Reclaiming the true meaning of jihad!
The command to wage Jihad for the sake of Allah, and the warning against neglecting it appears in many verses of the Quran and the Prophetic traditions. Some consider disregarding this injunction as blasphemous and worthy of humiliation and scorn from Allah. Therefore, we are witnessing groups such as the Islamic State (IS) who have sanctioned their ‘eye for an eye’ campaigns by instrumentalising concepts within the Islamic tradition such as Jihad and recruiting others to join them. How do we respond to such claims? How do we make sense with the idea of Jihad today?
In Singapore, A 33-year-old man who worked as a cleaner in Singapore was detained in July 2020 under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for wanting to take up arms in support of the Islamic State terrorist group (IS) (Today, 2021). This is one of several cases of self-radicalisations that our local authority has detected over the years. Like many before him who were arrested for radicalism, Firdaus Kamal believes in the use of violence in the name of religion to substantiate his intent to wage Jihad and die as a martyr for IS. A natural question that begs to be asked is, what drives such individuals to commit extreme acts of ugliness? One of the underlying reasons behind this fixation for Jihad is due to the upward surge of a theology of intolerance that is born out of a puritanical reading of religious texts (Quran and Prophetic traditions) to fulfill nescient messianic beliefs.
The puritan orientation incorporates a variety of normative religious assumptions that are exceptionalist at its core and radically diverge from the ethical values of Islam. Their reading of religious texts (Quran and Prophetic traditions) against global politics telescoped time and transposed the medieval into the modern world. In their view, the standing of Muslims in modern geopolitics mapped perfectly onto the circumstances of pre-Modern Muslim societies’ original call to Jihad. The extremist doctrine of Jihad found scriptural footing in a raw, unmediated reading of the religious texts (Brown, 2014, pp. 123-14). It is thus essential to analyse the historical circumstances in which specific concepts such as Jihad were negotiated in previous Muslim societies. Disregarding this factor would result in a puritanical reading of the text that is anachronistic and perverse.
Vindicating a Living Tradition
According to Khaled Abou Fadl (2001), the puritans construct a theology of intolerance by reading the text in isolation making moral ideas and historical context irrelevant to their interpretation. However, Fadl (2001) argues that it is impossible to study the text except in the light of the overall moral thrust of the Quranic and Prophetic message. This draw parallels with the notion of Islam as a ‘discursive tradition' that attempts to delineate the dynamic interplay between the "past, present and future". Here, Asad (2009) explains that this dynamic interplay does not treat the tradition as something nostalgic but it conceptually relates to a past (when the practice was instituted and from which knowledge of its point and proper performance has been transmitted); a future (how the point of that practice can be secured both short and long-term and study why it should be modified or disregarded) through a present (how it is linked to other practices, institutions, and social conditions) (p.14). Accordingly, these make Islam a ‘living tradition' that constantly unfolds and challenge narratives that are driven by a set of historically extended norms without dislocating the tradition to shape the future. This was further reiterated by Moosa (2000) in his argument for a reconstructionist approach towards the Islamic tradition. It involves a strenuous engagement with both the tradition and the present without completely breaking with the past (p.111). It is in this light that the discourse on Jihad in the Islamic tradition should be approached. Having said that, how can/should Jihad be understood today?
Understanding Jihad Today
Today, the term Jihad has come to be used as a slogan for fanaticism and Islam's allegedly inexorable hostility towards the West. But, like other religious and political concepts, Jihad has multiple resonances and associations. The literal meaning of Jihad is to strive or to exert effort. Unfortunately, it is often translated as ‘holy war’, which is a misrepresentation of the concept. According to Fadl (2001), the idea of holy war is regarded as a mechanism to approach God and war is regarded as sacred. Hence, any cruelty in war will not be seen as a form of barbarism. On the contrary, in the concept of Jihad, war is regarded as something bad (‘syarr), an inevitable evil ('syarrun dlarűrî), and we have to avoid it ('kurhun).
In today’s world, we should see Jihad as the struggle of the intellect and pen, a struggle to reform Muslim societies and play an active role in shaping a better world. Jihad consists of the effort one makes to do something good and to prevent or oppose evil. An even deeper meaning of Jihad is to restrain the self from committing inhumane acts and to reform our surroundings with the objective to achieve peace and justice. Hence, any struggle with the objective to establish both moral values is Jihad and it is not reserved for warfare per se. The struggle to establish peace through harmonizing the soul with its entities is Jihad, the struggle to end global poverty is Jihad, and the struggle to achieve peace at home through forging respect amongst the individuals in the family institution is Jihad. In short, it is the most fulfilled expression of faith, which seeks to express balance and harmony (Ramadan, 2004). Ultimately, this disqualifies the Jihadists fixation of Jihad, which in their mind equals to violence and bloodshed. Thus, it is crucial in our time to counter this perception and vindicate a humane and transformative concept of Jihad in Islam.
This article has briefly delineated the complexity of dealing with ‘difficult concepts’ such as Jihad that could be found in religious texts. It has also highlighted the importance to materialise such concepts in the light of the overall moral thrust of the Quranic and Prophetic message. Accordingly, such an approach will promote dignity over desolation. To put it briefly, religious texts do not function in a vacuum as its functionality is contingent upon how its readers discern the texts. It assumes that readers will bring a pre-existing, innate moral sense to the text. Hence, the text will morally enrich the reader, provided the reader will morally enrich the text. Our understanding of the text should not be defined purely by the literal meaning of its words, but it also has to be determined by the moral construction given to it by the reader (Fadl, 2001). Without this moral construction, it will inevitably produce intellectual lethargy and radical belligerency.
In addition, our epistemological framework should not be grounded on messianic beliefs that engender fear and paranoia. It should be built on the knowledge that is centred on human flourishing. This is significant considering findings from a recent study done by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) concerning how Singaporeans would respond to a terrorist attack in Singapore. The study concluded that Singaporeans would display stronger negative reactions and higher suspicion if the attack had been carried out by Muslims compared to other religious factions (IPS 2018). It is symptomatic of our social vulnerability and that managing interfaith relations strategically in a multiracial country like Singapore is of utmost priority.
An ethical framework in interpreting religious texts is integral in combating all forms of extremism in religion - from gender to economic and social relations, that will accordingly protect the social fabric that Singapore prides on. Our understanding of religion should not be based on dense impositional convictions, rather religious ideals should play a positive role in nation-building and human flourishing.
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