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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 5    Issue 16   01-15  January 2011

Jihad in Perspective

Minaret Research Network

THE TRUTH ABOUT JIHAD, By Maulana Yahya Nomani (Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand). Vitasta Publishing, New Delhi, 2011, 166 pp.

In recent times a great deal of misconception and misunderstanding has come to surround the notion of jihad. It is misconstrued, especially by the detractors of Islam, as a calculated and ideologically-motivated attempt on the part of Muslims to attack and kill non-Muslims and to wreak havoc in order to humiliate and subjugate them and to establish their own dominance. On the other hand, faced with the humiliation and oppression experienced by their coreligionists in many countries, a misguided section of Muslims has resorted to taking revenge and retaliation through violent attacks and suicide bombings, ostensibly in the name of jihad.

In the past few years, one of the gravest threats to peace, stability and societal cohesion in the world has come from transnational terrorist groups and networks, in which a radical section of Muslims is prominently involved. The growing tentacles of global terrorism have led to the killing of thousands of innocent civilians, including Muslims, damaged property and infrastructure worth billions of dollars, created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity, and reinforced mistrust and hostility against Muslims. The terrorist attack on New York and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, in which nearly 3000 innocent people, including 300 Muslims, were killed, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, in which 191 people were killed and more than 2000 wounded, and the July 2005 bombings on London’s public transport system, which killed 52 commuters and injured 700, have radically altered the global scenario and have widened the gulf between Muslims and mainstream societies across large parts of the world.

Thankfully, the overwhelmingly majority of Muslims around the world have denounced violence and terrorism carried out by a fringe group of Muslim youth in the name of jihad. The 2007 Gallup data show that Muslims across the world denounce terrorist attacks on civilians as morally unjustified. The Dutch AIVD intelligence service recently reported that among Dutch Muslims of Turkish origin “resistance to radical Islamic ideologies remains strong”. A recent Gallup poll showed that fears about the mass radicalization of Muslims in the European Union have not come true. Asked if violent attacks on civilians could be justified, 82% of French Muslims and 91% of German Muslims said no. Gallup’s Magali Rheault said, “It is important to separate the mainstream views from the actions of fringe groups, who often receive disproportionate attention. Mainstream Muslims do not appear to exhibit extremist behavior”.

Acts of wanton killings and reckless violence and destruction have been condemned by Muslims around the world, and especially by Muslim scholars, religious leaders and Islamic seminaries. Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most prominent Islamic scholars of present times, condemned the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 and urged Muslims to donate blood for the victims of the carnage. In 2007 one of Osama Bin Laden’s most prominent mentors, Salman al-Awdah, wrote an open letter criticizing him for “fostering a culture of suicide bombings that has caused bloodshed and suffering and brought ruin to entire Muslim communities and families”. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, one of al-Qaeda’s founders, who had described the 9/11 attacks on the US as “a catastrophe for Muslims,” said in 2007, “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property”. The Al Azhar University in Cairo and Darul Uloom Deoband in India as well as many prominent scholars and institutions of Islamic learning around the world have condemned reckless violence and terrorism—which are ostensibly sought to be legitimated in the name of jihad--in unequivocal terms.

The book under review is aimed at clearing the cobweb of misconception and misrepresentation around the concept of jihad. Maulana Yahya Nomani is the grandson of a distinguished Islamic scholar in India, Maulana Manzoor Nomani, who is well-known for his scholarly writings, notably his voluminous work Ma’arif-ul-Hadith, and for his long editorial association with a reputed Islamic journal Al-Furqan. The younger Nomani has been trained in Islamic studies and is therefore conversant with the classical Islamic texts. He has recently established an institute in Lucknow, India for advanced studies in Islamic disciplines.

Four distinctive features are prominently reflected in Nomani’s discussion of the subject: (i) an exposition of the theme within the framework of Islamic law (ii) a deep concern with the misconceptions and misrepresentation surrounding the notion of jihad (iii) an attempt to identify the existing social and political context which has been responsible for the growth of extremism and radicalization in a section of Muslims (iv) an effort at clearing these misconceptions and an emphasis on the reinterpretation of the discourse on jihad in the context of present times in order to prevent the subversion of the notion of jihad by people who are either misguided or ill-informed about the issue.

Nomani points out that it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the connotation, rationale and methodology of jihad in order to clear the misconceptions and misrepresentations. The quintessential aim of jihad, he says, is to promote peace and the protection of human life and freedom. The Quran greatly emphasizes the value and dignity of human life and considers the killing of innocent people, regardless of religious or sectarian distinctions, as a heinous crime (5:32). The Prophet described the killing of a human being, along with associating partners with God, as among the greatest of sins. He stated that if someone kills a non-Muslim with whom he is not in an openly-declared armed combat, or someone who is entitled to the protection of his life by virtue of a peace covenant or treaty with the Islamic state, he would never get to smell the fragrance of paradise.

Nomani says that though Islam abhors killing and wanton destruction, it allows resistance, including armed confrontation, on the part of victims in certain situations where the powers that be unleash a reign of terror and oppression. Similarly, Islam permits armed combat in the event of an external aggression or invasion. However, it clearly lays down certain principles and rules, which are essentially derived from the Islamic ethos, to regulate armed combat. Nomani says that jihad is often misconstrued as armed struggle or war waged by Muslims to capture territory or power. This, he says, is an erroneous view and is contrary to the true meaning of jihad as enunciated in the Quran and the precepts of the Prophet. The Quran explicitly denounces reckless violence because it engenders ‘strife and (moral) corruption in the world’. In other words, every armed combat or war in which Muslims are involved does not necessarily qualify to be jihad. If such an act is carried out in violation of the principles and provisions stipulated in the Islamic Shariah, it would be deemed as a manifestation of strife and chaos, which are unequivocally denounced in the Quran, and would have nothing to do with jihad.

Objectives, Rationale and Prerequisites of Jihad

Nomani recounts the objectives, dynamics and rationale of jihad as enunciated in the Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah. These include the following.

  • Motivation or intention occupies a central place in jihad. True jihad has been described in the Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah as ‘struggle in the path of God,’ which suggests that it is to be undertaken not for worldly gain or aggrandizement or other extraneous considerations but for the greater glory of God, for the well-being of humanity and for promoting righteousness.

  • Armed resistance as a legitimate form of jihad is permitted in situations where oppression and persecution on religious grounds is rife.

  • Jihad is permitted as a legitimate response to external aggression or invasion and to grave threats to one’s life, beliefs and honour.

  • Before taking a decision to engage in armed combat, all possible avenues of the peaceful resolution of conflict between the contending parties, including negotiations and reconciliations, have to be explored. This needs to be done even in situations where the position of Muslims is strong (p. 42-44).

  • The authority and responsibility for taking a decision to initiate or carry out jihad rests with the Islamic state, which is to be executed through the Islamic court or a duly constituted legal authority. Individual members of society have no right to engage in jihad independent of the Islamic state or without its permission (p. 54).

  • The mere existence of a non-Muslim state or government does not provide a justification for a Muslim state to wage a war against it.

  • Nomani dwells at some length on the ethics of war as enunciated in Islamic law. Islamic law explicitly states that, in a war, no injury or harm should be caused to non-combatant civilians, especially women, children, old people, the physically handicapped, ascetics and monks, that prisoners-of-war should be treated in a kind and compassionate manner, that the dead bodies of soldiers from the enemy camp should not be subjected to mutilation or dismemberment, that treaties and agreements with the enemies must be respected. When the Caliph Abu Bakr dispatched a military expedition to Syria, he instructed Muslim troops in the following words: “O people! I charge you with these rules; learn them well. Do not commit treachery nor deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate the dead bodies of soldiers. Do not kill a child or a woman or an aged man. Do not uproot or burn palms or cut down fruit trees. Do not slaughter a sheep or a cow or a camel, except for food. You will meet people (in enemy territories) who have set themselves apart in monasteries. Leave them to accomplish the purpose for which they have done this”.

  • Islamic history bears ample testimony to the fact that Muslims treated the prisoners-of-war with exceptional consideration and kindness. In most cases, they were released on payment of ransom or in exchange for Muslim prisoners in the enemy camp. Many were set free on humanitarian grounds.

  • Muslims who are citizens of a non-Islamic state and share with other citizens the rights and obligations that common citizenship entails, are bound by the covenant or treaty with the state and the wider society and are therefore obliged to protect the lives and properties of other citizens. If the state in which they are living as citizens wages a war against a Muslim state, they should make peaceful efforts to dissuade the ruling establishment from doing so, but they cannot take up arms against their own state (pp. 55-56). Islam clearly forbids Muslims from causing harm to non-combatant civilians even in times of war. “…..it is clear that it is not permissible for a Muslim citizen of a (non-Islamic) state wherein Muslims might even be badly oppressed and might have numerous complaints of mistreatment and discrimination to engage in any sort of violence against that country or its ordinary citizens as long as he remains a citizen of that country” (p. 75).

  • Islam emphasizes that Muslims must honour the agreements and treaties with non-Muslims during normal times as well as in situations of war. If a Muslim state has entered into a peace treaty with a non-Muslim state and if that state begins to oppress its Muslim inhabitants, the Muslim state is not permitted to come to their rescue by waging a war against it as long as the peace treaty is in force. Nomani is highly critical of some Muslim religious leaders who instigate Muslim youth living in non-Islamic countries to renege on their commitments and obligations and launch a jihadist offensive against the state or its residents. He says that such people are guilty of not only misguiding Muslims but also of misrepresenting the true principles and teachings of Islam. The relevant passages in the book are worth quoting.
    The moment a Muslim applies for a visa to visit or stay in a non-Muslim country, he enters into what, in effect is an agreement with the government of that country, promising it that he would not pose any threat to the lives and property of its people and that he would abide by its laws. He reiterates this promise numerous times while travelling to, and while entering, that country. Even if that country is vociferously anti-Muslim and anti-Islam, it is incumbent on that Muslim to abide by this agreement and respect the lives and properties of its inhabitants. This is because he has entered into an agreement with that country’s government and has assured it that he would respect its laws and (protect) the lives and properties of its citizens. Therefore, he has absolutely no excuse for using the name of Islam to revolt against that state or to violate the agreement that he has entered into with it. If he violates this agreement and commits an act of aggression in that country, even with a good intention, he commits a crime in the eyes of Islam (pp. 72-73).

  • Nomani takes cognizance of the contemporary social and political context which has led to a growth in extremism and radicalization in a section of Muslims and which has largely been responsible for the emergence of an extremist and dangerous interpretation of jihad. He notes that the development of this extremist view of jihad, which is contrary to the principles of the Islamic Shariah, is intimately linked to the humiliation and oppression of Muslims—particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan—by the US and its allies. However, he is highly critical of those Muslims—who mercifully constitute a miniscule minority—who mistakenly believe that the world-wide Muslim ummah is obliged to wage a war against non-Muslims who are responsible for humiliating and oppressing their coreligionists, and points out that this misconception arises from their superficial understanding of the Quran and the precepts of the Prophet Muhammad (SAAW).

An important part of the book deals with a critical examination of the views of classical Muslim jurists on jihad and on the relations between Muslim and non-Muslim states in the historical, social and political context of earlier times. He notes, for example, that in the corpus of classical Islamic jurisprudence there is no concept of permanent peace between Muslim and non-Muslim states. Much of the discussion in the classical legal texts deals with short-term peace agreements. The texts stipulate that an Islamic state is permitted to make peace with a non-Islamic state only if the former is weak or is under such constraints that it is unable to wage a war on the latter. Imam Shafi’i, for example, argued that an Islamic state cannot make a peace treaty with a non-Islamic state for a period exceeding ten years.

Nomani argues that the view of jihad formulated by the classical jurists might have been appropriate in the context of earlier times, but it appears to be problematic in the contemporary context where state structures, international relations and the global scenario have undergone a radical transformation. We are faced, he says, with an altogether different global scenario, with different, unprecedented implications and consequences for Muslims. What, he asks, is the nature of the guidance provided by the Islamic Shariah in respect of a situation where Muslims are citizens of a non-Muslim state which does not oppress them but, on the contrary, allows them to freely practice and propagate their faith without any let or hindrance? Will it be permissible to wage a jihad against such a state, he asks.

Nomani suggests that the international order is based on the assumption of permanent peace between nation-states and peoples, unlike in earlier times when relations between states were often characterized by long-standing conflicts and hostilities. He argues that the fundamentally different nature of the existing international scenario renders the views of the classical jurists on the relations between Muslim states and non-Muslim states and on jihad not only problematic but untenable. He emphasizes that the real aim and basis of Islamic international law is the establishment of peace and suggests that there is a pressing need to undertake a critical reinterpretation of the scope, dynamics and rationale of jihad in the context of present times and in the framework of what is known in Islamic legal discourse as creative reinterpretation or ijtihad (pp. xi-xii).

Nomani makes a reference to the murder of a controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004 and the publication of the highly derogatory caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005. One of the cartoons showed the Prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban. In early February 2006, several newspapers in 22 European countries republished some or all of the cartoons in the name of freedom of expression. This created widespread resentment and anger among Muslims around the world and led to violent demonstrations in some countries.

A Dutch film maker Theo van Gough made a film called Submission, which was aired on Dutch television in the summer of 2004. The script of the film was written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born immigrant who became famous for her anti-Islam utterances. The film opens with a prayer and then presents, through Hirsi Ali’s voice-over, the stories of four Muslim women telling God about the abuse (including incestuous rape) they have suffered at the hands of men. The film shows semi-nude images of women with verses from the Quran inscribed on their naked bodies. The film quite explicitly conveys the message that Islam denigrates and enslaves women and that the abuse and humiliation of women is legitimized by the Quran. The film created a great deal of anger and resentment among Muslims in the Netherlands. On November 2, 2004, a Muslim youth of Moroccan origin stabbed Theo van Gough to death.

Nomani says that the murder of Theo Van Gogh was wholly wrong because the Muslim youth who killed him was under an obligation, as a Dutch citizen, not to harm the lives and property of fellow citizens and to abide by Dutch law. He argues that it is for the state and the courts, and not for individuals, to decide about the punishment to be meted out to those who indulge in such sacrilegious acts. If a Muslim takes the law in his hands and kills someone for slandering the Prophet, he has committed a criminal offence (pp. 77-78).

The book is well-written and well-argued and the author’s observations and conclusions are backed by references to the Quran, Hadith and classical legal texts. It serves a useful purpose by explicating the connotations and the true meaning of jihad and by clearing misconceptions about it.

The quality of the book is somewhat diluted by certain shortcomings. For one thing, it focuses almost exclusively on the conventional form of jihad, namely armed confrontation and combat, and leaves out other, equally important, connotations of the term. The term jihad encompasses a wide variety of forms and methods: it can be pursued by spending one’s financial resources for the glory of God (Quran 9:41, 8:72, 49:15), through self-purification, by showing courage of conviction even in the face of fear and persecution, and through service to humanity and acts of charity. When the Prophet returned to Madina after the conquest of Mecca and Hunayn, he said to some of his Companions, “We have returned from the lesser holy war to the greater holy war”. When one of them asked, “What is the greater holy war, O Messenger of God?” he answered, “The war against the (lower) self)”. The Prophet is reported to have said, “The most superior form of jihad is to speak the truth in front of a despotic ruler”. Defending one’s family, honour and faith from external aggression has also been described as jihad. The Prophet said that a person who looks after the needs of the poor and widows is like one who is engaged in jihad or like one who spends the day in fasting and the whole night in prayers. He also said: “Seek for your family legitimate means of livelihood, for this is a jihad in the cause of God.”

Second, the book leaves out certain important issues and themes, which are closely linked to the concept of jihad. These include the contested distinction between Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb, as enunciated in the classical texts, and jizya (whose meaning and import have been deliberately misrepresented and distorted by Orientalists). Furthermore, some of the otherwise valid points made by the author appear to be unnecessarily repetitive.

Non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state are exempt from the payment of the surplus property tax (zakah) as well as the tithe-tax, which are obligatory on Muslims. They are also exempt from military service. In lieu of these exemptions, they are required to pay an annual tax, known as jizya, ranging from 12 to 48 drachmas (dirhams), depending on their capacity. During the time of the Prophet, the quantum of jizya was 10 dirhams in a year, which amounted to the household expenses of an average family for about 10 days. The rich were required to pay 48 drachmas, people with average means 24, and those who earned their livelihood by means of handicraft 12 drachmas. Women and minors were exempted from the payment of this tax. Similarly, the tax was not collected from the indigent, the blind who had no source of income, the disabled, the very old, slaves and from monks. In some instances, the tax was waived in recognition of public service rendered by a non-Muslim. In the battle of Yarmuk, when Muslim forces were unable to defend the non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state, they returned to them the entire amount of jizya. Jizya was not invented by Muslims; it existed in Iran in earlier times, where those who did not discharge military duty were required to pay a certain tax.

A significant and rather curious feature of the book is that the author examines, without being aware of it, the concept of jihad as expounded by the classical Muslim jurists in the framework of sociology of knowledge or, more appropriately, sociology of Islamic law. However, though the theoretical framework is highly significant, the discussion is sketchy and leaves much to be desired. However, his view that the notion of jihad needs to subjected to a process of reexamination and reinterpretation in the context of present times and in the framework of ijtihad, is worthy of appreciation.

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