From living rooms to newspaper columns to security gatherings, jihad is a much debated topic. A moral struggle, a war for a just and peaceful society or an Islamic world order? Jihad is all of it and more, according to the three broad interpretations — traditional or classical, modernist and radical Islamist — prevalent in South Asia. Based on their interpretations of the Quran and exegetical literature, traditional/classical Sunni notions of jihad are different from those of the modernists (apologists, progressives) as well as radical Islamists.
The traditional interpretations are by those who follow classical models such as Shah Abdul Qadir and the exegetes of Deoband. Some of the classical interpretations are still taught in the madrassas and have their influence on the Sunni ulema of South Asia.
The modernists interpret the foundational texts of Islam (the Quran and the Hadith) to support liberal humanist values. For them, jihad is defensive and, in the presence of international treaties of peace, aggressive warfare is not justified. Armed aggression against one’s own Muslim rulers or those who do not stop the practice of Islam is not allowed. They also rule out suicide attacks, the use of non-state actors in guerrilla warfare and attacks on non-combatants.
The third category is of Islamist radicals or militants who interpret the Quran and the Hadith to justify armed struggle against perceived Western domination and to create an Islamic society and state. Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who co-founded Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammed founder Masood Azhar are among those who adhere to this interpretation.
Their main contention is that the Muslim world is already subjected to warfare by the West and, in the case of Kashmir, by India. As Muslim leaders are unwilling to take up the cause of the subjugated masses, non-state actors must do so. They believe that, as weapons of the weak, guerrilla warfare, including suicide attacks, are permissible. In short, the Islamists differ from the classical exegetes who say jihad can only be ordered by a Muslim ruler. As Muslim rulers are subservient to Western powers, jihad can be initiated and continued by non-state actors, the Islamists argue. While in classical theory suicide attacks and killing of non-combatants is not allowed, the Islamists allow these as the tactics of the weak in an unequal conflict.
The interpretations of the Quran and Hadith are broadly based on semantic expansion/manipulation, abrogation (Naskh), reasons or circumstances of revelation, specification, privileging principle over particulars, ideological imperatives, emphases and selection.
Take, for instance, the verse 9:5. The radicals say the “sword verse” is from a chapter which is the last in the order of revelation, so it abrogates the peaceful verses mentioned earlier. Others say the verse is “general” in nature and still relevant. The modernists say it is specific to the Arab polytheists who began aggression against the nascent Muslim community and since they no longer exist, it is not to be acted upon.
The Islamists take fitnah, as mentioned in the 2:193 and 8:39 verses, as the rule of non-Muslims over God’s world or the presence of moral evil in such forms of governance. This makes it incumbent upon Muslims to take up warfare to cleanse the world and institute a just government.
The modernists say fitnah refers to the difficulty in practising Islam that resulted in the expulsion of Muslims from their homes and aggression against them. Now that this is no longer happening, fighting is no longer valid.
All trends in the interpretations of jihad can be linked to the state of Muslim military power. When it was dominant, jihad was expansionist and triumphalist; when it was subservient to colonial dominance, jihad was interpreted as the right of self-defence; and now, in the post-colonial context, jihad is interpreted as the right to resist Western hegemony through unconventional, guerrilla tactics.
The writer is a Pakistani academic and has authored the book Interpretations of Jihad in South Asia: an Intellectual History