Jihad's Long Journey

Jihad's Long Journey
Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2008; Page W5

By Ayesha Jalal (Harvard University Press, 373 pages, $29.95)

In 1953, a group of Muslim leaders in the Punjab agitated to have a rival group de- classified as Muslims by the still young state of Pakistan. The government's response came in the Munir Report, an eloquent expression of the state's position on religion. Its author had asked a number of Pakistan's Muslim scholars -- known as ulama -- to define what it meant to be a Muslim and found none of them agreed.

"If we attempt our own definition as each learned divine has done and that definition differs from that given by all others," the report declared, "we unanimously go out of the fold of Islam. And if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulama, we remain Muslims according to the view of that alim [scholar] but kafirs [infidels] according to the definition of everyone else." With no agreement on what it meant to be a Muslim, how on earth could Pakistan legislate as if it were an Islamic state?

Such debates form the core of Ayesha Jalal's subtle "Partisans of Allah." They also form, it may be said, the core of the West's own challenge: that of determining just what Islam is today and how much its militant "Islamist" adherents define the religion's practice and sense of purpose.

Ms. Jalal seeks to explain how the principles of Islamic ethics -- within the Muslim world itself -- have been distorted and abused by political, economic and social interests. She concentrates on South Asia, where Muslims are in the minority and where they have faced a nuanced battle, over many centuries, to reconcile inner faith with temporal ambition. And she focuses on the most distorted principle of all -- that of "jihad."

The literal meaning of jihad is "striving for a worthy and ennobling cause." This cause, Ms. Jalal writes, is at its simplest that of living up to our divine gift of being human. The Arabic root of jihad means "to strive against an undesirable opponent -- an external enemy, Satan, or the base inner self." But given the way the word is used throughout the Quran, it cannot "be interpreted as armed struggle, much less holy war, without twisting its Quranic meaning."

The argument over what jihad means, however, is old news and never likely to be resolved without the reappearance of the Prophet himself. What interests Ms. Jalal is how the argument explains the broader political history of Islam. She begins in Islam's first century, with the extremist Kharajite sect, who defined jihad as "legitimate violence against the enemies of Islam, both internal and external" and declared it a pillar of the faith. The Kharajites were ignored by the rest of Islam's early scholars.

As Islam arrived in India in the 10th century, the new rulers, faced with the task of governing non-Muslims, turned to their scholars for guidance. Could they implement Islamic law in a non-Muslim country without causing unrest? If they did not implement Islamic law, did they thereby betray their faith? Islamic jurists became adept at drafting laws to accommodate Muslims and non-Muslims alike, especially in the commercial sphere. They also found ways to justify their rulers' use of force, in violation of Quranic doctrine, marking what Ms. Jalal calls "the kiss of death for any sort of Islamic ethics."

Over the centuries rulers fought with the ulama over who got to define what was Islamic and un-Islamic. Thus the body of law known as sharia is no more than the product of years of battle between various interests over how to interpret the Quran. To view sharia in this light -- as if it were simply common rather than religious law -- usefully saps it of much of its heat.

A roguish cast populates Ms. Jalal's book. We see Sayyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly, a revered early-19th-century Islamic warrior, leading a rabble of Muslim fighters who hoped to sweep through the Punjab and even into China. He sought to prove himself to Islamic hard-liners by implementing an extreme version of sharia among the tribes in what is now Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. Those who did not say their prayers -- or who, say, bathed naked in a river -- were severely punished. His actions antagonized the populace, and eventually he was betrayed (and killed) at a battle against the Sikhs in 1831. His legend, however, continues to inspire Islamic fighters in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Ms. Jalal also provides a rich portrait of Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-79), the Indian-born writer who encouraged terrorism in the name of jihad. Mawdudi believed that the West had seized on jihad and softened its meaning and that certain Muslims had modified their faith in order to satisfy the West's claim that jihad did not mean war against non-Muslims.

Such "apologists" disgusted Mawdudi, who argued that a war against colonial oppression would in fact be a war to regain self-respect and the ability to practice Islam as it was meant to be practiced. For Mawdudi, this meant rigidly. Women were to be excluded from public life, he argued, because their menstrual cycles left them physically and mentally infirm for jobs outside their homes. Women's emancipation in the West, he believed, was a form of exploitation by capitalists.

Finally, Ms. Jalal arrives in contemporary Pakistan, where mujahideen publish magazines glorifying their violent adventures with metaphysical tales of warriors rescued by animals or surviving multiple bullet wounds. She quotes from the recruiting literature of one Islamic militant group. It reads, as she says, more like "an advertisement for a trendy spa": "Do you want that peace and tranquility prevail in Muslim society, humanity is adored with the virtues of piety, morality and other attributes of good character?"

It is all a long way from the pinnacles of Islamic thought and literature. "Jihad in the modern world has become a political weapon with which to threaten believers and unbelievers alike," Ms. Jalal writes. And the salvation of the word can only come from Muslims returning it to its original meaning -- the struggle for high ethical values and submission to God.

Mr. Delves Broughton is a writer in New York.

For an excerpt of the book, click here


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