Are Muslim suicide bombers mujahideen (holy warriors) who participate in jihad and become shahidin (martyrs)? Or are they mufsidoon (evil-doers) engaged in hirabah (unholy war against society) and heading not to paradise but to jahannam (eternal hellfire)?
Muslims originally used the term hirabah to condemn vicious attacks by members of barbarian tribes who murdered or enslaved those they fought and defeated. Such barbarians engaged in "war against society," often attacking -- as do today's terrorists - without discriminating between soldiers and civilians.
Muslim terrorists say they are not mufsidoon because the civilian adults they kill are aiding and abetting fighters against Islam, and because the children they kill would grow up to become aggressors. How many other Muslims follow that train of thought? The question of definition-jihad or hirabah-is crucial for Muslims, but most Americans are unaware of the debate.
Early in 2003 I search Lexis-Nexis and found seven references to hirabah in the previous 90 days and thousands to jihad. Islamic scholars were debating, though. For example, Ezzeddin Ibrahim of the United Arab Emirates stated that "what occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, is one of the most loathsome of crimes, which in Islam goes under the name of al-hirabah."
Similarly, Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic Studies at American University, said that "al-Qaeda's brand of suicide mass murder and its fomenting of hatred among races, religions, and cultures do not constitute godly or holy jihad-but, in fact, constitute the heinous crime and sin of unholy hirabah." Tamman Adi, director of the Islamic Cultural Center in Eugene, Ore., also argued that "the masterminds of international terrorism are not fighting a jihad, they are hirabah thugs."
I searched Lexis-Nexis again yesterday and found only three references to hirabah over the past 90 days, versus 719 references to jihad in the past week alone. But when we use the word jihad in relation to terrorism, our choice of words honors an activity that should instead be given the dishonorable ID of hirabah.