The Idea of the Jihad in Islam before the Crusades

The Idea of the Jihad in Islam before the Crusades

By Roy Parviz Mottahedeh and Ridwan al-Sayyid

The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World, edited by Angeliki E. Laiou and Roy Parviz Mottahedeh (Dumbarton Oaks,  2001)

Introduction: The jihad, often loosely translated as “holy war on behalf of Islam,” is usually understood to be a fairly stable idea in Islamic law. In that standard reference book, The Encyclopaedia of Islam, the very considerable scholar Emile Tyan tells us that the notion of jihad stems from the principle that Islam, “along with the temporal power which it implies, ought to embrace the whole universe, if necessary by force.” Moreover, according to Tyan the jihad is “a religious duty” and “has a perpetual character.” Tyan mentions only one major premodern figure of the Sunni tradition, Sufyan al-Thawri, who disagreed with this view. Sufy an al-Thawri, a thinker of the second/eighth century, regarded the jihad as an obligation only as a defensive war.

In fact, differences about the status and nature of jihad are a marked feature of early Islamic law, and details about the conduct of jihad continue to reflect historical circumstance throughout the history of Islamic law in the Middle East. It is important to remember that there is no authoritatively codified Islamic law before the nineteenth century. Therefore, we have an accretional body of law (or more accurately, of legal thinking) in which minority opinions are preserved and in which there may be more than one widely held or “normative” position.

This essay attempts to give some idea of the divergence of opinion on the “universal” and “perpetual” nature of the jihad in the first Islamic century in Syria and the Hijaz, the province of Western Arabia that contains Mecca and Medina. It then tries to show how, in Iraq in the second half of the eighth century, certain normative theories of jihad were accepted which continued to have widespread acceptance through and beyond the period of the Crusades. However, as there are literally hundreds of legal books and other genres of literature that deal with the jihad in the centuries before the Crusades, well over half of which exist only in manuscript, this essay in no way attempts to give a full survey of the normative theories of jihad in the pre-crusading period or to weigh the comparative importance of these theories at different periods.

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