Candid evaluation

Print edition : June 22, 2002

Islam and Jihad by A.G. Noorani, LeftWord Books, New Delhi; pages 115, Rs.75.

A.G. NOORANI is a stout-hearted, public-spirited, well-known lawyer. He is better known as an author. He works hard and conscientiously to dig out little known but vital facts. He is a secular Indian Muslim, proud of his religion and his heritage. What he writes draws attention. He exposes religious rogues masquerading as leaders. In his last book, The RSS and the BJP: A Division of Labour, he took on the loud-mouthed paper tigers of the Rashtriya Swayam-sevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal.

Now he has launched an assault on the self-appointed interpreters of Islam. He successfully rubbishes Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, a book which did more harm than any other similar work on the subject. The Harvard Professor writes:

The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilisation whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and the inferiority of the power...

This book came out at a time when September 11, 2001 was not too far and there was discontent in the Islamic world. The worldwide clash between Islam and the West did not occur. Bin Laden and Co. got excessive exposure and for a short while seemed to have the upper hand in Afghanistan. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had sowed the wind and was now reaping the whirlwind. Bin Laden does no credit to Islam. Noorani has no time for him.

What makes one proud is the fact that not one Indian Muslim joined the Taliban or the Al Qaeda. This is the triumph of secularism over sectarianism. No one, as far as I know, has highlighted this striking fact.

September 11, 2001 hit the Islamic world between the eyes. The American response was devastating. For the first time in centuries, the West woke up to the strength, depth and extent of Islam. And the West made full use of news agencies like the Associated Press (AP), the United Press Inter-national (UPI) and the Agence France Presse (AFP). Islamophobia took over. And the United States President, the well-meaning George W. Bush, did not help matters by invoking the Crusades.

The word jihad entered the world vocabulary and its meaning was distorted. Noorani clarifies:

The Jihad is not one of the five pillars of Islam. It is not the central prop of the religion, despite the common Western view.

I was fascinated by the predicament of Dr. Fawzia Afzal Khan, who teaches English at the Montclair State University in New Jersey. Noorani quotes:

Here I was, a 43 years old Pakistani-American - Muslim-feminist-English Professor-Singer - Actor-Scholar-Cri-tic-Wife-Mother, being asked to take sides, to reduce the complexities and contradictions of my multiple identities to one or the other label: Muslim or Secular, Islamist or Feminist, Pakistani or American, and the greatest of them all - "pro-terrorist" or "pro-civilisation".

Noorani throws refreshing light on Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Almost the entire Muslim world condemned the fatwa. It made no difference. Rushdie needed protection for a dozen years. A near unreadable book became a world bestseller. Rushdie became a sort of secular icon.

Noorani's view is that current interpretations of jihad and fatwa "expose both to ridicule and Islam to misunderstanding and misrepresentation". Unfortunately the Islamic world is sadly divided.

To me the chapter on Islamic fundamentalism came as a breath of fresh air. The author lists its main traits: revivalism, hostility towards minorities, anti-intellectualism, intolerance, arrogant insularity, intellectual bankruptcy and moral blindness, rejection of rational discourse, pluralism, free speech, democratic governance, secularism and recourse to violence. This applies not only to Islam but to Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity as well.

This book is an eye-opener. Here we are, a nation of one billion, with 150 million Muslims, most of them converts from Hinduism. We have co-existed for nearly a thousand years and yet how many Hindus have ever made an effort to read the Koran or how many Muslims are familiar with the Gita or the Ramayana? A Kabir here and a Khusro there does not make much of a difference. Great Indian Muslims like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Zakir Hussain received more brickbats than bouquets from fellow religionists.

Noorani quotes extensively from Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Maulana Azad and Muhammad Iqbal but the memorable quote is from the immortal Ghalib:

My belief in God's oneness is unstained, and my faith is perfect. My tongue repeats, "There is no God but God," and my heart believes, "Nothing exists but God, and God alone works, manifests in all things."

One observation I must make. Noorani has not touched upon the consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union on Islam. Young men and women in the Islamic world generally were Marxists or Communists or Socialists. The USSR was their ideological Mecca. Now they have become aimless jihadis and fundamentalists.

Noorani's book should be widely read by Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. It is deeply reflective and passionately written. The great merit of the book is its disarming candour.

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