sounds. Islamist extremists find ways to argue the Umma is being threatened – thus triggering a mandatory jihad in self-defence against Westerners generally – by a huge number of things including: any relations with regional governments that Islamists oppose, trade seen as exploitative, any military presence even when legally invited by governments, tolerating the existence of Israel; and allowing speech by non-Muslims regarded as blasphemous. Most importantly, the influx of Western cultural influences into the Middle East – something virtually unavoidable in the global era – is seen by Islamist extremists as a deliberately-created mortal threat to Muslim continuity and unity.

However, in addition to all these problems with jihad as self-defence, there is also definitely an Islamic tradition which also see jihad as offensive, as forcibly spreading Islamic rule, and is articulated by very authoritative Islamic religious sources.

For instance, take Prof. Abdul Fatah Idris, the Chairman of the Department of Comparative Jurisprudence in the Faculty of Sharia Law at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. Al-Azhar, founded in 970 CE, is generally regarded as the most authoritative source of religious interpretation in the Sunni Islamic world, so Dr. Idris is about as respectable and mainstream a commentator on Sharia as you will find.

He recently (Sept. 4) wrote a piece for the newspaper Al-Ahram entitled “Is Terrorism Jihad?” which stated:

But jihad in the path of Allah, to make his word supreme, spread his religion, defend the honour of the Islamic nation [umma], and respond to the aggression against Muslims all around the earth — this is jihad: when a Muslim fights an infidel without treaty to make the word of Allah Most High supreme, forcing him to fight or invading his land, this is a permissible matter according to the consensus of the jurists. Indeed, it is an obligation for all Muslims. Now if the deeds of the jihad – including fighting the infidels and breaking their spine through all possible means – are permissible according to Sharia, then it is impossible to define those acts as terrorism…

Note Dr. Idris not only, unsurprisingly, denies that anything validly defined as jihad can be terrorism, but also how he defines jihad. As well as responding to aggression, it includes “to make [God’s} word supreme, spread his religion” and “when a Muslim fights an infidel without treaty to make the word of Allah Most High supreme, forcing him to fight or invading his land.” These are clearly offensive concepts on any reasonable reading. Moreover, Dr. Idris insists that all jihad, including the offensive kind, is “an obligation for all Muslims” and also justifies “fighting the infidels… through all possible means” implying even terrorist means are justified.

Again, Islam has a diverse, rich tradition. But it is no more “sophisticated” to falsely insist that jihad means only self-improvement than it is to falsely insist that the offensive jihad described by Dr. Idris is the only meaning of the term.

Oslo: A Palestinian view

More strident right-wing critics of the Oslo peace process that began 20 years ago have often made the following argument – it amounted simply to the madness of Israel bringing back Palestinian terrorists from abroad and giving them weapons to attack Israel.

Critics of Oslo may have been somewhat vindicated by the outcome of that brave experiment over the past 20 years, but I never thought this particular argument was an especially insightful or persuasive one. After all, while it has been over-used and stretched way too far as a concept, the old slogan (originating from Moshe Dayan) that “You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies” still has a firm grain of truth to it.

However, I am beginning to re-evaluate my rejection of that anti-Oslo argument in light of something said by the Palestinian ambassador to Libya, Mutawakkil Tahah, on the al-Jazeera network on September 27, 2013. He supported the argument that Oslo amounted to arming Palestinian terrorists unequivocally, stating:

“Israel decided to gather the youth who had fought it in the first Intifada, and to organise them into security forces, showering them [with money], so that they would defend it, rather than Israel having to defend itself. But what really happened? When the 2000-2001 Intifada broke out, it turned out that 70% of the martyrs, and of the people who carried out attacks against the occupation, were members of the Palestinian security forces.”



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