The New Yorker and The New Republic have just published lengthy articles about the demise of Al Qaeda. The first is “The Rebellion Within” by Lawrence Wright. The second is “The Unraveling” coauthored by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank.
If I were a university professor and you were my student, I’d give you an assignment. It would be to underline every occurrence of the word “jihad” or any of its derivatives in the two articles. “Jihad” and “jihadist” would be underlined dozens of times. I would then ask you to write a 500-word paper on the meaning of jihad as understood and practiced by Muhammad. If the word is important enough to be repeated so many times, what does it mean?
The reason for asking you to define jihad as Muhammad understood it is because that is what Muslims do. We in the West have no idea how significant the person and example of the Prophet are to Muslims. The conflict between Al Qaeda and other Muslim activists is simply a disagreement about how Muhammad would practice jihad and what limits he might place on it.
Here are a few ideas that might help you with your assignment. First of all, don’t look for any assistance within the two articles themselves. It’s not there. To be honest, I’m not sure even the authors could do this assignment. Secondly, the best way to understand how Muhammad viewed jihad is to read what he said about it. You need to read enough to get a true picture, because just one example could give you an incomplete impression. As an example, the Quran tells Muslims in Sura 29:8 to resist even their parents if the parents are “struggling” (the word used is “jihad”) to prevent Muslims from worshipping Allah. From that one verse, one might conclude that “jihad” is something non-Muslims do against Muslims. But there are dozens of other verses in the Quran that define jihad as the exertion of effort to spread the influence and authority of Islam. Al Qaeda and its Muslim opponents just disagree on what those efforts should be.
I'll make the assignment really easy. All you need to do is read this analysis of jihad, where the Muslim scholar has done all the work for you. Summarize what he says in 500 words, and turn it in. You'll get an A+. And you'll possibly know more about jihad than the writers of the two articles.