Jacques Ellul


  Contrary to the oft-held peaceable or romanticized picture, history is not an inoffensive discipline (not to say a "science", which would be immediately challenged).  Any sound historical work, that is to say which, as far as possible, avoids prejudices and preconceptions - using the maximum available sources, without selectivity, other than on a scale of values according to their finality - hence any work undertaken with conscienciousness and rigor always causes uneasiness. Actually, such a study generally challenges preconceived images of this past, as well as the traditions and judgements concerning this or that period, opinions and, at times, ideologies, thereby giving rise to disquiet, polemics and disputes.  This has been the case with all great historical works and the present book will be no exception.

    I venture to say that it is a great historical work on account of its scrupulous examination of the sources, the search for those sources (1) (though it is impossible to speak of exhaustiveness!), and the boldness in tackling a historical factor of prime importance too often neglected. In the general current of favorable predispositions to Islam, about which I have already spoken in the preface to the author's previous book, (2) there has been a reluctance to allude to the jihad.  In Western eyes, it would be a sort of dark stain on the greatness and purity of Islam.  Yet this book, a sequel to the previous one, considerably broadens the perspective since it adds to the previous study of dhimmitude its alternative: the jihad. Jihad and dhimmitude are posited as an "uncircumventable" alternative:  two complementary institutions, and when faced with Islam, a choice between the two has to be made!  This jihad still needs to be defined:  there are many interpretations.  At times, the main emphasis is placed on the spiritual nature of this "struggle".  Indeed, it would merely indicate a "figure of speech",  to illustrate the struggle that the believer has to wage against his own evil inclinations and his tendency to disbelief, etc.  Each man engaged in a struggle within himself (which we Christians know well, and thus we find ourselves again on common ground!); and I am well aware that this interpretation was in fact maintained in some Islamic schools of thought.   But, even if this interpretation is correct, it in no way covers the whole scope of jihad.  At other times, one prefers to veil the facts and put them in parentheses.  In a major encyclopaedia, one reads phrases such as:  "Islam expanded in the eighth or ninth centuries ...";  "This or that country passed into Muslim hands...".  But care is taken not to say how Islam expanded, how countries "passed into [Muslim hands]...  Indeed, it would seem as if events happened by themselves, through a miraculous or amicable operation... Regarding this expansion, little is said about jihad.  And yet it all happened through war!

    This book neatly highlights what one is concealing - I would say carefully concealing - so widespread is the agreement on this silence that it can only be the result of a tacit agreement based on implicit presuppositions.  In the face of such an agreement, this book will appear blasphemous and will be described as polemical, simply because it reveals facts, series of facts, consistencies in practice - I would say a permanence, which shows that there is no question of accidental events.  But despite this clarification, this book is not polemical for the author willingly recognizes all the great achievements of the Islamic civilization and in no way negates the values of this civilization.  The author emphasizes that Islam's victories were due to the military quality of its army and the high statesmanship of its leaders.  Likewise - and this is another virtue that we found in The Dhimmi - the author takes the greatest account of diversities and subtleties and does not globalize or generalize from a few facts.  Relying on the sources to the utmost, she notes the diversities between periods and situations.

     But a major, twofold fact transforms the jihad into something quite different from traditional wars, waged for ambition and self-interest, with limited objectives, where the "normal" situation is peace between peoples - war, in itself, constituting a dramatic event which must end in a return to peace.  This twofold factor is first the religious nature, then the fact that war has become an institution (and no longer an "event").  Jihad is generally translated as "holy war" (this term is not satisfactory):  and this suggests both that this war is provoked by strong religious feeling, and then that its first object is not so much to conquer land as to Islamize the populations.  This war is a religious duty.  It will probably be said that every religion in its expanding phase carries the risks of war, that history records hundreds of religious wars and it is now a commonplace to make this connection.  (3)  Hence, religious passion is thus sometimes expressed in this manner.  But it is, in fact, "passion" - it concerns mainly a fact which it would be easy to demonstrate does not correspond to the fundamental message of the religion.  This disjuncture is obvious for Christianity.  In Islam, on the contrary, jihad is a religious obligation.  It forms part of the duties that the believer must fulfil; it is Islam's normal  path to expansion.  And this is found repeatedly dozens of times in the Koran.  Therefore, the believer is not denying the religious message.  Quite the reverse, jihad is the way he best obeys it.  And the facts which are recorded meticulously and analyzed clearly show that the jihad is not a "spiritual war" but a real military war of conquest.  It expresses the agreement between the "fundamental book" and the believers' practical strivings.  But Bat Ye'or shows that things are not so simple.  Since the jihad is not solely an external war, it can break out within the Muslim world itself - and wars among Muslims have been numerous, but always with the same features.

     Hence, the second important specific characteristic is that the jihad is an institution and not an event, that is to say it is part of the normal functioning of the Muslim world.  This is so on two counts.  First, this war creates the institutions which are its consequence.  Of course, all wars bring institutional changes merely by the fact that there are victors and vanquished, but here we are faced with a very different situation.  The conquered populations change status (they became dhimmis), and the shari'a tends to be put into effect integrally, overthrowing the former law of the country.  The conquered territories do not simply change "owners".  Rather they are brought into a binding collective (religious) ideology - with the exception of the dhimmi condition - and are controlled by a highly perfected administrative machinery. (4)

     Lastly, in this perspective the jihad is an institution in the sense that it participates extensively in the economic life of the Islamic world.  Like dhimmitude does, which involves a specific conception of this economic life, as the author clearly shows.  But it is most essential to grasp that the jihad  is an institution in itself; that is to say, an organic piece of Muslim society.  As a religious duty, it fits into the religious organization, like pilgrimages, and so on.   However, this is not the essential factor, which derives from the division of the world in the (religious) thought of Islam.  The world, as Bat Ye'or  brilliantly shows, is divided into two regions:  the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb, in other words: the "domain of Islam" and "the domain of war".  The world is no longer divided into nations, peoples, tribes.  Rather, they are all located en bloc in the world of war, where war is the only possible relationship with the outside world.  The earth belongs to Allah and all its inhabitants must acknowledge this reality; to achieve this goal there is but one method: war.  War, then, is clearly an institution, not just an incidental or fortuitous institution, but a constituent part of the thought, the organization and the structures of this world.  Peace with this world of war is impossible.  Of course, it is sometimes necessary to call a halt; there are circumstances where it is better not to make war.  The Koran makes provision for this.  But this changes nothing: war remains an institution, which means that it must resume as soon as circumstances permit.

     I have greatly stressed the characteristics of this war, because there is so much talk nowadays of the tolerance and fundamental pacifism of Islam that it is necessary to recall its nature, which is fundamentally warlike!  Moreover, the author provides an enlightening explanation of "Islamization", a complex process whereby Islamized populations supplanted peoples, civilizations and religions in the conquered countries. This comprised two phases: amalgamative processes (absorption of local cultures, conversions) and conflictive processes (massacres, slavery, and so on).  The conflictive and amalgamative situations could in fact co-exist.  Nevertheless, there actually are two phases:  the first is war;  the second is the imposition of the dhimmi status.

     These are the foundations on which were developed both the expansion of Islam and then the evolution that resulted from the relationship of this Empire with the West - an evolution that nothing could prevent and that seemed to reverse the current, since, on the one hand the West would conquer several Islamic countries and, on the other, Western "values" would influence this world of Islam.  But if some of these values (tolerance, for example) are a sort of challenge intending to prove that Islam practises them, others act in another manner to strengthen the dominant trend:  nationalism, for example.  But whatever the evolution, it must never be forgotten that it can only be superficial because doctrine and conduct are based on a religious foundation:  even if this may seem to be weakened or modified, nevertheless what I have elsewhere called the "persistence of religiousness" remains unchanged.  In other words, even if the rites, structures, and customs are all that continue to exist of a once-strong religion - today, seemingly neglected - these visible survivals only need a spark for everything immediately to revive, sometimes violently.  And this process is described in a masterly fashion in this book.  The situation that was thought to be dislocated and lapsed suddenly revives, and we are again faced with the fundamental choice: the world is still divided between the world of Islam and the world of war.  And inside the umma, the only possible existence for the infidel is dhimmitude.

     This leads the author to pose the question which has become so alarming today:  "Dhimmitude of the West"?  After having thus covered thirteen centuries of history, read in the light of this question, we then reach our present situation, acutely feeling its ambiguity and instability.  We misunderstand this situation, for lack of a clear vision of the alternative which, whether explicit or not, existed throughout these centuries and which the present book has the immense merit to analyze rigorously. The author has the courage to examine (summarily, because this is not the purpose of the book) whether a certain number of events, structures and situations that we know in the West do not already derive from a sort of "dhimmitude" of the West vis-a-vis an Islamic world that has resumed its war and its expansion.  Hostage-taking, terrorism, the destruction of Lebanese Christianity, the weakening of the Eastern Churches (not to mention the wish to destroy Israel), and, conversely, Europe's defensive reaction (anti terrorist infrastructure, the psychological impact of intellectual "terrorism", political and legal restraints regarding terrorist blackmail):  all this recalls precisely the resurgence of the traditional policy of Islam.  Indeed, many Muslim governments try to combat the Islamist trend, but to succeed would require a total recasting of mentalities, a desacralization of jihad, a self-critical awareness of Islamic imperialism, an acceptance of the secular nature of political power and the rejection of certain Koranic dogmas.  Of course, after all the changes that we have seen taking place in the Soviet Union it is not unthinkable, but what a global change that would imply:  a change in a whole historical trend and the reform of a remarkably structured religion!  This book thus allows us to take our bearings, so as to understand more easily our present situation, as every genuine historical study should do - without, of course, making artificial comparisons and by remembering that history does not repeat itself.


    1. On this subject, the critical section of the conclusion should be read most carefully: criticism of the apriorisms of a large number of historical works, criticism of the explanations given for the legitimacy of jihad or of the unconditional adoption of Muslim theses. But also the originality consists in noting that the majority of studies are based on what the Arabs themselves have written, without taking into account the sources originating with the subjugated and vanquished peoples. As if the former were necessarily honest and the second biased. After having so often given a hearing to Islam, why not also hear all those conquered, then liberated, peoples of Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and elsewhere? This is the great merit and one of the innovations of this book.

    2. Bat Ye'or, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam, preface by Jacques Ellul, trans. from the French by David Maisel, Paul Fenton, and David Littman (Rutherford, N.J. 1985), 25-33.

    3. See, for example, the collective book, Pierre Viaud, ed., Les Religions et la Guerre. Judaísme, Christianisme, Islam (Paris, 1991).

     4. Concerning this administrative machinery, as this book shows, it can seem somewhat disorganized, but in reality that arises from the extreme complexity of this empire (and once again this book is very "nuanced") since, in reality, there is a large degree of fundamental unity in this system.

Bordeaux, July 1991

Jacques ELLUL died in 1994 at 82. A jurist, historian, theologian and sociologist, he published more than 600 articles and 48 books, many of which were translated into a dozen languages (more than 20 into English). From 1950-70 he was a member of the National Council of the Protestant Reformed Church of France. Professor at the University of Bordeaux, his oeuvre includes studies on medieval European institutions, the effect of modern technology on contemporary society, and moral theology. In American academic circles, he was widely known for "The Technological Society" written in the 1950's (English edition, 1964) and recognized as one of the most prominent of contemporary thinkers.

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