Religion and Civil Society
- Sociedad y Comunicación
The concept of "holy war" and the evolution of violence in the message of Islam
Marco Demichelis assesses the main conclusions of his research, developed within the Institute for Culture and Society’s Religion and Civil Society project with funding from a Marie Curie fellowship.
FOTO: Isabel Solana
Marco Demichelis graduated in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Turin (Italy), after which he went on to study his first Master's Degree in International Development (Turin, Italy) and a second one in African Studies in Dalarna Hogskolan (Sweden). He has a PhD in the History of Islamic Political Thought from the University of Genoa (Italy). In 2017, the Religion and Civil Society project of the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Navarra hired him thanks to a Marie Curie grant, the most competitive grant application within the European Commission. Through this research, which comes to a close during this academic year, he has studied the “verses of war” in the Koran with the aim of analyzing, from a comparative perspective, the evolution of violence within the framework of Islam’s message.
What are the most relevant conclusions of your project?
The project’s main historical and Koranic findings are related. The first has to do with the first attempt to declare the concept of "just war" and "holy war" in relation to Islam’s development of a just warrior who has a solid ethical and moral basis. The related methodological analysis reflects that both for Islam and for any other religion, we need time to reach a religious understanding that is able to play a significant role in society, regardless of the society implicated. Thus, to consider the first attempt to develop the figure of a just warrior 150 years after Muhammad’s death, we need to concentrate on a longer period of time and more deeply understand Islam’s concept of holiness regarding war.
Islam spans a historical period from Antiquity to what Western European historians have termed the Middle Ages. But, in this case, we are looking at a different geographical reality, i.e., the Middle East, including the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia and other adjacent geographical regions. Thus, Islam did not arise after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. We can begin to think about Islam’s historical, religious, theological and legal consolidation starting in the following century, in parallel with the canonization of the Koran.
So, the first conquests after Muhammad’s death cannot be considered a "holy war?"
The conquest that began in 634 AD, two years after the prophet’s death, cannot properly be considered Islamic because no real Islamic community existed then. In some of his publications, Fred Donner, professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago (USA), emphasizes that we should instead speak of a community of monotheistic believers in which Arab clans of Bedouins and non-monotheists played a significant role. They were from the Arabian Peninsula and happened at that time to be emigrating north to Syria, Mesopotamia, the Iranian plateau, Egypt, and Palestine. Some of these clans began developing a monotheistic sensibility (Hanifiyya), with obvious influence from the Arab Judaism and Christianity already present in the entire Peninsula. Clearly, Arab Christianity influenced the creation of the image of a just Muslim warrior, given the important role that foederati Arab confederations played in the Byzantine and Sassanian empires in late Antiquity (fifth and sixth centuries AD).
When did this concept appear within the framework of the Islamic religion?
Conquest did not originally have a religious connotation, which only arose a century or a century and a half later in consideration of an early understanding of the concept of "just war," and also of the just Muslim man, in terms of a more dogmatic and structured idea within the Islamic religion.
The other relationship between these two aspects is reflected in a just-ascetic war that corresponds to individual self-improvement and that can also be developed on the level of war to defend what could be considered the borders of the Islamic world starting in 725-730 AD: the Byzantine, the Khorasan, the Al Andalus borders, and so on. In this way, the first real canonization of this idea is reflected in a single person with the desire to put asceticism into practice on the border of these geographical regions and able to be directly involved in the defense and attack of said border.
Does this have to do with historical perspective? What about a perspective based on revelation?
As far as Koranic hermeneutics go, we must consider that this same historical period witnessed the creation of these borders—with campaigns of conquest ending at them, particularly Byzantium—the Umayyad dynasty completed its second failed attempt to conquer Constantinople in 717-718 AD. In parallel, the first text of the first books of the first Islamic tradition contains a legal statement that tried to define what Muslim warlike activity and just warriors look like.
In this sense, there are legal texts, such as Imam Malik’s al-Muwatta, or Shaybani’s al-Kitab al-Siyar, that contain a section on what is generally called Kitab al-Jihad (Book of Jihad). Another example relates to the creation of a warlike and ethical narrative according to the Maghazi description (from the ghazwa root) of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, which describes nascent Islam’s development of defensive and offensive warlike activity. Although the Kitab al-Jihad and Siyar are legal texts, and, therefore, include a legal approach to these aspects (it is forbidden to kill women, children, the elderly; there are moral and ethical limits regarding this type of action), the Kitab al-Maghazi have a more narrative approach and relate events present in the Koran with an obvious historical-political artificiality that is difficult to prove.
Are there other books that refer to "just war" in a more spiritual tone?
Ibn-Al-Mubarak’s Kitāb al-jihād reflects the inner spiritual effort of an ascetic warrior when fighting against enemies on the borders of Dar al-Islam, the Islamic empire in northern Syria. It presents a more ascetic and mystical approach, and reflects the early canonization of "just war" in Islam. The same type of approach is also present in the Koran: some verses speak of a much more active and defensive warlike activity. Some verses reflect war, Qital, which means struggle, as well as slaughter from the ancient and contemporary point of view, and the meaning of Jihad, which can be spiritual and military at the same time in a mixture that must be hermeneutically analyzed in the text itself. Although Qital is very present in the last suras (Koranic chapters)—based on their historical chronology—Jihad only appears 35-37 times in the Koran, and only in a few instances does it have a genuine warlike connotation.
How did your stays at Bamberg University (Germany) and the Catholic University of Lyon (France) help you reach these conclusions? How have they enriched your perspective?
At the University of Bamberg, I was able to work together with Professor Patrick Franke, who suggested that I approach various aspects of this research at the historical and Koranic levels. At the Catholic University of Lyon, I was able to converse with various experts to untangle the interreligious bases of this project by reading new sources and books, such as Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity by Thomas Sizgorich, which suggests the possible influence of Christianity in the process of Islam’s canonization of the "just-holy war" concept.
To what extent do you believe this influence transpired?
One especially interesting, related approach is also reflected in research sources and historical events: The fact that Arab Christian clans solidly supported the first caliphate in Arab history, the Umayyad caliphate, with its capital in Damascus; these clans were later defeated for supporting Byzantines against Arabs’ conquer and migrate plan. The Omeya caliphate went into defense mode, not just against the Byzantines, but also in civil wars between early monotheistic believers and the proto-Islamic Arab community. These Arab clans had been Christians for a century and played a military role in the Byzantine army fighting the Persians, among other things.
Arab Christian clans of northern Syria—i.e., the famous Ghassanids confederation or, much more specifically in this case, the important confederation of the Banu Kalb— probably internalized the Christian concept of "just-holy war.” This may have had significant influence on the early canonization of this concept in the proto-Islamic period. This theoretical approach is currently up for discussion, but it reflects the historical evidence in which Islamic sources themselves speak of Banu Kalb’s important role, for example. At the Catholic University of Lyon, I discussed this topic with colleagues and found some sources that lead in this direction.
(2019). Jihad e Violenza Armata: la grande menzogna. In Capire l’Islam? Mito o Realtà (pp. 127–148). Brescia.