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The courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, where Ibn ‘Asakir preached his book on jihad. Smith Professor Suleiman Mourad believes that efforts to cast jihad as a spiritual rather than as a concrete directive to further Islam are simply at odds with how many practitioners of the faith understand it.

/ Published April 15, 2011

Growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, Professor of Religion Suleiman A. Mourad saw, at an early age, civil war being fought in the name of religion and jihad. Now he wants to expose how jihad, a much talked about and widely invoked concept in Islam, has been reinterpreted and corrupted over the course of nearly a millennium. As a scholar, Mourad believes that he has an obligation to explore the origins of today’s concepts and that understanding history is essential to efforts aimed at reinterpreting religious doctrine.

For the past eight years Mourad has been plumbing a little known, yet, according to his research, highly influential 12th-century book on the concept of jihad

Politically correct scholars tend to downplay the stridency behind the obligation some Muslims feel to fight in the name of their religion, according to Mourad.

Suleiman Mourad

Efforts to cast jihad as a spiritual rather than as a concrete directive to further Islam are simply at odds with how many practitioners of the faith understand it.

“In Islamic tradition and for a majority of Muslims ‘jihad’ means to fight the enemies of God, either by sword or by word or by contributing to the cause,” said Mourad during an interview in his Wright Hall office where he is the Elizabeth Mugar Eveillard 1969 Faculty Director of Smith’s Global Studies Center. To argue otherwise, he adds pointedly, “is either deliberate deception or ignorance.”

In a forthcoming book, The Radicalization of Sunni Jihad Ideology in the Crusader Period (to be published by Ashgate Press), Mourad and co-author James E. Lindsay of Colorado State University grapple with the question of how the concept of jihad came to legitimize Muslims fighting other Muslims, something proscribed as sinful in the early Islamic tradition.

Their starting point was a fairly obscure work by an otherwise prominent 12th- century scholar. Ibn ‘Asakir is famous for his 80-volume history of Damascus, an encyclopedic tome that, bound in bright red, holds a place of prominence at eye level on Mourad’s bookcase. Writing a few decades after the first European Crusades that descended on the Holy Lands, Ibn ‘Asakir was a preeminent authority on Islam in his day.

Ibn ‘Asakir’s lesser-known work, which Mourad went to Damascus to read, was called Forty Hadiths Inciting Jihad. Hadiths, explains Mourad, are stories about the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. They are pored over as crucial complementary religious sources to the Qur’an and are in many ways considered to be even more important than the holy text itself in providing guidance to followers.

The first page of Ibn ‘Asakir’s The Forty Hadith for Inciting Jihad, from the unique manuscript that is preserved in the public library in Damascus. Click to enlarge.

Mourad and Lindsay argue that Ibn ‘Asakir for the first time expounded a conceptualization of jihad that drew distinctions between “good” or right thinking Muslims and others who lacked understanding and practice of the faith. Through this, Ibn ‘Asakir and those influenced by his work in subsequent centuries justified actions that pitted some Muslims against others. The result was a radicalization of Islam, which made way for militant ideologies that, according to Mourad, cast “the concept of jihad as a religious obligation that emphasizes strict adherence to Sunnism as a necessary prerequisite for undertaking military jihad against Islam's internal and external enemies.”

Mourad sees politics at play in Ibn ‘Asakir’s work. “We are not talking about simply someone being an important scholar,” said Mourad. “He was also a key adviser to the ruler of Syria at the time.” That potentate, Nur ad-Din, was followed by his protégé Saladin, whose campaigns against the crusaders are seen as a turning point in the history of Islam.

“In the Islamic tradition there are hundreds and hundreds of sayings by the Prophet on the topic of jihad,” says Mourad. “Here we have a scholar who decided to pick and choose what he considered to be key definitions of jihad that fit his own political and religious agenda and ignore the ones that compromise it.”

Mourad and Lindsay follow Ibn ‘Asakir’s interpretations of jihad forward to contemporary thought. “When you start looking,” says Mourad, “you realize that this book had a tremendous impact on a large group of Sunni scholars.” This means that anyone looking for what Mourad calls a “legitimization of militant jihad” will easily find it in today’s mainstream literature.

Mourad argues that to dismiss or ignore the concept of jihad as many people truly believe it today is to deny reality. The important question, he says, is “when did this militant notion of Islam that you can go and blow up civilians in the name of God emerge?”

“There is a responsibility on us Muslims to identify the problem, where it exists in these sources and to engage it so every time a Muslim comes to them they are aware of the circumstances that led to their creation,” says Mourad. “It is not what the Prophet initiated but what a scholar in 12th-century Damascus was paid by his political patron to promote and disseminate.”

Mourad says that the crusaders are never mentioned in Ibn ‘Asakir’s writings on the Hadiths relating to jihad. The context was that his political patron wanted to make peace with the crusaders in order to focus on fighting Shiite Muslims who had established a dynasty in Egypt.

This is when mainstream Sunni literature starts to make a distinction between “good Muslims” who have the obligation to fight the “bad Muslims,” says Mourad. “The amount of violence we see today among Muslims against other Muslims is unparalleled by any other society. We are not talking about a huge group, but nobody as yet has articulated a serious religious answer to their views and potency of their arguments.”