Muslims and the Great Jihad

When the BBC Radio 4's documentary on Deobandis last month unraveled how the radical religious cleric from Pakistan - Masood Azhar - brought the notion of violent jihad into the UK in the 80s, while the revelations of Azhar's venerable status amongst his young British protégés may have been new, they certainly weren't surprising. After all, a virulent form of jihad has become a religious staple on every hardline religious cleric's menu of divine insanities. Extremist Islamist clergy have called out to such malevolence for decades - it was there in the inflammatory rhetoric of bin Laden (his will revealed he bequeathed 20 million GBP to the cause of jihad), it has populated the sermons of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban for years and has become a pandemic with the rise of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). Infamously, these seditious speeches have included calls for Jihad against the West, to fight as ISIS's self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi pronounced in 2014, "the agents of the Jews and crusaders, their slaves, tails and dogs."

These facts beg the inevitable question - has the vast majority of the Muslim polity that does not subscribe to such extremist views got it very, very wrong? Does Islam really condone brutal savagery, monopolising claims to the "truth" with an utter disregard for plurality and the killing of innocent people with a reckless abandon? The contemporary preachers of violent jihad would have us believe that the Quran mandates the killing of our Christian friends, or our Jewish neighbours or atheist employers for no reason other than their faith or lack thereof. Ironically, there is in fact no complexity in the interpretation of jihad when the question of whether aggressive warfare is permitted by the Muslim Holy Book goes up for scrutiny - the Quran categorically rejects any such notion (as will be evinced below). The concept of jihad is complex in its profundity - it is referred to in the Quran repeatedly as a deeply spiritual and philosophical struggle against one's soul - a journey of constant self-reformation and purification.

Textual fidelity it seems has become the scapegoat of religious sabotage. Religious extremists - those donning suicide vests and otherwise have used their obdurate yet misplaced devotion to a literal interpretation of Quranic verses as a means of harnessing sensitivities in the Islamic polity that transcend any parameter of the Quran. As Bernard Lewis, writing in The Crisis of Islam underscores, when bin Laden alluded to the "humiliation and disgrace" Islam had suffered for "more than eighty years" in his video message of 7 October 2001, he was referring to the collapse of the Ottoman sultanate of what was then Constantinople. Moreover, with the failure of post-independence nationalist projects in the post-colonial era, there emerged a resurgence of puritan Islamists across Muslim-majority lands, who by taking events such as the secularisation of Turkey and the role of western nations in the Bosnian War committed themselves to protecting an Islamic "identity" (without giving much thought to defining that identity).

Thus, what better way of galvanising the vulnerabilities of a Muslim population than by issuing calls to fight back - to reassert their pride - to partake in holy jihad. And the so-called fighting verses, revealed predominantly during the Battle of Badr, when a thousand-strong Meccan army attacked the staggering three hundred Muslim legion, permitting Muslims to defend themselves by "killing the idolaters" (9:5 - or the verse of the sword as its come to be known) became an all too convenient basis for extremists to sanctify their claims. The Battle of Badr took place following migration, after the Prophet and his followers had endured thirteen years of intense persecution - bearing patiently and notwithstanding the torment they had endured, were not the first to start hostilities - being forced to defend themselves from the invading Meccans. Hence, in 22:39 the Quran speaks of "Permission to fight" being "given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged," in the subsequent verse explaining that if such permission had been denied, "there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques." Thus, importantly, defensive warfare was permitted, not only for the preservation of Muslim worshippers but all religious denominations. Moreover, verses like 9:5 carry in themselves conditions, stating clearly that, "But if they repent...then leave their way free." Moreover, such verses are flanked by qualifications commanding the Muslims to grant protection to the enemies where they seek it, delivering them to a place of security and hastening towards peace should they hasten towards it.

Paradoxically therefore, a hallmark of pluralism has been transformed into a graveyard of rights as today's 1.6 billion Muslims are left to apologise for the actions of a miniscule minority. The real meaning of jihad is embodied in various verses of the Quran, being epitomised by 29:6 wherein God states, "And whoso strives, strives only for his own soul." Ironically, for the so-called protectors of divinity who routinely usurp God's name to justify their perversity, God emphatically states in 2:224, "And make not Allah a target for your oaths that you may thereby abstain from doing good and acting righteously and making peace between men." And again in 4:114 God provides that there is no good in the conferences of men, except those that "enjoin charity, or goodness, or the making of peace among men." This emphasis on good deeds, righteous actions and peace-making reveals that the introspective journey of jihad envisions to be beneficial not merely for the one who undertakes this journey but his ability to benefit other human beings.

These verses are thus an emphatic rejection of the paradigm of violent jihad and a decisive affirmation of jihad as a peaceful, inner voyage of spiritual and human discovery. The defensive wars fought during the lifetime of the Prophet account for a few months thereof - the remaining twenty-three odd years of his prophethood bearing testimony to the Quranic discourse on peace, righteousness and pluralism. Therefore, for saboteurs of religious scripture, their treason is against the very deity they claim to be patrons of and the more heinous their actions, the more resounding their emblem of antithesis to the profundity of the great jihad.