Myopic media's Indonesia 'jihad'

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It would be easy to label last week's bombings in Jakarta as the work of jihad. Certainly, the media is reporting it under this headline. But even supposing that Islamic militants detonated those bombs in Jakarta, does this prove that jihad must be violent?

Much writing about Islam today supports the view that Islam and the Qur'an allow and even urge violence. For example, in the Sydney Catholic magazine, Annals Australasia, the writer states:

'Islamic literature is full of bellicose terms ... especially when describing Jihads. It has persisted down to today - with consequences like September 11, 2001, and continuing radical Islamist terror against the much-mocked 'People of the Book', on the grounds of their alleged faithlessness and polytheism. There is an all-out war declared on 'unbelievers', and this term includes Christians and Jews.'

However, when we examine verses such as those mentioned by this author in the light of their proper historical context, we find that this 'all-out war declared on 'unbelievers'' is not directed to Jews and Christians at all.

This call to jihad was revealed in relation to a specific group of people, the idolaters of Mecca, and within a specific context, a context of persecution and the driving of Muslims from their homes in Mecca because of their religion.

Although some verses from the Qur'an do speak of 'fighting in the way of God', they also urge believers not to transgress the 'limits'. Islamic sources give many examples of the nature of these 'limits'.

In his well-known commentary on the Qur'an, Muhammad Asad says that the fundamental condition, which alone justifies physical warfare, is a defence of the faith and of freedom. In other words, when 'those who are bent on denying the truth' try to deprive the Muslims of their social and political liberty, thereby making it impossible for them to live in accordance with the principles of their faith, a just war (jihad) becomes permissible and even a duty.

However, the first jihad in Islam was not martial and had nothing to do with violence. The Muslims were encouraged 'to strive' (or to do jihad) against unbelievers by preaching the message of the Qur'an, but under no circumstances were they permitted to compel people to accept the message of Islam.

Many early commentaries refer to the fact that jihad is to be understood as a means to protect and preserve 'monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques' (to quote a phrase from the Qur'an). The call to jihad was not for the destruction of faiths other than Islam but rather for the preservation of places of worship belonging to the monotheistic faiths, protecting them against those polytheists — in this case, the idolaters of Mecca — who might endanger them.

It is clear that verses from the Qur'an that advocate jihad cannot be used to apply to fighting all polytheists in the modern world or in the West in general. The sole purpose of all such jihad is to secure freedom for the Muslims to practice their religion.

Some Islamic militants do use verses from the Qur'an to justify open warfare against the West and to inspire Muslims to fight America and her allies who threaten the Muslim lands in particular. However, these verses cannot be understood correctly without considering the conditions in which they were revealed. Such verses can only be understood by remembering that, even after the Prophet had made his migration to Medina, some Muslims remained in Mecca and were not free to practice their religion.

Besides, some of the Meccans were not free to convert and become Muslims because of fear of their fellow tribesmen. It is for these reasons that the Qur'an called the Muslims of Medina to a two-fold jihad: firstly, to free their brethren who were left behind in Mecca from religious oppression, and secondly, to give those Meccans who desired to become Muslims the ability to do so without fear of reprisals from the enemies of Islam.

None of the verses about jihad can be understood as a general invitation to fight oppression in every place and in every circumstance.

When we understand the verses of the Qur'an that advocate jihad in their proper historical context, we will notice how the Qur'an expresses acceptance and respect for non-Muslims. Since the early Islamic community was characterised not by militancy but primarily by moderation and restraint, those who find unqualified provocation to violence and war in the Qur'an have misread it.

The mistake made by those who find 'bellicose terms' in the Qur'an is the result of a failure to examine the specific historical context in which the verses of the Qur'an were revealed. Both the followers of Islamism and the many militant schools of Islamic jihad operating in the world today make this mistake. Much of the current language about jihad in the media also tends to make this mistake.


Herman RoborghHerman Roborgh SJ lived in Pakistan for eight years before going to India where he completed a PhD in Islamic Studies at Aligarh Muslim University. He currently resides in Australia. 

Topic tags: jakarta, bombings, indonesia, jihad, qur'an, muslim, islam, mecca, Muhammad Asad, terrorism


 

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Thanks Herman. I would be interested in your perspective on Ken Ward’s claim in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald that some radical Indonesian jihadis use certain Koranic verses to invalidate other verses that were revealed earlier during the prophet's life:

“Muhammad started from a low base of support in Mecca. This forced him to compromise in dealing with adversaries and others deaf to Islam's call. As he grew stronger, he was able to adopt a tougher stance. A verse characteristic of the early period might be ‘There is no compulsion in religion’. But this is invalidated by a later one, such as ‘Oh prophet, wage war on infidels and hypocrites’.”
frank brennan sj | 20 July 2009


Thank you for an objective well written article... as a teacher of the Muslim faith, I see first hand the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Quranic verses because they are taken out of context and misused, ignoring in the process the principles that govern Quranic interpretations and the laws associated with application of the divine laws. So it brightens my day to read, for a change, a studied view of Islam and the Quran. Thank you!
S.H. | 20 July 2009


According to my Muslim scholar friends, most of the so-called jihadis have a very superficial understanding of the Qur'an. They are gullible and easily incited by those who have their own agenda. For that reason, my friends believe there should be more proper teaching of the Qur'an.
Dewi Anggraeni | 20 July 2009


At last, a writer who writes about jihad without using ,' the current language in the media.' How can this be I wondered as I - metaphorically - picked myself up off the floor ! A quick look at the writer's 'bio' below the article provides a clue : this writer has studied the subject deeply and is also, most importantly, clearly NOT an apologist for the BEHAVIOURS of the Zionist State of Israel - as are many writers who seek to and are allowed to portray Islam as a violent religion on our Australian websites and in most of our Australian media.

Sadly, in my opinion, most writing about Islam in Australia today supports and stresses the view that Islam and the Qur'an allow and even urge violence. However, if we examine verses ( from the Qur'an) in the light of their proper historical CONTEXT, we find that this 'all-out war declared on 'unbelievers' is NOT directed to or against Jews and Christians. The historical call to jihad was revealed in relation to a SPECIFIC group of people, (the idolaters of Mecca), and within a SPECIFIC context, (a context of persecution and the driving of Muslims from their homes because of their religion). The first jihad in Islam was not martial and had nothing to do with violence, and under NO circumstances were they , Muslms then, permitted to COMPEL people to accept the message of Islam. ( Karen Armstrong's ' Muhammad' of 2006 is also clear on this point.)

Verses from the Qur'an that advocate jihad cannot be used to apply to or to justify fighting ALL polytheists in the modern world or in the West in general. The sole purpose of all such jihad was historically, and is here and now in the many resistances to Occupation we could list, to secure freedom for Muslims to practice their religion. Some Islamic militants do use verses from the Qur'an to justify open warfare against the West and to inspire some Muslims to fight America and her allies (Israel in particular of course), and those occupiers who threaten the Muslim lands in particular. Occupied Palestine we see to be of seemingly endless figural importance down the many recent decades, since the creation of the Zionist State.

We read in the article: 'None of the verses about jihad can be understood as a general invitation to fight oppression in every place and in every circumstance' and, 'when we understand the verses of the Qur'an that advocate jihad in their proper historical CONTEXT (my caps.), we will notice how the Qur'an expresses acceptance and respect for non-Muslims.'

Indeed, I couldn't agree more,we WILL notice how the Qur'an expresses acceptance and respect for non-Muslims. Acceptance and respect is exactly how I have observed and experienced the lived lives to be with respect to Islam in each and every Palestinian refugee I have ever met here in the Palestinian Diaspora in Australia. In my, personal lived experience that is. Acceptance & respect. What a way to go! And if I was 'into' religions of the 'blind' faith' persuasion that would surely be the best way to begin eh?

This objective and most welcome article finishes with, '...the mistake made by those who find 'bellicose terms' in the Qur'an is the result of a failure to examine the specific historical CONTEXT ( my caps), in which the verses of the Qur'an were revealed ... the current language about jihad in the media also tends to make this mistake.' . Sad but true Sir, but, let us not forget however that change is possible !



DAVID JAY AITCH | 20 July 2009


At last, a writer who writes about jihad without using ' the current language in the media.' How can this be I wondered as I - metaphorically - picked myself up off the floor! A quick look at the writer's 'bio' below the article provides a clue: this writer has studied the subject deeply and is also, most importantly, clearly NOT an apologist for the BEHAVIOURS of the Zionist State of Israel - as are many writers who seek to and are allowed to portray Islam as a violent religion on our Australian websites and in most of our Australian media.

Sadly, in my opinion, most writing about Islam in Australia today supports and stresses the view that Islam and the Qur'an allow and even urge violence. However, if we examine verses ( from the Qur'an) in the light of their proper historical CONTEXT, we find that this 'all-out war declared on 'unbelievers' is NOT directed to or against Jews and Christians. The historical call to jihad was revealed in relation to a SPECIFIC group of people, (the idolaters of Mecca), and within a SPECIFIC context, (a context of persecution and the driving of Muslims from their homes because of their religion). The first jihad in Islam was not martial and had nothing to do with violence, and under NO circumstances were they , Muslms then, permitted to COMPEL people to accept the message of Islam. (Karen Armstrong's ' Muhammad' of 2006 is also clear on this point.)

Verses from the Qur'an that advocate jihad cannot be used to apply to or to justify fighting ALL polytheists in the modern world or in the West in general. The sole purpose of all such jihad was historically, and is here and now in the many resistances to Occupation we could list, to secure freedom for Muslims to practice their religion. Some Islamic militants do use verses from the Qur'an to justify open warfare against the West and to inspire some Muslims to fight America and her allies (Israel in particular of course), and those occupiers who threaten the Muslim lands in particular. Occupied Palestine we see to be of seemingly endless figural importance down the many recent decades, since the creation of the Zionist State.
We read in the article: 'None of the verses about jihad can be understood as a general invitation to fight oppression in every place and in every circumstance' and, 'when we understand the verses of the Qur'an that advocate jihad in their proper historical CONTEXT (my caps.), we will notice how the Qur'an expresses acceptance and respect for non-Muslims.'

Indeed, I couldn't agree more, we WILL notice how the Qur'an expresses acceptance and respect for non-Muslims. Acceptance and respect is exactly how I have observed and experienced the lived lives to be with respect to Islam in each and every Palestinian refugee I have ever met here in the Palestinian Diaspora in Australia. In my, personal lived experience that is. Acceptance & respect. What a way to go! And if I was 'into' religions of the 'blind' faith' persuasion that would surely be the best way to begin eh?

This objective and most welcome article finishes with, '...the mistake made by those who find 'bellicose terms' in the Qur'an is the result of a failure to examine the specific historical CONTEXT in which the verses of the Qur'an were revealed ... the current language about jihad in the media also tends to make this mistake.' Sad but true Sir, but, let us not forget however that change is possible!
DAVID JAY AITCH | 20 July 2009


Thanks for well commentary. I do agree that all terrorist who kill innocent people are not good practicing Muslim.
Husaini | 20 July 2009


The following hadith is recounted by both Bukhari and Muslim that Mohammed said, "I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat. If they say it, they have saved their blood and possessions from me, except for the rights of Islam over them. And their final reckoning is with Allah.''

Whilst the Quran is a higher authority than the hadith, this hadith sets a context for the Quran that obviously puts a lie to jihad being only for a specific place and time against specific enemy. The command that Mohammed claimed he had received was clearly general. It is also unmistakably a threat. Accept and practice Islam, otherwise I will kill you and take your goods as booty.

If in doubt, refer to the following link from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_of_Islamic_scholars_on_Jihad. Five ancient Islamic jurists are quoted. They all agree that jihad is an obligatory war to be prosecuted against infidels to convert them to Islam.

The modern jihadis may have misinterpreted Mohammed's Quranic verses. If so, they are following ancient authorities, similarly mistaken.
Patrick James | 20 July 2009


Thank you Herman for giving some accurate information and adding a little sanity to all the ignorant hype and rash generalizations we often hear or read about our Muslim brothers & sisters, who are themselves victims of these terroist acts.
Margaret Claver | 20 July 2009


Great! If Jihad has largely been just misunderstood, does this mean that we can now ask for Constantinople and the flourishing pre-Islamic Christian communities of the middle east and north Africa back?
Eugene | 21 July 2009


Herman is not a Muslim, despite his stated desire to be considered a "Christian-Muslim" (April 1 2007, St Patrick's Sydney). His comments count for nothing even in this region where non-Muslim commentaries on Islam are considered an insult to the faith, if not blasphemous.

Readers, and Herman, would be better served by the following definitions:
a)In Malay/Indonesian, and from a Malaysian Govt website :

Jihad yang paling utama ialah perjuangan menegakkan agama Allah dengan mengorbankan nyawa dan jiwa(http://www.sabah.edu.my/cwm010/adab5berjihad.htm)

b)by Shamsul Akmar, a Muslim journalist writing for the state owned NST in Malaysia,9 June 2001 edition:
Most books on Islam describe jihad as a divine institution of warfare to extend Islam...into dar al-harb (non-Islamic territories which are described as the abode of struggle or of disbelief) or to defend Islam against threats. ":

c)Allah declares in the Qur'an:
"The life of the Prophet Muhammad(S) was full of striving to gain the freedom to inform and convey the message of Islam. ...... he used armed struggle against his enemies whenever he found it inevitable. -Dr Ameer Ali-http://www.themodernreligion.com/jihad/jihad-explained.html

Ganesh Sahathevan | 21 July 2009


The editor of Annals is a champion among Islamophobes. He has been targetting Syria for years; it's all Syria's fault. And bagging Islam, tho he probably knows better.

For a solution to all this, I go back to the advice from one of your earlier columns: Just say g'day. We might find out that they are just like us.

In fact, I used to pray with Muslim people at home in Java, and I found their prayer reminded me eerily of the family rosary I grew up with. 99 per cent of Indonesian Muslims, I found, are more friendly and peaceful than many of my co-religionists.

salam (= peace)
Patrick Mahony | 21 July 2009


Your article is timeely. However, it seems to me that the actual text of the Koran needs to be quoted as well for ordinary people to assess thoroughly the claims you make. The text, true, is not eassy to interpret -so I find - but this would help discusssion to some extent. (an English version of course)


Fr.Alan Pattison | 24 July 2009


M.A. Khan, a former Muslim, had this to say in a recent interview.

"I was one such liberal/moderate Muslim. When 9/11 occurred, I felt that the attack was rather justified because of the United States' unjust policies toward the Palestinians. I was lucky, I should say, that I was already involved in some internet groups that were critical of Islam. But after the 9/11 attacks, as critical analysis of Islam, the Quran and hadiths flourished dramatically, I became a defender of Islam for quite some time. I continued to resist looking into the basic texts of Islam, the Quran, Sunnah and Muhammad's biographies for 2-3 years. But I eventually read them, and I was shattered and frustrated with myself. I was ashamed because the Quran reads like a manual of unconditional war against non-Muslims, Muhammad was one of the most horrible, if not the worst, human being in the history of mankind. And I had believed that Islam was the most perfect and peaceful religion, a perfect code to human life, for 35+ years of my life."

Perhaps these words, from one who knew Islam from the inside, will give Fr Roborgh and some of the posters here pause for thought.
Peter Reid | 24 July 2009


Thank you so much Peter Reid for your post aimed at providing balance to this discussion. I am one of thousands of Australians who over the past eight years has valiantly worked to achieve a worthy intellectual appreciation of Islam. This has been a good bit about learning to separate truth from propaganda. IMHO you Peter Reid have here made a very important contribution to this discussion. Thank you.
Richard | 24 July 2009


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