The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 11, 2002

Penetrating treatise on the concept of jehad
D.R. Chaudhry

Islam and Jihad
by A.G. Noorani. Left Word Books, N. Delhi. Pages XII+16.Rs 75.

Islam and JihadJEHAD as a concept has contributed a great deal in demonising Islam in the modern times. It fires the imagination of Islamic fundamentalists and prompts them to make any sacrifice for the cause they happen to espouse at a particular juncture and evokes passionate opposition and intense hatred among those who are on the other side of the fence. The terrorist attacks of September 11 last year shook the USA out of its complacency and since then it has been carrying on a systematic war against jehadis all over the world. The final outcome of this is yet to be seen.

What is jehad? What is fatwa? What is Islamic fundamentalism? A.G. Noorani, a noted scholar and legal expert, an ardent supporter of secularism and a passionate opponent of religious fundamentalism of any kind, Muslim or Hindu, has tried to answer such questions in a logical manner in this slim volume.

Written in simple prose, the book under review is aimed at correcting wrong notions about Islam in the minds of non-Muslims as well as Muslims. The author has laid bare the western misconceptions about Islam as well as the dogged refusal of Islamic fundamentalists to reflect on the essence of Islam and its abiding relevance to our times. The book is all the more welcome at a time when an attempt is being made by some powerful sections to treat the clarion call of jehadis like Osama bin Laden and his cohorts as the true meaning of Islam. Their task has been facilitated by the Islamic fundamentalists themselves, who have launched a systematic crusade in different parts of the world to shape Islam as per their self-conceived vision supported by a fanatical zeal.


The dark face of Islam was first of all projected by an American ideologue, Samuel P. Huntington in his well known, albeit controversial, book Clash of Civilisations, which was an elaboration of his thesis first published in the well-known journal Foreign Affairs in July, 1993. In this thesis, Huntington treated the clash between Islam and the West as fundamental and irreconcilable. It is a clash between two world views, two civilisations. He found Islam incompatible with democracy and modernity and treated it as a threat to the pluralistic, democratic and liberative ethos of western culture.

Needless to say, this is gross oversimplification, rather blatant distortion, a tendency to see things in black and white. Formation of culture and growth of civilisations is a complex phenomenon and cannot be reduced to a set of stereotypes. Different civilisations interact with one another and each one gets enriched in the process. There is no in-built, inherent discord between two civilisations. Islam has borrowed heavily from Greek, Indian and other civilisations and, in the process, has contributed a lot to humanity, including the West, in the fields of medicine, geometry, algebra, music, architecture, theology, etc.

Jehad has been erroneously treated as synonymous with warfare, a no-holds barred crusade against infidels, the non-believers. The author quotes a well-known saying of Prophet Mohammed: "The highest form of jehad is to speak the truth in the face of an unjust ruler". The word ‘jehad’ simply means ‘to exert’ and ijtihad is exertion of the intellect and is a recognised source of Islamic law, the Sharia. In spiritual terms, it is a battle against sin and forces of evil in one’s life. This has been termed as "the greater jehad". As applied to the worldly realm, it is the righteous warfare, a struggle for justice and this has been called the "lesser Jehad". As per a well-known Hadith, Prophet Mohammed attached utmost importance to the ‘greater jehad’, mankind’s spiritual struggle against evil. It is an internal struggle aimed at overcoming one’s animal side and tendencies. The ‘lesser jehad’ makes it incumbent on a Muslim to fight back in case he is attacked. It is a fight in self-defence and every religion permits it, including Islam. Compassion is an important tenet of Islam. The Prophet has said that he is not a Muslim who eats his fill when his neighbour goes hungry.

There is, however, no place for compassion in the type of jehad being indulged in by the financial fringe of the Muslim community the world over. It is terrorism, plain and simple, that consumes the lives of many innocent beings. Islam has been projected as a religion of sword used for forcible conversions. However, an important Koranic ordinance proclaims, "There shall be no coercion in matters of faith", thus prohibiting forcible conversions of non-believers. This humane face of Islam has been obliterated by some Muslim rulers, concedes the author, and their barbarous acts were legtimised by "the pen of a mufti and the sword of a general". This distorted image of Islam, as presented by Aurangzeb in case of India, is projected deliberately as the true face of Islam by fanatics owing allegiance to other religions like Hinduism, Judaism or Christianity to serve their own ends.

Like jehad the concept of fatwa has also been distorted. The author makes it clear that a fatwa is not an edict issued by a cleric, it is a mere legal opinion. The Encyclopaedia of Islam defines fatwa as "a formal legal opinion given by a mufti". Though Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 was not upheld by several Islamic jurists of repute, yet no one bothered about their opinion and Rushdie had to lead a terror-stricken life for many years.

The book under review is a concise and penetrating treaties on the concept of jehad in Islam and it dispels many wrong notions. In our present communally surcharged milieu such a book is all the more welcome. There is an urgent need to present the true face of every religion. The necessity is all the more pressing in case of Hinduism since the Sangh Parivar blatantly claims to be the sole repository of insights into Hinduism.