Swords without shades

Swords without shades
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First Published: Fri, Jul 11 2008. 11 59 PM IST

Mistaken identity: The author says jihad should not be understood only through the prism of modern Islamic militant outfits.
Mistaken identity: The author says jihad should not be understood only through the prism of modern Islamic militant outfits.
Updated: Fri, Jul 11 2008. 11 59 PM IST
The historical experiences of Islam and Christianity have led to very different outcomes. Believers of both religions travelled across the world (Marco Polo in Kublai Khan’s realm and Al-Beruni in India are just two examples), but the outcome in terms of awareness about the world was very different. In Europe, it led to the territorialization of faith (there were other faiths, after all). In the lands of Islam, it did not. In Europe, the demise of Latin and the development of vernaculars completed the equation required to seed nationalism at a later date. In West Asia, Arabic continues to hold sway.
Mistaken identity: The author says jihad should not be understood only through the prism of modern Islamic militant outfits.
One cannot pin a cause-and-effect sequence on these developments, but the divergent results are there for all to see. Nationalism in Europe had a different origin, while territorial nationalism in the Arab world was distinctly colonial in its origin (imagine King Ibn Saud and Sir Percy Cox, the British high commissioner of Arabia, poring over a map and drawing lines of “nations”). Modern- day Iraq, Syria and Jordan were “drawn” on the board and not “imagined” by a people. Given these “design” flaws, frustration in this order is understandable.
The turmoil in contemporary West Asia and the resort to jihad as an organizing principle is comprehensible in this light. People will make use of those concepts that are most readily available to them. In any case, due to historical reasons, secular regimes in that part of the world have had serious legitimacy problems, usually of their own creation. That has been a source of Islamist revival. As a result, to argue that the West’s propping of despotic regimes is a cause for revival of jihad is a bit facile. The cause lies elsewhere.
Professor Ayesha Jalal’s argument for South Asian exceptionalism in her book, Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, about what jihad stands for, is very persuasive. The Pakistani-American historian’s marshalling of historical fact and interpretation is as sound as a scholar can make them. She points out that the ethical percept of jihad, which is at the core of religious concerns, was relegated to the margin whenever secular concerns such as reasons of state and power took over. It’s on those occasions that jihad took the bloody overtones that people associate it with today. This was not always the case. The Prophet made a distinction between jihad al-asghar, or the lesser war, and jihad al-akbar, the greater war against those inner forces which prevent man from becoming human in accordance with his primordial and God-given nature.
Restoration of the original meaning of religious, political and philosophical concepts has been an important quest since the beginning of civilization. Jihad is no exception. But is that of any use in the case of a concept that has proved to be so malleable in the first place? As Jalal shows in her book, it took on different meanings depending on the political situation of the day. As a result, one cannot overlook the fact that it became a tool to justify a wide variety of situations. Bernard Lewis in his book The Political Language of Islam illustrates this point very clearly. The innumerable wars of the ridda (apostasy), anti-colonial uprisings (in South Asia) and now Al-Qaeda’s “ethical” arguments have all made use of it. On balance, the history of Islam shows that jihad has mostly meant war in the path of God.
The problem does not end there. Jalal looks at modern-day revivalists, such as Abul Ala Mawdudi in Pakistan, who promoted a militant, war-like interpretation of jihad. Their intent was clearly political, though they took care to meld their interpretation with religious concerns. These have, clearly, proved to be tools in the hands of terrorists who seek legitimacy by claiming their actions to be a jihad.
Why does a concept that has caused so much confusion continue to be central to a religion? Why cannot it be done away with? What would be served even if the original meaning of jihad was restored? Can the close link between jihad and power ever be severed? Perhaps it’s unfair to demand these answers from Jalal, who, after all, has a much narrower focus in mind.
The book takes us from pre-colonial South Asia to British rule, when jihad acquired an anti-colonial meaning. The journey continues to present-day India and Pakistan and the legacy of encouragement jihad received in Pakistan. In all this, things seem to have turned full circle. For the medieval theologian, Shah Waliullah, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the concept seems to have the same meaning, though the political context has changed. Waliullah lived in a period (1703-1762) when Muslim rule in India had not been eclipsed.
The Lashkar exists in a different time. Yet, both experienced a sense of decline and decay. Both took recourse to a militant meaning of jihad. The author thinks otherwise: She argues that Islam has been subverted by terrorists. It has been. But the ease with which they have mutated concepts such as jihad only underscores the fluid nature of the concept.
Jalal’s book would have been far more interesting had she tried to answer the religious source of this fluidity and then looked at the historical environment that made its realization possible.
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First Published: Fri, Jul 11 2008. 11 59 PM IST
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