Jihad and Community

by Fr. Stephen Headley

Generalizations about Muslim countries often only increase confusion. Although in its religious practices Islam remains much the same wherever it is practiced, each society in which it takes root shapes its social priorities. This article seeks to provide a realistic description of some aspects of the movement for inter-religious peace and tolerance in Java, home to a hundred million Muslims. The obstacles are formidable. Indonesia is by far the largest Muslim country in the world. Four regions (Borneo, Celebes, Molucca and former East Timor) have been subject to Balkan-style provocations designed to generate Muslim-Christian hatred. So far Java has only experienced sporadic outbursts.

In the third week of October, in front of the great mosque of Al Azhar in Cairo, the demonstrators trooped by with banners proclaiming Jihad is the Solution! This was Islam as a language of dissent, commented New York Times correspondent Douglas Jehl. It is also the language of millions of Muslims bitterly disillusioned by the promises of modernity. Given the complexity and intractability of the social problems involved, the word “solution” sounds like rhetorical overkill.

Why are the demonstrators “moving the goal posts” on modernity? Can’t we see where their frustrations lie? The question outsiders ask is: What does it mean to be Muslim?

If one is Muslim, one important frustration derives from the fact that the umma (Arabic for the community of believers) is hard to mobilize. The Muslim renaissance has been a long time coming. The history of these last two hundred years of Islam is one of spiritual renewal directed at this passive center, and militant action directed at the borders.

But are there submerged voices, constructive ones, ignored by the mass media? Indeed there are. One example is the paper al-Ikhtilaf (The Difference), distributed by young Muslims from the Bureau for the Study of Islam and Society in Central Java every Friday morning, in mosques serving twenty million people. The September 14th edition, just four days after the attacks in the USA, was entitled “From individual piety toward social devotion.” That of October 19th was on the effort required “to restrain oneself from the desire to go on the rampage”; and on October 26th, “The feeling of humanity torn apart.” Behind the headlines, frustration is mounting. Each issue expresses the need for peace and tolerance; and each notes that this is ignored by the mass media.

Sometimes anecdotes from daily life provide a pretext to re-evaluate the Javanese mentality. Writing in al-Ikhtilaf a year earlier, Wening Tandas Ati recalled an encounter with a Catholic woman in the town of Parakan:

“Sir, you’re a Muslim aren’t you? How is it that you have such a feeling of love. What moved you to become like this?” I was stunned by this question. What I understood was that a Muslim cannot possess a feeling of love. If I speak about attention to, receiving and respecting difference, this lady finds it strange that the person speaking in this way is a Muslim. As a Muslim who has inherited the hadist [a traditional saying of the Prophet] stating that it is not enough to believe, if one does not love one’s brother as oneself, I was myself rather wounded by her question. But seeing the woman’s innocence, I began to reflect. This mother had probably had an ugly experience of living with Muslims. As a follower of the Catholic religion, she may often have been marginalized and ostracized by her neighbors. Most likely she was mocked and condemned… And the Muslims who acted arbitrarily towards her would not have felt that there was anything wrong in what they did.

["To Expose the Prejudices Between Communities of Believers," Sept. 15, 2000]

This is where the real drama of Islam’s treatment of “otherness” is being played out. The international press is speaking at a level of indifference where their own assumptions are never challenged by any local Muslim hierarchy of human values. For the “developed” West, to categorize oneself by one’s religion is already a reflection of backwardness. The Iranian revolution of 1979 did nothing to help this mind set. Thus Salmon Rushdie in a recent New York Times article, discusses how obscurantists have hijacked Islam, emphasizing that Muslims themselves are calling for a reformation of Islam. He interprets this to reflect the need for evolution towards personal expression of the faith. By personal he means de-politicized, which can only be accomplished by adopting the secularist-humanist foundations of modernity.

While many Muslims recognize that Islam has become its own enemy and that terrorism is a disease within Islam (Muslims, after all, have suffered the most from it), it is not common amongst Muslims to find someone willing to abandon the public sphere to secular humanism. On the contrary, Islamic reform movements want to take the public sphere out of the hands of oligarchic political parties whose greed and ambitions have created such uncivil societies.

Reduced to its basic concepts, religion deals with dimensions of “otherness,” society being the topos of such relations. Therefore religion is public, or else it ceases to exist except as a private fantasy.

Let me draw on another example from Java. A discussion was underway regarding Islam’s place in the political arena. In a dialogue with a journalist, the historian of Indonesian Islam, Azyumardi Azra, expressed his fear that the multiplication of Indonesian political parties (ten now represent the two main Islamic associations) will make of the community — umat in Indonesian — nothing more than foam on the waves of political movements. If the goal of political parties is merely acquiring power, then it can only harm the solidarity of umat. Politicians’ horse-trading mentality destroys their capacity to represent the umat. Even at the highest level of governance, the president of the republic is hamstrung by political bargaining, as we saw with the fall of Abdul Rachman Wahid. Political maneuvering wastes the authority of the umat. What is more, the instability created by these Muslim political parties renews the question of whether the umat should be represented politically at all. This has been the Indonesian military’s point of view and their pretext for intervention into civilian life.

The solidarity of the umat has already been weakened by so many battling billy-goats fighting mindlessly for “power” in the name of political parties who, although Islamic, are really destroying the Muslim faithful’s community fabric. This debate emerged in Indonesia in 1970-71 when Nurcholish Madjid condemned the use of Islamic political parties and the ideal of a Muslim state as idolatry. He argued one must secularize the political in order to preserve the tauhid (unity) of Allah in which the umat finds its coherence.

The coherence of the faithful is a given, but also a function of its sobriety. This observation is pertinent, for by nature Islam is both a religion and a community, a unity fixing the conditions and rules of daily life. The solidarity of the community realizes its vocation of being a whole, in the image of Allah’s oneness. As the writer Gardet observed, everything is given as a whole. Analyzed as dogma, the simplicity of Muslim monotheism is such that it can be taken for granted intellectually and, without ascetic depth, quickly converts into ideological baggage. If Islam is a theocracy, it is a theocracy without an ecclesiastical organization, no member having spiritual power over another. This being so, its traditions and customs are consolidated in the community by their uncreated and eternal bond of unity, namely the word of Allah in the Koran. It is in this context that we should try to evaluate the calls for a jihad which extremist groups have been bandying about in Java’s main cities since September 11.

The meanings of jihad

First, what is jihad? Its most important meaning is to be found in the Meccan chapters of the Koran. Here it means an effort directed toward oneself, the so-called jihad ‘ala nafs. The word appears 25 times in the Koran, but not always with the same connotations, so that over time its meaning has been understood differently according to context. In Sufism, the meaning of ascetical struggle against oneself has remained primordial. Perfection is a struggle (mujahada), an interior combat (the “great jihad“) to be conducted under the guidance of a shayykh or spiritual director. Contemplation, prayer, repetitive invocations and examination of conscience, are an ongoing struggle against one’s evil tendencies. “Whoever struggles, struggles only to his own gain; surely God is All-sufficient nor needs any being.” (ch. 29) Such solitary struggle is unlikely to attract the power hungry. The great struggle (al-jihad al-akbar) against one’s own defects is waged most especially during the month of Ramadan.

Altogether different is al-jihad al-asghar: combat with one’s enemies and eventually their forced conversion. In a later sura, Repentance, the word jihad appears nine times, more than in any other sura. Here jihad is identified with a holy war (harb; fitna, quital).”That is the right religion. So wrong not each other during [the four sacred months] and fight the unbelievers totally, even as they fight you totally; and know that God is with the God-fearing.” (Repentance 9:36) In another sura, Salvation, one reads: “So obey not unbelievers, but struggle with them mightily.” After the flight of Muhammad to Medina in 622, war against polytheism and its supporters (the tribes in Mecca and elsewhere) gained in importance. Such fighters for Allah (moujahidin) may become martyrs, described in the Koran as follows:

God has bought from the believers their selves and their possession against the gift of Paradise. They fight in the way of God; they kill and are killed; that is a promise binding upon God in the Torah, and the Gospel, and the Koran; and who fulfils his covenant truer than God? It is not for the Prophet and the believers to ask for pardon for the idolaters, after that it has become clear to them that they will be the inhabitants of Hell. (9:11-13)

These two associations of the word for effort (jihad), one inward, one military, are articulated by the notion of peace and war. Inside the territory of Islam (dar al-Islam) is a territory of peace where no violence against a Muslim is tolerated; the atheist, the polytheist or the evil-doer should be chased away. After Muhammad’s death, the territory of war (dar al-harb) coincided with Islam’s frontiers, with the borders for Muslim society’s potential expansion, making the “struggle” a divine institution (al-qayrawani). This leads el-Bokhari, an early collector of the hadiths, to say, “Paradise lies in the shadow of the sword.”

To describe in any detail the chain of exegesis on this theme of jihad over the centuries could fill a book, but what does a call for holy war mean today?

The key to the problem is the nature of authority. Who can issue such a call? The shari’a (a Koran-based code of laws) legislates many answers which are blatantly ignored by the various well-financed Muslim militia groups.

What is the structure of the Muslim community that permits it to resist violence in certain instances and participate in it in others?

It is not enough to say that Islam is an egalitarian theocracy. One needs to specify the religious nature of the bond of unity in Islam. This is the Koran, which Muslims believe Muhammad recited word by word under the dictation of the archangel Gabriel. The great hope of the puritan reformers of Islam has always been the unification of Islam around the Koran and its commentary. The “people of the qibla” — those who pray toward Mecca — formed an Islamic community from the beginning. Personal error is effaced by a common accord (ijma’). In this sense, the Muslim community is a state of law or hukm. Muslim confidence in this divinely inspired society of law gives them dignity.

While the pillars of Islam are individual (the creed, prayer, alms, fasting and pilgrimage), there is one collective duty, the effort (jihad) to spread the rights of Allah to the ends of the earth. Such a conception of the unity of the community permits no secession: an apostate is to be put to death. Such severity within the umma is not fanaticism, according to Gardet, but the temporal expression of its cohesion. The approach of dar al-Islam to dar al-harb is that of jihad, which, in periods of religious reform, usually takes on a missionary character.

What is the place of the individual in this community? His dignity derives from the fact that Allah placed him there, and is expressed by belonging to the umma. So is the community a communion? While Islam requires outward conformity to its law, it does not judge inward adherence. The believer must have correct intentions (niyya), and although man exists only through his community, he presents himself alone before his Maker. Mediation on another’s behalf, as it is stressed by the Sufis, cannot replace individual action. While the umma is man’s sole spiritual community, it remains outside of man (while for Christians all communities have the common goal of salvation).

Islam is confronted with two other concepts of society: modern individualism, where there is no distinction between person and individual, leading towards democratic ideologies; and materialist individualism, where the earthly city is the finality of all social communities. Because Islam does not distinguish between the temporal and the spiritual, such distinctions are irrelevant. The Muslim individual feeds off the community and respects its concept of otherness. The umma does not transcend earthly cities but unifies them.

The Muslim community thus presents itself in universalist terms: all believers are brothers. The coat of arms of Islam is the social character of religious duties, although, in contrast to the Jewish Law, larger sectors of life go unqualified. Underneath the rigidity of the forms, there is much flexibility and imprecision. Even so interdependence and solidarity are important dimensions of daily life. A Muslim, writes Gardet, “is encouraged to identify his personal drama with the primordial care and defense of the interests of the community.” This is not the practice of fraternal love in the Christian sense, but rather “mutual understanding and faithfulness guaranteed by the promises of God.”

While the predominance of the collective over the individual is real, individualism is expressed in a certain skepticism and suspicion of one another. Such individualism, however, tends to be swept aside in confrontation with foreigners. Muslims close ranks for jihad and da’wa (missionary endeavor).

After the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a painful awakening occurred which neither the somber puritanism sponsored by Wahabites of Saudi Arabia nor the orthodox reformers like the Muslim Brotherhood could cure during the 20th century. Muslims are still seeking how to organize their common life. Shared values provide their most natural defense against individualism, ethnic nationalism and class distinction. While a country like Turkey may have progressively become more and more laicized, the latent values of the umma are manifest in so many norms that determine the real daily behavior of people.

The umat behind the jihads: the example of Java

To ask how Islam integrates non-Muslims involves not only its appropriation of modernity or pluralism in a given cultural setting, but also regional differences — for example, the multi-culturalism which characterizes the Islam of the Indonesian archipelago. There are differences between Javanese Islam and that Islam practiced by the other ethnic-linguistic groups on Java and the other islands, though not such as to fragment the community on ethno-linguistic lines. The Javanese identified themselves as Muslims before they identified themselves as Javanese.

The Persian Shiite, Sohravardi, said in the 11th Century: “Read the Koran as if it was revealed only for you!” In Java a certain individual practice has long been a traditional alternative. Islam as first encountered in Indonesia in the 13th century was aware of these currents favoring personal revelations. Many recent studies of the great poetic compositions of eighteenth and nineteenth century Javanese literature stress the ways in which they restructure older Javanese culture in terms of a Muslim hierarchy of values: knowledge of Allah, repentance and abandonment to Allah, love of Allah, and meeting with Allah.

The demographic reality of an Islamic majority, such as the government’s prohibition of mixed marriages, poses major problems for religious pluralism. However complex the mix of Islamic values and Javanese culture, it does not change the fact that Javanese Muslims belong to a Muslim community. The strongest image of this is the huge crowds that fill Javanese city squares as the Ramadan fast is broken. This is the feast of feasts and the holy day of holy days! Non-Muslims experience themselves as outsiders.

Two questions arise: How is the hierarchy of values proper to the Muslim community mediated in such a society? How does that society integrate otherness into community? The answers will situate different kinds of calls for jihad.

Such mediation does not take place in the streets, or in events staged for the benefit of TV cameras. This is jihad as political manipulation by the elite, artificial events which actually destroy the umma. Street demonstrations and manifestoes shouted by speakers rarely have anything to do with piety or human rights. They are desperate efforts of politicians with a dwindling clientele. All they demonstrate is the weakness of local regimes, an impotence creating a vacuum filled by populist politicians and extremist groups shouting jihad.

In Java, following recent outbreaks of intra-community violence, the typical reaction has been one of down-scaling. Local Javanese communities threatened by insecurity pull inwards their parameters of defense, creating communities on a smaller scale where the hierarchy of values remains the same, but in which they are endowed with greater control.

International movements such as the Egyptian-founded Muslim Brotherhood and local Indonesian ones like the Hisbollah Front or the Laskar Jihad are not likely to affect the mentality of ordinary Javanese Muslims. They are busy scaling down the frontiers of the residential community to a size which they can reasonably expect to defend. These communities include non-Muslims.

In Indonesia, the best sociological observations are found in newspapers. Azyumardi Azra, in an article on the spirit of jihad for peacemaking, discusses the “universal values” of jihad which he translates as “exerting oneself,” returning to the root meaning of the word. For him, mankind in all its pluralism can benefit from the mercy and divine grace that flows from Allah through Islam to all. To practice jihad as war against non-aggressive Christians, as has happened in Ambon, is forbidden. It would only be permitted if Muslims were attacked by the Christians and their government was unable to defend them. To his knowledge, Christians have not perpetrated any such crusade, so the only Muslim jihad in Indonesia can be one for peace. While security is the province of the government and the military, social peace is everyone’s responsibility. It first of all involves learning how to control one’s own appetites, passions, doing so for the benefit of mankind. He argues that the unity of the Muslim community can only be preserved by ascetic jihad. Then the extremists will be chased out as enemies rather than defenders of the Koran. Even in a country as out of control as Indonesia, this is not a vain hope. It is the only hope.

Many Muslims comparing the experiences of Islamic regimes elsewhere realize that the negative records of these regimes (the bankruptcy of Sudan, the mullah-archy of Iran, the fanaticism of Afghanistan, and abuse of human rights throughout the Muslim world) show Indonesia Muslims what paths not to take.

Father Stephen Headley is the priest of the Orthodox parish of St. Etienne and St. Germain d’Auxerre in the town of Vezelay, France. He has worked at the French National Center for Scientific Research in the field of religious anthropology focusing upon prayer and ritual in Indonesia. He has remained in close contact with the Indonesian Orthodox parishes since their inception.