April 23, 2004 No.

Liberal Muslim Scholar: The Term 'Jihad' is Misunderstood by Islamist Clerics

In an article in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Dr. Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, former dean of the Faculty of Islamic Law at the University of Qatar, stated that modern Islamic Fatwas (religious legal opinions) distort the meaning of Jihad to justify an aggressive ideology. The following are excerpts of his article: [1]

Jihad's True Definition: 'A Means of Defending Differences, Pluralism and Diversity'

"Following a kind invitation from the Kuwaiti Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, I participated last month in the seventh annual meeting on innovation in modern and future Islamic ideology.

"The meeting was attended by leading ulama [religious Muslim scholars] from across the Islamic world. The meeting was called to discuss 'Islam and Regional and Global Cooperation.' I was asked to prepare a paper on 'Trends in Understanding the Concept of Jihad and the Confusion Regarding this Term in Fatwas In Light of the Interests of the Muslim people.' This is a lengthy title, and what it meant was to clarify the true meaning of Jihad and how the Fatwas are confused about what [should be] considered Jihad and what should not, in light of contemporary applications.

"My paper dealt with basic elements of the contemporary applications [of Jihad]. Cooperation is not a matter of choice, but rather a vital necessity in an age in which interests dovetail, and no one country, no matter how powerful, can be self-sufficient, and the guardians of backwardness, who scare us off from opening up, on the pretext of safeguarding [our] unique identity, are actually going against the Koranic text…

"Jihad, in its true sense as defined in the Koran and as implemented by the Prophet [Muhammad] and his noble companions, is a means of defending differences, pluralism, and diversity. That is, it is [a means] of defending freedom of choice [as is written in the Koran] 'There is no coercion in Islam'…[2:256] From the beginning, Jihad has been defined by two goals: The first was a response to aggression and oppression [as told in the Koran 22:39]: 'To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged; and verily, Allah is most powerful in assisting.' The second [goal] is the liberation of the persecuted peoples from tyrannical regimes, as happened to the Persian and Byzantine peoples."

'The Muslim Public Has Been Deceived'

"Then I raised the question: How was the meaning of Jihad distorted?

"The first ones to distort the concept of Jihad were the ancient Khawarij ['those who go out']. They rose up with arms against the Righteous Imam [i.e., the Caliph 'Ali Ibn Abi Taleb] and against the virtuous society of the companions of the Prophet. The Khawarij called themselves Al-Muwahhidoun ['the unifiers of God,' or monotheists] and they called their movement Jihad. The companions of the Prophet were not deceived by these shows of piety and numerous ritual acts; they called them Khawarij and saw their actions as insurrection and rebellion.

"In contrast, [today] the Muslim public has been deceived by the deeds of the new Khawarij, and considers bin Laden a Jihad warrior, and his deeds as required by Jihad. Even if they [i.e. Muslims] ostensibly condemned terrorism – the shows of rejoicing were universal and they believed that America deserved what happened to it, as a result of its subjective policy.

"During the modern era, the concept of Jihad has been distorted by the new Khawarij, those groups that took for themselves the title of Jihad. But [Jihad] against whom? Against their societies and governments. Their ideas were taken from the ideas of some Islamic thinkers such as Sayyed Qutb and [Abu A'la] Al-Mawdoudi. The perception of Jihad in the eyes of these two masters emerges from the assumption that the Muslims are the guardians of the human race, that Allah has charged them with liberating it from the tyrants on earth, and that Jihad is the only means of establishing an Islamic government that will rule the world."

'The Distortion of Jihad is Evident in Four Cases'

"The distortion of the meaning of Jihad among the political Islamic streams and among some leading Islamic figures was revealed in four cases:

1. "In the war to liberate Kuwait: The position of most of the Islamic circles was mistaken. Some saw the aggression [of Iraq against Kuwait] as Jihad for the sake of uniting the nation and liberating Jerusalem. Others, even if they condemned this aggression, thought that obtaining help from a foreign [party] is not permissible, and demanded [that there be] an Islamic Arab solution, which was impossible, and which would have turned the problem of Kuwait into something like the problem of Palestine.

2. "In liberating Afghanistan from the Taliban: Fatwas appeared calling on the youth to wage Jihad together with the Taliban – even though the Taliban were an oppressing group that shed blood, damaged Islam, and turned the towns into terrorist garrisons. How can Jihad be waged together with them?

3. "In the war on Saddam's regime: Many Fatwas appeared calling youth to Jihad. Many youth were deceived [by them] and went to Baghdad [to fight alongside Saddam's supporters] and the Iraqis themselves took vengeance upon them. How can the defense of a criminal regime that is unlike any other in history be Jihad? What will these sheikhs say tomorrow in front of the Wisest of Leaders [i.e, Allah] about their pushing innocent youths into the abyss, knowing that the forces were not equal? And if their perception is correct, why don't they send their own sons to wage Jihad?

4. The bombings in Saudi Arabia: There is a group of Jihad sheikhs who are professors of Islamic theology in the most veteran Islamic universities inciting Saudi youth to carry out these acts of terror on the pretext of Jihad. Jihad is innocent of this. This is the very essence of terrorism."

'The Explanation [for Jihad's Distortion can be Found] in an Examination of the Educational System, and in the Religious, Cultural, and Media Discourse'

"Finally, I raised an important question in my paper: How did this distortion of the meaning of the concept of Jihad come about?

"There were those who said that it was out of ignorance. But can the great sheikhs teaching the creed of the faith in distinguished universities be ignorant?

"There were those who said that it was due to oppression and lack of freedom. But these people are not interested in human freedoms, and in most Islamic societies there are reasonable margins in which it is possible to express an opinion. So why turn to violence?

"There were those who said that it was due to few work opportunities and high unemployment. But how does this correspond with the fact that [those who carried out the operations] had money and weapons, besides living in rich societies?

"There were those who said that [the reason for the distortion of the concept of Jihad] is the failure to implement Shari'a and the violation of Islamic law. But Shari'a is implemented to varying degrees in our societies. Additionally, [if this is true], what is the explanation for their rebellion against Saudi society, which implements Shari'a?

"There were those who said it was due to America's pro-Israel bias. But the Jihad organizations have only recently [begun] to wave the banner of Palestine. Similarly, the ideology of the [Jihad] movements maintains that [the world] is [now in] Jahiliyya [i.e. pre-Islamic era of ignorance]. Society, a tyrannical ruler, and the Arab regimes are considered 'the near enemy' against whom Jihad must be waged first, [prior to waging Jihad against] 'the distant enemy' – Israel and America.

"The truth is that there is no explanation for the distortion of the concept of Jihad, except for the fact that there is an aggressive ideology embedded in the hearts of some people.

"But where did this aggressive ideology come from? The explanation [lies] in an examination of the educational system, and in the religious, cultural, and media discourse.

"This is a summary of my paper, which sparked great controversy among the [conference] participants and commentators…"

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 15, 2004.