Jihad Closer to Marx than the Koran?

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by Neil Godfrey

There has almost never been an example in Muslim history to parallel today’s terrorist acts.

I recently posted a few thoughts of Olivier Roy in his Jihad and Death and here I post something he said in an earlier book, Globalised Islam. In his Introduction chapter he has a section headed Is jihad closer to Marx than to the Koran?

His opening paragraph makes it clear that the terrorists are introducing innovations to Islamic views on the notion of jihad. In traditional Islam jihad is a collective duty contingent upon circumstances. It is only with modern radical innovators like Sayyid Qutb that jihad has been reinterpreted to mean a “permanent and individual duty”. Here is Roy’s opening paragraph (with my own bolding and paragraph formatting):

Where does the violence of Al Qaeda come from? Islamic radicals as well as many Western observers and experts try to root this violence in an Islamic tradition, or even in the Koran. As we have stated, the debate on what the Koran says is sterile and helps only to support prejudice. The reverse attitude (to explain that the Koran does not define jihad as an armed struggle, and so on) is equally sterile.

That the terrorists claim their violence is religiously motivated and legitimate is in itself important, but does not preclude what Islam really says on violence or from where the terrorists are really coming. We speak about people, acts and motivations, not theology.

Interestingly, however, the terrorists in their endeavour to root their wrath in the Koran are introducing some obvious religious innovations. The most important is the status of jihad. Whatever the complexity of the debate among scholars since the time of the Prophet, two points are clear: jihad is not one the five pillars of Islam (profession of faith, prayer, fasting, alms-giving and pilgrimage) and it is therefore a collective duty (fard kifaya), under given circumstances.

But the radicals, since Sayyid Qutb and Mohammed Farrag, explicitly consider jihad a permanent and individual duty (fard ‘ayn).30 This is probably the best criterion with which to draw a line between conservative neofundamentalists and radical ones: the latter are rightly called ‘jihadist’ by the Pakistani press. Among the few writings of Osama Bin Laden, the definition of jihad as a permanent and personal duty holds a central place.31 His concept of suicide attack is not found in Islam.32

31. See Bin Ladens fatwa (published by the London newspaper Al-Quds al-Atabi on 23 February 1998) stating that ‘to kill Americans is a personal duty for all Muslims’. The text can be found at (‘Text of Fatwah Urging Jihad against Americans’).

32. Many sheikhs have condemned the World Trade Centre attacks, while often supporting the Palestinian suicide bombers. See, for example. Sheikh Al Al-bani’s fatwa ‘Suicide Bombing in the Scales of Islamic Law’, which condemns any suicide attacks (‘These suicide missions are not Islamic – period!’; <http:// www.mushmtents.com/aminahsworld/Suicide_bombing2.html>); and the fatwa of Sheikh al-Qaradawi, which forbade attacks on civilians, except in Palestine (Doha, Qatar, 13 September 2001; <http://www.islam-onhne.net/ English/News/2001-09/13/article25.shtml>. See also the fatwa of Qaradawi and others at <http://www.unc.edu/~kurzman/Qaradawi_et_al.htm>.

(Globalised Islam, pp. 41f)

It is clear that jihad is traditionally a concept that is justified only as a collective Muslim community response to enemies. It is not, traditionally, “an individual and personal decision”.

The terrorists are evidently in something of a contradiction when on the one hand they claim to be following the pathways of their ancestors, and declare anyone who strays from their path an infidel, yet themselves justify their political activism on an “obvious innovation.”

[M]ost radical militants are engaged in action as individuals, cutting links with their ‘natural’ community (family, ethnic group and nation) to fight beyond the sphere of any real collective identity. This overemphasis on personal jihad complements the lonely situation of the militants, who do not follow their natural community, but join an imagined one.

There has almost never been an example in Muslim history to parallel today’s terrorist acts. . . . . (p. 42)

Some historical context

Some have suggested that most present-day conflicts involve Muslims. Maybe so, maybe not. (One should probably elaborate: most conflicts that are of interest to the West involve Muslims.)

1800s: The figure of the lonely metaphysical terrorist who blew himself up with his bomb appeared in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century and

1933: was treated as a literary topic by Andre Malraux in La condition humaine (1933). (Cheng, the terrorist, commits a suicide attack because he feels that his ideal of purity and justice will fail if he wins, to the benefit of an earthly and disappointing compromise with human mediocrity.)

1968: Aircraft hijacking was the innovation of the secular Palestinian liberation movement in association with the ultra-left Red Army of Europe.

1972: First suicide attack on Israeli soil was by the Japanese Red Army.

1980s: Suicide attacks were the standard guerilla tactic by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Tamils are supposedly Hindus, following the religion of Mahatma Gandhi!

The real genesis of Al Qaeda violence has more to do with a Western tradition of individual and pessimistic revolt for an elusive ideal world than with the Koranic conception of martyrdom. The delusional overemphasis on Islam is particularly striking in the cliched reference to the seventy-two houris, or perpetual virgins, who are expecting the martyr. I doubt that the two Palestinian women who committed suicide attacks in 2002 were interested in the prospect of houris. (p. 43)

1990s: The Serb-Bosnian conflict. Serbs advertised the religious factor attacking Bosnians, but did not mention religion when attacking Croats.

In both cases the conflict was ethnonational and the actors alternately stressed or downplayed the religious factor to attract support. The Bosnians were defined not by their supposed Muslim faith but by the administrative decision made by Tito to use the term Muslim as an ethnic one, with political consequences (the right to administrative autonomy). By contrast, Serbian Muslims (that is, Serb-speaking Muslims living in Serbia) were uninvolved in the war, because they have never been defined as an ethnic group. In Kosovo the divide was ethnic from the start. Christian Albanians sided with their Muslim fellows, while Slavic Muslims (the Gorani) and Muslim gypsies joined the Serbs. (pp. 43f)

The same applies to Indonesia:

In Indonesia all conflicts are ethnic, but the fight between the Moluccans and Muslim immigrants is labelled a ‘war of religion’. It is, however, the same sort of ethnic conflict as in the separatist movement in the emirate of Aceh (where everybody is a Muslim).

And of course we have the Chechen and Palestinian movements

are classic modern liberation struggles.

Chechens were abandoned by their fellow Muslim Chechens in the northern Caucasus.

Both Zionism and the Palestinian liberation movement have been historically secular. Roy is writing before the political rise of Hamas, but nothing takes from his point that

In Palestine, Christians and secularists (from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP, founded by a Christian, George Habash) are as involved in the nationalist struggle as the Islamists. (p. 44)

Much more can be detailed (and perhaps will be in future), but you get the idea.


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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Jihad Closer to Marx than the Koran?”

  1. What I understood is that jihad could also become an individual duty when non-muslims attack muslims. It is described in these islamic legal manuals from these different schools of law (Shafi, Maliki, Hanafi, etc…). Bulghah al-Salik li-Aqrab al-Masalik fi madhhab al-Imam Malik (“The Sufficiency of the Traveller on the Best Path in the School of Imam Malik,”) says this: “Jihad in the Path of Allah, to raise the word of Allah, is fard kifayah [obligatory on the community] once a year, so that if some perform it, the obligation falls from the rest. It becomes fard `ayn [obligatory on every Muslim individually], like salah and fasting, if the legitimate Muslim Imam declares it so, or if there is an attack by the enemy on an area of people.”

    I agree that modern jihadists copied suicide bombing tactics from non-muslims.

    1. I would need to delve into Islamic studies at a level I don’t really feel inclined to do. Roy is a specialist in Islamic studies so to some extent I am relying upon an “argument from authority”. My first response would be to raise the questions you present with other scholars in a similar position to Roy. Do you know what other specialists in Islam and traditional Islamic interpretation of those passages has been? Is Roy wrong in claiming that the terrorist interpretation is contrary to Islamic tradition?

      1. My sources are anti-Islam websites. I read them almost daily. But these websites quote extensively from Islamic religious scholars.

        It is often explained on these anti-Islam websites that because there is no caliph anymore, the jihadists often make the claim that they are attacked by the non-Muslims, and therefore there is no need to await the orders of the caliph. So in their opinion, they are allowed to attack non-Muslims, and they see this as an individual duty.

        The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria circumvented this whole issue by making Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the caliph, so they don’t need to wait until the non-Muslims attack first.

        I have noticed that you don’t like it if I link to anti-Islam websites. Wikiiislam seems to be a more moderate anti-islam site to me. Perhaps you will tolerate it.

        The following are chapters from what apparently is a book by the Palestinian Abdullah Yusuf Azzam also known as the “Godfather of Jihad”, he quotes from Islamic religious scholars:



        The following page on wikiislam also quotes some Islamic religious scholars:


        Such religious scholars are for instance Ibn Aabidin of the Hanafi fiqh, Ibn Khaldun of the Maliki fiqh, al-Ramli of the Shafi’i fiqh, and Ibn al Qadamah of the Hanbali fiqh.

        I also often read the claim that terrorism is allowed in the Quran: “When thy Lord inspired the angels, (saying): I am with you. So make those who believe stand firm. I will throw fear into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Then smite the necks and smite of them each finger. ” (Pickthall, Quran 8:12)

        Although when I read this, I now think that it could be the angels or Muhammad who will “smite the necks and smite of them each finger”. And that brings me back to the theory that in early Islam only Jesus (who might be Muhammad) and perhaps his angels will punish the unbelievers, and then later it developed into the idea that God punishes the unbelievers with the hands of the believers. (Quran 9:14)

        Another Quran verse is mentioned: “And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you do not know [but] whom Allah knows. And whatever you spend in the cause of Allah will be fully repaid to you, and you will not be wronged. ” (Sahih International, Quran 8:60)

        Perhaps the steeds of war are heavenly steeds which the angels use. I am thinking out loud.

        Crawling into the mind of a jihadist suicide bomber, they may interpret “prepare against them whatever you are able of power “, as letting bombs explode, even if it kills you yourself.

        1. I understand that just about any view under the sun can be found expressed by some imam somewhere at some time, but there is evidently a mainstream range of Islamic scholarly interpretation nonetheless. I would not trust my own reading of different interpretations without first attempting to get the larger context of those interpretations within the various mainstream views of Islam, and to get some feel for whatever debate might exist.

      2. The original meaning of gihâd [jihad] and fî sabîli llâh (Günter Lüling, A Challenge to Islam for Reformation…, Delhi 2003, p. 354f. in connection with p. 242)


        Über den Ur-Qur’an. Ansätze zur Rekonstruktion vorislamischer christlicher Strophenlieder im Qur’an. Erlangen: Lüling, 1974.

        Lüling, Günter (2003). A challenge to Islam for reformation: the rediscovery and reliable reconstruction of a comprehensive pre-Islamic Christian hymnal hidden in the Koran under earliest Islamic reinterpretations. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. pp. 580 pages. ISBN 81-208-1952-7. Retrieved 5 September 2019.. (Translation and considerable reworking of the 2. German edition 1993 of Über den Ur-Koran, 1st ed. 1974.)

        Über den Urkoran. Ansätze zu Rekonstruktion der vorislamisch-christlichen Strophenlieder im Koran. 3rd corr. ed. Erlangen: Lüling, 2004. ISBN 3-922317-18-9

  2. There’s nothing about class struggle in the Koran. And there is nothing about dying for ideals in Marx.

    For Marx, revolution emerges organically out of the class struggle. It is not something anyone can instigate by inciting the masses.

    1. You are indeed correct in that I did a very poor job of justifying a positive answer to the title of the post. I will try to make amends in a follow up post. But I think you should give some credit to pointing out the non-Islamic character of the current spate of Islamist terrorism.

  3. I wouldn’t overestimate the importance of the suicide aspect. It’s just a means to an end, depending on the method of attack. They still try to escape if they can, like the Charlie Hebdo attackers and in general attacks made with guns or ground vehicles. Of course one can’t be expected to survive direct explosion or jump out of a passenger plane.
    The goal is to score maximum casualities with least effort, and attacker’s life is cheap if he believes it’s just an intermediary stage to something better.

    It was quite much the same in case of medieval asassins, they couldn’t blow themselves up back then, but they usually put themselves in situations without a way out, and they did commit suicides if they wanted to avoid being captured alive,
    so there’s nothing new about suicide terrorism.

    It doesn’t matter who was the first to blow himself up. What matters is why the attacks happen, the how is really just a question of what’s available at the time.

  4. In “The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism”, written in 1920, Bertrand Russell compared early Communism to early Islam (or Mohammedanism, as it was called at the time). But his comparison was based on the similarities of new religious movements that were concerned with the unspiritual conquest of this earthly world. “What Mohammedanism did for the Arabs, Bolshevism may do for the Russians” (pg. 55)

    Both Islamic suicide bombers and the 70’s communist terrorists both flipped that on its head in the same way. With no real ability to create the earthly empire, the sacrifice completely is made personal. It’s the same revolutionary impulse, and the same nominal ideology, but the circumstances of the contemporary world force that impulse to be inward-looking.

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