Section One: Historical Contextualization
One modern interpretation of the entire issue of jihad deals with historical contextualization: in other words, jihad in its times, places, circumstances, conditions, and other elements of its context in history. Such efforts attempt to study why jihad was waged when it was waged, why what was done was done, what changes from time to time and why and how, and so on.
One may thus divide jihad by force into four distinct periods:
1. Jihad under Muhammad
2. Wars of conquest
3. Rise of modern politics
4. Modern terrorist jihad
1. Jihad under Muhammad
This includes the many campaigns waged by Muhammad, by Muhammad’s command, and during Muhammad’s lifetime. This period ends with his death. The purpose of these wars was to unite the Arabs under the banner of Islam.
Some believe that in Islam is revealed a unique set of mandates that pertain only to the Arabian lands. One of these is the extermination of non-Muslims. In other words, only Muslims may live in the Arab lands. Obeying this mandate, Muhammad and the Muslims fought to convert or conquer the Arabs.
(There are reasons to believe that the purpose of these efforts may not have been made clear. When Muhammad died, many Arab tribes reclaimed their independence and sovereignty. They viewed their participation in Muhammad’s state as a personal union with Muhammad as ruler. When Muhammad died, that bond was broken and there remained no reason to accept another’s rule over them. The senior Muslims disagreed: they did not join Muhammad’s state but, rather, the Islamic state, and as Muslims were obligated to remain therein. Massive campaigns were launched to convert and conquer the rebellious tribes.)
2. Wars of Conquest
After Muhammad’s death (and the reunification of the Arabs under the Islamic state), massive campaigns were undertaken to expand the borders of the Islamic state. Under the first caliphs, Muslim armies poured out and conquered large areas of land.
This phase continued for many centuries as Muslim rulers attempted to expand the borders of the Islamic empire and as they attempted to regain lands seized by rivals.
3. The Rise of the Infidels
As the Islamic rapidly rose, it came to its fall quite abruptly. Its constant attempts to conquer the infidels, particularly Christian Europe, yielded concerted efforts by the infidels to resist Islamic expansion and to overthrow Islam’s yoke from Christian lands.
The key here is “concerted” (or, better, “organized”). Centuries before, the Crusades were launched to protect the Christian Byzantine empire from invading Muslims. While it worked for a while, the divided nature of the various European rulers ultimately led to the failure of the Crusades and the conquest of the Middle East by the Muslims.
In this period, jihad took on a different tone: defending Muslim lands from the infidels. And this was so because the Muslims had become unable to invade or conquer and were reduced to preserving what they still held. They had immense difficulty prevailing against European military and technological superiority.
But with the rise of the infidels came also the rise of popular empowerment. People were no longer beholden to a faraway autocrat (who more often than not could not speak their language, did not care about them, and was chiefly concerned with taking in revenue). This opened the Muslim peoples up to the possibility of establishing stable, effective states wherein they could prosper. Furthermore, the notion of “an Islamic empire” was replaced by a multitude of nation-based states. No longer did a people feel they had to live with another people just because they were Muslims or shared a caliph. With the fall of the Islamic empire came the fall of the relevance of jihad for most peoples. What would jihad accomplish if there is no Islamic empire?
The fall of the Islamic empire occurred when the infidels — whether they themselves or their ideas and ways — began to prevail over the Muslim peoples. Even though the Islamic empire (under the guise of the Ottoman Empire) continued to exist, it had become impotent and, more importantly, far removed from and unable to control the various Muslim peoples. In contrast to the Ottoman emperor, the infidels empowered the people by allowing them to rise and seize power and control and progress.
Those who study jihad’s historical context believe that different forms of jihad prevailed over different times and in different places. This fact continues to today, when and where the relevance of jihad by force must be evaluated based on the conditions thereof. And most conclude that there is no need any more for jihad by force. But the “guardians” of Islamic orthodoxy and orthopraxy vociferously disagree, seeing in this reasoning the deception of infidels desiring and plotting to weaken and destroy Islam and Muslims by depriving them of their violent zeal to prevail. Backwardness versus infidel deception is how the debate may be characterized.
The old school people are not accurate in their perception of jihad by force as something static. Jihad by force has changed, from Muhammad bin Qasim slaughtering the Hindus to the Ottomans ruling over the Greeks. They nonetheless portray jihad by force as an eternal and crucial aspect of Islam, as if should the Muslims put down the sword, they’d be destroyed overnight (ignoring, of course, the clear fact that the biggest enemies of Muslims are other Muslims).
There is, of course, the fourth stage: modern terrorist jihad. This is the effort of transnational extremist groups to revive jihad and then wage it against their enemies (such as America, Israel, and non-cooperative or hostile Muslim governments). One of the unique characteristics of this phase of jihad is that it has no rules and is not predictable. In previous times, one could expect certain policies and acts from those fighting jihad. One could also clearly identify (for the most part) the organization and chain of command of those who fight jihad. Jihad then was like any type of warfare. And this made it possible to negotiate a settlement or agreement, for example. But today’s jihad is decentralized and without rules or standards. (And this, of course, engenders considerable debate among Muslim thinkers, scholars and clerics alike, on what the rules and policies of jihad should be.) This disorganization makes it very hard (if not impossible) to control. (And this phenomenon of armed and violent Muslims out of control is a matter of grave concern for many Muslim states, although a few have decided to embrace, facilitate, and channel these violent efforts to serve the state’s interests.)
There is no doubt that this will remain a contentious time. We need to realize not only the divisions and disagreements among Muslims but also, perhaps more importantly, the zeal and drive of those who are fighting jihad against their perceived enemies. Scholars chiding them, saying that jihad is no longer relevant or needed or legitimate, may hamper some support, but it will not stop the momentum and driving forward of those who wage jihad. And whereas many Muslims may view such single-minded violent zeal as misplaced if not wrong, the paranoia that fuels this zeal, and its paradigm, is spreading: this means that there will be more jihad-mongerers and those who support them. Drunk with power, the jihad-preachers will not stop until they prevail.
Indeed, such propagandists portray the Muslim world to be back to phase 2: a grand effort to conquer the world.