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It took a terrorist attack on our country September 11th, 2001, for Americans to consider the Islamic people and their religion, beliefs, and world view. When two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, America realized a fear that Islamic people have known for centuries; a constant struggle for balance and stability. This tragic impasse of our culture’s, has brought Islam into the spotlight. This paper is intended to present the evolution of Islamic Jihad, from conception to present and the misconceptions and misunderstandings therein, hopefully shedding some light on the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
In order to understand the motives of today’s Islamic extremists like the September 11th hijackers, it is critical to understand the origin of Islam. Islam is a monotheistic religion that owes its existence the prophet Muhammad. While his exact date of birth is unknown, it is commonly thought to be between 567 and 573. However, most scholars agree that it was probably 570 (Rodinson, 38). He was born in Mecca, located in present-day Saudi Arabia, into the Quraysh tribe. The Quraysh were known as a noble lineage but not particularly prosperous (Cook, 12). As an adult, Muhammad developed a yearly custom of retreating to a cave in Mount Hira, near Mecca, for the purpose of meditation and prayer (Peterson, 50). It was in this cave that the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad and commanded him to “Recite [Iqra] in the name of thy Lord, who created, created the human being from a bloodclot! Recite! And thy Lord is most gracious, who taught by the pen, taught the human being that which he did not know (Peterson, 51, 52).” Despite what must have been an unsettling vision, Muhammad did not begin preaching until three years later (Peterson, 65). The three year delay has led some to question Muhammad’s motives, but most scholars believe that Muhammad’s experience was indubitable, if not verifiable, lending to his sincerity (Peterson 51). Muhammad would have faced a difficult choice: ignore the visions or go forth and preach. The former could invite the wrath of God, the latter the ridicule of his audience. Certainly he did not want to be labeled as “majnun,” a word that translates today as “crazy” (Peterson, 52). When Muhammad finally began preaching, the only audience he effectively reached was poor and had no political power. This posed a major problem for him; those with privilege and influence had the resources to energize his ministry and effectively promote an image of trustworthiness to potential followers. However, the Mecca upper-class rejected Muhammad’s teachings because the new religion required people to reject their infatuation with affluence; they did not want to lose their earthly spoils (Peterson 61, 62). In fact, Muhammad’s belief that people should shun wealth caused marked division between himself and the Mecca elite and led to the oppression of those following the teachings of early Islam (Spencer, 75).
In Mecca Muhammad and his followers suffered years of oppression that included several assassination attempts (Wolfe, 27). In 622, the Prophet and his followers fled Mecca for Medina (Spencer, 89). This caused a shift in Muhammad’s leadership role; he went from a spiritual leader, to the head of a religiously persecuted group. This is a pivotal event in Muhammad’s ministry because the emigration changed his image from a spiritual leader to political and military leader (Spencer, 90). Interestingly, this emigration, referred to as “Hijira,” was so important to his followers that it marks the first year of the Islamic calendar. Now that he was essentially a military leader, Muhammad began planning and executing raids on Meccan expeditions, especially those transporting wealth (Spencer, 104). These raids were designed to punish the heathen Meccans and provide resources to the new Islamic movement; these military actions effectively created a state of war with the Meccans and eventually culminated in a victorious assault on Mecca itself in 630. These battles are the earliest examples of Islamic jihad. Two years after his victory in Mecca, Muhammad died and the majority of Arabia was practicing Islam.
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Across Arabia, Islam was taking hold, not because of forceful conversion, but because people readily converted (Demant, 44). This is attributable to the fact that Islam has many similarities with other religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity-both of which were present in Arabia during Mohammad’s time. For example, Christians believe God sent Jesus to atone for the sins of Jews and Muslims (defined as practitioners of the Islamic faith) believe that Allah sent Mohammad to atone for the sins of Christians (Palmer, 10). Islam recognizes several Jewish prophets such as Noah, Abraham, Moses and Adam, but believes that Jesus was solely a prophet despite acknowledging a virgin birth (Palmer, 11). Notwithstanding different terminology, Christians and Muslims (as practitioners of a monotheistic religion) essentially worship the same God. The similarities do not end there. Christians, Jews and Muslims are individually connected by churches, synagogues and mosques, respectively. Each has their own schools and charities (Palmer, 11). However, not everyone readily submitted their beliefs to Islam. Two salient examples of this are India and Indonesia. The introduction of Islam into these two countries created division rather than assimilation. This resulted in the oppression of Muslims who were forced to pay higher taxes and were subjected to a caste system of living (Demant, 47). The failure of nationalization in these two countries can be contributed to the extreme difference between Islam and the endemic religion: Hinduism. The introduction of Islam across Arabia and beyond is referred to as the “Muslim conquests.” These conquests occurred from the time of Muhammad’s death well in to the Ottoman empire of the 1800’s. Predictably, the proactive acquisition of land to promote Islam came with resistance. In fact, there were 49 battles in the first 100 years of the Muslim conquests. The bloodshed surrounded with Islam continued into modern-times in places like Kosovo, Somalia, Bosnia and Algeria. It continues today in Darfur, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Since Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, preaches the importance of peace, it is difficult to understand how anyone can justify a war fought in its’ name. The Qur’an was written in the midst of war and therefore contains passages that address armed conflict that are referred to as “lesser jihad” (Wolfe, 28). Jihad is a term that derives from the Arabic word jahada, meaning “to strive”, as in to strive or struggle toward a goal. The Qur’an says “…strive hard [at Jihad] in His way that you may be successful (5:035). Furthermore, Jihad is broken down into two subcategories: the lesser jihad and the greater jihad. The greater jihad refers to a Muslim’s struggle with sin and the ongoing interpretation and understanding of God’s will (i.e. internal struggle) whereas the lesser jihad refers to physical struggle with physical environmental issues (i.e. external struggle). As a Meccan, Muhammad struggled against his society’s penchant for earthly things and persecution (greater jihad). As a military leader, Muhammad attacked the caravans belonging to the Meccans (lesser jihad). The justification of modern-day Islamic war derives from the fact that Muhammad resorted to lesser jihad to fight the Meccans. The Qur’an says: “Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not” (2:216); In terms of justifying offensive warfare, another oft-quoted Qur’an verse is “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)” (9:5). That is exactly what Osama Bin Laden and his terror group Al Qaeda did in 2001, except we were the pagans and our soil is where they found us.
Bin Laden, who was born in Saudi Arabia, strongly identified with the Prophet Muhammad. As a child, Bin Laden chose to fast on the same days Muhammad had, wear the same type of clothes the Prophet wore and adopted the same sitting and eating postures attributed to Muhammad (Wright, 264). Bin Laden left Saudi Arabia to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, an act he compared to Muhammad’s hijira from Mecca (Wright, 263). While in Afghanistan, Bin Laden lived in caverns not unlike Muhammad’s cave on Mount Hira. Like Muhammad, Bin Laden used his hijara as a model for military leadership and therefore became a representative of oppressed Muslims (Wright, 265). On August 23rd, 1996, Bin Laden issued his “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places” which cited the American presence in Saudi Arabia and Egypt (Wright, 265). This proclamation was a symbolic gesture of an oppressed people. Wright says that “By declaring war on the united States from a cave in Afghanistan, Bin Laden assumed the role of an uncorrupted, indomitable primitive standing against the awesome power of the secular, scientific, technological Goliath; he was fighting modernity itself” (266). Bin Laden’s symbolic edict became a reality when, in 2001, four hijacked American passenger planes crashed into the Pentagon, World Trade Center and a field in Pennsylvania. Many people claimed that the assault by Al Qaeda was an “attack on our way of life” (Bergen, 222). This is the simply not true. As Bergen observes, the thousands of words of text released by Bin Laden has never addressed the comparable lack of morals in western society (pornography, homosexuality etcetera) but instead assails the United States for its middle-east military presence and our unquestioned support of Israel and Egypt (222). Bergen, noting that Al Qaeda was in a political (not moral) battle, reminds us that Al Qaeda attacked symbols of America’s financial and political might (222, 223). Bin Ladens
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- Rodinson, M. (2002). Muhammad: Prophet of islam. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers.
- Peterson, D. C. (2007). Muhammad, prophet of god. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
- Spencer, R. (2006). The truth about muhammad: Founder of the world’s most intolerant religion. Washington D.C: Regnery Publishing.
- Demant, P. R. (2006). Islam vs. islamism: The dilemma of the muslim world. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Palmer, M., & Palmer, P. (2007). At the heart of terror: Islam, jihadists and america’s war on terrorism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.
- Wolfe, M. (2002). Taking back islam: American muslims reclaim their faith . Emmaus, PA: Rodale.
- Bergen, P. (2001). Holy war, inc.: Inside the secret world of osama bin laden. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Wright, L. (2006). The looming tower: Al qaeda and the road to 9/11. New York: Randon House.
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