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Book Review
Unholy War—Terror in the Name of Islam
Reviewed by Yoginder Sikand

Name of the Book: Unholy War—Terror in the Name of Islam
Author: John Esposito
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New York
Year: 2002
Price: $25

John Esposito is one of the few American scholars of Islam to enjoy equal credibility among western academics as well as Muslim intellectuals. His balanced treatment of Islamic movements in the contemporary world, articulated in the numerous books that he has to his credit, is a rarity in these times of hardened ideological posturing, where objectivity in discussions about Islam and Muslims is a rapidly vanishing commodity. This book, written in the aftermath of the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, is a classic, and one of its kind, a refreshing contrast to the journalistic treatment of the subject and to the sabre-rattling outpourings of militant Islamists and equally militant anti-Muslim propagandists alike.

Esposito’s central argument is that Islam, like any other religion, can be interpreted in diverse, often mutually contradictory ways to serve different political projects and interests. In other words, he argues, the interpretation of religion and religious concepts and doctrines needs to be understood in the wider socio-political context in which the work of interpretation is done. He then proceeds to develop a history of the doctrine of jihad as the concept has been interpreted in diverse ways over time.

Starting with the Qur’an and the Hadith, the Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, Esposito shows how the notion of jihad differs distinctly from the notion of ‘holy war’ against ‘unbelievers’ as is commonly understood today by some militant Islamists as well as their foes. Jihad, in its original sense, simply meant ‘striving’ in the path of God. Such striving could take various forms. Helping the poor and the distressed could equally be a form of jihad as could defence of the community from hostile attacks. Indeed, as the author stresses, jihad as war was originally intended as defence of the faith and the community in the face of aggression. In normal times relations between Muslims and people of other faiths were intended to be peaceful, and violence the exception rather than the norm.

However, over time, as the Muslim community expanded outside the narrow confines of the Arabian desert, the notion of jihad underwent radical transformations. Some Muslim rulers employed the concept to legitimize their imperial conquests, blessing their attacks on non-Muslim lands as ‘holy wars’ although, strictly speaking these were nothing of the kind. Then, again, some marginalised groups within the Muslim community, raising the banner of revolt against what they saw as corrupt ruling Muslim elites, saw themselves as engaging in jihad. The earliest of these were the Khawarij, who branded all other Muslims as unbelievers for their alleged lax ways. They preached a primitive communism and called for the killing of all those who disagreed with them.

Esposito sees a continuous thread between the early Khawarij and contemporary Muslim groups which have declared ‘holy war’ against Muslim governments and the West. These groups draw upon the thoughts of the thirteenth century Hanbali jurist Ibn Taimiya and his eighteenth century follower, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, who called for violent attacks against all those who did not follow their own literalist understanding of the Qur’an. Ibn Taimiya insisted that the Mongols, who had by this time converted to Islam but continued to follow their own tribal laws, were in reality ‘unbelievers’ and thus fit to be put to the sword. Likewise, Ibn Wahhab saw the Shi’as as heretics as also the Sufis, and the Wahhabis made them main objects of their ire. Jihad, then, was to be directed not only at non-Muslims but also those who claimed to be fellow-believers but whose understanding of Islam differed from their own. Militant groups as diverse as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hizbollah in Palestine, the Lashkar-i-Tayyeba in Kashmir and the Takfir wa’l Hijra in Egypt all share this common source of inspiration.

Contemporary jihadism, Esposito writes, must be seen as a reaction to a complex interaction of internal as well as external circumstances and does not necessarily follow from a simple reading of the Qur’an itself. The legacy of European colonialism, the continued economic control exercised by the West, the propping up of undemocratic regimes in Muslim countries by Western powers, America’s uncritical support to Israel, and the rapid spread of anti-Islamic sentiments in the West have all made for hardened positions, with the West and their client regimes in Muslim states being seen as ‘enemies of Islam’. Contemporary jihadism differs from the anti-colonial jihads in that it is now developing as a global phenomenon, assisted by modern technology. Hence, the far greater danger that it poses to global stability and progress.

What, then, does the future hold in store for relations between the West and the Muslim world? Esposito bitterly critiques the prophets of doom who see the future as a clash of civilizations, threatening to plunge the world into bloody strife between Muslims and others. He argues that the basic premise of the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis is itself flawed. Muslims are not a homogenous group, divided as they are by race, language, sect and nation, and nor is the Judaeo-Christian West one solid bloc. Esposito sees hope in new stirrings among Muslim intellectuals, calling for new ways of understanding Islam and what it means for such crucial questions as inter-faith relations, pluralism, democracy and women’s rights. Besides calling for promoting this new Islamic vision, Esposito also insists that the West, particularly America, radically revise its own policies vis-a-vis the Muslim world, if we are to be spared the horrors of unrelenting ‘unholy wars’.

This book is the most balanced account of the phenomenon of contemporary jihadism to date. In times such as ours, where prejudices abound and debate on the issue of Islamism has been reduced to tired clichés, Esposito provides a glimmer of hope to those who continue to dream of a more fruitful and mutually enriching encounter between Muslims and people of other faiths.

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