Islamic Studies Al-Qaeda
Natana DeLong-Bas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0065


Al-Qaeda, meaning “The Base,” refers broadly to a group fighting a declared global jihad of holy war against the West, Zionism, and certain Arab regimes with the proclaimed aim of defeating them and placing “Islam” in a position of power, both politically and ideologically. Scholars and analysts differ in opinion as to whether al-Qaeda is an organization with centralized control and command, an umbrella organization that includes a variety of jihadist-minded smaller organizations or movements in different locations, a franchise operation with limited centralized control, or simply a figment of Western imagination that was constructed in order to put a face on the ideology being fought in the ongoing War on Terror.

General Overviews

There are many general texts addressing the concept of jihad from a historical perspective. Some, such as Esposito 1998 and Voll 1994, provide a broad historical context for understanding the rise of jihadism. Bonney 2004 and Cook 2005 discuss the concept of jihad historically, while Furnish 2005 provides analysis of Mahdist movements in history. All include specific references to al-Qaeda.

  • Bonney, Richard. Jihad: From Qurʾan to bin Laden. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

    A comprehensive historical analysis of the text and meanings, contextual theories, and ideological interpretations of jihad, including Sunni, Shiʿi, and Sufi interpretations and global coverage. Encyclopedic in detail, it reflects a multiplicity of interpretations with sensitivity to time period, geographical location, and political need.

  • Cook, David. Understanding Jihad. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

    A comprehensive account of the historical development of the concept of jihad, both greater and lesser, that nevertheless focuses on the lesser jihad of military activity. It includes some contemporary translated primary documents, mostly related to al-Qaeda.

  • Esposito, John L. Islam and Politics. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Provides case studies of a variety of political movements globally, including both those based on jihad and those based on other political ideologies.

  • Furnish, Timothy R. Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.

    Analysis of interpretations of the Mahdi throughout Islamic history. Focuses on identifying the signs of the rise of the Mahdi in the contemporary era and what this means to al-Qaeda in particular.

  • Voll, John O. Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

    Provides a broad world historical approach to developments in Islamic thought and practice, placing the rise of jihadism within its world historical context.

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