The professor says her student - who she calls Fulan - was indoctrinated in Wahabbism while being educated in Saudi Arabia, and came back with a huge amount of respect for Ibn Kathir, a 14th-century Muslim scholar whose work is readily available in most Muslim bookshops and mosques even in the UK. She says that Fulan was preoccupied with Ibn Kathir's discussion of the so-called "Verse of the Sword" from the Qur'an: "When the sacred months have passed, then slay the polytheists wherever you may encounter them." (9:5)
Having already told us that we should never get the impression that Islam and the Qur'an are monolithic and only subject to a single valid interpretation, Asma immediately tells us, in black and white terms, that the correct interpretation is that this verse "was directed specifically at the Meccan polytheists who had attacked the Prophet Muhammad and his small community of Muslims in the seventh century." End of story, apparently. She also adds towards the end of the piece: "One could conclude that Ibn Kathir and Ibn Taymiyyah's [another famous Muslim scholar who mentored Ibn Kathir] views were as strident as they were because of the dangerous times they lived in. The Islamic world was under siege during their period by foreign aggressors who could only be effectively repelled by a military counterattack. These two scholars were not speaking for all Muslims everywhere for all time."
The claim that the Verse of the Sword was only ever intended to apply to the Muslims Muhammad was fighting in the seventh century is entirely the professor's interpretation, and is not backed up by centuries of exegetical and juristic tradition. But more than that, she is also not even telling the truth when she says that these renowned Islamic scholars only ever meant to apply the verse's strictures to their own military situations.
Here is part of what Ibn Kathir says about the verse:
These Ayat [verses] allowed fighting people [not just Mongols or any specific group, just 'people' ~ Ed] unless, and until, they embrace Islam and implement its rulings and obligations...This honorable Ayah (9:5) was called [i.e. BEFORE Ibn Kathir! ~ Ed] the Ayah of the Sword, about which Ad-Dahhak bin Muzahim said, "It abrogated every agreement of peace between the Prophet and any idolator, every treaty, and every term.'' Al-`Awfi said that Ibn `Abbas commented: "No idolator had any more treaty or promise of safety ever since Surah Bara'ah [chapter 9 of the Qur'an] was revealed [i.e. in perpetuity ~ Ed].
Clearly, then Ibn Kathir was not just talking about fighting any specific enemies the Muslims might have had in his day, but about all infidels who do not yet "embrace Islam and implement its rulings and obligations" - especially since he also says in his commentary on this verse that idolaters should be killed "on the earth in general", indicating that he envisioned jihads being waged against people who had never even made contact with Muslims, let alone threatened them.
The same thing is evident in the writings of Ibn Taymiyya. For example:
Since jihad is divinely instituted, and its goal is that religion reverts entirely to Allah and to make Allah's word triumph, whoever opposes the realisation of this goal will be fought, according to the unanimous opinion of Muslims. Jews and Christians, as well as Zoroastrians (Magians), must be fought until they embrace Islam or pay the jizya without recriminations. Jurisconsults do not agree on the question of knowing if the jizya should be imposed on other categories of infidels; on the other hand, all consider that it should not be required of Arabs [hence they should convert to Islam or be killed or expelled].
Note that he doesn't say that only Mongols should be fought, but that "whoever" stands in the way of the total domination of Islam should be fought, including Jews and Christians.
Asma says that she managed to convince Fulan not to listen to Ibn Kathir or Ibn Taymiyyah by reading the writings of "many different scholars" who apparently disagreed with their interpretation of the Qur'an, but she does not mention who they are or what kind of influence they had, or continue to have.
Next, she goes on to lament the fact that Fulan was ignoring "other scholars who emphasized spiritual and intellectual striving as important components of jihad. After all, jihad in its basic meaning signifies 'struggle' or 'striving,' which can be carried out in different ways." That is true, of course, when it comes to jihad as a mere Arabic word, but it remains the case that jihad of the sword was always the predominant meaning of the term within Islamic theology. The nineteenth-century British Orientalist E.W. Lane, whose work is admired by both native Arab and non-Arab speakers, carefully studied the etymology of the word jihad, and concluded that it “came to be used by the Muslims to signify generally he fought, warred, or waged war, against unbelievers and the like.” Even Al-Azhar University, the highest educational and spiritual authority in Sunni Islam, has emphasised the same thing:
The word 'Jihad' means exerting all efforts. It means also struggling hard until you feel exhausted. To strive against the enemy is to fight him. Jihad – from the viewpoint of religion – means exerting all efforts in repelling the enemies and in fighting them. Jihad is an Islamic word which other Nations use in the meaning of 'war'.
Interestingly, the professor cites another contemporary of Ibn Kathir - Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, who she says "wrote a beautiful moving treatise describing the inner spiritual struggle as a continuous feature of jihad. Needless to say, this particular work is ignored by militants and apparently was not part of the texts that my student had been exposed to in Saudi Arabia."
The problem with this is that whatever Ibn Qayyim wrote about spiritual jihad, he still also wrote that "jihad is obligatory until the word of Allah reigns supreme, and until all are of the religion of Allah, until the religion of Allah triumphs over all religions and until they [infidels] pay the poll tax while in a state of inferiority.” It is entirely possible for Muslims to believe passionately in the importance of both spiritual and violent jihad without contradiction. Needless to say, Asma Afsaruddin ignores this fact, and this text of Ibn Qayyim's.
Next she observes that "Interpretations of law, whether religious or secular, are always influenced by specific historical and cultural contexts." That might be true, but it also ignores the fact that the jurists of Islamic law long ago declared its interpretation to be fixed and unalterable, in line with the idea that the "gates of ijtihad" - independent reasoning and reform of sharia - are closed and will remain forever thus. The professor might disagree with that, and that's fine, but it will do no good to just pretend that "mainstream Muslims" all believe that we can reinterpret Islamic law however we want as the cultural and social winds change, because that's just not the case.
At the end of the day, if the professor truly did manage to convince her young Muslim student to look at Islam in a less radical way by using these arguments, that's all to the good. However, I can't help thinking that her dishonest presentation of the facts wouldn't stack up well against someone better informed, and that if I can pick holes in her argument, then a slick, sophisticated jihadi recruiter would probably be able to pick ten more.