Monday, 29 April 2019

Third Frame, 2009, pp. 159-162
Ayesha Jalal, Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia; Ranikhet, Orient Longman Pvt Ltd; pp. 373, Rs. 695/-; ISBN 81-7824-231-1

Ayesha Jalal is no stranger to subcontinental readers. Her earlier works have established her as a historian capable of complementing incisive analysis with scholarly skills. This explains her international stature as one of the foremost Pakistani and South Asian academics in her field. Her PhD thesis on Jinnah at Cambridge University, published later as the book The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (Cambridge, 1984), brought her into the limelight, if controversially, as a courageous academic who buttresses her perspective with daunting historical arguments. She later took on the Army in her country in the book Martial Rule: the Origins of Pakistan's Political Economy of Defence (Cambridge, 1990) revealing the manner the Army has usurped the state. Her credentials as an observer of contemporary South Asian were established with her co-authored work Modern South Asia: History, Culture and Political Economy (Routledge 1998). This explains why the hall was overflowing in India International Center when she, for the first time, launched her latest book Partisans of Allah. She does not disappoint in her narrative of the concept of Jihad as it meandered through South Asian history over the last millennium.

Her book is a natural corollary to her last work on Self and Sovereignty: the Muslim Individual and the Community of Islam in South Asia since c.1850 (Routledge, 2000). Since the book predates 9/11, it can be said that for once that landmark event has not been the primary impulse behind a book. These days there is a cottage industry churning out unsympathetic books with Islam and Jihad as theme; all without the industry and command over sources that expectedly characterize Jalal’s work. Therefore it is a recommended read so as to make better sense of the current debate otherwise dominated by a Western inspired media led offensive against Jihad in the contextual setting of the interminable Global War on Terror being waged in Islamic lands. 

It is a sympathetic and apolitical look at the concept of Jihad as it has been interpreted in different phases of South Asian history by Muslims struggling to reconcile their temporal circumstance with religiously ordained responsibilities. Of necessity therefore Jihad has had a popular meaning and a politically charged one. Its simple meaning is ‘exertion in a positive endeavour’. In its more influential understanding it is the practice of battling inner demons that tend to lead believers astray. However, the perspective that has current salience is that of Jihad as holy war.

The author has done well to clarify the distinction and the development of interpretations, particularly of the latter, through the ages. Thus she reveals the manner Jihad has been approached by theologians and intellectuals in the circumstance of the spread, dominance and later the decline of Muslim power in South Asia. By her treatment of Islam in a South Asian setting, she adds to the burgeoning literature on Jihad, Islam and Muslim history. This has been both necessary and overdue since South Asia has historically had the largest Muslim presence anywhere in the world, including the land of Islam’s origin, and has been the fount on religious thinking owing to its contact with other great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism.    

This is best seen in the manner Jihad has captured the headlines. The originator of the ascendant, threat invoking, doctrine was Maulana Maududi, an Indian who later founded the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan. His early work ‘Jihad in Islam’ was written in the twenties and influenced insurrectionary activity in Arab lands. Its pre-partition translation into English is out of print and therefore its content is accessible only to those knowing Urdu due to it being kept in print by the party he founded. In following Maududi’s intellectual journey, Jalal brings out the manner Jihad has metamorphosed into its modern day variant of terrorism, which to her understanding is equivalent to no less than a subversion of Islam. 

This is an important argument and, yet again, a courageous one. Hers is an attempt at ‘Jihad through the pen’ which, as she recounts, was inspiration for both Ghalib and Sir Sayyid Ahmed, key figures of the nineteenth century that witnessed the eclipse of Muslim political power on the subcontinent. Therefore her argument requires reaching the largest audience not only among politically beset Muslims but also others trying to make sense of the new century.

Through a perusal of the historical record of the relevant thinkers who have dwelt on Jihad, she brings to fore the many-faceted concept. She discusses how in pre-colonial India the concept was about how Muslim power should relate to the majority non-Muslim populace. Should India be treated as Dar ul Harb (Abode of War) or Dar ul Islam (Abode of Peace)? In the colonial era, the debate between Wahabis and modernizers and the interpretation of the former by the Orientalists is well brought out. Maududi’s take on Jihad is integrated into anti-colonial nationalism. In a chapter named ‘The Martyr’s of Balakot’, she evocatively brings to life the episode of a holy war between 1831-36 launched by a disciple of Shah Waliullah, Sayyid Ahmed of Rae Bareilly along with the sages grandson, Shah Ismail, against Sikh power in the Punjab. According to her, this epic of war and betrayal is inspiration for the current lot of Jihadis who have their training camps in North West Frontier Province of Paksitan that has acquired notoriety as the epicenter of terrorism in the world.

Jalal’s book is thus a timely and befitting rejoinder to much of the disinformation that passes for scholarship today. Sensibly it has been written in a more readable manner than her other books. The inclusion of some choice illustrations enhances its appeal. The book is a ‘must read’ for multiple reasons, mainly its illumination of facets of Muslim history and South Asia’s contribution to the evolution of the concept of Jihad. It is also an inspiration to wrest the same from self-styled practitioners who have straddled it with a negative image.