Jihad and Self-Sacrifice in Islam
Comparative religion is not a statistical exercise: it is meaningless to tally up the victims of Crusaders and compare them to the victims of Islam and quibble about which religion is more violent. Religious war of conquest, that is, jihad, has the same role in Islam that the Lord's Supper has in Christianity. Christianity (and Judaism) have exercised violence in the past but never sacralized violence. That is unique to Islam among the self-styled Mosaic religions.
The great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig argued that Islam was not a monotheistic religion, but a "parody" of one, a monistic paganism in which the old pagan gods were rolled up into a single deity. I have summarized Rosenzweig's views in a number of locations, and taken the argument further in two essays published a decade ago (“Jihad, the Lord's Supper, and Eternal Life” and “The Blood is the Life, Mr. Rumsfeld”). Below I offer some extracts from those essays, first published in Asia Times.
It is important to get the theology right -- not so much to understand the depredations of radical Islam, which hardly are obscure, but to understand what makes the West different. Violence is incidental to Judaism and Christianity and fundamental to Islam. It does us little good to denounce radical Islam if we forget who we are, and how we came to be here.
All religion is about blood, because all religion is about life. Shi'ite Islam, though, displays an affinity for real blood that disturbs the West. On their holiest day, the Feast of Ashura, Shi'ites cut themselves until they bathe in their own blood. Jafariyanews.com, a Shi'ite information service, reported from the holy city of Karbala in Iraq on February 20:
Thousands of mourners slit open their heads with swords, big knives and razor blades streaming their blood to signify their grief over the martyrdom of [the Prophet Mohammed's grandson] al-Imam al-Hussein [in 680 AD] - the tragedy which caused the sky to rain blood and the earth to bleed. 
Spurting blood is the preferred symbol of Iran's Islamic revolution. Fountains shooting red dye at Tehran's Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery recalled the blood of the young Iranians interred there, who fell in the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's suicide battalions during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
This turns Western stomachs, despite the universal presence of blood symbols in Western religion, as we observe in the Eucharist as well as the blood sacrifices of the Hebrew Bible. Catholics drink Christ's blood literally (and Protestants symbolically) to attain eternal life, while lambs' blood kept the Angel of Death from the doors of the ancient Hebrews on the eve of their exodus.
One dies a vicarious death in order to secure eternal life. Unlike Christians or Jews, whose religions are based on vicarious sacrifice, Islam demands the self-sacrifice of its adherents, in keeping with its essentially militant character. Revealed religion puts blood at a distance; Abraham sacrifices a ram and spares his son Isaac, and God sacrifices his own son in order to spare mankind. That is why blood in Judaism became taboo, to be handled only by the priest or his surrogate, the ritual butcher. Usually a Catholic priest administers the Eucharist. (An acolyte or lay person can give communion when not enough clergy are available, though only a priest or bishop can consecrate the host.) Unlike Christianity or Judaism, Islam has no ritual of sacrifice, nor does it need one, for the sacrifice that Islam demands is that of the Muslim himself.
To understand the promise of Islam, and the aspirations of Shi'ite Islam in particular, we first must understand what religion offers to begin with. All religion is about life, that is, about life eternal. Humankind cannot bear mortality without the hope of immortality, and for this men will sacrifice their physical existence without hesitation. That is true of paganism as much as it is true of revealed religion. The young men of the tribe march to war to protect the existence of the tribe, confident that the perpetuation of their blood and their memory will compensate them for their death in battle. But the expansion of the great empires of Macedonia and Rome made the tribes themselves sentient of their mortality; that is the dawn of history, namely of the knowledge that every nation has a history, and that this history must have an end. As Franz Rosenzweig (who lived from 1886 to 1929 and is one of the most influential modern Jewish religious thinkers) wrote:
Just as every individual must reckon with his eventual death, the peoples of the world foresee their eventual extinction, be it however distant in time. Indeed, the love of the peoples for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death. Love is only surpassing sweet when it is directed towards a mortal object, and the secret of this ultimate sweetness only is defined by the bitterness of death. Thus the peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customs have lost their living power.
The pagans of the prehistoric world found immortality in the gods and totems of their tribe; when history intruded upon their lives on horseback, the power of the old gods vanished like smoke, and the immortality of the individual faded before the prospect of a great extinction of peoples. Among all the tribes of the world from the Indus to the Pillars of Hercules, only one claimed the eternity of its bloodline under a covenant with a universal God, namely the Jews.
The blood of the pagan was his life; to achieve a life outside of the blood of his tribe, the pagan had to acquire a new blood. It is meaningless to promise men life in the Kingdom of Heaven without a corresponding life in this world; Christianity represents a new people of God, with an existence in this life. That is why Christianity requires that the individual undergo a new birth. To become a Christian, every child who comes into the world must undergo a second birth, to become by blood a new member of the Tribe of Abraham. Protestants who practice baptism through total immersion in water simply reproduce the ancient Jewish ritual of conversion, which requires that the convert pass through water, just as he did in leaving his mother's womb, to undergo a new birth that makes him a physical descendant of Abraham. Through baptism, Christians believe that they become Abraham's progeny.
Before the Bible was written, the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh learned that his quest for immortality was futile. The demigods of Greece, mortals favored by Olympians, suffered a tedious sort of immortal life as stars, trees or rivers. The gods of the heathens are not in any case eternal, only immortal. They were born and they will die, like the Norse gods at the Ragnarok, and their vulnerability projects the people's presentiment of its own death. To whom, precisely, have the gods offered eternal life prior to the appearance of revealed religion? Eternal life and a deathless mortality are quite different things.
But what is it that God demands of us in response to our demand for eternal life? We know the answer ourselves. To partake of life in another world we first must detach ourselves from this world in order to desire the next. In plain language, we must sacrifice ourselves. There is no concept of immortality without some concept of sacrifice, not in any culture or in any religion. That is a demand shared by the Catholic bishops and the Kalahari Bushmen.
God's covenant with Abraham is unique and singular in world history. A single universal and eternal god makes an eternal pact with a mortal that can be fulfilled only if Abraham's tribe becomes an eternal people. But the price of this pact is self-sacrifice. That is an existential mortal act beyond all ethics, as Soren Kierkegaard tells us in Fear and Trembling. The sacraments of revealed religion are sublimated human sacrifice, for the revealed god in his love for humankind spares the victim, just as God provided a ram in place of the bound Isaac on Mount Moriah. Among Jews the covenant must be renewed in each male child through a substitute form of human sacrifice, namely circumcision. Christians believe that a single human sacrifice spared the rest of mankind.
Jihad also is a form of human sacrifice. He who serves Allah so faithfully as to die in the violent propagation of Islam goes straight to paradise, there to enjoy virgins or raisins, depending on the translation. But Allah is not the revealed god of loving kindness, or agape, but -- pace Benedict XVI -- a god of reason, that is, of cold calculation. Islam admits no expiatory sacrifice. Everyone must carry his own spear.
We are too comfortable, too clean, too squeamish, too modern to descend into the terrible space where birth, death and immortality are decided. We forget that we cannot have eternal life unless we are ready to give up this one -- and this the Muslim knows only through what we should call the sacrament of jihad. Through jihad, the Muslim does almost precisely what the Christian does at the Lord's Supper. It is the sacrifice of Jesus that grants immortal life to all Christians, that is, those who become one with Jesus by eating his flesh and drinking his blood so that the sacrifice also is theirs, at least in Catholic terms. Protestants substitute empathy identification with the crucified Christ for the trans-substantiated blood and flesh of Jesus.
Christians believe that Jesus died on the cross to give all men eternal life, on condition that they take part in his sacrifice, either through the physical communion of the Catholic Church or the empathetic Communion of Protestantism. From a Muslim vantage point, the extreme of divine humility embodied in Jesus' sacrifice is beyond reason. Allah, by contrast, deals with those who submit to him after the calculation of an earthly despot. He demands that all Muslims sacrifice themselves by becoming warriors and, if necessary, laying their lives down in the perpetual war against the enemies of Islam.
These are parallel acts, in which different peoples do different things, in the service of different deities, but for the same reason: for eternal life.
Why is self-sacrifice always and everywhere the cost of eternal life? It is not because a vengeful and sanguineous God demands his due before issuing us a visa to heaven. Quite the contrary: we must sacrifice our earthly self, our attachment to the pleasures and petty victories of our short mortal life if we really are to gain the eternal life that we desire. The animal led to the altar, indeed Jesus on the cross, is ourselves: we die along with the sacrifice and yet live, by the grace of God. YHWH did not want Isaac to die, but without taking Abraham to Mount Moriah, Abraham himself could not have been transformed into the man desirous and deserving of immortal life. Jesus died and took upon him the sins of the world, in Christian terms, precisely so that a vicarious sacrifice would redeem those who come to him.
What distinguishes Allah from YHWH and (in Christian belief) his son Jesus is love. God gives Jews and Christians a path that their foot can tread, one that is not too hard for mortals, to secure the unobtainable, namely immortal life, as if by miracle. Out of love God gives the Torah to the Jews, not because God is a stickler for the execution of 613 commandments, but because it is a path upon which the Jew may sacrifice and yet live, and receive his portion of the World to Come. The most important sacrifice in Judaism is the Sabbath -- "our offering of rest," says the congregation in the Sabbath prayers -- a day of inactivity that acknowledges that the Earth is the Lord's. It is a sacrifice, as it were, of ego. In this framework, incidentally, it is pointless to distinguish Judaism as a "religion of works" as opposed to Christianity as a "religion of faith."
To Christians, God offers the vicarious participation in his sacrifice of himself through his only son.
That is Christian Grace: a free gift by God to men such that they may obtain eternal life. By a miracle, the human soul responds to the offer of Grace with a leap, a leap away from the attachments that hold us to this world, and a foretaste of the World to Come.
There is no Grace in Islam, no miracle, no expiatory sacrifice, no expression of love for mankind such that each Muslim need not be a sacrifice. On the contrary, the concept of jihad, in which the congregation of Islam is also the army, states that every single Muslim must sacrifice himself personally. Jihad is the precise equivalent of the Lord's Supper in Christianity and the Jewish Sabbath, the defining expression of sacrifice that opens the prospect of eternity to the mortal believer. To ask Islam to become moderate, to reform, to become a peaceful religion of personal conscience is the precise equivalent of asking Catholics to abolish Mass.
Unlike the tribes who encountered Christianity in the fullness of its power, in 4th-century Rome or 9th-century Europe, the Arab tribes of the 7th century occupied the borders of a Roman Empire, then in a demographic death-spiral. The New Israel of the Christians was at its historic nadir. First the Alexandrine Empire and then the Romans crushed the traditional life of the nations, imposing their own gods and customs; faced with overwhelming force, the traditional society of the prehistoric world lost confidence in its own hearth-gods and submitted to baptism. Not so the Arabs. Whether the Arab tribesmen conquered Byzantine armies, or merely took over borderlands that the Byzantines abandoned, as a minority of scholars believe, the great movement of Arab tribes against the old empires found no solace in the floundering "New Israel." In the fullness of their new self-confidence, the Arabs declared themselves to be the true descendants of Abraham, risen up against the falsifiers and usurpers. Islam gave traditional society the weapons to beat back the threat of extinction.
Muslims require no ritual of rebirth, for in their doctrine they already are the descendants of Abraham, through the supposed true line of Ishmael, the favored son of the patriarch whose heritage was usurped by the crafty descendants of Isaac -- the Jews and their emulators the Christians. Allah sent prophets to all the nations of the world, but the Jews falsified the message of the prophets to favor their ancestors at the expense of the true successor of Abraham. In the revolt against the usurpers, all the tribes of the world enjoy the equality of the horde.
Revolt against usurpation, the revenge of the pure life of traditional society against the corrupt mores of the metropole, is the heart of Islam. The Muslim rejects the supposed chosen people of God as usurpers, and defends traditional society against the crucible of peoples that is the Christians' New Israel. But Islam also forms a new people, the Umma, the collective of Muslims to which the individual must submit. In the pagan world the young men of each tribe march out to fight their enemies, and delay the inevitable moment when their tribe will be overwhelmed and its memory extinguished from the earth. Islam summons the tribes to unite against the oppressive empires to its West, to march out together and fight until their enemies, the Dar-al-Harb, exist no more.
Islam has no ethnicity; it is not an Arab movement; it is a new people, but a people defined first of all by militancy. The individual Muslim does not submit to traditional society as such, no matter how many elements of traditional society might be incorporated into Muslim doctrine; he submits to the movement of the tribes. That is why jihad is the most authentic form of Muslim religious activity, and why the blood rituals of Ashura the most authentic form of Muslim worship.
As I observed in an essay titled “Does Islam have a prayer?” (May 18, 2004):
If the individual Muslim does not submit to traditional society as it surrounds him in its present circumstances, he submits to the expansionist movement. In that sense the standard communal prayer of Islam may be considered an expression of jihad. Again Rosenzweig: "Walking in the way of Allah means, in the strictest sense, the spread of Islam by means of the holy war. The piety of the Muslim finds its way into the world by obediently walking this way, by assuming its inherent dangers, by adhering to the laws prescribed for it."
But the rising of the tribes against the usurpers must give rise to a new form of usurpation. Victors in war do not wish to campaign forever; at an opportune moment they will become the new tyrants of the territories they conquer. In the Shi'ite version (as Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis writes):
...the reigning caliphs appeared more and more as tyrants and usurpers, while for many, the claims of the kin of the Prophet, embodied first in Ali and then in his descendants, came to express their hopes and aspirations for the overthrow of the corrupt existing order and a return to pure, authentic, and original Islam.
The "Twelvers," the Shi'ite mainstream, expect the return of Muhammad al-Mahdi, the 12th of the Imams (the canonical descendants of Ali) at the end of time. Facile identification of this doctrine with the Christian belief in the return of Christ or the Jesus expectation of a Messiah leads some in the West to think of Shi'ism as closer in spirit to Western religion. But the hope for the Mahdi expresses not a quasi-Christian sort of quietism, but rather an encysted revolutionary impulse, and that is what we observe in the Shi'ite fascination for blood.
The blood is the life, and men pass to eternal life only through blood -- but whose blood? Self-sacrifice in war is the fundamental religious act of paganism, for it is only by the sacrifice of the young men of the tribe that the tribe has surety of survival among a forest of enemies. Human sacrifice, especially among warrior-cults, is a common religious expression among pagans. But with the notion of a universal God comes also the prospect of universal peace: if all men one day might worship one God by the same name, then the perpetual warring among tribes fighting for survival also might cease.
In proud defiance of revealed religion, the destroyer of the tribes, Islam holds to the primal demand of self-sacrifice. The jihadi's self-immolation in war, symbolized by the drawing of blood and the bleeding of nature itself, is the fundamental act of worship. The immortality of the individual, put at risk by the encroachment of the metropole upon the life of the tribe, is regained through the revolt of the endangered tribes against the usurpation of the empire that forms its motivation. Shi'ism therefore represents the original impulse of Islam in its purest form, and the shedding one's own blood an authentic response. The victors of the revolt against the usurpers become usurpers in turn, and so on in never-ending cycle. Again, Lewis:
Most Sunni jurists, even while recognizing the evils of the existing order, continued to preach conformism and submission, generally quoting yet another principle, that "tyranny is better than anarchy." The Shi'ites, on the other hand, even while submitting, maintained their principled rejection of the Sunni order, and from time to time, more frequently in the early centuries than in the later, rose in revolt in an attempt to overthrow the existing order.
More than in the 7th century, indeed more than at any time in recorded history, the encroaching metropole jeopardizes the life of the tribes. More than ever, the Shi'ites will bathe in their own blood rather than submit to it.