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

MJ Akbar is a great journalist but a poor theologian, a fair historian but an excellent raconteur. With his journalistic flourishes and historical sweeps, he has authored a highly readable book. But Akbar goes up and down the highways of history and suddenly moves into lanes and by -lanes, independently of space and time, which is all rather exasperating . This is a long journey with a rather whimsical guide and a poor map.

Akbar's thesis on Jihad, the most readable chapters in the book, the Introduction and the next two relating to the early days of Islam, summarize M.J. Akbar's thesis on Jihad and the framework of the book. According to Akbar, Islam 'recognizes the reality of war in human affairs and demands the blood of the faithful in a holy war defined by specific circumstances in the defence of their faith'; Jihad is 'not an invitation to kill but an invitation to die in accordance with Allah's bargain with the faithful'; Jihad is 'the signature tune of Islamic history'. Jihad is 'permitted against the infidel but it is compulsory against the apostate'; rooted in the Qur'an and the Traditions of the Holy Prophet, Jihad is 'an armed struggle, a continuous and permanent feature of Muslim polity and society'. His thesis is not accurate and at best only partially correct. The rest of the book merely serves to illustrate the Western thesis that Jihad, in other words the sword, was the means of phenomenal Islamic expansion across Africa and later Minor Asia into Europe and to the East into Central Asia and the Indian Sub-continent.

The subsequent shrinking of Islamic space is attributed to counter-attack by Europe, and political fragmentation, technological backwardness and intellectual stagnation. The overall failure of the Muslims to keep pace with the changing times has bred fundamentalism and terrorist groups have emerged for the defence and conservation of Islam and reestablishing Islamic supremacy in the Muslim world.

Akbar quotes the Holy Prophet on the difference between internal and external Jihad, between the greater and lesser Jihad, between Jihad against oneself and the Jihad against the others but sees it as the difference between the 'Holy War' and a 'Holy Bath'. Not surprisingly he hardly follows the second strand through history. His book concentrates almost exclusively, on the external, the lesser, Jihad directed against the others. Perhaps he is wary of appearing to be an apologist in the eyes of his western readers.

Similarly, Akbar quotes the Qur'anic principles 'La Ikraha fid-din' (no coercion in religion) and 'Lakum Dinukum waliya Din' (to you your faith, to me mine), yet he does not make any effort to clarify the apparent contradiction between the Qur'anic dicta and the historic facts. There is a rational explanation in terms of the real purpose of Jihad and the mores and circumstances of the age of why the Enlightened Caliphs later followed up the Holy Prophet's epistles to the neighbouring potentates, including the superpowers of the age, the emperors of Byzantine and Iran, inviting them to embrace Islam, with armed invasion offering the alternative of conversion, submission or war. Nor does Akbar bring out the religious illegitimacy of innumerable wars of conquest, of territorial aggrandizement or plunder for gain, ethnic rivalries or regional hostilities by various Muslim powers against their neighbours, Muslim or non-Muslim, or during the period of decay among the Muslim war-lords and petty rulers, each of whom nearly always with the help of obliging Ulema defined their private wars as Jihad.

Akbar also largely ignores the audacious abuse of Jihad by fortune-hunters, free-booters and mercenaries who had no religious authority at all.

Granted that the book is not a text for academicians, Akbar's thesis presents Jihad as unidimensional which it is not and fails to do justice to the comprehensive sense in which Jihad has been and can be interpreted in the light of the Qur'an and Tradition of the Holy Prophet. Inexorably it serves to misrepresent the role of Jihad in the modern world and to misinform the reader about its multi-dimensional nature. In the process, it may confirm many misconceptions and prejudices in his mind.

Islamic View of Jihad: The lacunae arise from Akbar not adopting a scientific and methodical approach. Before undertaking to write a history of Jihad, he neither defines it nor lays down the basic postulates and essential conditions which legitimize "Qitaal" (bloodshed) 'in the path of Allah'. Akbar takes the easier path of adopting the populist view of Jihad and pens a chronicle of all armed encounters between Islam and Christianity, with Jihad, in its popular sense, as a running thread, the connecting link.

Akbar is correct when he states that Islam legitimizes the use of force in specified circumstances. Islam has no ideological or strategic commitment to non-violence, because Allah knows the nature of Man. But any call for war by an Alim or a Mufti, a ruler or a demagogue, even if he sees himself as the Mehdi of the age, does not make it a Jihad. Secondly, the sword is not the only medium of Jihad, it can be speech (Jihad bil-lisan) or the pen ((Jihad bil Qalam) knowledge (Jihad bil 'Ilm) or money (Jihad bil Maal). Akbar largely ignores the role of the mystics and saints, of theologians and philosophers, of jurists and scientists, and their endeavour to advance the material and spiritual well-being of the Muslim community and of humanity.

On the other hand, one of the conditions of 'Jihad bis Saif fi Sabilillah' is that the objective should not be personal or territorial gain but removal of barriers to the propagation of the faith. Muslim conquest and Muslim rule for centuries converted to Islam but a very small proportion of the people of Spain or the Balkans or India. But today when Muslim States are powerless, lying prostrate at the fee of the West, Islam is the fastest growing religion in Black Africa and even in the USA. Propagation of Islam is neither synchronous nor identical with expansion of Muslim rule.

The Qur'an uses the word Jihad in both the internal and the external senses. Indeed it is only the later verses, which permit Jihad in the sense of 'Qitaal' (bloodshed) but subject it to explicit conditions and criteria.

The external Jihad must be for the sake of Allah, it must be in self-defence, it is permissible against an aggressor or an adversary who breaks an agreement and refuses to negotiate or attacks an ally; it must not be to prop the ego or to satisfy the passion for revenge or to make material gains. An external Jihad must follow the prescribed rules of conduct. Moreover it cannot be undertaken by an individual, it must be a collective and transparent endeavour by an organised community under a chosen Amir. Finally, a Jihad must have a fair probability of success.

The principal battles in which the Holy Prophet himself participated namely Badr, Uhud and Khandaq were purely defensive in character as the Meccans had invaded Medinah where the Prophet had migrated (not 'emigrated' as Akbar puts it repeatedly) and was engaged in creating an Islamic community and a proto Islamic State. The Conquest of Mecca by the Holy Prophet was marked by a general amnesty, all forgiveness and forbearance, no violence and no plunder. So was the conquest of Jerusalem by Omar and later its reconquest by Salahuddin Ayyubi.

Thus, one may question the legitimacy of subsequent wars of conquest, military campaigns to subjugate and plunder peoples, and battles to gain territory. All conflicts which serve the temporal interest of the power elite are not Jihad by definition, because the purpose and objective is not to spread the word of Allah or to establish Islamic governance. For a correct projection of the term Jihad the misuse of the concept by dynastic kingdoms and empires to recruit human fodder in the name of religion should have been brought out.

Some theologians may indeed argue that Jihad by Muslims in Dar-ul-Islam against Dar-ul-Harb is a religious duty, a collective obligation of the Muslim community, perpetual and continuous, but today when the world system is governed by international law, with a network of bilateral agreements and multilateral treaties which Muslim states are enjoined to uphold, when Muslim minorities enjoy religious freedom in non-Muslim countries, this bifurcation has lost all meaning. When the technology of war includes the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, when the innocent non-combatants inevitably suffer 'collateral damage', war becomes per se antithetical to Islamic principles, without limiting the right of peoples to struggle for their defence and survival in freedom.

Jihad thus forms a continuum of human endeavour, a spectrum beginning at one end with the individual's endeavour against his base instincts and ending at the other with a Muslim community's struggle against alien occupation and for survival with dignity, to the struggle of Muslim society for political, social and economic development and, let me add, for freedom of Islamisation and for modernization of Islam. In the course of fourteen centuries Muslims have developed the instinct to know what Jihad is and what Jihad is not and, therefore, they respond very selectively to the call for Jihad.

Once the Caliphate had acquired the character of monarchy, every ruler who developed a passion for self-glorification and taste of high living lebelled his armed forays as Jihad to motivate his subjects. The theologians justified those forays in terms of the division of the world into Dar-ul Islam and Dar-ul Harb. Then the Muslim empire decayed and was fragmented into combating kingdoms and Sultanate which were often at war with each other. Even the theologians could not designate these wars within the Dar-ul Islam as Jihad.

Akbar devotes many pages to the advent of the British in the Sub-continent, the Indian resistance to the British conquest and the consequent freedoms struggle. But neither the invasion nor the resistance can be historically described as a 'conflict between Christianity and Islam', though there may have been some skirmishes here and there between groups which described themselves as Mujahideen and the British power. Pakistan came into existence as a bye-product of the Freedom Movement and not as the victory in a Jihad against the British. Indeed one does not recall even the use of the word 'Jihad' by the Muslim League in its political rhetoric and even in the Pakistan Resolution.

No doubt there have been legitimate Jihads in recent history. One recalls the continuing armed struggle against Russian occupation of Chechnya and Daghistan initiated by Imam Shamayel two centuries ago, for the liberation of Algeria by Abdul Qadir Al-Jazairi, for the liberation of Jerusalem and vacation of their usurped homeland by the Palestinians, of the Afghan people against Russian occupation, of the Kosovars against Serbia to name a few.

Inter-Religious or Inter-Regional Conflict? The conflict that the book is about can also be interpreted as a conflict not between Islam and Christianity but between Europe and Afro-Asia whose origin antedates the rise of Islam. In recorded history, the first massive incursion is by the Romans across the Mediterranean, by Alexander of Macedonia marching to the East and by the Byzantines transferring their base to Constantinople and conquering Asia Minor and the Levant. There is no record of invasion of Europe by the Berbers, the Egyptians or the Mesopotamians.

The Muslim drive up to the Rhine in 732 and the walls of Constantinople in 717 marked the second phase. The third phase was the Crusades undertaken at the sunset in Baghdad and in Cordoba . They failed. The Ottomans emerged in the next phase as the standard-bearers of Islam and posed a threat to Europe from the East. Europe then devised a pincer movement around Africa and contemplated an alliance with the Indian 'heretics' to crush the Ottoman empire, seize Arabia and control the 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.

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