Tracing jihod and shahid through local narratives in TajikistanThe last decade has seen a wealth of literature on the topic of jihad(struggle, war) and shahid (martyr) based on theological discussions, historical documents and internet reports, making yet another study seem almost superfluous. My approach here is of a more anthropological nature in the sense that I base my work on people’s ideas and concepts regardless of whether they are scientists, religious personnel, political actors or ordinary people. This allows me to take other lines of continuity and discontinuity in the debate than theological texts and their authors would allow. Although these texts still influence Tajik religious authorities, I look only marginally at their textual references, concentrating instead on the (re)production of concepts.

While we (in the west) may share a special interest in terms like jihad (struggle, war) as key terms in the American war against Islamic terrorism, we should bear in mind that jihad is of far less significance to the majority of Tajik people today. In other words, we are dealing here with ‘exceptionalism’ rather than a widespread concept. As a result of its close link to the global discourse on ‘terrorism’, however, most people now have some awareness of jihad. If, on the other hand, we are to understand its local dynamics, we first need to forget the notion of jihad that has dominated western journalism since the early 2000s. Focusing on local narratives allows us to uncover the social dimension behind shahid and the specific historical periods in which jihad became meaningful to ordinary people. Hence the modest aim of this paper is to explore local ideas of the terms jihad and shahid, and trace their development in Tajikistan rather than to engage in a more general religious history.

I begin with a short introduction to a Mujohid Handbook that I came across my fieldwork. Although the book is of merely minor interest in the light of today’s global jihad literature (due to the abundance of Arabic literature), it is nonetheless a historical document. We have to understand Tajikistan in the interesting paradox of being a population of Persian speakers who have used the Cyrillic alphabet since the 1940s. Both the script and the language of Arabic literature must therefore be translated. This linguistic barrier has often been underestimated in the imagined flow of religious ideas between Tajiks and Afghans.

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