The Place of Islam in Terrorist Violence

M. François Thuillier Lecturer at the IEP (Paris, France)

François Thuillier, a Benedictine oblate, teaches at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. He is a specialist in the study of the implications of terrorism for the life of societies. Here he presents a point of view on the reaction to terrorist threats which the world faces today. He places this threat and the reply to it against the political rather than the religious background, even though the religious background has been invoked to justify all kinds of violent actions. For this author a distinction must be made between fundamental extremists and believing Muslims who put their trust in a merciful God – the preferred title of God in Islam.

ThuillierIf there is any subject which lurks in the shadows of the war against terrorism, and is the prisoner of a host of prejudices, it is the evaluation of the relationship between those who claim they are waging a holy war based on the faith of Islam as it is professed by many million people in the world today. If this is hardly questioned by those who are engaged on the path of violence precisely in the name of their faith, it nevertheless leaves the non-initiated perplexed, and worries any person of faith.

We are, of course, in no position to speak here of the legitimate pride of faithful Muslims who find themselves caught in the firing-line between the hasty judgments of a large part of public opinion and the inherited stance of terrorist jihadis. However, we can at least ask what authority these extremists of the Muslim faith have for their interpretation of Islam, and how great an influence their own interpretation should have on other believers. We must therefore give a brief synopsis of the notion of jihad as it is described in the traditional texts over the course of history.

Islam is the youngest of the monotheist religions, since it is held that Muhammad (570-632), the last of the prophets, received his first revelations from the Angel Gabriel during the night of the 26/27th of the month of Ramadan in the year 610. It involves about 1,200 million people, so 20% of the world population. The modes of transmission of the faith are the Qur’an (‘the recitation’) that is, the word of Allah expressed in 114 suras or verses, the Hadith (‘tradition’), that is, the teachings and religious practices attributed to Muhammad, the Sunna (‘way’, or ‘rule of conduct’), that is, the traditions and basic customs of Islam, and the Shari’a (‘journey’), that is, the legal formulation of religious prescriptions. Religious conduct is based on three factors: al-iman (‘faith’), al-ihsan (‘search for perfection’) and above all al-islam (complete, confident trust in Allah). Religious practice has many similarities to other religions of the Book, for it is based on major obligations (fard) and includes the well-known five pillars (confession of faith, five daily prayers, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage) and prohibitions related to the gravest sins (kaba’ir) including murder. Islam is simultaneously din (‘religion’), dawla (‘system of government’) and dunya (instructions for daily life). Thus, the notion of tawhid (‘unity’) between human action and society is central to the Islamic view of life and leaves little room for political autonomy, otherwise known as secularism, the heritage of the era of Lights. Now we will attempt a summary definition of the concept of jihad, and then look for the sources and legal force of the sacred texts.

1. The Concept of Jihad

All religions include some dimension of warfare, reliant or not, rightly or wrongly, on their sacred texts. This is explained by history (a nascent faith is most often the object of persecutions and has to defend itself) and by the symbolic dimension of the interior combat against darkness (examples range from the Kshatriya of Asian religions such as Krishna and Buddha to the ‘armies of light’ in St Paul.

The Arabic term al’unf includes this notion of violence, but religious violence is often translated by al’unf ad-dini or at-tarruf ad-dini. Other terms are al-usuliyya, al-islamiyya for Islamic extremism, and, more recently, the term irhab, used by the media, westernized intellectuals and secular Arab governments. The warring groups themselves prefer the term jihad (holy war) to describe their activity. Finally, the term fitna refers back to the symbolic sense of violence as it is expressed in the Qur’an. The verb fatana means ‘to seduce’, but also ‘to sow disorder’. Thus al-fitna is feminine seduction, but this notion implies equally the will of Allah to test men in order to prove the purity and their perseverance, since such trials can be painful and violent. So the response given must be a witness to faith, which can bring suffering, persecution, and even death. In this case the term used is istishhad (‘martyrdom’).

We turn back to the Qur’an, the one unalterable source of faith for some of our apprentice-terrorists, to analyse what is required. Composed of 114 chapters or suras, arranged not chronologically but by length, this recitation opens by the al-fatiha (‘the opening’), which contains the seven verses concerning the principal themes of Islamic faith. Among them human submission to the will of God, which underpins all belief, already includes its element of violence. A large part of the Qur’an tells the history of the ancient peoples and divine messages before Islam (Abraham, Moses, Jesus) in order to educate by ex ample. A second part speaks of faith, of the relationship between Allah and man. This is where the rewards come which Allah has provided for the pious, but also the punishment destined for the wicked and unjust. In the third part come the laws and the sanctions on those who disobey the code and conduct prescribed. Thus violence between men and their fellows cannot remain unpunished, and those responsible must render an account of it on the day of judgment. The Qur’an called them the taghut (‘oppressors’), as believers are called al-mustadh’afun (the oppressed). The oppressed are called to be patient, to find shelter, or to resist if they can.

The first real violence imposed on the original text seems to be the prohibition of interpretation. On these grounds the impossibility of commenting and ‘decontextualising’ the sacred writings of the religions of the Book certainly seems to contain within itself risks of breaking with secular society and so of violence. ‘We can only believe it. Everything comes from our Lord’ (Qur’an 3.7) sums up the position of those who prohibit any free reading which departs from the Qur’an. Such fundamentalism has led to ‘shutting the door of the ijtihad’, which aims at understanding better and applying the sacred precepts with discernment. This restriction was explained in the twelfth century by the political desire to limit the influence of religions, but to the faithful of today who live fully within our society – based on communication as it is - it seems somewhat restrictive. Therefore real centrifugal dangers exist in the heart of a community which remembers the schism (al-Fitna al-Kubra – the Great Discord) which resulted during the third Caliphate in the division of Islam between the adherents of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet, who was to create the Shiite movement (ash-shi’a), and those of Uthman, which would create the Sunni or Traditionalist movement (ahl as-sunna).

The term jihad means ‘make an effort’ on oneself or against another, in the latter case by resisting, if necessary, by violence. Sura 9 (attawba, repentance) fixes the context and limits of jihad in this way: ‘Fight in the service of Allah those who fight you. Do not break the just laws of war... Kill them everywhere that your arms can reach. Pursue them from where they have pursued you. Sedition is worse than murder... Fight them ceaselessly until the persecution of believers has been exorcised and the worship of Allah is firmly established.’

These verses must be read in their historical context, that is, the conflict which was then in progress between the brand new Muslim community and the polytheists of Mecca. Having been forced to leave Mecca and take refuge in Christian Abyssinia, the adherents of Mohammed settled in the city of Yathrib or Medina. The growing reputation of the Prophet led the inhabitants of Mecca to form an alliance against him, and several battles took place with the object for the Muslims of protecting their faith and enabling them to return to live in Mecca. This point is important, for it essentially justifies the jihad in the case of a threat or self-defence. As a last resort theologians distinguish appeal to religion (da’wa) from conflict properly so called (jihad), even though jihad can be declared to gain the conditions necessary for da’wa. In this case the world is divided into dar islam (‘the house of Islam’) and dar harb (‘the house of war’) and countries which live in harmony with the Muslim communities within them are called dar solh (‘house of peace’).

Thus it is that Muslims make use of two logics, but, although they are in a minority, those who practise jihad attract more attention because of the absence of a religious authority in Islam and the exclusive and unhealthy curiosity of the media. As for the interests at stake, these too can give rise to debate. Thus, even if religious freedom has been acquired, can the defence of life, territory or wealth lead to jihad? Those who think that can answer, ‘Anyone who dies defending his money, life, homeland, family or religion is considered a martyr’ (a hadith attributed to the Prophet). This is why some of those who have taken part in wars for the independence of the Arab Muslim countries have been able to invoke the notion of jihad and proclaim themselves moujahid (‘combatant in the way of Allah’). Concretely, most of the theologians of the four juridical schools, malikite, hanafite, hanbalite, and chafiite, agree that jihad is justified only if the non-believer attacks Muslims, not simply from the fact that he is evil.

In this doctrinaire landscape, salafism sometimes envisages more profane objectives, such as the simple restoration of the power of the Muslim world. The original genesis of this viewpoint rests on some disciples of the hanbalite school, but the true sense of these terms should be sought in the historical context of the Prophet.

Ibn Taymya (1263-1328) exactly represents this type of theologian who wanted to move the concept of jihad towards a struggle against the wicked. At this time the Muslim world was undergoing attacks from the Tartars and the Mongols. Baghdad and Damascus were sacked, their populations massacred and their religious values mocked. He tries to mobilise Muslims to defend their honour, but he directs his energies also to the authorities, whom he accuses of having sown discord in the heart of the Umma (the community of believers), and of having failed in their patriotic and spiritual duties. He condemns Greek philosophy and Sufi thinking. The positions taken up by Ibn Taymya will later largely inspire the currents of thought linked to the Islamic Salafist renaissance such as Wahhabism in the 19th century. Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahhab managed to ally with the Al Saud tribe to create the present Saudi Arabia. The Iranian Jamal Al Afghani (1838-1897), the Egyptian Mohammed Abduh (1849-1905) and the Syrian Rachid Redha (1865-1935) would follow. At the beginning of the 20th century the Muslim Brothers of Hassan al Banna would succeed in producing an argument to justify the seizure of power wherever it was possible. But in so doing they created a schism which endures to this day, between the moderates who pursued their search for the original purity of Islam without allowing themselves to be distracted by politics (they ignored elections, took no part in public life and were very reserved in the matter of suicide-bombings) and the jihadis who took part in the warlike struggles for liberation.

PortSaidThe Sheikh of Al Azhar, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi (1928- 2010), worked forcefully for a different attitude. In an interview he gave on 5th December 2001 in Al Ahram Hebdo he declared, ‘In Islam jihad is the defence of oneself, of religion of the fatherland and of honour. Terrorism is exactly the opposite. It is aggression against someone else, against dignity and freedom, and is senseless’; he added, ‘Bin Laden is wrong. He is irresponsible and does not represent Islam. Islam is greater than any individual. I consider him ignorant and arrogant.’

The various groups of combatants stand in the direct line of Ibn Taymya. They consider contemporary Muslim societies evil and immersed in the world of ignorance (al-jahaliya), just as much as the polytheist societies at the time of the Prophet. Therefore to combat them, if necessary by violence, is a religious duty, for they are populated by ‘modern Mongols’ – a reference to the Mongol tribes which were at that time converted to Islam. But, as we have seen, their actual references sometimes have only a very fragile link to the sacred texts.

2. Jihad, historical texts

At this stage it will be useful to analyse the historical genesis of the Muslim teaching on jihad. It has passed through three phases dictated by history.

1. When Muhammad was still at Mecca he used argument in the attempt to persuade the more powerful groups which surrounded him, notably Jews and Christians. This period produced what came to be known as the ‘tolerant verses’. After the Hegira conflict gave rise to the presence of the ‘bellicose verses’. Thus from its origin the Qur’an contains at the same time a perfect justification for both peace and war.

2. The military conquests of the 8th and 9th centuries developed the tradition and produced hadiths expressing a number of reflections which justify Arab expansion. This is the era when Islam decks itself in universalist intentions and goes on the offensive.

3. The end of Arab expansion (9th to 11th centuries) puts the brake on this imperialist vision. The concept of jihad is interiorised, to be transformed first into the defensive concept of internal struggle against heretics and rebels, and later into a more spiritual concept of moral combat against anything which could harm the community.

This chronology, and the confusion which it provokes in the concept of jihad, has given rise to the theory of ‘abrogating verses’. This holds that the old verses are historically dated, and that later revelations, by putting an end to the warlike context, ‘abrogate’ everything which preceded. Thus the peaceful verses are to be explained by the situation of inferiority in which Muhammad and his followers found themselves in Mecca. At Medina their strength developed and the verses which resulted lift the restrictions on military action. Finally, when the Muslims find their military superiority confirmed, the last restrictions on offensive war give way.

This thesis (called naskh) would give the game away to the Islamists by authorizing them to attack non-Muslims ‘preventively’, on the grounds that the holy writings gradually evolved in the direction of radicalisation, but it has not achieved universal acceptance among Islamic scholars. Nevertheless, we must here accept it as the practical starting-point of the theory of jihad. So we shall now carefully examine the texts, beginning with the Qur’an, then the Sunna (actions and words of Muhammad which constitute the legal basis) and the Sira (the life of the Prophet).

The Qur'an

In the holy book the verses fall into different categories

• Pacifist verses: four of them were revealed at Mecca, inviting Moslems to prudence and patience (6.106; 15.94; 16.127; 50.39). The following four date from the Hegira, an era at which the Prophet had adopted a moderate attitude, explaining that Allah had taken upon himself to chastise the infidels (2.109,131; 5.13; 29.46,55; 42.15.

• Verses which are considered to overcome objections of those opposed to war. They are principally concerned to lift certain taboos of pre-Islamic tradition (fighting in the sacred precincts, 2.186, 187; warfare during the sacred month (2.190; 9.36, etc.).

• Anti-pacifist verses, such as the verse which promises divine mercy to those who leave their own country to fight in the way of Allah (2.215), or the verse which condemns those who have tried to evade taking part in battle (3.159, 163).

• Finally, truly bellicose verses, such as those taken from Sura 2. They constitute an invitation to strike infidels until the cult of Allah is everywhere established. Even if it seems likely that at the time Muhammad did not think of territories beyond Arabia, the theory of ‘abrogating verses’ has allowed certain scholars to argue from them for a permanent war to make the infidels submit to the law of Islam (without necessarily converting them, it must be stressed).

The Sunna

In order to answer the various questions which believers asked, the next step was to seek anything in the words and actions of the Prophet which could serve as a legal ruling for the future. These ‘sayings of the Prophet’ or hadith, handed down by word of mouth for more than a century, form the Sunna. After successive selections six editions where finally kept, of which two have special authority, that of Al-Bukhari (who died in 869) and that of Al-Hajjaj (died in 873). War is the special subject of the ‘Book of jihad’, which pays homage to combat in the way of Allah. There the possibility is given for the moujahid to go straight to paradise and for the chahid to obtain entry into paradise for 70 members of his family. At the time of its editing the concept of jihad had definitely moved into the bellicose register.

The Sira

This collection brings together in chronological order the hadith which give an exact idea of the Prophet’s life. It was edited in about the 9th century, the era of warlike expansion, and obviously it is this notion which prevails here in the interpretation of jihad.

When Muhammad was in Mecca he began to provoke the hostility of religious communities as soon as he began to denounce idolatrous practices. In the face of injury his first disciples remained patient, since to reply with force was clearly discouraged. With the progressive conversion of certain men of war (Omar, Hamza and then some groups of warriors at Mecca) the early disciples raised their heads. This change is seen in the Qur’an at verse 22.40, ‘Allah has promised to those who are injured that he will conquer their enemies; Allah is capable of protecting them’. Once he reached Medina, Muhammad took the initiative and clearly organised his community for armed conflict against the people of Mecca. The first conceptualisation of the notion of martyrdom dates from this time (Muhammad promised paradise to those who died in combat), as does also what came to be known as the ‘Medina agreement’, allowing the protection of those Muslims who remained at Mecca, by means of a cease-fire agreement with the Christian and Jewish tribes. In any case this agreement is historically a sort of foundation-charter of the Muslim Umma.

Obviously the concept of jihad appears very early in the history of Islam, with the holy war against the polytheists and, to a lesser extent, namely if they agreed to a sort of repentance such as the acceptance of prayer or the payment of a tax, applied to Jews and Christians. This obligation to armed defence of the community applied normally to every believer, but fairly rapidly the combat became professionalized and was fulfilled by the regular army, especially the cavalry. Thenceforth a financial contribution to the maintenance of this force became a recognized duty and sufficed for the acquittal of the religious obligation. The triumphant return of Muhammad to Mecca did nothing to calm his warlike ardour, and he himself led his final military expedition to the North of the Hejaz in 631. His actions and speeches (for example his parting sermon delivered at the time of the pilgrimage to the Ka’aba) towards the end of his life continued to become more radical, and was interpreted as a blank cheque for future conquests, even though the spirit of the Prophet required that the hoped-for domination should be more spiritual than secular.

Apart from these considerations on the political justification of jihad, the Qur’an abounds in a sort of theology of war in Islam, stressing the concepts of justice and non-aggression. Indeed, if recourse to violence can sometimes be envisaged, this could only be to battle against injustice, not to provoke it. It must be remembered that Muhammad himself had refused to execute prisoners of war after the Battle of Badr, two years after his move to Medina. On that occasion he allowed them to purchase their liberty by learning to read and write to certain of their co-religionists. Once Mecca had fallen he gave an amnesty to his former enemies, including those who had killed his own close friends. He detested unnecessary violence and insisted on respect for non-combatants. This attitude was taken up by his successor, Abu Makr, notably in his sermon preached before the final assault against the Byzantines: ‘Do not behave like traitors! Do not indulge in the mutilation of corpses as your enemies do. Kill neither child nor old man nor woman. Avoid cutting down or setting fire to palm-trees or fruit-trees. On your expedition you will find people who have withdrawn into monasteries to give themselves to prayer and meditation: leave them alone and do not disturb them.’ At-Tabari, one of the great Muslim theologians of the 10th century inspired the current official position which wants to forbid acts of destruction, sabotage and terrorism done in enemy territory in time of war against civilian targets unless they result from an act of war.

On the nature of violence it must be known that death is accepted as the punishment for someone who has ‘committed homicide or sown disorder on earth’. Thus the death penalty is recognized as a legitimate sanction. Islamic law tolerates the use of violence in fulfilment of justice. For example, corporal punishment (al-hudud) is prescribed by the Qur’an: theft is punished by cutting off a hand, fornication and the calumny of the innocent by lashes. Stoning for adultery seems to have been added only by the lawyers. It should also be remembered that the Prophet made use of these rules only with discernment and in extreme cases. Afterwards, the second Caliph, ‘Umar (581-644), suspended the punishment for theft during years of drought. However, members of the salafist school wanted to apply the letter of the law, provided that culpability was proven and admitted.

Thereafter, the rules of were reduced to those which had prevailed against the inhabitants of Mecca, neither more nor less. Nor is there any trace in the tradition of argument that turpitude on the part of the enemy should permit the same for oneself, still less to argue that the justice of a cause legitimizes the abandonment of all sense of honour. This is the contention of those scholars who maintain that terrorism is against the tradition of Islam. They stress that behind the theological arguments, their behaviour, their symbolism, their structures and their language reflect above all the anti-colonial struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries. Similarly for such expressions as hizb (‘political party’), tahrir (‘liberation’), taqrir al-masir (‘self determination’) harakah (‘movement’) al-kawadir al fa’alah (military bodies) or harb muqaddasa (‘sacred combat’). Islamic terrorism is therefore a historical legacy of western colonialism, past and present. By this analysis Islamic terrorism is a good deal closer to its acknowledged enemy (Westerners enlightened, secularized, free but corruptible and lacking any fear of God) than to the Islamic cenobite.

A number of studies in recent years have reinforced this claim. Such is the case, for example, of the American scholar Marc Sageman (University of Pennsylvania). He has worked on a profile of nearly 400 activists of Al Queda, concluding that 90% of them had no Islamic religious education (another study shows that their only reference to Christianity concerned the era of the Crusades), that 18% were drawn from the upper classes, 55% from the middle class, almost 60% had degrees, the majority had no criminal past, 70% made their decision for armed combat when, resident in a Western country for private or professional reasons, a nostalgia for their own roots, or racism around them, brought them into contact with local radical imams. In fact all the specialists in the subject overwhelmingly describe to us individuals richer and better educated, but also less believing and less balanced than the world average.

However, all the same, a feature of Islam is that its flexibility and ‘liturgical’ malleability account for all doctrinal twists and alterations. Its changeability on questions of violence obviously creates a certain confusion, if not malaise. This allows many revolutionary groups to make use of this confusion without fear of contradiction. Western scholars do not seem to be aware of this. Who today reads the numberless condemnations of terrorism pronounced by teachers of the law? In addition comes a sign which should long ago have alerted us to the ambiguity of the so-called Islamist religious justification of terrorism, namely attacks on believers and places of cult even during times of prayer. Every person of faith has this first truth built into his very flesh: no one can appeal to a god, whoever that god may be, who attacks people at prayer. For most of the time the motives behind such actions are much more profane, long ago identified by sociologists. In all their ambiguity they point beneath the veil of Islam.