Interview with Asma Afsaruddin (Part 1)

Information: Asma Afsaruddin is associate professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She is also chair of the Board of Directors of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, and serves on the advisory board of Karamah, a human and women’s rights organization, and on the advisory committee of the Muslim World Initiative of the United States Institute of Peace. She also frequently consults with US governmental and private agencies on contemporary Islamic movements, inter-faith, and gender issues. In part 1 of our interview, she discusses the war in Iraq, the idea of jihad, the terms dar al-islam (“the abode of Islam”) and dar al-harb (“the abode of war”), and the relationship between Islam and the West.

Steve: Thanks for taking time to talk to us. I know this is a sabbatical year for you, so I really appreciate it that you have been willing to set some time aside to talk to us.

Asma: I was pleased to be asked to take part in this interview.

Steve: Of course, I have to begin by asking you to comment on what is currently going on in Iraq. What is your take on the situation there?

Bomb site in Baghdad, Sunday 13th May 2007Asma: The situation in Iraq has to do with struggles for political power and privilege. It is not a religious war. Sunnis and Shi’a are not seeking to convert one another, as in the religious wars of Europe at the time of the Reformation, but are fighting one another to get a bigger and better slice of the political pie in Iraq. The American occupation of Iraq has simply added another grisly dimension to it, allowing terrorist groups like al-Qaeda to enter the fray and claim that the West is waging war on Islam.

‘Although there is a lot of religious rhetoric flying around, it masks the uglier realities of power politics and empire-building, with the average Iraqi paying the heaviest price for other people’s political machinations.’

Steve: So even though George Bush and Tony Blair are Christians, and with America and Britain essentially Christianised nations, you would not interpret the war along religious lines?

Asma: I would not and neither would most Iraqis. Most Iraqis do not regard the presence of the coalition forces in Iraq as being motivated by religious concerns but by the usual geo-political interests of the West in this strategic area. But there are elements like al-Qaeda who wish to exploit the situation to their possible benefit by putting a religious spin on the whole crisis, and the Western media adds to the drumbeat of religious war by amplifying the statements of the extremists.

Steve: Let’s talk a bit more about this notion of jihad. What (for you) is the correct understanding of the term Jihad?

Asma: Not just for me – but on the basis of primary texts and historical usage – jihad is a term which has various meanings associated with it, but mainly it refers to the unending human struggle on many levels to constantly promote what is good and just and beautiful, and to thwart what insults human dignity and contributes to injustice and ugliness.

‘One important aspect of jihad is military self-defense, but it does NOT constitute “holy war”.’ The word “war” (Ar. harb) is used in the Qur’an about four times and never in the sense of waging it for God. One must be very wary of transposing Western Christian notions onto Islamic contexts. The Qur’an clearly forbids forced conversions (2:256) and one of the main purposes of holy wars in Europe and elsewhere was to do just that.’

When Muslims undertake jihad as military combat, first of all it has to be declared by a recognized head of state, and civilian life and property must be protected during hostilities. By these criteria, militant groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban are definitely not carrying out jihad but are rather waging hiraba, a classical legal Arabic term that is the equivalent of “terrorism” today.

Steve: That’s interesting, because I think many people only associate the idea of jihad with that of going to war!

Grapple by Jeffrey PalladiniAsma: Jihad in its basic meaning refers to “struggle;” “striving;” and “effort.” The Qur’an enjoins Muslims (and all of humanity) to struggle to uphold what is good and just and noble and to prevent what is wrong and unjust and ignoble. This struggle is jihad in its essence. A famous hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) states that jihad is to be carried out by the tongue, hand, and heart. Jihad is both physical and spiritual, external and internal. The means of carrying out jihad are therefore multiple, depending on the circumstances.

If one is struggling to eradicate poverty, for example, then one’s campaign to ensure equitable distribution of resources in a society or world-wide is a jihad. If one is attacked by external enemies and struggles militarily to defend oneself and fellow citizens, then that is jihad. If one is striving to end illiteracy by making education accessible to all or struggling to feed one’s family, then one is engaging in jihad. The list could go on interminably.

‘Any kind of human effort undertaken for a noble and moral purpose is jihad. My struggle right now to find the right words to convey information from which I hope others will find benefit is jihad. I like to think that from the moment I get up till I go to bed at night I am engaged in jihad everyday as I strive to do my research, teach my students, and fulfill my other obligations (such as replying to your questions), while also trying to better myself and society around me to the extent that I can.’

Steve: In your article Views of Jihad throughout History on the Religion Compass website, you discuss the terms dar al-islam (“the abode of Islam”) and dar al-harb (“the abode of war,” referring to non-Muslim territories). Can you say something about the way Muslims use (or reinforce) the dar al islam and dar al harb distinction today, and whether you believe this use is justified?

Asma: Not all Muslims, but extremist Muslims. One must avoid totalizing descriptions of people. Extremist Muslims today have revived this medieval view of a bi-polar world (not supported by any Qur’anic text or hadith, as my article points out), because they want to promote the idea of a civilizational clash. Their rhetoric and world-view are the exact mirror image of what Samuel Huntington and his supporters say about a so-called inevitable clash of civilizations. In the context of pre-modern Realpolitik, where war was the default situation, I can understand how this world-view developed historically. But today, with porous state boundaries and increasingly flexible and hybrid national identities and constant migrations, such a view is no longer tenable and we can do so much better.

‘Huntington’s misguided thesis, replicated in the fulminations of extremist Muslims, represents the last hurrah of the beleaguered religio-cultural chauvinists, and is sadly and deliberately out of touch with today’s changed realities as the consequence of globalization.’

Steve: So in light of this, do you believe there can be reconciliation between the Middle Eastern (Islamic) countries, and the Western (Christianised) ones in the future, and if so how?

Picture of faiths windowAsma: Remember, the Middle East till today also contains Christian minority groups and the West has large minority Muslim communities. This uninformed distinction between the “Muslim Middle East” and the “Christian West” simply does not work, especially at the present time. I think these changing demographics, particularly in the West, means people from Muslim and Christian backgrounds in particular have to find a way of living together, but it’s not as if there are no historical precedents for such coexistence. Muslims, Christians, and Jews forged strong social and cultural alliances in Abbasid Baghdad, Muslim Spain, and Sicily, for example.

I also think the trend today is towards religious and cross-cultural dialogue and mutual understanding. There is a very strong shared history between what we often call the Islamic world and Christendom in terms of exchange of scholarly knowledge and technical know-how.

‘The Crusaders, for all the destruction they wrought in Syria-Palestine, also brought back to Europe valuable knowledge from the Islamic world about education and educational institutions, philosophy, medicine and other sciences. Today Muslim-majority societies look to the West for technological and scientific knowledge. The vast repository of learning and scholarship that is part of the universal human heritage is due in considerable measure to such cross-cultural exchanges.’

Front cover of The Case for an Islamo-Christian Civilisation by Richard BullietEducation remains the key to fostering this awareness of a shared history and mutual dependence. In this context, I would highly recommend the book The Case for an Islamo-Christian Civilization, written by Professor Richard Bulliet of Columbia University, which makes this point cogently.

Interview with Asma Afsaruddin (Part 2)

(June 20th, 2007)

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