First a confession. Like many modern British readers, I have contracted a severe case of Jihad Overload Syndrome. Symptoms of this unhappy condition include bouts of despair, melancholy, lassitude, irritation and impatience, and an ostrich-like tendency to pretend none of it is really happening. These can be regularly triggered by Muslim taxi drivers attempting to convert infidels to the true faith, newspaper headlines about the latest suicide bombing in Syria/Iraq/Turkey, and pious homilies from western leaders that Islam is a religion of peace.
An Amazon search for books with ‘jihad’ in the title reveals 6,256 dispiriting choices. A deep breath may therefore be called for before embarking on Crusade and Jihad. Fortunately, the reader is in extremely good hands. Malcolm Lambert is an accomplished medieval historian, the author of an acclaimed study of medieval heresy.
His focus here is broad and comprehensive, a survey of Muslim and Christian understandings of jihad and crusade over the centuries, prefaced with a potted history of early Islam. For those of us suffering from JOS, this could be hard going. That it is instead gripping stuff owes much to Lambert placing the principal characters of their age front and centre in his narrative. Here in all their pomp are Richard the Lionheart, the Zengid ruler of Syria Nur al Din, Saladin, Sultan Baybars of Egypt and Genghis Khan, the Mongol Scourge of God.
Lambert argues that jihad, which literally means ‘striving’, is predominantly referenced in the Quran in the sense of spiritual self-improvement and submission to God. He acknowledges, however, that its alternative definition of fighting for the faith against unbelievers quickly came to prominence both during the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed and throughout the 7th-century Arab conquests that followed. The current dominance in popular perception of jihad as holy war is a product of our time, boosted by attention-seeking terrorists who find their ambitions glamourised by the attention-giving media.