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Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Differing Interpretations of Jihad

Robert Spencer takes issue with my description of his blogs as "exclusively devoted to presenting the negative and most deplorable face of Islam":
As a fellow Catholic I must ask that you look again at the sites, which are dedicated to revealing the depredations of jihad and dhimmitude ideology. These have caused untold suffering in world history and continue to do so today, although few are aware of the true historical and theological dimensions of the problem.

The focus at these sites is not on making Islam look bad. I never have and never will post something that is disrespectful or abusive toward Muslims. The focus is entirely on radical Muslim ideology that gives rise to terrorism. That's a big difference.

You will see on my bio page that I invite Muslims willing to reject violent jihad and dhimmitude to join our struggle.

I also invite you to check out a new book I cowrote with Daniel Ali, a convert from Islam to Catholicism, "Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics" (Ascension Press), for an overview of Islam as well as some observations on why Dr. Kreeft's "ecumenical jihad" may not be as viable as one may hope. I am a former student of Dr. Kreeft and have great respect for him, but I think that differing views on these issues may be aired without impugning the charity or good intentions of either side.

Mr. Spencer,

The main point of the blog was that there were two faces to Islam -- there is the violent face of radical militant Islam which, post 9/11, is at the forefront of the public conciousness. There is another face of Islam, which is manifested in religious devotion, works of charity, and spiritual teachings which any Catholic would find worthy of approval. The former has fueled the hatred of terrorists; the latter has inspired many great teachers and saints. It is truly unfortunate that both faces are called "Islam", and I was disturbed by the fact that certain bloggers were giving almost exclusive attention to one face and neglecting the other.

I do not dispute the reality and the seriousness of the issues you are writing about, or even the necessity of addressing them, but it does appear to me that the primary focus of your two blogs, your articles, your books (Onword Muslim Soldiers, and Unveiling Islam: Disturbing Questions About the World's Fastest Growing Faith), is to portray the worst manifestation of Islam.

To illustrate my point: Your blog JihadWatch emphasizes the violent understanding of jihad. You had mentioned other meanings to the term, and curious about this I checked the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions:

Jihäd (Arab., jahada, 'he made an effort'). More fully, 'striving in the cause of God.' Jihäd i susually translated as 'holy war', but this is misleading. Jihäd is divided into two categories, the greater and the lesser: the greater jihäd is the warfare in oneself against any evil or temptation. The lesser jihäd is the defence of Islam, or of a Muslim country or community, against aggression. It may be a jihäd of the pen or of the tongue. If it involves conflict, it is strictly regulated, and can only be defensive. Thus Muhummad said:
"In avenging injuries inflicted upon us, do not harm non-belligerents in their homes, spare the weakness of women, do not injure infants at the breast, nor those who are sick. Do not destroy the houses of those who offer no resistance, and do not destroy their means of subsistance, neither their fruit trees, nor their palms."
Jihad cannot be undertaken to convert others because there 'cannot be compulsion in religion' (Qur'an 2. 256). If these regulations seem on occasion to be ignored, that failure is an offense to be answered on the Day of Judgement (Yaum al-din).

In my experience, the meaning of jihad ultimately depends on who is doing the exegesis -- militant Islam's characterization of jihad as a no-holds-barred holy war against the West through selective quoting of the Quran differs radically from that of other Muslim scholars and clerics. (As you have said, "No one can speak for Islam as a whole. What is considered essential to Islam by one Muslim is heresy to another"). You have given brief mention to the other understandings of jihad mentioned above, but the overwhelming emphasis is on that put forth by radical Islam.

On your webpage you say "never have I said or written anything that characterizes all Muslims as terrorist or given to violence." And yet, I have to wonder if this propensity to emphasize the violent interpretation of jihäd and the worst possible aspects of Islam will prejudice your readers' perception of a religion that has many facets besides those you are bringing to the public. That is my concern. 2

Thank you for recommending your book Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics -- I'll definitely keep an eye out for it at my library, and I hope it will prove my initial impressions wrong. Of course, I will continue to read your blog and your articles -- about which I trust my readers to make up their own minds.

* * *

Articles which may be helpful in understanding the concept of jihad and it's range of interpretations throughout Islamic history:

  • "Spiritual Significance of Jihad", by Seyyed Hossein Nasr elaborates. Al-Serat Vol. IX, No. 1.
  • Jihad, a concise article by Prof. Sohail H. Hashmi of Mount Holyoke College (From Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion, ed. Robert Wuthnow. 2 vols. [Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1998], 425-426).
  • Interpreting the Islamic Ethics of War and Peace, by Sohail H. Hashmi. Excerpted from Islamic Political Ethics: Civil Society, Pluralism, and Conflict (Princeton University Press, 2001).
  • Islam and the Theology of Power by Khaled Abou El Fadl. Middle East Report (volume 221:Winter 2001). Professor Abu El Fadl discusses both the classical Islamic legal and modern "puritan" Islamic viewpoints on political violence as well as modern Islamic apologetics.

Resources courtesy of Prof Alan Godlas' extensive Resource for Islamic studies. University of Georgia. (See particularly the section "Islam, the Modern World, and the West").

  1. The Great Books' Foundation gives roughly the same answer on their website. I asked a Muslim friend whose if he could explain the meaning of jihad to me and he responded in like manner, relaying the popular story: "After returning from a battle with pagan Arabs, our master the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him & give him peace, said, "Now we return to the greater jihad". His companions asked him what that was, and he told them it is the striving with the lower self."
  2. Browsing the web I see that David Need has similar concerns in his article "Choose: Islam Scary, Lite or Dry?". The author -- a bit too left of center for my taste -- arrives at some laughable conclusions regarding Spencer's intentions ("[Spencer] wants his readers scared of Islam so that we tolerate political violence against the threat it supposedly presents"), but overall makes some good points.

    NOTE: The above blog was revised on 11/05-06/03 for purpose of clarification. - CB


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