Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Book of Jihad (no, it's not the Koran)


What inspires people to stick up political rants on low-traffic blogs with no relation to or sympathy for the subject matter? It's happened to me, and now to a friend who unwarily used the phrase 'Pope and Islam' in a post title. At least my guy had a case to make about discrimination in Malaysia, even if he did it on a post about our club barbecue. Jeremy's visitor managed to mention the Pope, but only once amidst the screeching about oil independence from "Islamonazis" (are those like "commie-nazis"?).

Flatten the world, and you get the lowest common denominator...

Update 2

See what I mean?

Ever since the Pope put Islam and violence together, the media has been awash with religious men commenting on what other religius men had to say about other religions. Some, like the Anglican vicar given a 2500-word column in today's Australian, have some interesting points to make. The only one I'd take issue with is his (unsubstantiated) assertion that the medieval Catholic doctrine of holy war derived from jihad. Cultures are quite capable of cooking up fanatical ideas independently, as I hope comes across in this piece dashed off for my Crusades subject a couple of years ago.

Personally I'm more interested in what al-Sulami had to say about the Franks - an 'existential threat' to society from within, against which people have to be roused from complacency to defend themselves, and with whom no compromise is possible. Now where have I heard that before?...


Al-Sulami’s Kitab al-Jihad ('Book of Jihad') is the first extant call for a Muslim military response to the Crusades. Delivered as an oral sermon in the Great Mosque at Damascus six years after Jerusalem’s capture by the Franks, its’ immediate context is the establishment of the Crusader states in the face of the Muslim world’s continued apathy. The Kitab al-Jihad is therefore a key text for study of the evolution of Islamic responses to the Crusades, although its value to the historian is vitiated by the fact that its two surviving manuscripts are incomplete. More specifically, al-Sulami’s qualifications as a religious scholar make his text valuable to understanding the construction of the Islamic ‘holy war’ concept; to this end, it provides more insights than the accounts of Arab historians or political leaders more familiar to historians of the Crusades.

The Kitab al-Jihad is clearly intended to mobilise a pan-Islamic military campaign against the Franks. Al-Sulami draws his listeners’ attention to the invasion and occupation of Islamic territory, and exhorts them to express Muslim solidarity through an armed response; his Damascene audience is told that the Franks’ assault on Palestine and the cities of the Mediterranean coast constitutes an ‘attack on your country’, and that a counteroffensive is a matter of the ‘defence of yourselves and others of your brotherhood’. While certain references in the text indicate that al-Sulami’s message was delivered to a high-ranking audience - men with the authority and resources to mobilise the country for war – it is addressed to Muslims as a community, in the same sense that Pope Urban’s sermon at Clermont was preached to a noble audience but addressed to Latin Christendom. Al-Sulami cites Islamic history and the hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed) to demonstrate that jihad is the collective duty of all the faithful. This goes against the then-prevalent view of the Frankish intrusion as a regional affair, a matter concerning the local emirs or at most the Seljuk rulers. Al-Sulami’s rebuke to his audience for continuing to rebel against their punishment may be a direct reference to the absence at that time of any substantial Muslim response to the fall of Jerusalem.

Indeed, al-Sulami’s emphasis on a collective Muslim duty to fight the Crusaders stems from his perception of this phenomenon’s peculiar nature. To him it represents no ordinary trial, but ‘a punishment the like of which [God] did not warn you [Muslims] with before … a matter of serious vengeance, destructive extermination and removal’. Allowing for rhetorical hyperbole, this message still contrasts sharply with other contemporary Muslim writers’ characterisation of Frankish aggression as mere banditry or revenge-seeking. Al-Sulami was apparently alone among his contemporaries in recognising that the Franks were waging a religious war against Islam. He actually uses the Arabic term jihad to describe the Crusaders’ behaviour. They are not a passing menace, but a fundamental threat to the integrity of the Muslim world that must expunged by armed force.

Al-Sulami’s analysis is significant not only for its novelty and perceptiveness, but for its implications for Muslim behaviour towards the Franks. At the turn of the 12th century the Muslim Levant was a political patchwork created by the erosion of Seljuk authority. The wider Islamic world seems initially to have been prepared to accept the Franks as a new element in this mix, albeit a novel and unusually violent one. Christians had after all coexisted with Muslims for centuries in the Holy Land (though in a subordinate position and forbidden to bear arms). It is only once the Franks are constructed as a religious aggressor that expelling them becomes imperative. Al-Sulami brands them as ‘enemies of God’ and ‘blasphemers’, thus elevating them from ignorant savages into active enemies of the Faith, who cannot be bargained with or simply ignored. Our knowledge of the evolution of Frankish-Muslim relations would be further improved if we could study how al-Sulami developed views so distinct from those of his contemporaries, but we are unfortunately ignorant of his sources of information.

Having constructed the Frankish presence as a matter of holy war, al-Sulami’s sermon is necessarily underpinned by a religious theme. The Crusaders are a ‘warning from God’, a punishment for Muslim sin and complacency. At the same time they represent a test, a chance to repent by obeying God’s rulings as set out in the Qur’an – specifically by conducting jihad against the Crusaders. However, waging war against the infidel is not in itself enough; if one does not ‘desire God’s face’ by an act then it is hypocritical, and impliedly no better than the behaviour which attracted divine wrath in the first place. Therefore practice of the internal jihad – ‘rooting out’ bad qualities, submitting oneself to God’s will – is a prerequisite for success in the external jihad against the Franks. The spiritual state of the individual jihadists will determine whether God grants victory or whether ‘He will make you fall into the hands of your enemy’.

There are repeated and striking parallels between this elaboration of holy war and the Crusading idea preached by contemporary Popes: the attribution of catastrophe to divine judgment, the calls for religious solidarity, the emphasis on personal piety as integral to the military endeavour. These similarities become more intriguing when one considers that the concepts of jihad and crusade developed independently of each other. It is highly unlikely that al-Sulami was familiar with the content of Pope Urban’s sermon at Clermont, if he knew of it at all; conversely the Crusaders (initially, at least) knew nothing of the centuries-old Muslim doctrine of jihad. The kitab al-jihad provides a useful basis for a comparative study of the two holy war traditions, aiding critical analysis of their main features.

Take for instance the common approach of caricaturing the enemy, whether by railing at the ‘great tyranny’ of the Franks or by conjuring images of Turks defiling Christian altars and murdering Christian babiess. Another means of dehumanising the religious foe is by stripping them of autonomous motives or capacities: ‘(the Franks) acted as they did because of (you Muslims’) blame of God’ (sic), and it is God who ‘increases them in great tyranny’ (i.e. gives them victory). Portraying the enemy as nothing more than an instrument of God’s chastisement undermines attempts to understand or interact with them as fellow human beings. The fact that such interaction did occur – take for instance the arrangements reached between the Templars and various Muslim factions, or the chivalrous exchanges between Richard I and Saladin – highlights a gap between the theory and practice of holy war that is easy to overlook from a 21st century viewpoint.

Comparative analysis is also useful for placing religiously-defined war within its sociopolitical context. Al-Sulami’s message went unheeded for over a decade; it produced .no fruit until it encountered fertile political ground, specifically when Muslim rulers (Zengi, Nur ad-Din, Saladin) found jihad a useful concept to support empire-building agendas. This is not to deny that these leaders may have been motivated by genuine religious conviction, but the timing does provide insights into the influence of extra-religious factors on the practice of ‘holy war’. At first glance, the immediate and dramatic response to the Clermont sermon might seem to be a contrasting experience. However, by drawing attention to the sociopolitical context of late 11th century Western Europe – overpopulation, a drive to expand Papal influence, the closing of domestic outlets for knightly aggression – al-Sulami’s example helps us appreciate the role of these extrinsic factors in the crusading concept’s development.

Comparative analysis does show up some differences between Christian and Muslim holy war traditions. For instance al-Sulami uses the image of ‘sleep’ to rebuke his Muslim audience, whereas papal criticisms of Latin Christendom’s were generally focused on its internecine warfare. Another point to note is that al-Sulami’s God is a more prominent and vengeful character than the deity featuring in crusading sermons. The differences are however certainly less remarkable than the similarities. As one writer has observed, the great value of al-Sulami’s text is that it shows how certain basic ideas associated with holy war were common to medieval Christendom and Islam, so often considered alien cultures in the context of crusades studies.


Jeremy said...

I think my first commentor in that post came to the site through a technorati search he presumably had bookmarked on "pope" "islam". He's a non-automated spam bot trying to plug his "terror free oil" company. I left the comment there because, as I said in my reply, the entire concept of terror free oil is ridiculous in a world oil market where any purchase of oil from anywhere influences global prices and thus the amount of money going into the hands of Iran, Saudi etc.

But, yeah, i don know what you mean more generally :)

John Lee said...

so the guy's motto would be "For God and Profit?"

back to the Middle Ages...