HLS Professor of Middle Eastern Languages & Cultures, Religious Studies, and Gender Studies’ latest publication explores Islam through a scholarly lens
Asma Afsaruddin is a professor of Middle Eastern Languages & Cultures, Religious Studies, and Gender Studies at the Hamilton Lugar School. She is an expert on Islamic studies, including Islamic religious and political thought, both pre-modern and modern, Qur’anic hermeneutics, contemporary Islamic movements, gender roles, and Islam in modern society. Afsaruddin’s latest book, “Jihad: What Everyone Needs to Know,” was published by Oxford University Press in 2022. The book is written at the intersection of religion, history, and politics and explores the various dimensions of jihad through an academic lens.
In the book, Afsaruddin argues the word “jihad” is everywhere in the global media. It generally appears in the context of violence waged against the West by militants in or from Muslim-majority societies. This usage overwhelmingly colors popular discourse about Islam and Muslims, and it has resulted in highly simplistic, distorted, and ahistorical understandings of the concept of jihad.
“I want readers to understand jihad as a polyvalent term; as a word that contains within it layers of meaning that become apparent in specific circumstances,” Afsaruddin says. “The book covers these multiple aspects of jihad. For most Muslims, jihad represents the highest human struggle to promote and carry out what is morally good, just, and noble in all walks of life and to prevent what is morally wrong, unjust, and degrading to humans and all creatures. Such a struggle can and should be carried out by a variety of means, depending on the context: moral, ethical, spiritual, mental, intellectual, verbal, financial, physical, and, when unavoidable, military.”
She continues, “Jihad therefore cannot be reduced to only its military aspects, which is predominantly how the term is understood in the media, in policy-making circles, and even in academia. Such a perspective leads to a highly reductive, distorted, and presentist understanding of a complex concept. The book adopts instead what I call a ‘holistic‘ approach and seeks to provide a guide to the diverse understandings of jihad through time, from the early centuries of Islam until the contemporary period. By collecting this information in a single source, I hope this book will prove to be a helpful resource for all those who are interested in an accessible yet academic treatment of this topic without sensationalism: undergraduate and graduate students; specialists and non-specialists, academics, public intellectuals, policymakers, journalists, and a general educated readership.”
The description from Oxford University Press reads: “This book addresses the great need for a discussion of jihad that explores its various dimensions without fear-mongering or sensationalism. Here it is examined from multiple perspectives: scriptural, theological, moral and ethical, legal and socio-political. Asma Afsaruddin looks at the key questions about jihad and provides concise yet thorough answers. Jihad: What Everyone Needs to Know® provides a historically-grounded, scholarly yet accessible treatment of the meanings of jihad from the formative period of Islam until the contemporary period.”
“I had already spent about eight years researching the material that went into Striving in the Path of God [my 2013 book],” Afsaruddin says. “I spent an additional three years rewriting much of the original material and adding new information about current debates concerning jihad in the global public sphere, as well as in the more cloistered space of academia. There is a new final chapter in which I discuss how politicized and ideological these public conversations have become, first in the aftermath of September 11, and more recently, after the 2016 US presidential elections that brought Donald Trump to power. This required me to do additional research to bring the discussion of jihad up to date.”
Afsaruddin continues, “The series that the book was published in is called ‘What Everyone Needs to Know,’ which adopts a question-and-answer format. I write out questions that many often ask in connection with jihad, to which I offer succinct responses in relatively simple prose. I have often been asked a number of these questions while giving public lectures at various fora or when engaging journalists or my own students, whether at previous institutions or here at IU.”
“My time spent at IU has actually been critical for the writing of both books,” Afsaruddin says. “When I finished a draft of the manuscript for Striving in the Path of God, I created a new course at IU titled “War and Peace in the Islamic Tradition,” which I continue to teach. For two consecutive years – 2010-2011 – I used the manuscript as the main textbook for this course. Above all, my undergraduate and graduate students’ active engagement with the content of the book reassured me that even undergraduates could digest the information presented in the book, despite the dense language. I have included many of the questions students in this course have continued to ask me over the years in Jihad: What Everyone Needs to Know. Student input has therefore been invaluable and has kept me in touch with reality and with the cyberworld from which students inevitably get a lot of their information. I have authored and edited three other books since arriving at IU in 2009, so IU has definitely contributed positively to my overall career.”
About HLS Department of Middle Eastern Languages & Cultures:
The Hamilton Lugar School’s Department of Middle Eastern Languages & Cultures offers a major in the discipline, which includes the study of languages such as Arabic, both standard and dialectal forms, and ancient (hieroglyphic) Egyptian, and courses in Middle Eastern Cultures and Islam. The university also offers MA and Ph.D. degrees in Arabic and supports additional languages such as Hebrew, Turkish, Persian, and Kurdish.