Printed in the Muslim World Book Review; 22:3 (April-June 2002); pp 5-14
Against the Nihilism of Terror:
Jihad as Testimony to Transcendence
After September 11, no Muslim writer venturing to articulate absolutely anything about Islam may expect any reprieve from the inquisitorial fury of the reigning orthodoxy. What transpired on that fateful day was not merely evil and ungodly, monstrous and inhuman, it also showed, we are made to believe, the true face of a fanatical faith. Not the evil that is in the souls of men but the hate that is in the hearts of Muslims is what accounts for the unspeakable barbarity of the terrorists. Nothing unfathomable about evil, no mystery to the darkness of the soul, if it shows a Muslim visage! Indeed, there is no Original Sin, only Muslim sinfulness. For all their pride in the discernment of ‘the human condition’, the architects of meaning in the West, sadly, did not annunciate anything transcending the wrath and humiliation of their political self. Their strident refrain, “the pain and loss is ‘ours’, the civilized and the noble; the shame and disgrace is ‘theirs’, the barbaric and the heartless”, drowned every other requiem. The spiritual and moral insights of the West, it appeared, had neither any relevance for the Muslim nor any cure for his perversity and malice. Only by depriving Muslims of their humanity, it was obvious, could the bereaved West convey its own grief.
Very few, if any, among the cultural elites entrusted with the decipherment of this indecipherable tragedy realized, let alone conceded, that even Muslim eyes cried, that even Muslim heart felt the pain and that even Muslim soul recoiled in horror over this wanton loss of human life. That the Muslim’s pain was all the more unbearable because these unholy deeds were justified in the name of his holy faith, found no mention in the litany of sorrows that engulfed a whole world. The ransoming of Islam’s universality for parochial causes, the sacrifice of its humanity for primal passions, the repudiation of its legal reason for self-endorsing piety, the relinquishing of Divine justice for messianic terror, all of which were the distinguishing marks of these terrorist deeds, have still not entered the public debate. Islam, there’s no mistaking, is as much of a victim in this tragedy as any other. If there is an ‘Islamic connection’ to this horror, it is by default: for, no matter what the ‘Islamic’ trappings of these terrorists’ putative rhetoric, Islam itself has been devoured by the nihilism of modernity. It is modernity, with its rejection of transcendence, its project of immanent utopia, its gospel of political salvation, its idolatry of the collective self, which provides the key to their perverse ideology.
Muslims thinkers need not, I insist, accept the facile complicity of Islam with the 9/11 terror. Despite our continued sorrow, despondency and anguish, we must refrain from breast beating and self-calumny, even if it happens to be the only politically-correct way a Muslim may prove his credentials as a ‘moderate’, or defend Islam as a moral tradition. Despite all the rhetoric and rationale of the perpetrators (?), the justification for terror cannot be ascribed to Islam, not to the Islam of the learned, the pious or the ordinary. Indeed, it cannot even be ascribed to the Islam of the empire and the armies, to the imperative of jihad or the intoxication of power. We must not, in other words, allow the acute pain of the moment, and the partisan passions that it arouses, to besmirch the legacy of a civilization that was, by any standards that can be commonly applied to all enterprises of historical order, no more barbaric, blood-thirsty and murderous than the rest. We must, in short, damn political correctness if it comes at the price of moral duplicity.
What is required of the Muslim thinker is not the annunciation of a political charter that establishes Islam’s compatibility with current world-order, but a moral vision that addresses the malaise of our common humanity. While the mundane logic of history and the exigencies of political existence do no doubt require that we recognize the pragmatic claims of powers-that-be, these matters must be debated within the discourses of national security and public policy that is specific to each Muslim polity. Islamic intellect must not allow itself to be recruited in the cause of parochial interests and secular raison d’état. Only by the cultivation of a moral vision that is universal, only by heeding to Islam’s original call, as it were, may the Muslim thinker remain faithful to his commitment. And it is here, in holding fast to Islam’s transcendent moorings and mission, that the Muslim thinker is summoned to unmask not only the sanctimony and hypocrisy of the current discourse of power but also the moral ambiguity and unresolved aporias (duplicity and confusion to the critics) of our own tradition!
No matter how shadowy and non-existent the evidence, how opaque and tenuous the link, how intellectually intractable the demonstration of complicity between Islam and terror, we must re-examine the seminal issues of faith and violence, transcendence and existence, politics and morality that all intersect in the case of war, and which have been the subject of unending debates and controversies within Islam and outside it. More specifically, we must return to the seminal doctrine of Jihad, to which Muslims have tenaciously clung to despite all attempts at vilification from the outside and all efforts to deplete it of existential finality and decisiveness from the inside. Needless to say that it is in the nature of such a comprehensive and definitive doctrine, whose reflexive ground is the concrete moment in history when Muslim Self and its Other (the self determined to terminate Muslim existence) are locked in a mortal combat, that the tension between the moral and the political imperatives of Islamic conscience can never be fully resolved. For, one may affirm Muslim existence through wilful action, and may even achieve such an objective, but it can be done so only at the cost of another human life! Yet, it is also in the nature of Islam’s transcendent moorings that Jihad can never be a war for the sake of war, a war of instrumental reasoning and worldly glory. Whenever such a war takes place, no matter what the identity of the combatants, it is indisputably un-Islamic.
Works Discussed in the Article
Classical and Modern Islam. By
Islam and War: A Study in Comparative Ethics. By
Any contemporary Muslim attempt to re-appropriate the theory of Jihad in the light of the modern experience runs into formidable difficulties, not the least demanding of which is the conceptualization of transcendence in such a manner that it promotes a neutral, universal conversation without denying the possibility, if not the actuality, of the Islamic revelation. But we have an equally recalcitrant problem of history, as every attempt to grasp the immanence of the human condition, underwritten by modern philosophy’s attempt to explain temporality and historicity, terminates in the cul-de-sac of relativity and nihilism. The claim of the meaningfulness of human existence, which can only be derived from the postulation of a transcendent source, may be bartered for an immanent, temporally contingent and intellectually graspable reality, but such a reality is indifferent to the human quest for meaning. The conundrums of norm and history, existence and meaning, Self and Other, in other words, afford no transparent view of the human condition, and what goes under the rubric of scholarly critique is often nothing more than a veiled apology for the writer’s own political constituency.
Given these aporias, it is hardly surprising that much of the literature examined here that purports to probe Islam’s relationship with violence either makes a very shrill, overtly partisan statement, or merely scratches at the surface of a deeply disquieting human issue that admits of no intellectual laxity or moral complacency. Islam, for most of these writers, either represents a closed – medieval and pre-modern but sovereign and self-referential - textual tradition that is the sole preserve of the jurists, or an incredibly fluid and amorphous historical reality that may be theorized without any regard to its own normative criteria. In short, either a normative discourse devoid of all historicity, or a historical inquiry uninformed by any Islamic normativity! Then there is the discontent of the comparative perspective, which either contrasts the putatively Islamic ‘theory of warfare’ with that of the ‘Western tradition’ (thus positing a unity of medieval, Christian and modern, secular history), or projects an archetypical ‘religious’ perspective against an equally paradigmatic ‘secular’ one. Needless to say that Islam, according to this binary vision, belongs squarely to the ‘religious’ camp, and is therefore impervious not only to the pragmatic charm of modernity’s territorial order but also to the ‘secular’ logic of self-interest and historical compromise! Little wonder that such lopsided, anachronistic and controlled representations of ‘Islam’ appear tendentious in Muslim eyes.
The most intractable intellectual problem in discussion on war is, without doubt, the notorious ambiguity, nay ‘con-fusion’, of ethics and politics. While moral theorists annunciate their insights in terms of universally valid norms and tenets that are, ostensibly at least, independent of the historical context, existential concreteness is the alpha and omega of political consciousness. The political self, in other words, articulates its identity through the affirmation of difference; or, through the construction of a primordial and seminal antithesis between 'friend' and 'enemy', as claimed by Carl Schmitt. Schmitt’s original, albeit controversial theory that the political incarnates existential totality and determines a choice between being and nothingness also allows us to examine jihad and its controversies without the squeamishness and sanctimony of the modern critic.
Given the possibility of actual, physical killing in a friend-enemy encounter, Schmitt maintains, the political cannot be made subordinate to any other set of values or institution, whether religious, moral, aesthetic or economic. The political transcends all norms and upholds the sovereignty of the existential over the theoretical. Thus, 'war, the readiness of combatants to die, the physical killing of human beings who belong on the side of the enemy - all this has no normative meaning, but an existential meaning only, particularly in a real combat situation with a real enemy. There exists no rational purpose, no norm no matter how true, no programme no matter how exemplary, no social ideal no matter how beautiful, no legitimacy or legality which could justify men in killing each other for this reason.' (The Concept of the Political. New Brunnswick, 1976. Pp. 48-9; my italics). In short, if there is no existential threat to one’s own life, if there is no danger that the collective self may be annihilated, then war and killing cannot be justified. There’s no mistaking then the doctrine of Jihad is the supreme embodiment of the political conscious of Islam and its ultimate justification lies in its being fought for preserving the very existence of the Muslim community.
Schmitt also holds that, in the final analysis, the political, inasmuch as it is sovereign, cannot be evaluated and measured by norms that are external to it; nor can it be avoided. The political is the fundamental fact of existence, the basic characteristic of human life from which man cannot escape; or, expressed differently, man would cease to be man by ceasing to be political. From the inevitability of the political - existential - strife in the temporal world, pessimistic thinkers have also come to the conclusion that pacifism is a lost cause and conciliatory visions of a universal humanity are nothing but pious delusions. For Christian thinkers like Augustine, the state is a consequence of the Original Sin. Others too have found historical existence profoundly unsatisfying and meaningless. Islam rejects all such, radically gloomy world-outlooks and willingly accepts all the moral challenges of the historical existence. By so doing, however, it also puts its own existence at stake. Or, stated differently, the depressing claim that jihad exists for no other reason than that the Muslim community exists need not be as scandalous as it appears, for it merely reiterates Islam’s resolve to bear the burden of history. The paradox, however, is that Islam does not affirm history for its own sakes; history is not a prize to be won but a challenge to be faced for trans-historical goals. The rationale for the preservation of Muslim existence is therefore not ‘political’ in the Schmittian sense; for Islam does not accept the ‘sovereignty’ of the worldly, the existential, the historical, but that of the trans-existential, the moral, the normative. Muslim existence is to be preserved because it must be a living testimony for the truth of transcendence and against the lie of nihilism.
Among the Western academic studies that deal with this subject, though invariably focusing on the military aspects of it, Rudolph Peter’s Jihad in Classical and Modern Times is notable for being a compendium and a primer that presents selected Muslim texts along with the author’s own studies on the re-emergence of jihad in the modern political discourse. Needless to say, Peters’ approach is scholarly, his tone educational and informative and his concerns the issues of international law and world-order. He recognizes that jihad, like revolution, is a protean concept that means different things to different people, that it acted as an ideology of resistance against colonialism, and that its re-entry in the language of politics is part of the general trend towards the Islamization of national discourses in the Muslim world. Though not intended to be a comprehensive survey (it bypasses the moral, literary and mystical interpretations of this seminal doctrine), Peters’ study is nonetheless a lucid presentation that makes a valuable contribution to the current debate.
John Kelsay’s Islam and War, written in the aftermath of
the Desert Storm, is more ambitious and analytical in terms of history of ideas
and war ethics. It also makes a sensitive contribution to the discourse of Just
War, inviting even Muslim thinkers to elaborate on jus in
In the Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Tradition, James Turner Johnson pursues the same theme as Kelsay, though with greater passion, polemical candour and self-righteous rancour. No wonder that to the Muslim reader of the book, it appears as a stern and unending reprimand. Johnson builds his case against the classical jurists of Islam (notably Shaybani in Khadduri’s translation) and contrasts them against the laudable representatives of his own tradition, both Christian and secular. (The West, for him, stands for Western, Catholic, Christianity and for secular Euro-America; Orthodox Christianity is not part of the West.) The visible cause of his ire is the juristic, though not the Qur’anic, division of the world into Dar-al-Islam and Dar-al-Harb, which he construes literally as a theory of world-order:
‘The Islamic distinction between dar al-harb and dar al-islam was fundamentally different [i.e. from the Augustinian scheme of the heavenly and the earthly cities] in origin and conception; not only was it juristic rather than theological, aiming at ensuring right behaviour rather than right motivation, but it defined the world in control of territory rather than the invisible progress of divine grace, and it defined membership in the two spheres by behaviour (submission to God’s will, islam, whether or not it was accompanied by faith, iman) and not the invisible presence of divine grace.’!
Unfortunately, Johnson is so blissfully ignorant of Islam that neither his invidious comparison nor his squeamish Christian rhetoric calls for a rejoinder; any common Western scholar of Islam ought to remove those lapses of knowledge and perception that vitiate his whole statement. Suffice it to say that the jurist’s discourse, as it has been duly recognized within Islam, is zahiri; it is concerned with the outward, empirically verifiable aspects of the social reality. One may even say that juristic reason represents the Islamic variant of raison d’état. Thank God that the poor jurist did not try to measure ‘the invisible presence (or progress) of divine grace”, or the inner reality of iman, and incorporate it in his praxis. Had he done so, he would have become indistinguishable from any inquisitor of the Western church, and perhaps as cruel as well! The notion of divine grace, however, is indispensable to his system (Cf. MWBR, 22:1; pp. 3-13), though, blissfully, he does not wield it as a confessional scourge! That the Muslim jurist devised a legal scheme, which was based on ‘rule of law’ and territory rather than on ‘the invisible presence of grace’, today stands against him. However, when the same principles, territoriality and legal sovereignty, become, under the aegis of the West, the defining characteristics of statehood, they are deemed salubrious for mankind (Cf. Kelsay, above.)!
Johnson and Kelsay’s edited volume, Cross, Crescent, and Sword,
represents an earlier attempt by a group of academics to examine the medieval,
Islamic and Christian, arguments for the justification and limitation of war.
It is a sober and scholarly work whose ideological balance and intellectual earnestness
are not reflected in the tabloid title of the book, which appears to pander to
common tastes by insisting on the pernicious dichotomy of Islam and the West! Outcome
of a conference held at
A work of similar nature, though more ambitious and comprehensive in scope and vision, is the collection of essays edited by Terry Nardin: The Ethics of War and Peace: Religious and Secular Perspectives. Since the basic divide within this framework is between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ worldviews, it is but natural that it situates the Christian discourse of Just War within a broader, cross-cultural perspective. Not only Islam and Judaism, but also the pacifist and feminist critics of the established ethical systems have been duly represented in this dialogue which, according to the editor, is meant to be ‘a conversational and comparative inquiry into different views about a common topic – not a debate that can be won or lost, but an exchange of information.’ In other words, it is from an ideologically less assertive position that this cautious inquiry with uncertain goals is being pursued.
For all this, however, it is an intellectually exciting, though morally daunting, work that provides a befitting testimony to the ethical pluralism and foundational relativism of our age, including its ‘messianic’ hopes and Utopian dreams. Ted Koontz, for instance, argues from an ‘abolutionist perspective’ that the main focus of our inquiry ought not to be the ethics of war but the construction of a just international order in which law will substitute for war! (How we will find a common basis for such a transcendent law is, however, left unexplained!) The two Muslim contributions are quite uneven and disparate; while Sohail Hashmi delivers a reflective, often perceptive statement (‘Interpreting the Islamic Ethics of War and Peace’), Bassam Tibi, on the other hand, is unduly critical of the Islamic tradition, examining it, as duly noted by the editor, ‘through the lens of a self-confessed internationalist’ (‘War and Peace in Islam’)!
Paul Fregosi’s Jihad is so outrageously polemical and inflammatory that it merits a mention in this review only because of its publisher’s abiding interest in spreading blatantly anti-Islamic tracts. With the publication of this volume, Prometheus Books have fortified their enviable reputation as the leading crusaders against Islam.
An earlier French
One must pause here, for even if jihad may, in ultimate terms, be construed as an expression of personal piety beyond the calculus of politics and rule, a religious obligation beyond the logic of victory and defeat, it is nonetheless never totally severed from the historical mission of the community. Only when this link is intentionally broken, only when the interests of the community are made subservient to the pursuit of partisan politics, may the imperative of jihad turn into nihilistic anti-politics. Without the mediating, instrumental logic of fiqh, without the disciplined deliberation of the jurists, without the sacrament of Ijma´, jihad becomes a caricature of faith. Our tragedy is that the fiqh has lost its intellectual vigour, and fuqaha their moral authority. For all its discontents and limitations, therefore, the rule of fiqhi reason must return to Islam, but it must be a reason that has become thoroughly reinvigorated by the absorption of all forms of knowledge, from within the Islamic tradition and outside it.
Paradoxically, despite their explicit concern with the issues of world-order and the ethics of war and peace, none of the works mentioned so far assists us in understanding the political world as it is, or as it its evolving. For all their intellectual acumen, ethical sensitivity and polemical fervour, these works speak not only of a bygone Islam (Dar al-Islam) or a bygone Christianity (Christendom), but also of a bygone West, the West of the sovereign states, of national cultures, of local economies. What we are witnessing today is far more radical a transformation of our world, of its power structures, its economic enterprises, its technological projects, indeed of its moral discourses, than can be captured by the innocuous concept of ‘globalization’, or by the pert jargon of ‘pax americana’. It would be more apt to conceptualize our situation in terms of Empire. Such, at least, is the argument presented in a radically original and provocative study that, despite its associations with a totally different, and for most Muslims wholly unfamiliar, discourse, is as relevant to our inquiry as anything else discussed so far.
Empire by the Italian political philosopher, Antonio Negri, and his American colleague and former translator, Michael Hardt, is a monumental, daunting, exhilarating piece of writing that is both liberating and frightening. Ideationally erudite and ideologically incisive, yet always lively and absorbing, it is a political tract that is also a philosophical reflection, a materialistic account of the world that has its own premonitions of transcendence. An intellectual tour de force and an ideational feast, a political manifesto and a blueprint for resistance, a scholar’s dissertation that presents a panorama of the entire terrain of modern thought, Empire is the key to the understanding of global politics, economics, ideologies. Notwithstanding its ‘Western’ perspective, its secular idiom and its materialistic vision, Empire is a work of contemporary history that demands the Muslim thinker’s fullest attention. If Islamic discourse is not to be a synonym for obsolete sentimentality and gutless nostalgia, it must learn to look at Empire in the eye.
authors contend, is materializing before our very eyes. For, along with the
global market and global circuits of production has emerged a global order, ‘a
new logic of structure and rule – in short a new form of sovereignty.’ Their
thesis is that sovereignty today is composed of a series of national and
supernational organisms that are ‘united under a single logic of rule’. If
sovereignty of the nation-state was the cornerstone of the colonialist order,
Empire, by contrast, establishes no territorial centre of power: ‘it is a
decentred and deterritorializing apparatus of rule
that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open,
expanding frontiers.’ Empire also manages hybrid identities, flexible
hierarchies and plural exchange. The authors also warn that Empire should not
be misconstrued as the emergence of a single world-power. Hence, they claim,
For Hardt and Negri, Empire is not a metaphor, but a concept that calls for a theoretical approach. The more harrowing aspect of Empire, a single-sovereignty world, may then be spelled out as: ‘Empire posits a regime that effectively encompasses the spatial totality… (It) presents itself not as a historical regime originating in conquest, but rather as an order that effectively suspends history and thereby fixes the existing state of affairs for eternity.’ In a true Hegelian vein, Empire proclaims that this is the way things will always be and it is also the way they were always meant to be! In short, ‘Empire presents its rule not as a transitory moment in the movement of history, but as a regime with no temporal boundaries and in a sense outside of history or at the end of history.’ The most frightful vision of Empire however is that it ‘operates on all registers of the social order extending down to the depth of the social world. Empire not only manages a territory and a population but also creates the very world it inhabits. It not only regulates human interactions but also seeks directly to rule over human nature. The object of its rule is social life in its entirety.’ (All italics are mine.)
The authors’ point of departure for the study of Empire is the emergence of a new notion of right, or rather a new inscription of authority, along with new modalities of the production of norms and legal instruments of coercion that are already in force today. Indeed, Hardt and Negri regret the return of jus ad bellum logic in world-politics (pace Kelsay and Johnson!): ‘There is certainly something troubling in this renewed focus on the concept of bellum justum [Just War], which modernity, or rather modern secularism, had worked so hard to expunge from the medieval tradition.’ The new model of imperial authority, underwritten by the claims of ‘universal values’ and right of intervention’, presents them with a set of disquieting questions:
‘Should we assume that since this new right of intervention functions primarily toward the goal of resolving urgent human problems, its legitimacy is therefore founded on universal values? Should we read this movement as a process that, on the basis of the fluctuating elements of the historical framework, sets in motion a constitutive machine driven by universal forces of justice and peace? Are we thus in a situation very close to the traditional definition of Empire, the one promulgated in the ancient Roman-Christian imaginary?’
Hardt and Negri have no illusions that ’the Empire we are faced with wields enormous powers of oppression and destruction’. Nevertheless, this fact should not, they plead, make us nostalgic in any way for the old forms of domination. The passage to Empire and its processes of globalization, they are convinced, also offer new possibilities to the forces of liberation. However, what is salient in their strategy of resistance is the realization that ‘the struggle to contest and subvert Empire, as well as those to construct a real alternative, will take place on the imperial terrain itself.’ Or, in plainer language, it is within the institutions and structures of the one-sovereignty world that that our struggle will take place – a point which must also be pondered by Muslim activists, who often dream of constructing alternative structures, of confining Islam to a ghettoized existence. The most visible victim of this spineless purism is Islamic discourse itself! A frank and honest encounter with Empire, the idea and the reality, ought to awaken Muslim thought from its long-lasting slumber. In the end, if Hardt and Negri may dream that ‘the multitude will have to invent new democratic forms and a new constituent power that will one day take us through and beyond Empire’, the Muslim may also hope that a new form of jihad, a jihad that is moral and spiritual rather than violent and militant, will prevent Empire’s march towards global nihilism.
Islam and Empire may be incompatible, ideationally, morally, metaphysically, but Muslim historical existence and humanity’s quest for world-order, albeit currently, and in modern times, under the aegis of Western powers, need not become bereft of the compromise of history and politics. To promote a discourse and perpetuate a vision that conceives Islam and the West, or even more viciously Islam and the USA, as absolute opposites, as mortal enemies, is a defeat of the cosmopolitan intellect and universal reason; it is a rejection of Adam’s khilafa in Islamic terms and a renunciation of humanity’s bid for enlightenment in the Western ones. No Muslim thinker worth the name can become accessory to the promotion of such an inhumane, treasonous and suicidal ideology without betraying his Islamic commitment.
A transcendent faith, whose ultimate goal is beyond world and history, gets entangled in violence because the inviolable beyond is violated by the agents of nihilism. Terrorism holds nothing inviolable and is therefore the offspring of the same nihilism which is the antithesis of faith.