FSU professor examines jihad in new book, ‘Arguing the Just War in Islam’

“The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it ….”

With that command, a group of Islamic militants led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri declared a jihad, or holy war, against the United States, Israel and their citizens in 1998. In their “Declaration Concerning Armed Struggles Against Jews and Crusaders,” the militants cited three factors justifying the jihad: the ongoing presence of American forces in Saudi Arabia following the first Persian Gulf War; the devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by that war and subsequent embargos; and the United States’ ongoing support of “the Jews’ petty state.”

But what exactly is jihad? Who can declare it? And what rules govern it? Most Westerners have only a vague understanding of Islamic doctrine and tradition, perhaps leading to increased tensions between the world’s 1 billion Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors.

In his new book, “Arguing the Just War in Islam,” John Kelsay, a Distinguished Research Professor and Richard L. Rubenstein Professor of Religion at Florida State University, shows that Islamic thinkers have debated the ethics of war and of specific military tactics going all the way back to the time of the prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago. That debate continues today, he says.

John Kelsay
John Kelsay

“When people fight wars, they have some conception of right and wrong,” Kelsay said. “Which tactics and weapons can we use, and which can we not? Are attacks on noncombatants ever permissible?

“In those cultures that grew from ancient Rome and early Christianity, there evolved a ‘just war’ tradition that addresses such issues as when war is justified and what types of conduct are appropriate. In Islam, an analog to the just war doctrine has evolved as well.”

“Shari’a reasoning,” as Kelsay describes it, refers to the process by which Islamic law is constantly reinterpreted, both by traditional scholars and populist leaders, to discern the proper path to salvation. The text of the Koran, ancient narratives of the words and deeds of Muhammad, and consensual reports of major scholars through the centuries all are used to develop the rules for proper Muslim behavior—including the conduct of war.

“Shari’a is not so much a fixed body of law as a field of discourse in which the true ‘way’ of Allah is continually argued and debated,” Kelsay said. “In such a context, those who see Islam as being under attack from infidels make extraordinary interpretations of Islamic texts to justify their actions. Traditional Islamic prohibitions against suicide, then, are sidestepped via calls to martyrdom, and attacks on civilians are deemed appropriate when those civilians support a government that is perceived as waging war on Islam.

“As one militant Muslim scholar put it, ‘Necessity makes the forbidden things permitted,'” Kelsay said.

While it may not be apparent to Western eyes, the militant view of jihad is far from the prevailing one in Islam. More moderate Muslims decry al-Qaeda’s brutal methods as ultimately damaging to their cause. However, even moderate Muslims often share key premises with the militants; Kelsay writes of moderates who “do not in fact dissent from the militant judgment that current political arrangements are illegitimate.” In other words, many Muslim scholars condemn the means by which al-Qaeda seeks to accomplish its objectives, not necessarily the objectives themselves.

There are some scholars, however—Kelsay calls them “Muslim democrats”—who engage in a broader criticism of militant objectives. For these scholars, many of whom live and work in the United States, the goals of the militants are as problematic as their means. “Arguing the Just War in Islam” concludes with a call to listen to these advocates of democracy, as they bring Muslim perspectives to bear on the U.S. and European just war debate.

Kelsay has been a scholar of comparative religious ethics, political ethics, and religion and war for nearly three decades. Having completed “Arguing the Just War in Islam” (www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/KELARG.html), he is currently working on his next book, tentatively titled “Religion and the Imperatives of Justice: The Islamic Law of War and Peace.”