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Islam and the West
Jihad vs. Crusade

U.S. President George W. Bush's use of the term "crusade" in calling for a powerful joint effort against terrorism was unfortunate, but excusable. In Western usage, this word has long since lost its original meaning of "a war for the cross," and many are probably unaware that this is the derivation of the name. At present, "crusade" almost always means simply a vigorous campaign for a good cause. This cause may be political or military, though this is rare; more commonly, it is social, moral or environmental. In modern Western usage it is rarely if ever religious.

Yet "crusade" still touches a raw nerve in the Middle East, where the Crusades are seen and presented as early medieval precursors of European imperialism -- aggressive, expansionist and predatory. I have no wish to defend or excuse the often-atrocious behavior of the crusaders, both in their countries of origin and in the countries they invaded, but the imperialist parallel is highly misleading. The Crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and, in the last analysis, ineffectual response to the jihad -- a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war.

At the time of the Crusades, when the Holy Land and some adjoining regions in Syria were conquered and for a while ruled by invaders from Europe, there seems to have been little awareness among Muslims of the nature of the movement that had brought the Europeans to the region. The crusaders established principalities in the Levant, which soon fitted into the pattern of Levantine regional politics. Even the crusader capture of Jerusalem aroused little attention at the time, and appeals for help to various Muslim capitals brought no response.

The real countercrusade began when the crusaders -- very foolishly -- began to harry and attack the Muslim holy lands, namely the Hijaz in Arabia, containing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina where Muhammad was born, carried out his mission, and died. In the vast Arabic historiography of the Crusades period, there is frequent reference to these invaders, who are always called "Franks" or "infidels." The words "Crusade" and "crusader" simply do not occur.

They begin to occur with increasing frequency in the 19th century, among modernized Arabic writers, as they became aware of Western historiography in Western languages. By now they are in common use. It is surely significant that Osama bin Laden, in his declaration of jihad against the United States, refers to the Americans as "crusaders" and lists their presence in Arabia as their first and primary offense. Their second offense is their use of Arabia as a base for their attack on Iraq. The issue of Jerusalem and support for "the petty state of the Jews" come third.

The literal meaning of the Arabic word "jihad" is striving, and its common use derives from the Quranic phrase "striving in the path of God." Some Muslims, particularly in modern times, have interpreted the duty of jihad in a spiritual and moral sense. The more common interpretation, and that of the overwhelming majority of the classical jurists and commentators, presents jihad as armed struggle for Islam against infidels and apostates. Unlike "crusade," it has retained its religious and military connotation into modern times.

Being a religious obligation, jihad is elaborately regulated in sharia law, which discusses in minute detail such matters as the opening, conduct, interruption and cessation of hostilities, the treatment of prisoners and noncombatants, the use of weapons, etc. In an offensive war, jihad is a collective obligation of the entire community, and may therefore be discharged by volunteers and professionals. In a defensive war, it is an individual obligation of every able-bodied Muslim.

In his declaration of 1998, Osama bin Laden specifically invokes this rule: "For more than seven years the United States is occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers, humiliating its people, threatening its neighbors, and using its bases in the peninsula as a spearhead to fight against the neighboring Islamic peoples." In view of this, "to kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim who can, in any country where this is possible, until the Aqsa mosque and the Haram mosque are freed from their grip, and until their armies, shattered and broken-winged, depart from all the lands of Islam, incapable of threatening any Muslim."

Muhammad himself led the first jihad, in the wars of the Muslims against the pagans in Arabia. The jihad continued under his successors, with a series of wars that brought the Middle East, including the Holy Land, under Arab Muslim rule and then continued eastward into Asia, westward into Africa, and three times into Europe -- the Moors in Spain, the Tatars in Russia, the Turks in the Balkans. The Crusade was part of the European counterattack. The Christian reconquest succeeded in Spain, Russia and eventually the Balkans; it failed to recover the Holy Land of Christendom.

In Islamic usage the term martyrdom is normally interpreted to mean death in a jihad, and the reward is eternal bliss, described in some detail in early religious texts. Suicide is another matter.

Classical Islam in all its different forms and versions has never permitted suicide. This is seen as a mortal sin, and brings eternal punishment in the form of the unending repetition of the act by which the suicide killed himself. The classical jurists, in discussing the laws of war, distinguish clearly between a soldier who faces certain death at the hands of the enemy, and one who kills himself by his own hand. The first goes to heaven, the other to hell. In recent years, some jurists and scholars have blurred this distinction, and promised the joys of paradise to the suicide bomber. Others retain the more traditional view that suicide in any form is totally forbidden.

Similarly, the laws of jihad categorically preclude wanton and indiscriminate slaughter. The warriors in the holy war are urged not to harm noncombatants, women and children, "unless they attack you first." Even such questions as missile and chemical warfare are addressed, the first in relation to mangonels and catapults, the other to the use of poison-tipped arrows and poisoning enemy water supplies. Here the jurists differ -- some permit, some restrict, some forbid these forms of warfare. A point on which they insist is the need for a clear declaration of war before beginning hostilities, and for proper warning before resuming hostilities after a truce.

What the classical jurists of Islam never remotely considered is the kind of unprovoked, unannounced mass slaughter of uninvolved civil populations that we saw in New York two weeks ago. For this there is no precedent and no authority in Islam. Indeed it is difficult to find precedents even in the rich annals of human wickedness.

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Mr. Lewis is professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.


 



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