Jihad need not imply a war of religions. Gihan Shahine reports on the state of the debate
Signalling what may be a change in official discourse, a recent statement by the scholars of Al-Azhar has urged Muslims worldwide to declare jihad against the US invasion of Iraq. Al-Azhar is considered to be one of the foremost seats of Sunni Muslim scholarship and as such the call has sparked heated debate all over the world.
Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy (IRA) issued a statement on 10 March ruling that, "according to Islamic law, if the enemy steps on Muslims' land, jihad becomes a duty for every male and female Muslim." The statement further urged Arabs and Muslims worldwide to be ready to, "defend themselves and their faith" against what they called, "a new Crusader battle targeting our land, honour, faith and nation".
While appealing to Muslims worldwide, the statement drew criticism from the US and Britain. The statement also urged worldwide debate over the true meaning of jihad, especially at a time when Arab governments are not providing Iraqis with military assistance.
Perhaps it was that controversy that pressured Minister of Information Safwat El-Sherif, to refute news that the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, had urged jihad as he was quoted as saying in the Al-Wafd opposition newspaper last Friday. Although Tantawi did not sign the IRA statement himself, which would have lent it more weight, he made it clear during last Friday's prayers that, "it is a religious obligation to help the Iraqi people fend off the aggression." Tantawi had also ruled it as, "forbidden that any Arab or Islamic country help foreign forces launch a military offensive against Iraq".
Tantawi, who said he had no knowledge of El-Sherif's statement, told Al- Ahram Weekly that he, "approves of the content" of the IRA statement with the sole exception of the word "crusade" which may carry false religious connotations.
"What we are facing now is not a war between Muslims and Christians," Tantawi told the Weekly. "All Muslims and Christians around the world have a unified stance against the US-led war on Iraq."
El-Sayed Abu-Wafa Aggour, the IRA's secretary-general, explained that the academy, "was just using the same term that President Bush himself used". However, scholars, "did not mean to imply any conflict of religions or civilisations", he added. Aggour also referred to a paragraph in the statement which applauds the world's nations for the massive rallies they organised protesting against the US-led war on Iraq as supporting his argument.
"We reject US attempts to wage wars in the name of religion," Aggour stated. "All religions promote peace and prohibit violence. This is an imperialistic war that Christianity condemns, as [has been] made clear by the Coptic church, the Vatican and Christian nations all over the world."
However, this does not necessarily mean Islam is not a target of the US war, which remains a prevalent view among Arab and Muslim nations. The statement made it clear that, "our Arab and Islamic nation, and even our faith, are a main target for all these military build-ups."
"This war is not a crusade, but Islam is definitely a target, not as a religion, but as a strong catalyst for resistance and struggle," said Abdel-Moneim Abul- Fotouh, a leading member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and deputy secretary-general of the Arab Doctors' Federation. "Islam is perceived as the strongest obstacle to US plans to enslave the Arab nation," he added.
According to Aggour, the Al-Azhar statement has, "sparked great alarm" in the US and Britain. "The grand Imam and our office received official visits from the British and US embassies to express alarm over the statement," Aggour told the Weekly.
Were they worried about potential attacks on US and British interests and embassies in the region? "No, they were apprehensive that the statement, issued from the world's most prestigious seat of Islamic learning, would encourage sending military assistance to help Iraqis defend themselves against the US-British aggression," he added.
Indeed, the foreign media seems to have shown concern over this issue on more than one occasion. ABC News' consultant Fawaz A Gerges has written that, "given its historical and religious symbolism and weight, Azhar's ruling will likely resonate with the faithful, particularly outraged young men." Gerges compared the significance of Al-Azhar's call to Muslims to that of, "the Papacy if it were to call on Catholics to fight a just war to defend the faith."
"Maligned previously by conservative and reactionary clerics as a pro-Western reformer, Tantawi's new stance shows the extent of the realignment of political opinion against American policy in the world of Islam," Gerges cautioned. "Moderates and radicals now appear to be fully united and determined to oppose the American war," he added.
Jihad is perhaps one of the most widely misinterpreted and perhaps misused doctrines in Islam. Tantawi has repeatedly insisted that there is a big difference between terrorism and jihad.
"Jihad is sanctioned by God to either defend religion, money, soul, land, honour and freedom, or to support those who are subject to injustice," Tantawi told the Weekly. "Terrorism, by contrast, refers to acts of imperialism, the killing of civilians, the destruction of homes, and aggression against civilians."
Aggour concludes that the US-led war on Iraq, "presents the best example of what terrorism actually is". "Even during wars, Islam prohibits the killing of children and the destruction of homes and the natural environment," he added.
Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, a professor of law at Cairo University and a member of the IRA agrees. "Islam makes it clear that we fight those who fight us and do not begin hostilities or act aggressively," Abul-Magd said. "This doctrine is enshrined in all international laws and treaties, which similarly sanction [the] support [of] neighbouring countries in case they are subject to outside aggression."
However, this begs the question of how Muslims would engage in jihad with the Iraqi people when their governments do not sanction military assistance. Jihad may have other meanings in Islam, including struggling against one's desires and sins, but in light of the current invasion of Iraq, it should, "mean helping our fellow Iraqis in fending off aggression", says Aggour.
"This is a religious obligation but it is up to the ruler to decide when and how to fulfill it," Aggour explained. So in cases where the government does not find it appropriate to send troops, people should resort to all other types of jihad, namely donations, condemnation, peace protests and prayer, according to Aggour.
A controversy, however, has erupted over whether attacking US interests is considered legitimate in times of war.
"Islam restricts fighting to those who actually engage in attacking and killing Muslims and does not permit any other attack unless it is necessitated by war conditions, and this is to be estimated by the Muslim ruler," Sheikh Faysal Mawlawi, deputy chairman of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, told an inquirer on Islam Online. "Therefore, no Muslim is allowed to launch an attack against US interests for fighting purposes unless he gets the permission of [a] Muslim ruler," he added.
A boycott of all US, British and Israeli products, Mawlawi added, "is not only permissible but also an obligatory duty in Islam".
Yet for Islamists, perhaps contrary to western fears, the Al-Azhar statement does not seem to carry more than a symbolic significance.
"Everybody knows jihad is a basic religious duty and so the statement provides no news," said Abul-Fotouh of the Muslim Brotherhood. "I mean people do not need scholars, for instance, to tell them to pray or fast and we know that jihad is something that should be organised by the government. The Al-Azhar statement is thus no more than an attempt on the part of its scholars to fulfill their duty before God.".
"The statement is like a wake-up call for nations to know their duties and be ready to defend themselves in case of aggression," Abul-Magd added.