Politics & Policy

Going Medieval

The nature of jihad and this war we're in.

One hears a lot about the Crusades when studying the terrorist threat, and almost exclusively in the form of an accusation. These centuries-old conflicts are raised whenever someone, whether from the region or not, seeks to activate the Western guilt complex. We have to understand this conflict from their point of view, one is told. Memories are long in the region. The time of Saladin is as though yesterday. Had the Europeans (and by extension Americans) not started it all with the Crusades, we might not have the problems we face today.

O.K., but what about their crusade? We are accustomed to looking at maps that show an area called “the Muslim world,” stretching from West Africa across the Middle East to Southeast Asia, as though this always has been and must be; but before the time of Mohammed these same areas were Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Zoroastrian, among others. How did they make the switch, and what happened when they did? This is the topic The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims a new anthology edited by Andrew G. Bostom. This exhaustive, 759-page tome contains both primary-source material and interpretive essays, dating from the earliest period of Muslim expansion to the present day. One learns very quickly that the caliphate was established not by evangelism but by the sword, and the non-Muslims who were subjected to the rule of the caliphs were either forced to convert, allowed to live as social inferiors under a religious caste system called dhimmitude, or simply killed outright.

There was no question among the early Muslim scholars that their faith should spread to the four corners of the world, and as quickly as possible. According to Islamic teaching, the time before the advent of Mohammed was the period of Jahiliyyah, or ignorance of the guidance from God. Once Mohammed brought the word of God, there was no longer any excuse for ignorance. And once an area was liberated and its people enlightened, they could not go back. Any place that became Muslim had to stay Muslim; thus groups like al Qaeda define the hoped for neo-Caliphate as encompassing not only areas where Muslims currently live, but all such places were they ever had influence. More to the point, this is only the first phase of consolidation. They will not stop there. The ultimate step in the al Qaeda program is the conversion of the world to their brand of Islam, and the realization of the vision first pursued by Mohammed and his successors.

The Legacy of Jihad deals at some length with the medieval roots of jihad, and the classical Muslim theologians and jurists writing on topics of the necessity of expansion, the legality of war, and the legitimate ways in which people may be enslaved. Some of the arguments may seem antiquated to modern ways of thinking, but one can find references to these same thinkers in the contemporary writings of the terrorists and their spiritual godfathers. Ibn Taymiyah, for example, the 13th-century scholar who justified rebellion against the Mongol occupiers of Baghdad even though they had nominally converted to Islam, is included in this volume. Today he is invoked by Iraqi insurgents for a similar purpose. Sayyid Qutb, the 20th-century Egyptian dissident whose writings are generally recognized as the inspiration for the current radical Islamist movements, was also inspired by Ibn Taymiyah. The book includes an excerpt from his seminal work Milestones in which Qutb discusses in some detail the nature of jihad as he understood it–something that “cannot be achieved only by preaching.”

The nature of jihad is of course one of the central questions of the conflict. Frequently I have had students from Muslim countries explain very passionately that our understanding of jihad is flawed. That what we think of as jihad–violent struggle to extend the domain of Islam–is actually the “lesser jihad.” True jihad is a moral struggle within each person to enjoin the good and resist evil, what is called the “greater jihad.” Some say further that the idea that force can be used to convert is not Islamic; it would make the greater jihad impossible because the convert would not sincerely believe. All this may be true, in their understanding of the faith, and I have no quarrel with it. Would that everyone felt that way.

Nevertheless, not all Muslims are as interested in this spiritual quest, and some of the more radical adherents of the faith are convinced that nonviolence is not an option. Andrew Bostom’s book shows comprehensively the historical roots of this school of thought, and its continuity over the centuries to the present day. It helps one understand jihad operationally; its use, its claims to legitimacy, its perceived inevitability. Whether this is or is not the way most Muslims view the concept of jihad in its totality is not particularly relevant because people sincerely engaged in “greater jihad” are not a national-security threat. Likewise, those terrorists who have made “lesser jihad” their avocation have no use for fellow Muslims who are seeking only to bring themselves closer to God’s ideal as they understand it. As the Ayatollah Khomeini said of those who argued that Islam was a religion of peace that prevents men from waging war, “I spit upon those foolish souls who make such a claim.”

This is a book rich in detail. It contains writings that have not previously been available in English, and is a useful sourcebook for scholars and students interested in the topic. It is a useful companion to contemporary terrorist statements and writings–you might be surprised how much is borrowed from other writers. Clearly given the length, the language, and complexity (and gravity) of the topic it is not a book for light holiday reading. But for those who want to deepen their understanding of the means and motives of the terrorists, there is more in one place than any other book of its kind. And you won’t have to feel guilty about the Crusades any more either.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and an NRO contributor.


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