We see waves of radical Islamic groups, from Al-Qaeda to Islamic State (ISIS), invoking the name of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad to justify their actions. We see Saudi Arabia punishing acts of freedom of speech with life imprisonment or even with capital punishment and we see the Saudis still forcing their women to wear the veil (hijab). And we see groups of armed religious fanatics entering buildings and massacring anyone that stands in their way. For the Western world these types of behavior seem deviant and typical to the Middle Ages or maybe not even to that historical period. And in many ways that is true.
Subsequently, endless discussions on these topics take birth, many of them ending with negative conclusions regarding the Islamic religion and regarding the Prophet Muhammad. Partly this is understandable. That doesn’t make it a good thing though. And negative findings often occur due to the lack of proper documentation or because the search for answers in too few sources, usually only in passages of the Koran.
This article aims to give a few answers to some of the reasons behind radical Islamism. Due to the complexity of this subject I thought it would be more effective to segment this article into three parts:
- Is radical Islamism a contemporary issue?
- Does radical Islamism draws its origins from the Koran?
- Does the Islamic religion promote peace? Or does it promote war as well when peace fails to give the desires results?
We will see that the answers to all these questions will help us understand better the Islamic religion as a whole, as well as radical Islamic groups.
The first thing I should note is that the concept of “religious war” did not emerge together with the Islamic religion. It’s a much older concept, so old that it couldn’t even be accurately dated. The notion of “holy war” appeared in the Muslim world in the seventh century A.D. and later on, it had an evolution that was influenced by various political and military interests.
The emergence of the concept of “jihad”
Between 617-622 A.D., The Prophet Muhammad focused primarily on the power of word to attract followers. This relatively peaceful period is known as the “Meccan period” and during this time Muhammad assumed the role of “Warning Prophet”.
In 622 A.D. the “Medineze period” began, during which Muhammad assumed the role of “Armed Prophet”, mainly with the purpose of conquering the city of Mecca. It’s between 622-632 A.D. that the concept of “jihad” was introduced. And that happened out of a mix of military, economic, social and political necessities.
Looking beyond the title “Prophet” it should be noted that Muhammad was primarily a military and political leader rather than a religious one. Faced with a highly divided Arabian Peninsula between a multitude of pre-Islamic tribes, Muhammad understood that the only way to truly unify that territory was through a systematic process of conquest, by imposing a common religion and by creating a system of alliances with the local nobles. For the latter purpose Muhammad did not hesitate to ally with non-Muslims and even to marry non-Muslim noble women.
Without alliances and especially without a common religion to all tribes, the conquered territory would not have been anything other than a confederation of tribes that very likely, would have collapsed after his death. Surely Muhammad was not the first leader who used this principle – the Romans successfully applied it long before him – and he was not the last either.
But not all tribes accepted his authority willingly, so Muhammad needed a tool to justify territorial expansion. And this instrument was the jihad. In reality the jihad was the same old raid that pre-Islamic tribes used to fight against one another. Muhammad merely redirected these efforts from the inside, to the outside. And religious issues were the means by which he did so. Usually the jihad was directed against those who did not pay tribute, against those who did not convert, or against those who refused to ally with him.
However, Muhammad did not treat religious differences discriminatory, being tolerant towards the conquered populations. In fact, he did not even insist that the conquered populations should convert, as long as they recognized his authority. In addition to that, he recognized Jesus and Moses as prophets, gesture meant to show his willingness to be tolerant towards the Christians and Jews in the conquered territories, but also to encourage the Hebrew and Christian communities to join.
Moreover, Muhammad never promoted the idea of “holy war” in disregard to the reality on the ground. He used it only a last resort and only if the military conquest was indeed possible.
In short: for Muhammad the jihad was just an instrument that would allow him to expand his territory, his authority and the Islamic religion, which in turn would serve to provide cohesion to the conquered territories.