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M.J. Akbar: The Shade of Swords
Jihad and the conflict between Islam and Christianity-II
By Syed Shahabuddin

Arabia had the control of trade routes. The imperial quest of fifth phase succeeded and the Muslim world was fragmented into dependencies of Europe despite sporadic local resistance.

The tide of Islam began receding as graphically described by MJ Akbar, from Western Europe after its retreat from the banks of the Rhone in 732 and from East Europe at the gates of Vienna in 1786. The nadir was reached in the early 20th century when only Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey and nominally Egypt remained independent.

At the dawn of the post-imperial era, the colonial powers devised and perfected a new strategy for the second half of the twentieth century of granting nominal political freedom, keeping hold of economic resources, operating through dependent and, therefore, pliant regimes. Over the last 50 years many Muslim territories have attained formal independence from colonialism. They have become suppliers of essential raw materials, labour and energy for the industrial machine of the West and serve as markets for manufactured goods, particularly arms. They are culturally de-Islamized and remain in a state of political stagnation. What we are seeing today, is the sixth move: Afro-Asian Revolt against European dominance, political, economic, and cultural. What is important is to note that the Muslim world has never organized a 'holy war' against Europe comparable to the Crusades even at the height of its power. Perhaps they never had a chance.

The Islamists attribute the weakness and backwardness of Muslim societies and states to deviation from the true path of Islam and they endeavour to go back to the roots and refashion the national society in accordance with what they consider to be Islamic principles. The Muslim world has experimented with various ideologies during the last 50 years but it seems to have reached a dead end. Blocked by authoritarian and even dictatorial regimes, the resulting feeling of impotence and helplessness sometimes ignites rage against the national regime and its foreign supporters and reinforces the spirit of violence.

Peaceful co-existence between Islam and Christianity is not, as well, pointed out by Akbar, symmetrical in relation to each other. Islam recognizes the Prophets of the Old Testament and honours Christ as one of the greatest prophets, while the Christian Church looks upon Islam as a heresy, vilifies it and demonizes the Holy Prophet. Islam gives special status to the Ahl-e-Kitab (the People of the Books) among non-Muslims. Historically Christians and Jews have fitted into comfortable Muslim regimes as equal and creative members, enjoying religious freedom and internal autonomy and participating in governance, on payment of Jiziya which has been variously interpreted as poll tax or as tax in lieu of exemption from military service. Extending this argument, considering that Islam recognizes that all peoples, throughout history, received Message from Allah, a peaceful modus vivendi can be found between Islam and all other world religions. Like other world religions, Islam defines its path for salvation and classifies mankind as believers and non-believers but it mandates the believers to respect the faith of others and even to argue with them on matters of faith in a decent manner.

The barbarism committed by the Crusaders against the Muslims and the Jews and chronicled by Akbar cannot be ascribed to Christianity though they were mandated by the Pope. Similarly, the cruelties perpetrated by Muslim armies in violation of the civilized code of conduct prescribed by the Holy Prophet cannot be ascribed to Islam.

Ottoman Impact on Europe
Akbar gives much space in the book to the Mughal, the Safavids and Ottoman Empires, based in India, Iran and Asia Minor respectively. Objectively speaking, none of them were Islamic States. The Ottomans, like Napoleon, found the crown of the Caliphate lying in the gutters of Cairo and put it on their head. The rulers of Delhi and Tehran never claimed the honour but also never bothered to acknowledge the suzerainty of the Ottomans. But, placed geographically as they were, it was the Ottomans who were pitted against Europe, vibrant and dynamic, rising from medieval slumber and energized intellectually by Muslim Spain. It is the clash with the Ottomans which has left a deep imprint, created a 'lasting trauma', in the words of Edward Said, on the European psyche, which even the almost total subjugation of the Muslim world and the formal abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 has not rubbed off and which explains to a large extent the anti-Islamic strand in European scholarship. The West's vision is still clouded by bias and prejudice of the past. Western scholars see Islam as a hostile monolith which simply it is not. On the other hand, Europe has been and is today a monolith in the political, economic and cultural sense.

Ethnicity in Islam
The Qur'an itself legitimizes the existence of tribes and peoples ('so that you may know each other') without ascribing any superiority to one group over the other. The western scholars even Arabists like Bernard Lewis continue to underplay the historic role of ethnicity in Islam. At its height Pax Islamica was essentially Pax Arabica but it brought diverse peoples, individually and collectively, under the umbrella of Islam and provided an equal opportunity to the non-Arabs to contribute as much to the efflorescence of the Islamic civilization as to the Arabs. When the Muslim world was fragmented, the various ethnic groups emerged as law unto themselves in their territories. Many ethnic groups had carried into Islam their own social customs, military traditions and administrative rules.

What is important is to realise that the 'Jihads' by them were only nominally Islamic and they always acted in political and military matters in accordance with their own age-old customs. Without appreciating the multi-ethnicity of Islam, European scholars imagine Islam to be a monolith and lay the blame for ethnic misdeeds at the doors of Islam. It is this non-existent monolithism which fields the West's fear of Islamic resurgence.

Akbar unfortunately reinforces the Western concept that intoxicated by the pleasures of paradise (which, incidentally, are not reserved for martyrdom but available for all good deeds,) all Muslims are ever available for Jihad, in order to coerce everyone into Islam or to impose Muslim rule everywhere.

This is how Islam is projected as aggressive, hostile and intolerant and the West sees Jihad as a threat to peace and to Christianity, not to speak of the contemporary international order which is still dominated by the West.

Islam does not cast any duty upon any believer to coerce anyone to Islam or to impose Muslim rule. The Western apprehensions have no foundation in ground reality. Firstly, very few Muslims have any appetite for political action, far less for armed struggle. Secondly, the Muslim masses have very modest aspirations, some of which interlock with Western objectives, for example their longing for Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights. Their expectation from their government is to regulate the flow of non-renewable natural resources and ensure free flow of technology in exchange. Many no doubt demand restoration of Jerusalem and sympathise with Palestinians and other Muslim peoples struggling for freedom.

Thirdly, no unified Arab or Muslim State is on the horizon and even if the impossible happens, it would be technologically and, therefore, militarily inferior to sustain a conflict with the West. Therefore, there is no reason why the West should feel so concerned at the surge of Islam or what has been called the Islam Rage.

Islamic Terms for Concord
The Muslims all over the world are conscious of their belonging to the Ummah, the brotherhood of Islam but a community as large and as scattered as they are, living in widely varying social and political environment, divided by modern frontiers and by the surge of ethnicity, cannot react in unison even in this age of mass communication.

The East and the West have had a very long record of creative exchange and synthesis particularly in Spain. That can be resumed with tolerance and understanding in a regime of equality and mutual benefit. But the West must discard its hauteur, its double standards, its superiority complex and its cultural zeal. The West must stop operating through aggression, colonisxation and subversion, dispossession and exploitation. It should not look upon the Muslim masses as sub-human and prop their rulers against them.

The West should not close the doors of knowledge which Muslims regard as a gift of Allah to mankind or curtail resources as Khalifatullah-fil-Arz (Vice-regent of Allah on the earth). Muslims want to be part of this global enterprise but they do not want to uproot themselves in the process of modernization. Muslim anywhere will not accept Westernization in toto.

Need for Introspection by the West
Time has come for the West to introspect to find out for itself why it is respected but not loved in the Muslim world. Sometimes it is even hated. But it is not hated because it professes Christianity, or because today the standards of knowledge have fallen into its hands, not because it has a high standard of living. It is hated because it has planted a surrogate in the heart of the Muslim world, because it supports reactionary and corrupt rulers, because it endeavours to monopolize the economic resources on inequitable terms, because it casts Islam in the role of a permanent adversary in order to rationalize its political and economic designs and because it engages in systematic demonization of the Holy Prophet and vilification of Islam and of Muslims in order to deny them the sympathy of the people of the West. Unfortunately the long-term strategy of the West so far has been to keep the Muslim world divided and under its control, exploit its natural resources and flood its markets with their manufactures in exchange.

Islam envisages a multi-religious world. It is averse to racism. It accommodates multi-linguism and multi-culturalism. It envisions a world without war, without 'fitna' or 'fasad' (anarchy or oppression). It believes in human equality and therefore in democracy and secularism. 

Islam is not a blind pursuit of power but a untiring quest of piety. Islam sees history as the unfolding of Allah's plan for mankind. Islam knows that power is not a Muslim prerogative. Allah bestows power on any people He chooses and takes it away when He wishes. There is no permanent 'bargain' as Akbar imagines. Muslims are not the chosen people.

Today, Islam and Muslims have no option but to fit into the global village, the world is shrinking into, and come to terms with the immutable law of change which perpetually impinges on human affairs and respects no frontiers.

Akbar is a modern, intelligent and progressive observer of the world. One feels that he sees the tide turning and senses the irreversible progress of mankind and the ultimate defeat of neo-colonialism, even if it bears the mark of globalization. The surge of freedom, ethnic identity, self-determination, human rights, minority rights and equitable terms for trade are but legitimate dimension of human progress. Akbar should have emphasized that the Muslim assertion is not directed against the people of other religions, not against Hindu India or Christian West or against any non-Islamic civilization. The contemporary 'Jihad' is directed against their own backwardness, their elite and establishment. Jihad once again stands internalized, in a collective and comprehensive sense of the term.

Hopefully this struggle will create a national environment in which Islam gets a chance to play a legitimate and creative role in shaping the contours of the Muslim societies and states and their relationship with the rest of the world. This is not to say that the quest for identity, freedom and justice is limited to the Muslim people in Muslim as well as non-Muslim states. This is a worldwide phenomena of democratic assertion by the repressed identities, speaking out in the idiom they know and understand.

A Word About Terrorism
Every idea, movement, ideology, every religion, 'demands the blood of the faithful in the defence of the faith'. There are always some who respond. This is nothing unique about Islam. Partial or subjective history cannot serve as a faithful guide through the maze of the centuries. Every age and every society raise new questions which have to be answered within the new context.

As pointed out by Akbar terrorism has emerged out of ideological and political vacuum and become the vehicle for resistance, though historically it has been almost unknown in Muslim history. It is the child of Europe and had its philosophical base in nihilism and anarchism. In course of time even some European states adopted terrorism to liquidate, wipe out and transplant unwanted peoples. Osama bin Laden, according to M.J. Akbar, sees himself as a new caliph or as an Imam of the Muslim world. 

Whatever his self-view, howsoever wide his terrorist network, there is no substitute for territory. He is nothing more than the head of an organization that he has created. He may enjoy the admiration or the sympathy of some Muslims for having taken on the mega-power of the age, the USA, but he can never be accepted as Amir-ul-Momineen or Khalifatul Muslimeen, whatever his pretensions. Indeed, the USA has itself magnified him to larger-than-life size by proclaiming him as the ‘enemy’ and by launching a global campaign and invading Afghanistan to capture him ‘dead or alive’. But in the historical context, Osama bin Laden is a passing phase which will not alter the course of ultimate concord between the West and the East.

To do justice to Akbar, he does not see Osama as the new Salahuddin, nor Musharraf as the new Ataturk. A Muslim reader may find Akbar somewhat irreverent but a Christian reader may not accept as objective, his Islamic ethos rooted in his social background. 

On the whole, the book may somewhat please the Muslim fundamentalist but disappoint the Western scholar.

The book is topical and informative and eminently readable. One only wishes it was more accurate on theological points and the meaning of Islamic terms in the Glossary and the transliteration of the Qur'anic phrases and Muslim names were less flawed.

Part One:
M.J. Akbar: The Shade of Swords
Jihad and the conflict between Islam and Christianity-I

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