Is the concept of inner peace wrong


Prof. Dr. Rudiger Seesemann

Prof. Dr. Rudiger Seesemann

is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Bayreuth.

Under Jihad the Duden understands the "struggle of the Muslims to defend and spread Islam", the "holy war". At the same time, jihad describes the basic Muslim duty to strive to live according to the Islamic faith. How is the concept of jihad to be understood historically? What modern interpretations are there?

Member of the terrorist group "Palestinian Islamic Jihad" (& copy picture alliance)

Islam - Religion of Peace or Religion of the Sword?

According to current definitions of Islamism, its supporters strive to establish a state of God on the basis of Islamic law and, if necessary, pursue this goal with violence, i.e. through jihad. But what exactly is jihad all about? To what extent can Islamists who talk about jihad or fight in its name actually invoke him?

At the latest in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. On September 11, 2001, the word jihad entered the lexicon of all world languages. The Duden explains the term as the struggle of the Muslims to defend and spread Islam and adds that this struggle is often called "holy war". At the same time, jihad describes the basic Muslim duty to strive to live according to the Islamic faith; the "great jihad" is cited as an example, which refers to the religious and ethical duty of self-control and self-improvement.

This useful definition, even if it is not very precise from an Islamic point of view, already outlines the spectrum in which the divergent interpretations of the concept of jihad move. In colloquial usage, jihad is, by the way, similar to the crusade: Just as the Federal Ministry of Health could be said to be a "crusade against smoking", one can also speak of a "jihad against tobacco consumption". George W. Bush, presumably rather carelessly, threw a spotlight on the figurative meaning of the word crusade after September 11, 2001, when he commented on the "war on terror" with the statement, "We are on a crusade." Certainly he was thinking of war, but not of a war in the name of Christianity against Muslims. When the US student organization "Campus Crusade for Christ" carries out its mission at North American universities with the crusade in its name, it does so with radical rhetoric, but not with militant means. This comparative look at language usage is helpful in order not to fall into reflexes when hearing the word jihad and to conjure up the "holy war".

At the same time, it is unmistakable that in the recent past militant Muslims have increasingly referred to jihad in the sense of armed struggle against the enemies of Islam to justify their acts of violence. A remarkable constellation has emerged, as the understanding of jihad among violent Muslims is largely congruent with views that are critical of Islam and those that are hostile to Islam: here as there, jihad is understood to mean the struggle for the cause of God using violence. Such Muslims, who understand jihad as a spiritual effort and consider violence to be justified at most for defense purposes, are accused both by supporters of armed struggle and by representatives of anti-Islamic positions of falsifying the truth. This truth is that Islam is not the religion of peace, but the religion of the sword.

From an Islamic perspective and, more generally speaking, from a religious studies perspective, any statement in which "Islam" (or Christianity, Judaism, etc.) functions grammatically as a subject is questionable. "Religion" is not the acting subject, but the actors are its members. It is not an abstract, timeless Islam that would make Muslims what they are, but it is the Muslims who interpret, implement or argue about Islam. Muslims are just as unrelated as members of other religions. As a result, "Islam" is not the producer of violent criminals or doves of peace.

In the course of its 1400 year history, numerous different religious currents have developed on the soil of Islam. Wars were waged and those of different faiths persecuted in the name of Islam; Peace was made and religious tolerance practiced in his name. Science was promoted under the banner of Islam, but free thinking was also suppressed. Islam served as a justification for very different, sometimes contradicting positions and actions, and what was to be regarded as "true" Islam was always the subject of controversy. The multitude of past and present protagonists who claim the "true" Islam for themselves already shows that there is one "true" Islam only as a theological category, but not in social reality. For this reason alone, it is wrong to characterize "Islam" in general as peaceful or violent.

A little history of jihad

If one wants to gain a differentiated picture of the development of different concepts of jihad, one must first consider its origins. The statements on jihad in the Koran and the campaigns of the Prophet Muhammad are particularly relevant here. The Koranic passages about the fight against infidels can be divided into four phases and are a reflection of the development of the early Muslim community. According to Islamic doctrine, Muhammad, who died in 632, received the divine revelations laid down in the Koran over a period of 20 years. Probably the most important event in this period was the Hijra, the emigration from Mecca in 622: In view of the hostility of its tribal members, who mostly rejected Muhammad's monotheistic proclamations and continued to practice polytheism, the Muslims withdrew from Mecca and built around 340 km northern Medina established a community based on the revealed rules.

Mohammed sends troops to the battle of Badr. Illustration from the "Siyer-i Nebi (The Life of the Prophet)" from 1388. (& copy Public Domain, source: wikimedia commons)
In the first, Meccan phase, there is no jihad. Muhammad is mocked and fought against, but God commands him to be patient. The hijra heralds a new, second phase: In Medina the prophet receives a revelation which allows him to fight against those who fight him (sura 22, verses 39-40); this refers to the Meccans who harass the few Muslims who remain in Mecca. In the third phase, which begins with the battle of Badr (Muslims from Medina against the Meccans) in the year 624, the divine order is given to fight against the defenders of polytheism (sura 2, verses 190-193 as well as sura 47, verses 4- 6). The fourth and final phase is finally marked by revelations that are chronologically connected with the capitulation of the Meccans and the capture of Mecca by the Muslims at the end of 629. The so-called "sword verses" in Sura 9 can be cited as an example. In verse 5 the Muslims are ordered to continue the fight against the "idol worshipers"; Verse 29 also calls for a fight against the so-called "book owners" (particularly Jews and Christians as recipients of earlier written revelations) until they pay their tribute and acknowledge their submission. Another verse of the Koran commands the Muslims to fight until there is no more oppression (or: seduction to apostasy; fitna) and the religion is entirely God's (sura 8, verse 39).

To what extent can these verses and historical events be translated into concrete instructions for later generations of Muslims? Do they have to be understood literally and also implemented directly, or do they require a context-dependent interpretation and thus a comprehensive exegesis? There are numerous examples of both the one and the other way of dealing with sources and historical models. However, the Islamic scholarly tradition that emerged in the first three centuries of Islam has largely followed the path of contextualization and exegesis. The armed struggle for the cause of God has always been part of this scholarly tradition, but the term jihad, which incidentally is only used 41 times in the Koran to denote struggle and thus significantly less than the term qital (literally, fighting; a total of 170 times including verbal Derivations), experienced a spiritual charge by distinguishing between a "large" and a "small" variant (as even the Duden suggests). This interpretation was based on a prophetic word: After returning from a battle, Muhammad is said to have said, "Now we have returned from the small jihad to the great jihad." When one of his companions asked what the great jihad was, Muhammad replied, "This is the fight against one's own bad qualities."

When implementing the Koranic handouts on the subject of jihad, the Muslims encountered problems after the Prophet's death. Initially, the so-called rightly guided caliphs were at the head of the expanding Islamic state and continued the fight against the "idol worshipers" on the Arabian Peninsula. Within a few years they joined Islam. But the unity of the umma, the community of Muslims, did not last long. As early as the third decade after Muhammad's death, Muslims faced each other as opponents on the battlefield. Ali, the fourth caliph and at the same time cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, had to defend his claim to leadership against an alliance organized by, among others, Muhammad's favorite wife Aisha. Ali's side emerged victorious from the camel battle (so called because Aisha chased them from the back of a camel), but this was only the prelude to further fratricidal wars that ultimately resulted in the division of Muslims into Sunnis and Shiites. Even the early days of Islam were marked by the dilemma of violence among Muslims, which runs counter to the divine commandment of the unity of believers. Often wars were not restricted to the opponents of jihad specified in the Koran. The group known as Kharijites, from whose ranks also the murderer Ali came, has become known for its legitimation of violence against other Muslims. By branding their Muslim opponents as unbelievers, they created the religious basis for exercising violence against groups who are actually not considered legitimate opponents of jihad. Nevertheless, despite some spectacular actions, the Kharijites remained a fringe group. The Muslim legal scholars, who organized themselves into legal schools of thought from the middle of the 8th century, rejected the generalized charijite practice of takfir, i.e. declaring other Muslims to be unbelievers, and warned against carelessly excluding fellow believers from Islam. At the end of the 9th century, at the time of the last great Kharijite uprising in what is now Iraq, the large schools of law had already formed, from which four Sunni and one Shiite schools emerged. The latter deviates from the Sunni reading in a number of ways, including the fact that religiously legitimized violence against people of different faiths is less pronounced in it.

The relevant legal manuals of the four Sunni schools of law deal - among many other questions - with the situations in which God prescribes jihad for Muslims in the sense of armed struggle. In the event of a defense, the duty to engage in jihad applies to all men who are capable of arms; in other cases it is sufficient for some of the community to lead the fight on behalf of others. In any case, the fight can only be directed against well-defined opponents and under no circumstances against civilians. In addition, jihad is always subject to the condition that it is under the leadership of the supreme commander of all Muslims, known as the imam.

This martial law has its roots in the historical context of a unitary Islamic state. The "area of ​​Islam" united within its borders the umma, i.e. the community of all Muslims, under one ruler, the caliph. Outside this area was the "area of ​​war", the potential target of jihad. It was the duty of the community to enlarge the Islamic territory; However, this was not accompanied by a collective forced conversion of the population in the conquered areas, which is still evident today, among other things, in the presence of Christian groups in numerous countries in North Africa and the Middle East. In the event of an attack on the "territory of Islam" it was the individual duty of every Muslim to take part in jihad in defense of the Islamic population. After all, the manuals of the law schools provide for jihad in the event that some Muslims refuse to obey the ruler. By refusing to obey, the rebels become legitimate opponents of jihad, even if they continue to be considered Muslim.

The ideal of a united Islamic state on which this conception of jihad is based did not exist for long in reality. With the decay of the central authority of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258), which began as early as the 10th century, numerous sultanates and emirates established themselves, although formally subordinate to the caliph, each interpreted and applied martial law independently. Nevertheless, any struggle in the name of Islam was always tied to the authority of the respective ruler, which he exercised in coordination with the religious scholars; there was a kind of monopoly on the use of force by the state, which the state was supposed to enforce in accordance with Sharia law. One of the last attempts to mobilize the classical concept of jihad in law schools dates back to the time of the First World War, when the Ottoman sultan, at the insistence of Kaiser Wilhelm II, tried to mobilize Muslim recruits for the fight against Russia, France and Great Britain.

Modern interpretations of the concept of jihad

This digression into Islamic history shows that Sunni Islam, as it was understood and practiced for centuries, did not approve or demand anything that has been going on under the banner of jihad for about five decades. The violent criminals, who now use Islam as a justification for terrorist acts, rely on a completely different tradition of interpretation than the schools of law. Since they claim to follow the so-called salaf, i.e. the Muslims of the first three generations of Islam, the name Salafiyya (new German: Salafists) became commonplace for them in the 20th century. What is decisive for them is not how generations of scholars have understood the word of God and the word of the prophet on the basis of a broad and deep knowledge of the Islamic exegetical tradition, but how they themselves, often without profound training in Islamic sciences, interpret the Koran and the example of the prophet.

The Salafist interpretation certainly refers to historical forerunners, in particular Muhammad ibn Abdalwahhab (d. 1792), the founder of the Wahhabi doctrine, which in a slightly modified form has the status of a state religion in Saudi Arabia, as well as the Hanbali legal scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). The latter played a decisive role in the development of the idea that a ruler who did not act according to the rules of Sharia had to be fought by jihad. Despite these references, Salafiyya is a thoroughly modern phenomenon; their backward-looking ideology does nothing to change that. It makes use of an interpretation that replaces the primacy of the scholar with direct access to the words of God and the prophet and thus throws off the hermeneutical baggage of the schools of law.

The modern jihadist current within the Salafiyya is only a small fringe group in addition to the two other currents, for which the terms puristic and political have become natural. One of its characteristics is that it claims the right to exercise violence for itself and is not linked to the existence of an Islamic state. By undermining the state's monopoly of force, the jihadists are breaking the consensus of the Islamic scholars who are in the tradition of legal schools. They challenge the authoritarian rulers of the states in which they live by declaring the rulers to be infidels and thus legitimate targets. The proclamation of the "Islamic State" (IS) in Iraq and Syria in mid-2014 is, among other things, an expression of the attempt to give greater legitimacy to the use of violence in the name of Islam.

In the perception of the jihadists, the West is waging a war against Islam. The religious fighters see themselves as the avant-garde who, in contrast to the Muslim establishment, take the initiative to defend Islam. From the established Islamic scholars, who interpret jihad primarily as the struggle of the individual against his lower passions, this is ultimately not to be expected.On the basis of this worldview, jihadist logic constructs the goals and opponents of its struggle: Jihad is to be waged by the upright Muslims against those who fight Islam. This includes all representatives of the Islamic states in which the Sharia is not applied or who make common cause with "the West", from the head of state to the traffic police. Certain Islamist currents, including the IS ideologues, follow the Kharijite takfir practice and declare their Muslim opponents to be unbelievers across the board, thereby distancing themselves even further from the "classic" jihad doctrine.

It is obvious that the conventional Islamic martial law, which is already wasted in the changed world of the nation-states and today appears in the guise of jihad as a war of defense, is thus undermined. Careful exegesis is replaced by eclectic interpretations taken out of context, which are intended to suggest that one is following the prophet and his companions. The rule-based war of armies in defense of Islamic existence is being replaced by guerrilla warfare, to be waged by all means, in which everything, from suicide bombings to bombings, is permitted as long as it hits "the West" and its only nominally Muslim allies . Even if their voices are barely heard in the western media landscape, learned representatives of Sunni Islam have often and clearly spoken out against this ideology of violence in the name of God. In their modern interpretation of the jihad concept, the "great jihad" in the sense of internal purification and jihad as a defensive war are in the foreground. Nonetheless, accusations can often be heard from non-Muslim circles that Muslims do not distance themselves clearly enough from the violence. Why do many scholars shy away from pronouncing takfir on their part against the leaders and supporters of jihadist groups? The reason for this reluctance is that they would then make the same mistake as the jihadists: namely, pass judgment on other people which - unless there are clear indications - according to their opinion is reserved for God alone.

Poisoned fruits in the garden of Islam

The question of whether Islam is peaceful or violent has been discussed controversially in the Western public for years. What is striking about the German debate in 2015 is that both statements are guided less by careful analysis or facts and more by interests. Politicians who emphasize the peaceful character of Islam and insist on the distinction between Islam and Islamism do so in an effort to counteract the collective exclusion of a significant minority of the population and thus to maintain social peace. Muslims who distance themselves from the acts of terrorism try to protect their religion against blanket condemnations and defend themselves against being placed under general suspicion. The camp of Islamophobes blames "Islam" for the violence and paints the image of a world in a cultural conflict in which incompatible value systems are opposed. This point of view reveals clear parallels to the rhetoric of the jihadists who use Islam to legitimize their acts of violence.

Voices critical of Islam, whether from the left or the right of the political spectrum, can reiterate after every attack carried out in the name of Islam that something must be wrong with a religion that serves to justify such atrocities. The well-known American television satirist Bill Maher put it this way: Where there are so many bad apples, something is wrong with the garden. According to this logic, it is superfluous to take note of Islamic exegetical literature filling entire libraries. After all, generations of Islamic scholars only want to cover up what critics of Islam and militant Islamists of today understand immediately and without further ado.

In fact, it was not the Islamic garden that spoiled the fruit, but the poison that many gardeners sprayed in it, both oriental and occidental. "Islam", as it was lived for centuries by the overwhelming majority of Muslims and is still widely practiced today, therefore does not help in the search for the reasons for the bloodshed in the Near and Middle East in the 20th and 21st centuries. On the contrary, "medieval" Islam was in some respects even more tolerant than today's Salafist Islam. If one wants to understand why the poisonous fruit of jihadism thrives there, it is necessary to analyze the circumstances under which the Salafist spectrum has produced such a militant wing over the past five decades.