Book Review by Ewan Stein, Guardian.co.uk
Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born octogenarian embraced by Ken Livingstone in 2004 and, as of 2008, excluded from the UK as a preacher of hate, has recently published a two-volume book entitled The Jurisprudence of Jihad. It is over 1400 pages long and has been received enthusiastically, and with some justification, as a major intervention on the subject by one of Islam‘s most respected “modernist” figures.
“Jihad”, much like “fatwa”, is a term that carries some heavy baggage. In the west, jihad now conjures up images of suicide bombers and implacable violence. Non-Muslims tend to equate this so-called “pinnacle” of Islam with abject evil. The lack of mutual understanding, trust and respect between “Islam” and the “west” is a problem many – not just President Obama – recognise. But what is less often acknowledged is that Islam can be hard to understand for Muslims as well.
The trouble with fatwas is that there are so many of them. Alongside accredited fatwa-issuers others, like Osama bin Laden, issue opinions founded on less obvious jurisprudential credentials. There are websites where you can search by keyword for a fatwa on a particular subject or, if nothing comes up, you could participate in a “live-fatwa” session. The vastness of cyber-Islam means that if one fatwa doesn’t fit the bill, finding another that does shouldn’t be too difficult.
Jihad, by the same token, is a “multivalent” category. Consulting Qur’an and Hadith directly will yield any number of interpretations of what jihad should involve, ranging from seeking mastery over inner demons and the lower self, to fighting the unbeliever wherever one finds him. As far as classical jurisprudence is concerned, the obligation to expand the house of Islam through war with the infidel should be honoured at least once a year – as determined by a Muslim imam. If the community is attacked it is incumbent on everybody to respond, whether or not the imam is there to declare war. For most, the absence of an imam (or caliph) has left defensive jihad as the only valid type.
In the early 20th century, the Indian thinker and political activist Abu Ala Mawdudi bypassed the question of whether Muslims should use jihad only in self-defence by delegitimising colonial borders and treating jihad as the handmaiden of a permanent revolution. It was to be pursued globally to defeat polytheism. When we talk about “jihadism” now, it is this understanding of jihad, which was taken up by Sayyid Qutb in the 1960s, that we generally mean. In the crosshairs of this jihad are rulers who do not govern by God’s law and deny citizens the freedom to embrace Islam, as well as the external “far enemies” that support them.
Given the diffusion of religious authority, the multivalency of jihad and the multiplicity of fatwas, a gap in the market has most certainly opened up – especially since 11 September 2001 – for a “definitive” or “authoritative” work of jurisprudence on jihad fit for the modern world. It is hard to think of anyone other than Qaradawi who would have been equal to such a task.
Qaradawi’s views on jihad are already relatively well known and, in the Arab context, mainstream: Palestinians have the right to pursue jihad in self-defence against Israel, as do Iraqis against Americans. More controversially, this right extends to the use of suicide bombing. But al-Qa’ida’s global jihad is definitely out, as is the targeting of civilians or the use of violence not sanctioned by the state.
Instead Qaradawi encourages a “middle way” conception of jihad: “solidarity” with the Palestinians and others on the front line, rather than violence, is an obligatory form of jihad. Financial jihad, which corresponds with the obligation of alms giving (zakat), counts as well. And Muslims should recognise that technological change means that media and information systems are as much a part of the jihadist repertoire as are guns. Indeed, as long as Muslims are free to use media and other resources to press their case, there is no justification for using force to “open” countries for Islam.
Qaradawi’s intervention (apparently seven years in gestation) follows a number of landmark jihadi “rethinkings” since 9/11. The Egyptian Islamic Group has published over 20 books detailing its rejection of jihad against rulers and western civilians, as did bin Laden’s former mentor, Dr Fadl. Just a few days ago the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group handed over a set of – no doubt similar – “revisions” documents to a foundation headed by Sayf al-Islam Gaddafi.
So Qaradawi’s book does not necessarily provide something new. And his mainstream credentials could easily work against the book’s influence. Qaradawi is closely associated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which has long been the object of scorn and derision from jihadists – most stingingly from al-Qaida number two Ayman al-Zawahiri – for its lackadaisical approach to regime change. And with jihadism’s green shoots now sprouting in the non-Arab world (Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan), it is worth querying how influential a 1400-word book in Arabic is likely to be.
The book’s real importance perhaps lies not in any new ideas, nor in its being avidly devoured by would-be militants, but in its sheer gravitas. In the late 1970s a young Egyptian engineer penned a pamphlet on jihad entitled The Neglected Duty. It helped clarify a lot of issues for those who went on to assassinate president Sadat. Qaradawi’s opus will now sit on the shelf alongside the treatises of al-Shafi’i, Ibn Taymiyya and other giants of medieval Islam. It will henceforth be extremely difficult for anyone to argue that mainstream Islam is “neglecting” jihad.