Religion as discourse: contested interpretations of jihad

Table of Contents:

Radicalization of Islamist groups in Pakistan goes back to the early 20th century when Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), articulated his offensive jihad doctrine and elevated it above all other interpretations of jihad within the broader Islamic discourse. Islam as a discourse refers here to the body of thought and writing that is united by having a common object of study, a common methodology used by Islamic scholars, and a set of common terms and ideas it incorporates which is linguistically and culturally specific. It is possible for all Muslims who have been socialized under its authority to speak and act together. Within this discourse, there are different interpretations or narratives. Islamic narratives of jihad are all based on the Islamic discourse rooted in the Quranic verses, sunna, and the hadith. These texts are often filled with ambiguities, contradicting statements, and are written down in a distant time, usually in a language that is different from the ones used by the current communities and must go through human interpretation. Islamic doctrine of jihad is no different, and there are a variety of different interpretations when jihad is permissible and how it should be conducted.

The Arabic word “jihad” literally means “striving” or “struggle”, rather than war, as the Quranic verse “strive in the cause of God” (Q22:78) indicates. More specifically, jihad is often understood as a struggle for the cause of God by means of speech, property, wealth, or life. Historically, Muslim scholars differentiated jihad according to its direction (inner and outer) and method (violent and nonviolent) (Kadayifci-Orellana, Abu-Nimer, and Mohamed-Saleem 2013). The inner jihad is fought within the individual whereas the outer jihad is seen as a struggle to eliminate evil within the ummah. It refers to efforts an individual must make towards self-improvement and self-purification, as well as to the duty of Muslims, both at the individual and collective level, to struggle against all forms of evil, corruption, injustice, tyranny, and oppression. The term “jihad” also refers to use of force to repel an enemy and to fight against injustice and oppression. Scholars of Islamic jurisprudence and law have usually been more concerned with the military form of jihad, as this requires more jurisprudential elaboration and legal regulation (Jiqlt), and Islamic law that deals with war and peace are often included under the title of jihad. In the modern era (19th and 20th centuries), jihad acquired a new momentum and initially took the form of resistance to Western invasion of Islamic lands. Challenged by colonialism, modernization, and globalization, many Islamic thinkers blamed the decline of Muslim power on a deviation from the right path of Islam and called for the reinstitution of Islamic rule. Within this context all kinds of resistance movements and leaders adopted jihad as an ideological framework, and as a political rhetoric to justify their policies and conduct.

Multiple interpretations ofjihad are a result of the dynamic interaction between the religious texts and changing contextual factors, such as social, political, and cultural contexts, as well as particular historical events. The way religious texts are understood and acted upon during a violent conflict always involves a tension between the fixed text, the word of God, and the particular context of interpretation. However, when leaders use a religious narrative they tend to take them out of a specific context and treat them as if they are fixed, identical, and self-sufficient origins of meaning. They present their interpretation of the religious texts, myths, and symbols as the ultimate truth applicable, regardless of time and place.

There are a variety' of possible reasons as to why people choose one interpretation over another. Some of these explanations are related to cognitive and emotional needs that may' be met by' particular religious imagery, symbolism, and text. Social motivations and personal experiences also play a critical role in determining affiliations with a group that espouses a certain interpretation of religious texts. According to Gopin (2000: 11), the way sacred texts are used to foster peace or promote violence and destruction

seems to depend on the complex ways in which the psychological and sociological circumstances and the economic and cultural constructs of a particular group interact with the ceaseless human drive to hermeneutically develop religious meaning systems, texts, rituals, symbols, and laws.

Deep fears and concerns also play' a significant role in the way' religious texts are understood and interpreted, especially at times of war. In return, religious values and texts shape the way' individuals view their conflict, perceive their enemies, and make sense of their suffering and ways to address them.

Al-Qaeda and Taliban argue that the current global economic-political system only breeds oppression, injustice, and exploitation; therefore, it must be removed and replaced by Gods governance. Framing their jihad as a retaliation to injustice, oppression, and aggression of the West and its secular allies in the Muslim world, they invoke military jihad as an obligation of every Muslim. In order to increase popular support, they explain that jihad today is a global revolutionary struggle, which must be fought by any means, including violence, political action, and propaganda against the Western powers as well as secular Muslim regimes. In this,“jihad” attacks against civilian targets are necessary evils to bring God’s rule to earth (Ibrahim 2007).

Islamic symbols, language, imagery, as well as Islamic texts are used to spread this ideology through mosques, madrasas, videos, and propaganda on social media. Most Deobandi literature traces the history of how Muslims have repeatedly been subjugated by the “Zionist occupation of Palestine, Indian occupation of Kashmir, Russian occupation of Chechnya, and subjugation of Muslim States in the Philippines” (Haqqani 2005: 22). Framing the conflict within a religious framework, these extremist groups aim to provide an ideology' which conceives of the world in a coherent and manageable way, and to offer explanations for worldly events, including human suffering, and the response to it. Using Quranic verses such as “You are obligated to fight even though it is something you do not like” (Q2:216) as well as religious imagery and vocabulary, they legitimize their interpretation of jihad, and construct negative enemy images such as “the Crusaders” linking current conflict to historical ones. With the aid of religious imagery and vocabulary, with which the population is familiar, they provide a cosmology, history, and eschatology of the war and simplify the world into good and evil. They link the past, present, and future in the minds of their followers and invoke emotions such as heroism and vengeance.


This chapter showed that the religion of Islam has been instrumentalized to legitimize political objectives both by militant groups and by the government in Pakistan. Islam as a discourse has been utilized to craft the ideology of these groups and this ideology was spread via madrasas, mosques, and other media, using Islamic symbols and texts. However, as it will be shown in the second part of this case study, various Muslim groups and organizations are resorting to the Islamic principles of peace, tolerance, and justice to respond to extremist violence and to build sustainable peace in Pakistan.


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