Arguing the Just War in Islam By John Kelsay (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. 263 pages.)

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Sajjad H. Rizvi



Jihad has become a normal English word, a term to describe irrational violence,
“holy war,” terrorism, and the generally rather nasty things that “bad
Muslims do.” John Kelsay, in this wonderfully succinct and accessible work,
wants to argue that the real issue in discussing jihad is to make sense of legitimate
violence and how it may be deployed, and hence to locate the discourse
within an existing discussion about just war theory. I am not generally sympathetic
to the use of the comparable frame of just war theory because, as a
juridical and ethical concept it is rather limited, arising as it does out of a particular
politico-theological context of medieval Catholicism. Having said
that, any serious attempt to nuance jihad’s meaning in the contemporary
world, to contextualize the discourse adequately and historically, and to pose
difficult questions to those who appropriate it on the basis of a claim toward
establishing justice and acting in a just cause is welcome.

Kelsay is interested in the contemporary debate about the nature of
political ethics among Muslims. His book is not just an attempt to “whitewash”
Muslims and their theologies from any culpability in the acts and ideologies
of the likes of al-Qaeda. While he does interrogate the theological
and juridical reasoning of such terrorists, what he wants to show is not only
their distance from historically grounded narratives of jihad, but also
how their reasoning may be shared. It is indeed foolish to argue that jihadi
ideology has nothing to do with reasoning about jihad as such; it is counterintuitive
and unhelpful. He also wants to indicate how the language of just
war is mutually supportive between the rhetoric of the “war on terror” and
al-Qaeda’s war on the “Zionist-Crusaders” (which is, in theological terms,
the subject of a forthcoming book by Alia Brahimi to be published by Cambridge
University Press) ...

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