Professor works to dispel misunderstandings about Islam through her research

Asma Afsaruddin

Say the word “jihad,” and it often conjures up all kinds of negative imagery. But according to Asma Afsaruddin, chair and professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington, it’s a word that has many different meanings for Muslims.

In Arabic, “jihad” translates as a noun, meaning “struggle.” Rather than suggest a “holy war,” to many believers it suggests an internal struggle to live out the Muslim faith as well as possible.

Through her research and more public efforts, Afsaruddin strives to counter anti-Islamic sentiment across the country, to improve public understanding of Muslims and their faith, and to show that it is not just how religiously inspired militants define it.

“In the era of national liberation, you’ll find that some of the thinkers, when they talk about jihad, really are talking about a version of liberation theology, or a version of socialism,” she said, “because they’re constantly talking about a just society.

“It becomes a moral activity,” something similar to the desire and fight for justice that many non-Muslims also value, says Afsaruddin, who recently edited the book, “Islam, The State, and Political Authority.”

She is completing work on her next book, which compares contemporary views about jihad and martyrdom with classical Muslim views of these topics, including in the Quran. She says she entered the world and the minds of the religious extremists by closely studying their writings.

“They are in many ways manufacturing a philosophy, manufacturing a world view, manufacturing a legal system as they go along,” she says. “Some of them are better acquainted with the classical system than others. Others are just doing it on the fly.”

In many ways, some of them are ascribing equal, if not greater, importance to their own ideas in comparison with what is to be found in their holy texts, the Quran and the Hadith literature, which became an overall point of Afsaruddin’s book.

Afsaruddin suggests that useful parallels may be found in what happened during the American invasion of Iraq after Sept. 11. “Let’s look at what happened during the Bush presidency. The whole notion of Just War was being promoted by certain hawkish types at that time even as they were dismantling the classical Just War doctrine,” she says. “Ideologues often appeal to situational ethics to justify their own interpretations that are often at odds with the conventional understanding of clear principles. It’s a very dangerous territory that they wade into.”

For her upcoming book, Afsaruddin did examine Osama bin Laden’s public statements, but he wasn’t a trained scholar of Islam “by any stretch of the imagination,” she said.

Afsaruddin also is author of the 2008 book, “The First Muslims: History and Memory.” She has been a consultant for the U.S. State Department, non-governmental organizations and think tanks.

She has been involved with “Building Bridges,” an inter-faith effort organized by the Archbishop of Canterbury that brings Muslim and Christian scholars together every year.

IU is home to many other scholars of Islam. It also is home to the award-winning website Muslim Voices, which provides resources for individuals who wish to tackle the complexities of Islam and create an interfaith dialogue within their communities.

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