What Everyone Needs to Know
Series: What Everyone Needs to Know
- ISBN: 9780190647322
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: March 2022
Jihad, a term of deep historical significance and a subject of ongoing debate, stands at the intersection of religion, politics, and culture. Despite the extensive body of scholarly literature that has shed light on various aspects of this multilayered concept within Islamic history, misconceptions about jihad continue to obscure its meanings in popular media. Asma Afsaruddin’s latest work, Jihad: What Everyone Needs to Know, is a valuable addition to the ongoing discussions on jihad—thoughtfully crafted to benefit a broader readership that may be less acquainted with Islamic doctrines and ideas.
Afsaruddin’s book has several merits. It presents an easily accessible account of jihad, unraveling this intricate and often contentious concept for readers, helping them better grasp its historical development and contemporary relevance. The volume’s innovative structure significantly facilitates readers’ comprehension of its ideas. The author employs a question-and-answer format throughout her work, posing questions that frequently harbor misconceptions, and then provides concise responses followed by in-depth analyses that further address the questions. Also, Afsaruddin’s book is comprehensive, spanning a wide spectrum of topics, from the early history of Islam to the present. Thus, it serves as both an accessible introduction and a thorough guide for those seeking a deeper understanding of the polyvalent meanings of jihad. Whether one is new to the subject or seeking a deeper scholarly analysis of the topic, this book is an indispensable resource.
In the first chapter, which is the lengthiest in the book, a detailed examination is undertaken to delineate the diverse interpretations of jihad in the Quran and exegetical literature. In the Quranic literature, the concept of jihad encompasses two distinct aspects: military conflict (qitāl) and patient forbearance (ṣabr). These interpretations have given rise to both militant and nonmilitant understandings of jihad throughout history. However, as Afsaruddin explains, numerous contemporary aspects of military jihad, such as acts of terrorism, suicide bombings, and the notion of perpetual and permanent jihad, lack a foundation in the Quran and the exegetical literature.
Chapter 2 examines jihad in the hadith literature. This chapter emphasizes the need for a cautious approach to the authenticity of many hadiths commonly employed by Muslim militants to justify their interpretation of jihad, such as the famous hadith that promises seventy-two virgins to the martyrs. It also delves into the concept of greater and lesser jihads, and this crucial distinction has played a pivotal role in legitimizing nonmilitant interpretations of jihad.
Nevertheless, the legal and juristic literature predominantly focuses on militant jihad, a subject explored in great depth in chapter 3. Jurists frequently delve into the legal dimensions of jihad, clarifying how it should be executed by, for example, drawing distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate practices during warfare. Notably, this chapter highlights that, even though jurists are primarily concerned with militant jihad rather than personal and individual forms of jihad, they consistently denounce the killing of noncombatants, particularly children, women, and the elderly, along with acts such as suicide attacks. They have crafted a moral compass that Muslims should follow during jihad, and together this set of principles closely resembles the Christian theory of just war (which can be distinguished from, say, a holy war). This chapter also explores, among other issues, the involvement of women and non-Muslims in jihad, as well as how the concept of the “abode of Islam” differs from the “abode of war.”
The fourth chapter sheds light on the moral, ethical, and mystical dimensions of jihad in Islamic literature, which come to light when jihad is conceived of as a form of ṣabr (endurance, perseverance). As Afsaruddin writes, jihad as patient forbearance “represents the moral, spiritual, and social dimensions of jihad, so it is not surprising that we find few, if any, references to it in standard juridical works” (94). This chapter contains discussions regarding the nonmilitant manifestations of jihad, which are evident in the views of the Muslim intellectual Ahmad al-Ghazali (d. 1123). However, while numerous examples vividly illustrate this intellectually stimulating aspect of jihad, the chapter remains relatively concise.
Chapter 5 transports readers to the modern era, focusing on contemporary manifestations of militant jihad throughout the Islamic world. Afsaruddin effectively illustrates the growing trend of interpreting jihad in a universally militant manner in the modern era, which has often occurred in reaction to political developments such as secularism, indigenous authoritarianism, and Western colonial interventions. The sixth chapter builds upon the previous one, focusing more on “mainstream” voices within modern Islam, offering dissenting views on militant and extremist interpretations of jihad. This chapter discusses prominent Muslim reformers such as Muhammad Imara (d. 202) and Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Buti (d. 2013), among others, who have voiced their disagreements with the militant and extremist approaches.
Chapter 7 explores modern alternative perspectives on jihad, presenting it not as a militant endeavor, but as a nonviolent and peace-promoting concept. As Afsaruddin writes, proponents of this interpretation “argue that the prospect of armed conflict in a modern, globally connected world, where various nation-states are in possession of stockpiles of deadly weapons, threatens humankind with extinction. In such circumstances, nonviolent attempts to resolve conflicts and preserve the peace should be the preferred option” (148).
The concluding chapter explores the Western perception of jihad as a holy war, a portrayal that is commonly found in Western media. But as noted above, Afsaruddin argues that jihad is more closely related to a just war (as understood by the Christian tradition) than a holy war. Furthermore, she illustrates that a broad spectrum of legal principles associated with jihad, including the safeguarding of civilians, align with contemporary international laws, and may even have influenced them.
Jihad: What Everyone Needs to Know offers a valuable, accessible, and comprehensive examination of jihad, spanning both pre-modern and modern periods. Striking an exquisite balance between breadth and depth, the book delivers a broad overview of various topics while simultaneously delving into each one. However, it is worth noting that while this book makes a noteworthy contribution to our understanding of jihad, it offers only intermittent glimpses into Shiʿi perspectives on the subject, and instead focuses almost exclusively on Sunni views. Readers would significantly benefit from a more inclusive study that also encompasses Shiʿi narratives on jihad, examining both their differences and commonalities with Sunni perspectives. Such an inter-religious approach would enhance our comprehension of the diversity of Islamic thought and history, underlining its vibrant and rich intellectual traditions. Perhaps such work can be taken up by another scholar, and one can only hope that the resulting work would be as illuminating as Afsaruddin’s book.
Mohammad Amin Mansouri is an assistant professor of Islamic history at Central Washington University.Mohammad Amin MansouriDate Of Review:October 31, 2023