Jehad and the truth

Published : Feb 27, 2009 00:00 IST



HE 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 Gods 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 (17861831), 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 Ahmeds 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.

Even in the early years of Islam, some Muslims questioned the application of the concept of jehad to wars fought by temporal rulers that had nothing to do with struggle for the cause of God. One popular tradition justified the reservation. Upon returning from one of the early wars in defence of the newly established community, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have told his companions that they had come back from waging jehad al-asghar, or the lesser war, to fight the jehad 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. This tradition was not included in any of the authoritative collections of hadith during the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, an omission that in itself reveals the mindset of the compilers and the political climate of the times.

There is, of course, no Quranic sanction for jehad as it is understood by most in the West armed struggle in the name of religion. The Quran itself defines jehad in terms that are much broader than the political uses made of it in response to the exigencies attendant on Arab expansion. What was spread by the sword was not the religion of Islam but the political dominion of Islam. Instead of paving the way for an egalitarian and just order, the expansion of Islam was a secular process that, even when drawing upon religious ideology, rarely managed to achieve the ideals prescribed in the Quran and underscored in the practice of the Prophet. Notwithstanding changes in Islamic jurisprudence and theology in response to political developments from the end of the seventh century on, mystical, ethical, poetic, and philosophical Muslim literature attest to the indissoluble connection between jehad and the quality of a believers faith and actions.

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.

Hinduism recognises the concept of a just war (dharma yudh) as does the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Islam, too, the just war must be distinguished from jehad proper, which is a spiritual, moral and intellectual struggle. It has many layers, and ethics lie at its core.

The historical survey is fascinating. Since the fatwa (ruling) by the ulema (clergy) is regarded as an essential pre-condition to the launch of a jehad, it is necessary to recall that during British rule fatwas had become, in many quarters, commodities for sale and purchase, including by the British rulers.

In South Asia none exposed the falsehoods retailed in the name of jehad as thoroughly as did Maulvi Chiragh Ali, colleague of the founder of the Aligarh movement, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. He was far more critical of Muslim jurists than most. His was a comprehensive refutation of Muslim orthodoxy in law as well as in theology. It was a crying shame that morality had become concretised for Muslims in external rituals instead of being a certain disposition of heart towards God and man. Far from confining practical morality and piety to the ritual exertions of believers, the Quran lays the foundation of that far-reaching charity which regards all men as equal in the sight of God and recognises no distinction of races and classes. These teachings were capable of keeping pace with the most fully and rapidly developing civilisation if rationally interpreted and enforced by the sentiment of a nation.

The essence of Chirag Alis argument was that Islam was being judged by the standards of the sharia, created by men, rather than the ethical principles of the Quran. The division of the world between Dar-ul-Islam (abode of Peace) and Dar-ul-Harb (abode of War) was a construct of legists that had no basis in the Quran. Even the detractors of Islam conceded that the real meaning of jehad was exertion and striving in a noble cause. Only in the post-Quranic period had Muslim legal scholars developed the theory of unprovoked war, tribute taking, and conversion to Islam at sword point. The Quran sanctioned only defensive wars under the most adverse circumstances, and it strictly prohibited aggression. Striking out at the religious guardians, Chiragh Ali asserted that the sharia had not been held sacred or unchangeable by enlightened Mohammedans of any Moslem country and in any age since its compilation in the fourth century of the Hejira. His classic A Critical Exposition of the Popular Jihad was written in 1805. It is doubtful if any Muslim scholar in South Asia would care or dare to write a work as courageous, as erudite.

The authors rich tributes to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad are richly deserved. Like some Christian priests in Latin America who developed the theology of liberation in recent decades, Azad grasped the wider ethical meanings of jehad to make a forceful case for fighting colonial justice. To the Reverend Christian Troll goes the credit for bringing to light in 1988 Azads essay on the mystic Sarmad written in 1910. In 1989, Troll wrote an essay on Azads fascination with the mystic. Sarmad preferred death at the hands of Aurangzeb to compromising his conscience. He is buried at the foot of the steps leading to the Jama Masjid in Delhi.

A few yards away lies Azads elegant mausoleum. It is not ungenerous to point out a minor error that has crept in. Azads masterly statement in court, later published in a book entitled Qaul-e-Faisal (The Last Word), was not delivered at the Karachi trial but at his trial in Calcutta before a Magistrate on a charge of sedition. That was on January 24, 1920. Gandhis tribute defies improvement. It was an oration deserving penal servitude for life. At the Karachi trial in 1921, the Ali Brothers were tried by a Sessions Judge jointly with the Sankaracharya of Sharada Peeth on the charge of suborning the armys loyalty to the Raj.

Azad gave some of his most eloquent depositions on jehad as Islamic ethics in the service of Congress anti-colonial politics. The Indian national struggle was a jehad because the British were waging a war to exterminate Muslims. If Muslims had any spark of faith left in them, they would befriend snakes and scorpions rather than make peace with the British government, he asserted. Referring to the Prophets constitution at Medina, in which Muslims and non-Muslims were described as one nation, Azad asked Muslims to perform their religious duty by uniting with Hindus.

Mawdudi receives his just deserts from the author. Z.A. Bhuttos compromises with fundamentalists form a good illustration of the havoc a secular leader creates when he yields to religious bigots. Zia-ul-Huq did worse and was helped by the U.S. in Pakistans operations in Afghanistan. Future members of Al Qaeda were trained by American and British intelligence with the enthusiastic help of Pakistans own Inter-Services Intelligence. With plenty of money to back the cause, jehad was lucrative business for the merchants of death. The Lashkar was created by ISI. The secular Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) was attacked by both Indian and Pakistani intelligence. The fragmentation of the jehad in Kashmir has caused its Pakistani paymasters to lose control to smaller outfits operating under the direction of local commanders. One local commander called himself Shah Rukh Khan.

The author interviewed the Lashkars founder, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, in Lahore in November 2005. The Lashkar-e-Taiba and its offshoots have been involved in a series of suicide bombings in Kashmir and India. Though he denies the charge, Hafiz Saeed has been quoted as saying that suicide bombing is the best kind of jehad in the contemporary world. The attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and the targeting of civilians in New Delhi and Benares puncture his claim that the Lashkar-i-Tayyiba attacks only Indian military personnel and installations. The denial was made in person to the author, but she points out that it contradicted his statement in an interview with Mohammed Shahzad published in the Friday Times of April 17, 2003.

Pakistans recent actions against the Lashkar are received with scepticism because the organisation has been closely enmeshed with the establishment. The authors advice is frank: If Pakistan is to adopt a moderate and enlightened view of Islam, it cannot avoid an open debate on the ethical basis of the Quranic concept of jehad. The military-dominated state has used jehad, which is intrinsic to faith and ethics in Islam, to advance its strategic, economic, and political ends. Such a shrewd strategic vision, backed by political denial and policies of economic exclusion, violates elementary Islamic principles of equity and justice. The army has capitalised on the jehadi industry to further ensconce itself in the power structure. If Pakistan is to turn over a new leaf, the army will have to drastically modify its strategic vision. It will be a long haul.

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