In the mid-twentieth century, many American and European parents worried about the younger generation—the loud music, the raucous parties, the disrespect for authority. Meanwhile, in Egypt, a middle-aged man named Sayyid Qutb was complaining not about the younger generation but about his own. And the problem wasn’t rambunctiousness but reserve.
In a book called Milestones, written in the 1950s and early 1960s, he complained about “the sorry state of the present Muslim generation” and cited, as exhibit A, the prevailing interpretation of the doctrine of jihad. Most Muslim jurists insisted that holy war was justified only when a Muslim nation had been attacked. Such thinkers, said Qutb, misunderstood the Koran. They had “laid down their spiritual and rational arms in defeat. They say, ‘Islam has prescribed only defensive war!’ and think that they have done some good for their religion by depriving it of its method, which is to abolish all injustice from the earth, to bring people to the worship of God alone, and to bring them out of servitude to others into the servants of the Lord.”
Among the unjust things that should be abolished, Qutb believed, were insufficiently fundamentalist regimes in Muslim countries. One example, the Egyptian government, had Qutb executed in 1966. But his ideas lived on and influenced, among others, Osama bin Laden.
After bin Laden’s tactical triumph on September 11, 2001, an argument broke out in the West. Some, including President George Bush, said Islam is “a religion of peace” that had been “hijacked” by bin Laden and other radicals. In this view, modern-day jihadists don’t understand the Koran and don’t understand Islam; the prevailing Muslim interpretation that so perturbed Qutb is the true interpretation, faithful to the Prophet’s words.
Other westerners—especially on the right—said Islam is a religion of violence, and in that regard reflects its scripture. There are lots of things they fault radical Muslims for, but misinterpreting the Koran isn’t one of them.
Who is right? Is Islam a religion of peace? Of war? In one sense, the answer is the same as it would be for any other Abrahamic religion. That is: the answer is reminiscent of Certs commercials circa 1971, in which two people argued about whether Certs is a candy mint or a breath mint until they were interrupted by an authoritative voice that said, “Stop! You’re both right!” Religions, as should be clear by now, have their good moments and their bad moments, their good scriptures and their bad scriptures. The ratio of good to bad scriptures varies among the Abrahamic faiths, but in all religions it’s possible for benign interpretation of scripture to flourish. (Witness the “sorry state of the present Muslim generation”—the generation that as of the mid-twentieth century considered jihad a doctrine of defensive war.) In short: to ask “Is Religion X a religion of peace?” is to ask a silly question.
Still, there are less silly questions you can ask. Is the doctrine of jihad rooted firmly in the Koran? Would Muhammad approve of what the jihadists are doing? Or, to put that last question in Muslim terms: Would God—who Muslims believe inspired Muhammad to say what he says in the Koran—approve of what the jihadists are doing? Granted that the answers Muslims give to these questions will vary over time, which answers are true?
Muhammad on a Wartime Footing
The word jihad means “striving” or “struggle,” and could apply to anything from violent struggles, like wars, to quiet struggles, like the struggle within your soul to do right. In the wake of 9/11, some people argued that this internal struggle was the true meaning of the term. Others insisted that jihad refers to violent struggle against infidels.
Who is right? You won’t find the answer in the Koran. Though the verb form of jihad—jahada—appears often in the Koran, jihad per se—the noun—appears only four times, typically in the phrase “striving in the way of God.” And depending on which of those four verses you pick, you could make the case that jihad is either about an internal struggle toward spiritual discipline or about war; there is no “doctrine” of jihad in the Koran. It was in the decades and centuries after Muhammad’s death that Muslim thinkers turned jihad into a legal concept, and they’ve been arguing about its exact meaning ever since.…