Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Here is a short essay I wrote last November for my History: Islam and the Middle East class on Jihad:

Jihad: A Struggle in the Path of God

Ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have been asking if Osama bin Laden’s use of the term ‘jihad’ to describe his war against the West is actually constitutes an Islamic holy war. John Esposito answers this question, using the better part of a 160 page book, by describing the evolution of jihad and Muslim reform and revolutionary movements. He concludes that jihad in its broadest sense is used by Muslims to denote “a struggle in the path of God” (38). This struggle can either refer to a personal, spiritual struggle, otherwise known as the greater jihad, or warfare in the name of God, the lesser jihad. Osama bin Laden has adopted the second meaning, declaring that it is the duty of every Muslim to keep the Islamic world pure by using force to remove any Western influences or other vestiges of power that suppress or corrupt the Islamic religion.

Esposito traces the history of jihad as it is used by revolutionary movements from the early Islamic days with the Kharijites through to the Wahhabi movement, stopping along the way to examine the Assassins and Ibn Taymiyyah, wrapping it up with a discussion of Sayyid Qutb, whom Esposito calls “the godfather to Muslim extremist movements around the globe” (56). Qutb argued that jihad was an “armed struggle in the defense of Islam against the injustice and oppression of anti-Islamic governments and the neocolonialism of the West and the East, was incumbent on all Muslims” (60). Qutb inspired many Islamic revolutionary organizations in the latter half of the twenty-century. His ideology grew root in the fertile ground of declining quality of life caused by corrupt governments and the humiliation brought on by the success of Israel leading to the creation of groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Liberation Organization. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda did not invent the ideology of jihad; rather, they took it from a local and regional scale to the international level.

Despite jihad’s long history as being seen as a holy war, Esposito warns us not to pigeon hole Muslim views on the issue. He notes that as decentralized as Islam is, there is no one interpretation of jihad that is accepted throughout the Muslim community. There are ongoing debates as to whether jihad is only defensive or if it also includes an offensive aspect, as well as discussions of whether the focus on jihad should be more concentrated on the spiritual aspect instead of the warfare/spreading of Islam aspect, and vice versa. So while jihad does indeed amount to ‘holy war’ in some cases, it is helpful to understand the context that accompanies it.

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