A scholar we should listen to

Posted: Apr 24, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A little learning, it is said, can be a bad thing. At this very moment, a controversy is bubbling in Washington to prove that a lot of learning can be even worse. Daniel Pipes, one of the most learned of Middle Eastern scholars, is at the center of the controversy, and it is his vast and recondite learning that has entoiled him in controversy. Pipes knows about the complexity and nuance of ancient religions and long historical evolutions. His knowledge has left him prey to those who insist on simpleminded exegeses of complicated matters -- for instance, the 1400-year-history of Islam.

Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia, has been nominated by the president to the U.S. Institute of Peace, a foreign policy think tank funded by government and focused on how peace is forged in the world. It is all very academic, and that the Bush administration would nominate a man of Pipes' scholarliness to such a think tank heaves yet another stone at the Democrats' canard that the Bush administration is philistine or cowboy or oblivious to ideas. Yet certain very partisan Islamic organizations want his nomination rescinded because Pipes' writings do not hew their party line.

As a scholar, he has said things that defeat simple sloganeering. Just the other day, he said that simply characterizing Islam as a "peaceful" religion is inadequate. Well, of course, he is correct. Islam has had a long life, and its stance, for instance, on bellicosity has changed through the centuries. As Professor Bernard Lewis, perhaps the West's pre-eminent authority on Islam, writes in his new book, "The Crisis of Islam," "one of the basic tasks bequeathed to Muslims by the Prophet is jihad," which comes from an Arabic root that has the "basic meaning of striving or effort." In classic Islamic texts, jihad has the "related meaning of struggle, and hence also of fight."

In the Prophet's early period, when he lived in Mecca and was part of a minority struggling against the pagan majority, he used jihad frequently in the sense of "moral striving," and so it appears in the early chapters of the Koran. This is the sense of the word that modernist Islamic exegetists often use to explain jihad.

Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story. In the last chapters of the Koran, after the Prophet had become the head of a government and of an army, jihad took on the military meaning that Islamic fundamentalists employ today with such violent consequences.

Consider this from the fourth chapter of the Koran: "Those of the believers who stay at home, other than the disabled, are not equal to those who strive in the path of God with their goods and their persons. God has placed those who struggle with their goods and their persons on a higher level than those who stay at home. God has promised reward to all who believe but He distinguishes those who fight, above those who stay at home, with a mighty reward." Now by the time the Prophet was talking like that, it sounds to me as though he had come a long way from mere "moral striving."

In fact, throughout most of the history of Islam, jihad has meant war -- war to defend and advance Islam. Not only is this clear from the later passages of the Koran but also from the hadiths, or the traditions associated with the Prophet.

Consider two examples: "A day and a night of fighting on the frontier is better than a month of fasting and prayer," or, "He who dies without having taken part in a campaign dies in a kind of disbelief." The Prophet was no Quaker.

"I never say Islam is this or Islam is that," Pipes recently declared, and from the above permutations in the word jihad, I think we can understand why the Prof is so fussy about simple declarations of Islam's nature. Today, in a world made dangerous by Islamic radicalism, it is crucial that government have access to knowledgeable minds such as Pipes'. That his knowledge gets him into controversies with those who want to say Islam is all good or all bad is unfortunate, but controversy is to be expected in times of war.

America is, through no fault of its own, at war with international terrorists who spout religion as their moral justification. Scholars such as Pipes can tell us what the terrorists' spoutings really mean and how widely they are adhered to. I am glad he is around and may soon be at a think tank that fashions plans for peace -- though my favorite peace movement remains the United States Marines.

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