Since the Islamic resurgence began to make news, the Islamic idea of holy war, or "jihad", has been the subject of tremendous media attention - much of it sensationalistic. This study attempts to discover where and when the idea of jihad originated, and to trace its early development. Firestone finds no evidence for religiously motivated warring in pre-Islamic Arabian cultures, or indeed for ideological warring of any kind, despite the common occurrence of intertribal raids and warring as a normal part of an ancient Arabian life. He seeks to discover the forces in early Islam that precipitated this powerful and successful war concept. Tracing the social and historical changes experienced during the transition from pre-Islamic Arabian culture to the religious civilization of Islam, Firestone concludes that, at base, jihad is an indigenous Arabian phenomenon. It resulted, he says, from the mixture of old Arabian culture with innovations in the traditional social structure and world view engendered by the introduction of Islamic monotheism.
The cauldron in which this mixture produced its new product, says Firestone, was Medina, where the various forces came together in the formation of the religious community of Muslims known as the Umma. This historical reconstruction challenges the traditional "evolutionary theory" of holy war, which was first established by medieval Muslim scholars and has until now been accepted uncritically by Western scholarship. In its place Firestone offers a far more nuanced understanding, based on careful philological analysis of Islamic texts in conjunction with the application of contemporary methodologies in anthropology, history, and the study of religion. His analysis goes far towards explaining not only why the young Islamic polity was so successful militarily, but how the disparate populations that made up the followers of Muhammed came together as a cohesive movement in which religious identity replaced ancient kinship patterns as the basis of group loyalty.