Historical Revisionism

I think regular readers know that I am not one to see Islamic terrorists hiding under every rock.  In fact, I am not sure I have written a single post on the current state of Islam or ties to terrorism.  I don't see the world primarily in terms of some great culture war with Islam.  Certainly a number of fundamentalist Islamic states suck in terms of human rights, and some of that is probably due to ties with Islam, but many other states suck nearly as much without any Muslim help.

That being said, I must say as someone interested in history that this argument from Dr. Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub of Berkeley, as reported from the Canadian human rights tribunal by Andrew Coyne, strains credulity:

What is jihad? Article equates it with Al Qaeda: fighting,
suicide bombing etc. But word actually means, originally, "to strive,
to do one's best." Koranic sense is that religious struggle we must all
engage in within our souls against evil tendencies. There is also
"social jihad," the obligation to change things that are wrong. This does not mean violence. The Koran is not a book of violence.

The notion of armed struggle, or violent jihad, is
mentioned in the Koran. "Permission has been given to those who have
been wronged only because they say God is our lord that they fight in
self-defence." (Sura 22.) So jihad is not limited to fighting "” it's just one type of jihad,
and should only be done in self-defence. The extremist, violent types
are an anomaly. "They are more a problem for us than for the west."

I have no problem with modern folks interpreting the Koran in this way for themselves.  But this is absurd from a historical context.  This portrayal of jihad as a sort of peaceful civil rights movement may be how moderate Muslims want to make the Koran relevant to their modern life, but it is outrageous in the historic context of if the 7th century.  People of all faiths in this era didn't have sit-ins to correct social wrongs -- they gathered up their friends and some swords and went out to try to chop up the folks who did them wrong.  Muhammad was a brilliant military leader, uniting disparate Arab tribes out of nowhere to carve out a huge part of the western world as their empire.  His (and his successors') achievement is roughly equivalent to an unknown set of tribes suddenly bursting out of the Amazon and taking over modern North America.

The concept of jihad as originally applied in the 7th and 8th centuries was bloody and militaristic -- and effective.  So much so that the Catholics copied many of the key parts for their crusades.  The 7th century was a totally different world in its outlook and assumptions.  Here is one example:  We have heard many times of the slave revolts in Rome, and most of us have seen Spartacus.  But not a single person in the 1000 years of the Roman empire, slave or not, is recorded to have ever advocated the elimination of slavery.  They may have wanted to be free themselves, or treated better, but everyone accepted the institution of slavery even while trying not to be a slave themselves.  We, with our 19th century anti-slavery movement, see the slave revolts of Rome as something they simply were not.  I believe a similar revisionism is at work here on jihad.

All that being said, I have no opinion on whether or not the militaristic concept of jihad animates any substantial number of modern Muslims or not.  I simply am not well enough informed, and currently find it hard to find any text discussing this issue that is trustworthy on either side.

Postscript:  It is true that the Muslims showed special respect in their lands to Jews and Christians  - in part for religious reasons and in part for practical reasons related to special taxes.  The Spain of three religions under Muslim rule was certainly more dynamic and tolerant than the counter-reformation Catholic Spain.  But this fact does not obviate the militaristic origins of jihad.  Islam respected Christians and Jews .... in the lands where the Muslims had taken over and ruled. Where Muslims did not yet rule but wanted to, all bets were off.


  1. Mesa Econoguy:

    This is actually a bit more than revisionist.

    See here.

    It is yet another example of left-wing academic rationalization of violent intolerance, much of which they incite.

  2. Flatland:

    Actually, Muslims are tolerant of other relgions, but the people following other religions are obligated to give up some of their rights. Prosletizing (as an example) is very illegal. Bernard Lewis talks about this significantly in his books.

  3. Corky Boyd:

    "But word actually means, originally, “to strive, to do one’s best.”"

    And "wax him" from a mobster means to depiliate.

    Context has a lot to do with meanings. Everyone knows what jihad means, as we know what wax him means.

  4. ArtD0dger:

    Whatever other meanings "jihad" may have had in the past, it is now as ugly and offensive to non-muslims as the worst racial slur. I have often thought that we will know we are facing animosity and not reciprocity so long as Muslims like Dr. Ayoub keep offering up this sort of condescending rubbish.

  5. Bob Smith:

    Muslims show "special respect" for Jews and Christians only in the sense that, as "People of the Book", they usually weren't subject to immediate execution by their conquerors (the Jews of Khaybar aside). Otherwise, the dhimma can be called "respect" only in the same sense that a mobster's offer of security in return for cash can be called "protection". Amusingly, Muslims often refer to the dhimma as a "contract of protection between the Muslims and the People of the Book", apparently unaware of the Mafia connotations of the phrase (which the Mafia itself probably copied from the Islamic conquerors of Sardinia, Palermo, and Sicily).

  6. James Barlow:

    "Flatland's" comment above is right on the mark. Another obvious comparison is to the English word "crusade".

    In the 11-12th century, a Crusade was pretty much taken to mean doing the Lord's work by nipping down to the Holy Land and killing anything that moves (as it happens the first crusades were quite happy to fight Christians as well as Muslims).

    The contemporary Evangelical movement (e.g Billy Graham) also uses the word Crusade but their approach is considerably more peaceful.

    You can argue that the latter form is the "real" meaning of crusade if you want, but if a guy on horseback covered in chain mail and waving a big sword starts galloping directly toward you, then waving a dictionary at him is unlikely to lead to a positive outcome.

  7. Bird Dog:

    Just a historical note: The Crusades began after Islamic armies invaded and conquered the Holy Land, thus preventing the traditional European pilgrimages to Jerusalem. The Pope wanted the Holy Land re-opened to pilgrims. The Crusades were, in that sense, battles of liberation.

  8. Rob:

    Indeed jihad was very militaristic in the 7th century, however, the major historical revision that we are all taught is that the crusades were proactive, but in fact they were reacting to the jihadists. Maybe this view is not taught because it would undermine the great religion of peace, since it's very existence is based upon uniting Arab tribes for war against unbelievers and sinners. I guess there can be Peace through War. Peace ... as long as everyone is submitting to Allah and the ways of the Koran, otherwise JIHAAAADDDDDDDD!

  9. Mark Alger:

    And I suppose the concepts of hudna and taqiyya are -- what? -- replenishment and little white lies?

    Give. Me. A. Break.


  10. ettubloge:

    Funny, that when a people choose martyrdom over prosperity, a grand after-life to pursuit of personal material betterment, death to the infidel over trade, in a world where borders, mountains and oceans provide no barrier, aren't the options of peaceful negotiation or "isolationism" illusory.

    Can one remain ignorant of an imminent danger, enjoy the fruits of other's protective acts and remain ethical? Sherman called it "bottled piety (thanks to Victor Hanson for the reference).

  11. dearieme:

    It's a mistake to suppose that crusades were always directed at Muslims. The crusade against the Albigensians in the South of France was simply Roman Catholics slaughtering "heretics". It's also a mistake to take the Muslim accounts of Muslim Spain uncritically: there was at least one pogrom of Jews.

  12. noahpoah:

    Is it really so hard to believe that the 'jihad' has more than one meaning?

  13. noahpoah:

    Oops. That should read "Is it really so hard to believe that the word 'jihad' has more than one meaning?

  14. Robert the Bruce:

    Beyond an understanding of jihad, one must have an understanding of the Islamic view of the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dar_al-harb

    The "House of War" means any place where Islamists feel they cannot practice their religion freely-- ie: any place where Shari'a is not the law of the land.

    Thus they find a justification in waging war until the whole world become Dar as-Salam. By extension, this justifies any means of waging this war, no matter how atrocious. Thus, the bombing of school buses, the crashing of airliners into buildings, etc. etc.