Senior Fellow with the American Islamic Forum for Democracy
Co-founder, Muslim Reform Movement
A founder of the Circle of Peace
Vancouver, WA, 09 January 2018
Why understanding Jihad is important
There is little doubt that the predominant understanding of the concept of jihad by the dominant Islamic establishment globally is rather monolithic and militant. Modern reformers, contrary to revivalists, see this dominant concept of militant jihad as a distortion and deviation from a more personal definition that needs to predominate in modern times and with reform. The Islamists – the proponents for the creation of Islamic State –see jihad as an obligation to wage war against whom they consider non-believers. Consequently, any military activity of a state identified as Islamic becomes jihad. And militant organizations where state bound or stateless terror groups view jihad as a fundamental principle of their radical ideology to quell any opposition through violence. Therefore, within the rubric of modern reforms, the use of Jihad as a tool and inspiration of war must be forcefully rejected.
Not only has this view been reinforced by the terrorist’ rhetoric, the continued silence of Muslims to forcefully and unequivocally denounce this distorted interpretation has also contributed to this prevalent view. While reform-minded Muslims, who separate mosque and state, speak up against any justification for violence under the guise of jihad, radicals continue to exploit this concept as a tool to kill people, destroy property, and to threaten those who condemn their exploitation of religious doctrines for political purposes. Muslim silence in condemning all violence, and qualifying certain terrorist acts as jihad, has unfortunately empowered the radicals to rationalize their criminal acts as Islamic doctrines.
Many non-Muslims tend to view Islam as a violent and barbaric faith, in large measure because of the global embrace by radicals of the dominant concept of jihad as a ‘holy war’. Jihad, like sharia, blasphemy and apostasy, is considered a vital pillar of theocracy by radical Islamists for achieving their goal of establishing an “Islamic State” and their incumbent global caliphate. Muslims need to have a personal ‘jihad’ against ‘the radicals’ violent jihad’. A proper end to this concept of an “Islamic” state in exchange for a state ‘under God’ (rather than under Islam) will not only clear this unfortunate misunderstanding and defeat the terrorists’ objective, it will also show jihad as a tool for personal reformation to defeat ego and arrogance and Islamist collectivism; it will transform our personal and intellectual development from instinctive to moral and eventually to spiritual.
Jihad as we see it
For modernists, the literal meaning of jihad is to struggle – this comprehensive concept involves physical, moral spiritual and intellectual struggle to reform ourselves and the society by becoming better human being. This is not an apologetic. It’s a reality. For example, Jihad is used as a first name. Surely, the origin of this name given to newborn boys is not an intent to name children ‘holy war’ but rather ‘struggle to get close to God’. The object of such struggle is to elevate the human behavior and mutual dealings with our surroundings from the basic instinctive state to the intermediate moral state and ultimately to the spiritual state. In the instinctive state, human behavior must be based on absolute justice; the behavior with absolute justice is the differentiating line between human beings and animals. The moral state requires benevolent behavior and the spiritual state requires overwhelmingly benevolent behavior with the people and the environment around us. This original intent of the word was practiced by Prophet Mohammad during his life.
What then should modern reformists do with the radicals’ concept of jihad? It is obviously part of Islamic history that included the waging of wars. It is long overdue for Muslims to lift up leaders who recognize now that perhaps historically at the time of the Prophet Muhammad the only aspect of jihad that allowed battle was when the practice of faith, even privately, was prohibited by force. And it was not just about Muslims practicing Islam but the practice of all faiths—about religious freedom. Reasonable people may disagree about this narrative of Islamic history at the time of the Prophet Muhammad in this regard, but if a narrative on jihad predominates that is personal and about religious freedom, is that not what is most important? Some interpretations of Islamic sira (narratives) are that jihad can be a defensive battle for seeking the right to practice all faiths – not only Islam – was allowed and is explained by the Qur’an as:
Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged — and God indeed has power to help them — Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ — And if God did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of God is oft commemorated. And God will surely help one who helps Him. God is indeed Powerful, Mighty (Qur’an 22:40-41).
Given today’s predominance and preference for the secular nation state as well as the global condemnation of religious persecution and the ability of United Nations type organizations to stop persecution and help victim relocate to safer places, the need for defensive war has been precluded and archaic.
The core of Islamic faith is the Five Pillars and the Six Articles of Faith. Jihad is neither one of the five pillars of Islam nor is it an article of faith. Jihad is no more than a comprehensive training tool for self-reformation.
Although violence and political wars under the guise of Jihad has been used in Islamic history, this concept did not gain widespread traction in the Muslim world; it became widely accepted with the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the termination of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. The current militant, violent interpretation of jihad can be traced directly to Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91) the founder of Wahhabi ideology. Later, Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) founder, reinforced the doctrine of violent jihad in Egypt in 1928 to recreate and rebirth the “Islamic State”, claiming the Ottoman Empire to be a mythical state and blaming the West for it destruction.
Another MB ideologue Syed Qutb (1906-66) in Egypt and Jamaat-i-Islami’s (JI) founder Maududi (1903–1979) in India simultaneously propagated and further radicalized these deviant ideas. Initially, these groups deceptively called for moral and social reforms in their societies but on failing to stem the tide of change, disguised violence under jihad to achieve their real theocratic goals. This was all compounded by regional deteriorations. For example, on one front, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan provided a strong impetus, funding arming and training these radicals to become jihadis. Thus, justifying violence under the name of jihad has become the models for new activists and terrorist organizations across the Muslim world in the 20th and now the 21st centuries. Al-Qaida, Taliban, and several militant Islamist groups with similar objectives have adopted the MB and JI interpretation.
In the West
Several MB members relocated to the west to escape persecution by secular military dictators in Egypt. These dictators were ‘corporate jihadists’ who enforced a militantly nationalist approach to jihadism and the Islamic state but still utilized similar underpinnings of a sharia state nonetheless. They just rejected the viral components of grass roots populist Islamism and jihadism. They were soon followed by JI cadres from Pakistan. They established themselves as quasi-reform-minded Muslims but retained their violent methodology for the establishment of the Islamic State. They took part in social services and propagated their doctrine of Jihad as a core teaching of Islam. The violent demonstrations and terrorist attacks in Europe and the USA after 9/11 by ‘home grown terrorists’ are perpetuated by those who have been influenced by their propaganda. Many of these groups receive overseas funding in many forms (e.g., mosques, literature, scholarships, preachers, etc.) and from Muslim advocacy groups in the US and Europe which are backed by Middle Eastern Islamist organizations, governments, and establishment figures. The OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) is basically the neo-caliphate of today in which all of those governments (56 Muslim majority nations) believing in some form of the Islamic, sharia, and jihadi state.
Muslims themselves must first recognize that the concept of Jihad must reject the MB and JI Islamist type interpretation because it misrepresents the more peaceful teachings of the Prophet Muhammed and reinforces the linkage of Islam with militancy and with war. The end of violent jihad will need the end of the Islamist division of the world into the ‘Land of Islam’ and the ‘Land of War’. This will only end with the termination of all ideologies supporting Islamic states. This self-defeating interpretation forwarded by MB and JI type organizations and adopted by terrorist groups around the world, have caused grave damage to Muslims’ economic and political interest. Both Muslims and non-Muslims must begin to realize that it is a myth that violent jihad represents the essence of Islam. Such a narrative only benefits Islamists and jihadists and stifles real modernization and reform. Muslims must work on several levels in many lands to accomplish it. Economic reforms toward free markets are needed to generate ingenuity and creativity along with better jobs for stifled generations who with no economic creativity have little to no religious creativity. Political reform is needed to encourage peaceful participation in the political process. Mosque after mosque must refrain from promoting grievances from the past and look to the future by preaching the true and peaceful mission of Islam and stay out of state politics and legalisms.
An unqualified rejection of jihad as a tool of war and violence will be one important step towards defeating the radical extremist ideology of the Islamic State and the end of any and all Islamic states.
Arif Humayun is a senior fellow with the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. He leads a multinational business, is an avid writer and an international traveler. He specializes in comparative religion and the advocacy of human rights. He has long been dedicated to understanding the causes of Muslim radicalization. Arif lives in the Pacific Northwest and can be reached at ArifHumayun6@gmail.com