Books: Understanding Jihad

by | Jul 9, 2005

Cook's achievement lies in tracing the evolution of jihad from Muhammad to Osama, following how the concept has changed through fourteen centuries.

In his just-released, absorbing, and excellent book, Understanding Jihad (University of California Press), David Cook of Rice University dismisses the low-grade debate that has raged since 9/11 over the nature of jihad – whether it is a form of offensive warfare or (more pleasantly) a type of moral self-improvement.Mr. Cook dismisses as “bathetic and laughable” John Esposito’s contention that jihad refers to “the effort to lead a good life.” Throughout history and at present, Mr. Cook definitively establishes, the term primarily means “warfare with spiritual significance.”

His achievement lies in tracing the evolution of jihad from Muhammad to Osama, following how the concept has changed through fourteen centuries. This summary does not do justice to Cook’s extensive research, prolific examples, and thoughtful analysis, but even a thumbnail sketch suggests jihad’s evolution.

The Koran invites Muslims to give their lives in exchange for assurances of paradise.

The Hadith (accounts of Muhammad’s actions and personal statements) elaborate on the Koran, providing specific injunctions about treaties, pay, booty, prisoners, tactics, and much else. Muslim jurisprudents then wove these precepts into a body of law.

During his years in power, the prophet engaged in an average of nine military campaigns a year, or one every five to six weeks; thus did jihad help define Islam from its very dawn. Conquering and humiliating non-Muslims was a main feature of the prophet’s jihad.

During the first several centuries of Islam, “the interpretation of jihad was unabashedly aggressive and expansive.” After the conquests subsided, non-Muslims hardly threatened and Sufi notions of jihad as self-improvement developed in complement to the martial meaning.

The Crusades, the centuries-long European effort to control the Holy Land, gave jihad a new urgency and prompted what Cook calls the “classical” theory of jihad. Finding themselves on the defensive led to a hardening of Muslim attitudes.

The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century subjugated much of the Muslim world, a catastrophe only partially mitigated by the Mongols’ nominal conversion to Islam. Some thinkers, Ibn Taymiya (d. 1328) in particular, came to distinguish between true and false Muslims; and to give jihad new prominence by judging the validity of a person’s faith according to his willingness to wage jihad.

Nineteenth century “purification jihads” took place in several regions against fellow Muslims. The most radical and consequential of these was the Wahhabis’ jihad in Arabia. Drawing on Ibn Taymiya, they condemned most non-Wahhabi Muslims as infidels (kafirs) and waged jihad against them.

European imperialism inspired jihadi resistance efforts, notably in India, the Caucasus, Somalia, Sudan, Algeria, and Morocco, but all in the end failed. This disaster meant new thinking was needed.

Islamist new thinking began in Egypt and India in the 1920s but jihad acquired its contemporary quality of radical offensive warfare only with the Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966). Qutb developed Ibn Taymiya’s distinction between true and false Muslims to deem non-Islamists to be non-Muslims and then declare jihad on them. The group that assassinated Anwar El-Sadat in 1981 then added the idea of jihad as the path to world domination.

The anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan led to the final step (so far) in this evolution. In Afghanistan, for the first time, jihadis assembled from around the world to fight on behalf of Islam. A Palestinian, Abdullah Azzam, became the theorist of global jihad in the 1980s, giving it an unheard-of central role, judging each Muslim exclusively by his contribution to jihad, and making jihad the salvation of Muslims and Islam. Out of this quickly came suicide terrorism and bin Laden.

Mr. Cook’s erudite and timely study has many implications, including these:

  • The current understanding of jihad is more radical than at any prior time in Islamic history.
  • This “extremism” suggests that the Muslim world is going through a phase, one that must be endured and overcome, comparable to analogously horrid periods in Germany, Russia, and China.
  • Jihad having evolved steadily until now, doubtless will continue to do so in the future.
  • The excessive form of jihad currently practiced by Al-Qaeda and others could, Mr. Cook semi-predicts, lead to its “decisive rejection” by a majority of Muslims.

The great challenge for moderate Muslims (and their non-Muslim allies) is to make that rejection come about, and with due haste.

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and a columnist for both the New York Post and The Jerusalem Post. His website,, offers an archive of his published writings and a si

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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