Bonney acknowledges that "the traditional reading of the Qur'an outlines four ‘stages'" in the development of the concept of jihad within Islam. These "arose from the historical development in which the Prophet found himself. … The final stage came with the Divine command of Allah enjoining the Prophet and his followers to wage war against the unbelievers unconditionally." He then provides a generally useful survey of the historical and juridical development of this concept in Islamic history, including an examination of the idea of jihad in the hadith (accounts of Muhammad's words and deeds) and the classical jurists; the development of jihad as a state system by the Ottomans, Safavid Persians, and Mughals; Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and Wahhabism; and the much-overlooked area of jihad in the period of the colonial powers. Bonney concludes his survey with an evaluation of the jihad theories of Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Abu A‘la Mawdudi, Osama bin Laden, and other pivotal figures of the modern era.
The author amasses an impressive array of material but seems at a loss as to what to do with it. He is at his best when reporting the facts and at his worst when evaluating their significance. His analysis is superficial as when he dismisses the idea that Islam is a "religion of the sword" because it "contravenes the clear Qur'anic precept that ‘there is no coercion in religion' (Q.2:256)," but he does not even mention Qutb's argument contending that this verse in no way contradicts his overall schema of jihadist imperialism and Shari‘a supremacism. In a volume such as Bonney's, ostensibly dedicated to bringing to light how modern-day mujahideen such as bin Laden situate their Islamic appeals within traditional Islamic thought, this is a gaping omission—and it is by no means the only one. Bonney's book, while useful as a guide to various sources, ultimately fails and even misleads as it consistently underestimates the power of the jihadist appeal among modern Muslims even while demonstrating the strong traditional roots of that appeal.