Why Yasir Qadhi Wants to Talk About Jihad

To many young Muslims wrestling with conflicts between faith and country, Yasir Qadhi is a rock star. To law-enforcement agents, he is also a figure of interest, given his prominence in a community considered vulnerable to radicalization. Some officials, noting his message of nonviolence, also see him as an ally. Others were wary, recalling a time when Qadhi spouted a much harder, less tolerant line.

Qadhi’s platform is the AlMaghrib Institute, where he serves as academic dean. Founded in 2002 by Muhammad Alshareef, a Canadian cleric then living in Alexandria, Va., AlMaghrib is now an international enterprise, offering seminars in the United States, Canada and Britain. It reported nearly $1.2 million in revenue in 2009 and aspires to become a full-time Islamic seminary, albeit with an air of corporate America.

In the spectrum of the global Salafi movement, Qadhi, who is 36, speaks for the nonmilitant majority. Yet even as he has denounced Islamist violence — too late, some say — a handful of AlMaghrib’s former students have heeded the call. In addition to the underwear-bomb suspect, the 36,000 current and former students of Qadhi’s institute include Daniel Maldonado, a New Hampshire convert who was convicted in 2007 of training with an Al Qaeda-linked militia in Somalia; Tarek Mehanna, a 28-year-old pharmacist arrested for conspiring to attack Americans; and two young Virginia men held in Pakistan in 2009 for seeking to train with militants.

There are several kinds of jihad, which is translated to mean “striving in the path of God.” While progressive Muslims emphasize the spiritual form, Qadhi and other conservatives say that the majority of the Koran’s references to jihad are to military struggle. Qadhi’s interpretation makes him neither a hardline militant nor a pure pacifist. While he unequivocally denounces violence against civilians, he believes Muslims have the right to defend themselves from attack. But he says “offensive jihad”— the spread of the Islamic state by force — is permissible only when ordered by a legitimate caliph, or global Muslim ruler, which is nonexistent in today’s world.