Thursday, January 29, 2009

In The Way Of God (1)

Islam has so often been portrayed, even by contemporary scholars, as "a military religion, [with] fanatical warriors, engaged in spreading their faith and their law by armed might," to quote historian Bernard Lewis, that the image of the Muslim horde charging wildly into battle like a swarm of locusts has become one of the most enduring stereotypes in the Western world. "Islam was never really a religion of salvation," wrote the eminent sociologist Max Weber. "Islam is a warrior religion." It is a religion that Samuel Huntington has portrayed as steeped "in bloody borders."

This deep-rooted stereotype of Islam as a warrior religion has its origins in the papal propaganda of the Crusades, when Muslims were depicted as the soldiers of the Antichrist in blasphemous occupation of the Holy Lands (and, far more importantly, of the silk route to China). In the middle Ages, while Muslim philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians were preserving the knowledge of the past and determining the scholarship of the future, a belligerent and deeply fractured Holy Roman Empire tried to distinguish itself from the Turks who were strangling it from all sides by labeling Islam "the religion of the sword," as though there were in that era an alternative means of territorial expansion besides war. And as the European colonialists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries systematically plundered the natural resources of the Middle East and North Africa, inadvertently creating a rabid political and religious backlash that would produce what is now popularly called "Islamic fundamentalism," the image of the dreaded Muslim warrior, "clad in a long robe and brandishing his scimitar, ready to slaughter any infidel that might come his way," became a widely popular literary cliche. It still is.

Today, the traditional image of the Muslim horde has been more or less replaced by a new image: the Islamic terrorist, strapped with explosives, ready to be martyred for Allah, eager to take as many innocent people as possible with him. What has not changed, however, is the notion that Islam is a religion whose adherents have been embroiled in a perpetual state of holy war, or jihad, from the time of Muhammad to this very day.

Yet the doctrine of jihad, like so many doctrines in Islam, was not fully developed as an ideological expression until long after Muhammad's death, when Muslim conquerors began absorbing the cultures and practices of he Near East. Islam, it must be remembered, was born in an era of grand empires and global conquests, a time in which the Byzantines and Sasanians - both theocratic kingdoms - were locked in a permanent state of religious war for territorial expansion. The Muslim armies that spread out of the Arabian Peninsula simply joined in the existing fracas; they neither created it nor defined it, though they quickly dominated it. Despite the common perception in the West, the Muslim conquerors did have not force conversion upon the conquered peoples; indeed, they did not even encouraged it. The fact is that the financial and social advantages of being an Arab Muslim in the eighth and ninth centuries were such that Islam quickly became an elite clique, which a non-Arab could join only through a complex process that involved becoming first the client of an Arab.

This was also an era in which religion and the state were one unified entity. With the exception of a few remarkable men and women, no Jew, Christian, Zoroastrian, or Muslim of this time would have considered his or her religion to be rooted in the personal confessional experiences of individuals. Quite the contrary. Your religion was your ethnicity, your culture, and your social identity; it defined your politics, your economics, and your ethics. More than anything else, your religion was your citizenship. Thus, the Holy Roman Empire had its officially sanctioned and legally enforced version of Christianity, just as the Sasanian Empire had its officially sanctioned and legally enforced version of Zoroastrianism. In the Indian subcontinent, Vaisnava kingdoms (devotees of Vishnu and his incarnations) vied with Saiva kingdoms (devotees of Shiva) for territorial control, while in China, Buddhist rulers fought Taoist rulers for political ascendency. Throughout every one of these regions, but especially in the Near East, where religion explicitly sanctioned the state, territorial expansion was identical to religious proselytization. Thus, every religion was a "religion of the sword."

As the Muslim conquerors set about developing the meaning and function of war in Islam, they had at their disposal the highly developed and imperially sanctioned ideals of religious warfare as defined and practiced by the Sasanian and Byzantine empires. In fact, the term "holy war" originates not with Islam but with Christian Crusaders who first used it to give theological legitimacy to what was in reality a battle for land and trade routes. "Holy war" was not a term used by Muslim conquerors, and it is in no way a proper definition of the word jihad. There are a host of words in Arabic that can be definitively translated as "war"; jihad is not one of them.

The word jihad literally means "a struggle," "a striving," or "a great effort." In its primary religious connotation (sometimes referred to as "the greater jihad"), it means the struggle of the soul to overcome the sinful obstacles that keep a person from God. This is why the word jihad is nearly as always followed in the Qur'an by the phrase "in the way of God." However, because Islam considers this inward struggle for holiness and submission to be inseparable from the outward struggle for the welfare of humanity, jihad has more often been associated with its secondary connotation ("the lesser jihad"): that is, any exertion - military or otherwise - against oppression and tyranny. And while this definition of jihad has occasionally been manipulated by militants and extremists to give religious sanction to what are in actuality social and political agendas, that is not at all how Muhammad understood the term.

War, according to the Qur'an, is either just or unjust; it is never "holy." Consequently, jihad is best defined as a primitive "just war theory": a theory born out of necessity and developed in the midst of a bloody and often chaotic war that erupted in 624 CE between Muhammad's small but growing community and the all-powerful, ever-present Quraysh.

... No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Reza Aslan

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