Oct 22nd 2016
WHAT IS jihad? It defines this age of violent Islamist radicalism, yet the meaning of the word and its relevance for modern-day Muslims are both contested. The term derives from Jahada, an Arabic word meaning to labour, struggle or exert effort. Many Muslims emphasise “the greater jihad” of personal moral struggle over the “lesser jihad” of military combat; most authorities say that military jihad can be declared only by a rightful ruler—the caliph (a role abolished since 1924), or at least the leader of a Muslim country.
For the likes of al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) real jihad is fighting for the sake of Allah. It is not only equal to the five traditional pillars of Islam—the testimony of faith, regular prayer, giving alms, fasting during Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca; it is, in fact, the most important after the declaration of faith. It is the ultimate means of defending and exalting Islam; an obligation upon the individual, with no need for higher authority. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the co-founder and current leader of al-Qaeda, cites Ibn Taymiyyah, a medieval scholar, as saying that jihad “takes precedence over feeding the hungry, even if the hungry would starve as a result”.
Most books on jihadism focus on what militant groups do, as well as the history of jihadism and the political context in which it evolved. By contrast “Salafi-Jihadism”, by Shiraz Maher of King’s College London, stands out as an excellent and original account of what jihadists actually think. Mr Maher goes well beyond previous works, such as “Jihad” by Gilles Kepel or “The ISIS Apocalypse” by William McCants, in setting out a taxonomy of jihadists’ system of beliefs. It will be a must-read work in the study of radicalism.
The violence of jihadists “is neither irrational nor whimsical”, argues Mr Maher. The tenets of their ideology can be traced to mainstream Islamic thinking, although “the contemporary Salafi-Jihadi movement has interpreted and shaped them in unique and original ways”. This gives jihadism unique power. Every act, no matter how vile, finds some kind of justification in tradition; any denunciation by Muslim moderates is dismissed as, in effect, renouncing a part of true Islam.
Jihadists are a subset of the puritanical Salafist movement that seeks “progress through regression”, as Mr Maher puts it. The movement aims for perfection by following the example of the first three generations of Muslims known as al-Salaf al-Salihin, starting with the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. These are deemed to embody the golden age, when Islam was spread by both the word and the sword. Mr Maher divides Salafists into three broad categories, based on their attitude to temporal authority: “quietists”, for example Wahhabi clerics who give discreet advice to Saudi rulers; “activist-challengers”, who agitate publicly (and sometimes violently) for governments to reform; and “violent-rejectionists” who regard the very notion of modern states as a heresy.
The rejectionists are the focus here. Mr Maher sets out five “essential and irreducible features” that define Salafi-Jihadism. Tawhid (the oneness of God) and Hakimiyah (securing God’s sovereignty in the political system) seek to promote their form of Islam. The others seek to defend Islam, or so jihadists claim: jihad, Takfir (a form of excommunication) and Al-Wala Wal-Bara (to love and to hate for the sake of God).
These concepts, particularly the laws of jihad and Takfir, have evolved with successive conflicts. The jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s was regarded, uncontroversially, as a defensive war to protect a Muslim country against the atheist Soviet communist invader. But when al-Qaeda turned to attack America, on the grounds that it was responsible, directly or indirectly, for countless assaults upon Islam, al-Qaeda had to overcome objections to the killing of civilians. Jihadists developed a dubious doctrine of vicarious liability: democracy, which they declare is an abomination for Muslims, taints all citizens of Western countries with the sins of their rulers because they vote them into office. Almost anything, including the use of weapons of mass destruction, is justified as retribution against their enemies—except, perhaps, for acts expressly forbidden by Islam, such as causing death through sodomy.
When it comes to attacking the governments of Muslim-majority states, or rival groups, jihadists have stretched the rules of Takfir (declaring a Muslim to be a kafir, or non-believer) almost beyond all recognition. In the name of defending Islam, jihadists have killed more Muslims than even the hated “Crusaders and Jews”. IS’s caliphate is odd, too: an act of modern state-building that also serves the eschatological purpose of hastening the End of Days.
Mr Maher packs a lot of valuable but complex information into his book. Here and there, it could have explained concepts more fully. The section on Ibn Taymiyyah is too skimpy, given his importance. Some might level a second criticism: given that IS, in particular, seems more concerned with the theatre of gore than with Islamic jurisprudence, does jihadist ideology matter? The jihadists’ ability to survive decades of onslaught, by the West and local regimes, suggests their thinking is resilient and appeals to at least a significant minority of Muslims. Mr Maher recently answered the question thus: “Did every Nazi camp guard read ‘Mein Kampf’? No. Did Hitler’s ideas in the book matter? Of course they did.”