Beauty of Gray

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

I say Gee-had, you say Jy-had…

A fascinating exchange about the meaning of the word jihad is ongoing between several blogs. Start here for the original post by Muslimpundit Adil, then go over here for the reply by Aziz Poonawalla at unmedia (link via Demosthenes), and finish off with this quick gloss by H.D. Miller at Traveling Shoes, which hit some of the points I wanted to make. Go on and read them, then come back. They’re better than anything you’ll find here anyway.

OK, now that we’ve got all that linking and reading out of the way, I can but my way into the discussion. First of all, I’d second H.D. Miller’s point that just reading these can at least partially give one a flavor for the modes of Islamic argument, and way the Koran and Hadith can be reference to support arguments. This is important, since this form of argument underlies the development of Islamic law and practice—it’s the connecting structure between the holy book and tradition of Islam and the actual practice of Muslims in the world, which is what’s most of interest.

I think the argument can be confused, however, because there’s really three distinct facets to the argument, and what is true in one area might not be true of all three. First, there’s the question of what jihad meant historically. Second is the question of what jihad means to Muslims today. And third is what the limits of the meaning of jihad are in the future—is there any flexibility for it to come to mean something different?

This is not just an abstruse theological discussion, but a vitally important practical one. The call to jihad is one of the most important duties for a practicing Muslim. It’s not one of the five pillars of Islam, but is at a level just below that. So jihad is a central part of Islamic life. What it means to Muslims is a strong commentary on the nature of the religion and it’s past and present. And what it can mean gives limits to the development of the religion in the future. If jihad can only mean armed holy war, then a strong case can be made for the proposition that Islam is an inherently violent religion. On the other hand, if jihad can equally well mean (or is even preferably interpreted ads) an internal struggle, then the call to jihad says nothing about Islam’s violence or political prospects.

Adil, who started the discussion, seems to me to be arguing mainly the first point, and takes the position that the dominant historical meaning of jihad has been armed conflict, holy war. The idea of the inner, personal struggle as jihad, in Adil’s view, is a later invention by moderate Muslims who are more interested in pulling the wool over the eyes of westerners (and themselves) about Islam’s true nature than in really explicating what the Koran and the Hadith teach.

Aziz responds by saying that Adil has not really refuted the idea of jihad as inner struggle, and that while it may not be accepted in some lines of Islamic interpretation, there are other interpretations which accept this distinction.

H.D. Miller then gives his own two cents, opining that, while jihad may have mainly meant armed struggle in the initial expansion, the later idea of jihad as a personal struggle was also widespread. But that this idea does not have a strong basis in the Koran or Hadith.

So what does it mean? After reading this debate, and from what I’ve read of Arab history, H.D. Miller’s interpretation seems to fit the facts best. Namely that jihad was originally primarily about armed struggle, and hence this is it’s primary meaning when used in the Koran and Hadith. Since Islamic argument depends so strongly on historical arguments from authority, this gives proponents of violent jihad a strong stance in any argument, and a potential appeal to Muslims.

But the springing up of the alternate interpretation of jihad, both historically and in moderates today, muddies the water. If sincere and devout Muslims can preach that the duty of jihad can be interpreted as a struggle for personal perfection, then this interpretation, even if it has a weaker textual basis, is obviously possible. It does exist and is accepted by many, even if it isn’t the majority.

So on the key question of the future of Islam, the moderates by their very existence show that violence is not inherent in the system. And it seems that the goal of those of us who support the US should be to encourage the moderate position and to strengthen it, rather than attacking it and trying to tear it down to score rhetorical points for a hawkish approach. This doesn’t mean that no Muslims support a violent holy war against the West. Obviously some do. But the task is to marginalize them and to strengthen the hand and the position of the moderates.

Attacking Islam indiscriminately as a violent religion and condemning all its practitioners is both questionable intellectually and disastrous practically. A war of the West against Islam would radicalize the populations in the Middle East and be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the hawks, since then the great mass of Arabs would, of necessity, become hostile to the US and the West. Instead, the most effective and least costly path would be to find and embrace our natural allies, no matter how few or marginalized they are (and I don’t think they are that few), in the Islamic world. In any battle of values, which the current war ultimately is, this “fifth column” is our most potent ally and contains the seeds of victory and the hope for the future.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:10 AM

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