Book Review: Andrew G. Bostom, M.D., ed., The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims (NY: Prometheus 2005) 759 pp.

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at

“The first duty of the intellectual is to tell the truth,” observes Islam scholar and critic Ibn Warraq in his forward to The Legacy of Jihad. Regardless of motive, historians in particular risk “engendering an even greater evil” by ignoring or obscuring inconvenient facts, no matter how harsh.

With respect to the history of jihad war theory, claims editor, contributor, and associate professor of medicine, Andrew G. Bostom, such is and has long been the unfortunate practice of most contemporary scholars and Muslim intelligentsia. Contrary to prevailing opinion, Islam did not, in most instances, spread peacefully. Jihad war theory, Bostom argues, has been “institutionalized” in Islamic law; jihad has been employed “continuously across the globe, for more than a millennium, through present times.”

Bostom builds his case quickly in a spare, 100-page introductory survey, outlining thirteen centuries of jihad warfare and the tyrannical system of dhimmitude, under which native infidels have time and again been forced to “recognize Islamic ownership of their land, submit to Islamic law, and accept payment of the poll tax,” or jizya, in exchange for their lives. Consistent with Qur’anic interpretations and various acts and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (collectively, the hadith), Shiite and Sunni jurisprudence concur on the fundamentals of jihad war. As Maliki jurist, Ibn Khaldun, indicated prior to his death in 1406, “Islam,” in contradistinction to other religious traditions, has a “universal mission” and is unequivocally “oblig[ed] to gain power over other nations.”

muslim violence

By 923, jihad warfare had expanded the Muslim empire into Portugal and the Indian subcontinent. By 1683, Bostom adds, vast portions of Asia and eastern Europe, including Christian Armenia, Byzantium, the Balkans, and parts of Poland and Hungary, were brutally “conquered and Islamized.” Muslim historians detailed the slaughter, enslavement, and plunder, and, according to Bostom, Christian, Hebrew, Buddhist, and Hindu sources “independently validate this narrative.”

The text’s final section consists of numerous Muslim and non-Muslim chronicles and “eyewitness accounts” of various jihad campaigns initiated between 640 and 1917. Recent accounts are no less extreme, either in the observation or in the telling, than those from classical times. One American reported witnessing Bulgarian children in 1876 who were “spitted on bayonets,” speculating that “[w]hen a Mahometan has killed a certain number of infidels, he is sure of Paradise, no matter what his sins may be.” One account of a late nineteenth century Armenian massacre relayed how the jihadists in Urfa “had wiped out 126 complete families [a total of eight thousand dead], without a woman or a baby surviving.”

Most of this anthology’s articles, however, are scholarly in nature, exposing the theological and juridical foundations of jihad war and slavery from the perspectives of both classical and modern, Muslim and non-Muslim, writers.

Qur’an 9.29, of course, which commands Muslims to “[f]ight those who believe not … until they pay the jizya with willing submission ….” serves as but one of many textual touchstones for Islamic holy war. Bostom also presents various hadith traditions recorded in the ninth century by Sahih Muslim and Sahih al-Bukhari that detail both the jihad process (“Invite [the polytheists] to (accept) Islam …. If they refuse … demand from them the Jizya …. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them.”) and its rewards (“Allah guarantees that He will admit the Mujahid to His Cause into Paradise if he is killed.”).

Sayyid Qutb, prolific and influential philosopher of “radical” Islam, reveals his religion as a “universal declaration” that challenges “all kinds and forms of systems which are based on … the sovereignty of man.” Islam is not simply a belief, but “a way of life ordained by God for all mankind.”  Furthermore, Qutb argues, jihad is not merely defensive. Implied in Islam is “a right to remove all those obstacles which are in its path.” Curiously, at least from a secular perspective, Qutb insists that Islamic jihad is both freedom-loving and non-coercive.

Islamic Studies scholar, Rudolph Peters, however, declares both scriptural and philosophical ambiguity as to whether jihad is a strictly defensive or a potentially aggressive mandate. Indeed, classical interpretations decree a single Islamic state, demanding of the umma, or Muslim community, that it “bring the whole earth under the sway of Islam.” Nineteenth and twentieth century reformers, contrastingly, have contended that “peaceful coexistence is the normal state between Islamic and non-Islamic territories.”

History appears to substantially differ with the reformers. As has all too often proved true in most monotheistic contexts, contemporary Muslim “radicals” have readily adopted classical ideology as a convenient means of spreading their particular brand of Islam. Political instability and irrepressible religious violence, of course, have commonly resulted.

Majid Khadduri, professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern Studies, confesses that Islam’s prescriptions for universal religion and universal politics renders it fundamentally different from Judaism and Christianity. This tradition, he writes, has produced for its followers “a state of warfare permanently declared against the outside world.” For Khaddari, peaceful phases in Islamic history are better characterized as practical and temporary suspensions of violence rather than triumphal manifestations of theological reform. The community’s duty of jihad, in other words, never wanes. It only assumes a “dormant status” until the imam calls for an inevitable revival.

Clearly our editor is unwilling to dismiss Islamic holy war as an embarrassingly antiquated custom, as a mere “lesser jihad,” or even as the predictable political contrivance of opportunistic “radicals.” Jihad, Bostom specifies, was a “major determinant” in the Armenian genocide, during which the Ottoman Turks massacred 200,000 of their closest neighbors between 1894 and 1896, 25,000 in 1909, and 600,000 to 800,000 in 1915. “Contemporary accounts from European diplomats make it clear,” he writes, that these murders occurred principally because the Armenians “attempted to throw off the yoke of dhimmitude by seeking equal rights and autonomy.” Far from obsolete, Bostom reports, “the sacrilized hatred of jihad is still being inculcated as part of the formal education of Muslim youth . . . throughout the Arab Muslim and larger non-Arab Muslim world.”

The Legacy of Jihad is no lullaby. Nor is it a likely summer beach-read. This generous collection of enlightening if somewhat repetitive essays will, however, serve as a unique and valuable reference tool for all students of religious history, and, one hopes, as a timely wake-up call to less attentive champions of absolute and indiscriminate religious tolerance.


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