Dinner and Jihad


by Mahmoud Andrade Ibrahim

I received a phone call from a family friend asking if I could help her son with a school project that seemed to be presenting itself as a problem for him. Jack, her son, is a first year student at a very prestigious university in Washington DC that emphasizes social responsibility. He was selected to give an oral presentation about the history of Islam and its ability to co-exist in a pluralistic society.

Nermeen bint- Zeinab, my wife, has known Jack all his life and they have had many conversations about Islam. He has seen our performance of salaat on many occasions, and he and his mother were witnesses to our marriage in New York City that was officiated by a popular Egyptian Imam with both a Palestinian Imam (ra)  and a prominent Blackamerican Imam in attendance. Jack has even tried to fast  a complete Ramadan with us although I understand its still one of the items on his ‘bucket list’.

We arranged to have dinner at a spot not far from my office where we would not be disturbed and where the waiters were already familiar with the both of us.  Jack’s high school, Friends, a well respected Quaker school was right around the corner and he frequented this particular diner often right up until his graduation.

The problem, as he told me about the assignment, was that he was charged with reconciling Islam as a religion of peace in a pluralistic setting, which is the way, when discussing Islam with Jack, my wife and I have always maintained that it was, and the various verses of the Qur’an which at first blush appear not to tolerate any religious differences.  He was given these verses of the Qur’an and told to make some sense of it :


فَإِذَا انسَلَخَ الأَشْهُرُ الْحُرُمُ فَاقْتُلُواْ الْمُشْرِكِينَ حَيْثُ وَجَدتُّمُوهُمْ وَخُذُوهُمْ وَاحْصُرُوهُمْ

وَاقْعُدُواْ لَهُمْ كُلَّ مَرْصَدٍ فَإِن تَابُواْ وَأَقَامُواْ الصَّلاَةَ وَآتَوُاْ الزَّكَاةَ فَخَلُّواْ سَبِيلَهُمْ إِنَّ اللّهَ

غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

  And so, when the sacred months are over, slay those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God wherever you may come upon them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every conceivable place ! Yet if they repent, and take to prayer, and render the purifying dues, let them go their way: for, behold, God is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace.- Qur'an 9:5 (Asad)


قَاتِلُوهُمْ يُعَذِّبْهُمُ اللّهُ بِأَيْدِيكُمْ وَيُخْزِهِمْ وَيَنصُرْكُمْ عَلَيْهِمْ وَيَشْفِ صُدُورَ قَوْمٍ مُّؤْمِنِينَ

 Fight against them! God will chastise them by your hands, and will bring disgrace upon them, and will assist you against them; and He will soothe the bosoms of those who believe, - Qur'an 9:14(Asad) 

 After reading the passages Jack asked if these were accurate interpretations of the Qur’an.  I said that they were. His face became sullen. “Why…how can you believe in a religion that says its about submission to God and wants to promote peace when it contains verses that say the opposite? ” he asked.  I let the question marinate for a few seconds and then I waited for the waiter to finish serving the Greek salad that we ordered. While taking a sip of sparkling water with lemon I remembered an incident in Jacks life that I thought would help in my explanation of a seemingly complicated issue.  I asked him to recall a period of time when he was in middle school. It seems there was a classmate that had a reputation for bullying other classmates. Jack was the object of his attention. Jack, after trying on many occasions to avoid any confrontation with this individual , finally fell victim to a right hook which bruised Jacks’ ego more than it did his rib cage.  For weeks after, Jack cut class in order to avoid any further embarrassment .  His behavior was soon reported to his mother who generally counsels patience and reason as the preferred tools of conflict resolution, but who, on this occasion, advised Jack to go back to class and utilize the six years of karate she had paid for.

The point that I made is that his mother's advice and demand, that he go back to school and get physical with this bully and speak to him in a language that he understood, was not her usual posture when it came to conducting one’s life. She would always tell Jack to talk things through, to try and be objective and understand the other side of issues. But when the safety and security of her son was at stake, she counseled fighting.

 I then used that story to speak about his assignment. I told him that Islam is understood through the life of our Beloved Prophet (saw). That the Qur’an is the speech of Allah to us but our understanding of it comes from the life and circumstances of our Beloved Prophet Muhammad.  I emphasized that Muhammad (saw) only had 23 years to receive and explain Islam to the world through not only his words but also his actions.  I explained that the life of the first community of Muslims was dependent upon his wisdom and his counsel.  Most of those 23 years were conflict free but there were occasions when various tribes sought the utter destruction of Prophet Muhammads’ followers.  Muslims were killed, starved and maimed and still the our Beloved Teacher (saw)  taught the art of forgiveness, of compromise and reconciliation as it was revealed to him.  But every now and then, armed defense was necessary although distasteful.

Jack began to understand some of what I was getting at. He asked if there were wars. I told him yes, but not in the way we moderns think of war.  Remember, I said, the first believing community was a desert community. There were conflicts and battles, but not the long drawn out engagements we are used to today.  The most famous battles of Badr and Uhud would today be considered skirmishes, taking a few hours here or a day or two there with not too many casualties and then it was over. At the battle of Badr, for example, 14 Muslims were killed and 70 of the enemy.  The battle of Uhud was larger in scope with about 3000 pagans against only 1000 Muslims with the Muslims suffering several hundred deaths.

What is important here is that when these types of conflicts became inevitable, meaning the social conditions that led up to these battles, only then was Allah’ s revelations to our Prophet the type that encouraged the Muslims to fight for the defense of Islam.

Of the 6,236 verses of the Qur'an only 106 verses talk about war and killing. So these verses were understood to be specific to those emerging conflicts.  And for the most part, that is how they are understood by the Muslim world.  In my opinion, there are two very distinct groups of people who live, breathe and always quote those 106 verses,   1) people who hate Muslims and everything about Islam,  and,   2) a very small percentage of Muslims that have an extreme view of their religion.    So those two groups live, intellectually,  in the same space*. 

I did mention to him that at no time was there ever any permission given to the first community to attack non-combatants (civilians) under any circumstances. 

The other fascinating fact is if you add up the amount of days spent by the first community of Believers in actual fighting ( armed-jihad)  it amounts to just about 75 days.   The first 23 years of  Islam is known as the Prophetic era and all of our traditions are based on this time period. 

 So that means that of the first 276 months ( 23 yrs)  of Islam only 2 ½ months was spent in jihad.

And  2½ months of fighting over a 23 year period constitutes a very peaceful way of life, by anyone's standard, I'm sure you would agree.

When we finished our conversation, Jack said that he thought he had enough information to confidently craft his presentation. He was prepared to speak about the Muslim presence in Spain and its 800 year track record of pluralism with Christians, Jews and the Muslims living in relative peace.  He said that most of his peers were influenced by newspaper headlines and the information he was about to bring them would ‘rock their world’.

We finished our meal and with that, we said goodnight.  


*     “The Islamophobes in the United States and the ultra-religious right in Muslim-majority countries need each other to survive.  Each side confirms to the other the need for its own existence.Moustafa Bayoui: excerpt from THIS MUSLIM AMERICAN LIFE

 Islalmophobes and Islamists have this much in common: both groups insist that Islam is a totalitarian political ideology at odds with liberal democracy and both insist that the two will inevitably clash. One extreme calls for the Qur'an to be banned and the other calls to ban everything but the Qur'an.  Together they form the negative and positive of a bomb fuse.  Maajid Nawaz : excerpt from RADICAL: My Journey Out of Islamist Extremism