An examination of how some define the word ‘jihad’

October 19, 2014
by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

In the previous issue of Catholic Times, I wrote about the plight of Christians and other religious minorities who are being slaughtered or forced to flee from their homes in the Middle East by the terrorist militants known as the Islamic State. Some Muslim leaders have spoken out against the Islamic State, but their statements have not received widespread media coverage or their statements have been ambiguous.

For example, on Sept. 24, 2014, more than 120 Muslim scholars from around the world joined an open letter to the "fighters and followers of the Islamic State." The letter relies heavily on the Qur'an and various "trustworthy" sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as classical Sunni writings and interpretations. It attempts to rebut the ideology of ISIS with key Islamic texts that ISIS itself has cited. Commenting on this letter, Ayman S. Ibrahim, a post-doctoral fellow of Middle Eastern History who holds a Ph.D. from Fuller Graduate Schools in California, points out in an article published on October 3, 2014 in the journal First Things that there is "no reference or mention at all of 'terrorism' or 'terrorists' in the entire document."

Moreover, the letter of the Muslim scholars reads: "The word 'jihad' is an Islamic term that cannot be applied to armed conflict against any other Muslim." This leaves an ambiguity about whether jihad can be used against non-Muslims. Mr. Ibrahim asks, "Is armed jihad forbidden only against Muslims? The letter seems to convey so. If this is a true Islamic teaching, then it is seriously damaging to free societies, especially if we consider the non-Muslim groups marauded and slaughtered by ISIS under the banner of jihad."

The eradication of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq has been called "genocide" by those closest to the situation. The Wall Street Journal on September 29 also had a front page story on this subject entitled, "Iraqi Christians' Dilemma: Stay or Go? With ISIS Threat, Thousands of Chaldeans Face an Agonizing Decision." The article notes that the "Christian population of Iraq stood at around 1.4 million before 2003, but a million Christians have fled in the decade since Saddam Hussein was deposed, according to Iraqi church officials, leaving the number at around 400,000." It closes with a quote from Chaldean Catholic Bishop Sarhad Jammo, "We are watching an unfolding genocide. There is no hope of return to their villages."

Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in the April 16, 2014 issue of The Wall Street Journal, "At the turn of the 20th century, Christians made up 26 percent of the Middle East's population. Today, that figure has dwindled to less than 10 percent. Intolerant and extremist governments are driving away the Christian communities that have lived in the Middle East since their faith was born ... . Christians are losing their lives, liberties, businesses and their houses of worship across the Middle East."

A report issued last January by the Christian organization Open Doors documented the 10 most oppressive countries for Christians; nine were Muslim-majority states noted for Islamic extremism, and the 10th was North Korea.

Some defenders of Islam have argued that jihad is simply to be understood as spiritual striving. That is one use of that word, but Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus of Princeton University and internationally recognized as one of the greatest historians of the Middle East, writes on page 31 of his book The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, "For most of the 14 centuries of recorded Muslim history, jihad was most commonly interpreted to mean armed struggle for the defense or advancement of Muslim power."

Others will excuse Islamist violence by pointing to the warfare of Christians during the crusades. But Professor Lewis points out on pages 233-234 of his book, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years, "Even the Christian crusade, often compared with the Muslim jihad, was itself a delayed and limited response to the jihad and in part also an imitation. But unlike the jihad it was concerned primarily with the defense or reconquest of threatened or lost Christian territory ... .The Muslim jihad, in contrast, was perceived [by Muslims] as unlimited, as a religious obligation that would continue until all the world had either adopted the Muslim faith or submitted to Muslim rule.… The object of jihad is to bring the whole world under Islamic law."

While it pertains to Muslims to address and renounce such matters of Islamic teaching, I suggest for us Catholics that we turn to our Blessed Mother for her intercession by praying the rosary. Many parishioners pray the rosary together in church before Mass, a practice that I heartily encourage. Prior to the naval battle of Lepanto to repulse the westward expansion into Europe by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century, Pope St. Pius V called on Catholics to pray the rosary. After the battle was successfully won near the west coast of Greece on Oct. 7, 1571, the pope attributed the victory to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and declared the Feast Day of Our Lady of Victory, which we now observe as Our Lady of the Rosary each year on Oct. 7. Let us pray to the Queen of Peace for her intercession, that the whole world may be led to the peace promised by her son, Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

May God give us this grace. Amen.

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