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The New Jihad and Islamic Tradition

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  • ummyakoub
    Foreign Policy Research Institute WIRE A Catalyst for Ideas www.fpri.org THE NEW JIHAD AND ISLAMIC TRADITION by John Kelsay Volume 11, Number 3 October 2003
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 8, 2003
      Foreign Policy Research Institute WIRE
      A Catalyst for Ideas

      by John Kelsay

      Volume 11, Number 3
      October 2003

      John Kelsay is the Richard Rubenstein Professor of Religion
      at Florida State University. His books include "Islam and
      War"; "Human Rights and the Conflict of Cultures"; and "Just
      War and Jihad." He has been a Laurance S. Rockefeller
      Fellow at Princeton University and a John Simon Guggenheim
      Fellow. This essay is based on his Templeton Lecture,
      delivered on October 16, 2003. For the complete collection
      of Templeton Lectures at FPRI, visit:


      The 8th Annual Templeton Lecture On Religion and
      World Affairs

      by John Kelsay

      On October 21, 2001, Usama bin Ladin issued a statement via
      al-Jazeera television. With U.S.-led military action
      underway in Afghanistan, bin Ladin spoke about the September
      11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

      "God Almighty hit the United States at its most
      vulnerable spot_Here is the United States. It was
      filled with terror from its north to its south and from
      its east to its west. Praise be to God. What the
      United States tastes today is a very small thing
      compared to what we have tasted for tens of years. Our
      nation has been tasting this humiliation and contempt
      for more than eighty years. It sons are being killed,
      its blood is being shed, its holy places are being
      attacked, and it is not being ruled according to what
      God has decreed."

      Bin Ladin speaks of those carrying out the September 11
      attacks as God's convoy, the vanguard of Islam. He prays
      for them, asking God to "elevate their status and grant them

      These comments set the context for a discussion of "the new
      jihad and the Islamic tradition." By the "new jihad," I
      mean bin Ladin's or al-Qa`ida's commitment to armed struggle
      against the United States and its allies. This jihad is
      "new," in the sense that it is "up to date" or recent. That
      is how bin Ladin and other al-Qa`ida spokespersons present
      their efforts. For them, this jihad is the latest chapter
      in a struggle as old as humanity. It is the most recent
      instantiation of the conflict between Islam, that submission
      to the will of God which constitutes the natural religion of
      humanity, and the attitude of heedlessness towards God's

      >From bin Ladin's point of view, the new jihad is thus a
      consistent expression of historic Islamic tradition. I want
      to question this. I will suggest that bin Ladin's jihad is
      new, not so much in the sense of "up to date," as in the
      sense of a departure from tradition, an innovation.

      Many people argued something like this in the wake of the
      September 11 attacks. Representatives of American Muslim
      groups, for example, issued statements disassociating Islam
      from the attacks, and quoting Qur'an 5:32, which indicates
      that if anyone kills another unjustly, it is as though he or
      she killed the entire world. If one is looking for texts,
      it's a simple matter to show that there is a gap between
      jihad as envisioned by Usama bin Ladin and jihad in Islamic

      In the end, however, citing such texts, however suggestive,
      does not settle much. It ignores bin Ladin's arguments, for
      example concerning when killing is justified, and which
      persons are legitimate as targets of military activity.

      I am going to take a more difficult road. Islamic tradition
      on matters of war is really a kind of extended conversation
      about God's law, the Shari`a. In this conversation, one
      reads the texts of the Qur'an, reports of the example of the
      Prophet, the recorded judgments of great scholars, and then
      argues about how these relate to current circumstances. In
      these comments, I shall display an argument between Muslims.
      In particular, I want to show how some, who actually agree
      with al-Qa`ida on many issues of import, nonetheless find
      reason to criticize some aspects of the new jihad as
      inconsistent with Islamic tradition. I begin with a review
      of some classic themes of Islamic tradition. I then provide
      a brief summary of the modern career of those themes. Then
      follows the heart of my remarks, which is a discussion of an
      argument among Islamists regarding the new jihad. Finally,
      I advance a brief conclusion.

      Over the course of fourteen centuries, Islamic political
      thought centers on two great themes. The first of these
      emphasizes the importance of establishing a just public
      order, while the second focuses on notions of honorable

      Historically speaking, Muslim scholars held that the
      establishment of a just public order is an obligation. Some
      said it was so by God's command; others said this was a
      dictate of reason. In either case, they usually thought of
      the phrase "just public order" in terms of a state defined
      by an Islamic establishment. We would put it this way: a
      just public order is one in which Islam is the established
      religion; where the ruler is a Muslim, and consults with
      recognized Islamic authorities on matters of policy;
      finally, where groups committed to other religions could
      live in safety, because "protected" by the Islamic
      establishment. This pattern held for many Muslim thinkers
      from the time of the early Islamic conquests (in the seventh
      century C.E.) through the demise of the Ottoman caliphate
      (in 1924.)

      Notions of honorable combat developed in connection with
      reflection on the duty to establish a just public order.
      The idea was that, under certain conditions, the
      establishment, maintenance, and defense of justice would
      require armed force. When such conditions occurred, armed
      force or combat was to be conducted in accord with norms of
      honor. For example, resort to combat needed authorization
      by publicly recognized authorities. Such authorities should
      make sure that fighting occurred in connection with a just
      cause, and with the intention of building, maintaining, or
      protecting public order. The same authorities should
      consider whether or not fighting would be a proportionate
      response to perceived injustice, whether Muslim forces were
      likely to succeed, and whether fighting would serve the end
      of building the kind of public order that serves peace.
      Finally, they were to consider whether combat is the most
      fitting way to pursue justice, considering the circumstances
      -- in other words, are there alternative ways to seek
      justice that might be more appropriate in a given case?

      In addition to these considerations, those fighting for
      justice were to be governed by the saying attributed to the
      Prophet Muhammad: "Do not cheat or commit treachery. Do
      not mutilate anyone, nor should you kill children." Other
      reports indicate that Muhammad further prohibited the direct
      and intentional killing of women, the very old, those
      physically or mentally handicapped, monks, and others. The
      idea was that honorable combat involved soldiers fighting
      soldiers and those noncombatants are never to be the direct
      target of military action. Of course, there are times when
      combat involves taking aim at a military target, knowing
      that there is a strong likelihood of indirect harm to
      civilians (that is, "collateral damage.") In such cases,
      Muslim scholars debated many issues related to the use of
      particular weaponry: Should a fighting force make use of
      mangonels or hurling machines, for example? The concern in
      these cases was that certain weapons might cause damage
      disproportionate or excessive damage to civilians, even
      though the direct target of the weapon was military in

      For the last eighty years, the tradition of Islamic
      political thought has been under stress or under dispute.
      In itself, this is not unique. Traditions are always
      susceptible of dispute. That is, they are so for as long as
      they are living traditions. One generation bequeaths to the
      next a framework for discussion; the new generation tries to
      establish a "fit" between that which is handed down and its
      own set of circumstances. When people stop arguing about a
      tradition, that is a sign it is no longer viable.

      Thus, Muslim argument is nothing new. Nevertheless, one
      could say that the last eighty years mark a period of
      particular stress, in which the most contentious point has
      been the question "What constitutes a just public order?"
      In 1924, the new Turkish Republic withdrew support for the
      Ottoman ruler. This effectively abolished the last
      remaining symbol of the great empires of the Middle Period,
      as well as of the older notions of a universal state
      governed by an Islamic establishment. In the years
      following, and indeed for much of the twentieth century,
      Muslim intellectuals argued about the shape a modern Islamic
      political order might take. One part of that argument
      focused (and still focuses) on the sort of legal regime such
      an order should have. Must a properly Islamic state be
      governed by divine law only, in the sense that its laws and
      policies are derived directly from the Qur'an, the example
      of the Prophet, and interpretive precedents established by
      the consensus of recognized scholars? Or can such a state
      form its laws and policies based on a more diverse set of
      sources? For example, can an Islamic State shape its
      policies based on contemporary international practice?
      Those holding that an Islamic State must be governed by
      divine law only are sometimes called "fundamentalists" or
      "radicals." Those arguing for a more diverse set of sources
      are sometimes called "moderates." None of these terms is
      entirely adequate, but they are the terms of contemporary
      discussion, and thus I employ them here.

      The focus on the meaning of the phrase "Islamic State"
      means, in effect, that most modern Islamic political thought
      is concerned with how one might fulfill the obligation to
      establish a just public order. More recently, however,
      attention has turned to the historic notion of honorable
      combat. We are familiar by now with the "moderate" side of
      this debate. Post-9/11, many moderate Muslims argue that,
      even if fundamentalists are right, and that the current
      state of political order is unjust, there are nevertheless
      limits on what one may do to affect change. There are some
      tactics, people say, that violate the Muslim conscience.
      This is especially true of tactics that make noncombatants
      or civilians into direct targets of military or para-
      military attacks. The conduct of martyrdom operations in
      Palestinian resistance to Israel is of concern in this
      regard. Even more is the use of indiscriminate tactics by

      Moderate Muslims have been very clear in condemning al-
      Qa`ida tactics as a violation of Islamic tradition. Less
      well-covered in American or European media is the fact that
      some fundamentalists have also been vigorous in this regard.
      That is, there are those who share with al-Qa`ida a sense
      that a just public order must be governed by divine law
      only, yet who think al-Qa`ida's tactics are problematic, on
      Islamic grounds.

      For example, on July 10, 2002, the al-Jazeera network
      interviewed a well-known Saudi dissident, Shaykh Muhsin al-
      `Awaji. [1] Two others joined by telephone. All three had
      served time in prison for criticisms of the royal family and
      its policies of cooperation with the United States. All
      hold for government by divine law, in the strong sense. All
      have on other occasions expressed support for armed
      resistance by Muslims.

      During the interview, the conversation turned to Usama bin
      Ladin. The three scholars indicate that, after initial
      approval of bin Ladin, they and many others have changed
      their opinion. Shaykh al-`Awaji comments that

      "In the past, when he was fighting the Russians in
      Afghanistan, bin Ladin was the greatest of jihad
      warriors, in the eyes of the Saudi people and in the
      eyes of the Saudi government. He and the others went to
      Afghanistan with official support, and the support of
      the learned [the `ulama' or religious scholars.]"

      In some ways, this positive assessment of bin Ladin still
      holds. Given all the facts, however, al-`Awaji and his
      colleagues must revise their estimate. Bin Ladin, they say,
      is guilty of spreading discord among Muslims. He labels
      people heretics without proof, and some operations sponsored
      by al-Qa`ida bring harm to Muslims. Most critically, al-
      Qa`ida's tactics violate the norms of honorable combat.

      "_he and those with him target innocent people, and I
      refer to the innocents on the face of the entire earth,
      of every religion and color, and in every region."

      The immediate background of al-`Awaji's remarks is formed by
      the June 7, 2002 publication of Sulayman abu Ghayth's
      internet article "In the Shadow of the Lances." There, an
      al-Qa`ida spokesman argued vigorously that the norms of
      reciprocal justice indicate that Muslims "have the right to
      kill four million Americans, two million of them children."
      Al-`Awaji's arguments would seem a direct rebuke to this
      kind of reasoning. For him, it appears, Muslims are to
      fight with honor, which means (among other things) that they
      are not to engage in direct attacks on noncombatants.
      Similarly, consider the arguments offered by Shaykh `Umar
      Bakri Muhammad of al-Muhajiroun, a fundamentalist group
      based in the United Kingdom. Shaykh `Umar's tract, Jihad:
      The Method for Khilafah? appeared at www.almuhajiroun.com in
      September 2002. This tract attempts to evaluate the place
      of armed struggle in the attempt to found a state governed
      by divine law. The author then discusses the nature and
      place of armed resistance in contemporary contexts.

      According to Shaykh `Umar, jihad, in the sense of "armed
      struggle," is a term reserved for fighting authorized by an
      established Islamic government. This is the sense of the
      reference to khilafah in his title. Literally, the term
      suggests "succession" to the Prophet Muhammad. Shaykh `Umar
      uses the term as a designation for Islamic government. His
      discussion reiterates one of the great themes of Islamic
      political thought, that is, the necessity that justice be
      embodied in a political order. And, as he indicates, when
      this political order is in place, it should seek to extend
      its influence by appropriate means. These can and should
      include honorable combat.

      For the last eighty years, the kind of authority indicated
      by the term khilafah has been absent from political life.
      This fact sets the context for the rest of Shaykh `Umar's
      argument. Muslims are required to work to change this
      situation, and to establish khilafah. To that end, may or
      should they engage in jihad? The answer is no, first of all
      because of the nature of the concept. Jihad designates
      fighting that occurs under the auspices of an established
      government. By definition, then, fighting that takes place
      apart from such a government's authorization cannot be
      jihad. To this definitional "no" Shaykh `Umar adds a second
      reason: Islamic political thought requires that authority
      be legitimate, in the sense of established through a process
      of consultation and assent. The submission of Muslims to an
      authority thus ought not to be compelled. Islamic
      government should be established through persuasion.

      Shaykh `Umar indicates that the process by which
      consultation and assent may be conducted in a number of
      ways. He then moves to a discussion of contemporary
      resistance among Muslims. In his view, the Muslim community
      is in a kind of political twilight zone. Without a duly
      constituted khilafah, there can be no fighting worthy of the
      title jihad. Yet Muslims are in need of defense, in
      Chechnya, Kashmir, and other locations. What are they to

      As Shaykh `Umar has it, Islam recognizes a right of extended
      self-defense. Everyone has the right to defend his/her own
      life, liberty, and property. Everyone also has the right,
      and in some sense the duty to defend the lives, liberties,
      and properties of others who are victims of aggression.
      This kind of fighting is called qital, a word that quite
      literally indicates "fighting" or "killing." Where Muslims
      are under attack, their co-religionists around the globe may
      and should come to their defense. When they do, however,
      they should understand that fighting is delimited, first in
      terms of its goals. Qital is not a proper means of
      establishing Islamic government. Second, qital is limited
      in its means. Interestingly, in this qital and jihad are
      similar, since both are governed by norms of honorable
      combat, or as Shaykh `Umar puts it, by the "pro-life" values
      of the Prophet Muhammad: "not killing women and children,
      not killing the elderly or monks." Tactics that involve
      direct attacks on noncombatants are ruled out.

      Given the type of criticism voiced by al-`Awaji, Shaykh
      `Umar, and others, it's not surprising that the leadership
      of al-Qa`ida would respond. Thus, in November 2002, a
      "Letter to America" bearing the name of Usama bin Ladin
      appeared. [2]

      The first part of the "Letter" is a list of reasons for
      fighting against the U.S. and its allies. The second part
      of the text moves to the question of tactics.

      "You may then dispute that all the above does not
      justify aggression against civilians, for crimes they
      did not commit and offenses in which they did not

      The concern here is clearly with arguments that al-Qa`ida
      tactics violate norms of honorable combat. The author of
      "Letter" does not accept these. Two counterarguments are
      cited in justification of a policy of attacking civilians as
      well as soldiers. First, the United States claims to be a

      "The American people have the ability and choice to
      refuse the policies of their government and even to
      change it if they want."

      Second (and in a way reminiscent of abu Ghayth's argument),
      the author cites the lex talionis.

      "God, the Almighty, legislated the permission and the
      option to take revenge... whoever has killed our
      civilians, then we have the right to kill theirs."

      Harm suffered may be avenged by the infliction of damage
      proportionate to the original harm. Muslims have the right
      to kill U.S. and other "enemy" civilians, because the U.S.
      and its allies engage in actions that kill civilians on the
      Muslim side.

      What are we to make of this exchange? Primarily, I think it
      is important to know that such conversations take place.
      The post-9/11 discussion of Islam and fighting has tended to
      swing between two assertions: Either Islam has nothing to
      do with fighting of this type, or it has everything to do
      with it. Neither of these assertions is accurate. Neither
      catches the sense of Islamic tradition as a living reality,
      in which people try to discern God's will in particular
      circumstances by reading agreed-upon texts and reasoning
      according to established rules. In that light, it is
      important to get a sense of the conversations Muslims have
      about political justice and honorable combat. In these
      remarks, I have tried to show that these include
      conversations between "allied" groups of fundamentalists or
      radicals, as well as between moderates and fundamentalists.
      This fact seems important in itself. Among other things,
      the post-9/11 Muslim discussion of al-Qa`ida tactics
      suggests the power of certain ideas; for example, that there
      are limits on what one can do, even when one is fighting for
      justice. In this sense, the post-9/11 conversation among
      Muslims goes back to the Qur'an itself, which at 2:190
      indicates to Muslims:

      "Fight against those who are fighting you
      But do not violate the limits.
      God does not approve those who violate the limits." [3]

      I believe that verse contains a proposition of interest to
      Muslims and non-Muslims, religious people of all faiths as
      well as those who profess no faith, as we try to respond to
      the demands of justice.

      [1] Cf. partial transcript at www.memri.org, Special
      Dispatch Series, entry number 400, from which I quote.

      [2] Cf.

      [3] My translation.



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