John Brennan’s Polysemous Jihad

John Brennan’s Polysemous Jihad

Today there are many debates about the meaning of the Arabic word jihad.  Most recently John Brennan, White House adviser on terrorism, has  reiterated views which he had previously presented at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

Nor does President Obama see this challenge as a fight against jihadists. Describing terrorists in this way, using the legitimate term “jihad,” which means to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal, risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve.

Brennan is correct when he implies that jihad is a prestigious term in Islam.  To a pious Muslim, calling someone a jihadi has positive connotations. It is rather like calling them a ‘freedom fighter’ in English.

But he is quite mistaken when he implies that jihad does not mean fighting and killing others.

Jihad is a polysemous term: it has more than one meaning.  Technically it is derived from the root j.h.d which means ‘to strive, do one’s utmost’, so one of jihad‘s meanings is to struggle against something unpleasant. Islamic scholars, in technical discussions about the nature of this struggle, sometimes have referred to the devil, a physical enemy, or oneself.  However the default meaning of jihad came to be  ‘fight for Allah against non-Muslims’.  Hans Wehr’s great dictionary of Arabic defined it simply as ‘fight, battle … against the infidels, as a religious duty’ (p.142).

It is hardly news that words can have more than one meaning. For example here is part of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the word communion:

1. the sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings.
2. (also Holy Communion) the service of Christian worship at which bread and wine are consecrated and shared; the Eucharist.

Communion’s basic meaning has to do with sharing, but a secondary meaning exists which refers to the religious rite also known as the mass or the eucharist.

This is polysemy – the phenomenon that a word can have more than one meaning.  Anyone can easily think of other examples.  The existence of one meaning does not negate the other meanings.  For example, the Arabic word zakat means ‘purity’, but as a religious term it also is a name for an obligatory charitable tax. Paying this tax is one of the five pillars of Islam. It would be ridiculous to argue that zakat does not mean ‘tax’, just because it also means ‘purity’.

In Arabic, while it is true that jihad is derived from a root meaning ‘strive’, as a religious term,  it  came to have a meaning of warfare against infidels as early as the first decades of Islam.

This sense is defined by Lane’s great dictionary of classical Arabic, quoting from Muslim lexicographers, as: ‘he fought, warred or waged war against the unbelievers’. The same meaning is given in the glossary of Muhammad Muhsin Khan’s English translation of Sahih al-Bukhari (the 2nd most sacred text in Islam after the Quran):

Jihad: Holy fighting in the cause of Allah or any other kind of effort to make Allah’s Word (Islam) superior, which is regarded as one of the principles of Islam.

Note that, according to Khan, jihad can mean ‘any other kind of effort’, but its primary meaning, given first, is ‘holy fighting in the cause of Allah’.  These are not the glosses of Westerners or ‘Orientalists’ but the explanations of capable, well-trained and pious Muslim scholarss.

Centuries ago, the meaning of jihad as ‘fighting infidels’ was established as the default  meaning of the word, so much so, that when a pious Muslim speaks of a jihad against the devil, or a jihad against him or herself, this is like an English speakers saying that they are ‘fighting evil’ or ‘making war against their own desires’.

Evidence that warfare is the default meaning of jihad is that other meanings normally require a qualification, e.g. ‘jihad of the tongue’ is speaking out against evil.  As Firestone put it: “When the term is used without qualifiers … it is universally understood as war on behalf of Islam.” (Jihad: the origin of holy war in Islam, p.17)  The difference between jihad and jihad of the tongue is like the difference in English between warfare and psychological warfare.

It is indisputable that in Islamic jurisprudence the technical religious meaning of jihad is warfare against non-Muslims.  This is why the Book of Jihad in the Sahih al-Bukhari is all about fighting and killing non-believers. The same is true of any of the other canonical hadith collections. The jihad of the hadiths – the traditions of Muhammad – is not a struggle with oneself or to speak well.   Sahih al-Buhari‘s Book of Jihad is headed by a famous passage from Sura 9:111 of the Quran:

Verily Allah has purchased of the believers their lives and their properties; for theirs [in return for their lives] is Paradise. They fight in his cause, so they kill others and are killed.

Another hadith in the Book of Jihad of Al-Bukhari states ‘If you are called for fighting, go forth immediately.’

Countless orthodox Muslims writings have stated that jihad means warfare against non-Muslims to extend Islam and make it dominant.  Many Muslims are very aware of this meaning, and this is of course one reason why the terrorists have had a measure of success in recruiting volunteers.  Far from being ‘desperate’ for respectability, as Brennan claims Bin Ladin to be, Al Qa’ida  can count upon the great prestige of the military meaning of jihad.  This is one reason why Islamic terrorism is so hard to eradicate: the prestige of the concept of jihad gives fighting against infidels credibility.

When John Brennan declared recently that jihad is a ‘legitimate tenet of Islam’, he made a gross tactical error.  Purporting to protect the sensibilities of Muslims, he was in fact declaring the moral validity of religious warfare in Islam, for to say that jihad is legitimate it to endorse the right of Muslims to fight and kill to make Islam dominant in the world. This is, after all, what jihad means, according to the usage of so great Muslim scholars of past centuries, the plain teachings of Islam’s canonical texts, and the Islamic knowledge of many, if not all, Muslims today.

As I was preparing this, an Arabic-speaking friend suggested, by way of an experiment, to a few Muslim friends that jihad means purifying oneself, as Brennan claimed. One of the Muslims thought my friend had lost his mind; another thought he was joking; and a third declared that this a Western strategy to weaken Islam and disarm Muslims.

It is understandable that the American government wishes to avoid using terms which appear to give legitimacy to terrorists. But that does not mean they should be instructing the American people to respect the legitimacy of Islamic jihad, as Brennan appears to have done.

One must ask whose interests it serves to deny the traditional religious and militaristic meaning of the word jihad?

At one level, this is a ploy by Brennan to preserve two incompatible beliefs, both of which he fervently holds.  One is the belief that Islam is a respectable, ‘legitimate’ religion in all its fundamentals.  The other is the belief that no legitimate religion teaches violence as a means of extending its own power and influence. Yet one of these two beliefs must go.  Brennan could convert to Islam and give up the second belief, or allow himself to think less well of Islam and give up the first.  But wavering in the middle, insisting that others must respect Islam, yet denying one of its core tenets, just looks muddled.  It is also, ironically, deeply disrespectful and arrogant.

For the present day victims of jihad, Brennan’s statement are enough to make the blood boil.  His declaration of the legitimacy of jihad is unspeakably hurtful for the victims of the oppression of jihad in Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, the Philippines … the list of jihad hot spots goes on and on. How is burning worshipers inside a church pure, holy and legitimate? How is abducting women and Islamizing them through rape and forced marriage legitimate?  How is enslaving children legitimate? Let the Copts, the Christian and Mandean Iraqis, the animist and Christian Sudanese and the Christians of northern Nigeria, and the many Muslim victims too — who all know with absolute clarity that what they have suffered from is jihad – let these hundreds of thousands of victims prosecute Brennan for inciting religious hatred and endorsing murder, rape and enslavement.

If John Brennan’s cognitive confusion and crippled, sub-rational religious world view give opportunity to denial to roost in his mind,  this is not the only cause of the problem. Another root of his denial is propaganda: Mr Brennan has been schooled into his beliefs by Muslim dialogue partners.  His denial has been carefully cultivated to lull and soothe him into a state of confused comfort about the teachings of Islam, despite the existence of overwhelming and irrefutable evidence to the contrary. This tactic disempowers resistance to the worst aspects of Islam, and brings  strategic advantages to the project of dawa, or propagation of Islam.  It also allows  Muslims to be molly-coddled protecting them from having to face up to the ethical problems inherent in Islam’s teachings.

It ought to be a public scandal that a world religion has always taught and still teaches the use of violence to extend its power.  One does not need to  attend an Al Qa’ida training camp to hear this view promoted: a visit to the classrooms of Al-Azhar University or countless other Islamic higher institutions of learning around the world would suffice.  In place after place, jihad as religious war against the infidel remains a cherished part of the religious curriculum.  The word jihad stands for a doctrine of classical, orthodox Islam, that Muslims have the divine right to impose Islam’s dominance by force of arms.

John Brennan’s Orwellian semantic whitewashing of a word whose meaning has been a stable building block of  Islamic theology, jurisprudence and practice for over 1000 years is a transparent attempt at thought-control.  The point of this linguistic sleight of hand is to suppress the possibility of engagement with the truth, but without removing the root of the problem.  This only postpones the critical and painful self-examination which the Muslim world so desperately needs to undergo.  For Americans is it manifestly suicidal, weakening their ability to defend themselves against global jihad.  How can such a great nation as America have stooped to such abysmal depths of incompetence and moral failure?

A better strategy for John Brennan and the White House is to throw a spotlight upon Al Qa’ida and their ilk by terming them jihadists and Islamic terrorists.  This is not in order to attempt to make Al Qa’ida look prestigious. Infidel America should not imagine it has such a great influence on the minds of Muslims.  If a young Muslim in Pakistan is trying to work out what jihad really means, will he listen to the non-believer John Brennan or the authentic words of Muhammad in the prestigious Sahih al-Bukhari?  Surely the latter.  As Abu Qatada said, in response to President Bush’s now famous “Islam is peace” line:

I am astonished by President Bush when he claims there is nothing in the Quran that justifies jihad violence in the name of Islam. Is he some kind of Islamic scholar? Has he ever actually read the Quran?

The point of calling Al Qa’ida jihadists would be to draw attention to the religious aspects of the terrorists’ ideology.  Far from raising the esteem of Bin Ladin in the eyes of the Muslim world, this would put pressure on Muslims to engage critically with Al Qa’ida’s ideology, denounce it, and distance themselves from it.

In practice, what is needed is for Pakistan to cut off the life-blood of terrorist recruitment by suppressing the teaching of jihad as part of the mainstream Islamic curriculum in its madrassahs.  Islamic universities, high schools, primary school and pre-schools all over the world need to excise this dogma from the current emphasis it receives in so many programs.  The many verses of the Quran and traditions of Muhammad which refer to jihad as warfare cannot be erased from the Islam’s core foundational texts, but they can made less prominent in young people’s minds.

The Muslim world should be placed under pressure to ban jihad from the curriculum.  The Palestinian Authority would be a good place to start. It is a terrible irony that the PA, funded generously in part by the US, passes on this very ideology to its children which John Brennan claims has no status in Islam. The very administration which he serves is paying millions for militant jihad to be spoon-fed to Muslim children on the West Bank.

No matter how many times John Brennan asserts that jihad is a pure, holy and legitimate part of Islam, its continued presence in the curriculum of Muslim young people around the world remains a threat to America’s security.  Instead of sugar-coating the word jihad, so that its baleful yet prestigious influence can continue under the negligent eye of myopic non-Muslims governments, the White House should be asking that the heritage and legacy of this word be brought into the light, interrogated, permitted to be contested, and, for the good of all, unequivocally rejected.

[PS Despite the comparison made earlier, calling terrorists jihadists is not equivalent to calling terrorists ‘freedom fighters’, for the institution of jihad does not bring freedom.  Jihad is not simply a struggle for justice.  It is a struggle for the dominance of Islam over other faiths, or as the Quran puts it:

He [Allah] it is Who hath sent His messenger [Muhammad] with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may cause it to triumph over all religion. … (Sura 48:28)

There is in fact no word in the English language which encompasses  both the religious prestige of jihad and its oppressive totalitarian implications.]

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.

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