Welfare or Warfare? “Jihad” between the Bible & Qur’an

So what does Jihad really mean? And should we trust angry religious extremists or a handful of media corporations to sell us “holy war” and “war on terror” until the end of days? No. There is another way. It turns out the Qur’an is not foreign at all to ‘western, Judeo-Christian values’ but is, rather, founded upon them. And Jihad–yes Jihad–is a good case to explore.

Forget what you know, or think you know, for a moment and let us examine the very origins of this terminology between the Aramaic (especially Syriac) Bible and Arabic Qur’an. This journey takes us before both Gulf War and World War, before both the Spanish Reconquista and the conquest of Constantinople, before the Crusades and all the way back to the origins of Islam itself in the 7th century, when conflict between Christian churches, Zoroastrian priests and Jewish tribes shook the entire Middle East. One group literally ‘struggled, fought’ to save itself from the chaos of that time and place.

One conclusion I offer up front is that the Qur’an’s speaker and audience originally belonged to an Arab Jewish/Christian community, a community that knew scripture well. The Bible and its many commentaries in the late ancient Middle East form the background of the Qur’an. Its ancient community lived very much between the historical Jesus and the historical Muhammad.

Nizami, Khamseh (wikimedia.org)
Nizami, Khamseh (wikimedia.org)

The doctrine of “struggle (jihad) in the way of God” cited in the Qur’an cannot be separated from charity (infaq) on the one hand or fighting (qital) on the other hand, both of which take place “in the way of God.” What follows is an excerpt (pages 118-121) from my book on The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions, released in paperback this month.  (Notes and some special characters have been removed)

The Rabbinic authorities, and by extension, their followers did not welcome the mission of Jesus, nor that of his closest disciples and the rest of his righteous entourage. To the contrary, we recall from the Beatititudes that their suffering is likened to the persecution of the prophets before them. It states,

Blessed are you when people dishonor you (mhasdīn lkūn), persecute you (rādfīn lkūn), and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake (mētūlātī). So rejoice and be glad (hdawū wa rwazū), for your reward is great in heaven (d-agrkūn sagī ba-šmāyā); like this did they persecute the prophets before you (hākanā . . . rdapū la-nbīyē d-mēn qdāmaykūn)(Matthew 5:11–12; Diatessaron 8:35–36)

These words of encouragement amid the persecution they withstood may pre- serve some measure of historicity. They were, furthermore, the subject of discus- sion by Aphrahat’s Demonstration on Persecution as a result his argument against Jewish interlocutors in which the stories of the prophets are narrated, accentuating the significance of persecution (see in relation Chapter 2). Incidentally, the literary style behind this genealogy of persecution reflects that of Q 26:4–190.

At any rate, Matthew 5:11–12 and the reflections of Syriac Christian authors like Aphrahat upon these verses were the inspiration for various qur’ānic passages of encouragement. These verses were likely revealed to Muhammad and uttered by him for the sake of consoling his righteous entourage and persecuted Muslim following as a whole (for example, 2:214; 3:140). In the Qur’ān, they cry out to God in prayer that He may reward them for their faith, sacrifice and endurance of suffering (Q 3:192–194). God responds, stating,

So their Lord answered them, “I do not squander the works of any hard worker among you, neither male nor female, each of you is like the other. As for those who migrated (hājarū), were expelled out of their homes (ukhrijū min diyārihim), and were harmed in My way (wa ūdhū sabīlī)—who fought and were killed (wa qātalū wa qutilū)—I will indeed blot out for them their sins (la-ukaffiranna ‘anhum sayyi’ātihim) and I will indeed enter them into gardens underneath which rivers flow (jannāt tajrī min tahtihā al-anhār) as a reward from God (thawāban min ‘in allāh).” And God possesses the best reward. (Q 3:195)

This verse is—in part—a dogmatic re-articulation of Jesus’s words in Mat- thew, which has been suited to the particular circumstances of Muhammad’s community (migration, expulsion, and retaliation). The Arabic third person plural passive perfect verb referring to those who “were harmed (ūdhū)”—that is, persecuted—encapsulates the Aramaic reference to those who are blessed when people “dishonor you (mhasdīn lkūn), persecute you (rādfīn lkūn), and say all kinds of evil against you falsely.” The qur’ānic and Matthean syntax is also paralleled where the persecution of the righteous entourage is followed by Arabic fī sabīlī, “in My way,” reproducing the Aramaic mētūlātī, “for my sake.” One characteristic which underscores the dogmatic nature of the Qur’ān’s re-articulation of the Gospel text is that where Matthew portrays the righteous entourage as working for “the sake” of Jesus—which is in violation to the strict monotheism espoused by Muhammad—in the Qur’ān they work in “the way” of God. And where their reward is given anonymously in Matthew, God is the explicit possessor and giver of the reward in the Qur’ān. The syntax of both passages continues in parallel as the penultimate statement made is the prom- ise of a “reward” (Arabic thawāb, Aramaic agrā). The final statement in Matthew 5:11–12, namely “like this did they persecute the prophets before you” (hākanā . . . rdapū la-nbīyē d-mēn qdāmaykūn), does not quite match anything in Q 3:195, but is approximated elsewhere in the Qur’ān as it states, “and like this did We create for each prophet an enemy from among the criminals” (wa kadhālik ja‘alnā li kull nabī ‘aduwwān min al-mujrimīn) . . . (Q 25:31; cf. Q 83:29–36), where the Arabic introductory marker kadhālik is analogous to the Aramaic hākanā.

Unlike the Gospels which portray Jesus as a pacifist (Matthew 26:52; although cf. Matthew 10:34), one of the consequences, on Muhammad’s part, of identify- ing the suffering in his own community with that of Jesus in the Gospels was its gradual evolution into an ideology of communal protective warfare, social strug- gle, and internal taxation. The sequence of this evolution is outlined later in this chapter.

We have already seen earlier that Q 3:195 adds those who “fought and were killed” (qātalū wa qutilū) to the list of the persecuted righteous entourage. This is because warfare played a vital role in establishing earliest Islam, not merely as a prophetic tradition, but more importantly as an intertribal, national, state polity, or “ummah.” At its very core, the Qur’ān is concerned with the welfare and protection of the downtrodden members in Muhammad’s community, especially fostering the rights of women and “the downtrodden among the orphans” (al- mustad. ‘afūn min al-wildān; Q 4:127). For this purpose Q 4:74 sanctions fighting on the battlefield and exalts martyrdom. The next verse goes on to implore its believing audience, stating,

So why do you not fight (tuqātilūn) in the way of God and the downtrodden (fī sabīl allāh wa al-mustad‘afīn) among men, women, orphans and those who say, “O Lord release us from this town whose people are oppressive; and create for us, by Your doing, a champion (nasīran)?” (Q 4:75)

Aside from the messianic undertones of the “champion” (nasīr; cf. in relation 1 Samuel 8:4–5; Isaiah 42:13), it is clear from this verse that combat is a communal duty whose inspiration and purpose stems from a strong desire to fend for the downtrodden. In due course, the phrase fī sabīl allāh wa al-mustad. ‘afīn affirms that “the way of God” is itself “the way of the downtrodden.” Concerning those martyred in such warfare, similar to Matthew 5:11–12 and Q 3:195 it states, “And indeed do not think that those who were killed in the way of God (al-ladhīn qutilū fī sabīl allāh) are dead. Nay [they are] alive with their Lord receiving recompense (Q 3:169; cf. Q 47:4).”

As Muhammad’s community grew, projects of migration (hijrah) expanded into military duty (qitāl; see also 4:84; 22:58–60) and, later on, socio-military struggle (jihād; see Q 4:95, 100; 8:72, 74; 9:20, 38, 41, 111 citing in relation the tawrāh and injīl). Concerning this struggle it states,

Indeed those who believe are those who believed in God and his messenger, then had no doubt, and struggled with their wealth and their selves in the way of God (wa jāhadū bi amwālahum wa anfusahum fī sabīl allāh). They are the sincere ones (al-sādiqūn). (Q 49:15; Cf. Q 61:11)

Socio-military struggle (jihād) was waged in the “way of God” (sabīl allāh), which beyond setting the foundation for “holy war” served the greater function of being a community welfare system. This system had two functions. One func- tion required believers to provide voluntary financial support (amwālahum) and the other function required them to provide voluntary military service (anfusa- hum) in the way of God (fī sabīl allāh). Furthermore, by recasting those who struggle (al-ladhīn . . . jāhadū) as the sincere ones (al-s.ādiqūn), this ensured the militarization of the righteous entourage in the Qur’ān.

It is worth mentioning that as the military campaigns of Muhammad’s army began to yield substantial wealth and—perhaps—once they formed a unified polity of sorts, military service lead to the taxation of war booty. Thus 20 percent of all war booty (khums) collected went directly to Muhammad and the poor and downtrodden members of society, including kindred, orphans, the poor, and wanderers (Q 8:41).

On the other hand, those who rebelled (al-ladhīn kafarū) fight “in the way of misguidance” (fi sabīl al-t.āghūt)—where t.āghūt (see also Q 2:256–7; 4:51; 60, 76; 5:60; 16:36; 39:17), its active participle t.āghiyah, “abomination” and its ver- bal form, t.aghā, “to go astray,” (Q 79:37–39; 96:6) are Arabized derivations that came through an Aramaic dialect (from Ethiopic?)25 as is evident from the verbal usage of t‘ā, “to go astray” throughout the Gospels (Matthew 18:12–13; Mark 8:14; 13:5–6; Luke 12:6; John 7:47; and so on).

At any rate, there is an indication in the Qur’ān that the “socio-military struggle in the way of God” (jihād fī sabīl allāh)—precisely because it represented a welfare system that served the poor and downtrodden members of society constituted a sure path to salvation (najāh; Q 61:10–12) and evolved further into the beginnings of internal taxation (nafaqah, infāq fī sabīl allāh; Q 2:195; 9:34; 47:38; 57:10). This argument is supported by the possibility that the function of sabīl allāh as a charitable treasury may be associated with the Aramaic epithet for the “treasury,” that is “the house of offerings of God” (bayt qūrbānē d-alāhā; Luke 21:4) which is discussed later on…

Read the full version HERE!


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