The command to wage jihad (meritorious struggle or effort) and the reminder against neglecting it appears in many verses of the Quran and the Prophetic traditions. Some consider disregarding this injunction as blasphemous and worthy of humiliation and scorn from Allah swt. As a result, we are witnessing groups such as the Islamic State (IS) who have sanctioned their ‘eye for an eye’ campaigns by instrumentalising concepts within the Islamic tradition such as jihad and recruiting others to join them.
More recently, it was reported that a 29-year-old Singaporean man who worked as a mover at a logistics company was detained in April 2022 under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for wanting to take up arms in support of the Black Flag Army (BFA). The BFA is prophesied to be a Muslim army emerging from Khorasan (covering parts of modern-day Afghanistan and northeast Iran) carrying black flags claiming to be the saviour of Muslims. The detainee, Radjev Lal, at various points in time, believed that the IS, Al-Qaeda and Taliban were possible manifestations of the BFA and was committed in using violence in the name of Islam to substantiate his intent to wage jihad and die as a martyr for such groups. A natural question that begs to be asked is, what drives such individuals to commit extreme acts of ugliness? Against this background, this article will first analyse the understanding of jihad as promoted by IS, and attempt to identify the factors behind the appeal of this complex concept particularly to Muslim converts and ‘born-again’ Muslims. Due to the limited scope of the article, it will only focus on the IS although the weaponisation of jihad is a common phenomenon among other terror groups. The article will conclude by suggesting the need to rethink the Islamic tradition as dynamic and lived, not fossilised and impositional. A discursive and eclectic tradition would be significant in reclaiming the concept of jihad from the ignoramus in the modern age.
IS AND JIHAD
The Islamic State is one of the most notorious terrorist organisations that have emerged in the 21st century. The advent of IS has reshaped the jihadist landscape as it could penetrate both the physical and virtual space in ways that its predecessors could not actualise. It was recorded that IS mobilised an estimated 60,000 recruits from 120 countries to Syria and Iraq to fight for an Islamic caliphate and establish Allah’s rule on earth. The perceived oppression and persecution of Islam and Muslims in the Syrian conflict have also been used as a beacon to attract young impressionable Muslims to take up arms believing that this is part of their obligatory jihad. Jihadist sympathisers such as Radjev tend to wrongly believe that they are doing a service to Islam by getting involved in this conflict even if they are not directly affected by it. However, it is crucial to understand that the IS and Radjev’s claims of jihad do not automatically qualify them to be legitimate and in line with Islam. The call to jihad that the IS wages disregards all the guidelines stipulated by the Quran and the Prophetic traditions. Rather than a jihad based on the right intention and a just cause, the IS self-styled jihad is rooted in hatred, bloodlust and military adventurism resulting in the killing of noncombatants, women and children who were defenceless. Hence, the loud ostensible calls for jihad by the IS and its proponents are misleading and false. Nonetheless, one of the underlying reasons behind this fixation for jihad is due to the upward surge of a theology of intolerance. It is born out of a puritanical reading of religious texts (i.e. the Quran and Prophetic traditions) to fulfil nescient messianic beliefs.
PURITANISM AND SIEGE MENTALITY
The puritan orientation incorporates a variety of normative religious assumptions that are exceptionalist at its core and radically diverge from the ethical values of Islam. Their reading of the sacred texts (i.e. the Quran and Prophetic traditions) against world politics contracted time and extrapolated the pre-modern into the modern world. From their perspective, the situation of Muslims in modern geopolitics mapped perfectly onto the circumstances of pre-modern Muslim societies’ call to wage jihad. The extremists’ understanding of jihad found scriptural footing in an unmediated reading of the sacred texts. It is thus essential to analyse the historical circumstances in which specific concepts such as jihad were negotiated in previous Muslim societies. Disregarding this factor would result in a puritanical reading of the text that is anachronistic and perverse.
Moreover, according to the renowned Muslim thinker Khaled Abou El Fadl, in the age of postcolonialism, Muslims have had to confront social and political realities that have inevitably pushed them to be preoccupied with attempts to remedy a collective feeling of powerlessness by engaging in what he calls a “theology of power”. This theology relies heavily on unsubstantiated claims about the characteristics of a particular set of values and classifies them as either ‘Western’ or ‘Islamic’. As a result, this theology engages in a civilisational bifurcation to identify ‘one’ against the ‘other’. Fadl maintains that this has more to do with one’s anxieties rather than an accurate account of the ‘other’. Fabricating the ‘other’ as an antithesis provides one control to construct normative beliefs that are seemingly unadulterated, Islamic, and devoid of the precarious ‘other’. In the case of the IS, the ‘other’ is often associated with Western imperialism, although its jihadist thought includes sectarianism proclivities. This defensive mode of thinking is disassociated from the Islamic civilisational experience that is rich and diverse. Unsurprisingly, it reduces Islam to a single facet: power. An aggravated siege mentality prevails, which leaves no room for analytical and creative thought, and impoverishes the Islamic intellectual tradition. This, accordingly, creates favourable conditions for the global flood of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
ZEAL OF THE CONVERT
The vast majority of converts to Islam are peaceful people who are open to plurality and inclusion. However, there have been studies to indicate that converts are more vulnerable to extremism as they can be overzealous to emphasise their commitment to the new religion. A simple explanation for this phenomenon is that this group of converts are more willing to express their new faith in every way possible because it is a ‘new meaning system’ that has replaced a previous one, which has failed to adequately explicate the complexities of modern life. In their minds, the status quo is broken due to Western secular values and Islam, accordingly, provides a one-size-fits-all solution to all the world’s problems. Thus, naturally, the puritan orientation appeals to them as it helps make sense of their surroundings in a simple yet superficial way. For this reason, it is not surprising that Radjev had a keen interest in conspiracy theories and was radicalised by the teachings of Imran Hosein, an eccentric Muslim preacher from Trinidad and Tobago. Hosein’s works are mostly centred on interpretations of apocalyptic texts from the Quran and Sunnah that deals with the end of times. A close reading of his works reveals ideas that are misleading and dangerous particularly when dressed in garb of religious certainty. He infamously likened Singapore as the little Israel in Asia and called on Muslims in Singapore to make the hijrah (migration) or face the impending wrath of its ‘Muslim neighbours’ in the region. He also believes in popular anti-Semitic myths that are widely held by right-wing extremist groups such as the global Jewish conspiracy. His segregationist views should be rejected not only because it threatens the social fabric that we have tirelessly built, but more notably it is disengaged from objective truths and engenders paranoia, which paralyses the mind from any possibility to creatively and critically respond towards the realities of the world. It is easy to understand why Hosein’s views are popular today as we are living in a world mired in relativism and rejection of expertise. Moreover, in the face of uncertainties that characterises a post-truth world, Imran Hosein’s apocalyptic tendencies serve as the opiate of those who are alienated and do not feel in control of their lives.
VINDICATING ISLAM AS A DISCURSIVE TRADITION
The notion of Islam as a discursive tradition attempts to delineate the dynamic interplay between the past, present and future. Talal Asad explains that this dynamic interplay does not treat the tradition as nostalgic. It conceptually relates to a past when the practice was instituted and studies how it was transmitted. It then links to a future that forecasts how the practice can be practically tenable and evaluate whether it should be reformed or omitted through present-day practices and institutions. Accordingly, it makes Islam a ‘living tradition’ that constantly unfolds and challenges narratives driven by a set of historically extended norms without dislocating the tradition to shape the future. Ebrahim Moosa regards this as a reconstructionist approach towards the Islamic tradition. It involves a strenuous engagement with the tradition and the present without completely breaking with the past. The discourse on jihad in the Islamic tradition should be approached in this light. Having said that, how can or should jihad be understood today?
UNDERSTANDING JIHAD TODAY
Today, the term jihad has come to be used as a slogan for fanaticism and Islam’s allegedly inexorable hostility towards the West. However, jihad has multiple resonances and associations like other religious and political concepts. The literal meaning of jihad is to strive or to exert effort.
In today’s world, we should see jihad as the struggle of the intellect and pen, a struggle to reform Muslim societies and play an active role in shaping a better world. In short, jihad consists of the effort to do something good, and prevent or oppose evil. A more profound meaning of jihad is to restrain the self from committing inhumane acts, and reform our surroundings to achieve peace and justice. Hence, any struggle to establish both moral values is jihad, and it is not reserved for warfare per se. The struggle to establish peace through harmonising the soul with its entities is jihad. The struggle to end global poverty is jihad. The struggle to achieve peace at home through forging respect amongst the individuals in the family institution is jihad. It is the most profound expression of faith that seeks to express balance and peace. Ultimately, it disqualifies the jihadists’ fixation on jihad, which in their mind equates to violence and martyrdom. Thus, it is crucial in our time to counter this perception and vindicate a humane and transformative concept of jihad in Islam.
Religious texts or concepts do not function in a vacuum as their functionality depends on the discerning capacity of its readers. It assumes that readers will bring a pre-existing, innate moral sense to the text. Hence, the texts or concepts will morally enrich the reader, provided the reader will morally enrich the texts or concepts. Our understanding of the texts or concepts should not be defined purely by the literal meaning of their words, but it also has to be determined by the reader’s moral construction. Without this moral construction, it will inevitably produce intellectual lethargy and radical belligerency. In addition, our epistemological framework should not be grounded on messianic beliefs that engender fear and paranoia. Instead, it should be built on knowledge that is centred on human flourishing. ⬛
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4 This theology is a reaction to feelings of disempowerment and alienation due to the traumatic experience of colonialism and the intrusion of secular liberalism. It comprises a distinct sense of ‘holier than thou’ towards the anaemic ‘other’; whether the other is the West, non-Muslims or even Muslims who do not subscribe to the same hermeneutics.
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Sheikh Mohamad Farouq Abdul Fareez is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). He holds a Master’s degree in Islamic Thought and Applied Ethics. His area of interest involves issues concerning religion, human development and ethics.