This is the seventh in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad and Islam. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.
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QUESTION #7 – WHAT IS RADICAL ISLAM?
IN 1950 AN EGYPTIAN literary critic with refined sensibilities and a toothbrush moustache moved into a sleepy town in northern Colorado. The America he encountered, seen through the lens of post-colonial tumult and his devout Islamic upbringing, ultimately transformed Sayyid Quth into the father of radical Islam.
THE BIRTH OF RADICAL ISLAM
As Qureshi covered in his answers to Questions 4 and 6, the first Muslims were launched into a trajectory of global warfare with no clearly delineated endpoint. There was an expectation of Muslim domination that would be the result of faithful practice of Islam, including endeavors of jihad, which the Qur’an enjoins upon all good Muslims. The salaf exemplified obedience with their devotion and their conquests. In return, Allah blessed them with the Golden Age of Islam. At the risk of overgeneralizing, this common understanding of Islam boils down to this: True obedience to Allah will result in Muslim dominance.
The first cracks in Muslim dominance appeared in the mid-1700s, when Muslims like Ibn al-Wahhab and Shah Waliullah noticed that Christian lands were progressing into what would become the Industrial Revolution. They began to ask themselves how it could be that Muslims might lose dominance, given the promises of the Qur’an. Hundreds of years later, these questions would drive the development of radical Islam. For the time begin, though, the Muslims remained dominant over the vast territories that they had colonized.
The irony is that colonizing imperatives of Islam were put to an end by European colonialism. By 1920, every region of the Muslim world that Europeans desired was either directly or indirectly under European control. The foundational doctrines of Islam predicated upon Muslim superiority were not moot, and it became necessary to redefine jihad in the guise of anti-colonialist angst.
Abu al-Ala al-Maududi, a highly acclaimed Muslim scholar from the Indian subcontinent, attempted to redefine jihad in his 1930 work Jihad in Islam. As he was eager to denounce European colonialists for their rule over his homeland, he was obligated to explain how jihad was not a colonialist endeavor. Against the consensus of early Muslim jurists, he argued that jihad was not an effort to conquer lands, but rather a sincere desire of Muslims that they had loved. It was through jihad that non-Muslims were able to encounter Islam. In other words mujahideen were not colonialists, but liberators and freedom fighters.
One of the men Maududi influenced was Sayyid Quth. Unlike Maududi, Qutb was not an apologist, and his writings are devoid of guile. Having spent a few years as a student in the United States, Qutb was repelled by Western society. Even though he had lived in a sleepy town in northern Colorado that was prudish by most American standards, he was horrified by American culture. He saw Americans as ill-bred, brutish and savage. Their music was little short of screaming, their art was unsophisticated, and they were altogether numb to spiritual values. By contrast, he viewed the Arab world as brimming with Old World refinement and grace, especially when it came to higher matters of morality and spirituality. This enlightened condition he attributed to the blessings of Islam. America, by contrast, existed in a state of ignorance.
As the tendrils of the West were beginning to influence Arab politics, especially after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of Israel, the expansive resources of America and its influence in world politics concerned Qutb tremendously. He saw Egypt falling to the barbarous power of the West.
Upon returning to Egypt, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that had recently been developed with the intent of starting an Islamic revival and returning to the study of the Qur’an and hadith. He quickly became the Brotherhood’s most dominant intellectual figure, infusing it with his thoughts and perspectives, until Gamal Abd al-Nasir’s regime arrested him along with most of the Brotherhood’s leadership. Qutb was humiliated, tortured, and ultimately executed under false charges by a government that was, indeed, increasingly coming under the influence of the West. Because of the way the government treated him, many Muslims hailed him as a hero and a martyr for his message.
What was that message? Qutb believed Islam was the answer the world needed, but nowhere was it being practiced according to the principles of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life. The world was in disarray because democracy reigned in the West and communism in East. Muslim rulers were courting these foreign governments and modern principles, abandoning Sharia and making themselves apostates. This is important to grasp: Qutb saw the leaders of Muslim countries as hypocrites and apostates, no longer following Islam. They were a large part of the problem. If Muslims would follow the original, pure Islam, Allah would bless all the Muslims, the ummah, and return them to dominance. Muslims must thus raze centuries of compiled Islamic tradition and return to the teachings of Muhammad and the Qur’an.
Qutb maintained a consistent approach to jihad, returning to the foundations of Islam for guidance. Jihad ought to progress in stages, just as it did in Muhammad’s life. One should start by peacefully proclaiming Islam, then engaging in limited warfare, then exacting retribution for injustices against the Islamic community, and finally launching in warfare without end against the non-Muslim world. However, under the influence of Maududi, Qutb envisioned jihad as a liberation of the non-Muslim’s mind, ensuring that the non-Muslim is able to hear and consider the message of Islam, something that may not happen unless jihad is waged.
Qutb’s martyrdom fanned his popularity among Egyptians, even though many Arabs also maintained hopes that modernization would benefit their nations as it had the Soviet Union and the West. When Israel decimated the Arab coalition of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria during the Six Days War of 1967, these hopes were dashed, and many more Arabs began to sympathize with Qutb’s view. President Anwar al-Sadat’s negotiations with Israel a decade later added fuel to this fire, confirming in the minds of many Arabs that their leaders had betrayed Muslims and become apostates.
In light of this background, it becomes more understandable why Sadat was murdered in 1981. After his assassination, investigators recovered a document authored by Abd al-Salam Faraj. Faraj built on the foundation laid by Qutb by saying that Muslim leaders had become apostates, and Muslims needed to return to a pure form of Islam, but he espoused a more historically accurate notion of jihad: When Muslims fight non-Muslims, Allah will bless them and given them territory where they will be able to establish an Islamic state and reintroduce the caliphate. There, Islam could be practiced in the pure form that apostate Muslim governments were neglecting. Faraj went so far in denouncing Muslim governments as apostate that he equated them with Israel. Their proclaimed allegiance to Islam was just a veneer, in his view, designed to gain the support of Muslims and actualize their un-Islamic aims. According to Faraj, Muslim leaders were actually rebels against Sharia.
TAKFIR AND MUSLIM-ON-MUSLIM VIOLENCE
Faraj treaded a dangerous road, one that alienated him from many would-be sympathizers. Historically, Muslims had maintained a generous approach to takfir, the practice of proclaiming someone an infidel. According to tradition, Muhammad declared that reciting the shahada was enough to consider someone Muslim; whether they were lying or not would be decided by God on judgment day. Qutb’s declaration of leaders’ apostasy, amplified significantly by Faraj, swung the door open wide for internecine hostilities among Muslims. But where was the line to be drawn? At what point could someone be declared non-Muslim?
This was new ground, and Faraj and his ilk ultimately settled on three nebulous criteria: an open manifestation of unbelief; ignoring the implementation of Sharia; and, a refusal to engage in jihad for the defense of the ummah. When all three of these criteria were fulfilled, a leader or a regime could be considered non-Muslim. Fighting against them for the sake of Islam would then be a legitimate jihad, and the aid of Allah could be expected. Qureshi said, “I have frequently encountered the misconception that if Muslims are fighting other Muslims, their grievances must not be religious. After all, they are fighting others ‘on the same side.'” Understanding Faraj’s and others’ radical approach to takfir should clarify this misconception. Muslim-on-Muslim violence can have everything to do with religion.
Surprisingly, the archetype of takfir is found in the Qur’an. The Qur’an regularly accuses Muslims of being hypocrites if they are less than zealous in their obedience. Although the Qur’an usually suggests that Allah will be the one to punish hypocrites on the day of judgment, one verse is frankly contrary, correlating hypocrites to non-Muslims: “O Prophet, strive against the disbelievers and hypocrites, and be harsh with them. Their abode is hell” (9:73). The word for strive is jihad, and here we find a potential Qur’anic basis for Muslim-on-Muslim violence.
If we consider the words of the founders of the movement, radical Islam was born out of a frustration with the political inferiority of modern Muslim nations to Western and Eastern superpowers, especially in light of the Qur’anic promise that Allah will grant victory to those who strive for him. Radical Muslims believe another Golden Age awaits Muslims who are devoted to following the true teachings of Islam, and they are zealous to bring this about and see the glory of Islam restored.
Radical Islam, then, grows out of an understanding that the average expression of Islam today is too far removed from the teachings of Muhammad and the Qur’an. Adherents often consider moderate Muslims to be apostates because of their lack of zeal for the original teachings of Islam, and the Qur’an lays the foundation for undertaking jihad against these hypocritical Muslims. But to fully grasp what radical Islam is, we need to answer another common question: Does Islam need a reformation?
Thanks for reading.
Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #8 – Does Islam need a Reformation? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.