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Book Review
MJ Akbar's The shade of swords 

Well-known Indian journalist MJ Akbar has just published his fifth book: The Shade of Swords. It could mean different things to different people depending on which 'shade' of society they represent. It's not a theological account of Jihad but his personal observations as a journalist. A former editor of Sunday magazine and The Telegraph newspaper, Akbar is now editor of The Asian Age, India's first international newspaper which brings out a British edition in addition to a number of local editions within India.

Akbar traces the origins of Jihad in the struggle against oppression that was part of the earliest consciousness of Muslims. Travelling across centuries and continents, from Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to the Hashshashi’n (Assassins), and from the collapse of the Moghul and Ottoman empires to the modern struggle for Palestine, Akbar's story explains how Muslims themselves have historically tried both to direct and to control the phenomenon of Jihad.

Moving through the triumphant rise of Islam under Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to the depression of defeat in the first Crusade, through the renewal of Salahuddin to the rise and fall of the Ottoman and Mughal empires and the raw passions of Afghanistan and the Indian Subcontinent he discusses the international conflict between Islam and Christianity. In The Shade of Swords, Akbar considers how Jihad's origins lie in the earliest consciousness of Muslims, as witnessed in the miraculous victory of the Prophet's outnumbered troops at Badr.

It took 10 years of foreign trips and intense research to create his new opus, The Shade of Swords (304 pages, Rs. 395), which has just hit the stands. Brought out by New Delhi's Roli Books, it seeks to understand the truth behind Jihad and the conflict between Islam and Christianity. "You know these are issues that dominate the world. And what seems to be an international conflict between Islam and Christianity has a tremendous relevance to our historical experiences," he says. 

In the perspective of September 2001 WTC attack in the US, his book revolves around why the Americans are fighting a Jihad today in Afghanistan. As the preface to the book explains: 'The first eight chapters explain the doctrinaire and historical roots of the conflict between Islam and Christianity: the wars that began from virtually the lifetime of the Prophet for political control of the known world, and the spill of hatred into literature and rhetoric, leaving wounds more permanent than the fortune of battle...' 

Akbar's understanding of history, which is essentially a conglomerate of his personal experiences and extensive reading is 'relevant history'. Which means a history that must cast light not shadow on present events. Little surprising then that Akbar was one of the two people that Samuel Huntington quoted in his seminal essay, "The Clash of Civilisations" in Foreign Affairs, 1993.

Akbar observed in an essay written just after the collapse of the Soviet Union: 'The West's next confrontation is definitely going to come from the Muslim world. It is in the sweep of Islamic nations from the Maghreb to Pakistan that the struggle for a new world order will begin.' The Shade of Swords narrates why and how. The power of Jihad prevails over the mind and soul of Islam. The mind is where the current battle will be fought, and this is why it will be a long war. 

Akbar is a leading Indian journalist and author. The Shade of Swords is his fifth book, after four published to marked international acclaim: India: The Siege Within (re-published by Roli Books); Riot After Riot (re-published by Roli Books); Nehru: The Making of India (Viking, 1989 and Roli Books, 2002); and Kashmir: Behind the Vale (Re-published by Roli Books). He briefly interrupted his career in journalism, after successfully launching and establishing a weekly newsmagazine, Sunday, and a daily newspaper, The Telegraph in the seventies and eighties to enter the Indian Parliament in November 1989 as an elected representative but soon chose to return to his forte of writing and editing in early 1993.

Akbar married Mallika Joseph, his contemporary from The Times of India. They now have two children, Mukulika, studying at Cambridge, and Prayaag, in an Ivy League university in the US.

Akbar explains that the conflict between Islam and Christianity has acquired myriad shapes over fourteen hundred years: indoctrine, dialectics, literature, culture, and of course on the battlefield, from the fall of Jerusalem to the Caliph Omar in 637 CE to the presence of British and American troops in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2002. The fire that is visible on the Muslim street across the world today is fuelled by a perception of injustice and exploitation by the West, working through undemocratic and unjust elites, as well as the inability of Muslim nations to find an equitable polity through which to structure modern societies.

- MH Lakdawala


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