Twin Interpretations of Different Ummahs

Last week, for the “history and politics of terrorism” course which I am teaching this term, I re-read Rudolph Peters’ book Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam (Markus Wiener, 1996).  This short volume should be required background for anyone in any government agency interacting with any parts of the Islamic world.  Officials like former National Security Advisor LTG H.R. McMaster, in particular—noted for claiming that groups espousing and waging jihad are “unIslamic”—would benefit from Peters’ concise expositions of jihad, drawing upon the Qur’an, the hadiths (alleged sayings of Islam’s founder), and Muslim scholars across the centuries.

QuranpagefromIstanbul

A Qur’an page in Arabic, with Ottoman glosses, which I purchased in Istanbul.

As Peters points out right off the bat, “the Koran frequently mentions jihad and fighting (qital) against the unbelievers” and “[c]lassical Muslim Koran interpretation….regarded the Sword Verses, with the unconditional command to fight the unbelievers, as having abrogated all previous verses concerning the intercourse with non-Muslims” (p. 2).  (Peters, like many European scholars, uses “Koran” instead of “Qur’an.”) He also provides copious citations to the Islamic holy book, and does not simply assert that it supports jihad.  Classical interpreters also believed that jihad’s ultimate purpose is “to bring the whole earth under the sway of Islam…” (p. 3).  Sunnis and Twelver Shi`is differ in this regard insofar as the latter believe that only defensive jihad can be waged in the absence of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi (p. 4).  Early modernist Muslim intellectuals like the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), a Sunni, also argued that defensive jihad is the only kind permitted—but in that definition included fighting to remove colonial rulers of Islamic territory (p. 6) and, by extrapolation, to any situation where Muslims are seen as oppressed.

Classical (pre-modern) Islamic thought assumed that the normal state of affairs between the dar al-Islam and the non-Muslim dar al-harb was that aptly described in the latter term: “the domain of war.”  Many 20th century Muslim scholars, however, see peace as the default position and thus make jihad something that must be justified and declared, instead of simply assumed.  Mahmud Shaltut (d. 1963), another Egyptian Sunni thinker, wrote that “’the Messenger [Muhammad] only fought those who fought him….’” (p. 113).  Whether that’s exactly true, historically, is debatable—but any limitation of Islamic holy war is better than none.  Of course, no work on jihad would be complete without discussion of the concept of “greater” v. “lesser” types thereof—the ubiquitous, in our time, claim that violent holy war is the latter, and “exerting onself for some praisworthy aim” is the former.  However, as Peters points out, the problem here is that the hadith whence this formulation comes “is not included in one of the authoritative compilations” (p. 116).  In fact, this alleged hadith does not occur in any of the six respected Sunni compilations, and many Muslim scholars deem it a a fabricated one.  And 20th century fundamentalist thinkers like the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna (d. 1949), and the Indian Islamic theorist Abu A`la Mawdudi (d. 1979), condemned this “greater v. lesser jihad” trope as one “spread on purpose to weaken Muslim combativeness” (p. 118).

Regarding the issue of whether jihad is Islamic or not, Peters is clear that it most defintely is—with the caveat that “modernist authors underline the defensive aspect” thereof (p. 122), while “[f]undamentalist writers on the other hand do not depart…from the classical doctrine and emphasize the expansionist aspect” (p. 123).  Peters’ observation, writing in the mid-1990s, that “[a]t the present, most authors on jihad follow this defensive tendency, although…there seems to take place a certain radicalization towards a more fundamentalist approach” (p. 125) proved prescient, with the rise of al-Qa`idah, ISIS, and their ilk who “are of the opinion that one cannot apply the categories ‘offensive’ or ‘defensive’ to jihad” at all.  It is, rather, a “universal revolutionary struggle” (p. 130).

A very interesting point in Peters’ book is the status of the doctrine of naskh, “abrogation,” by which “it was assumed that the unconditional command to fight the unbelievers, to be found in those verses that were revealed in the latest stages of Muhammad’s life, had abrogated all other prescriptions.  The modernists, however, [or at least some of them] have rejected this method of interpretation.” (p. 125).  Thus, for example, the most famous Sword Verse, Sura al-Tawbah [IX]:5—“when the sacred months are passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them….”—must be read contextually, in light of the immediately previous verse, as well as v. 29 of the same chapter, to the effect that the “idolaters” to be attacked are “only those Jews and Christians…that had violated their pledges and assailed the propagation of the Islamic mission” (p. 127).

In the final analysis, says Peters, “the modernist and the fundamentalist tendency represent two different reactions to Western penetration. The modernists have reacted in a defensive manner, by adopting Western values and reforming their religion in the light of these…. The fundamentalists, on the other hand, have reacted in a self-assertive manner, by rejecting everything Western and emphasizing the real Islamic values” (p. 133).

Peters’ book, for all its brevity (only 204 pages), effectively demolishes, via solid and irrefutable evidence from the Islamic sources themselves, twin canards of the Left and the Right about Islam.  On the one hand, it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that jihad is part-and-parcel of Islam’s sacred texts, going back to its provenance, and is by no means a “hijacking” or “perversion” of that faith.  On the other hand, his showcase of relevant Islamic thinkers severely undermines the “scimitar syndrome” (p. 108), which holds that Islam is ONLY a “violent and fanatical creed”—for many (albeit not yet enough) maintain that their faith is not bound solely to the dead, and deadly, letter of the Qur’an and hadiths, as per the classical jurists.  Rudolph Peters’ Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam provides hope that Islam’s problematic literalist strain might eventually be abrogated itself by those who hold that the religion’s sacred texts, while true, do not have to be adhered to, and acted upon, exactly as written some 14 centuries ago.

Addendum (3.29.18):  It was remiss of me not to mention that Peters deals almost exclusively with Sunni expositors on jihad–and usually Egyptian ones, at that.  He says very little about Shi`ism at all, except for the mention that in the Twelfth Imam’s absence only defensive jihad is permitted.  But what about the doctrines of the other major sects, notably the Isma’ilis and Zaydis? The former, as the medieval Assassins (non-state) and Fatimid caliphate (state), have been very influential in Islamic circles; and the latter largely are coterminous with Yemen’s Houthis, who are fighting jihad currently against not just Sunnis in their own country but against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

2 thoughts on “Twin Interpretations of Different Ummahs

  1. Wading Across

    Compound this discussion with the idea that the Quran is of divine origin – not merely inspired (whether it’s created or uncreated adds another wrinkle…) – and whether it should as a whole be taken literally or metaphorically…

    In Christianity, we are asked to take into consideration how the early church understood the scriptures which were written in their time when we read/interpret the Bible. Should we not therefore do the same for the Quran??? And shouldn’t that be the more accurate reading?

    As to which passages should be taken contextually among other passages – whether before/after or in the same chapter – seems to be fraught with issues since didn’t Buhkari state that the Quran came down in bits and pieces and recorded in bits and pieces, thus the chapters – much less the verse order – didn’t necessarily follow the order in which the Quran was supposedly spoken by Muhammad and transcribed or memorized by followers .

    I agree that we should look forward to the eventual abrogation of the literalist strain, but I feel this opens up another can of theological worms, specifically for non-Muslims.

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    1. Good points. Of course, I assumed that any reader would know that Muslims deem the Qur’an divinely inspired. And your suggestion that “we” (Muslims?) try to look at scriptures as the early community did is, I would think, the fundamentalist or “classical” viewpoint–at least in the Sunni world. The Shi`is, esp. the Isma’ilis and to a lesser extent Twelvers, have long held a more allegorical, or at least symbolic, view of the Qur’an. And yes, the whole order of the Qur’an’s “revelation” is an issue. Qur’anic exegesis is nothing if not a barrel of worms.

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