Home Articles and Notes Fiqh Carrying the Sword - 1 By Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks

Carrying the Sword - 1 By Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks

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Islam is not a rhetorical religion, it is based on unity, compassion and rational action. The cornerstone of its legislative process is to protect the six universal principles on which the normal functioning of human life depend, the protection of life, wealth, honor, religion, pedigree and character. This is the legal framework in which the principles of Jihad has to be understood and viewed. In addition to this legal dimension Jihad has crucial historical and cultural dimensions. Historically, the struggle for control over the Holy Lands and the expansion of Islam into Europe resulted in deep cleavages between Islam and the West. At a cultural level, Jihad, and consequently the sword, acquired a significance far beyond earthly war. In the following essay we will explore some of the issues and debates inspired by these developments.

Soon after the Prophet's, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, death Islam radiated outwardly from its earthly centre, the Ka’aba. Jihad was the dynamic of this expansion. Outwardly it represented the power of Islam against oppression, tyranny and injustice. Inwardly it signified the means and the method of spiritual awakening and of travel towards Allah. Refering to this, the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, is reported to have said while returning from a battle: "We are now returning from the lesser Jihad to the greater Jihad, the Jihad against the self". This dual significance of Jihad and the privileging of the inner meaning or the greater Jihad, had a significant cultural impact on Muslims. For instance the calligraphers adopted the motif of a sword as the first letter of the shahadah, the Muslim testimony "There is no god except Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger". For the Muslim spiritual traveller repetition of the shahadah a given number of times per day, is an important means of destroying the darkness of the self and its ignorance. The shahadah is the means of the inner Jihad as the sword is the means of the the outer Jihad. Through the shahadah and the doctrine of Divine Unity which it teaches, the darkness of the soul is ultimately replaced with the light of the Divine Presence. This connection between the shahadah and the sword is reflected in many cultural and social events in the Muslim world. Sufi masters is known to have appeared at public events with a sword by their sides. In Yemen wearing a well crafted dagger as a significant element of your dress-code is a sign of manhood and so forth. Not being a aware of the inner meaning of these symbols, Muslim society must have appeared Militant to foreign visitors, especially from the West.

The chief factor though, according to many analysts, for the prevalent irrational Western fear of Islam is undoubtedly the Crusades. The massive defeats suffered by the Crusaders at the hands of the Muslims during the Crusader Wars, the loss of all seven cities in which the Nicene Creed was debated and adopted, the creed which arguably form the basis of all of Christianity, the loss of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Holy Lands produced an often silly but deeply felt demonisation and stereotyping of Islam. Dante placed the Prophet in his deepest Hell. Some churches adopted the creed that the Prophet was inspired by the Devil. Churchmen and Abbots produced an extraordinary Literature of hate. It is also ironic that Salman Rushdie drew the vocabulary of his Satanic Verses from this very Literature of hate. However, Western Christian perceptions of Islam was deeply distorted. Even after the process of secularization in Europe these negativities persisted in the collective European conciousness, to this day. This kind of cultural reaction towards Islam is clear evidence that the loss of the Holy Lands was a profoundly traumatic and painfull event to the Christian West. What must have exacerbated this trauma is the massive incursions of the Muslim armies into European land. Europe was literally "caught on the wrong foot" both Militarily and Theologically. On the one hand, Europe failed to cope with Muslim military power. The feeling of powerlessness can generate deep feelings of hate against the perpetrators of violence. On the other hand, Christian theology had no decisive defense against Muslim Unitarianism. A decent defense of Christian Doctrine came much later in the 12th/13th century in the writings of Thomas Aquinas.

Notwithstanding the huge strides taken in recent years in interfaith dialogue and deeper and more scholarly research into Islam, critics still insist that Islam and Muslims are openly hostile and intolerant towards other communities. They refer to the Qur’anic verses that exhort the believers to fight the infidels, they point to the battles of early Islam and the eventual confrontation between the Crusaders and the Saracens, and now, the stereotype of the "Muslim terrorist". It must be noted that many Orientalists might object to this characterisation of their views on the question. Indeed many of them subscribe to more nuanced positions. More recent scholarship have completely abandoned the emotionally charged vocabulary of earlier Orientalism. It remains true, however, that Islam is still imagined as threatening, fanatical, violent and alien by significant sections of the worlds media. In formulating an answer to all of this it is crucial to focus on a general definition of Islam, so as not to fall into any misunderstanding about Jihad and its place within the Din. The common expression that Islam is a "way of life" has become hackneyed to the point where we can well do without it. Islam is more accurately described as "a system of principles that guides and transforms the total human condition in function of Allah". This is of-course a definition by and for Muslims and may not have any academic value in the lecture rooms of "objective" scholarship. It does however accurately decribe what Islam means to a Muslim.

This "definition" must be carefully understood if we are to avoid the superficial moralising or equally misleading literalism that characterises much contemporary thinking about Islam. It is far from desirable to simply quote, as an apparent show of understanding, scriptural support for this or that personal opinion we may have about a particular subject. Neither is it enough to use Qur’anic or Prophetic texts without adequate knowledge of the human situation and cultural milieu in which they were revealed and first applied. In other words, context and circumstance of Quranic revelation and Hadith are crucial considerations in our understanding of Jihad. It is an error to judge Islam and Muslims in the light of the kind of "Jihad" that has fallen victim to ideological tendencies. The critic also has to be wary of the interpretation of "Jihad" projected, and sometimes imposed, by the selective "religious reformism" so rampant today. They ignore central aspects of Islam’s intellectual heritage and selectively repress important figures.

It cannot be over-emphasised that Islam upholds the values of reason, balance and responsibility in the conduct of its worldly affairs. There is nothing arbitrary about its legal provisions relating to matters of war, peace, international relationships and the rule of law. In this area there is considerable agreement between Islamic law and the legal systems currently practised throughout the world. In addition to the real possibility that these legal systems where profoundly influenced by the legal heritage of Islam, this commonality can be explained by the fact that the protection and endorsement of basic human rights form the cornerstone of Islamic legislation. The international community has come to agree, through the institution of the United Nations, on a body of human rights and interests which Islam has always endorsed. This ought not to surprise anyone if the basic realism, rationality and pragmatism of Islamic law is recognised.

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Last Updated on Saturday, 14 August 2010 14:42  
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