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Sunday, February 15, 2009

A G Noorani: Review of Ayesha Jalal's Partisan's of Allah

The highest form of jehad is to speak the truth in the face of an unjust ruler.” This one saying of Prophet Muhammad suffices to demolish the myth about jehad, fostered, alike, by the fundamentalists and very many in the West and, not to overlook, in India. Ijtihad (reason) is one of the recognised sources of Islamic law, the sharia. Ijtihad is jehad of the mind. Jehad means exertion.

Ayesha Jalal renders a service by her erudite study of jehad in Islam; the perversion of the concept by the ulema (clergy) in the service of rulers as they embarked on military campaigns of imperialist expansion, armed with fatwas (rulings) sanctioning them as jehad in the cause of Islam; the invocation of jehad in the struggle for freedom from colonial rule; and its cynical revival in our times by bodies such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Al Qaeda.

The focus is on South Asia. The author, born in Pakistan, is the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University in the United States. She is a highly respected historian of South Asia. Unlike some expatriate scholars, including many from India, who act as apologists for their country, Ayesha Jalal rightly prides herself on her detachment and objectivity. It would, however, be unjust to her work to concentrate on her strictures on the Lashkar and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and neglect her thesis, which constitutes its core.

It was in the desire to gain a deep understanding of religion as faith that she launched her research for the book: “My exploration of the literature on the subject immediately brought home to me the intrinsic connection between the concept of jehad as endeavour and the Muslim faith. Far from being a passive and mindless activity, submission (Islam) assumes dynamic effort and reasoned self-control against the personal inclinations and social tendencies preventing a believer from heeding God’s commands, and thereby destroying any internal or external sense of balance and proportion…. It is commonplace to assert that the sacred and the temporal in Islam are inextricably intertwined. However, the interplay of ethics and politics in the unfolding of Muslim history has not been subjected to critical scrutiny. One way of remedying that oversight is to train the spotlight on the much-contested idea of jehad and its practice. To what extent was a concept that is at the heart of Islamic ethics transformed in shifting historical contexts as a consequence of temporal imperatives?”

The author discusses jehad in pre-colonial South Asia: the jehad waged by Sayyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly (1786–1831), jehad in colonial India and as anti-colonial nationalism. The last chapter is on the subversion of the concept as a justification for terrorism. With her familiarity with the primary sources in Urdu, she brings to life the debates conducted by the adherents and the critics. Particularly useful for the English reader is her discussion of Sayyid Ahmed, who fell in battle at Balakot, about 18 miles (29 kilometres) from Manshera in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Among the first militant groups that surfaced in Kashmir in 1989 was Operation Balakot of Azan Inquilabi. Such was the hold that Sayyid Ahmed’s example had come to acquire over the minds of the jehad-prone. It is, however, to the very first chapter, “Jihad as Ethics, Jihad as War”, that the reader must pay particular attention.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali is one of the great authorities on Islamic thought. “Like the Sufis, he focusses on the inner spiritual jehad, which he likens to a battle between the armies of good and evil. Good conduct based on self-control and sincere effort in the way of God is described as constituting half of religion, and being of greater merit than ritual worship. In addition to including the famous tradition in which the Prophet makes a distinction between the greater and the lesser jehad, Ghazali quotes him as saying: ‘Fight your passion with hunger and thirst. Its merits are equal to those gained by Jehad in the way of God…. Shorn of its inner dimensions and reduced to perpetual holy war against non-Muslims, jehad is a recipe for dis-equilibrium and an inversion of a key concept in Islam.’”


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