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Jihad Then and Now By: Lee Harris
Policy Review | Monday, October 16, 2006


For anyone wishing to understand jihad — that “peculiar institution” of Islam — Andrew Bostom has provided an immense service with The Legacy of Jihad.

Beginning with a splendid 80-page survey and overview of the history of that subject by Bostom himself, followed by an extensive anthology of writings on the topic of jihad and some of its accompanying features, this book, the product of exhaustive scholarly research, is written with a profound sense of urgency. Bostom, a professor of medicine at Brown who became a passionately committed scholar of Islam after 9/11, wants his readers to grapple themselves with the historical evidence and to come to their own conclusions about the significance of jihad.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that for him there are few challenges facing the liberal West today greater than that posed by radical Islam’s revival of the classical ideal of jihad. In his acknowledgments, Bostom expresses the touching wish that his own children and their children may “thrive in a world where the devastating institution of jihad has been acknowledged, renounced, dismantled, and relegated forever to the dustbin of history by Muslims themselves.” Yet, after reading and pondering this invaluable book, it is difficult not to ask, Why should Muslims renounce and dismantle an institution that, while it may have been devastating to those who have been its victims, has nevertheless been the historical agent by which Islamic culture has come to dominate such a vast expanse of our planet? What would prompt any culture to abandon a tradition that has permitted it not only to expand immensely from its original home, but also to make permanent conquests of so many hearts and minds?

But before we address this question, let us first note the curious difficulty Bostom faced in simply getting his contemporaries to recognize that Islamic jihad is a peculiar institution — an institution quite unlike any other known to us. In our current climate of political correctness, there has been a reluctance even to acknowledge the most obvious facts about the nature of jihad. Indeed, just as there are Holocaust deniers, there is a contemporary tendency to deny the historical evidence relating to jihad, though, as Bostom’s book amply demonstrates, there is scarcely a lack of such evidence from any number of different sources, from every period, from the original wave of Arabic conquest in the seventh century to today’s headlines. Generally speaking, the approach of the jihaddeniers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, is to dispute the notion that there is anything historically distinctive and peculiar about the Islamic concept of jihad.

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