Redemptive Violence: Islamic or Biblical?

Redemptive Violence: Islamic or Biblical?

The Inadequacy of a Historical Verdict


JIHAD FROM QUR’AN TO BIN LADEN. By Richard Bonney. New York:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Pp. 594. ISBN 1403933723 (HB).
LANDSCAPES OF THE JIHAD: MILITANCY, MORALITY, MODERNITY.
By Faisal Devji. New Delhi: Foundation Books, 2005. Pp. 184. ISBN
1850657750 (HB).

THE MESSIAH MYTH: THE NEAR EASTERN ROOTS OF JESUS AND
DAVID. By Thomas L. Thompson. New York: Basic Books, 2005. Pp. 414.
ISBN 0465085776 (HB).

UNDERSTANDING JIHAD. By David Cook. University of California Press,
2005. Pp. 259. ISBN 0520244486 (PB).


One of the more original insights into the nature of modernity, articulated
first by Marx and Engels, but now gathering dust in the museum of clichés,
holds that by its irreverent gaze ‘all that’s solid melts into air and all that’s
holy is profaned’. One such solidity upon which, ironically, early modernists
staked their claim to self-legitimacy was the notion of ‘historical truth’. In
the landscape of religious myth and fantasy, they argued, the task of enlightened
reason was to identify, preserve and, wherever possible, restore the landmarks
of history. History was the sole pathway to truth and the accessibility,
intelligibility and certainty of historical knowledge was, for these champions
of modernity, an epistemological axiom. Time however takes its toll and not
even this formidable bastion of modern metaphysics has withstood its
onslaught. For postmodernists, truth is but a linguistic construct which has
no claim beyond the reality of the discourse of which it is a part. Indeed, the
truth of history is no longer a radically different epistemological breed than
the unicorn of fable. For Nietzscheans, truth is simply the ideological mask
which power dons in order to legitimize itself. Whatever the discomforts of
such insights, it is instructive to examine some recent works in which the
scholarly response to the interface of faith and history emanates from a vision
of politics that is unmistakably contemporary. Whether the political vision
be egalitarian or imperial, humanitarian or triumphalist, it finds a home in
a reading of the ancient texts. Against all the hopes of the modern man, the
historical inquiry yields no definitive answers.

The Biblical tradition, for better or worse, has borne the brunt of the
onslaught of modern methodologies which are most passionately, indeed
fanatically, committed to the ideal of the historical truth. The outcome of
almost two centuries’ intense intellectual labour however is a far greater
cognitive uncertainty, if not downright nihilism. Today, the recovery of the
historical truth is no longer regarded as a scientific enterprise. It is no longer
contended that the discipline of history requires no leap of the creative
imagination but simply aims to uncover the original meaning of ancient
texts. Historiography as science, it is now conceded, is little different from
the art of story-telling, for it too seeks to create a plausible or meaningful
narrative out of a jumble of inchoate facts. The failure of the modern project
to redeem its promise of sifting historical fact from fiction, or as in this
case, of distinguishing the ‘Jesus of history from the Christ of faith’, has
been instrumental in the growth of a form of scepticism that rejects both the
claims of faith and of history. At its most drastic, this scepticism despairs of
the possibility of obtaining any objective historical knowledge at all. A
noteworthy practitioner of such a radically iconoclastic approach is Thomas
Thompson, an expatriate American professor of Old Testament Studies at
the University of Copenhagen. In his recent work, The Messiah Myth, Thompson
subjects the ‘New Testament’ to the same kind of deconstructive zeal that he
earlier applied to the Hebrew Bible in The Mythic Past (London, 1999).1

In terms of its renunciation of all scriptural narrative, The Messiah Myth is
no different from The Mythic Past, for it too makes a whole range of extremely
radical, even outrageous, claims. The quest for the historical Jesus, for instance,
Thompson is convinced, ‘is beside the point, since the Jesus of the Gospels
never existed’. There is thus nothing to the story of Jesus but the power and
fascination of a very ancient and very enduring Messiah myth. Jesus of the
Gospels belongs not to history but to the religious imagination of the ancient
Near East; he is as real as the reality of the discourse that sustains him, but
no more.2 Paradoxically, however, this conclusion is not due to any facile bid
to bypass the problem of history but is a consequence of a lifelong study of
the ancient texts within which the historical debates are enshrined and within
which these could have been settled. For Thompson, to raise the historical
question is ultimately to concede the impossibility of the historical answer.
However, his refusal to recognize in the Gospel stories any semblance of a
historical record does not result in any faddish celebration of relativism. It is
apparent that despite the intractability of historical knowledge, Thompson is
convinced that neither relativism nor its attendant nihilism is able to provide
a cogent answer to the problem of truth. For all his difficulties to come to
terms with a saviour who is quite literally ‘not of this world’, the author has
produced an exegetical tract that is not only spiritual but devout as well.

Thompson’s argument against the historicity of the Gospels stories remains
firmly circumscribed within the modern disciplinary practices of historical
criticism, just as it displays a formidable familiarity with the original sources.
The Messiah Myth, however, is not a study exclusively devoted to debunking
criticism but presents itself as a work of construction in an eminent sense.
The best way to counter the claim of the historicity of the Christian Gospels,
he feels, is to situate them within a persistent and longstanding tradition of
religious literature, and to demonstrate that what is perceived to be a unique
historical event could also be construed as part of a recurrent literary motif,
albeit of a religious and scriptural nature. The modern quest for historicity,
‘defining the Bible in terms not shared by its authors’, he is convinced, ‘has
made our text homeless’ (p. 31). The true home of the Biblical stories, the
gist of his oft-repeated claim reads, is in the realm of the ‘mythical’; that is,
in that religious imaginaire by which historical perception is eclipsed by
premonitions of transcendence and where time itself is devoured by eternity.
It is little wonder then that Thompson is content to see the Gospel stories in
terms of ‘literary templates’ (p. 27), ‘rhetorical strategies’ (p. 39) and ‘historical
precedents’ (passim). The Passion narrative, for instance, he opines, ‘reiterates
the myth of Dionysus, with its many motifs of wine and fertility borne by a
dying and rising divine figure’ (p. 205). Many of the sayings attributed to
Jesus, he believes, ‘have a two thousand-year history’, at times going back ‘at
least to the Egyptian Sixth Dynasty’. More significantly, ‘the many sages in
the ancient world who shared the voice of Jesus we find in the Gospels’
belong to ‘a remarkably coherent tradition’ and the specific figure who speaks
such sayings ‘is determined by the function of the particular text’ (p. 107, italics
added).

The perception of the uniqueness and irreversibility of the event, it has
often been asserted, is the quintessence of historical consciousness. Such a
consciousness of history, it is also part of the received wisdom, is what
distinguishes the Bible from other religious texts. Thompson’s assertion
however is that whatever their awareness of the singularity of the ‘Christ
event’, the writers of the Christian scripture forsake this consciousness for
the universality of the message that the event proclaims. In fact, his book is
a very comprehensive and erudite survey of the very rich religious life of the
ancient Near East, in which the only reality is the history of the religiousliterary
texts and not that of the events they are supposed to incarnate. And
he unearths within the archaeology of Near Eastern religiosity that God-
King myth, which in the Biblical texts is reiterated through the stories of
David and Jesus, conceived of as ‘an abiding metaphor for personal salvation’
(p. 321). What this genealogical vision reveals however is the story of ‘humanity
in search for God’ rather than that of ‘God in search of man’, which is an
eminently Christian way of envisioning the ministry of Jesus. Needless to
say that for the Muslim—whose commitment to the universality of God’s
message to humanity supersedes any recognition of ‘Election’ and
‘Redemption’ in history—this is a more congenial point of view.

Thompson’s book has far more claim to the Muslim’s attention than the
mere fact of its rejection of the historicity of the Gospel stories. Before we
turn to those matters, however, we must point out that, both logically and
empirically, Thompson is in no position to assert that the ‘Christ event’
never took place; all that he can do is to reject the historical, or rather
historicizing, interpretations of the Biblical stories that describe the event.
His assertion can only be about the knowability, not the possibility or actuality,
of these stories. The modern identification of ‘knowledge’ with the realm of
the empirically verifiable, we know, does not guarantee the closure of the
epistemological debate. For even such a reductionist definition begs further
questions about the nature of being and man that mark the limit of our
intelligibility. The problem of faith and transcendence, in other words, cannot
be resolved by any appeal to the judgment of history. For historical knowledge
never comes with any unassailable claim to certainty: all it can do is to
produce scepticism, and defeat its own purpose by promoting a regime of
non-meaning—an eminently apt characterisation of our nihilistic age. No,
what is of special interest in Thompson’s work, and which relates it to the
central theme of this essay, is the problem of theocracy, that nexus of
sovereignty, history and salvation within which the Messiah myth is
embedded. Rather than reinforcing any claim of ‘Islamic specificity’, the
theo-political vision is, according to this reading, indispensable to all the
redemptive myths of the Abrahamic faiths. In fact, it informs the political
ethos of all the civilizations that are heir to their teachings, including the
putatively secularized one of the modern West.

Within the redemptive vision of the messianic myth, the figure of the
saviour-king and the ideology of holy war are both central. For Thompson
it means that ‘no literature is more taken up with holy war and a god of
armies than is the Bible, and no figure is more central to holy war than the
figure of the messiah as expressed in the stories of Jesus, David, Hezekiah.’
Indeed, in the messianic scheme of things, all war is ‘holy war’ (p. 223).
Paradoxically, it is through the fusion of theology and politics that the
transcendent enters the utopian consciousness of the ancient Near East.
For the divine world, conceived of as perfectly orderly and just, forms the
starting-point of a critique of the world that is actually known and which is
perforce tyrannical and imperfect. Not inconsistently, then, Thompson
believes that for all its realism, holy war comes to us in the Bible ‘not as a
fact of history but as a discourse in literature. It forms not policy but
philosophy.’ (p. 244). Or, ‘the particular role of Yahweh’s son and divine
warrior-king or “messiah” is to enforce the rule of divine patronage through
the war.’ (p. 249) Of course, in this myth of the saviour-king, David has a
central role. Apart from being the ideal ruler of an ideal polity, he is also
the author of psalms that elaborate a ‘theology of the way’ which is ‘essentially
religious and sectarian’ (p. 317), offer praise to Yahweh ‘as cosmic lord and
God of war’, and pursue the theme of ‘a cosmic holy war against Yahweh’s
enemies’ (p. 319). Nevertheless, the purpose of holy war is peace, for ‘it
provides the means for re-establishing divine rule over the world’ (p. 248).
Indeed, the holy war has a transcendent dimension: ‘Transcendent war is
fought between the righteous and unrighteous’, and the songs of David
identify ‘transcendence with the life of piety’ (p. 319).

Within this discussion, there are numerous statements that evoke parallels
in the Islamic tradition, or which have a chillingly uncanny resemblance to
the current ‘war on terror’, for example:

• ‘That the king is divinely chosen is fundamental to the understanding
of the messiah. The first function of the king under divine patronage is
to represent God on earth. This maintains the understanding of the
divine as transcendent and universal.’ (p. 249);
• ‘The seed of Abraham, the children of Israel, bound to their God through
circumcision, become the conquering army of Yahweh against the nations
of Canaan’ (p. 241);
• ‘The goal of war is to “bind” and “chain” the enemy, bringing him to
“submit” to his proper role as client of the divine’ (p. 249); and,
• ‘Yahweh’s demand for ethnic cleansing…’ (p. 255).

It is not far-fetched to imagine that the modern state incarnates its own
secular version of the messianic myth and that war and statehood are two
sides of the same political coin. (It is also obvious that the redemptive myth
plays a stronger role in the collective consciousness of certain nations such
as the US and Israel than in others.) All political views of the world, it must
be further underlined, do take cognizance of this depressing fact. As for
others, Muslims included, who wish to pursue a universalist and conciliatory
politics of humanity, it is imperative that the very powerful, emotive and
enduring legacy of this myth be fully understood.

Today, messianic terror and imperial counter-terror are locked in a deadly
embrace; the political discourse is saturated with the Manichean imagery of
good and evil, and the ideology of ‘holy war’ has made an unwelcome
comeback. Unfortunately, terror has also acquired an ‘Islamic’ face. Acts of
indiscriminate and senseless violence, so far removed from the spirit and
teaching of Islam, are now routinely committed in the name of our faith.
While ordinary believers recoil in horror at the face of this ungodly nihilism,
the powerful appear to have their own reasons for sustaining it by a generous
supply of their own murderous passions. For them, it is Islam, the faith and
civilisation of a large sea of humanity, that bears the responsibility for the
outbreak of this epidemic. Violence for the sake of violence, terror in the
service of religion, world-domination in the guise of world-faith, we are
made to believe, are the hallmarks of the Muslims. As soon as any phenomenon
shows a Muslim visage, as soon as it reveals an ‘Islamic quotient’, all theories
and insights into the human condition, pride and joy of the modern man,
are thrown overboard. Islam, the politically correct refrain now resonates, is
a mysterious and impenetrable realm of the irrational that is accessible only
to the insiders. Modern secular analysis in terms of politics and economic
can therefore have no validity for such a self-referential and self-contained
system of thought and action. Little wonder that the discourse on terrorism
deals only with protean symbols and monstrous abstractions: it is metaphysical
through and through.

Within the polemical literature on Jihad, distinguished only by sectarian
outrage, Richard Bonney’s study is an exception: it brings to the subject the
objective vision of a professional historian but does not eschew a moral
judgement on the politics and anti-politics of the contemporary phenomenon.
Decidedly, in treading the ideological minefields of Muslim history, Bonney,
professor of history at the University of Leicester and author of such
recognized works as The European Dynastic States, 1494-1660 (Oxford, 1991)
and much else in the field of French and European history, is not on his
home turf. And yet, as a fiscal historian and an ordained Anglican priest he
is equally at home in secular and religious discourses. One might even suggest
that he is sensitive to the claims of God and Mammon both! At any rate, his
lack of affinity with the Orientalist establishment, traditionally the interpreters
of Islamic doctrine and history in the Western academy, is by no means a
handicap. For, unencumbered by its corporate loyalties and ‘disciplinary’
biases, Bonney’s pioneering study extends to the civilisation of Islam a measure
of respect and courtesy that is rare in the annals of Orientalism. Surely, if
diligence, industry and empathy were intended to be the distinguishing criteria
of this work, it has them in abundance. Throughout his often quite critical
inspection of the ancient and modern texts, he displays ample empathy for
his subject-matter; just as for the life-world of those he is studying he carries
no disdain. If anything, Bonney’s non-Orientalist approach to Islamic history
raises even further disconcerting questions about the neutrality and competence
of the Orientalist tradition itself.

The chief merit of the work, which paradoxically may also be construed
by some as a drawback, is its comprehensiveness. Its historical span stretches,
as the eye-catching title so neatly proclaims, from the inception of the Muslim
community to the present day. Within its covers, some 600 pages, it touches
on the Biblical notion of the ‘War of Annihilation’ (a very terse statement);
introduces the early historical environment in which the idea of jihad, as
just armed struggle, emerged; delves into the medieval debates on its
legitimacy and scope in various historical contexts; analyzes the thought of
its modern interpreters who have become the ideologues of ‘Islamism’;
discusses its re-emergence as an ideology of struggle within the context of
Palestine-Israel conflict; and, finally, denounces its metamorphosis as a
doctrine of global insurgency by Muslim terrorists. In the concluding
statement the author pleads with ‘mainstream Islam’ to work towards an
integrated and just global society. Over 150 pages consist of notes and
bibliography, a mammoth listing that refers to almost every text worthy of
attention (and good number of the not so worthy!) including a host of
internet sources. Significantly, the author does not pursue original, untranslated
works in the Muslim languages, especially Arabic, because, he
opines, though ‘the reverence of Arabic is understandable because of the
nature of the Islamic revelation’, it is ‘an obstacle to effective communication
in the twenty-first century. Hence, Bonney sees his decision ‘as simply
‘practical politics, not an issue of principle.’ (p. xiv)

With the ambitious undertaking to present all that has been expressed
on this topic by Muslims and within a single historical inquiry, Bonney
seeks to identify the ideal reader of the text, whose prejudices and passions
are fully transparent to him. Such a reader is the enlightened – and hopefully
moderate – westerner. Bonney’s book thus comes with a pedagogic intent,
or, as he put is, ‘This book is a jihad in itself, not only to increase
understanding, especially in the West, of the varieties of jihad in history, but
also to facilitate greater understanding of mainstream Islam.’ Not surprisingly,
then, the author expresses his own concerns and anxieties without diffidence
or compunction. Rubrics like ‘Selective Memory rather than Historic reality:
Crusades and Saladin’s Counter-Crusade’, ‘The Contemporary Violent
Islamists’ Distortion of Ibn Taymiah’s Thought’, ‘‘Petrodollar Puritanism’ and
the Issue of Tolerance of Diversity in Islam’, ‘A Clash of ‘Rival Exceptionalisms’,
Not a Clash of Civilisations’, ‘There is No Legitimate Offensive Jihad: Nor
Should Islam be Regarded as a ‘Religion of the Sword’, ‘The Need for
Mainstream Islam to Embrace Positively the Existence of Pluralist Societies
in the Contemporary World’ and much else in the same vein, not to mention
the supporting text, make it abundantly clear where Bonney stands on some
of the most-hotly debated issues of the day. Despite the historiographical
tenor of the work, then, it is an outspokenly personal and idiosyncratic
statement. History and politics, even faith and world-order, are a unity in
Bonney’s vision.

‘This is a work of history, not of theology’, insists Bonney at the outset.
Since theological imagination and vision pervade the entire discussion of
the theme, it would be more appropriate to say that it is not a work of
theory. Certainly, Bonney does not provide any theoretical insights into the
very seminal issues of redemption, violence and transcendence which this
theme gives rise to and which would have been appropriate in a theological
tract. In his volume, there is wealth of historical detail but very little of
sustained theoretical inquiry. Instead, he allows the perpetrators, and their
interpreters, to speak for themselves, just as he is able to deal with the
immense diversity, even radical disparity, of the sources at his disposal by
a technique of selection and reduction which might appear cavalier and
arbitrary. Surely, this method must be the envy of every systematizer who
attempts a synopsis or seeks a synthesis. Little wonder, this effort results
in a mosaic - one may even liken it to a bulletin board - where one
communiqué, one statement, one quotation follows another, and where
the only link - logical, ideational, emotional - that joins them together is
Bonney’s unfathomable intuition. At any rate, in the absence of any
corroborating theory, no ostensible epistemological criteria for sourcecriticism
and judgement are discernible. Apparently, the process of selection,
evaluation and criticism is sustained by a moral consciousness which seeks
fairness and justice, and which, in arguing on behalf of the Muslim, is far
less reticent and apologetic than is de rigueur. If so, Bonney’s intuition is
far from reprehensible.

The historical vision, we may recall, is not a great leveller but a great
divider: it relativizes everything. And so is it with this effort. The putative
unity of the Muslim holy war tradition, so pervasive and strident in the
Islamophobic discourse, gives way to a host of contending theories and
practices, each valid and meaningful within its specific historical context
but carrying little universal validity. Though Bonney would rather construe
his effort as ‘a work of synthesis’, alluding perhaps to its comprehensive
coverage of the theme, it soon becomes obvious to the reader that the
prism of history readily breaks the luminescence of the Jihad theory, doctrine
if you will, into a number of lesser lights. Contrary to the essentialist view
of Islam that the title of the book advertises (even if it is the publisher and
not the author who is responsible for this choice), the evidence of the
historical texts fails to testify the existence of an all-consuming and
overpowering passion for militancy and conquest in the house of Islam.
And this is the chief merit of the work. By exposing the intelligent reader
to a number of authentic voices, intelligent and dumb, xenophobic and
conciliatory, spiritual as well as militant, Bonney’s study restores to the
civilisation of Islam its human visage. After reading it, one cannot see
jihad as the scourge of an unforgiving faith, or a mere phantom of the
Islamophobic imagination, but a genuine human dilemma!
Someone who would passionately disagree with this assertion is David
Cook. His present work is an unending censure of those ‘apologists’, Muslims
or otherwise, who uphold ‘the validity of an exclusively spiritual notion of
jihad’ (p. 4, italics added) For such a position to be authentic, he is adamant,
they would have to prove ‘that this doctrine had some kind of reality outside
of the Sufi text books and to demonstrate that a substantial minority or a
majority of Muslims believed and acted upon it or that spiritual jihad actually
superseded the militant jihad.’ (p. 166). Needless to say, no scholar, according
to him, has accomplished this. He contends further, addressing those Muslims
who question the Islamic ‘legitimacy’ of radical Islamism (Usama and his
ilk), that this problem ‘has never been resolved conclusively’ by them, for
example, ‘by declaring it (i.e. radical Islamism) to be apostasy’, and then
until this happens ‘the reasonable outsider must conclude that it is indeed a
legitimate expression of Islam.’ (ibid.) Neither is Cook reticent in his criticism
of ‘unreasonable outsiders’, the scholars who disagree with him. John Esposito’s
statement that one of the meanings of jihad would be ‘to lead a good life, to
make society more moral and just’ is for him ‘bathetic and laughable’; Carole
Hillenbrand’s stance on the spiritual aspects of jihad ‘is essentially dogmatic
and unsupportable’; Robert Crane’s claim that ‘the Qur’an refers to jihad
only in terms of the intellectual effort to apply divine revelation in promoting
peace through justice’ simply ‘ignores the entirety of Muslim history and
law’ (pp. 42-43). Only Usama bin Ladin, it seems, may speak on behalf of
Muslim history and law!

David Cook’s work falls squarely within the tradition of Orientalism: it
shares not only the much problematic essentialism of that tradition but its
Islamophobic passions as well (e.g. Islam is presented as ‘a religion rooted in
and emphasizing domination and violence.’(p. 166)). To these passions, Cook
also brings the New Frontier spirit of America and the messianic energy of
Israel. His is a historical survey, covering the same ground as Bonney’s Jihad
but the political tenor is far from conciliatory. Indeed, if anything, his work
is a monumental indictment of the ideology of jihad. Despite his familiarity
with the original sources, however, Cook’s conception of history, even of the
human condition, borders on the inane. How could anyone otherwise insist
that the problem of the Islamic legitimacy of Usama’s jihadism has not been
conclusively resolved? Could there ever be such a conclusive resolution, other
than by the force of law? Where in modern Islam does he perceive such a
supreme legal authority to exist, possessing the power to enforce its verdicts,
whose judgement might satisfy him? One is entitled to ask him, how would
Judaism have conclusively resolved such a problem, in the period of the
Exile, or, today, after the establishment of the Jewish state? Indeed, how
would Christianity, now that the unity of its church is a memory of the past,
achieve a conclusive resolution of doctrinal disputes? To ask these questions
in the context of these religions would indeed be ‘bathetic and laughable’.
But Islam, of course, is a different world!

And yet, given the inability of the ummah to resolve this issue legally, or
that of the powers-that-be to find a solution to this plague by the might of
arms, it is mind-boggling that Cook, the reasonable outsider, has no problem
regarding his own ability to be an arbiter of what does or does not constitute
‘a legitimate expression of Islam’! That he regards Usama bin Laden as the
incarnation of Islamic jihad, is of course, his privilege, but for a man of
reason, such a contention is not epistemologically unproblematic. If the
normative answer from within the tradition is fraught with uncertainties,
how could the judgement of a single outsider, no matter how reasonable, be
true, valid or authoritative? Do we not have an obligation to treat such a
judgement as arbitrary? Other, disturbing questions remain, however. We
might ask, for instance, why more weight be given to Cook’s reading of the
Muslim texts than those of Esposito, Hillenbrand, Crane or Bonney, or more
credence be vested in his integrity than that of other honourable and competent
scholars? After all, Cook is just another reader, and as such, the creator of a
particular text on jihad! Alternatively, if the answer has to be that we are
defined by our political constituencies, then it would reinforce the suspicion
that Cook’s dismissal of their work is a matter of political choice, for these
scholars do not dismiss the possibility, no matter how remote, of a common
political platform with the Muslims, something which Cook obviously abhors!
But to exclude Islam from a common politics of humanity cannot be the
hallmark of true scholarship!

We may still wonder, what is the basis of Cook’s normative judgement? If
it is history, then, he should know that history does not, and cannot, pass a
judgement on the validity and veracity of norms. For if it were so, everything
that happens within the Muslim world, or even without it by Muslim actors,
may be construed as ‘the legitimate expression of Islam’. Surely, it is the
nihilistic perception of modernity that nullifies all distinctions between history
and norm, between the is and the ought of the human situation. Such a
perception, shared alike by Cook and Usama, is a gift of modernity and not
of Islam. To accept it would be to deprive Islam of all normativity, of all
criteria of self-judgement, and to equate it with any secular, transcendencedenying
worldview. Little wonder that terror has acquired an Islamic face:
Muslim terrorists are all true children of modernity!3 The greatest problem
that a Muslim has with Cook’s position has to do with his credentials as a
scholar. For as a historian, he cannot define normative Islam and take sides
with Usama against the convictions of his innumerable Muslim critics. That
he does so merely shows that he is a partisan and not an observer in this
debate, and that the basis of his judgement is not history but some other
passion or dogma. Only a non-committal answer to the normative question
of Usama’s Islamic credentials can be the scholar’s legitimate response: the
rest is passion and politics.

If the Muslim critique merely relates to the issue of Cook’s legitimacy as
a historian, our, universal, commonsense finds his perception of reality
philosophically and metaphysically myopic, if not downright incompressible.
For by chiding Muslim ‘apologists’ for not being able to validate ‘an exclusively
spiritual notion of jihad’, is he not only tilting at windmills? For who dwells
in the realm of the pure spirit? Who knows it? Is there any human experience
that is exclusively spiritual? Is pure spirituality part of the human condition?
Surely, the Muslim cannot escape the reality of body and flesh, even if he
believes in the existence of soul and spirit; nor can he bypass the world of
immanence simply because his goal is transcendence. Like any other seminal
concepts, jihad is subject to the limitations and ambiguities of the human
condition. It is capable of being conceived of in both spiritual and militant
terms: it denotes after all a struggle of body and soul. To deny the Muslims
the right to a spiritual vision of the ultimate struggle, simply because it is
not, cannot be, exclusively so, is an act of bigotry on the part of Cook. It is in
fact analogous to denying the Christians the right to their own, spiritual
interpretations of the lordship of the Messiah, for he is, in the original
vision of the Hebrews, a warlord, and must therefore forever remain so!
Notwithstanding some isolated attempts to see jihad in the light of history,
the general consensus in the West is to passionately reject any interpretation
of jihad that would relate it to the paradoxes of political existence, to what in
the modern context is theorized as the ‘state of exception’.4 Jihad for the
West is nothing but a categorical imperative of the Islamic faith, a theology
of domination and expansion that recognizes neither the virtues of
compromise nor the imperative of self-preservation. Islam, then, is not only
the West’s adversary in history but also the antithesis of her values. It is both
irredeemable by faith and ungovernable by law. Whatever its other benefits,
the essentialist vision of Islam, it ought to be apparent to any analytical
mind, is a great hindrance to any perceptive analysis of ‘terror’, to any cogent
account of contemporary history, indeed to any conciliatory politics of
humanity. Faisal Devji’s original and highly suggestive study on the interaction
of ‘militancy, morality and modernity’ in the landscapes of the modern jihad
makes it abundantly clear that the Western thought, stifled as it is by the
inherited propensity to explain Muslim, and now global, politics in terms of
‘Islam’, has come to the end of its tether.

Devji’s book is by no means a historical study on jihad that is meant to be
read between the lines. Rather, it provides a sophisticated account of our
times in which ‘the interiority of the jihad to America’s new world-order’ is
fully recognized, but in which all those politically opportune theories which
reduce the contemporary phenomenon to a recurrent and enduring problem
of ‘Islamic violence’, are also forcefully repudiated. The sheer range of sources
from which those involved in the global jihad derive their ideas and
information’, he is adamant, ‘is staggering and gives the lie to any theory that
would associate militancy with a strictly confined, madrasa-style education.’
Instead, Devji underlines the fact that ‘most militants have received not a
religious but a secular education, and … that in addition to following the
international media rather closely, many also seem to be voracious readers
in more than one language.’ (p. 159) Not inconsistently, he is quite censorious
of ‘the scholar’s conservative instinct’ to place jihad within the genealogical
paradigm of political Islam because such genealogies are ‘drawn up by
systematic procedures of racial, religious and regional apartheid that maintains
what is essential to every genealogy: its purity’ (p. 23). The jihad of Al-Qaeda,
he posits to the contrary, destroys ‘all the inherited forms of Islamic authority’
and by so doing ‘puts itself in a paradoxically intimate relationship with
other groups that it might well consider beyond the pale of Islam’ (p. 16).
Only the legacy of the colonial scholarship, he insists, is responsible for
placing the jihad within some exotic genealogy of its own, and keeping it
‘completely separated from the larger world of ethics and politics.’

What distinguishes the jihad (his term for describing the global nature of
Al-Qaeda’s militancy) from traditional Islam is its modernity. It is also
modernity which imparts to it its moral profile, its anti-global pathos, its
metaphysical disdain for history and geography and its fascination with the
media. The most significant insight of Devji’s study however is that the
global jihad is devoid of all political content and meaning; it is a religion
born out of the ‘Death of God’, a theatre of effect without causes, a mystical
subjectivity gone berserk, a messianic cult of violence without any expectation
of the mahdi; in a phrase, anti-politics and nihilism under the banner of
‘holy war’. Devji’s extenuating expression however depicts the jihad as a
quest for ‘ethics’ beyond the intentionality of ‘politics’; a ‘protestant’ orientation
towards ‘faith’ beyond the instrumentality of ‘law’; an urge ‘to deinstrumentalize
Islam and make it part of everyday ethics’; ‘an effort to define
the terms of global social relationships outside the language of state and
citizenship’ and much else that is far more forgiving of the Al-Qaeda’s theory
and practice than is warranted by the dictates of any kind of ethical or moral
sensibility. In fact, Devji is not loath to seeing in the jihad a kind of liberating
force in its ‘democratization of Islam, accomplished by its fragmentation of
traditional forms of religious authority and the dispersal of their elements
into a potentially endless series of re-combinations’ (p. 162).

Cognizant of the fact that ‘jihad has not always played a prominent role
in the Muslim past’, Devji feels convinced that ‘the ethical element in holy
war may very easily transform it into a non-violent enterprise. Violence,
therefore, may be a necessarily short-term aspect of the new Islam that is
today best represented by the jihad. Among the long-term features of this
Islam are its fragmentation, democratization and individualism, all of which
… the jihad shares with other global movements.’ (p. 132) This transformation
of politics by ethics—a trait shared by other global, or anti-globalisation,
movements—illustrates for Devji the limitation of traditional politics and
the failure of classical notions of citizenship around the world. In sum,
Devji’s work is full of provocative insights, just as its reading of many of
the original sources of the jihad, (whose authenticity, one may hasten to
add, remains questionable) is highly original, bordering often on the
sympathetic. It is fully at home in the various sub-disciplines of modern
theory, fecund in ideas, and, even when it fails to convince, it remains
stimulating and gratifying. Indeed, more than an incisive study of ‘the
landscapes pf the jihad’, Devji’s analytical vision affords an intimate glimpse
into the conditions of modernity itself. A commendable effort and a valuable
contribution to the current debate!

In the end, with regard to the perennial tension between ethics and politics,
a few words are in order. For all its discomfort to the ethical vision, the
‘instrumentality’ of politics remains indispensable to civilised life and humane
existence. It is through the exercise of the instrumental intellect that morality
finds its historical home. The Biblical tradition, we may remember, is heir
to its own scandalous texts like the following: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts,
“I will punish what the Ama’lek did to Israel in opposing them on the way,
when they came out of Egypt. Now go and smite Ama’lek and utterly destroy
all that they have: do not spare them but kill both man and woman, infant
and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”’ (I Samuel 15:2-3. ‘The Lord of
Hosts’ would in modern terminology translate into ‘Field Marshal’.) Little
wonder that a modern critic of imperialism contends that genocide is divinely
sanctioned in the Bible.5 Furthermore, redemptive violence in the Biblical
perspective has given legitimacy to the paradigms of ‘holy war’ (Yahweh’s
war) and ‘just war’ (Jesus’s war).6 It is however through the instrumentality of
politics that the Western tradition made its ethical discoveries regarding the
permissibility of war and its actual conduct. Therefore so it is with the Muslim
tradition: its debate on jihad, as Devji remarks, ‘is largely juridical in nature,
concentrating upon attempts to define legitimate occasions for holy war,
permitted rules of engagement and the like’ (p. 33). The symmetry of Just
War and Jihad discourses is even explicitly recognized by modern scholars as
well: ‘The formal parallels between these (Muslim) rules of war and the Western
just war criteria are rather striking. Just cause, right intent, competent
authority, a reasonable hope of success, the aim of peace—all these criteria
of the jus ad bellum are formally present in the rules governing jihad, as is
the jus in bello requirement for discrimination in targeting.7

Thus, when Usama bin Laden boasts that the 9/11 attackers did not accept
any stipulations from traditional fiqh (Devji, p. 13), he is not merely scoffing
at juridical authority, but is also putting himself beyond the pale of a morality
which commands far greater allegiance than the mere consent of a single
civilisation and which no baptism of ethics can redeem. And this is the
principal argument of his Muslim opponents as well. Al-Qaeda’s ethics, not
subject to the rule of law and not translatable to a politics of self-interest, no
matter how ‘ethically’ conceived, annuls the Muslim’s contract with history.
For them, an ethics that cannot be turned into a morality of public order is
little different from madness. At any rate, it does not point to any ‘solution’
of the human condition, inasmuch as that condition is seen to be part of a
historical order. It is our view that the quest for an Islamic ethics, which
must mediate between transcendence and immanence, can only be meaningful
within a moral vision and through the pursuit of a politics of humanity. For
humanity is never an abstraction bereft of all concretely human attributes,
nor is it coterminous with any sectarian and tribal conception of the political
self. And it is transcendent without being absolutely so, as it is immanent in
a supremely historical sense. Hence, as the locus of absolute values, it cannot
replace God and be a norm unto itself. But for a morality that has a home in
history, humanity is indispensable.

Today, the Messianic myth has been secularised and brusquely
commissioned in the service of the globalisation project. And yet the moral
vision of a politics of humanity has not become defunct. In fact, only such a
vision can make us renounce the redemptive violence of terror and counterterror.
We must also remember that the semantic and ideational counterpart
to the Biblical Messiah in our tradition is the khalifah. It is significant that
all Messianic visions, whether Davidic, Pontifical or Caliphal, originate in a
primordial form of humanism which, conceiving man as the deputy of God,
upholds the unity of all nations, tribes and peoples. It is most lucidly available
to us in the Qur’anic account of Adam’s khilafah and amanah, humanity’s
mandate and responsibility for the moral ordering of the world. We need to
promote this vision in order to rescue our civilisation from the nihilistic
embrace of redemptive violence. Surely, this must be our contribution to the
politics of humanity.

Stockholm, Sweden S. Parvez Manzoor

Notes

1. See my review article ‘History and Nihilism: Secular History and Loss of Meaning’, in
MWBR, 23/2, January-March 2003, pp. 5–15.

2. A similar claim about the incompatibility of the historical Yeshua and the scriptural Jesus
is made by Harold Bloom, who says: ‘“Jesus: A Biography” is always an oxymoron.’ (Jesus
and Yahweh: The Names Divine, New York, 2005, p. 11.)

3. The psychological affinity between the nihilistic experience of Muslim terrorists and that
of Dostoyevsky’s Roskolnikov has been noted even by modern political analysts, e.g.,
John Gray, Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern (London, 2003) and Max Rodenback,
‘The Truth about Jihad’, New York Review of Books, 52/13, 11th August 2005, p. 52.

4. For an incisive exposition of this theme, see, Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, Chicago,
2005). Though the author does not extend his analysis to the theory of jihad, for the
Muslim reader, there are noticeable parallels between the modern theory and the Muslim
jurists’ attempts to mediate between law and fact, between transcendental norm and
political existence. Hopefully, some further study would throw more light on this common
conundrum.

5. Sven Lindquist, A History of Bombing, London, 2001, Section 31.

6. I am using these terms in the sense of ‘names divine’ for the Hebraic and Christian
traditions, see n. 2 above.

7. John Kelsay, Islam and War: The Gulf War and Beyond, Louisville, 1993, p. 36.


The Muslim World Book Review, 26:2, 2006


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