What is Jihad?: Background information when reading The Kindness of Enemies

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The Kindness of Enemies

by Leila Aboulela

The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela X
The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2016, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2017, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
What is Jihad?

Print Review

In The Kindness of Enemies, Leila Aboulela's twenty-first century protagonist Natalie asks: "How did this historical change in the very definition of jihad come about?" This question is developed thematically though the historical storyline in Aboulela's novel which features Imam Shamil, a mid-nineteenth century Muslim leader of mountain tribes in the Caucasus Mountain region, battling for independence from Russian forces. Talking about his battle with the Russians, Shamil uses the term "jihad", but this is not the jihad of today's headlines - of ISIS (also known as Daesh) beheadings or the attacks in Paris and Beirut - and Shamil is a character who is highly religious, thoughtful and honest.

The Arabic translation of the word "jihad" is "to strive for some objective" and the Islamic Supreme Council of America makes it clear that among the meanings for jihad within the Islamic faith, only one strand is combative. Jihad is therefore not synonymous with holy war, but "can refer to internal as well as external efforts to be good Muslims or believers, as well as working to inform people about the faith of Islam." The militaristic aspect of jihad, they explain, should be very rare but "the concept of jihad has been hijacked by many political and religious groups over the ages to justify various forms of violence."

Although Imam Shamil in The Kindness of Enemies, does use jihad to describe a military conflict, it is abundantly clear that he is in a defensive position, a victim of Russian aggression and deception. Nearly ten years ago, NPR reported that Douglas Streusand, an expert in Islamic history had written to the Pentagon suggesting that the use of the term jihadis to describe terrorists should be reconsidered. "The question is not whether or not jihad is a good thing, because for a Muslim, jihad is a good thing. The question is whether the activity that they are undertaking should be classified as jihad."

Ad campaign poster In 2013 a group of Muslims in Chicago attempted to reclaim the term as a descriptor for personal struggle, producing a series of advertisements displayed on buses and subways stations in major cities. In one example, a young Muslim woman wearing a headscarf is pictured in a gym lifting arm weights, saying "My jihad is to stay fit despite my busy schedule."

It may be however, as Aboulela's character suspects, that the definition of jihad has effectively changed from its historical and more peaceful origins. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines jihad first and foremost as "a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty."

Example picture of My Jihad ad campaign from myjihad.org

Article by Kate Braithwaite

This article was originally published in February 2016, and has been updated for the January 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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