Understanding Our Neighbor: Jihad Basics

Theology, the study of God, and military science, the study of principles of warfare have more elements in common than one might realize. Both disciplines require an open mind, scholastic integrity, a relentless search for truth and grounding in reality even while accounting for the unknown. At their best both disciplines ignore political correctness and passing fads. Both disciplines must consider life and death realities.

These two disciplines came together for me in February 2005, when I began studying Jihadist theology in particular and Islamic supremist theology in general, as part of my year’s work on a training staff known as Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq. After all, many foreign fighters from across the Middle East were blowing themselves up with improvised explosive devices (IED) while shouting Allahu Akbar! (” Allah is the greatest!”). People act according to their beliefs and that sounds to me like those people had theological disputes.

It was my duty, without passion or prejudice as a Marine officer, to understand enemy doctrine; that is the doctrine they were using for warfare. In later assignments over the next four and half years, I was required to grow my understanding of the doctrinal basis of those who kill others and themselves in the name of Allah. I worked daily with an accumulative total of over two dozen Islamic cultural advisors from six different countries including Sunnis, Shias and Christians, men and women, young and old. Poignant memories included an intensive 1.5 day tutorial with five Iranian cultural advisors who assisted me in understanding connections between Islamic Shia religious doctrine with Iranian approach to war, politics, and international relations. In a slightly different direction, I also enjoyed extended conversations with a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Diplomacy for he was “an aficionado of Muslim extremist Web sites.”

None of this made me an expert, but I became an increasingly careful student of jihadist theology and motivations. I learned the hard way that if I was to gain understanding, I had to IGNORE diplomats, presidents, professors, and pundits who failed to cite chapter and verse of Islamic doctrine in making their pronouncements about what does and does not constitutes Islam. Sadly, I assess the jihadists are following many aspects of Islamic doctrine. Please keep in mind that my Muslim friends and some aspects of their culture were wonderful; the doctrine I slowly studied with their help, not at all. What follows are some of the doctrinal basics.

The word “Islam” does not primarily mean “peace,” but rather “submission,” and Muslim means one who has submitted. Sure the word “Islam” does carry connotations of peace in the Arabic root word, but peace is achieved when all have submitted to Allah the Mohammedan way. This approach to Allah has been around 1400 years. It is not going away any time soon. The baseline for all Muslims who hold Mohammedan faith in some dimension is this: “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.” The”Shahada” is the central creed in short form and found on many jihadist flags. Imagine reciting the Shahada out loud 40,000 times before your 25th birthday and what that might do to shape one’s thinking.

Islamic doctrine consists of not only the Qur’an, the Muslim Bible, but two other volumes: the Hadith and the Sira, the traditions and biography of Mohammed. Although not regarded as the spoken Word of God like the Qur’an, the Hadith and Sira are revered in Islam as major sources of religious law and moral guidance, which for all practical purposes carry the weight of Islamic divine inspiration for the Muslim laymen. The strength of the Hadith and Sira flows from the Qur’an itself. One example among many is Surah 4:59: “O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger (Muhammad SAW), and those of you (Muslims) who are in authority,” (Emphasis mine)

Moreover, a simple word count reveals that the Qur’an is only 14% of Islamic doctrine while the Sira, 26% and the Hadith 60% make up the bulk. So by sheer volume there is an emphasis of Mohammed in Islamic doctrine which exceeds that of Allah by an approximate ratio of 86% to 14%. Little wonder then, during my early days in Baghdad, my first cultural advisor, an estranged housewife of an Iraqi Army officer, would exclaim rolling her eyeballs nearly every day, “Those Jihadists take Mohammed too seriously!”

So if my friend was correct, what is it that Jihadists take “too seriously?” One thing Jihadists, facilitators, and admirers take seriously is the Islamic doctrine of abrogation. This sets Islam apart from all world religions in that earlier pronouncements of the Messenger in time (mostly from Mecca) become null and void by later pronouncements (mostly from Medina)1. This is Islamic abrogation. So many Qur’anic verses appealing to the Western ear which are peaceful, generous, and pleasant to non-Muslims are likely abrogated by later verses which might be characterized as ruthless. Other things Jihadists take seriously are Mohammed’s successes recorded in the Hadith and Sira. Mohammed’s early conduct and conquests, are entirely corroborated by other historical accounts. In later blogs, we will explore specific linkages between Islamic doctrine and the behavior of Jihadists, as well as the work of Western groundbreaking scholars who are not funded by Saudi or other Gulf state benefactors.

1Bell, Introduction to the Qur’an, pp. 86-107; Arthur Jeffery, Islam: Muhammad and His Religion (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958), p. 66.


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Comments 1
  1. I too worked for Central Command in Afghanistan. When I prepared my area study I re-read the Qur’an and looked for commonality with my counterparts. In the Qur’an I found a link in the book of Mary and the book of The Family of ‘Imran. When I talked to the Afghans this gave us a common link to discuss our faith. Interesting enough Mary in the Qur’an was an immaculate conception, but not by God. Their point was God does not have sex, therefore God cannot be the Father of Jesus. Yet Jesus is the word in the Qur’an. One point the Afghans would make was all Taliban are Pashtun, but not all Pashtun are Taliban. The same would relate here Jihadist are Islamic, but not all Islamist are Jihadist Terrorist.

    It was interesting in your article that you did not build on the inner meaning of the word Jihadist. Ones internal battle between the good and evil within ourselves. This would be similar to John Calvin’s concept of self denial or Jacobus Böhme’s dying to self. In Islam it is reaching inner peace (Salam) and living according to the law, “We sent Jesus, son of Mary, in their footsteps, to confirm the Torah that had been sent before him: We gave him the Gospel with guidance, light, and confirmation of the Torah already revealed – a guide and lesson for those who take heed of God. So let the followers of the Gospel judge according to God has sent down in it. Those who do not judge according to what God has revealed are lawbreaker.” verses 46 and 47 of The Feast (translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem).

    Our weapon against the Terrorist is not fear, but understanding how we can talk to each other using our Bible and their Qur’an. Recently a young man in France put his life on the line. He became a Muslim through the school’s that ISIS runs, yet he found the inner meaning of the Qur’an and did not join in fight, but talked the peace (Salam) we need in this world. When I was at Camp Eggers two of our female translators asked to go to chapel with me. It was an interesting experience. You ever try to explain communion to a Muslim. Salam Alaikum.

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