Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practice

jihad_in_islamic_historyJihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practice, Michael Bonner (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2006), 224 pp.

Reviewed by Lewis Brownstein, Ph.D., Professor of International Relations, State University of New York-New Paltz

The concept of jihad has been the subject of much debate and confusion in recent years, especially since September 11, 2001.  At one extreme are the Islamists insisting that jihad is the sixth pillar of Islam and using it to justify a movement that glorifies violence and terror.  The clearest expression of this was in February 1998 when Osama bin Laden and his supporters, under the banner of the World Islamic Front, issued a statement named “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.” In their statement, they claimed inspiration and justification from the Quran, quoting liberally from it.  Many within the Islamic world and elsewhere concluded that bin Laden’s interpretation of jihad was the traditional interpretation and that jihad and “holy war” were essentially synonymous terms.  At the other extreme are those (e.g. Oriana Fallaci and Robert Spencer) who assert that jihad, defined by violence and war, is the essence of Islam itself.  After reading Professor Michael Bonner’s Jihad in Islamic History it is clear that both these extremes are fundamentally flawed caricatures.  If his book does nothing more than dispel these notions, Bonner’s book will have made a significant contribution to our understanding of one of the major disputes of our time.  Happily, the book does a good deal more than that.

Bonner has written a very useful synthesis of the literature concerning jihad.  Anyone wishing to place the current debate about jihad in its historical context could not find a better place to start.  While he makes his own opinions known when discussing the many controversies in the literature, one of his major contributions is to identify the competing schools of thought and analysis on the topics he examines.  He also appends an annotated list of suggested readings to the end of each chapter in an effort to guide the reader in further research.  His suggestions will be of particular use to those who lack extensive background in the topics he covers.

Through his analysis, Bonner concludes that jihad as a concept and practice evolved over a many centuries and is still undergoing change and that while jihad may have its roots in the events and documents of Muhammed’s time, the various doctrines of jihad first emerged many years after his death.  Furthermore, there are multiple and competing definitions of jihad including “Real Jihad” vs. “mere” fighting, external vs. internal jihad, collective and individual jihad.  Bonner examines the crucial role Islamic scholars have played in the evolution of the concept of jihad and there are major differences of opinion among them, as well as the different definitions and practices of jihad in Sunni as opposed to Shia Islam.

In addition to examining the evolution of jihad, Bonner discusses why jihad does not constitute the sole essence of Islam itself.  He also details the two complementary themes of “reciprocity and generosity” on the one hand and “reward and striving” on the other.  Both of these together act synergistically in Islamic tradition.  Finally, he shows how contemporary “Islamists” or “Islamic radicals” who have made violence against civilians and other Muslims the centerpiece of their doctrines and suicide bombings the tactic of choice “…have little basis in older Islamic practice and doctrine, especially in the Sunni world.”

In his analysis of the nature of war and war fighting in Islamic thinking, Bonner makes clear that a sophisticated series of doctrines have evolved.  These constitute what amounts to an Islamic theory of just war and they bear close study.  While this review cannot do the discussion justice, a few observations are in order.  War and war fighting have been central themes from the beginning in the Quran and the Hadith.  Over the course of many centuries and through different empires and states, Islamic doctrines of war have changed dramatically.  Not all these wars were fought in the name of jihad.  That concept developed over centuries.  The doctrines of war include precepts concerning why wars are fought; how the enemy is to be defined and treated; who may lead the community into battle; and how martyrdom is achieved.  In this sense, Islam has a theory of just war paralleling that which has emerged in the Christian world.  While the two traditions are different, it would appear that they have many aspects in common.

At a time in history when there is a crucial struggle for the soul of the Islamic world, Bonner has provided a road map for scholars and students alike attempting to make sense of the myriad of competing claims.  This is a welcome addition to the literature on jihad indeed.

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