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February 1, 2005

Understanding Jihad

An authentic Islamic tradition


The widespread presence in the Islamic world of organizations that legitimate the use of political violence in terms of values they draw from Islam leads to a simple, often asked question: Is there an intrinsic connection between Islam and political violence? A sociologist’s obvious answer to this question is “no.” All of the major religious traditions are able to legitimate political violence, and most sociologists would analyze the conditions leading to the use of political violence situationally as well as normatively. Even so, my perspective is different. While it would be foolish to argue that Islam alone, or any set of religious commitments alone, explains the sustained use of violence apart from the situational conditions that may motivate and enable the organized use of violence, here I focus on the logic of religious commitment in Islam in an attempt to understand the tendencies toward action that are regulated by it.

Islam is a complex religious tradition, with many variants. In general, my references to Islam are to the dominant Sunni tradition. My goal is to characterize an authentic variant of that tradition in terms of an ideal type. One could argue, with the nominalists, that we should not say anything about Islam, even about Sunni Islam, without focusing on the beliefs and practices of specific people. But this point of view ignores the claims to unity of belief made within the Islamic umma, and it ignores the reality that attaches to those claims. As Frederick Denny puts it, “Islam has maintained a more consistent system of fundamental beliefs and practices than any other world religion.”1
My purpose here is to characterize the nature of value commitments within Islam. I contrast them with those dominant in Christianity, focusing on ascetic Protestantism — especially the contrast between Christian theology of salvation and Islamic theology of the Last Judgment. Unlike Christians, Muslims, untainted by original sin, believe themselves, with God’s guidance, capable of acting in ways meriting salvation. In Islam, God gives men the will to act for good or evil, but he predetermines the outcome of their actions. I contend that the requirement to act in accordance with God’s decrees, possible but nonetheless difficult to fulfill, thus attaining salvation, may be short-circuited when fulfilling the religious obligation of jihad. There, either one accomplishes good works (as decreed by God) or dies a martyr; if the former, one enhances one’s chances of being sent to heaven at the Last Judgment; if the latter, one goes directly to heaven.
Thus, I argue that there is an authentic Islamic tradition that partially explains the predisposition to the use of force, in jihad, that is diffused widely among contemporary Muslims. Of course, this does not mean either that all or even most Muslims are disposed to use force, or that Muslims will use force in all situations or any particular situation. It does suggest, however, that contemporary activities cannot be explained in purely situational terms: for example, that Muslims are simply reacting to external impingement on Muslim lands. While the specific form of their reaction may be situationally constituted, the reaction itself must, in part, be explained by the logic of Islamic religious conviction.
While the impetus for this article is found in the events of 9/11, it emerges out of an attempt to treat Islamists2 seriously, to take seriously their own claims about their activities. In this respect, while I will not discuss them systematically, S. Abul A’la Maududi and Sayyid Qutb are particularly important. As will be clear to those who have read their work, I do not presume the veracity of their characterizations of Islam, but neither do I presume that they have “hijacked” Islam for nefarious purposes. Both were men of intelligence and learning; both sought, like so many before and after them, to find what was authentic in Islam by a process of rejuvenation, by returning to what they believed to be the religion of Muhammad and his companions, and both problematized what they took to be medieval and modern deviations from Islam. It seems to me that it is essential that we understand how their writings were embedded in an authentic Islamic tradition, if only because their writings are the most important intellectual justifications of contemporary Islamism.3 

Eschatology and soteriology

While soteriology, the theology of salvation, is of paramount importance in Christianity, eschatology, the theology of the Last Judgment, is of primary significance in Islam. Christians believe in original sin. No Christian, on her own, has the capacity to be saved. God sacrificed his Son to enable salvation; people are saved, or not, through God’s grace. In ascetic Protestantism, God predestines individuals to salvation. God is inscrutable, so no one knows if she is saved and no one can do anything about it. This uncertainty led, Weber tells us correctly, to a rationalization of everyday life, an inner-worldly asceticism, not as a vehicle to salvation, but as a manifestation that one has been chosen for, predestined for, salvation.4 The crucial factor, however, is not predestination; it is uncertainty, not knowing whether one is saved, and not being able, on one’s own, to do anything about it.5

In Islam, God’s messengers, and most especially his last and final messenger, Muhammad, have told believers how they must act to be saved. God has requested nothing that believers cannot do. If they follow God’s commandments (as enunciated in the Koran and the Sunna, the tradition), on the Day of Judgment God will judge them fairly, weighing the good against the bad.
The Koran was revealed to Muhammad as a set of signs, ayat (which also means verses). The outward message of the Koran is apparent to most Muslims; it was revealed in the language of the people, to give them clarity. “[W]hat distinguishes the prophets, from Adam to Muhammad, from the rest of wandering humankind is that God’s messengers come on the explicit mission of helping the rest find their way amid the confusion, the maze of possible paths and goals, the plethora of markets and way-stations.”6 
Certain customs in ritual and law were established as sacred; derivative from the Koran and from the Sunna, they constitute the shari’ah that regulates virtually all aspects of a Muslim’s life. In the words of Islamist Sayyid Qutb, “The basis of the Islamic message is that one should accept the shari’ah without any question and reject all other laws, whatever their shape or form. This is Islam. There is no other meaning of Islam.” This point of view is also articulated by the moderate, Khaled Abou El Fadl: “I must confess that I adopt the intellectual presumption that Islamic jurisprudence (Shariah) is core to the Islamic experience throughout all ages and places. To me, Shariah and Islam are inseparable, and one cannot be without the other. I also confess that my primary loyalty, after God, is to the Shariah, and not to any particular organization.”7
According to the Koran, “humans have been created with a sound nature and provided by God with a true religion that enables them to have fullness of life through close communion with God in this world and the next. Each human is a religiously grounded person, created and endowed with a fitra, a ‘sound constitution’ that acts as a kind of internal guidance system and way to God. That is our ‘natural’ birthright.”8 God’s revelation to Muhammad and Muhammad’s words and actions, as gathered in “authenticated” Hadith,9 provide rules of correct action; unlike in Christianity, where original sin precludes salvation without God’s grace, here man’s nature enables him to act in ways that merit God’s grace. While not easy to follow, the rules do not demand anything that people are incapable of accomplishing through their own capacities; the rules guide men to paradise.10
While the shari’ah is all-encompassing, “The scholars of the fiqh [jurisprudence] did not intend to embitter the life of the Muslim by imprisoning him in a stockade of legal restraints. From the very beginning they stressed compliance with the words of the Qur’an: ‘Allah has laid no difficulty upon you in religion’ (22:78). ‘The wish of Allah is your ease, not your distress’ (2:185).” The same principle is reiterated in the Hadith.11 The prospects for an individual Muslim are “thoroughly positive so long as one grants the need for reverent awe in God’s presence, so long as one acknowledges that God’s mercy will overcome his wrath. God will burden no person beyond his or her capacity to persevere. Islam rejects the notion of redemption because human beings are directly responsible. Adam and Eve sinned, but humankind has not inherited their guilt. No human action makes the slightest personal difference to God; the moral quality of each individual’s choices turns on their ultimate benefit to the human race. It is not God, therefore, but the individual who decides his or her own final destiny.”12
While Muslims “acknowledge sin and its ravages, . . . they consider God’s guidance in the Qur’an and his constant presence and goading compassion to be all that humans need to direct them aright, bringing them, because of their good center, back to the truth.” Unlike the Christian doctrine of original sin, according to Islam, “there is nothing in humans that is essentially — that is, fundamentally and irrevocably — evil. At their core, recall, humans are constituted according to the fitra. Therefore no doctrine of salvation ever developed in Islam — at least in the dominant Sunni majority — that required an atoning, or substitutionary, sacrifice in which wayward and sinful humans are ‘bought back,’ redeemed and rendered acceptable to God through sheer grace, as in Christian salvation doctrine.” Islam rejected the soteriology of Christianity.13
While a Muslim’s understanding of the Koran and Sunna may be indefinite, because God is not immanent in the interpretative process,14 as in Catholicism, it does not matter. Muslims can understand transparently what they need to understand, how they need to act, to be saved, while the absence of God in the interpretive process15 enables tolerance of different interpretations — the four Sunni legal schools — because their differences do not matter; the differences do not affect what is essential for salvation. Thus, each of the four schools is considered orthodox.
Weber argues that in Islam predestination is a form of predetermination. We are not predestined to salvation or damnation; we control that. God, instead, predetermines the outcome, in this life, of our actions. This is manifest in the way Muslims often convey their intentions by indicating that they will be fulfilled if it is God’s will.
Weber argues that while this predetermination does not facilitate the rationalization of everyday life, it does facilitate a commitment to extraordinary actions, especially those that short-circuit God’s weighing our activities on a scale of justice at the Last Judgment (k, 101); it facilitates jihad, where if a believer survives, he accumulates credits for following God’s commands, and if he dies a martyr, he gets a pass into heaven.
Islam does not result in an inner-worldly asceticism because believers do not have to rationalize their actions to be saved or, more correctly, to make their salvation manifest. In Weber’s sense, their actions are weighed on a scale of justice, the good against the bad. As important, those who have forgotten the straight path, those who have lost their connection to God’s commandments, may repent and be saved. No actor’s life is completed before her final actions are tallied and those final actions are weighed more heavily than the ones that preceded them. Unlike in Catholicism, there is no sacramental forgiveness in Islam; nonetheless, as in Catholicism, the way good works are tallied works against the systematization of the believer’s character and activities. Believers do not have to rationalize their activities and characters as an indication of God’s grace; they have only to undertake the good works necessary to be saved. Salvation through martyrdom is a manifestation of the same syndrome; the capacity to redeem one’s life through extraordinary action is always available to the believer.16
While there is much controversy in the literature about the meaning of jihad, it is clear that from Islam’s earliest days, and in its earliest texts, it referred primarily to “holy war.” “The Koran frequently mentions jihad and fighting (qital) against the unbelievers. . . . Many verses exhort the believers to take part in the fighting ‘with their goods and lives’. . . promise reward to those who are killed in jihad . . . and threaten those who do not fight with severe punishment in the hereafter.”17 
The Koran, in this matter, as in many others, is ambiguous. Peters writes: “It is not clear whether the Koran allows Muslims to fight the unbelievers only as a defense against aggression or under all circumstances. . . . In those verses that seem to order the Muslims to fight the unbelievers unconditionally, the general condition that fighting is only allowed by way of defense could be said to be understood. . . . Classical Muslim Koran interpretation, however, did not go into [sic] this direction. It regarded the Sword Verses, with the unconditional command to fight the unbelievers, as having abrogated all previous verses concerning the intercourse with non-Muslims.” (1996, 2, where he reproduces the relevant verses from the Koran).
The doctrine of jihad articulates the duty of Muslims to expand the Muslim umma, “to bring as many people under its rule as possible. The ultimate aim is to bring the whole earth under the sway of Islam” (3). “The most important function of the doctrine of jihad is that it mobilizes and motivates Muslims to take part in wars against unbelievers, as it is considered to be the fulfillment of a religious duty. This motivation is strongly fed by the idea that those who are killed on the battlefield, called martyrs . . . , will go directly to Paradise” (5).
In Ibn Taymiyya’s sense (in Peters, 1996, 49), “Since lawful warfare is essentially jihad and since its aim is that the religion is God’s entirely and God’s word is uppermost, therefore, according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought.”18 Jihad is a collective obligation, “[which means that—R.P.] if it is fulfilled by a sufficient number [of Muslims—R.P.], the obligation lapses for all others and the merit goes to those who have fulfilled it.” (53). Thus, “Any individual or community that participates in it [jihad], finds itself between two blissful outcomes: either victory and triumph or martyrdom and Paradise . . . all creatures must live and die. Now, it is in jihad that one can live and die in ultimate happiness, both in this world and in the Herafter [sic]. Abandoning it means losing entirely or partially both kinds of happiness” (48).19 
Islam contrasts Dar al-Islam, lands ruled by shari’ah, and Dar al-harb, the “abode of warfare,” lands ruled by non-Muslims. “‘Warfare’ refers,” Denny writes, “both to the presumed quality of such places from the perspective of Muslims (namely, that they lack the security and order of the Shari’a and are therefore lands where everyone is at war with everyone else) and to the necessity for jihad — ‘exertion’ in spreading the true faith, an activity that may include armed conflict. It is one thing to force conversion, which the Koran forbids; but it is another to conquer territory in the name of God and — from the Muslim vantage point — for the welfare of people who stand to benefit from imposition of the holy law. Religious minorities, especially Judaism and Christianity, have their place under the Shari’a as protected groups, but they are under certain constraints, one of which forbids their members to proselytize” (11).
In the words of Sadat’s assassins, jihad, whether against the non-Muslim West or against Muslims who profess Islam but do not fulfill its obligations (including jihad), is the “neglected duty.”20 Jihad is the vehicle that enables Muslims to command good and forbid evil; jihad is a commandment that must be fulfilled if the believer is to be preferred by God at the Last Judgment: “such believers as sit at home — unless they have an injury — are not the equals of those who struggle in the path of God with their possessions and their selves. God has preferred in rank those who struggle in the path of God with their possessions and their selves over the ones who sit at home; yet to each God has promised the reward most fair, and God has preferred those who struggle over the ones who sit at home for the bounty of a mighty wage, in ranks standing before Him, forgiveness and mercy” (k, 4:95-96).
Some contemporary Islamists have succeeded in integrating the lesser jihad, the fight against desires, with the greater jihad, the holy war to establish, defend and extend the Islamic state. They understand the latter to entail selfless actions, activities in which they vow to accept death. To accomplish such deeds, actors must struggle against their desires, most prominently against the desire to live. As Juan Cole puts it in his illuminating discussion of the so-called Doomsday Document found in the luggage of Muhammad Atta, a 9/11 hijacker, “In this document, the carnal self is the enemy of the vow to die, selfishly seeking to hang on to life, and so must be vanquished.” Here, “It is possible that a suicide/mass murder operation . . . was considered by al-Qaeda to combine the virtues of both the greater (spiritual) and lesser (military) jihads, and that therefore the [Sufi] techniques appropriate to the former should be applied to the latter.” These techniques to overcome desire may be instrumental in preparing to die in holy war. For these martyrs, “The time to play is over. They have wasted much of their lives with unworthy, worldly activities. Now they must feel the full regret and prepare to make amends with a final night of worship, drawing close, and preparation for the rendezvous with God. Their earthly lives have been in any case ‘ruined’ by their antinomian activities, so why . . . not cast off that old skin and emerge into a new existence in the afterlife?” 21
While God’s commands may be transparent for the practicing Muslim, which is one reason why Islam is often labeled an orthopraxy instead of an orthodoxy,22 fulfilling them is not easy. If it were easy, one of the psychological motivations for jihad would be diminished. Believers could count on entering heaven. The difficulty of orthopraxy enhances the motivation to take part in jihad, both to accumulate credits through good work and, for some, to find a more direct entrance to heaven.
Weber is correct, I think, to emphasize, in Islam, the difference between human control under God’s explicit guidance versus God’s control (and it does not have to be predestination) through his grace. The first provides a relative certainty of salvation. The second, in contrast, creates uncertainty; when, as it was in seventeenth century England, that uncertainty is coupled with an omnipresent concern about salvation, it creates an anxiety that could be reduced only by an inner-worldly asceticism, a systematic rationalization of everyday life. While this systematization of everyday activity did not bring salvation, which was under the control of an inscrutable God, it was understood as indicating that the believer was saved.
Islam demands of its believers good works. The nature of these is laid down in the Koran. As many have argued, for Muslims, the Koran occupies the place of Jesus in Christianity. The word is manifest in the Holy Text and amplified in the Hadith, and it is the obligation of all Muslims to follow God’s guidance. Muhammad is God’s prophet, leading believers to correct action in addition to correct belief. In contrast, in Christianity, Jesus incarnates God’s word, and it is through God’s grace that believers are saved.23 The nature of this process varies between Christian denominations, but in all God’s grace is essential for salvation. While Muslims need God’s guidance, his revealed word, to know how to act, Christians, tainted by original sin, cannot fulfill God’s word, itself never codified in determinate rules, not even in Catholicism in quite the same way as in Islam, and they are dependent on God’s uncertain grace.
The concern with one’s eternal fate is as manifest in Islam as in Christianity, but its manifestation is different. The Early Meccan suras — as Sells writes, “those learned first by Muslims when they study the Qur’an in Arabic” (2) — focus on the Day of Judgment, on God’s judgment of people in light of his commandments (which are codified in the later suras, in the Hadith and in the shari’ah). God is merciful, but believers are told to fear his wrath if they fail to conform to the duties he has revealed for them; thus Muslims are highly motivated to fulfill God’s commandments, knowing that at the Last Judgment, “Whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it, and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it also” (K, 99, 8-9). The structure of religious commitment is embedded in this eschatology. In Christianity, in contrast, a soteriology of grace is enunciated; it requires deeds but centers more concretely in faith. The incarnation of God in Jesus, not in a text articulating a set of rules and regulations, embodies men’s hopes, even as it increases their uncertainty.24 


Principles and precept

One consequence of the differential emphases, on a soteriology of grace versus an eschatology of works, is that Christianity functions in terms of principles, while Islam emphasizes rules. Christianity evokes a set of values that regulate actions, but often does not specify them in legal detail. Rules are, in turn, subject to (in some forms of Protestantism) discussion and reevaluation. In contrast, Islam functions more in terms of precepts, which are, for most Muslims, not subject to lay interpretation, while for some the interpretation stopped over a thousand years ago. For almost all Muslims, the interpretive process stops at the point of revelation. While principles can be found in the Koran and the Hadith, more often than not, in those texts norms are manifest in legalistic regulations, e.g., social justice in the giving of charity. Traditionally these precepts have not been generalized into principles.25

The shari’ah is God’s legislation for Muslims everywhere.26 It constitutes, as Denny writes, the “Muslim commitment to justice and social order in a harmonious and disciplined community that knows no distinction between ‘church’ and ‘state,’ or religious and secular realms — these themes and others will be seen still to inspire and regulate the ways in which today’s Muslims believe, behave, interact with others, and anticipate their destinies as servants of God” (17). While shari’ah is much broader than “law,” it is codified in legal terms. While law always embodies both rules and principles, Rahman notes that shari’ah emphasizes rules and is articulated within an interpretive framework deeply suspicious of innovations that might be legitimated through the evocation of principles.
Muslims have the obligation to create a social world in which they can implement shari’ah, the social world in which it is possible to do good works, a social world that is all-encompassing, regulating most aspects of their lives;27 if jihad is necessary to construct that world, an Islamic state to impose actions in conformity with shari’ah, if not conformity with Islamic belief, jihad is viewed by many Muslims as a religious obligation.

Freedom of religion

When a non-muslim reads Maududi’s characterization of an Islamic state, where shari’ah will be enforced, and his characterization of why this state will be beneficial and freedom-enhancing for non-Muslims, she is likely to be either baffled by Maududi’s ability to present second-class citizenship as beneficial, or outraged by his audacity. It is clear, however, that he is writing sincerely, expressing his own convictions.28

To understand this paradox, we need to grasp Maududi’s commonsense, cultural understanding; we need to understand why his arguments make sense and are transparent to him and to so many others. According to some Muslims, including Maududi, while Christians have the obligation to believe, Muslims have, as an aspect of their belief, the obligation to act, to impose and live in terms of shari’ah, which, they believe, frees all to believe what they will, but most important, frees them to believe what is true, Islam. Thus, freedom of religion for many Muslims requires the imposition of shari’ah in an Islamic state, both of which are necessary for correct practice.29 Freedom of religion for Christians, in contrast, requires only that the Koranic injunction not to coerce belief be implemented. While from a Christian perspective the asymmetry seems outrageous, from within a Muslim perspective, there is no inconsistency.
To understand Maududi’s reasoning, we have to recognize, as Smith writes, that “In addition to being a spiritual guide, it [the Koran] is a legal compendium. When its innumerable prescriptions are supplemented by the only slightly less authoritative hadith . . . we are not surprised to find Islam the most socially explicit of the Semitic religions. Westerners who define religion in terms of personal experience would never be understood by Muslims, whose religion calls them to establish a specific kind of social order. Islam joins faith to politics, religion to society, inseparably” (249). As Qutb puts it, “The word ‘religion’ includes more than belief; ‘religion’ actually means a way of life, and in Islam this is based on belief. But in an Islamic system there is room for all kinds of people to follow their own beliefs, while obeying the laws of the country which are themselves based on the Divine authority.”30
Qutb had commented earlier as follows: “Islam does not force its beliefs on people, but Islam is not merely ‘belief.’ As we have pointed out, Islam is a declaration of the freedom of every man or woman from servitude to other humans. It seeks to abolish all those systems of government that are based on the rule of some men over others, or the servitude of some to others.31 When Islam liberates people from these external pressures and invites them to its spiritual message, it appeals to their reason, and gives them complete freedom to accept or reject it. This freedom, however, does not mean that they may elevate their desires into gods, or that they may willingly remain in the servitude of other human beings, some men lords over others. Whatever system is to be established in the world ought to be based on the authority of Allah, deriving its laws from Him alone. Then every individual is free, under the protection of this universal system, to adopt any belief he wishes to adopt” (1990, 49-50).
This same point may be seen when we recognize that shari’ah disallows freedom of belief, “freedom of religion,” for Muslims and, insofar as proselytization is important to non-Muslims, for them as well. While Muslims have the obligation to proselytize in favor of Islam, proselytization of others to Muslims is banned under shari’ah. While Christians and other peoples of the book (Jews and, de facto, Zoroastrians), but not others, may keep their beliefs, even as their actions are regulated by shari’ah, a Muslim who converts to another religion must be punished by death.32 Once again, the asymmetry seems obvious to non-Muslims, but from a Muslim point of view, it makes perfect sense.
The important point in this context does not focus on whether Muslims allow “freedom of religion.” Instead, we must understand, as Denny writes, that “Muslims believe that they have been called by God to establish a righteous human political and social order on earth” (45) and this political order is essential to enhance each Muslim’s chance at salvation. Thus, many Muslims believe that they are obligated to impose this order.
Goldziher characterized the doctrine well: “Muhammad left his immediate achievements within his Arabian sphere as a testament for the future of his community: to fight the unbelievers, to extend not so much the faith as the territory dominated by the faith, which was also the territory dominated by Allah. The warriors of Islam had as their immediate concern the subjugation, rather than the conversion, of the unbelievers” (26-27). The same point is made similarly by Rahman: “Whereas the Muslims did not spread their faith through the sword, it is, nevertheless, true that Islam insisted on the assumption of political power since it regarded itself as the repository of the Will of God which had to be worked on earth through a political order. From this point of view, Islam resembles the Communist structure which, even if it does not oblige people to accept its creed, nevertheless insists on the assumption of the political order. To deny this fact would be both to violate history and to deny justice to Islam itself.”
Paradoxically, Christian passivity can give rise to instrumental activism (Talcott Parsons’s term), a rationalization of everyday life, the innerworldly asceticism Weber discusses, while the demand for activity in Islam may give rise to extraordinary bravery but not, in and of itself, to the rationalization of everyday activity. As Goldziher put it, “There is no [other- or inner-worldly — M.G.] monasticism (rahbaniya) in Islam; the monasticism of this community is the Holy War.”33 It is significant that the war was not usually understood as a vehicle to impose Islamic beliefs (at least not on people of the book), but this does not belie the fact that for many Muslims jihad to impose shari’ah remains a religious obligation and thus a vehicle to salvation, either through the accumulation of good works, or through martyrdom and immediate entrée into paradise.

The Islamists

We come, finally, to the Islamists. If my argument thus far is correct, we must approach them through the traditions that they evoke, understanding Islamism, as Rahman argues (2002, 222) as one of many manifestations of Islamic revivalism — as one of the many groups that have grappled with barbarism in the world of Islam, whether that barbarism, jahiliyyah, was imposed from without or was bred from within.

Gibb argues that we can find in Islam a dialectic between Sufism, where God is, in various forms, immanent, and orthodoxy, where God is transcendent. In Sufism, “saints may mediate people’s relationship to God” and God may be immanent in the persons themselves through mystical experiences. Periodically, there was an orthodox reaction to doctrines of immanence, which were understood to be a violation of the basic tenet of Islam, the oneness of a transcendent God, a God who made himself known through his prophet, a God immanent only in the Koran.
This dialectic (and the antagonisms and compromises that it has engendered) was complemented and sometimes overlapped with a “reformation,” a return to origins, to the originating mandates of the Koran and the Sunna. For these revivalists, from the period of the Kharijites in the seventh and eighth centuries, through Ibn Taymiyya’s railing against the Mongols in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, to the Wahabbi in the eighteenth century, and into the contemporary period, all bad that has befallen Islam has derived from corruption introduced into belief and activity, from innovations to the pure Islam of Muhammad and his companions — thus the imperative call to reimpose the authentic tradition, to promote good and fight evil through the imposition of God’s will, to replace the sovereignty of men, a form of shirk, setting man alongside of God, with the shari’ah, God’s will.34
As Gibb puts it, “the spread of Islam in the new territories to the east and south, in Asia and Africa, was largely the work of the Sufi brotherhoods, and that the brotherhoods were in many cases tolerant of traditional usages and habits of thought which ran contrary to the strict practice of Islamic unitarianism. The upshot of this was that in the Muslim community as a whole the balance was gradually tilting against the high orthodox doctrine. . . . Theology was beginning to compromise with Sufi doctrine, the citadel was weakening from within. Sooner or later this downhill movement was bound to call out a reaction — bound to call it out, that is, if the Koran remained a living force in the life of the community — and because of the general declension the reaction, when it came, was formulated in more violent and uncompromising terms.”35 
This reaction, in the context Gibb is discussing, was Wahhabism, but the “Islamist” axis of this dialectic has taken many different forms. In the present period, it can be understood only as a reaction to Western imperialism and globalization, and this reaction constrains the forms that it takes, as do the particular situations in which it is manifest. At the same time, we must recognize that neither this reaction nor the Islamic imperialism that it demands is new. Islam has been repeatedly the vehicle of an expansionist drive, and the evocation to jihad as a collective obligation of all Muslims — where jihad is understood, as the Islamists understand it, as an offensive war to impose shari’ah — has a history as long as the history of Islam. Qutb, drawing on Maududi, makes the point very clearly: “When writers with defeatist and apologetic mentalities write about ‘jihad in Islam,’ and try to remove this ‘blot’ from Islam, they mix up two things: first, this din forbids the imposition of its belief by force, as is clear from the verse: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ Secondly, it tries to annihilate all those political and material powers that stand between people and Islam, which forces some people to bow before other people, and prevent them from accepting the sovereignty of Allah” (46). For Qutb, jahiliyyah was omnipresent; there was no Dar al-Islam, and jihad was mandated in countries dominated by Islam and towards countries dominated by unbelievers.
None of this suggests that most Muslims are desirous of a holy war against the West. This is so if only because the situation is not propitious for such a war, and because Islam has never demanded what is impossible. It is to say, however, that the call for jihad, in a situation of jahiliyyah, makes sense to most Muslims.
In earlier work I have drawn the distinction between disorderly subcultures and subcultures of disorder.36 In the former, those who violate institutionalized norms legitimate their disorderly activities and, in consequence, regularize them. In a subculture of disorder, violations of institutionalized norms may occur, but only when they are seen to be advantageous. They are not legitimate, but rather, participants adopt a neutral attitude toward them. Like Mao’s fish swimming in a sea, a relatively small cadre of revolutionaries, a revolutionary subculture, emerges out of and comes to be sustained by a larger subculture of revolution. Likewise, contemporary Islamists act within social orders where many are neutral towards their convictions and activities. Those in the “subculture of Islamism” might not participate in “jihad,” but persons within a “subculture of Islamism” are not hostile to it.37
Islamists share the conviction that they know how they must act to garner God’s favor. One obligation, the neglected obligation that they assume, is jihad, war to impose shari’ah, first on their own societies and then on other societies. This obligation stems from an authentic tradition within Islam. They have not hijacked Islam; instead, they are working out their convictions, convictions with a history that reaches into Islam’s formative years.
Their motivation stems from the eschatological premises of their religion, from their certainty that God has laid down for them a straight path and that if they follow that path they will, at the Last Judgment, be deemed worthy of everlasting life in paradise. The promise of an immediate entrée into heaven for the martyrs of jihad reinforces their motivation to comply with their understanding of God’s will. They may not know whether God has predetermined them to die or to gain victory in jihad, but they know that in the first instance their reward is immediate, while in the second instance they have enhanced their chances of being rewarded at the Day of Judgment.

Institutional structure

It may be that most Muslims fall outside of the picture that I have drawn. I think that it is clear, however, that many fall within it, that I have drawn a picture that captures that pole of Islam that derives from a transcendent God a set of rules that includes the imposition of shari’ah in the universal sphere of God’s rule. If there are over a billion Muslims in the world, and if my portrait has captured only a small percentage of them, and if those I have painted correctly are fish in a larger sea, they pose a very considerable threat to the rest of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Let us assume that the picture I have painted is correct, at least for some within the community of Islam. Even so, the picture is incomplete. Perhaps it explains one motivation to undertake some form of jihad; perhaps it explains how such actions are legitimated and routinized. It does not tell us whether or not potential actors have the resources to enable them to act and, if so, what types of actions they can carry out; nor does it tell us about opposing forces, Muslim states and states controlled by unbelievers that might constrain potential actions.
This is where the institutional structure of Islam becomes relevant. There is no Church in Islam, even if there is a priestly class. In the ideal Muslim community, where there is a union of “church” and state, with no meaningful distinction between the religious and the secular, unanimity among the ulama could be enforced through state action.38 In consequence, “The political decay of Islam, the increasing number of Mohammedans under foreign rule, appears to them [the canonists], therefore doubly dangerous, as they have little faith in the proof of Islam’s spiritual goods against life in a freedom which to them means license.”39 Even worse, the association of the ulama with unjust states, their corruption in the face of corrupt regimes, may serve to discredit them among (at least some of) the most convinced believers. This discrediting has certainly been manifest among many of the Islamists.
Such a situation is potentially perilous. Let me draw an analogy. When the U.S. government, through its legal system, shut down Napster, it was easy to destroy what had been a thriving concern. Napster’s activities were channeled through a central server, and those who ran that server could be held responsible. Newer systems for disseminating mp3s do not rely on central servers; they are networks that appear to evaporate when touched. They are not so easy to contain.
Islamism draws on the organizational resources of Muslim communities, and some Islamist organizations are themselves “central servers,” but many are free-floating, not responsible to any religious structure, but diffusely dependent on the support of a wider subculture that nourishes them, even when most members of that wider subculture do not participate directly in acts of violence.40 In the absence of a Church, there is no one to be held responsible for violations of civil order. The ulama affiliated with the state might seek to control such actions, but their power is, ultimately, the power of state coercion.
In an international system where “liberal” social values are widely diffused, it becomes harder for mainstream organizations and for states dependent on that system to defy its fundamental values. Networks of Islamists, who define their values oppositionally, are not controlled by such a system. Their “rational myths” (John Meyer’s term), the values that legitimate their actions, are found in their own interpretation of their own tradition. While some may seek to enhance the compatibility of that tradition with the values of the wider world, Islamists define the tradition as oppositional, and it is very difficult to keep them from distributing its artifacts, their mp3s, within their own loosely constructed networks. Perhaps our major hope in the short term is that we will be able to undermine the support for the Islamists in the wider subculture, to induce those, like the Saudis, and the many Muslim groups and individuals who support them financially, to desist from doing so. We must find ways of making it situationally impossible, or at least much less likely, for Islamists to act violently.
In the longer term, there is hope that Muslims in the West will work towards the generalization of their religious precepts into more abstract moral principles, principles capable of problematizing certain of the precepts. Muslims living in the West, in Europe and North America, can have no realistic hope of establishing Islamic states to rule the majority of the population. Perhaps, in this circumstance, they will work to accommodate Islam to the civil religion we find, for example, in the United States. In this civil religion, moral precepts from many denominations are found, but they are generalized from the denominational precepts that may be in force for believers, precepts that are not enforced politically. The resources for such an accommodation can be found in Islam, in its concern for equality and social justice. If this accommodation occurs, perhaps it will have an effect on the larger umma. Until then, it is clear that one of the Islamists’ motivations to act stems from their understanding of their religious tradition, and it is just as clear that that tradition provides the resources to legitimate their actions.

1 Frederick M. Denny, Islam and the Muslim Community (Waveland, 1987); see also Fazlur Rahman, Islam (University of Chicago Press, 2002 [1979, 1966]).

2 There is terminological confusion in the literature dealing with contemporary Islamic movements. I restrict the term “fundamentalist” to movements that have no political aspirations and “Islamist” or “Islamicist” to refer to fundamentalist movements that do have political aspirations. I use the term “revivalist” for those movements, some that would not be appropriately categorized as fundamentalist, that seek to revive the religion of Muhammad and his companions. Some use the term “fundamentalist” to refer to “Islamist” movements, perhaps on the grounds that revivalist movements, including those that are fundamentalist, generally believe that they are obligated to institute an Islamic state.

3 To take one simple example, many in the West are reluctant to condemn Islam by labeling “jihad” something other than an exertion against one’s desires or, if “war,” anything other than defensive war. From the Islamist point of view, this is a misrepresentation of the Islamic tradition, which requires offensive war to impose an Islamic state, enabling Muslims to practice their religion, while providing the opportunity for non-Muslims to have access to true religion. Whatever the “truth” in this controversy, it is clear that the Islamists appeal to and fall within a genuine Islamic tradition.

4 My former student, Jesse Einhorn, highlighted for me the importance of uncertainty in Weber’s interpretation of ascetic Protestantism and in my own interpretation of Islam.

5 In this paper I focus on that branch of Christianity Weber labeled ascetic Protestantism. It would be interesting to think more systematically about Catholicism in this context, about the importance of both good works and God's immanence in the Church, which, similarly to Islam, allow people to know what they need to do to be saved. While I make some remarks about Catholicism in this essay, a more systematic analysis will have to await a sequel.

6 John Renard, Understanding the Islamic Experience (Paulist Press, 2002 [1992]), 38, 45, 96, 97-8, 102; quotation at 45-6.

7 Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (American Trust Publications, 1990 [196-]; see also Rahman, Islam, 1. Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl’s Response to cair.” (http://www.scholarofthehouse.org/drabelfadres.html [accessed June 3, 2004]).

8 Denny, Islam and the Muslim Community, 41-42, bold in the original. Given this birthright, Muslims sometimes explain evil actions as due to a person forgetting God, just as this forgetting is Islam’s benevolent explanation for why other peoples of the book fell away from “Islam” (in the sense that originally, all revelations were the same). The less benevolent explanation is that they consciously tampered with their scriptures.

9 After Muhammad’s death, Hadith were manufactured by the thousands. The authentication of those accepted into the standard collections was primarily by tracing their genealogy through a set of reliable witnesses. There is considerable controversy among scholars about the authenticity of those collected in the standard editions.

10 My colleague, Michael Sells, has noted: “There is no doctrine of original sin in Islam, no doctrine of an innate sinfulness that makes every human inherently unworthy of salvation without the saving grace of the deity. Instead, the Qur’an affirms that humankind is in a state of forgetfulness, confusion, and loss, and in need of reminder.” Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (White Cloud Press, 1999), 117. As noted above, one of the tasks of the Koran, and of Islam more generally, is to serve as such a reminder: “The premise of the Qur’anic reminder is that the human being is by nature forgetful, and by habit and preoccupation caught up in the concerns of the world which hide the central reality of the moral imperative for generosity and justice [or just deeds — M.G.]. One form of reminder is the performance of the prayer; breaking the preoccupation of the day, ritually and regularly, to orient oneself toward the prophetic message and its author. The other form of reminder is the repetition and recitation, in ever new forms and supple shifts in nuance, of the basic message concerning the day of reckoning.”(75).

11 Ignaz Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law (Princeton University Press, 1981 [1910]), 55-6, quoting the Koran at 55.

12 Renard, Understanding the Islamic Experience, 140. It is, of course, God who decides the fate of each individual, but God is understood by Muslims to act justly, in light of each individual’s faith, intentions, and actions.

13 Denny, Islam and the Muslim Community, 44. For the conclusion about Islam’s rejection of Christian soteriology, see H.A.R. Gibb, Mohammedanism (University of Chicago Press, 1970 [1949]), 47.

14 Partial exceptions are the Mujtahidis among the Shi’ites. They mandate that each believer select a living mujtahid as a source of imitation, as a source of interpretive authority. There may be, however, several living mujtahids. Renard, Understanding the Islamic Experience, 108, 111.

15 Unlike in Catholicism, where God is immanent in the Church and thus at least certain of the Church’s decrees are infallible, God is not, again with the possible exception of the Shi’a, and with the exception of some Sufis, understood to be immanent in either person or organization. For some Sufis God’s immanence leads to antinomianism, where it is no longer necessary to adhere to shari’ah. Most Sufis are, however, orthodox, adhering to shari’ah while supplementing it with ascetic, ecstatic, devotional, or mystical practices.

16 This argument may explain the apparently erratic, from the point of view of Islamic orthodoxy, behavior of some of the 9/11 terrorists. Their extraordinary action ensured their salvation, not their routine everyday activities. Likewise, it may be relevant to the “Saudi prince syndrome,” the capacity to behave like decadent Westerners when in Europe or the United States, while maintaining the façade of Wahhabi devotion in Saudi Arabia.

17 Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam (Markus Wiener, 1996), 2, where he includes relevant quotations from the Koran. The literature on jihad is voluminous. See, for a good introduction, the texts reprinted in Peters, especially the translations of Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes’s) discussion of various legal characterizations of jihad (ch. 4) and Ibn Taymiyya’s characterization of “The Religious and Moral Doctrine of Jihad” (ch. 5). See also Rudolph Peters, Islam and Colonialism: The Doctrine of Jihad in Modern History (Mouton, 1979).
 
The characterization of jihad as exertion against one’s desires became stronger as Sufism occupied a more prominent place in Islam: “When the influence of mysticism gained dominion over the leading spirits, a further step was taken in the same direction. As all the works prescribed by the canonical law reached their real value when they were considered as symbols of spiritual ideas, so the true martyr in this system became he that partook of warfare not against the infidels but against his own sensual nature, in order to reach a more spiritual stage.
 
“Ghazali, when speaking of the holy war, says: Every one who gives himself wholly to God (tadjarrada lillahi) in the war against his own desires (nafs), is a martyr when he meets death going forward without turning his back. So the holy warrior is he who makes war against his own desires, as it has been explained by the Apostle of God. And the ‘greater war’ is the war against one’s own desires, as the Companions said: We have returned from the lesser war unto the greater one, meaning thereby the war against their own desires.” A. J. Wensinck, Semietische Studien Uit De Nalatenschap (A. W. Sijthoff’s Uitgeversmaaatschappij N.V., 1941), 96.
 
Islamic revivalism has almost always attacked Sufism as consisting in innovations not present among Muhammad and his companions. This attack has been manifest from at least the time of Ibn Taymiyya in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and more recently, it has been integral to the Wahhabi movement from the eighteenth century. It is present in most Islamist movements, movements that emphasize the obligation of jihad, holy war, to enforce good and prohibit evil. At the same time, Islamist discussions of jihad as holy war often place it in a larger context of struggles in the way of God; see S. Abul A’la Maududi, Jihad in Islam (Islamic Publications, 1998 [1973, 1939]); Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, ch. 8, and Peters, Islam and Colonialism, ch. 4.
 
The tradition differentiating between the “greater and lesser jihad” is not included in any of the authoritative compilations of Hadith. In consequence, some Islamists dismiss it as inauthentic. Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, 116, 118.

18 Ibn Taymiyya is not a “neutral” observer. I have selected him as a source because he is the main authority of theological certainty for the Islamists. See, for example, how he is used in “The Neglected Duty,” a text written for purposes of internal discussion by Sadat’s assassins. Johannes J.G. Jansen, The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat’s Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East (Macmillan, 1986).

19 Increasingly jihad has come, among some Muslims, most especially Islamists, to be seen as an individual obligation, an obligation for all individuals. Traditionally jihad was an individual obligation when it was undertaken in defense of Muslim interests. Many Muslims have come to view actions against Western imperialism and regimes that do not implement shari’ah, regimes seen as implicated in Western imperialism, as defensive. “Fatwas concerning jihad have been published in great numbers in recent times. Generally they were to the effect that jihad had become an individual obligation (fard ‘ayn), because the enemy had invaded Islamic territory.” Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, 104.

20 The now classical arguments for this position, mandating jihad as necessary to spread Islamic control, are found in Maududi, Jihad in Islam, and Qutb, Milestones.

21 Juan Cole, “Al-Qaeda’s Doomsday Document and Psychological Manipulation,” presented at the Yale Center for Genocide Studies (April 9, 2003), http://www.juancole.com/essays/qaeda.htm (accessed January, 18 2004).

22 See, for example, Richard C. Martin, Islamic Studies: A History of Religions Approach (Prentice Hall, 1996 [1982]), 126.

23 “More than one Muslim author has suggested that Muhammad’s ‘illiteracy’ functions in Islamic theology much the way Mary’s virginity functions in Christianity. In neither case does the human being strive to initiate. In both instances, it is God who effects the wonder of sending His word into the world. For Christians, Mary is the medium for the Word made Flesh; for Muslims, Muhammad serves as the instrument by which the Word is made Book. The ‘Inlibration’ thus parallels the ‘Incarnation.’ ” Renard, Understanding the Islamic Experience, 29-30. “Muslims tend to read the Koran literally. They consider it the earthly facsimile of an Uncreated Koran in almost exactly the way that Christians consider Jesus to have been the human incarnation of God. The comparison that reads, ‘If Christ is God incarnate, the Koran is God inlibriate’ (from liber, Latin for book) is inelegant but not inaccurate. The created Koran is the instantiation, in letters and sounds, of the Koran’s limitless essence in its Uncreated Form.” Huston Smith, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (Harper, 1991 [1958]), 232.

24 It is, of course, correct that various forms of Christianity, including Catholicism, emphasize works as an instrument to salvation, as an instrument to God’s grace, and that salvation in Islam is through God’s grace and depends on correct beliefs. Even so, in Islam the expectation is that God’s justice will entail salvation for those who fulfill their obligations. In Christianity, the capacity to fulfill God’s obligations is compromised by original sin; faith in God, even when complemented by works, is the crucial variable evoking God’s mercy.

25 For an interesting discussion of this point, see Fazlur Rahman, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1984 [1982]).

26 “A Muslim has no country except that part of the earth where the Shari’ah of Allah is established and human relationships are based on the foundation of the relationship with Him. A Muslim has no nationality except his belief, which makes him a member of the Muslim community in dar-al-Islam.” Qutb, Milestones, 103.

27 “One major religious premise of Islamism is that ‘correct Islam’ cannot be practiced in the twentieth century except in the context of an Islamic political system. Therefore, one conspicuous goal of Islamic resurgence, especially its radical wing, is the establishment of an Islamic political regime.” Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi, Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World (State University of New York Press, 1996), 55. Islamists did not invent this presumption; its history extends to the roots of Islam. “The reconstruction of Islamic principles is also necessary because Islam’s original mission was to build a unique community endowed with a sense of justice and clear thinking, and it further aimed at liberating other people from the shackles of deviating worldviews and leaderships” (145).
 
Qutb puts it as follows: “‘whoever wishes to be a Muslim should know that he cannot devote himself to his practice of Islam except in a Muslim environment dominated by Islam. He is mistaken if he imagines that he can realize his Islam as an individual lost in the midst of a society ignorant of divine guidance’” (141, quoting Qutb).

28 S. Abul A’la Maududi, The Islamic Law and Constitution (Islamic Publications, 1992 [1955]), especially ch. 8.

29 “[A] Muslim cannot order his life according to the teachings of Islam under the authority of a non-Islamic system of government.” Maududi, Jihad in Islam, 18.

30 Syed Qutb, Milestones (IIslamic Book Service, 2002 [196-]), 61. If this seems strange, and it is, the reader might reflect on the U.S. Army’s policy on homosexuality.

31 This includes any positivist legal system, including democracies, where laws are man-made and not embedded in shari’ah.

32 Abul Ala Mawdudi, The Punishment of the Apostate According to Islamic Law (1994 [1942-3]; Translated by Syed Silas Husain and Ernest Hahn).

33 Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, 123. “Thus to Muhammad’s dictum rejecting monasticism, the clause was attached: ‘the rahbaniya of my community is the jihad (religious war)’ ” (128).

34 “In the internal history if Islamic movements we witness a continual struggle of sunna against bid’a, of intransigent traditionalism against the steady extension of the borders of tradition and the breaching of its original limits. This conflict persisted throughout the history of Islam, in both its dogmatic and legal development.” Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, 236-237. The “tradition” is, of course, (re)invented in contemporary circumstances.

35 H.A.R. Gibb, Modern Trends in Islam (University of Chicago Press, 1947), 25.

36 Mark Gould, Revolution in the Development of Capitalism: The Coming of the English Revolution (University of California Press, 1987), ch. 3. This distinction derives from the deviance literature, more specifically from the controversy between Cloward and Ohlin, who argued that there were deviant subcultures, where deviance was legitimated, and Matza, who argued that deviance was neutralized, excused, in subcultures of deviance.

37 This might be clearer if we think about the modernists, the supposed opponents of fundamentalism. “They [the modernists] set about critically separating fundamentals from historical accretions: the latter could be more easily sacrificed to the demands of civilization. On the other hand, they sensed the need to stand up as apologists of the fundamental doctrines of Islam, to defend them against the alien world view, to refute the accusation that the doctrines of Islam were contrary to civilization, and to demonstrate the adaptability of its precepts to all times and nations.” Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, 262; see also Rahman, Islam, 222. Both the modernists and the traditionalists retreated to what was fundamental to the tradition, to the Koran and the Sunna.

38 C. H. Becker, Christianity and Islam (Burt Franklin Reprints, 1974 [1909, 1907]), 50; Denny, Islam and the Muslim Community, 29.

39 C. Snouck Hurgronje, Islam [Mohammedanism]: Origin Religious and Political Growth and Its Present State (Mittal Publications, 1995 [1989, 1916]), 132.

40 Within the tradition ancillary actions that support the military front, like donating money and taking care of warriors’ families, count as jihad. Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, 119.