Jihad: What Everyone Needs to Know (Book Review)

Asma Afsaruddin, Jihad: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press 2022).

Asma Afsaruddin’s scholarly 370 page book Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought was published in 2013. Her most recent 208 page book, Jihad: What Everyone Needs to Know is aimed at a more general audience. It is thoroughly accessible, yet hits all the points the general reader needs to know to understand the basic concept of jihad and immunize him/herself from Islamophobic propaganda on one hand or from calls to violence against civilians on the other.

The first of eight compact chapters, “Jihad in the Quran and Commentary Literature,” begins not only by explaining that the word jihad means “struggle” in a general sense and that its root jahada means “to strive, labor, or or toil; to exert oneself or one’s power or efforts or endeavors or ability,”  but also meaning of the word “Qur’an” (literally reading or recitation) and of such essential terms as sabr (patience or perseverance)   to provide a context in which the jihad must be understood. She discusses the use of the term both in the sense of a spiritual struggle and military struggle, carefully noting that the latter use appears only in the context that “permission is given to fight to those against whom fighting has been initiated because they have been wronged” (p. 18) and that fighting must stop when the enemy inclines to peace (p. 25). She properly notes the opinions of the commentators “prohibiting Muslims from initiating fighting” (p. 20).

Although the book aims at the general reader, Afsaruddin does not oversimplify the discussion. She takes the time to address particular arguments used by Islamophobes and terrorists to justify belligerence against non-Muslims. For example, verse 5:51 has been used to claim friendship with Jews and Christians is forbidden to Muslims. Afsaruddin notes the the critical word in the verse awliya has meaning sensitive to context and in context the word must be understood to mean “military allies” and “protectors” (p. 33). Further comparison to the similarly worded 5:57 makes it clear that it is not all Jews and Christians to which the verse refers but only “those individuals or groups from those religious communities who are hostile toward Muslims” (p. 33).

Afsaruddin concedes that general Muslim understanding changed with time so that later Muslims expanded the conditions under which war is justified to include an offense to expand the Muslim domain (pp. 34ff.) She demonstrates how, for example, the Qur’anic verse instructing Muslims to desist from fighting those who cease fighting them was later reinterpreted to apply instead only to those who ceased practicing polytheism. “Many modern Muslim scholars, however, agree with the interpretation of the early authorities” (p. 36).

In the second chapter she takes a look at “Jihad in the Hadith Literature.” Here is where much of the confusion arises, but she notes that “not all hadith are considered equally reliable or sound.” If it is easy to find hadith that extol warfare, it is also possible to find hadith that consider “righteous believers who bear witness to the truth in the way they lead their lives and die peacefully in their beds” as martyrs (p. 57). The term for martyr, shahid, was only narrowed down to those who died on the battlefield later in Islam (p. 59). Similarly the restriction of the term “path of God” to refer to the battlefield contradicts the frequently quoted hadith, “Whoever departs in the pursuit of knowledge is on the path of God until he returns” (p. 67). But the most telling fact is that the Prophet himself (peace be upon him) “engaged in little physical combat” (p 68).

Chapter 3 considers “Jihad in Legal Literature.” Because the jurists were focused on the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate violence they paid more attention to jihad in the military than spiritual context (p. 72). As late as the eleventh century, Al-Sharakhsi emphasized the implications of Muhammad’s instructions to a general, “Do not fight them until you have summoned them. If they should refuse, then do not fight them until they initiate [hostilities]. If they should initiate [hostilities], then do not fight them until they kill someone from among you. Then show them that slain person and say say to them, ‘Is there not a path to something better than this?” (p. 74). The author convincingly shows that the intentional killing of civilians, especially children, is prohibited (p. 76). On the treatment of prisoners of war, she finds a diversity of views which she attributes to later scholars aligning their opinions with actual practice rather than Quranic mandates (p. 79). Despite the willingness of later scholars to accept the legitimacy of offensive warfare (when authorized by the legitimate ruler) she still objects to characterizing this as an approval of “holy war” because “these same jurists upheld the principle of noncombatant immunity for women, children, the elderly, monks, and others who do not take part in the fighting” (p. 84).

Afsaruddin not only notes that the “Abode of War” vs. the “Abode of Islam” is a false binary that ignores the “Abode of Treaty,” but goes further to contextualize the terminology (p. 90f), concluding that most modern Muslim scholars dismiss this division as irrelevant to the modern world (p. 91). She also makes clear that Islam is completely opposed to terrorism (hiraba, pp. 92-93).

Chapter 4 on “Jihad in Morally Edifying, Ethical, and Mystical Literature” argues that in the Qur’an sabr (patient forbearance) rather than military struggle is presented as the highest form of jihad (p. 98). Further, the hadith literature and writings of the moral theologians emphasize that the greater struggle (jihad-al-akbar) is spiritual struggle (jihad al-nafs) while striving with the sword (jihad al-sayf) is the lesser struggle (jihad al-asghar, p. 100). Even among the jurists, those who “focused on the nonlegal sphere” emphasized sabr.

Chapter 5 on “Jihad as Conceived by Modern Political Revolutionaries and Militants” seeks to explain the rise in interest military jihad by its appeal to the victims of “postcolonial governments [that] were decidedly secular and were regarded by the local populations as serving the interests of an imperial West rather than the local populations (p. 112). Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, whose partnership with Ibn Saud lead to the creation of modern Saudi Arabia put forward the proposition that Muslims who “failed to respond to reasoning and persuasion (i.e. to Wahhabi proslytization) … could be legitimately be fought as part of a military jihad” (p. 115). Before this Muslims who rose against the state were considered “political rebels” rather than unbelievers.  Now extremists had a model for engaging in “takfir” and warring against the ex-communicated (p. 115), recreating a model used by the infamous Kharijites, an early sect of intolerant Muslims consigned to the trash bin of history. The balance of the chapter identifies modern extremists who have embraced one or another militant concept as an element of jihad and explains the scriptural objections to their arguments.

Chapter 6, “Jihad in the Thought of Modern and Contemporary Mainstream Scholars,” demonstrates how current mainstream Islamic thinking not only rejects the specific extremist and Islamophobic arguments about militant jihad, but challenge the tools used to generate support for their positions in the first place.  For example, the concept of naksh, that some Qur’anic verses have been rescinded by hadith (may God protect us, pp. 133-4) and decontextualization (pp. 38ff). In addition to the writings of numerous particular scholars, Afsaruddin reminds us of the “Amman Message” ignored by the Islamophobes and shamefully under-reported by the mainstream media in which “two hundred of the most prominent scholars from fifty countries , representing eight schools of law within Islam” expressing “their consensus on … human rights, individual rights and freedoms, and social justice; the need to condemn acts of terrorism and aggression …; the need to guarantee respect and tolerance for other religions, and freedom of religion” (p. 145).

In Chapter 7, “Jihad as Nonviolent Struggle and Peacemaking,” the author presents some major figures and movements in Islam that have completely rejected violence as a tactic and there to develop and practice nonviolence as a form of jihad.  Such tactics were employed by the Prophet himself during his years in Mecca (p. 155)  and are praised in the Qur’an in the contrast in drawn between the tactics of Cain and Able (p. 157f).

The final chapter, “Jihad and Its Perceptions in the West,” frames the issue in the context of the intense resistance to Muslim Western attempts to reclaim the word jihad in its original meaning.  Afsaruddin opens with the controversy over the title of a Harvard graduate’s decision to title his commencement speech about his intellectual and spiritual struggle “My American Jihad.” (Truth be told, the Minaret of Freedom Institute’s own board expressed concern over the potential reaction to our use of the word “jihad” in our mission statement.) This chapter explains the parallels between the notion of military jihad and “just war” and the influence Islamic thought has had on the development of the latter, including the incorporation of Islamic concepts into the Geneva Conventions (p. 167). The false impression Americans have of Islam and Muslims is not just the consequence of proactive propaganda by Islamophobes, but also by the impact of a media that gives prominence to violence committed by Muslims but remains nearly silent over the much greater violence committed against Muslims (pp. 172-4) and by Hollywood’s portrayal of Muslims (pp. 174-5).

Afsaruddin notes that the increasing “number of academic units, think tanks, and advocacy groups that are seeking to engage and challenge the growing tide of Islamophobia” may make a difference (p. 180ff).  She also hopes that as “educators, mentors, and advisers, schoolteachers and college and university professors can train and are training the next generation of scholars, policymakers, politicians, journalists, social activists, and responsible citizens to develop good habits of critical reading. listening, and reflection.”  I strongly recommend this book as an effective tool toward that end.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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