Jihad, with its many terrifying associations, is a term widely used today, though its meaning is poorly grasped. Few people understand the circumstances requiring a jihad, or 'holy' war, or how Islamic militants justify their violent actions within the framework of the religious tradition of Islam. How Islam, with more than one billion followers, interprets jihad and establishes its precepts has become a critical issue for both the Muslim and the non-Muslim world.
John Kelsay's timely and important work focuses on jihad of the sword in Islamic thought, history, and culture. Making use of original sources, Kelsay delves into the tradition of shari'a--Islamic jurisprudence and reasoning--and shows how it defines jihad as the Islamic analogue of the Western 'just' war. He traces the arguments of thinkers over the centuries who have debated the legitimacy of war through appeals to shari'a reasoning.
©2007 John Kelsay (P)2007 Harvard University Press
catholic majoring in classics and religious studies, student of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, world religions, psychology, philosophy.
It is well-known that Christianity has a just war theory, most famously articulated by Augustine. But fewer people know that shariah, the Islamic tradition of jurisprudence and ethical norms, also has a just war theory embedded in it. Kelsay, a scholar of Islam at Florida State University, has written a book about this just war theory, detailing its sources, history, and current interpretations.
We often hear the phrase “Sariah law” in news reports. Kelsay rightly terms this “shariah reasoning” to convey its fluidity. Shariah draws from, firstly, the Qur’an, Allah’s revelation. But it also draws on stories about the prophet Muhammad and how he behaved as a political and military leaders. As the centuries wore on, scholars of shariah reasoning, the ulama, drew on kalam (logic, or philosophy) and changing historical circumstances such as the Crusades and more recent colonialism. Shariah reasoning norms about just war were formulated at a time of Islamic power, when Muslim empires such as the Ottoman were in full force.
Some of these moral norms seem obvious. For example, it is prohibited to directly and intentionally harm non-combatants. If you are laying siege to a city and have to burn it to the ground, killing women and children, then that is not direct harm. But if you have taken the city and women, children, and elderly are surviving, one cannot execute them for fun as so many victors did (e.g. Israel in Canaan). The category of “non-combatants” is fluid; traditionally women did not fight, but they do in the modern Israeli army. There were also norms against killing Muslims. When conquering a city, for example, a siege could be ended if the city converted to the faith. If a fellow Muslim city was attacked, it was often considered the duty of other Muslims to come to their aid. This made Islamic a unifying factor in the Middle East, bringing together many groups who were separate tribes with separate gods at Muhammad’s birth. In general, shariah reasoning was very conservative, relying far more on historical precedent than historical present. Shariah reasoning was the expertise of a small group of authoritative scholars, the ulama, and their interpretations reigned supreme.
But times have changed. Norms formulated at the height of empire are now supposed to apply to Islamic disempowerment and colonialism. With the loss of Islamic empires came the loss of the ulama, and with rising literacy came the ability of many Muslims to render their own verdicts. When Muslims are now living all over the world, in some countries where the government could care less about Islamic law, how are they to interpret their tradition?
One group, Islamic militants, seeks to bring back the glory days of Islamic empires. People like bin Laden argue that shariah reasoning permits holy wars. The ends justify the means. Critics point out that attacks such as 9/11 violated norms about killing non-combatants, but bin Laden points out that all Americans are guilty of shedding the blood of innocent Muslims by voting in politicians who support exploitative policies in the Middle East. They evoke principles of reciprocity: they have killed us, so we have the right to kill them. An eye for an eye. Worse, they refuse to tolerate Muslims who seek compromise and peace with the West. Their historical precedent for today might be the Crusades.
The other group are Muslims, often in American and Europle, who look not back to ‘glory days,’ but forward to a global world. Scholars such as Indian-American Abdulaziz Sachedina argue that Islam can provide the basis for democratic pluralism. They argue that it is the only way to move forward to create a peaceful and just society. They point to Muhammad’s practice of “protected peoples” in which Christians and Jews were kept exempt from persecution as long as they paid a special tax. They also point to the very beginnings of Muhammad’s movement, when Islam was a peaceful minority group. Militants and fundamentalists dissent, crying out that this relativizes Islam and makes it one voice among many, when in fact it is the one true voice. They also point out that democracy has hardly worked. One of the best parts of this book was the end section where Kelsay reads from Ahmadinejad’s letter to Bush slamming him for ignoring both Christian just war theory and democratic principles. A dramatic about-face.
Given that I am taking classes on Islam and the Crusades this fall, this book was a great way to prepare for my courses. Still, I am unsold on the idea of “just war.” Just war theories still have to be practical, so some amount of “collateral damage” must be permitted. At the end of the day, just war theories that impact a conquered group are made with no input from that group. And in the heat of battle, with testosterone flowing and blood pumping, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect that these norms will be followed. Still, that is not a criticism of Kelsay. I only wish he had explored how much these norms were followed throughout Islamic history and how they compare with Christian theories of just war. In some ways Muslims have political theology easier, since their founder was a political leader. Christians took centuries to go from persecution to power, whereas Muslims did it in one generation. I am recommending this book to a Muslim friend interested in interfaith issues and pluralism.
P.S. As for the narration: the narrator was good, but the book was so dense I had to switch from 1.25x to 1x speed. And of course, you miss all the footnotes and references in the audio version.
Fictional characters in narrative
My adherents ( if interested in religious struggles) could do much worse than listen to this light well-read work on the whys and wherefores regarding limits of holy war
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