www.religion.info : Religioscope
News.Conferences.Archives.FAQ.Site Map.Mailing List.Contact
English HomeFrançais: Accueil
Conférences.Archives.FAQ.Plan.Liste de Diffusion.Liens.Contact



Interview with Professor Johannes J.G. Jansen

Johannes J.G. Jansen used to be the Director of the Dutch Institute in Cairo. Since 1983, he has been an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Leiden University. His first book, The Interpretation of the Koran in Modern Egypt (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974), has been translated into Bosnian and Turkish, and even printed recently in Indonesia. In addition to a number of articles and several books in Dutch, he has written two other books in English: The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat's Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East (New York: Macmillan, 1986) and The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism (London: Hurst & Company, 1997). J.J.G. Jansen is also the author of a translation of the Quran in Dutch. He writes regularly for a weekly newspaper and has a weekly column on the religion page of several provincial newspapers.

RELIGIOSCOPE - Before we come to speak about the specific topic of the treatise Al- Faridah al-Gha'ibah, translated as The Neglected Duty, I would like to ask you for some clarifications about your use and understanding of the concept of fundamentalism, about which there is currently no unanimity among scholars working in the field of Islamic Studies. You don’t hesitate to use it yourself, even in the title of your book, The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism. Could you please explain your reasons for using it in the context of Islam, instead of expressions such as “Islamism”?

J. Jansen - I follow more or less the Fundamentalism Project in Chicago. It accepted the term to indicate those wings of Islamic movements that are ready to use force to reach their aims. Not all terrorists are fundamentalists, not all fundamentalists are terrorists. As a rule, fundamentalists have selected a small number of points from their much broader tradition.

RELIGIOSCOPE - A number of authors dealing with fundamentalism claim that we should only see it as political ambitions masquerading in the guise of religion. But you emphasize that “fundamentalism is undeniably religious too” (Dual Nature, p. 2). You remark that one cannot understand fundamentalism without taking into account its theological dimension (p. 5). You also observe that there is a major difference with political mass movements, because fundamentalism is a religious dream, and the Hereafter is taken very seriously (p. 5-6). Could you please elaborate?

JJ - I admit this is a debatable point. Nevertheless, fundamentalist movements are very often misunderstood. I think the root cause of the misunderstanding is that they are not only religious movements, they are not only political movements: they are a fusion of both. There may have been earlier examples of this kind of fusion, but the interesting thing here is that the Muslim fundamentalist movement has all the characteristics of a religious movement and at the same time it also has all the characteristics of a modern political movement. It is suppressed by the government and it wants to replace the government. I think it is justified to see them as both religious and political movements.

RELIGIOSCOPE - Would you use “fundamentalism” in the Muslim context only for describing movements with both political and religious goals, or also for other, less politicized movements, such as the Jamaat-e-Tabligh? This is what the authors associated with the Fundamentalism Project did.

JJ - If I had a better word, I would no doubt use it. The Muslim world, for very sad reasons, is much more violent than the Christian or Israeli societies. If you are a fundamentalist in an Arabic country, force seems to be the only logical choice, as there are so very few means to spread your views peacefully. You cannot be elected and you have no right to elect. If these two rights are denied and you have fundamentalist leanings, the possibility of a violent reaction is much more to be expected than in an American, European or Israeli context.

To a large extent, the present leaders in the Muslim world, the present political elite of the Middle East, are responsible for the violent character of Muslim fundamentalism. Fundamentalists almost mirror the violent character of their own societies.

I am, moreover, not sure that a debate about the terminology is very useful. A geologist talks of sand dunes and rocks and doesn’t use definitions. Definitions are necessary when a misunderstanding arises as to whom we mean. Today, we observe a very visible movement that we can refer to and identify by using the term fundamentalism.

RELIGIOSCOPE - Several passages in your book, The Dual Nature, seem to point to deficiencies in the approach of Western scholars toward the contemporary realities of Islam. Could you please explain the most common inadequacies in the way they approach Islam today?

JJ - When you really want to know what someone thinks or believes, there is no better source of information than the person involved himself. In a Middle Eastern context, this means that it is simply not enough to listen to what the official government spokesmen have to say about the world. It is absolutely necessary to read, analyze and study what the religious leaders are telling their own faithful.

I think that this is very often neglected, albeit not without reason. Diplomats, whose work is to observe and report, are in place to have a good relationship with the local governments, not to tell the representatives of these governments that they are mass murderers. On the other hand, when an outside observer wants to see what the populations of those countries are thinking, believing, aspiring and hoping, it is absolutely necessary to read their own tracts, listen to their speeches, immerse yourself into their society. That is not everybody’s cup of tea, but it has to be done, otherwise you might miss very important developments such as the Iranian revolution, for instance. The advance of the Khomeini movement was simply not noticed by many diplomats and journalists stationed in Iran, because they felt obliged to humour their friends from the Iranian elite who were equally blind to what took place around them, and who equally preferred to listen to the official version of the story.

RELIGIOSCOPE - We now come to your work on the Faridah, that is The Neglected Duty. Before we look at the text itself, it seems important to understand the background of Egyptian Islamic militant movements. First, the historical presence of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which has played such an important role, well beyond the borders of Egypt. A difficult question relates to the links between the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical groups. Is it correct to say that the Muslim Brotherhood has been the source of all fundamentalist groups in contemporary Egypt, but that some groups later left the Brotherhood because they were disappointed with it and engaged in more radical approaches?

JJ - The Brotherhood is of course a recruiting ground for all those small groups. In addition they also established a “secret apparatus” which the Brotherhood judged it needed to protect itself against the police and the British. That was the beginning of a small terrorist machinery. It cannot be denied that the Brotherhood, certainly until the 1950s, 60s, committed acts of terror. In the ‘80s, 90s, until today, it has been a fertile environment for recruiters for fundamentalist movements. On the other hand, large sections of the Brotherhood have changed: they are now into party politics. These sections have lost the dangerous charm the Brotherhood had. To be a member of the Brotherhood, some say,  does not imply any activity, it is a state of mind. That state of mind may make people vulnerable to fundamentalist propaganda.

RELIGIOSCOPE - More than Hassan al-Banna (the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood), I assume that Sayyid Qutb is a main reference for such movements. Even Bin Laden's associate, al-Zawahri, apparently pointed to his key role in his last text, recently published by a daily newspaper in London. (An interview with Prof. Ibrahim Abu-Rabi about Qutb and his influence has also been published on this website.)

JJ - As far as I know, Sayyid Qutb was the first author to argue convincingly in the eyes of many people that the world in reality was a jahili place. The designation as jahili doesn’t sound very serious to Western ears, but to Muslim ears it does, because it implies apostasy from Islam and that is, traditionally, punishable by death. So if you can argue really convincingly to a Muslim public that the government is jahili, you have more or less sentenced the government to death. The theories of Qutb are repeated again and again in all sorts of pamphlets.

RELIGIOSCOPE - As you emphasized in your study of The Neglected Duty, its importance first lies in the fact that it provides useful indications about tendencies at work in Egyptian Islam around that time, and that actually it was the only text which expressed openly some ideas which circulated in Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s. But you suggest that those ideas may well have been articulated as early as the 1950s (Neglected Duty, p. 152). Of course, ideas don’t come out of nowhere, but are the result of a fermentation, of an elaboration. Could you please summarize what happened in Egypt between the 1950s and the early 1980s, leading to the Neglected Duty and to Sadat’s assassination?

JJ - I wasn’t around in the 50s. I can only read what was written in those days. The book by Abdul Kader Awda, Our Legal Position, is more or less a prelude to the theory that society is pagan because it does not apply Islamic law.

The governments in most Muslim countries are extremely unpopular and people need a language in which to express themselves about this unpopularity. And the only language which is available is the language of Sayyid Qutb. It is practically the only jargon, the only dialect they have to express their dissatisfaction with the government. From a Western point of view as well, those governments are not doing things properly. They neglect to take care of a great number of things, people are unhappy about this and the only internally consistent criticism is the discourse of Sayyid Qutb. People are attracted to it like a moth to a candle. It is almost unavoidable.

The Egyptian government, especially in Sadat’s period, was aware of this undercurrent of religious sentiment. They hoped to counter this by presenting President Sadat as Al-Ra'is al-Mu’min, “The Believing President”. It was a terrible mistake from the angle of advertising technique. The government slogan confronted people on every corner of the street, where they saw these posters of “The Believing President”, with the fact that they did not dream of a "believing president" – they took it for granted that the President was a believer – but that they wanted a Muslim ruler, a Hakim Muslim.

The propaganda against the fundamentalist way of thought, the propaganda that tried to diminish the importance of Qutb’s ideas in the mind of the average inhabitant of the Middle East, made it very much stronger. Also the ban on religious parties stimulated non-religious parties to use religious slogans in order to attract the floating voters. But this impressed on the mind of the public that religion is much more important in politics than they ever would have thought. So the way in which violent fundamentalism was fought by the authorities has helped this movement incredibly.

RELIGIOSCOPE - Let’s now come to The Neglected Duty itself. “The creed of Sadat’s Assassins”: such is the way in which that text is described in your book. Interestingly, however, at the time of Sadat’s assassination, the text was practically unknown. For the benefit of those who have not had the opportunity to read your book, could you explain in which circumstances the text was published and began to circulate after its author had been executed?

JJ - I don’t know when it was written: probably in the spring preceding the murder of Sadat. Five hundred copies were printed. The group started to distribute and sell the book, but then realized that the Egyptian secret police would be able to locate the group by tracing these copies. So they burned 450 copies. Fifty copies survived, and photocopies of these are bound in libraries all over the world. After the murder of Sadat, the prosecutor added the document to the case file, so the lawyer of the accused also got a copy. He gave it away to an Egyptian newspaper, Al Ahrar, which printed it. The article appeared in December 1981. I saw it by accident on the street. Of course, I bought it immediately, like everybody who saw it. It was sold out within hours and was never reprinted in that form.

If people are sentenced to death, the Egyptian State Mufti has to condone the sentence. The Mufti gave a long fatwa explaining why the murderers of Sadat were wrong. But as a footnote to this fatwa, he added the full text of the document The Neglected Duty. That appeared in a series of thousands of pages, but the fascicule in which that document was reprinted sold out quicker than the rest of the volume.

Then there was a third edition which was made probably in Jordan or Israel: it made use of the newspaper text, but left out a number of things that may have seen sensitive in the context of an Islamic kingdom, as Jordan is.

So, basically there are three editions and only the Amman or Jerusalem edition is available: you can actually buy it anywhere in London in Arabic bookshops. But this version is almost impossible to understand as there are so many printer's mistakes. However, it is possible to reconstruct the original and find out quite precisely what it is saying. I based my translations on my own reconstruction of the text.

RELIGIOSCOPE - What do we know about the biography of the author of the Faridah, about intellectual and other influences upon him?

JJ - Not very much. Faraj (1954-1982) was young when he was executed, so his biography is short. He worked at Cairo University as an electrician. He also preached at a mosque in a neighborhood of Cairo: it was there that he planned the assassination of Sadat, which took place on October 6, 1981. He realized that if they hesitated too long or if the plan was in the pipeline for long weeks, the risk of failure and betrayal was real. So he got a group together in a period of ten days and then they acted.

Some time before, they broke all contact with Sheikh Omar Abdurrahman, who had been their mufti and who had said that a ruler who does not rule according to the Islamic sharia has actually apostasized from Islam. He was also arrested in the aftermath of the assassination of Sadat. He was interrogated, but was set free as he had the almost fantastic excuse that a ruler who does not rule according to the Islamic sharia must incur the death penalty, but should be informed by a properly constituted council of ulama, of experts in Islamic law. He said, “I don’t really know if such a council has really informed President Sadat that he was guilty of apostasy, etc., etc. So I cannot give my blessing for the assassination of Sadat, but I can give my blessing generally to the assassination of a ruler who knowingly does not follow the precepts of Islamic law." This saved his neck for better things to come.  As you know, he is now in jail in New Jersey.

RELIGIOSCOPE - Do we know if the author was an enthusiastic reader of Qutb? Was he a member of some group?

JJ - He was an enthusiastic reader of classical works such as Al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyah – and Qutb of course. He quotes these authors, but always in the most generally available edition in Cairo at that time. So it was not very difficult to identify the quotations. He was not someone’s pupil as far as I know. He was self-taught.

It more or less illustrates Gellner's theory, which explains Islamic fundamentalism as a contamination of the classical Islamic high culture by the Islamic popular culture. The classical high culture of Islam has all kinds of very stiff theories about all kinds of things; but in reality, the world is arranged differently, and all the Muslim scholars who work on those issues know. But when you take those classical works of Islamic theology, of Islamic dogmatics and law, out of the study, out of academies, out into the street, then you get a real problem. Faraj is a schoolbook example of somebody who took texts from the classical heritage into the street. We know the result.

RELIGIOSCOPE - As you remark in your book, Faraj's text helps helps us so much to understand what is or what was at the time in the minds of militants. What strikes me when reading your book is the emphasis upon jihad. Was jihad similarly emphasized in books by Islamic scholars in Egypt at the time? What does make The Neglected Duty unique in its approach to jihad?

JJ - I think everybody agrees that jihad is a part of Islam, there is no doubt about that. When Nasser died (or somebody else, I cannot remember now where I saw this), there was a large article in the newspapers devoted to al-mujahid al-akbar, the great jihad fighter. When Sadat was killed, this article was repeated word for word, but they left out this reference to the jihad fighter, because jihad obviously had a bad name at that point in time.

But the difference of opinion is not whether jihad is a part of Islam, but what jihad should really be. People who interpret jihad in a violent way have a good point. The first generations of Muslims never understood anything else but ‘waging war’ when they heard the word jihad. And so they conquered the Middle East from Portugal to Pakistan. The traditions that jihad is also the struggle against one’s own bad inclinations, let’s say the Sufi interpretation of jihad, is not the interpretation that was taken by these pious soldiers. They understood jihad as “going to war”.

RELIGIOSCOPE - Do you consider the description of some militant groups as "jihadist" as correct and adequate?

JJ - Of course, it’s unfortunate, but it may be very adequate. It is not a secret that there is a large number of small groups in the Muslim world that are jihadist, that want to fight for Islam, and want to fight against the West.

RELIGIOSCOPE - You wrote that Sadat’s assassins had made no preparations, no provisions for the establishment of the Islamic State after the assassination, and that the Faridah supports an approach on the line that God would take care of what would follow. The action they would take would lead to the establishment of the Islamic state. From the perspective of somebody who is somewhat familiar with millenial movements in various traditions, this sounds like an indication of a millennial state of mind – the new world is to come soon, and a radical action will contribute to hasten the passage to the new order. Do you consider the people behind the Faridah as millenarians, at least to some extent?

JJ - Certainly. But at the time I worked on this book, The Neglected Duty, I was not familiar with research on millennialism, and that is regrettable, because I missed a few points. Also, in The Neglected Duty, it is explained that, if Islamic laws are applied, harvests will be better, which is typically a millenarian dream, that also material needs will be solved when God’s law is applied, when the kingdom of God is spreading.

RELIGIOSCOPE - And to what extent do you see millenarian features in some of the Muslim militant movements? If one visits websites supportive of Bin Laden, for instance, there are sometimes texts referring to the endtimes. Could it be legitimate to describe these groups as millenarian ones?

JJ - I am not so sure. Do we need that explanation? It’s worrying enough as it is. I have been reading and re-reading the statements of Bin Laden himself: I see very little millenarism in those statements. It could exist among his followers. Of course, a group of people excluded from power may become millenarian.

RELIGIOSCOPE - Jihad is described in Faraj's book not only as a collective duty, but also as an individual duty. We find the same emphasis in Azzam’s book, Join the Caravan, and in other pieces of contemporary jihadist literature. The distinction between collective and individual obligation is a general rule in Islam. Please, explain what it means in general, but also what it implies specifically in the context of the Faridah and the group of people behind it?

JJ - In classical Islamic law, for practical reasons, a collective duty has to be carried out by the community as such. For example, Friday prayers are a collective duty. The establishment of the Caliphate is a collective duty, not an individual duty. To participate in the execution of a collective duty, you need to have the support of your parents and family: especially when you are young, your parents permission is essential. But for carrying out an individual duty, you do not need the permission of your parents. In the Faridah, a lot of attention is paid to this aspect. They obviously wanted to convince young men that they did not need their parents' permission in order to join jihad.

According to classical books of Muslim law, jihad becomes an individual duty if Muslims are threatened in their own domain, in their own world. In the way somebody like Qutb looks at the world, Muslims are threatened by non-Muslims from within, i.e. they are threatened by their own governments. This means that jihad becomes an individual duty. And whenever you come across an attempt to fight a jihad against the Satanic powers, then you are more or less obliged to join that movement, you do need to wait until your parents give their approval. By the way, the New Testament contains similar rules: you should not wait for your parents' approval in order to join the movement which brings the world salvation.

RELIGIOSCOPE - As a number of other Muslim activists, the author of the Faridah often refers to Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328) – for instance in order to justify the killing of fellow Muslims during jihad. It would be useful to have a short description of the way in which Ibn Taymiyah was rediscovered (apparently through the medium of Rashid Rida, 1865-1935). Why did he become such an important reference for contemporary radical groups in Islam?

JJ -The answer is that he is a very good writer. He was the theologian of war in the 14th century. Anger drops from the pages of his books, formulated so beautifully, in such general terms, that when a modern Muslim reads it, or even when I read it myself, it is impossible not to think of present day Muslim society. The effect of his work is electrifying. His books are banned in several countries around the Islamic world, although they can always be found under the table. From their own point of view, Muslim governments which forbid this 14th century propaganda are right. Because it is inflammatory material.

RELIGIOSCOPE - Discussions in the Faridah on ethics of warfare lead to the justification of terrorist activities, for instance the killing of innocent bystanders, insofar it cannot be avoided. Can we consider the text of the Faridah as the first written, articulated justification of terrorism by Muslim radicals in our times? Or did other people already attempt to justify it earlier? Did the Faridah in some way set a precedent?

JJ - Ibn Taymiyah, when he was writing about the conflicts between the Mamluk and the Mongol armies, had a terrible problem. The armies that fought against each other equally consisted of Muslims and non-Muslims. And the same goes for the famous medieval battle of Kosovo: there were Christian soldiers in the Turkish armies, and the Serbs had Muslim mercenaries too. Ibn Taymiyah had to make invalid the argument that you couldn’t kill a Muslim even when he fought in the army of your enemy.

This is what has been taken over by the Faridah. It quoted these paragraphs from Ibn Taymiyah to justify the killing of innocent bystanders. As such, you might if you want call it the first systematic Muslim defence of killing innocent bystanders.

But I am sure Ibn Taymiyah didn’t think of collateral damage in the modern meaning of the word. He was confronted with a military situation in which both armies comprised Muslim military professionals. He had to develop a theory that justified fighting against other Muslims. Nevertheless, in the hands of the author of the Faridah, this looks very much like the defence of killing innocent bystanders, also killing Muslims. The fact that Muslims were killed on September 11 in the World Trade Centre attack is completely justified if one adopts the arguments of the document known as The Neglected Duty.

RELIGIOSCOPE - After 1984, were there many editions of the Faridah? Was it translated into many others languages? Beside your translation, I have seen on a Muslim radical website an English translation of The Neglected Duty, probably under the title The Forgotten Obligation. You mentioned the fact that the current Arabic text is not very understandable due to the many misprints. How far did it circulate? Do we have Indonesian Muslims reading the Faridah?

JJ - The arguments which you find in the Faridah can be heard even in Indonesia in conversations. There has been an American translation by a Coptic sociologist, who had great problems in understanding the text and reading the text. There has been a translation by a press agency, but there was the same problem. The translator of the agency was at a loss in the more complicated passages. I made a translation in which there are also mistakes that should be corrected if I get the opportunity. I have seen the book in the Arabic Amman (or Jerusalem) version in bookshops both in London and in America, but I do not think it is very widespread as a text. But the ideas contained in it are.

RELIGIOSCOPE - How far was somebody like Abdullah Azzam (Bin Laden's mentor) influenced by the text? I have read an English translation of his book Join the Caravan, which has been quite influential upon jihadist groups in recent years. Interestingly, the subtitle reads The Forgotten Obligation, if the English translation is correct. When reading some passages of Join the Caravan, I was wondering how far there might be some semi-direct references to the Faridah?

JJ - The same bothered me when I read a book by Ali Benhaj, the Algerian Islamist leader, Fasl al-Kalam fi Zulm al-Hukkam  (A Decisive Word on the Injustice of the Rulers). That too quoted many passages from Ibn Taymiyah that had been also used by the author of the Faridah: the line of argument, even the formulation of the sentences he used, the terminology, it all reminded me much of the Faridah. I have been able to make a reasonable hypothesis for reconstructing passages in the Faridah by reading Benhaj.

There may, however, also be another source behind those two, which by accident we have not seen: for instance, there could be a booklet consisting exclusively of quotations from Ibn Taymiyah – such a book wouldn't be mentioned in official bibliographies, it would only be sold on the street. There could be a fascinating collection of passages from Ibn Taymiyah that lies at the base of all this, but I don't know. At this point, it does not seem that one text derives from the other.

The interview with Prof. Jansen took place in Amsterdam on 8 December 2001. He was interviewed by Jean-François Mayer. The tape recording was transcribed by Nancy Grivel-Burke.

15.01.2002 - Modifié 8.02.2002

© 2002 www.religioscope.com

Les textes peuvent être reproduits avec indication de la source.
Permission granted to use the articles, providing acknowledgment is given.

English: Home

Francais: Accueil