Terrorism: A Return To Jahiliyya

Terrorism: A Return To Jahiliyya


Despite protestations to the contrary, Al-Qaeda and similarly-minded groups are engaged in no more than the old-fashioned tribal warfare, the hallmark of jahiliyya.


By Hina Azam, August 26, 2005

One hardly needs to ask al-Qaeda (and al-Qaedaesque) operatives what they think they are doing in their suicide attacks. The pronouncements and writings of Osama bin Laden and Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi make it abundantly clear that they believe they are engaging in a legitimate jihad. Never mind that they break cardinal rules of jihad as laid out in the Qur’an and the lawbooks of Islam. Never mind that they confuse basic distinctions, such as the one between combatants and civilians, and between suicide and martyrdom. No, according to the architects of the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, the ongoing explosions in Baghdad, and the London train bombings, they are engaging in the ultimate expression of human submission to the divine intent. The truth of the matter, however, is that they are engaged in the very behavior that the Qur’an and Prophet came to combat: tribalism. Despite protestations to the contrary, Al-Qaeda and similarly-minded groups are engaged in no more than the old-fashioned tribal warfare, the hallmark of jahiliyya.

An examination of al-Qaeda pronouncements reveals this to be true. While the texts of these pronouncements is laden (no pun intended) with religious language taken from the Qur’an, the hadith and classical fiqh, the murderous objectives of al-Qaeda is not what was intended by the authors of those texts. A knowledge of Islamic history reveals that those writings have never before been used to justify the random killing of non-combatants. While Muslim history has seen politically-motivated assassinations and traditional warfare in which armies faced armies, we have never before witnessed armed groups of Muslims who went about intentionally targeting civilians and claiming their actions to be religiously justified.

No, the motivation for their actions is not any religious command to engage in jihad as traditionally understood. In their statements and fatawa, argumentation on religious grounds is secondary to their primary argument, which is political. But it is not the political nature of their motivation in itself that is illegitimate from an Islamic perspective. The illegitimacy lies in their methods. In the discourse of the terrorists, religious texts are being twisted in order to support the pre-Islamic practice of vendetta (tha’r)  the very approach to socio-political conflict that the Qur’an and the Prophet outlawed.

Pre-Islamic Arabia was a society in which there was no central authoritative body to oversee justice or to mete out punishment for injustice. It was a society in which the only commonly-recognized law was the law of tribal vengeance: If someone from tribe A attacked or harmed someone from tribe B, the attack was taken as license by anyone in tribe B to retaliate against anyone and everyone from tribe A. The tragic result was bloodshed that would touch a far wider circle than the original assailant.

The Qur’an sought to put an end to this murder and mayhem through a series of moral and legal principles dictating how human beings should live with one another, both inter-tribally and intra-tribally. No longer was it legitimate for anyone from tribe B to kill anyone from tribe A, no matter how great the desire for vengeance. In the civilian realm, this is the principle behind the law of qisas: the only one who could be prosecuted was the one who has committed the crime, whether it be murder or injury. At the level of the state, the Qur’an laid down principles governing warfare, principles that the Prophet and the scholars interpreted as delineating fundamental laws—such as the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, and the illegitimacy of attacking the latter.

The terrorists’ deepest deviation from the Qur’an, however, is not at the legal and political levels, but at the spiritual and moral level. Pre-Islamic Arabia was considered to be jahil not because it was ignorant, but because it was crude. In seeking to defend tribal honor at the cost of social justice, it was a society that idealized qualities such as hot-bloodedness, arrogance, quickness to anger and slowness to forgive. In contrast to jahala, the Qur’an advocates hilm, which comprises an attitude forbearance, patience and humility:

“The [true] servants of the Merciful are those who walk on the earth humbly, and who, when the jahilun address them, reply, ‘Peace!’” (Q 25:63)

And hilm, it must be emphasized, is a social virtue, a quality of character. It is neither a theological tenet nor a legal doctrine, but is the manifestation of the inner transformation that occurs when the message of the Qur’an and the example of their Prophet have truly penetrated one’s consciousness.

Al-Qaeda and its various branches have set aside Qur’anic spirituality and ethics as well as traditional law, however, in favor of a return to pre-Islamic condition of total war, in which all the members of the opposing ‘tribe’ are fair game, including old men, pregnant women, babes-in-arms, Jewish doctors, Christian teachers and Muslim engineers. The totalistic mindset of the vendetta sees only one distinction, that between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It allows for no cooperation and no friendship between members of different ‘tribes.’ It leaves no room for reconciliation and no avenue for settlement of differences. The hardness of heart demonstrated by a group that exacts vengeance on the innocent for crimes committed by others is the heart that lacks hilm and is dominated by jahala.

The irony is that the ideology of al-Qaeda and like-minded terrorists is that it is founded on the notion that everyone other than themselves exists in a state of jahiliyya. That people ֖ including Muslims who are willing to coexist in a pluralistic world, according to the Qur’anic notion that God has created humanity into nations and tribes that we may know one another, are in fact disbelievers. That people ֖ including Muslims who are willing to distinguish between soldiers and civilians, according to the Qur’an and Sunna, are cowards and hypocrites. In the mad psychology of the vendetta, there is no escape from the domain of war into the domain of peace.

Hina Azam is an incoming Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her specialty is Islamic law.

Originally published at http://www.altmuslim.com/perm.php?id=1535_0_24_0_M