A Letter to Pakistan by Karen Armstrong

(First published 2011)

Karen Armstrong attended the Karachi Literature Festival 2011 and spoke on themes of religious harmony and inter-faith dialogue. Her speeches were largely based on her latest book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life“. She took the opportunity to write a compressed version of her book with particular reference to Pakistan. Being a den of terrorists and their large support among the religiously demented people, Pakistan’s socio-cultural mess was the obvious choice for the special attention.

Reading the book, or rather booklet, I was reminded of something a Muslim guy said while listening to a non-Muslim about how peaceful Islam was. “We Muslims love to be told that our religion is one of peace.”

Her efforts are well meant and she raises some very important aspects of our religion which Muslim societies have either forgotten or stopped believing that they make up the core of their religion. It is about the ethics of being human and about compassion. She takes the reader through 12 steps to lead compassionate lives; of how we should look at ourselves and the world and try to form a response which is in line with Islam as well as our humanity. The purpose is to improve things through self reflection and action rather than condemning the other and resorting to acts of violence.

She makes an interesting point about Jahiliyah, the primal condition of mankind. She argues that jahiliyah is very much alive today in every society in the world. She says she see jahilyah in her native Britain, recognises it and makes an effort to engage with jaahils to change their attitude. There is also jahiliyah in Muslim world and that we Muslims should also make an effort to correct it at home. Her point is that we should start correcting ourselves at home before we can point fingers to others.

Some of the twelve steps to compassionate life is learning about ‘compassion’, ‘looking at your own world’, ‘compassion for yourself’, ’empathy’, ‘mindfulness’, ‘action’; it ends at ‘recognition’ and ‘understanding your enemies’ so you don’t hate them for hate’s sake but for the sake of justice. I don’t like the term she uses because it sounds characteristically Christian and is open to misunderstanding, i.e. ‘loving your enemies.’

In short, it is an attempt by a renowned scholar of religions to make Muslims practice the core of their religion instead of succumbing to the view of religion as a demarcater of difference and as a political tool to wrap up all grievances in. My book rating 3/5

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Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia by Ayesha Jalal

(First published 2008)

It is a brilliant exposition of the concept of Jihad in Islam, its theological origins, various manifestations and the way the concept was understood and acted upon by the believers with particular reference to the Muslims of the Subcontinent

It is not one of those feel-good apologia for Jihad that try to hammer out the “true” meaning of the concept in Islamic scriptural canon. It is more an attempt to put the concept in its proper context and explain how Muslims of South Asia throughout history have understood and implemented it.

Jalal argues that Jihad is a concept central to Muslim theology. It forms the basic core of Islamic ethics. She called Jihad “a struggle to be human”. She identifies the trends that led to different understandings of Jihad expounded by different Muslim theologians and rulers with reference to the reality of time and place they lived in.

The Indian Subcontinent, says the author, presents an interesting case study because here the power rested in the hands of Muslims but the population which they ruled was, and is, overwhelmingly non-Muslim. So in order to coexist successfully with the “infidels” and to rule the land in relative peace, Muslim rulers and theologians understood the concept of Jihad on a different level than by their counterparts in predominantly Muslim regions such as Arabia, Persia and Central Asia.

The social and political conditions in the Subcontinent before and during the British Raj form the background of this study. Muslim rulers and theologians, owning to the difficulty of ruling a non-Muslim population, tended to understand Jihad as ethical struggle to be good rather than putting the non-Muslims to constant warfare. There had been divergences in this approach with disastrous consequences. For instance in the case of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and theologians like Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi, both of whom leaned toward harsher measures against the non-Muslims.

The policies of Muslim rulers of the Subcontinent, in general, since the days of Delhi Sultanate, were in contrast to the Muslim rulers of Afghanistan, Persia and Arabia who emphasized the more militant aspect of Jihad, and launched military attacks on non-Muslim lands. This behaviour can be seen in the various incursions of the Muslim lords into the Subcontinent. Jalal holds that all of them conquered India under the pretext of Jihad though their real purpose was money and land (For instance, the devastating attacks of Mahmud Ghaznavi, Nader Shah, Ahmed Shah Abdali etc all were labelled Jihad). This the author sees as subversion of the concept of Jihad and a departure from its theological meanings. Rightly so.

The book then moves on to the subject of Jihad in colonial India. There is a detailed chapter on what is now being called the first incident of modern Jihadist terrorism. A group of Muslims led by Sayyid Ahmed and Sayyid Ismail waged an armed struggle against the “infidels” during the years 1826-1831. All of them were killed. These men were deeply affected by the theology of Shah Waliullah Dehlavi, who spent some years in Makkah when Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab was still alive, and got acquainted with the rising Wahhabi ideology in the peninsula. Thus the Jihad of Sayyid Ahmed and his followers is seen as the first manifestation of modern Wahhabi jihadist extremism in the Indian Subcontinent.

The next section details the lives and works of some Muslim intellectuals who understood and explained their anti-colonial nationalism in the colours of Jihad. For them it was a noble thing to do and perfectly in line with Islam. Figures like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Ubaidullah Sindhi, Muhammad Iqbal, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and Jamal al-din Afghani (though Iranian but the one who left a deep mark on the thinking of some Indian Muslims during his sojourns in India) is discussed in detail.

Finally, the last section, which is instructively titled “Islam Subverted: Jihad as Terrorism?”, gives a lot of pages to the man who is rightly called the architect of modern Jihad: Sayyid Abul ‘Aala Maududi; His philosophy of Jihad, his antics and his politics are analyzed in great detail. Almost all modern Jihadi groups and their mentors intellectually go back to Maududi and before that, to Shah Waliullah.

On the scale of 1 to 5, I will give this book 5.

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