Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia By Ayesha Jalal, Permanent Black, Rs 695
Ayesha Jalal (picture) could not have written a more timely and better book. It is also the book that those of us who have admired and respected her previous works expected her to write.
In the contemporary world, Islam is inevitably seen as a monolith: fundamentalist, combative and violent. For many, it has come to represent evil. Many believers in Islam have aided and abetted this process, to the extent that the fact that Islam had other voices, which emphasized that it was essentially a religion of peace, has come to be forgotten. Simplification has taken the place of close textual reading and analysis. The image of the mad mullah has overwhelmed that of the calm and peace-loving Sufi saint. The martyr dying a violent death for a cause has taken over as the aspiration of many young Muslims. No one, these days, talks about the inner struggle to be human.
Jalal tries to correct this perception. She knows though that it is a thankless task to break the stereotypes that Islam has manufactured for itself, and the one the enemies of Islam have ingrained in their minds. Thankless or not, the facts have to be stated and Jalal has done so with great lucidity and sophistication. This is no mean achievement, since the subject is complex and overlaid with contesting interpretations.
From the point of view of the historian’s craft, what is very significant about Jalal’s book is the fine way she handles the interplay between text and context. This is critical for her analysis and exposition since the meaning of the word, jihad, has shifted according to historical contexts. This makes it all the more important to note that the Arabic word, jihad, literally meant “striving for a worthy and ennobling cause”. That word has today come to mean “holy war” against non-Muslims. This is ironic since the meaning of Islam is salam or peace. The original connotations of the word, jihad, had very strong ethical underpinnings. This got lost as Islam engaged in political and ideological battles with other faiths and people of other faiths.
In South Asia, Jalal argues that a concept like jihad departed from its West Asian and Central Asian roots. The departure, however, took place very early in the history of Islam. Jalal locates it in the Kharajite controversy in the first century of Islam. The Kharajite sect defined jihad as legitimate violence against the enemies of Islam, both internal and external. These views met with opposition from those who later became part of the Sunni orthodoxy and for the moment the extreme views of the Kharajite sect were forced to retreat.
However, Islamic law, fiqh — “the main source of both the Muslim and the western understanding of jihad” — detached itself from the ethical concerns that had informed the Quran. The meaning of jihad came to be reduced. This reduction had a historical context. The wars of conquest of the Umayyad (661-750) and Abbasid (750-1258) dynasties “induced Muslim legists to define jihad as armed struggle and to divorce law from ethics.” The extolling of jihad as armed struggle in the Hadith only strengthened this interpretation. In this process, many of the Prophet’s own injunctions were lost. This glossing over reveals, as Jalal rightly notes, “an omission that in itself reveals the mindset of the compilers and the political climate of the times.” This became the dominant view within and without Islam. The contemporary demonization of Islam is to an extent derived from this.
India, during the Sultanate and the Mughal period, the high noon of the political dominance of Islam, was seen as Dar ul Islam, an abode of peace, where jihad could not be waged. But when the loss of Muslim sovereignty loomed in the 18th century, a redefinition of jihad occurred. The writings of Shah Waliullah (1703-1762), a scholar based in Delhi, worked out the most systematic theory of jihad in South Asia in this historical context. It was this theory that Sayyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly tried to execute in the early 19th century in the north-west frontier of the subcontinent against the Sikhs. It is precisely in this area that the activities of today’s Islamic radicals have led to the demonization and the mytholization of Islam.
There were many differing voices though: the poet Ghalib, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Maulvi Chiragh Ali and others. The impact of the westernizing policies of British rulers gave a new urgency to the redefinition of jihad and to the projects to reform Muslim society in India. The theme of Islamic humanism was never lost in South Asia: it resonated in the universalist dreams of Sayyid Jamaluddin al-Afghani (1839-1897), and in the writings and politics of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.
In analytical terms, Jalal maintains a distinction between the religious meaning and the temporal use of the idea of jihad. She thus successfully retrieves the concept’s Quranic roots and then traces how the meaning and its application changed through Islam’s various temporal concerns in South Asia.
Jalal’s book is significant not only because of its theme, but also because of its rich interweaving of the history of ideas and the history of politics. It is a work of outstanding and committed scholarship that will outlive its obvious contemporary relevance.