The Question of Theodicy and Jihad


After each terror incident relating to Muslim extremism, we see avalanches of commentary debating the doctrines of jihad in Islamic thought. A notable example of this is a recent essay by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” which has sparked a firestorm of debate. The trouble with these discussions is that they confuse theological justifications made by radical groups for the use of violence with causes behind the emergence and deployment of violence and its appeal among particular groups. The sum of all of the discussions on jihad in Islamic thought only leads us to a conclusion that it is permissible for a Muslim to deploy violence under certain circumstances and conditions. This finding is neither interesting nor useful for policymakers and strategists.

All uses of violence, whether by militants, terrorists or regular armies, need framing and validation. The social mechanisms used for unleashing violence as well as controlling the limits and outcomes of violent episodes are universal. It is not only religions that offer a cosmic framing of why war or violence might be inevitable at times; secular humanism, nationalism, socialism, liberalism, and international law too provide us with the same grounding, using the same mechanisms to appeal to and mobilize human beings. In fact, our common language of “just war” is a deeply theological framing and validation of the use of violence.

Thus, focusing on how the use of violence is justified in Islamic thought does not leave us any wiser about why we have seen groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) emerge, and why we have increasing numbers of people joining their campaigns and committing acts of terror as part of an “imagined community” fighting an imagined global battle.

It is clear that religion is an important part of this issue, but a healthy theological discussion starts somewhere else. The fundamental theological question that lies behind the appeal of such groups is not that of jihad but of theodicy.

This is not merely a highbrow intellectual ordering of theological debates in a linear fashion. It is a vital re-focusing of analytical energy and, most importantly, of responses given to countering violent extremism and programming that seeks to address radicalization.

It has been some 300 years since Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz coined the word “theodicy”, deriving from two Greek words that can be understood as “justifying God.” It refers to questions nearly as old as humanity: Why does God permit evil in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is omnipotent, holy and loving, then the presence of suffering and evil in the world poses a serious challenge to idea of God.

While the question of theodicy is now most commonly posed as an atheistic challenge to religious belief, the question itself is about human experience in a world that often feels out of control, unfair and full of injustice. It is the fundamental question of human existence. Thus, Albert Camus famously stated that, “there is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide”, simply because the absurdity and suffering human beings are exposed to demands an explanation and resolution. As Nietzsche put it: those who have a why to live, can bear almost any how.

It is this question that connects the Book of Job in the Bible with writings of Viktor Frankl and with one of the oldest stories we have on record, “The Dispute of a Man with his Soul”. This is a story recorded on papyrus from 2000 BCE, in which a poor man does not see a reason to live and wants to end his life. His suicide is prevented by his soul who convinces him that he must work hard and get rich for a glorious funeral so that at least the soul will have a good life in the next world.

The fundamental imperative to make sense of the suffering in the world, find a reason to wake up in the morning, and decide what to do with our lives is as much a personal burden as it is a political one. Thus, it is not just Buddha who saw suffering and offered a path to address it. Communism, socialism, and the project of human rights also follow the same structure of reading the world: diagnosing what is wrong and offering a solution to it.

The project of the modern nation state, with its narratives and all-encompassing structures, has been another answer given to the same human quest for meaning, safety, stability, immortality—achieved through the narratives of belonging to a nation and cosmic reasons for why “we” and “our land” are special.

The same quest lies at the heart of why most radical religious organizations and responses emerge in failed states and conflict zones. While we were amusing ourselves with the myopic question of how religion leads to violence we have missed out on the main question: How does violence alter religion and religious believers? Exposure to violence and injustice, seeing no “why”, and looking for a “how” to survive, requires theological responses in their rawest form: What is wrong with this universe? What is right? How do I understand what I see? How do I respond to the challenges and how do I live?

When a state fails, when its promise to deliver a fair society does not actualize, and all other offers of a solution remain too feeble, religious networks, imaginations, solidarities, and mobilizations emerge as the most powerful, and often the only alternative, to address the question of theodicy and recreate a moral order.

Thus, Boko Haram is not the first cult to employ gross violence in Nigeria. In the 1970s and 80s, an identical group named Maitatsine, in the same vein, spread like a plague and took thousands of lives. They were only finally stopped by an equally brutal military response. Both Boko Haram and Maitatsine followed the story line of “retreat” like the hijra of Prophet Muhammad, leaving persecution, corruption and idolatry behind in pursuit of a purer community and holier lives. It is only later on that both groups transform into violent beasts.

For the European jihadi, too, the first question is not whether the Qur’an or Prophet teaches jihad. It is first a moral reading of the universe through personal experience, and the finding that it is corrupt, chaotic, and unfair. That is why it was only after deciding to travel to Syria for jihad did two confused British gap-year-adventure jihadis order “Qur’an for Dummies”. And that is also why ISIL pursues intense indoctrination to keep the jihadists in the right cosmic war framework before they realize the absurdity of war, which is never glorious or beautiful, as it is in the movies.

In other words, by the time theological discussion of when and how Muslims can engage in violent jihad occurs, the more important questions will have already been asked and answered. Jihad is the last theological question. The context in which religious actors found themselves first forces them into a formulation to answer theodicy. It then sets them on a reading of the universe and shows them a path of salvation, a path of solving the problems.

In a context where violence is already present indiscriminately, it is easily seen as a regular and legitimate political option. Deployment of violence becomes a radical attempt to tame, control and re-order a universe that seems to be in decay and evil. Thus, it is not nihilistic as it is often thought, but a Nietzschean attempt to move ‘beyond good and evil’, to establish a new moral order as an answer to the question of theodicy.

An understanding of religious violence deployed by Muslim extremism through the question of theodicy rather than jihad has countless direct implications: from our aid and development programs to long-term counter-terror strategies at home and in theaters of conflict.

Most obviously, this means that we should stop efforts to have other Muslims “condemn violence in the name of Islam” or push for programs that promote theologies that challenge the use of violence. Such programs help to a certain extent, but often lead to a lot of counter-productive pressure on Muslims.

The main theological challenge that lies before us is not whether or not a Muslim can commit acts of terror, but rather, how can there be theologies of hope and social change that channel deep grievances and deprivations into non-destructive activism. This means that our efforts to offer counter-narratives and break cycles of radicalization should not go through arguments on jihad and violence, but projects and messaging that offers a hopeful reading of the world and how deeply religious believers can work to improve, heal and restore a broken world.


Ziya Meral is a London-based researcher and academic focusing on Turkey and the Middle East, and wider questions of ethno-religious violence and conflict.