Beyond Jihad

What we can learn from the religious language of the terrorists. 

Few Americans can have appreciated the resonance of certain Arabic terms and phrases used in Mohamed Atta’s letter to his fellow conspirators and in Osama Bin Laden’s address following the beginning of air strikes against the Taliban. Up to now most of the attention paid to Islamic terminology has focused almost entirely on jihad. Many commentators—scholars of Islamic law, both Muslim and non-Muslim—have already declared that Bin Laden’s call for jihad is untenable according to the opinions of the majority of jurisprudents, not only those alive today but also those who have written on the subject over the past thousand years. Other experts have pointed out that according to Islamic tradition, jihad should be understood as referring not only to holy war, but also to the battle every Muslim fights to suppress his or her baser instincts. But beyond jihad, what else can we learn from the terrorists’ choice of particular Arabic words?

Mohamed Atta’s 13th instruction, found on the first page of his letter, is an order to his co-conspirators to inspect their weapons before departure. Atta then adds an excerpt from a hadith (plural ahadith), one of the thousands of reported sayings or actions of the prophet Mohammed. Ahadith were first compiled in canonical collections over a thousand years ago and are available now on searchable CD-ROMs as well as in printed editions. Atta’s excerpt from the hadith reads, “Let each of you sharpen his blade and make his victim comfortable.” The full text of the hadith runs as follows:

Abu Ya’la Shaddad ibn Aws reported that the prophet said: “God has prescribed good practice in everything. Whenever you kill, do the killing properly; and whenever you slaughter, do the slaughtering properly. Let each of you sharpen his blade and make his victim comfortable.”

This sounds pretty chilling, to be sure. But the prophet’s intention was apparently something analogous to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, at least as understood by the current Supreme Court. According to the commentary of the 13th-century Syrian hadith scholar al-Nawawi, whose interpretation represents the mainstream Sunni view, the prophet is reporting God’s injunction to execute those whose crimes deserve capital punishment—murderers, for example—in as swift and painless a way as possible. Similarly, when slaughtering animals, the slaughtering is to be done in as swift and painless a way as possible. The hadith, by al-Nawawi’s reckoning, is a prohibition against physical brutality or psychological torture. In seventh-century Arabia, the swiftest and most painless method of killing was held to be the drawing of a very sharp knife across the neck, just as the guillotine was seen to be the most scientific form of execution in revolutionary France, and as lethal injection is seen to be the most humane form of execution in contemporary America. There is more evidence that the hadith should be understood in the way al-Nawawi suggests, and not as an instruction for those preparing their weapons for war. Imam Muslim, the ninth-century hadith expert whose collection is one of the two greatest Sunni canons of ahadith, includes it in a section with other ahadith pertaining to activities such as hunting animals, slaughtering them, and eating them. This hadith is not included in the section of ahadith pertaining to jihad.

Whatever one might say about the terrorists’ personal faith, it is pretty certain that their victims—whether in an airplane or in a building—died horrible deaths, deaths preceded by unimaginable fear, panic, and suffering. To my mind, Atta’s use of the prophet’s words to Islamicize an act of terrible brutality shows the shallowness of the terrorists’ attempt to lend religious weight to what is basically a political ideology.

My second observation focuses on Bin Laden’s videotaped statement, broadcast by the Al Jazeera TV station. Other commentators have noted that Osama Bin Laden’s use of the term “hypocrisy” (nifaq) to describe his enemies echoes the Quran’s excoriation of those who, during the prophet’s exile in Medina, claimed to adhere to Islam but were in fact dissimulating. Bin Laden’s aim in using this powerful word is to draw a comparison between the phony Muslims of seventh-century Medina and those he regards as the phony Muslims of today. Most notable among these, by his reckoning, are the ruling families of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. But I think something more is being implied here. During the struggle for power following the prophet Mohammed’s death, a theological question arose: What is the religious status of your opponents? On the one hand, they professed to be Muslims; on the other hand, they had committed a grave sin in opposing you. So are your opponents simply Muslims who have sinned, or have they become infidels as a result of their sin? Bin Laden’s answer is contained in his assertion that the world is divided into just two camps: the camp of the believers and the camp of the infidels. His opinion seems to me to echo that of the Kharijites, an early Islamic rebel group who held the extreme view that a sinning Muslim (fasiq) was no longer a believer (mu’min) but had become an infidel (kafir). No longer entitled to the protection of life and property accorded to Muslims, such a sinner was also liable to be executed as an apostate (murtadd).

Bin Laden’s neo-Kharijism clearly makes the Saudi regime very nervous—so nervous that his assertion about the world’s division into believers and infidels was excised from the transcript of his statement published on Oct. 9 in the newspaper al-Hayat, which is owned by a member of the Saudi royal family. Also excised from the al-Hayat transcript were phrases such as “the hereditary rulers” and “the peninsula of Mohammed,” which make clear that Bin Laden’s real targets are the Saudi and Gulf princes. Why is this important? We Americans tend to assume that whenever the terrorists speak of “infidels,” they are referring to us and to allies such as Great Britain and Israel. That is certainly true in many cases, but in this particular case I think it is the Saudi and Gulf regimes who are in the frame. In other words, the terrorists’ ultimate targets are not America’s values, freedom, democracy, or material success, as we are told again and again. Bin Laden surely knows that he cannot defeat us militarily, or destroy our society, or even force us to change our policies in the Middle East through terrorist acts such as those that occurred on Sept. 11. To my mind his purpose was rather to use us as weapons against the Saudi and Gulf regimes. The carnage of Sept. 11 was Bin Laden’s way of provoking us into reacting so violently that innocent Muslim lives will inevitably be lost. Only in this way, he reasons, only by forcing the Saudi and Gulf regimes to choose between their alliance with America and the deaths of Muslim civilians—now seen live and uncensored on Al Jazeera television—will the true infidelity of these sinning pseudo-Muslims be fully exposed to their populations.

I should end with a cautionary note. My observations are preliminary and my inferences tentative. Closer examination of these extremely important Arabic documents is required. Other scholars, especially those with greater expertise in the field of Wahabbism and other forms of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, should contribute their own analyses. If there is any broad conclusion that is suggested by my observations, however, it is that we have to be more careful to distinguish between Islam and the political use of Islamic rhetoric. Islam, like any major religion, is a hugely complex phenomenon with a long and rich history, and it resists the facile generalizations we often hear now, be they negative (e.g., “Violence is central to Islam”) or positive (e.g., “Islam is a religion of peace”). By studying the terrorists’ peculiar use of certain loaded terms and phrases, we can better appreciate that their goal, however gussied up in Islamic rhetoric, is specific and political, not general and religious.