Perspectives on Mughal India: Rulers, Historians, `Ulama and Sufis by Sajida Sultana Alvi

(First published 2012)

This is a collection of scholarly essays on issues dealing with Mughal India. Section I deals with Mughal historiography and a discussion of some primary sources of Mughal history, quite a few of those are untapped and can potentially challenge our view of Mughal Indian society as constructed by tainted British colonial scholarship.

Section II deals with movements of reform in Mughal India especially of Tajdid (Islamic Religious Renewal) and various Sufi movements that spearheaded Tajdid movements in Mughal society with particular emphasis on the Naqshbandiyyah Sufi order.

Section III is quite fascinating in that it sheds light on Shi’ism in Mughal India. It discusses the effect of intra-Muslim conflicts (with reference to Shi’ism) on the role of religion in larger Mughal Indian politics. The rise of an Iranian Shi’i, Muhammad Baqir Najm-i-Thani, at the court of Emperor Jahangir and his (Emperor’s) policies towards larger Shia community are comprehensively discussed probably for the first time.

I will add more later and give a detailed review.

Find the book on AMAZON


The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam by Bernard Lewis

Image(First published 1967)

This is a rich account of the history of the rise and fall of Hashishin, or Assassins,who appeared in Persia and Syria in the 11th and 12th centuries. The book starts with a brief survey of the discovery of the Assassins and their ways in the then contemporary Western sources. Interestingly, in those accounts, the Assassins exemplify daring and devotion rather than terror and murder. There is a sense of amazement at their loyalty to their beliefs.

Later Western sources paint them as some kind of degenerate hedonists who indulged in drinking and women and sold their services of murder to the highest bidder. This is when the name Assassin, which is corruption of Hashishin, is taken to mean political murder and is still current in the English language. The author says that famous legend of the “Paradise of the Assassins” and wondrous tales associated with it are no more than a work of imagination and intrigue.

The book proceeds with a general introduction to the history of Shia-Sunni split and further Shia splits into Ithna `Asharis, Ismailis and other less significant Shia offshoots which are now extinct. At the time when the Abbasid Empire has become internally weak and disorganised, the only non-Sunni power to emerge in Islam to make its name were the Ismailis. They established Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt and ruled for circa 250 years before coming to an end at the hands of Salah al-Din ( Salahuddin or Saladin).

Isma`ilis represented a powerful and intellectual alternative to the Sunni orthodoxy which has become weak and no longer commanded confidence in the people. Isma`ilis seized that opportunity and with their systematic preaching and moral superiority over Sunnis and hence succeeded in converting a lot of people to their faith.

Then a man came and changed things: Hassan-e Sabbah.

He was a Qum born Ithna `Ashari Shi’i who was attracted by the vigour and activity of the Ismailis in Persia and so converted. He lived under taqqiyah due to Sunni threat (Persia was under Turk Seljuq Sultan who even controlled the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. The Caliph was but a mere figure head with limited authority).

Hassan-e Sabah managed to win over the castle of Alamut in Northern Persia which was to become the headquarters of the Assassins for decades to come. It was there he started to organise the new group with the new preaching; calling people toward the living Imam (in Cairo) and training them in acts of violence and sabotage with the sole purpose of bringing down the existent Sunni order which he and his coreligionists saw as corrupt and unjust.

Around this time, precisely in 1094, the famous Must`ali-Nizari split in the Ismaili line of Imamate took place. Without going into details, the New Preacher, Hassan-e Sabbah and his group refused to accept Must`al’s son as the new Imam and held on to the belief in the Imamate of Nizar who, along with his sons, was imprisoned and perhaps murdered.

It was the time of decline for Fatimid Caliphate which suffered a decisive blow due to the split at the top. Meanwhile, in Persia, Hassan-e Sabah acquired neighbouring castles by scheming or invasion and begin to train devotees for his new campaign. One that of murder and terror.

The first victim to fell to the daggers of the Assassins was that of Vizier Nizam al-Mulk in Persia. Then a pattern was established, The Assassins particularly targetted civil rulers and commanders of armies along with Sunni divines and prefects of the cities. They never murdered due to religious differences what today we call the common man.

In difficult missions, the Assassin(s) assigned to the task would perfectly disguise himself, take their target in confidence and, finding the opportunity, assassinate him. Often the Assassins made no attempt to escape and accepted the punishment which was usually execution. In that they can be likened to the suicide bombers of the middle ages. Many Assassins were lynched and killed on spot after killing their target.

While the campaign of murder got underway, the Assassins acquired new castles and safe havens in the mountainous countryside of Persia, which were difficult to invade so that the ruling powers couldn’t take them out easily. At the same time Hassan-e Sabah sent his emissaries to Syria to establish their message there. After some unsuccessful attempts they succeeded in having a foothold in Syria.

Many men of importance fell to the Assassins among them two Abbasid Caliphs, a Seljuq Sultan, and also some Christian Crusaders in Syria. But their main enemy was not Christian Crusaders but the Sunni orthodoxy. There were two attempts on the life of Salah al-Din (Saladin) but he survived. The mission continued after the death of Hassan-e Sabah in 1124.

One of his successors, who was not a blood relation of Hasasn-e Sabah, also called Hassan, abolished the observance of Law, pronounced Qiyammah (Resurrection) and lifted the rules of halal and haram from the religion. He also is said to have proclaimed himself the direct descendent of Imam Nizar and hence the rightful heir to the Imamate. The later Nizari Imams descend from that person, which in time gave birth to the Aga Khans, one of them is still holding the office of Imamate for Nizari Ismailis today.

The Nizari faith flourished in Persia as much as it did whereas the Fatimid Caliphate met its end at the hand of Salah al-Din and the faith disappeared from Egypt. It became a small fringe group in Yemen in later centuries and then its leaders migrated to India. Today in India (Gujarat), while the Imam is in occultation, they have a Da`i who heads the sect as the deputy of the Imam.

The end of the Assassins came about in the 13th century. They had suffered defeats in Syria at the hands of Mamluk emir Baybark and setbacks in Persia after the Mongol Invasion. The Assassins at first collaborated with the Khan forces of Mongols in order to survive but this strategy did not work for them. one by one, their castles were taken first by Seljuqs and then by the Mongols. Finally, Alamut, their headquarter, also fell and the Assassins became a fringe phenomenon.

But for 250 years the Assassins filled the hearts of rulers with terror. Elaborate security measures were taken by cities and their rulers to protect themselves from the wrath of the Assassins. They wore iron shirts and kept constant guard on them. Salah al-Din didn’t even let anyone who he didn’t personally recognise get near to him physically for the fear of Assassins under cover.

The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t sufficiently explains the theological underpinnings of the Assassin movement. It is clear that the Assassins were deeply motivated by their religious ideology and missionary zeal. But what exactly convinced them to take such a course is not explained in the book.

One cannot say that the Assassin phenomenon is s purely Nizari phenomenon. Because the first famous murder of the Assassins, one that of Nizam al-Mulk, had already been committed before Mustali-Nizari split occurred. So there must be some other factors at work, peculiar to Ismailism in Persia, which must have caused the sectaries there to embark on such a course.

We also cannot say that Hassan-e Sabah was directed from Cairo. At no point this was true. He already spent some time in Cairo before settling in Alamut but he was actually banished by the military commander of Fatimid forces for unknown reasons. But we know for sure that Hassan-e Sabah, his successors, and his followers were foremost in asserting the right of the deposed Nizar to Imamate. There were many Nizaris in Egypt but they seem to have dwindled into insignificance, and later extinction, after the fall of the Fatimid Caliphate.

This book particularly concentrates on the Assassins of Persia. Their brethren in Syria don’t get sufficient coverage.

So this is a useful book if you are interested in the subject. My book rating: 4/5

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

(First published 1991)

This book is the first in the series of five books labelled “Islam Quintet”. These books are historical novels which deal with a particular period in the history of Muslim civilisation. This one is about the dying days of the Muslim Spanish civilisation. The year of 1499, seven years after the reconquista of the last Muslim stronghold in Al-Andalus, forms the background. The Christians armies are consolidating their control on the whole of Al-Andalus. It is a time of intense stress for Muslims as they don’t know what would be done to them. The Inquisition on a large scale hasn’t yet started.

The narrative starts with the massive bonfire instigated by the Christian bishop Cisneros, who wants to remove all symbols of Moors from the face of Andalus. More than one hundred thousand books from all the Muslim libraries of Cordoba burn in this fire as the people – Muslims, Jews as well as knowledgeable Christians – stand there to watch in disgusted silence. The achievements of the rich Andalusian and Moorish civilisation is turned into ashes in full public view.

The story revolves around the family of Banu Hudayl who have lived in a small village outside Cordoba for at least 500 years. The head of this family belonged to the nobles of the Cordoba court before falling in the hands of the armies of Isabella and Ferdinand.

This family and others like them has painfully adjusted to the new reality. They hope that the new rulers would let them practice their religion and keep their language and identity. But news coming from different corners of the country suggests otherwise. Some members of this large and influential family have converted to Christianity in order to avoid annihilation and to continue to keep their property and businesses. Even then, they are constantly watched for being ‘fake Christians’.

The narrative proceeds with legends of love and hate, rivalry and chivalry, friendship and enmity of the family of Banu Hudayl with other Muslims as well as Christians and Jewish people of Al-Andalus. The holding point of the whole narrative is the air of uncertainty about their future as Christian tighten their grip.

The burning of books en mass is an event which has put all their hopes in doubt and now it is only a matter of time that they will be either annihilated or subsumed into Christianity at the point of sword.

One young member of the family, while a visit to Cordoba and after having suffered humiliation at the hands of Christian soldiers, decides to take up arms. The family finds out and tries to stop his suicidal mission as there is not a thin chance of success. The guy insists and finally leaves home to fight.

Some among victor Christians are not in favour of an Inquisition but rather want to guide the “heathens” to the true path of Jesus Christ through dialogue, just, as they argued, the Moorish had done to them at their turn! But those voices are silenced and the Inquisition ensues.

As the family of Banu Hudayl enjoy the returning home of an old grand-aunt who had been away due to a family dispute, the Christian armies, who had been angered by one of the Banu Hudayl guy who took up arms against them, arrive in the village to take revenge. The palace is surrounded and fighting begins, despite all efforts of the head of the family to engage Christians in negotiations. The result is a massacre of hundreds of people. By the end of the day, there is not a living soul in the village except a small kid and his servant-protector, who manage to hide during the bloodbath.

This is a wonderfully executed story and one that is faithful to history. In that sense, it is not so much fiction but history with fictional embellishments. It portrays the richness of the Spanish Muslim civilisation and depicts its corruption in later decades which led to the humiliating defeat; So much so that the last stronghold was surrendered without the proverbial shot being fired. The military superiority of Christians led to brutality of unprecedented proportions, that which we would today call ethnic cleansing and a genocide.

My rating 4/5. Find it on AMAZON

Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi: An Outline of His Thought and a Study of His Image in the Eyes of Posterity by Yohanan Friedmann

(First published 1971)

Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624) is accorded special place in the historiography of Islam in India. Born in a small Punjabi town of Sirhind, he was trained to be an Islamic theologian and was later initiated into the Sufi Naqshbandiyah order at the hands of his master. He remained a faithful Naqshbandi all his life. A combination of charisma, original ideas, and a fresh orientation toward Sufism were to make him stand prominent in the long line of Indian Sufis.

Sirhindi is considered a champion of Islamic orthodoxy whose influence later led to the orthodox reforms of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. (It is important to remember that the time of Aurangzeb was marked by increased Sunni religiosity on state level and a suppression of Hindu religious freedom, silencing of non-Sunni sects like the Shias, and massacres of Sikhs and their gurus). The author disputes the commonly held position and argues that the image of Sirhindi as the main intellectual and theoretical force behind the rise in orthodoxy in Indian Muslim rulers emerged only in the 20th century as a result of contemporary developments in India and Pakistan.

Sirhindi’s most original contribution to the Sufi thought was the concept of Millennial Renewal of Religion, for which he appointed himself Mujaddid Alf Thani (The Renewer of the Second Millennium). The concept of renewal of religion is found in Sunni hadith but those reports talk about centennial renewal instead of a millennial one. The hadith says – and here I am paraphrasing – that God sends a holy man at the end of every century when the faith and practice of the believers is weakened and innovations abound in the religion. Sirhindi used this hadith to derive his theory of Millennial Renewal. He lived at the turn of the Hijri Millennium.

He believed that after having passed one thousand years, the outward or worldly Shariah of Muhammad has reached the lowest point; that real Islam is lost to Muslims, and that the inward or spiritual side of the Prophetic mission has reached perfection. He, to the alarm of orthodoxy, saw the ‘perfection’ of the Prophet’s spiritual heritage as being reflected in his personality. In other words, he sold his own self-proclaimed spiritual greatness to the masses and the need for them to follow his guidance.

He developed an elaborate Sufi system and laid out a path through which one could attain perfection and union with God. As is the case with other Sufis before him, he made a sharp distinction between the auliya (saints) of God and the laypeople. What he termed the “Path of the Prophethood” (tariqah-i nubuwwat) was for the specially gifted people like himself, who would attain the “perfections of the Prophet” and “share the gifts of Prophethood” if they remained faithful in divine love. At this stage, the person is in no need of intercession; he is in direct communion with God. The other path, “the Path of the Sainthood” (tariqah-i auliya), is also of great importance such as that famous Sufis like Bistami, Hallaj and Ibn `Arabi followed this path but it is of lesser spritirual value to that of the “Path of the Prophthood”.

Influential scholars in India and from Hijaz bitterly opposed Sirhindi for his certain Sufi views which they saw as bordering on blasphemy. His opponents saw in this his attempt to raise his status to that of the Prophet. Some accused him declaring himself a prophet in all but name. Others pointed his self-lauding achievements as a sufi and objected to his apparent belief that Sufi masters like Hallaj and Ibn `Arabi were inferior to him.

Other controversies included his claiming that his “sainthood” (wilayah) comes from the joint wilayah of Ibrahim and Musa. On another occasion he claimed that his wilayah is compounded from the wilayah of Ibrahim and Prophet Muhammad. He also said that he (Sirhindi) was created from the remnants of the clay used in the creation of Prophet Muhammad with enraged theologians and Sufis alike. He was, among other things, also accused on one occasion of disrespecting Abu Bakr.

As can be gathered from his views about some revered Sufi figures, he rejected the doctrine of the “Unity of Being” (Wahdat al-Wujud) as the pinnacle of a Sufi’s spiritual achievement. He didn’t categorically reject the said doctrine but believed it to be only an intermediate stage toward Complete Perfection. He believed that the famous Sufi pronouncements like “Glory be to Me” or ‘Subhani’, ascribed to Bistami and “I am the Truth” or ‘Ana al-Haq’, of Hallaj, can be explained away. These were uttered during the heightened state of spiritual ecstasy; the Sufis actually didn’t mean what they seem to mean, so one must not read them literally. He opposed those who think of these utterances as blasphemous.

Sirhindi believed that a more sophisticated lover of God must move on from the “Unity of Being” (Wahdat al-Wujud) to the “Unity of Appearances” (Wahdat al-Shuhud), which he considered to be the greatest stage and the culmination of the spiritual journey of the saalik on the “path of the prophethood”, the stage that Sirhindi believed no one had reached save him.

There is, also, a definite sectarian side to his personality. He is also responsible for writing a treatise titled “Risalah dar Radd-i Rawafiz” (An Epistle on the Refutation of the Rawafid) in Farsi. However this epistle along with a work on the Prophethood advancing conventional arguments were written before his initiation into Naqshbandiyah order. We don’t know for sure if he changed his views after his initiation as a Sufi but he doesn’t indulge in intra-Muslim sectarian polemics during his Sufi period.

Shah Waliullah, in the 18th century, later used the above-mentioned treatise as starting point for his own sectarian attacks against the Shia, and Waliullah’s son, Shah Abdul Aziz, taking inspiration from the afore-mentioned works, penned “Tohfa Itha Ashariayah” (A Gift to the Twelvers) which is a famous anti-Shia polemical work, used to this day by the sectarianists writing against the Shia in India and Pakistan).

The books concludes that Sirhindi was primarily a Sufi, interested in issues of mysticism and not a thinker concerned with the question of religion and state. The part of his work which deals with Islamic Shariah or Law and his diatribes against the Hindus, expressed in a series of letters to some Mughal officials, are peripheral and play an insignificant role in his image in the eyes of his contemporaries, followers and rulers. His support among the masses and disciples wasn’t due to his imagined religious leadership but due to his Sufi teachings. It was later that some Muslim authors projected back the view of Sirhindi as the upholder of Islamic orthodoxy. The modern Western scholar, says the author, by and large accepted this view without critical assessment.

One weakness of this book is that the author doesn’t use sufficient direct (translated) quotations from the works of Sirhindi but rather relies on paraphrasing and interpreting the source material. It is perhaps inevitable as the book is supposed to be only an ‘outline of his thought’. I would have liked it if this work was more detailed, including extensive quotations and interpretation of Sirhindi’s opponents, both in India and abroad, who wrote many treatises refuting his grandiose claims. It goes without saying that he also received edicts of apostasy (fatawa of kufr) by the Sunnis and even some Sufis.

The value of this work lies in the fact that it successfully challenges, and corrects, the widely held belief of Sirhindi as the precursor of Muslim orthodoxy in India, and a major force behind the orthodoxising efforts of Emperor Aurangzeb. I give it 4.5 out of 5. Find it on AMAZON.

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.


Shaykh Mufid by Tamima Bayhom-Daou

(First published 2005)

The book under review belongs to a series labelled “Makers of the Muslim World” conceived by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. It is a highly readable biography of Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Nu’man al-‘Ukbari al-Baghdadi, popularly known as Shaykh al-Mufid (949-1022), who was one of the most influential Shia Muslim scholars of the classical period. It also summarises the findings of modern academia on Mufid’s works, his place in Shia scholarly tradition and his influence on the subsequent generations of Shia scholars.

Contrary to my expectations this book turned out to be a non-specialised account written for basic readers who do not have prior acquaintance with Shia theology and jurisprudence. The author says in the preface that this book is mainly written from secondary sources, that is, recent modern work done on Shaykh Mufid’s thought which is highly specialised and therefore inaccessible to general readers. However, he makes use of primary source material including, but not limited to, Shaykh Mufid’s “Kitab al-Irshad”, which he translates as “The Book of Guidance”.

Shaykh Mufid was born only eight years after the Greater Occultation of the Twelfth Imam (began AD 941) and lived and taught mostly in Baghdad. Around the time of his birth, the Abbasid caliphate came under the control of Perisan Buyids who became the de facto rulers in Baghdad as well as in Western Persia where they had already established their empire. These Buyid rulers were of Zaidi Shia persuasion, most not all, but they allowed a remarkable degree of independence to all Islamic sects to practice their religion and engage in debates, discussions and polemics on theological issues. It was during this time that the Shia Itha `Asharis (Twelvers) were allowed to hold their religious events publicly. The Shia Ithna `Ashari scholars took full advantage of the safe environment and disseminated their teachings and engaged openly in debates with their opponents. Shaykh Mufid, during these circumstances, led the Shia Ithna `Asharis from the front.

Shaykh Mufid is credited with introducing an increased role of reason in Shia theology and jurisprudence. During the time of the Minor Occultation (AD 874–941) and earlier, traditional Shia scholarship was concentrated solely on transmitting hadith reports from the Imams. Shia scholars at that time made minimal use of interpretative reasoning to explain away certain laws and beliefs as reached them from the hadith. The most important and historically immediate theologian of that approach was al-Kulayni who had already composed his collection of hadith reports under the title of al-Kafi (The Sufficient).

Ibn Babuya al-Qummi, a teacher of Shaykh Mufid, in his theological works relied almost exclusively on traditional sources, preferring to quote Quran and hadith reports and ascribing them sole authoritorial and explanatory power over his own interpretative words. In Qummi’s view kalam as a theological discipline was superfluous; he believed that all the necessary rational arguments had been formulated by the Imams themselves and might already be found in hadith reports. Shaykh Mufid criticised his teacher’s viewpoint and argued in favour of a role of reason and defended the use of kalam.

Shaykh Mufid is said to be influenced by the rational theology of Mu`tazili school of thought. Despite, he did not make reason as one of the sources of religious knowledge as Mu`tazila had done. Rather, he regarded reason essentially as a means of constructing arguments in the defense of doctrines which have already been established by revelation and hadith. Recent research, argued the book, has rather incorrectly concluded that Shaykh Mufid single-handedly shifted Shia scholarship from one that relied on traditionalist approach to one which was reason-oriented, much in the imitation of the Mu`tazila. The author disputes these findings and suggests that it was a gradual shift which had started in the latter part of the 9th century, the time when Minor Occultation began, and continued till the end of 10th century. Mufid was an instrumental link in the two approaches in that he employed the methods of interpretive reasoning more rigorously than any one had done before him. Later, his students took it further and dominated Shia scholarship for the next century or so. Shaykh Mufid’s famous students included Shaykh Tusi and the brothers Murtada and Radi. This concludes the central argument of the book.

Further, the book is divided into chapters detailing Shaykh Mufid’s positions on various historical, theological and jurisprudential issues as well as his disagreements with other Ithna `Ashari scholars before him and with non-Ithna `Ashari Shia like the Zaydiya. Two chapters outline his views on the Imamate as proved from historical accounts (like the event of Ghadeer Khum) and from theological arguments (like the necessity of having an Imam at all times). The other two chapters provide a brief summary of Mufid’s theology and jurisprudence.

The scholars of Minor Occultation and later period were particularly hard pressed by the objections of the non-Shia who ridiculed the concept of Imamate and denied the existence of the Twelfth Imam as a fantasy. It was a period of transition for the Shia scholarship; from near-complete reliance on the words of a living Imam to complete independence in the wake of Greater Occultation. Before that, physically present Imams directed them in religious and other matters; now they were left to their own devices with the job of satisfying perplexed believers without any direct guidance from an infallible Imam.

Some Shia scholars of the day rejected ijtihad (interpretive reasoning); they believed that every problem a believer might possibly face could already be found in hadith reports from the Imams, and that no “new cases” could ever come up for which ijtihad (interpretive reasoning) or qiyas (analogical reasoning) might be required. Shaykh Mufid appeared to have accepted this view but later changed it in favour of ijtihad as being a necessary tool to deal with “new cases”, for he realised the inevitability of new cases for which there was no precedence in the Islamic scriptural canon, and therefore a qualified scholar had to indulge in ijtihad (as opposed to qiyas) to find a hukm (ruling) in line with the Shariah.

Thus, in conclusion, Shaykh Mufid stands as vital link in the Shia Ithna `Ashari scholarship which, in times of confusion and perplexity caused by the absence of an infallible guide, found it hard to answer its opponents and satisfy its believers. The methods of interpretive reasoning introduced by Mufid in Shia scholarship were to reach new heights in the times of his students, who in their turn were some of the biggest names in Shia scholarship.

My rating 4/5. The book is on AMAZON.

Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and its links to the Middle East by Khaled Ahmed

(First published 2011)

This book is one of the most comprehensive and impartial accounts of sectarianism in Pakistan. It evaluates the development and solidification of Pakistan’s religion-based nationalist discourse through the decades and charts the origins and politics of Pakistani sectarian organisations and explains how the Sunni-Shia schism in the Middle East was shifted to Pakistan in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, and how it turned into a proxy war between Iran and Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia with the connivance of Pakistani military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. The book further links recent sectarian violence in and out of Pakistan with the shift in Al-Qaida’s focus to include Muslim targets which were perceived to be “collaborating” with the West in the so called War on Terror. Read below for details:

After gaining Independence from Britain, the Pakistani leadership attempted to divide people on the basis of religion, into Muslims and non-Muslims, under what the they termed as “the ideology of Pakistan”. This attempt at carving a uniform and homogenous identity in an otherwise extremely diverse country, with a mosaic of different Islamic sects, cultures, languages, ethnicities and, indeed, religions, was bound to turn the society into a cesspit of sectarianism. This not only led to the exclusion of non-Muslim religious minorities, who were practically delegated to the status of second class citizens, it also led to the chastisement of minority Muslim sects who were seen by some sections of Sunni majority as deviant and therefore, outside the pale of Islam.

The first practical expression of this ideology reached its crescendo in anti-Ahmadis riots of 1952 (a sect considered heretical by mainstream Muslims). The lack of meaningful state policy to deal with the outlandish demands of mainstream Islamic parties led, in 1974, to the declaration of Ahmadis as “heretics” and therefore “non-Muslim” by the democratically elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It was just the beginning. It was only a matter of time before sectarian groups turned on other minority Muslim sects. Shia Muslims, by logical extension, became their next target.

The book then focuses on the history and dynamics of anti-Shia politics in Pakistan. The most vehement opposition against Shia community came from the Deobandi sect of Sunni Islam which is ideologically closer to the puritanical Wahhabi sect (the official religion of Saudi Arabia) than Barelvi branch of Sunni Islam, which happens to be the largest Islamic sect in Pakistan. Three major factors contributed to the systematic targeting of Shia.

First, the success of the Islamic Revolution of Iran and the perception that it supported Pakistani Shia against that country’s Sunnis. The Arab Sunnis, fearful of Iran exporting its Revolution to countries like Pakistan, moved in to counter Iran by arming anti-Shia sectarian groups in Pakistan. Second, the rise to power of Islamist Zia-ul-Haq, a Deobandi army general whose religious sympathies lay with Saudi Arabia. And third, the US-Saudi backed Jihadi resistance to Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which further strengthened the Deobandi sectarian-cum-jihadi groups.

Anti-Shia edicts were already pouring in from certain Deobandi seminaries of Pakistan in the 50s, 60s and 70s but with little appeal. Pakistani politics and the society were not yet polarized to the point of these edicts having any larger, practical effect. However, in 1986, when the afore-mentioned three major factors were in full swing, an Indian Deobandi scholar called Manzur Naumani, fearful of the Islamic Revolution of Iran and its outreach, published a collection of religious edicts from classical Sunni jurists to the contemporary scholars with the singular aim of apostatising the Shia Muslims. It had a profound effect on sectarian politics in Pakistan.

Naumani’s anti-Shia credentials were already established with the publication of a polemic against Ayatullah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. An organisation funded by Saudi Arabia, Rabita al-`Alam al-Islami, tr. Muslim World League, commissioned the said polemic to be translated, among other languages, into Arabic and English. Some Pakistani Deobandi scholars lauded Naumani’s anti-Shia anthology and circulated it widely among their seminaries and general public. Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the flagship Shia-killing politico-sectarian outfit, was created just a year ago, in 1985, with the tacit approval of General Zia-ul-Haq who was fearful of Iranian Revolution spilling into Pakistan. Naumani’s anthology couldn’t have come out at a better time.

The mayhem started.

The book documents major Shia massacres committed by Saudi funded Deobandi outfits during the ‘80s, including the Parachinar massacre and the Gilgit massacre of Isma’ili Shia. The Shia Turi tribe of Parachinar (concentrated in border regions with Afghanistan which was then a major supply route of so called Mujahidin fighting the Soviets) did not cooperate as they naturally looked toward newly formed Islamic Shia government in Iran. For instance, the famous Allamah Arif Hussain al-Hussaini, later assassinated, was a Turi Shia with intimate ties with Iranian leader Ayatullah Khomeini. This did not sit well with the Saudi-backed jihadi groups.

The sectarian conflict was, in large measure, one-sided. The Sunni sectarian groups killed Shia without discrimination. On the contrary, the Shia militant group, Sipah-e-Muhammad (SeM), created specifically to defend Shia properties and lives didn’t participate in the killing of ordinary Sunnis. Instead it targeted those Sunni elements which were responsible for inciting the killings of Shia and took part in it. In effect, the sectarian conflict of the ‘80s, thanks largely to the policies of General Zia-ul-Haq, was politicised to such an extent that it become a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who supported their respective loyal groups with arms and money, turning Pakistan into a cesspool of sectarianism.

The last section of the book takes a critical look at the sectarian shade in the politics of Al-Qaida. The author links Shia killing in and outside Pakistan post 9/11 with Al-Qaida’s policies. Not many view Al-Qaida as having a sectarian nature, which, according to the author, is a view based on limited information.

So long as Al-Qaida, lead by Osama bin Laden, remained under the influence of its ideologue, Abdullah Azzam, it prime focus was to target and harm Christian and Jewish “infidels”. However, an important shift took place within the terrorist organisation when it fell under the influence of Ayman al-Zawahiri. He expanded the target base to include Muslim “collaborators” and made them the prime target of attacks. Henceforth almost all Muslim countries and Muslim minorities unsympathetic to Al-Qaida became potential targets. The Shia Muslims, who did not share Al-Qaida’s view of Jihad, were viewed, in the case of Iraq, as collaborating with the United States and therefore legitimate targets. Al-Zawahiri allowed the rabidly anti-Shia Al-Qaida operative, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to attack the Shia in Iraq.

Even before this development Al-Qaida accepted within its ranks those jihadist militants who doubled as part-time Shia killers in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thus the author concludes that Al-Qaida and its militant allies, unlike previously believed, have a distinct sectarian nature. The book also includes a study of inter-Sunni violence between Deobandi/Ahl-e-Hadith and Barelvi schools. Most attacks were aimed at Barelvis who were viewed by hardline Deobandi sectarian groups as not being “Muslim enough” and therefore legitimate targets.

This book is a scathing indictment on the role Deobandi militant nexus played in turning Pakistan into a cesspit of sectarianism and terrorism. A big share of blame lies with the Pakistani establishment which fostered ties with those groups in pursuit of strategic advantage in Kashmir and Afghanistan at the cost of great social instability at home and abroad. It’s a must read for those who want to acquaint themselves with the intricacies of sectarianism in Pakistan and Islamist terrorism in the region.

My rating definitely 5/5. Look it up on AMAZON.

God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad by Charles Allen

(First published 2006)

This is one detailed work not so much as on the origins of Wahhabism in Nejd (present day Saudi Arabia) but on its spread in the Indian Subcontinent. For that matter, the title of the book is quite misleading. Only a chapter or so talk about the “Wahhabi Cult” and its relationship with “modern Jihad”. Rather, it is a book which extensively charts the introduction and spread of Wahhabism in British India.

Shah Waliullah and the founder of Madrasah Naeemiya of Delhi [whose name slips my mind!] were instrumental in propagating early versions of what they claimed was “pure Islam of the salaf”, italics meaning the first Muslims. In India, at that time, this movement had not yet been identified as Wahhabism. It was with the rise of Syed Ahmed and his influential close aides, including famous names in Indian Muslim nobility, who stood up and fought against British rule in the name of Jihad, that Indian Wahhabism was officially thrown into limelight.

Charles Allen charts Syed Ahmed’s all uprisings and battles, especially in NWFP – now in Pakistan – and makes an interpretation that those battles cannot be categorised solely as national struggle of the indigenous people against hegemonic imperial rule. They were, in most part, religiously motivated. The underlying rationale with which those battles were fought was something new to Indian Muslims. No other Muslim sect carried out their struggle against British Raj in the name of Jihad per se, save this group of budding Wahhabis.

The author makes an interesting point that Syed Ahmed and his followers were already fighting the British before the Rebellion of 1857  but,  interestingly, they did not join forces with the “mutineers”, which included people of all religions, Hindus as well as Muslims, when they rebelled against the British and symbolically gathered under the banner of the nominal Emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar. It is because Syed Ahmed’s Wahhabis saw their Jihad as exclusively as a religious duty and it could be only waged if special criteria were met. Only a God-inspired Imam could declare Jihad and Indian Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was not a qualified Imam; for Wahhabis, the Imam was Syed Ahmed.

A book worth reading if you have patience for long and confusing Subcontinental names and don’t mind reading extensively detailed accounts of each and every battle fought between the Wahhabis and Britishers in the mountain passes situated at the extreme edge of the then British India.

The title of the book should be: “The Wahhabi Jihad: It’s Origins and Spread in British India”.

My rating 4/5. Here is the link from AMAZON

Al-Ghazali and the Isma`ilis: A Debate on Reason and Authority in Medieval Islam by Farouk Mitha

(First published 2001)

It is a critical study of a text, its author and their place in the larger context of Muslim intellectual history in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Ghazali wrote a book called Fada`ih al-Batiniyah wa fada`il al-Mustazhiriyah (The Infamies of the Batiniyyah and the Virtues of the Mustazhiriyyah), popularly known as Kitab al-Mustazhiri. He was commissioned to write this text by the Abbasid caliph, al-Mustazhir, before or soon after the latter ascended to the caliphal throne. The Batiniyah here refers to Isma`ilis and Mustazhiriyah to those who supported the Abbasid caliph in particular and believed in the Sunni caliphate in general. Thus, it is a polemical rejection of the theology and doctrines of the Isma`ilis and an affirmation of the Sunni orthodoxy in the form of Abbasid caliphate.

The book starts with sketching out the sociopolitical landscape at the time Ghazali penned down his book. Then it proceeds to deal with questions of form and style of the Kitab al-Mustazhiri. Next comes the evaluation of content and arguments brought forth against Isma`ilis and in favour of Abbasids. Finally, the book provides a summary of the main currents running through Kitab al-Mustazhiri and alternate ways to read that text. It is a complex book and relies a lot on specialised terminology. In that it is not for the starters as the readers should preferably have prior knowledge of the general history of the groups and ideas dealt with in this book to appreciate it fully.

Ghazali wrote Kitab al-Mustazhiri in 1092; a time of confusion and upheaval in Sunni lands. Abbasid caliphate had for long lost its grandeur and power, first at the hands of Shi’i Buyids (or Buwayhid) and later at the hands of Turkic Seljuqs who were in effect the masters of the domains nominally under the Abbasid caliph. A civil was raging among Seljuq princesses for power by the year 1092 and the fate of the caliphate was uncertain. On the other front, Isma`ili Fatimids held sway from their seat in Egypt on North Africa as well as Palestine, Syria and Hijaz. The Fatimids were already in decline but this wasn’t yet noticed; the famous Nizari-Must`ali split which pronounced the decline of the Fatimids was, in 1092, just two years away.

The urgency in the polemics of Ghazali reflects the severity of the Ism`aili threat perceived by Sunni Islam. At that time, Ism`ailsm wasn’t only popular in Fatimid-controlled lands but was rapidly winning converts in Sunni mainlands notably Persia. This led to the launch of a stream of attacks by the Sunni `ulema to put down Ism`ailism.

Ghazali, while launchiing a full scale attack on Ism`aili theology, particularly focuses on the doctrine of T`alim. This doctrine is basically a systemisation in Ism`aili terms of the general Shi’i doctrine which states that the world cannot ever be without a teacher, an Imam, who is infallible and thus the only person at a given time to which Muslims should turn in all religious matters. By extension, this infallible Imam is the only legitimate ruler of the Muslims. Isma`ilis, in and before 1092, recognised the Fatimid caliphs as those Imams.

Ism`ailis believed that for absolute truth, such as religion seemed to require, decisive authority (an Imam) is needed, for otherwise one man’s reasoned opinion is as good as another’s and none is better than a guess. They believed that this proposition is in fact all that reason as such can furnish us with. Therefore, the necessity of an infallible teacher in all times is all but evident and cannot be denied. Ghazali takes on this premise with the objection that if the need for an infallible teacher is self-evident by virtue of reasoning, and if all Muslims are capable of realising this self-evident necessity, why, then, most Muslims do not recognise an Infallible Imam or the need for such a figure?, legitimising, as it were, the majority Muslim position who didn’t believe in the infallibility of any one after the Prophet.

Later, Ghazali, within the framework of his Shafa`i-Ash`ari though process, spells out the parameters of reasoning in human affairs and in religion, stressing on the role of reason to derive laws by ijtihad al-ray (analogical reasoning?) from the already established sources (Quran, Hadith, Ijma`) rather than succumbing to what he terms false ideology to solve the ikhtalaf (difference) in opinion in fiqh.

Ghazali also contributes to the already established image of the Ism`ailis and their doctrines in the tradition of heresiographies written by his predecessors. Farhad Daftary terms this image as the “Isma`ili Black Legend” created by Sunni authors to discredit Ism`ailism. It basically says that Ism`aili Imams, their da`is and their followers comprise of those with weak minds who are ignorant and stupid enough to believe in anything; those who are seeking vengeance from Islam on behalf of their pre-Islamic Persian ancestors; those with sheer desire for mastery and domination; those who seek to be a part of the elite so as to distinguish themselves from the masses; those who have grown up amongs the Shia and the Rawafid and hence share common interests with them; those godless philosophers and dualists who believe that revealed laws are man made; and much more. In short, it is a grand conspiracy by the deviants to put down Islam; no Ism`aili is genuine in his or her belief and practice.

After listing all the errors of Ism`ailis, Ghazali is now ready for the final showdown. Are Ism`ailis Muslims? Or are they infidels whose blood can be shed? He deals with this question in a very curious way.

He says that the belief of Ism`ailis in the infallibility of Imam Ali, belief in a list of infallible leaders of the Ummah down to their current Imam, belief in the categorical rejection of the first three khulafa al-rashidun as well as their hatred for them does not amount to kufr. On the other hand, he launches a scathing salvo on the Ism`aili method of interpreting the Quran in spiritual and esoteric ways (hence the epithet Batiniyah). He holds that the tendency of Ism`ailis to wrest literal meaning from Quranic verses and to dress them in esoteric terms results in beliefs which are contrary to the main tenets of Islam. Ghazali lists those beliefs before giving his verdict on the Islam or the lack it of Ism`ailis.

i) Isma`ilis believe that al-Qiyamah (Resurrection) doesn’t entail a cessation of the world and the process of generation (tawallud) will never finish.

ii) Al-Qiyamah is a reference to the emergence of the seventh Imam in the cyclical process of abrogation and renewal of the law (referring to the Ism`aili view of cyclical history which each circle completing its term on the advent of every seventh Imam in the chain).

iii) The body decomposes after death and is thus not gathered again in the hereafter, so that there is no physical Heaven and Hell.

Ghazali believes that the afore-mentioned esoteric interpretations of the Quran by Ism`ailis amount to calling Prophet Muhammad a liar, who stressed on the reality of Heaven and Hell, of bodily Resurrection and timelessness of Islamic/Quranic law. Therefore, since Batiniyah (Ism`ailis) are guilty of rejecting the word of the Prophet, by holding the afore-mentioned beliefs, they put themselves out of the pale of Islam. Batiniyah (Ism`ailis) are thus infidels and it is permissible to shed their blood.

The narrative of Kitab al-Mustazhiri is interspersed with proving the legitimacy of the Abbasid caliphs in opposition to the Fatimids. This line of argument runs side by side Ghazali’s attacks on the Ism`ailis. He bequeaths Abbasid caliph with all the roles and responsibilities claimed by the Fatimid caliph-Imam.

Interestingly, he makes no reference to the de facto power of the Seljuqs who had actually rendered the Abbasid caliph useless and powerless, though Ghazali was clearly aware of the dangers of the de facto vs. de jure. Throughout the book he is also busy in carving out a role for the `ulema as the guardians of the faith. Since this duty actually rests with the caliph, but as he is fallible and doesn’t have time or knowledge to fulfill all his roles, it is best for the caliph to surround himself with the company of trustworthy `ulema. By which he meant himself and others like him.

He also doesn’t deal with the Imamiyah or Ithna `Ashariyah in this book.

A highly rewarding but complex read. My only criticism is that Farouk Mitha’s analysis is a bit muddled and doesn’t follow clearly laid out scheme. However, my rating is 4/5.

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