Striving in the Path of God: Discursive Traditions on Jihad and the Cult of Martyrdom

Asma Afsaruddin, Classics, Notre Dame University

Research Grant, 2001

My research project is focused primarily on a specific genre in Arabic-Islamic literature known as fasda’il al-jihad (“excellences or merits of striving/struggling [in the path of God]”). The prophetic and other kinds of reports contained in this literature will be adduced as evidence in favor of the thesis that the understanding of jihad in the Islamic tradition as primarily “armed struggle/combat” is a late one, which developed out of an earlier matrix of multiple and competing meanings of the term. Furthermore, the cult of martyrdom it engendered developed in response to specific historical and political circumstances. Among these circumstances are the continuing border skirmishes with the Byzantines in the Umayyad period (661–750), the Crusades and the Mongol attacks from the 11th century on, all hostile encounters which prompted the rise of this hortatory literature to galvanize a perhaps-reluctant populace to stave off external threats to Islam.

The Qur'an, the earliest document in Islam, alludes to a multiplicity of meanings for the locution "al-jihad fi sabil Allah," (lit. "striving/struggling in the path of/for the sake of God").

The reasons for propounding the relatively late and historically conditioned development of the notion of jihad as primarily armed combat that creates martyrs for the faith are compelling. Most importantly, the Qur’an, the earliest document in Islam, alludes to a multiplicity of meanings for the locution “al-jihad fi sabil Allah,” (lit. “striving/struggling in the path of/for the sake of God”). Furthermore, the Qur’an has no term for a martyr nor a well-developed concept of martyrdom, which is a necessary corollary to the notion of jihad as religious military activity. The term shahid that is understood today to refer to a martyr occurs only in the hadith literature; in the Qur’an it refers exclusively to a legal or eye witness. Proceeding from this thesis, my study will go on to contextualize the evolution and invocation of this hortatory discourse; that is, to explore why and when this literature was produced, what were the external and internal influences shaping the contours of this discourse, and what bearing does that have on tracing the complex semantic and ideological history of the term and functions of jihad. Considerable attention will be paid to sources such as the related “excellences of patience” (fada’il al-sabr) literature, which documents “alternate” views of jihad as quietism that emphasizes cultivation of the trait of patient forbearance in the face of trials. This approach promises to considerably nuance and transform our current state of knowledge concerning early and competitive perspectives on jihad.

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