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Reclaiming Jihad—A Qur’anic Critique of Terrorism

By Roshan, New Age Islam

27 June, 2015

Name of the Book: Reclaiming Jihad—A Qur’anic Critique of Terrorism

Author: ElSayed M.A. Amin

Publisher: The Islamic Foundation, Leicestershire, UK

Pages: 228

Year: 2014

ISBN: 978-0-86037-593-7

Price: $24.95

Almost not a single day passes without the media reporting some fresh barbarity committed by some group or the other that claims to speak for Islam somewhere or the other in the world. These horrors have occasioned a spurt of writings by Muslim scholars concerned at the attempts of extremists to define and represent Islam. This insightful book is a persuasive rebuttal of the claims of ‘Islamist’ radicals and their distorted, terror-driven interpretations of the Quran.

Amin is well qualified for the task he seeks to engage in. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham, works as Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo (which is said to be the oldest university in the world, and is regarded as one of the leading centres for Islamic learning globally), and is a member of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs and a former Fulbright scholar. Having studied at Al- Azhar since the age of 10, he has a deep grounding in the Islamic scholarly tradition.

Amin stresses that Islam does not condone terrorism and that, in fact, it prescribes stern punishment for it. At the same time, he says, “Unfortunately, terrorism is promoted today by some extremist Muslims who falsely attribute it to Islam and more specifically to the Quran. They depend on some superficial and ideologically-driven readings of some classical and modern Quranic interpretations […]”

This book sets out to examine the issue of terrorism from a Quranic perspective. Combating terrorism, Amin explains, necessitates a generally agreed-upon definition of what it is. Yet, he notes, no unanimously-accepted definition of terrorism presently exists.  Men whom some hail as heroes and freedom fighters may be seen as blood-thirsty terrorists by others. This is related to the issue of relativism—what is defined as terrorism can vary from one society to another (or even from person to person in the same society). What one country views as a legal right may not be so in another. Another problem in this regard, Amin says, is lack of objectivity, leading to a tendency to apply the label ‘terrorist’ to enemies while turning a blind eye to terrorist acts carried out by friends pursuing goals that one considers congenial. There is also the vexed question of whether struggles for national liberation or self-determination are a form of terrorism or not.

As a term, ‘terrorism’, as understood in its various current international definitions, is not explicitly mentioned in the Quran, Amin informs us, but, he says, it is important for Muslims to ascertain the attitude of the Quran towards it. The killing of innocents and other forms of corruption are major aspects of terrorism. These acts are sternly condemned in the Quran. Therefore, terrorism can be safely said to be condemned by the Quran.

Extremist Muslim groups claim that the terror they are engaged in is Islamically-justified jihad. For this purpose, Amin says, they misinterpret the teachings of the Quran. One Quranic verse that they misinterpret is 8:60, which they claim allows for aggressive action, as opposed to armed deterrence. The verse reads as follows:

“Prepare whatever forces you [believers] can muster, including warhorses, to frighten off God’s enemies and yours, and warn others unknown to you but known to God. Whatever you give in God’s cause will be repaid to you in full, and you will not be wronged.”

This verse, Amin says, actually calls Muslims to prepare for defensive purposes sufficient to deter their enemies. However, he notes, some Muslims (as well as non-Muslims) have mistaken this verse as a call for terrorism. He cites the case of the al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyyah (‘Islamic Group’) in Egypt that used this verse as a pretext to submit non-Muslims to Muslim rule and to kill unbelievers.  Amin also refers to the Egyptian Islamist ideologue Sayyed Qutb, whose distorted interpretation of this Quranic verse sought to justify aggression against people of other faiths. Qutb’s writings played a seminal role in fomenting radicalism among sections of Muslims across the world. Qutb, Amin writes, misinterpreted the term Quwwah (power, strength) in this verse to mean force intended to subdue non-Muslims. Qutb claimed that the purpose of Quwwah was not just defence. He strongly propagated the use of offensive force, and claimed that Muslims were ordered to strike fear and disseminate terror in the hearts of the ‘enemies of God’. In Qutb’s misinterpretation of Quwwah, which Amin notes is not shared by many other exegetes of the Quran, the term shifts from being mere military preparedness for the purposes of deterrence to being an offensive tool whose purpose is to subdue others.

Amin argues that the extremists’ interpretation of Quwwah in this verse is completely invalid. He points out that the verse under discussion was originally revealed in reference to the imminent outbreak of war between Muslims and others and that it ordered Muslims to prepare for the unavoidable battle. The classical exegetical understanding of the verse, he says, remains linked to this warring situation, and so implicitly rejects the absolute use of Quwwah beyond this context, especially when innocents are targeted in terrorist attacks. Amin notes the absence of any interpretations by modern or classical exegetes, other than by Sayyid Qutb, that call for the abuse of Quwwah in a way harmful to others. Hence, he says, this broad and continuous consensus justifies the rejection of extremist interpretations of the related Quranic verse by Muslim terrorist groups.

The same Quranic verse (8:60) also speaks of Turhibuna or ‘to frighten off’. Failure to understand the context of this verse has led some—not just non-Muslims but Muslim extremists, too—to argue that Islam supports terrorism and the intimidation of others, Amin says. Several Quranic exegetes have understood Turhibuna in this verse very differently, though, he points out. For instance, he refers to a modern exegete who believes that Turhibuna here should be restricted to existing or imminent military confrontation, and that it is not legitimate to direct Turhibuna towards those who are not at war with Muslims. Nor, this exegete says, should it be used to cause destruction or unjust killing.

Extremist Muslim groups claim that their violence is Islamically-sanctioned jihad. In seeking to reclaim the concept of jihad from terrorists who claim to be engaged in it, Amin seeks to explore if there is a relationship between terrorism and military jihad in the Tafsir literature. Central to this is the question of how relations between Muslims and others are construed.  In other words, what is seen as the norm for such relations—peace, or conflict?

The word ‘jihad’ indicates making great efforts for, or striving for, something. At the same time, many people, including many Muslims themselves, Amin notes, interpret the ‘technical meaning’ of jihad in terms of armed struggle against non-Muslims.  In this way, he writes, the meaning of jihad moves from its broad linguistic definition to the limited sense of armed struggle against non-Muslims. In this way, jihad has wrongly come to be conflated by many with war.

Amin notes that the military jihad-related verses in the Quran have been given exclusivist interpretations by extremists who read them out of their contexts. The Quran indicates that fighting can be launched by Muslims only in self-defence and that they cannot initiate hostilities. They are not allowed to fight non-combatants or to respond to aggression disproportionately. Muslim extremists completely ignore this, however. This may be related to the fact that many ‘classical’ Muslim scholars mistakenly saw war as the norm for relations between Muslims and others. As Amin notes, “According to the classical jihad theory, all unbelievers are seen as the avowed enemies of Muslims, and Muslims are therefore obliged to fight them until they embrace Islam or pay the poll-tax (Jizyah).”  According to this theory, Amin relates, the ‘enmity’ of non-Muslims towards Muslims arises as a result of their disbelief (kufr), due to which, advocates of this theory claim, they are to be fought against. This claim is based on a particular interpretation of the following Qur’anic verse:

“Fight them until there is no more persecution (Fitnah], and that worship is devoted to God. If they cease hostilities, there can be no (further) hostility, except towards aggressors.” (2:193)

Several classical exegetes, Amin notes, argue that Fitnah in this verse means unbelief (Kufr). “Clearly,” Amin notes, “classical theory took the view that polytheism and unbelief are the main causes behind the hostile attitude of Muslims towards non-Muslims.” This theory assumed that Muslims have to launch all-out war against non-Muslims because of the latter’s unbelief in Islam. To those who advocate this understanding, Amin says, “military jihad is the overriding principle (al-Asl) upon which the norm of external relations between Muslims and non-Muslims is based.” “On the basis of this classical hard-line attitude in the understanding of jihad in the Quran,” he writes, “it is sometimes understood as being equivalent to terrorism in modern times”.  

The classical exegetes who assumed war to be the norm for relations between Muslims and others were influenced by their historical circumstances in interpreting the Quran, Amin writes. Accordingly, they adoption of a dichotomous division of the world, into Dar Al-Islam (‘The Abode of Islam’) and Dar Al-Harb (‘The Abode of War’) (Incidentally, these terms are not mentioned in the Quran). They adopted an exclusivist attitude to people of other faiths and claimed that verses in the Quran that call for peace between Muslims and others had been abrogated. Reflecting this same misunderstanding, Amin notes, contemporary radical Muslim ideologues falsely claim that Islam calls permanent offensive war with those who do not submit to it and in order to bring the whole world in conformity with it. Leaders of modern terrorist groups, such as Osama Bin Laden, Amin tells us, often select from the writings of such classical exegetes of the Quran to seek legitimacy for their agendas.

At the same time, though, Amin says, several modern exegetes of the Quran offer a very different understanding of the Quranic verse 2:193 and of what it means for the norm for relations between Muslims and others. They see this verse as sanctioning only defensive fighting, rejecting the notion of offensive jihad. They view peace, not war, as the basic principle underlying relations between Muslims and others. In contrast to radical ideologues as well as adherents of the classical theory of jihad, they stress that military jihad is permissible only to remove aggression and religious persecution (Fitnah) against Muslims. 

In this regard, Amin helpfully adds that one should understand all the Quranic verses that are thought by extremists to promote aggression against non-Muslims in the context of the hostility faced by the first generation of Muslims from pagan Arabs, and not as a general attitude towards non-Muslims. Seen in this context, acts of terror against innocent civilians by radical groups who invoke skewed interpretations of the Quran are thus completely anti-Islamic.

Amin insists that terrorism has no room whatsoever in Islam, and that it is a grave crime. Although the Quran does not refer to modern-day terrorism, it does refer (5:33-34) to a crime that shares much in common with it. Hence, he says, the punishments that the Quran lays down for this crime should be applied to cases of terrorism as well. The verse under discussion reads as follows:

“Those who wage war against God and His Messenger and strive to spread corruption in the land should be punished by death, crucifixion, the amputation of an alternate hand and foot, or banishment from the land: a disgrace for them in this world, and then a terrible punishment in the Hereafter, unless they repent before you overpower them—in that case bear in mind that God is forgiving and merciful.’

This Quranic verse also opens the door for sincere repentance. Punishment for terrorists and the encouragement of sincere repentance should complement, Amin says, the path of persuasion—seeking to convince terrorists of the folly of their views and ways and clarifying to them the falsity of the religious justifications they give for engaging in violence. Amin suggests that dedicated teams of Muslim scholars who enjoy independence from state influence, have a deep understanding of Islam and hold moderate views could be successful in this latter task. This effort, he opines, could make a great contribution to international peace and security and successfully counter forms of terrorism that rely on appeals framed in religious terms.

Given that the ideologies of extremist Muslim groups are based on certain misinterpretations of the Quran, Amin appeals to moderate Muslim scholars to rise to the challenge. If they fail to do so, he says, “the ferocity of the unfounded ‘arguments’ of al-Qaeda […] will allow the terrorists to continue to monopolize the religious conversation.” He rightly observes that “there is still much to be done to provide an adequate ideological challenge” to extremist Muslim groups, “through primary recourse to the Quran”. It is imperative, he seems to suggest, for Muslim scholars to counter the false interpretations of the Quran of the extremists and to communicate its true message. As the title of this book rightly suggests, the concept of jihad needs to be reclaimed from the terrorists who falsely claim to be engaged in it, and terrorism in the name of Islam needs to be countered through a Quranic critique of terrorism.

To combat the scourge of terrorism, Amin reminds us as he concludes; military engagement alone is not enough. Rather, terrorism must be combated at the ideological level as well. That is a task that Amin attempts with great brilliance in this very timely book, which is an invaluable resource for anyone concerned with issues related to contemporary terrorism and global politics.