Dr. David Cook, who studies the apocalyptic and millenarian tradition in Islam, began by noting that the concept of martyrdom is of crucial importance in all the major monotheistic religions. It serves as an advertising tool and attests to the truth of the faith. Martyrdom became a central feature of jihad as early as the 9th century.

From the beginning, writers on jihad emphasized its spiritual aspect: a person soiled by sins could undertake jihad to purify his spirit. A tradition dating back to 757 C.E. states that a mujahid, one who performs jihad, can be of three types. One of these types is a believer who struggles in the cause of God himself and with his money. If such a person dies, he will be in God’s camp. Dr. Cook highlighted the comparison of heaven to an army camp. Another kind of mujahid is a believer who sins against himself; his sins are cleansed both by fighting and my becoming martyred.

Due to the importance of the concept of martyrdom or shahada in Islam, there arose early on a great confusion about who could be considered a shahid, or martyr. There was a great expansion of the concept to include seven categories, some of which are one who dies in a building collapse, one who dies from a stomach illness, and a woman who dies in childbirth. Modern-day globalist Muslim radicals want to return the concept of martyrdom to its original meaning of battlefield death.

Radical Muslims are reproducing texts on jihad written by medieval scholars. One such text, written by Ibn An-Nahhas (d. 1414), is a synthesis between a scholarly study of jihad, and a practical manual for fighters. Ibn An-Nahhas details “martyrdom operations,” and his book points to the debate which arose in Islam centuries ago as to the difference between martyrdom and suicide. In other words, is it ever legitimate for a person to seek out death during jihad, since suicide is a grave sin in Islam? Ibn An-Nahhas quotes from the Qur’anic verse 2:207: “And some people sell themselves for the sake of Allah’s favor”. He deals with the question of whether a person can single-handedly charge an army and not be considered a suicide. While he does not provide a clear-cut answer, considering it to be the prerogative of the fighter himself, Ibn An-Nahhas points out the ambivalent nature of martyrdom operations.

Medieval texts, such as the one by Ibn An-Nahhas, have been reappearing lately on the Internet, often in translation. The point of martyrdom is to lead by example, energize followers and entice new ones. It is also a way to ease a believer’s transition into the next world by making it part of a spiritual fulfillment. Modern-day suicide attacks rely upon these texts, which often go through an interpretation by radicals seeking to promote their version of Islam, which they see as self-sacrificial.

The next speaker, Husain Haqqani, continued with an overview of the historical development of jihad. He noted that the subject of jihad has been much debated throughout Muslim history. Ibn An-Nahhas represents a somewhat extreme view of jihad because he wrote his treatise at a particularly difficult time for Muslims. The Islamic world had been ravaged by the Mongols some 200 years earlier, and was confronting Crusaders when Ibn An-Nahhas wrote his work on jihad. Thus, literature such as that produced by Ibn An-Nahhas consisted not of detached analysis, but rather of recruitment texts and mobilization tools.

That being said, the Qur’an does mention martyrdom, giving Muslims a point of departure in their discussions of the subject. Mr. Haqqani noted that the Prophet Muhammad, after his return from battle, reportedly commented that “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” When someone asked the Prophet what the greater jihad was, he is said to have replied, “The struggle [jihad] with one’s own self.” Uncompromising scholars have historically denied the validity of this saying of the Prophet, or hadith. They also fabricated sayings, or ahadith, according to which martyrs would want to return to this world in order to be martyred again. Millions of pages have been devoted in the Muslim world in the debate over the nature of jihad.

In the last hundred years, virtually every Muslim country has declared jihad, whether against non-Muslims or other Muslims. In the First World War, the Ottoman Empire sided with two Christian powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, and yet declared jihad against the Allies. Jihad has thus often been a doctrine of convenience. Saudi Arabia and Iran have made much use of it. Iraq invoked jihad against Iran, painting the Iran-Iraq War as a Shia-Sunni struggle, even though most Iraqi people and soldiers were themselves Shi’ites.

Modern jihadis manipulate the concept of jihad to suit their needs. In the Middle Ages, learned discourse as such was religious, and it was harder to twist concepts. Today, even educated people know only a smattering of Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Prophet, and are thus easier for extremists to manipulate, which explains the phenomenon of Western-educated Islamist terrorists.

The concept of jihad as explained by Ibn An-Nahhas, however, was structured and rule-bound. The Medieval scholar identified eight reasons that could justify jihad, each supported by the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet, or sunna. These eight include the elimination of oppression and evil; establishing the supremacy of Islam; humiliation of non-believers into paying tax; assisting the weak and dispossessed; revenge for the spilled blood of believers; punishment for broken treaties; and securing occupied Muslim land.

Jihad has been reinterpreted by modern radicals and given a global dimension. Lashkar-e Taiba, a militant Kashmiri separatist group, has the recovery of occupied Muslim land as its objective. Therefore, it sees any international system that perpetuates this occupation as unjust, and considers the United States a legitimate target of attack because of its role in upholding the current international order.

A book produced by the Lashkar-e Taiba, which Mr. Haqqani showed to the audience, calls on Muslims to fund jihad if they cannot participate in it themselves. This appeal points out a relatively new phenomenon of worldwide money transfers to further jihadi movements. Further, there is a resurgence of interest in jihad literature in Pakistan, and thus Ibn An-Nahhas’s book has been translated into Urdu. Its chapters, one of which is entitled “Swords are the key to heaven,” continue to attract people to jihad.

Alexei Malashenko commented on jihad movements in Russia. He observed that to explain these movements, one has to descend from “the mountain of jihad,” that is, from high religious and theoretical discussion. Mujahideen in Russia do not read thick books like that of Ibn An-Nahhas, and gain their theoretical knowledge about jihad from pamphlets in poor Russian translation. They do not understand the concept of jihad. For Dagestani mujahideen, for example, the greater jihad is the struggle against Russian President Vladimir Putin and the United States, and the lesser jihad is the struggle against their local authorities. Thus, jihad in Russia can be characterized as a “stupid jihad” or a “limited jihad.”

For the Russian victims of the mujahideen’s actions, however, the mujahideen’s own perception of jihad does not matter. Thus, Dr. Malashenko focused on a particular issue in his presentation, which is the “feminization” of jihad. It is impossible to know the thoughts of female jihad participants on the subject. Reports on their frame of mind and worldview are based on rumors, eyewitness testimony, and a great deal of FSB disinformation.

However, certain facts can be gleaned about the feminization of jihad. The average age of women participating in martyrdom operations is 15-25. There are also women over 30 years old, most of them widows of mujahideen. The presence of girls aged 11-13 has also been noted. The women are located in the Russian Federation republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. A training camp has been established for them near the Chechen town of Vedeno. Among the women fighters is the notorious Black Widows’ Batallion, which number 25-30. This may be a small number, but it is enough to wreak havoc. Further, two to three women join the ranks of the Black Widows every month. Ethnically, the women include Chechens, Dagestanis, and possibly Azerbaijanis and Russians. Although Dr. Malashenko does not believe in the existence of ethnic-Russian Black Widows, he does think that four to six ethnic-Russian wives of mujahideen may themselves be involved in jihad.

The women join the struggle primarily to avenge the death of a relative: a husband, brother or cousin. They are also often in difficult private circumstances, such as a heavy debt burden, or a drug addiction. The religious component is secondary, but strong: all of these women have passed through some sort of Wahhabi training, whether it be a school or just a family circle.

Dr. Malashenko noted that many of the women were previously teachers or businesswomen. He predicted that the flow of women to extremist groups would continue because of the ongoing Chechen conflict, and also because of the radicalization of the Northern Caucasus. Russia as a state and society is not prepared for this phenomenon.

In the mid-1990s, Russian politicians made false allegations about connections between Chechen rebels and international terrorism. Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, such connections have really been materializing. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Chechens have headed to Iraq to fight the US occupation. Islamic radicalism has come to Russia, and mujahideen there feel themselves to be a small part of a worldwide jihad.

Martha Brill Olcott, the last presenter, analyzed clips from a film produced by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), entitled The Martyr Abu Duzhona. The film was made at the IMU studio near Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, which was set up after 1999 with money received from Al-Qaeda. This was one of the seven films which she and Bakhtiyar Babadjanov of the Biruni Institute of Oriental Studies in Tashkent analyzed together, and the seven films represent only a small portion of the IMU total film output.

The IMU was founded in Uzbekistan in the mid-1990s, its mission being the liberation of Uzbekistan from President Islam Karimov’s rule. IMU notebooks written between 1994 and 1996 made no mention of martyrdom, and were instead simple soldiers’ manuals. They also used Soviet-style language about the need to fight “the enemy,” while their references to jihad were primitive.

The Movement was eventually forced out of Uzbekistan and moved to Tajikistan, from where it moved on to Afghanistan. Its members saw the move as a hijra, recalling the Prophet Muhammad’s migration or withdrawal from Mecca to Medina. In Afghanistan, the IMU started producing films, the early ones showing happy fighters playing sports, and talking about spreading Islam through guns and books. The later videos, however, emphasize positive depictions of suffering.

The fighter depicted in the film The Martyr Abu Duzhona, was a thirty-two-year-old Bukharan who joined the IMU in Tajikistan. He became an inadvertent martyr when he stepped on a landmine while laying a perimeter wire around an IMU camp. The film shows graphic images of Abu Duzhona being operated on, constantly repeating the name of Allah and saying he was at peace, and, afterwards, his fellow-rebels dipping their fingers in his blood, followed by his funeral. The film then turns to interviews with Abu Duzhona’s friends, who relate Abu Duzhona’s dream about his impending martyrdom, and his preparations to leave the world before he accidentally stepped on the landmine.

The IMU leader, Tahir Yuldashev (who renamed himself Muhammad Tahir after his hijra), appeared to be very proud of Abu Duzhona. He declared that “The caravan of shahids has been in Chechenistan (sic), Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan,” and Abu Duzhona’s sacrifice added Afghanistan to the list.

Dr. Olcott observed that the IMU also produced a film that exhorted its followers to participate in the Palestinian struggle, although, to her knowledge, no Uzbeks have participated in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thus, some IMU videos were apparently made with funders rather than followers in mind. In any case, appeals to martyrdom and global jihad are a “fundamentally new” development in the IMU, and point towards the globalization of jihad.

In the discussion that followed the presentations, Dr. Cook explained the concept of global jihad as a product of a globalized culture which radical Muslims see as inimical and hostile to Muslim interests. He also noted that images and themes similar to those in the IMU film can be found in films produced in Bosnia and Afghanistan. While Mr. Haqqani and Dr. Cook thought the religious images in the IMU video would appeal to Muslims brought up in a religious environment, Dr. Olcott and Dr. Malashenko observed that such an upbringing was unlikely in former Soviet republics.

Mr. Haqqani also noted the transformation of nationalist rebel movements, such as the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines, into Islamic movements under the influence of greater contact with foreign Muslims, particularly the exchange of ideas during hajj. Finally, Dr. Olcott observed that the problem of radical jihad is likely to persist in Uzbekistan until the community of believers becomes autonomous, whereby moderate voices can counteract radical ones.

Summary prepared by Rashed Chowdhury, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment.