On Wars Thought Holy

Interview With Marco Meschini

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MILAN, Italy, JUNE 5, 2007 (Zenit.org).- There is little similarity between the extremist concept of jihad as a holy war and the Christian Crusades, says a historian of the Middle Ages.



Marco Meschini, a professor at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, explains in his new book "Il Jihad e La Crociata" (The Jihad and the Crusade) published by Edizioni Ares, says that jihad and the Crusades are asymmetric. In this interview with ZENIT, he explains why.

Q: In what sense are jihad and the Crusades "holy wars"?

Meschini: A "holy war" is understood to have two characteristic elements: First of all, for those who are believers, it is a war willed by God and promoted by his legitimate representatives; secondly, participating in this war opens the gates to paradise.

In the case of jihad it is important to recall an important passage from the Quran: "Fight those who do not believe in Allah and who do not take as illicit what Allah and his messengers have declared to be illicit." It is Allah who wills jihad. Allah is holy and therefore jihad is holy, a holy war.

In regard to the second aspect, a "hadith" of Muhammad -- a saying of Muhammad with normative value -- must be recalled: "Know that paradise is in the shade of the sword."

Furthermore, the "mujahid," or warrior of jihad, is considered a martyr if he dies. The word for martyr, "shahid," means "witness," just like the literal sense of the Greek word martyr.

The mujahid is so holy that […] he can transmit part of his holiness to his relatives.

Q: You, however, distinguish jihad and the Crusades as "asymmetric." What distinguishes them?

Meschini: The Crusades too, for medieval Christians, were willed by God, in the sense that the Popes wanted them and preached them, connecting them with the forgiveness of sins committed by the participants. The battle cry of the Crusaders was "God wills it!"

A first asymmetry, however, is this: Jihad is understood to open the gates of paradise directly, but the Crusades were not, because they were understood as part of the process that could lead sinful man to paradise.

There are, however, other more significant asymmetries.

First of all, jihad, whether defensive or offensive -- that is, as the instrument of the spreading of the Islamic religion -- means "submission" to Allah.

The crusades, instead, were born only after a millennium of Christianity and with a limited purpose: to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Land, which were unjustly occupied by the Muslims.

It should be added that in the course of centuries there were also crusades of expansion but the original idea was not completely lost in these.

Q: You also maintain that, while jihad is essential for Islam, crusading is not essential for Christianity.

Meschini: This is the most radical difference. As was said, holy war is a prescription of the Quran -- and the Quran is the word of Allah, eternal and immutable -- practiced by Muhammad and furnished with a whole series of accompanying rules that define forms and conditions.

Still today, for all Muslims, jihad is the sixth pillar of Islam, that is, one of the precepts that constitute the identity of their religion.

On the contrary, there is no sacred Christian text that speaks of war in a similar way, and to say the least, the model of Christianity, Christ, does not foresee it!

For this reason, crusading, which certainly arose in a Christian context, need not be present in other Christian contexts; nor, above all, does it have anything to do with the kerygma, the core of Christian revelation.

Q: Would a kind of Christian crusade have any sense today?

Meschini: I do not believe so. Yet, steadfast resistance, which does not need to, but may have recourse to force -- would make sense, to countervail those who threaten, "manu armata," international peace.

Q: Does speaking of jihad today run the risk of making dialogue between Christianity and Islam more difficult?

Meschini: What is the purpose of dialogue? I think: knowing each other better, reaching a higher level of truth. Thus, truth, or intellectual honesty, is at least a premise. Indeed, it is an essential condition of dialogue.

For this reason I wanted to unmask some commentators who, behind verbal contortions, disguise the historical, juridical and theological truth embedded in the theme of jihad.

Q: What did the Pope intend to say in Regensburg when he spoke of the discourse of Manuel II Palaeologus on these themes?

Meschini: Benedict XVI was very clear: Faith and truth can be proposed and diffused from the intellect to the intellect and from heart to heart, in a reciprocal exchange of reason, I believe.

Thus, to expand one's religion "by the sword" is a monstrosity antithetical to the Logos, to Reason, that is, to God.

And the violent response to his words was -- dramatically -- an involuntary but "perfect" confirmation of his speech.