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Jihad: What Does the Qur’an Really Say?

Putting our questions directly to a Muslim scholar

Zacharia al Khatib was studying at the University of Alberta while Tom Oosterhuis was the Christian Reformed chaplain there. After university studies, Zacharia pursued formal Islamic studies at a seminary in the Middle East, memorizing the Qur’an in Arabic as well as studying its interpretation with renowned scholars.

Zacharia spoke to members of West End Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta, as part of an education series focusing on outreach and agreed to participate in this interview for The Banner.

Since there is considerable confusion about the meaning of jihad, and it plays a fairly large role in discussions about Islam, especially in the media, Tom decided to put the question directly to Zacharia. Their conversation follows.

Zacharia, thank you for agreeing to be part of this discussion. I want to start with a question about jihad.In the minds of many Christians, and others, this word has, for a long time, had a rather negative meaning. It has become associated with an aggressive approach of Muslims to non-Muslims and often with terrorism. What do you understand by that word jihad?

Well, first I want to clarify that, in Muslim belief, there isn’t much room for personal opinion in matters of Scripture. God says in the Qur’an, “Do not put [your opinion] forward in the presence of Allah and His Messenger” (49:1)—meaning we’re not to give our opinions voice where there is clear scriptural guidance.

So the role of scholars and students like myself is basically to clarify the intent of Scripture in cases where it is open to multiple interpretations, and to clarify the best means of implementing it in our current state. What I mean by this is that what I say here isn’t my opinion, but rather what our Scriptures say on these matters.

Now, regarding the word jihad: linguistically the word means “to struggle” or “to exert one’s efforts”; from the same root we get the word ijtihad, which means a scholar’s endeavor to derive a ruling by exerting the utmost intellectual effort.

Idiomatically the word means “to engage in battle against enemy forces.” However, it is important to understand that it does not always mean a physical struggle, the same way we use the term “war” when describing a “war on drugs” in English.

Our Prophet, peace be upon him and upon all of the prophets, said, “Do not hope to meet your enemies [in battle], but if you meet them be firm,” meaning that Muslims are not supposed to desire fighting. At the personal level, jihad is undertaken in self-defense. At the state level, jihad is a last resort when negotiations fail—meaning the state is not allowed to declare war without first attempting a settlement.

That being said, Islam is a complete way of life; there is guidance for every situation, including battle. The compendium of rulings relating to battle are called “ahkam al jihad,” or “rules of jihad.” They include things like the prophetic guidance not to kill women, children, elderly, monks; not to commit vandalism; rules of surrender, retreat, and peace settlements; and things like how to pray in battle.

How does jihad relate to the practice of Islam?

Islam means submission to Allah (God), so we’re called to obey his commands in all circumstances. Historically, while there was an Islamic state, Islamic law governed individual and state actions. There were rules governing individual soldiers’ behavior as well as state conduct in war. Upholding these rulings is the very essence of submission to God.

How does jihad describe your relation to Allah or your obligation and duty toward Allah?

Islamically, it is a duty to defend oneself and the oppressed; God says, “Were it not that Allah defended some people through others the Earth would be corrupted” (2:251), meaning that a Muslim state has an obligation to uphold justice and prevent tyranny on Earth. Again, battle is a last resort upon the breakdown of negotiations and the refusal of invitation to right conduct.

Is the association of aggression or forceful witness to non-Muslims totally out of line, or is there something in the history of the termjihadthat lends itself to that understanding?

God says in the Qur’an, “There is no compulsion in faith” (2:256), which is clear in its meaning: faith is a matter of the heart—and no one controls hearts but God. No one can force belief.

However, all residents of a Muslim state (regardless of their religion) were expected to follow the laws of the land, which would include things like modest dress and a prohibition on immoral items like pornography or drugs. Those laws were in the best interests of society, just as we have laws against reckless driving and child pornography in Canada.

In any religion, politically motivated people, or people with specific agendas, can find texts to support their cause and will justify a particular interpretation as God’s will or command when most adherents would hold a more moderate view. Is there anything in the definition or understanding of jihad that allows politically motivated extremists to use this word from their own faith to justify something most Muslims would find wrong?

People calling to violence usually appeal to emotion more than intellect. Some definitely quote Scripture, but the real question is whether that quotation is properly contextualized and interpreted, which is often not the case. Islam does not allow vigilante acts. In attempting to solve this problem, we have to understand the political and socio-economic reasons underlying calls to violence.

Though we do not like it, we need to recognize that Western powers have committed numerous injustices against developing nations in the past and in our own time.

“Vengeful rage”—one of the deadly sins—played a strong role in the Bush administration’s call to war after September 11. The same emotion is often evoked by those who call for vigilante violence against the U.S. and her allies. Ultimately, everyone needs to take a proactive stance in resolving these problems, which means looking at what we can do on an individual and societal level to put an end to some of the root causes of this violence. 

Do we hear enough from Muslims who oppose terrorist acts and calls to violence?

The suggestion that Muslims have been too silent about vigilante violence is simply untruth, though it is often claimed by pundits. A recent article published by Imam Zaid Shakir, a contemporary Muslim leader, lists more than 100 of the foremost Muslims alive who have publicly denounced violence, such as the September 11 attacks.

The imam titled the article, “A Tree has Fallen in the Forest,” alluding to the famous saying and implying that the problem is not that no one has spoken out, but that not enough attention has been given to their voices.

Ultimately, the world will continue to have problems until the root causes of violence and revenge are addressed.

Thank you, Zacharia, for your willingness to answer our questions. I know that you share my desire for a frank and open conversation that will help us understand one another and ourselves better.

A Pastor Reflects

Muslims claim a very high view of the Qur’an as Scripture.  My initial reaction to Zacharia’s first response, concerning personal opinion, the authority of the Qur’an, and interpretation was that this is similar to the view of the Bible with which I grew up.

However, I think that Christians are more likely to recognize that the Scriptures are heard with different ears in different cultures and different centuries, without taking away their “God-breathed” character. Interpretation is unavoidable, and therefore, dialogue and wrestling are necessary to discover how the Scriptures continue to speak to us. My personal opinion and interpretation count, even though they are always weighed in the context of the conversation that is going on in the whole church. In Islam, the Qur’an assumes a position almost equivalent to the place of Christ.

Second, Zacharia’s comments about the Bush administration might come across as inflammatory to some.  At first he was inclined to equate the Bush administration’s actions with those of the September 11 terrorists. Both Muslims and Christians do need to examine our own “house” first and ask ourselves why others see us in this way.

Finally, Zacharia’s way of defining moral law (Sharia) basically requires that everyone in a Muslim country live according to Muslim laws. In the U.S. and Canada, Christian laws (blue laws) used to prevail in our culture, but as we have become more pluralistic, the influence of a particular Christian morality has modified to make room for differing opinions among Christians as well as different customs among the various religions, including liberalism.

—Tom Oosterhuis

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