Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2002

The Jihad Question

By Esther Sakinab Quinlan

Most Americans have some image from September 11 that has stayed with them during the year since the attacks. Mine was not a television image. It was a single line of print: "One of the hijackers left a Qur'an in his rental car at Logan Airport." When I read it, I felt indignant and sad. I wondered if other Americans would draw the conclusion that this criminal had been reading the Qur'an to find justification for the crime he was about to commit. Trying to be optimistic, I told myself that "everyone knows the distortion of religious ideals is not new or unique to Islam; everyone knows that all religions have been used to mask naked aggression." Yet, accurate as these observations are, how persuasive are they compared to the image of Osama bin Laden stroking an AK47 and saying that jihad is legitimate against all Americans? He and others like him believe that the Qur'an supports their understanding of jihad. Even Muslims who reject terrorism have beliefs about jihad that are unsettling.

The emotive power of the word jihad was shown at Harvard's commencement this year. Zayed Yasin, a graduating senior, was to deliver a speech entitled "Of Faith and Citizenship: My American Jihad." Many of his fellow students fervently opposed the administration's choice of speaker and his subject. They asked the university to remove him from the program.

At this time, when peace activists feel discouraged and face formidable obstacles in the United States and abroad, an accurate understanding of jihad could open up a new avenue for discourse with Muslims.


The word "qur'an" means recitation. Muslims believe that the Qur'an was communicated from God to Muhammad through a mysterious process, with the Angel Gabriel as the intermediary. This is why Muhammad, like Moses, Jesus, and Abraham, is known as a Messenger of God. Muhammad received and transmitted the Qur'anic revelations as they came to him over a period of twenty-three years.

The Qur'an has a power, a kind of grace, known as baraka, which is impossible to analyze logically. Memorizing and reciting its verses is a sacred act because, as Professor Sayyed Hossein Nasr explains in his Ideas and Realities of Islam, the Divine presence in the text provides food for the souls of human beings. In more conventional terms, we can say that the Qur'an is not a "book" in the ordinary sense because its very words are considered sacred. Westerners, who tend not to respect the power of sacred language, can find such reverence puzzling.

The word jihad comes from the verb jahada: to struggle, to make an effort, and, by extension, to fight in defense of the faith. Some form of the word appears forty-one times in the Qur'an. Here are a few examples: "Seek the means to come to Him, and struggle in His way" (5:35); "Struggle in God's way with your possessions and your selves" (9:41) and "those who struggle in Our Cause, surely We shall guide them" (29:69).

The expression "struggle in God's way" has both an inner and an outer meaning. The struggle to be a good person and to draw near to God is the inner Jihad. Muhammad called it the greater jihad, the jihad al-akbar. The lesser jihad is actual combat. Terrorism is not jihad. Muslim jurists distinguish four ways to fulfill the duty to struggle: by the heart, by the tongue, by the hands, and by the sword. Different though the word seems from the Hebrew word tikkun, jihad does have the sense of transforming and putting things right, restoring goodness, order, and justice-restoring those qualities which the Creator meant life in this world to have. When genuine jihad results in these things, healing has occurred.

The Qur'an and Extremists

Terrorists and radicals have their own sense of what jihad means. In a way, extremist "Islamism" is like other "isms"; it is a kind of millennialism. These people yearn for a perfect world, a "pure Islam." They yearn for an end to suffering and injustice; they yearn to topple the imperial powers that they see as the agents of evil. To generate combative, manic energy, they frame the entire world in dualistic terms of light and darkness. They see the United States as king of the forces of darkness because it has the most power and money.

It can be very hard for Americans to understand why these fundamentalists--and sometimes even their more moderate co-religionists--hate us, our culture, and our international policies that have left huge footprints in their world.

Psychologically, Muslims are reacting to a collective humiliation and feeling of powerlessness that can be traced to a steady eight-hundred-year decline in the scope and power of the Muslim world--a decline which the West has manipulated to its advantage. Muslims were once a very proud people with a society advanced in the arts, science, and social organization. At the time of the Crusades, Muslims regarded the crusaders as total barbarians, with some reason. But gradually the Islamic Empire weakened and Western powers reduced the Muslim states to colonies. After World War I, Western powers again carved up the Middle East in ways that served to further their own power. The UN'S creation of Israel in 1948 and the Arab's defeat in the 1967 Six Day War left no doubt about how powerless Arab Muslims had become.

After Arab-Muslim countries finally won their independence from the West, they tried to reassert themselves through Marxism, then Nationalism--both of which failed. Those failures led Arab Muslims to turn to their own indigenous culture: the culture and religion of Islam; this turning has led them to seek in the Qur'an verses which validate their hurt and hold the promise of restoring self-respect. The anger that they feel at their continuing failure to succeed politically and economically becomes displaced and projected onto the West.

Because extremists use the Qur'an to justify their views, those who wish to understand Islam must take a short course in Qur'anic interpretation. Just as the Judeo-Christian Bible can be used by both the Left and Right, the Qur'an is susceptible to radically different readings.

One of the most influential figures in radical Islam is Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian activist in the 1950s, who argued in favor of confronting all non-Islamic power structures with physical force. Even existing "Islamic" states became potential targets. Qutb's book, Milestones, epitomizes radical Islam. Even some moderates who reject terrorism respect him as a martyr.

The pages of Milestones crackle with the fire of millennialism. Qutb writes that the purpose of Islam's coming into history is "to proclaim the authority and sovereignty of God ... to eliminate all human kingship, and to announce the rule of the Sustainer of the universe over the entire earth." The fact that the Sustainer of the universe already has authority over all of creation seems to have escaped him. But projecting perfection into the future characterizes millennialist thinking.

Sayyid Qutb believes that "Islam is a declaration of the freedom of every man or woman from servitude to other humans." How will this heady freedom happen? Qutb says that Islam will take the initiative (read "hostile action") because

it has the right to destroy all obstacles in the form of institutions and traditions that restrict man's freedom of choice. It does not attack individuals nor does it force them to accept its beliefs. It attacks institutions and traditions in order to release human beings from the pernicious influence which distorts human nature and curtails human freedom.

What then is Sayyid Qutb's Qur'anic justification for such destruction, for such a radical vision of jihad? He and other thinkers claim that the Qur'anic verses promoting liberation of the oppressed are a carte blanche for destruction. What of Qur'anic verses advocating restraint? Qutb draws his answer from Islamic history. In the early days of the Prophet's mission, Qutb argues, Muhammed had no armed forces; therefore, God prescribed restraint, patience, and the making of treaties with unbelievers, Jews, and others. It was during this period that the verses forbidding the initiation of jihad were revealed. However, when the Muslim community was secure in Medina in the later years of the Prophet's life, verse 9:29 was revealed.

And fight those whose who have not faith in God, Nor in the Hereafter, and [who] forbid not What God and His Prophet have forbidden, And [who] are not committed to the religion of Truth among those who have been given the Book, Until they pay the tribute and are humbled.

Qutb and those Muslims who believe that the above verse authorizes an on-going jihad look back to a mist-shrouded Golden Age--to the time when Islam ruled most of two continents and when non-Muslims were required to pay a small but symbolic tax. The reference to humbling (literally made small) soothes the sense of powerlessness and humiliation that many Arab Muslims feel. At the same time, the reference also upsets Americans because of our ideals of equality before the law and the separation of religion and law. Not reacting with aggression or denigration to this view severely stretches and tests our capacity for tolerance. Because the stakes are so high now, we must understand and not demonize those who test us. If we demonize them, we make them more powerful.

The Qur'an and Moderates

In contrast to the historical and literalist interpretations of Muslim extremists lies the interpretive practice of moderate Muslims and the Sufis, who represent the esoteric, mystical dimension of Islam. In contrast to the extremists, when moderate Muslims, and especially the Sufis, read the Qur'an, they understand that the accounts of the prophets are not just historical. They are also accounts of the struggle in each human soul. While terrorists like Quyb read the Qur'an literally or as an external political allegory, moderates will read the Qur'an as an internal allegory of the soul. For example, extremists read Moses' confrontation with Pharoah, ironically, as a political allegory for the Muslims' confrontation with the United States (and the Jews!). Moderates, on the other hand, tend to read Pharoah as representing an inner evil that we must work to overcome.

Moderates and Sufis also take a different approach from the extremists when it comes to interpretive dilemmas. Extremists tend to disregard verses that contradict verses that support their goals. Moderates and Sufis, on the other hand, both agree that all verses on a particular issue must be examined before making any determination about which verse to follow. In particular, this way of reading the Qur'an is based on the principle that an interpretation of a verse is valid only if it does not contradict another verse in the Qur'an. Application of this principle prevents the distortion that occurs by taking quotations out of context.

To better understand this all-important principle, we can turn to the work of Iranian scholar Ayatollah Mutaharri, who has demonstrated in his lectures (available online at www.alislam.org/short/jihad) the intellectual and religious dishonesty of using the Qur'an to justify terrorism and murder. Readers may wonder at the validity of using an Iranian scholar for this purpose when Iran itself waged a ghastly and ultimately futile nine-year "jihad" against Iraq. Although the Iranian government is overseen by religious authorities, not all religious scholars can be manipulated to say what the state wants them to say. Mutahhari is respected for the independence and integrity of his arguments.

Both Qur'anic scholars like Mutaharri (and Sufis such as the poet Rumi) differentiate between conditional verses and unconditional verses. According to Mutaharri, "when both an unconditional and a conditional command exist, i.e., when there is an instruction that in one place is unconditional but in another place has a condition attached, then ... the unconditional [one] must be interpreted [in light of] the conditional [one]." In other words, when Muslims cite verses that command them to fight, they must interpret those verses together with other verses that restrict fighting to specific circumstances. Here is an example of this method of interpretation.

Extremists like bin Laden and Qutb quote unconditional verses about fighting, verses such as this one: "slay them [enemies] wherever you find them" (4:89) or this one: "O Prophet, fight against the unbelievers and hypocrites and be stern against them" (9:73). (The verb in these verses is qatala, to fight, slay.) Terrorists cite this type of verse because it suits their political purpose. According to the scholars like Mutaharri, however, taking verses out of context is an illegitimate way to use the Qur'an. Thus, the command to fight against unbelievers is qualified by the command that permits fighting against those who begin aggression. "Defend yourself against your enemies, but do not attack them first; God hates the aggressor" (2:190). No permission is given to fight or kill anyone except those who begin the aggression.

There are two other situations in which actual fighting is permitted. The first case directly involves religion and religious practice. The Qur'an explicitly forbids compelling anyone to adopt a religion. "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256). At the same time, other people do not have the right to forbid people from being Muslims. Doing so is considered a form of aggression. Yet even when Muslims find their faith under attack, says Ayatollah Mutahhari and other authorities, "It is not permissible for us to fight with that nation, with those people who are blameless and unaware. Nevertheless, it is permissible for us to fight against that corrupt regime."

The second Qur'anic condition that makes the use of force valid is the obligation to fight those who oppress others. The Qur'an says: "Permission is given [for warfare] to those who have been attacked and definitely wronged." (22:39) Coming to the aid of victims of injustice, regardless of their religion, is an obligation. This idea is identical to the Christian concept of the just war. It is also part of America's justification for intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, in World War II, and now in Afghanistan.

Sayyed Hossein Nasr, in Islam and the Question of Violence, writes that

Even in war ... the inflicting of any injury to women, and children is forbidden, as is the use of force against civilians. Only fighters in the field of battle must be confronted with force, and it is only against them that injurious physical force can he used. Inflicting injuries outside of this context ... is completely forbidden by Islamic Law.

Muhammad, the Messenger of God, would not allow his soldiers to fight when he returned in triumph with an army to Mecca, the city that had driven him and his followers out. Many enemies of Islam remained there. But because believers were mixed together with unbelievers, and civilians were mixed with warriors, he forbade combat. The terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center--where only civilians worked, and where there certainly was a mixture of believers and non-believers--ignored not only the Qur'an's guidelines, but also Muhammad's example.

The Qur'an advocates peace and reconciliation whenever possible. It says that "peace is better" (4:128) and "O you who have found faith, enter peace wholly" (2:20), and, even more to the point, "And if they incline to peace, then you incline to it" (8:61). Perhaps the most important verse about peace is this one: "Thus, if they let you be, and do not make war on you, and offer peace, God does not allow you to harm them" (4:90). When peace is not possible, the sacred text places clear conditions on the use of force in order to control the human inclination to be unjust and aggressive.

The situation in seventh-century Arabia was not really so different from our world today. As we know, aggression and injustice require a response. Sometimes that response includes combat. The Qur'anic principles regarding the regulation of combat are designed to (1) limit and control the use of force in order to restore justice, (2) permit self-defense, and (3) when necessary, protect the free practice of religion.


The subject of terrorism and jihad cannot be separated from the current situation in Palestine. Indeed, as Thomas Friedman said, the subject of Israel is the Iron Curtain dividing America and the Arab-Muslim world. This is especially true now. In the last year, the situation has deteriorated into bloody suicide bombings echoed by bloody Israeli reprisals. To Arab Muslims still pained by the wounds of colonialism, Israel is an European-American colony in the midst of an Arab nation. To them, Israel represents their greatest failure. It is a constant reminder of their lack of power. Almost all the suicide bombers have a personal reason that supports their insane act: the death, maiming, or imprisonment of a loved one at enemy hands. For them, the general feeling of humiliation and powerlessness has materialized in a concrete way. A high percentage of these suicides seems to be more of a personal act than a religious one.

For ordinary Muslims who are not extremists, Palestine is a collective wound. They feel that they cannot turn their backs on their suffering brothers and sisters there, the religious bond being stronger than the national bond. They relate these lines from the Qur'an to the Palestinians:

Why should you not fight in the cause of God when weak men, women, and children are imploring: "Our Lord, deliver us from this community whose people are oppressive" (4:75).

Taking these lines completely out of context, bin Laden saw the September 11 terror as a strike against Israel as well. Few Arab Muslims have taken that extremist position. Many, however, while condemning the September 11 attacks, have coupled their condemnation with reference to the injustice the Palestinians endure. For example, Shaykh al-Qaradawi calls the September 11 acts a "heinous crime in Islam," but goes on to suggest that the Palestinian attacks on Israel belong to a different category: The category covered by the verse that sanctions fighting to liberate those who are oppressed.

To support suicide bombings, pro-terrorist Muslims quote this verse:

Those who fight in the cause of God are those who forsake this world in favor of the Hereafter. Whoever fights in the cause of God and then is killed, or attains victory, We [God] will surely grant him a great recompense (4:74).

Here again, we need to apply the basic principle of Qur'anic interpretation: that one interpretation must not contradict another. In two verses (17:33 and 4:29) the Qur'an, by implication, condemns suicide. In 2:195, it does so explicitly: "Cast not yourselves into destruction by your own hand." Therefore, the above verse concerning the reward for martyrdom cannot be interpreted in a vacuum. It must be tempered and re-interpreted along side the Qur'anic prohibition against taking one's own life.

Besides, common sense tells us that suicide is not a way to fight, nor does it leave to God the option of whether one lives or dies during battle. It is a taking of one's life in one's own hands, an act which usurps the right belonging to Him alone who gave that life. In addition, suicide bombings are designed to kill innocent civilians, an act expressly forbidden by the Qur'an. For these two reasons, suicide as a method of jihad cannot be justified according to Islamic principles, as moderates understand them.


It is natural to ask, "Why didn't God just put all the guidelines about jihad together in one place in His Book and arrange it so that there is no room for misunderstanding? If He had done that, then the hijackers piloting their planes into the World Trade Center could not have looked to the Qur'an for support." Another Sufi scholar, Frithjof Schuon, has an answer. He explains that "A sacred text with its seeming contradictions and obscurities is ... like a mosaic, or even an anagram." Because of this divine design, only a holistic hermeneutics will do.

This mosaic design of a sacred text tests those who look to it for truth. Whatever our faith, we want truth to be easy to grasp; we want our sacred texts to read like a clear textbook. But they do not. In fact, as Christians and Jews well know, sacred texts are difficult. Pope Pius XII said that God has made them this way "in order that we may be stimulated to read and study them with greater attention."

Today, we must do more than read and study our sacred texts. We are in the grip of huge historical forces. In order to carry the Light in the Darkness of these times, we can do several things. We can refuse to accept a hate-filled reading of the Qur'anic concept of jihad and refuse to demonize Muslims.

On the political level, we can pressure leaders to see that it is not in America's best interest to support repressive Middle Eastern regimes or regimes which exclude all Islamic parties from the political process. Such policies provide terrorists the hooks on which to hang their millenialist projections.

Offering secularism as the antidote to religious violence, as some journalists propose, plays into the hands of those who see their role as combatants, "soldiers of God" in the fight against atheist rule. The infiltration of secularism into the Muslim world ignites feelings of humiliation and powerlessness. To most Muslims, religion and culture are a single package. However, the primary responsibility for intervention rests with Muslims themselves. Islam contains within it the means to correct the distorted use of its holy book. Consultation (shur'ah) is encouraged in Islam. Muslims must counter the terrorists' perverted use of the Qur'an--not directly--but through education and dialogue. Some of this is happening, but not nearly enough. In some places, challenging the extremists endangers one's life. It may well be that North American converts to Islam and immigrant Muslims, who are free to speak out without risk here, should shoulder much of this responsibility. What Muslims are thinking and believing here filters back to the countries the immigrants came from.

In addition, there is a role for Americans of other faiths. Inviting Muslims to engage in dialogue can be invaluable for both parties. True dialogue is not just the exchange of viewpoints. The information exchanged is secondary to the recognition of the divine heart in all people. Every time this happens, the forces of darkness are reduced a little.

Such a recognition happened to my husband when he made the pilgrimage to Mecca. While out walking, he met an old shopkeeper in a tiny store selling teapots, little polyester prayer rugs, and cigarettes. The old man asked where he came from. My husband said, "America." With wonder in his voice, the old man repeated "America! America!" and then burst into tears of joy and hugged him. This is what we need more of.

Esther Sakinab Quinlan teaches in the program of writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorodo in Boulder. Her writing has been published in Sacred Journey. Raised as an Irish Catholic in Boston, she converted to Islam in 1970.

Source Citation

Quinlan, Esther Sakinab. 2002. The Jihad Question. Tikkun 17(5): 55.

tags: Fundamentalism, Islam, Israel/Palestine, Qur'an  
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