Partisans of Allah

Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia by Ayesha Jalal. Harvard University Press, 2008, US$29.95.

Before killing thirteen Indian soldiers in his quest for eternal life, a young Islamic militant wrote:

We drink the wine of martyrdom, swaying in ecstasy;
This living is not living—we live by getting our heads cut off.
We love to receive the gifts of our religion;
When we bequeath gifts, it is of our lives.

Perhaps the mujahid was quoting the Islamic tradition “tuhfat al-mu’min al-maut”, “The boon for the believer is death”. More likely he was a product of one of the numerous Pakistani militias described by Ayesha Jalal, which preach jihad “in the path of God” as the means of gaining the ultimate honour of martyrdom for their devotees and political power for themselves:

By lauding death on the field of battle as the highest service to Islam, the militias have created a compelling incentive, the promise that jihadis can attain worldly status and religious virtuesimultaneously. This perception has dramatically altered Pakistan’s cultural ethos. Young men, and some women too, long to die for their religion. Martyrs’ families are promised material comforts, respect, and the greatest reward of all—a guaranteed place in paradise. Parents, who are encouraged to send their sons to battle Hindu infidels, celebrate news of their death by distributing sweets and offering prayers of thanksgiving to Allah.

Partisans of Allah repays careful reading. However, it is not for the thin-skinned among former colonial masters of the sub-continent and beyond. Nor is it for the faint-hearted among uncritical or selective apologists for Islam as a religion of peace. Despite lyrical praise on the dust-jacket from fellow authors and scholars it raises more questions than it answers.

Radical Islamists who trouble to read it will undoubtedly find much to criticise, as will many “devout” Muslims not used to hearing some of the views that are aired, for instance, on women’s rights, on the role of the “ulema” and on the place of the Shari‘a in Islam. Non-Muslims, too, will be puzzled. Not just by some of the author’s key assumptions about the Qur’an and jihad in particular, which do not stand up well to scrutiny, but also by the difficulty one encounters disentangling her views from those of the rich array of characters who people her book. Nevertheless, one regrets that Partisans of Allah wasn’t written before the USA became enmeshed in the Iraq and Afghan theatres of the inaptly-named “War Against Terror”.

Granted the difficulty native-born Muslim players have in understanding the parameters and long-term consequences of the dangerous “game” called “jihad”, one can only marvel at the temerity of non-Islamic foreigners who rush in where local people fear to tread.

Jalal offers an analysis of jihad in theory and in practice that contains insights helpful to outsiders by an insider—she is a Pakistani, born into a prominent Muslim family. The reader is given an—admittedly selective—overview of multi-faceted Islam in the context of the Indian sub-continent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and of Pakistan after Independence.

Had this book appeared long before September 11, the USA and its allies may not have had to discover the hard way that not much has changed in the tribal areas of Afghanistan or the Punjab since well before the days of the Raj; and even more importantly, that no amount of sophisticated electronic weaponry or gadgetry can substitute for “a man on the ground”. The same, mutatis mutandis, can be said for Iraq.

For all the reservations this reviewer may have, Jalal has done Muslims and non-Muslims a service by unravelling sections of this complex mosaic of Islam in South Asia. I agree with Vali Nasr that it is a “compelling historical narrative”. Jalal describes some of the principal thinkers and power-brokers who have for a multiplicity of reasons altered the social and political landscape of the region, and of the wider Islamic world.

Having carefully laid the foundations, Jalal then contends that ultimately it is they—and their allegedly distorted view of Qur’anic teaching—that contributed to the region’s present-day volatility. At this point we leave the relatively calm waters of historiography, and enter the Bermuda Triangle of wishful thinking, conflict of interest and—however well-meant—over-simplification.

Her book sets out to establish that while there are violent Islamists who perpetrate acts of terrorism, there is no such thing as “Islamic terrorism”. Jalal declares the perception by Muslims and non-Muslims of the notion of jihad in the Qur’an as “ideological warfare against non-Muslims”, to be “a hopeless distortion of a concept that is the core principle of Islamic faith and ethics”.

Western “experts” (sic!) generally receive a trouncing. A “strand of Orientalist scholarship” is accused of giving credence to “simplistic divisions between the Islamic and non-Islamic traditions”. “Western spokes-persons of several political and academic institutions” are accused of “erecting walls of religious opposition” in order to “disguise their political bias against Islam”.

The only “Orientalist” to gain the author’s approval is Gottlieb Leitner, a Hungarian Christian and a linguistic prodigy who supports her principal thesis. But what about another Hungarian, a Jew, the great Ignaz Goldziher, whose attraction to Islam was undisguised, whose scholarly objectivity is unexceptionable, and whose views on jihad differ from Jalal’s:

the land of war … includes all regions among whose inhabitants unbelief still rules although the summons [da‘wa] to embrace Islam has been carried to them. It is the duty of the head of the Islamic state to levy war on such territories. That is jihad, the holy war ordered in the Qur’an, one of the surest paths to martyrdom.

And what about David Samuel Margoliouth. He was a brilliant Arabist who, like Goldziher, was writing unencumbered by the baggage of political correctness:

The claim of Islam to dominate all other religions led to a division of the world which was merely an expansion of that which had its beginnings in Meccah, into “the home of Islam” and “the home of war”: any non-Muslim state which claimed independence was ipso facto at war with the Islamic state. The jihad, war for the subjection of unbelievers, became a duty of the Islamic government, in the Prophet’s time at Medinah incumbent on all Muslims physically capable of taking part in it, at a later time reckoned among duties incumbent on the community as a whole. In quite recent times a Muslim sect has come into existence which regards jihad as a struggle only with spiritual foes.

While Jalal’s book is replete with examples of what she describes as “deviations” from Qur’anic ethical purity concerning jihad, it is light on convincing argument that the Kharajites (whom she blames for mud-dying the waters of jihad) were wrong in their interpretation of the Qur’an; and that “none of the early Muslim legal schools endorsed [the Kharajite] position” on jihad. Citing Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111) Jalal quotes from a hadith according to which

upon returning from one of the early wars in defense of the newly established community, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have told his companions that they had come back from waging jihad al-asghar, or the lesser war, to fight the jihad al-akbar, or the greater war, against those base inner forces which prevent man from becoming human in accordance with his primordial and God-given nature.

It should be noted that the terms “lesser jihad” and “greater jihad” are not Qur’anic. They are especially found among Shi‘ite writers who see the “spiritual” jihad as the greater (jihad al-akbar) and the “physical” jihad as the lesser (jihad al-asghar).

Nobody seriously doubts the greater difficulty involved in spiritual self-control and self-denial (jihad al-nafs) over that involved in waging physical war. War is often the soft option. Peace requires humility, forgiveness, mercy, compassion and a whole swathe of other virtues not usually on the curriculum of military academies or terrorist camps.

Even if Muhammad actually said what is attributed to him by al-Ghazali, it would have no bearing on Jalal’s claim that the only jihad that is imposed on Muslims according to the Qur’an is the jihad al-akbar fi sabil allah, that is, the so-called “ethical” jihad against the self “for the sake of Allah”.

In al-Ghazali’s “hadith”, Muhammad does not reprove the mujahidun for waging the jihad al-asghar. He simply notes that they will find self-discipline even more onerous. Jalal makes much of the fact that this hadith is not found in the major collections of Muhammad’s sayings made “during the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates”. She claims that this “reveals the mindset of the compilers and the political climate of the time”.

To the best of this reviewer’s knowledge, none of the major collections of hadith was made until around 200 years after Muhammad’s death. The Umayyad dynasty had long ceased to exist (apart from the rump Caliphate in Andalusia) when Muhammad bin Isma’il al-Bukhari commenced his collection around 854 AD. Moreover, to claim that the hadith’s non-inclusion in the major collections was because of the “mindset of the compilers and the political climate of the time” is to beg the question. It could also be true that the hadith was composed much later than the collection of Muslim bin Hajjaj al-Naishapuri (the last of the compilers of what are considered “authentic” hadiths) who died in 875 AD, and that the reason for its composition was a well-meant desire (like the one that pervades Ayesha Jalal’s book) to absolve the Qur’an of any complicity in the violence against non-Muslims that was endemic at the time and is on the rise now.

Nothing in Partisans of Allah cogently rebuts the commonly held opinion that there are four categories into which the often contradictory texts concerning jihad in the Qur’an fall:

1. Those that extend an invitation (da‘wah) by peaceful means to embrace Islam;
2. Those that approve fighting to repel aggressors;
3. Those that permit Muslims to initiate an attack on enemies, provided it is not within the four sacred months;
4. Those that permit Muslims to initiate an attack “absolutely, at all times and in all places”.

The first two categories date from the Meccan period and have been abrogated, along with the third. However much we may wish it were otherwise, the last category alone remains: “The fight [jihad] is obligatory even when they [the unbelievers] have not themselves started it.”

There is another problem with the rendition of the “hadith” to which Jalal refers. It is not a direct quote from Book 3, page 58 of Fazl ul-Karim’s translation from Urdu of the passage in al-Ghazali’s The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya ‘ulum ad-din) where it occurs; it is a paraphrase. But with significant interpolations. The text Jalal paraphrased reads as follows:

When some people returned from jehad, our Prophet said: Thanks to you! You have returned from little jehad to a greater jehad. He was asked: O Prophet of God, what is greater jehad? He said: Fight with passion is a greater jehad. The Prophet said: He who makes effects in divine service is a Mujahed [fighter]. He also asked: Keep your soul away from the harmful things and don’t run after your evil desires in violation of God’s commands. If you do it, it will dispute with you on the resurrection day.

There is no reference in Fazl ul-Karim’s translation from the Urdu, to the Prophet Muhammad’s “returning from one of the early wars in defense of the newly established community. Nor does this appear in al-Ghazali’s original Arabic. The Arabic reads: “Our Prophet said to a group that had come back from the jihad: ‘Welcome. You have come back from the lesser jihad, to the greater jihad’.”

Jalal’s interpolation, like much else in Partisans of Allah, begs the question. Putting words in al-Ghazali’s mouth weakens rather than strengthens Jalal’s case that the “violent Islamist Jihadists of the present and recent generations are a minority aberration”.

Other data are equally unconvincing. The author declares, for instance, that there are “1.8 billion Muslims in the world”. No sources are given. Caution is necessary when dealing with Muslim population numbers. In 1998 claimed that Muslims were 2.9 per cent of the Australian population, and numbered 382,000. Neither figure was correct. The 2001 census figures showed there to be 281,600 Muslims in Australia, representing 1.5 per cent of the total population.

Jalal’s principal purpose in writing Partisans of Allah seems to have been to prove that the greater jihad (jihad al-akbar) “is the moving principle of Muslim faith and ethics”, and that an ethics based on the Qur’an was frustrated after the death of Muhammad by the emphasis placed by the community on external actions and ritual, while leaving the “domain of inner conscience to the individual”. She blames the need to legitimise the wars of conquest for the definition of jihad as armed struggle, and the divorcing of law from ethics. And she declares that “semantically, jahada cannot be interpreted as armed struggle, much less holy war, without twisting its Quranic meaning”.

At this point she would have lost the perceptive reader. Jahada is the root of the word jihad. It appears forty times in the Qur’an—under a variety of grammatical forms. With the exception of Suras 6109, 1640, 2453 and 3542, all the other usages are variations of the third form of the verb, that is, jahida which in the Qur’an and in subsequent Islamic understanding meant and means “he fought, warred or waged war against unbelievers and the like”.

Because, in the first form, the verb jahada may mean simply “he exerted himself, he strove” one finds that euphemisms abound in almost all editions of the Qur’an intended for non-Muslims when translating the meaning of the third form. Apologists claim, as Jalal does, that jihad in the Qur’an primarily refers to “spiritual asceticism” and not militarism. Readers unfamiliar with Arabic are offered strive or struggle, or some other neutral word, as a translation of the verb used in the third form, that is, jahida. The reality is, regrettably, otherwise.

Jalal attributes emphasis on “the material facets of warfare—the division of spoils, the treatment of non-Muslims, and the rules of conduct for the Muslim army” —to “classical juridical texts” that “skirted around the moral and spiritual meanings of jihad”. Yet the Qur’an abounds in references to warfare: conscription; the purpose of warfare, treatment of prisoners, hostages, booty, and so on. The Qur’an has more than forty-four instances of the root q-t-l—“to kill”, “to murder”, “to massacre”, and “to fight”.

In the 1950s, long before the current interest in fundamentalist Islam, the noted scholar E. Tynan wrote in the Encyclopaedia of Islam:

there is, at the present time, a thesis of a wholly apologetic character, according to which Islam relies for its expansion exclusively upon persuasion and other peaceful means, and the djihad is only authorised in cases of “self defence” and of “support owed to a defenceless ally or brother”. Disregarding entirely the previous doctrine and historical tradition, as well as the texts of the Kur’an and the sunna on the basis of which it was formulated, but claiming even so, to remain within the bounds of strict orthodoxy, this thesis takes into account only those early texts which state the contrary.

Like many before her, Ayesha Jalal has sought in vain the King Solomon’s Mines of the Islamic liberal thinker: a Qur’an that is unequivocally peace-loving, just and merciful. Her assumption that the Qur’an surely could not be what her book shows that she fears it to be, is refuted by ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Mohammad, also known as Ibn Khaldun, in the fourteenth century. Jews and Christians, he says, find it difficult to grasp the nature of Islam because in these other religions there is no divine obligation to use force to make other people submit to their authority, as in Islam.

There is much that is admirable in Partisans of Allah. It has thrown valuable light on the history of Islam in South Asia. Regrettably it is not, pace Vali Nasr, “by far the best intellectual history of jihad”.

Fr Paul Stenhouse contributed “Islam’s Trojan Horse?” to the December 2007 issue.

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