Jihad: A double-edged sword
From the first day the angel Gabriel came to the Prophet Muhammad to the moment you are now reading this blog post, there has never been a wide consensus on the meaning or application of the term “jihad.”
Every school of Islamic thought, author, scholar, violent extremist, and individual devotee differs on when and how to apply “jihad” even in its outward and violent materialization. While some liberal-leaning academics like Halim Rane (In Reconstructing Jihad Amid Competing International Norms, Palgrave MacMillan, 2009) come to an absolute conclusion that “jihad” is defensive and inherently peaceful in a modern context, al-Qaeda leaders come to an absolute conclusion that “jihad” is inherently offensive, violent, and limitless.
As further examples, Saudi Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdullah and the Imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca have denounced suicide bombings of innocents. Ninth-century scholar Muhammad al-Tabari interpreted the many verses on warfare in the Quran to mean that killings innocents is impermissible. But mainstream Muslims overwhelmingly believe that violent “jihad” is permissible and even necessary given the right circumstances such as with the Palestinian plight. And legendary violent extremist promoters such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anwar al-Awlaki, Sayyid Qutb, and Muhammad Abd-al-Salam Faraj believe that violent “jihad” is obligatory at all times under any circumstance. In short: there is no consensus on “jihad.” And there never has been.
Conclusions on Islamic law and warfare are also not as simple as dependence on scholarship (such as the mainstream scholarship from the four largest Sunni schools of law) versus literalist Salafi interpretation. Even within the schools of traditionalists, modernists, or literalists, Muslim scholars come to different conclusions on “jihad.”
This conclusion is a double-edged sword for governments and community leaders building counter-al-Qaeda narratives.
The idea that there has never been a consensus on “jihad” could be used to criticise al-Qaeda that it is overly and perhaps irreligiously confident in its particular view of “jihad.” In short, al-Qaeda certainty has no historical precedent.
But al-Qaeda could use the idea that there is no single consensus on “jihad” to conclude that it can define its own “jihad”—free of criticisms against al-Qaeda that claim al-Qaeda definition is wayward. Without precedent, perhaps al-Qaeda is free to define its own interpretation of laws of war.
The bottom line is that, just like Christian extremists and their opponents who cherry pick bible quotations, a counter-narrative campaign based solely on Islamic religious texts and past precedents may be stepping into a rhetorical quagmire.