The Shade Of Swords: Jihad and the Conflict Between Islam & Christianity by M.J. Akbar; Lotus Collection/ Roli Books, New Delhi; pages xxii + 332 (hardbound), Rs.395.
ESTABLISHED religions the world over have been badly mangled and distorted by their own followers in their zeal to interpret the doctrines laid down by the founders to project their own points of view. Christianity became practically two factions with almost irreconcilable followers in each - Roman Catholic and Protestant - not to mention further schisms as time went on. Islam has also suffered badly by the interpretations by followers of Prophet Muhammad although it took birth with pristine simplicity avowing the Unity of God or Allah and the prophethood of Muhammad. I am mentioning only the two revealed religions of Semitic origin as the present book confines itself to the so-called hostility between the two.
M.J. Akbar made his mark as a journalist and political commentator, first with the magazine, Sunday, and later with the daily, The Telegraph, and is now the Founder Editor of The Asian Age, Delhi. In between, he dallied with politics and was an elected member of the Lok Sabha during Rajiv Gandhi's time.
In this book the author makes his theme clear in the introduction itself. "The Shade of the Swords is not an invitation to kill. It is an invitation to die... Peace is the avowed aim of Islam, a word that means surrender." The author goes on: "The Islamic faith also demands, from time to time, in a holy war defined by specific circumstances, the blood of the faithful in the defense of their faith. This is Jihad." Jihad, an Arabic word meaning strife or struggle, has crept into the English dictionary where the meaning is given a "a holy war undertaken as a sacred duty by Muslims". The stamp of opprobrium and sectarianism is crystal clear. Can any war ever be holy?
"Jihad" is part of the Muslim faith. The author says by way of explanation: "The greater of the two kinds of the jihad, the Jihad al Akbar, is War against the enemy within; against one's own weakness and wandering. It is Jihad al Asghar, the lesser Jihad, that is fought in the battlefield" (page 25). Throughout the book the author talks only of the lesser jihad, fought on the battlefield. The author betrays utter contempt for the greater jihad and those Muslims who emphasise its importance.
It is the author's firm conviction that the lesser jihad inspired the spirit that once made Muslims all-conquering. The book is about the growth of Muslim power and the Crusades that were fought between Muslim and Christian powers for hegemony. It goes on to describe the rise and decline of the Ottoman empire flourishing around Turkey until the last Caliph had to beseech the British General, during First World War, for refuge and safe passage out of Istanbul. Alongside these events is described the growth of Mughal power and its ultimate decline and fall. Then follows the story of the rise and fall of the British in India until political power is handed over to the two dominions of India and Pakistan. The onslaught of Muslim fundamentalism within Pakistan after the death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the birth and nurturing of the Taliban, and the encouragement given to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden with the active help of the United States are also touched upon. The events are bought up to date with the enthronement of General Musharraf in Pakistan, the suicide bombing of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon and the U.S. unleashing a war against Afghanistan.
The author seems to have done his homework with painstaking care. One of the annexures to the book is a "calendar of events" extending over 14 pages, from the birth of Prophet Muhammad in 570 A.D. and ending with the suicide bombing of Washington and New York (2001).
We in India are familiar with the horde of middlemen calling themselves pujaris, who make it their business to intervene between devotees and God. Pristine Islam did not recognise priestcraft or professional priests. Koranic law is the foundation of Islam. Next to the Koran a Muslim has to follow the Sunna, the practices of the Prophet, and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet. These are to be interpreted by ijma or consensus and ijtihad or independent judgment. Every believing Muslim is entitled to exercise his mind in his own right. All these have become empty theory.
Today mullahs and moulvis have made deep inroads into the practice of Islam. Their claim to do so is on their self-proclaimed scholarship and their understanding of Islamic knowledge. The male-dominated, self-acclaimed priesthood arrogates to itself the right to issue fatwas or edicts, many favouring the rulers who have mushroomed all over the Muslim countries. There is no democracy worth the name in any Muslim country. The oil in many Muslim states and the power derived from the dollars it brings in has gone to the heads of the autocratic rulers. Devotion to the principles of Islam is only lipservice, far from genuine. All this finds mention in the book but no comment or judgment is offered.
As the subtitle says, the author makes no bones about his avowed object. He looks upon the present state of affairs in the world as a continuation of the conflict between Islam and Christianity, which started with the Crusades. It is a jihad or holy war between the two. He is firmly convinced that "Jihad is the signature tune of Islam" (page xvi). He has an obvious contempt for those whose ears are attuned differently. Can it not be looked upon as a conflict between some disgruntled fanatics and a power-mad nation in an attempt to establish that they dominate the world? Apparently Akbar does not think so, as his ears seem to be open only to the strains of music that the shaheed, the martyrs, are enjoying in firdaus or paradise.
It is obvious the author has given himself a brief, and he is arguing it out, chapter and verse. How convincing it is, the reader must judge for himself. The book is excellent journalese, highly topical and well documented. The plethora of history packed into it could have made tedious reading, but personal asides about some of the persons make it lively.