Debating Jihad

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Jan 1, 2011      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Debating Jihad


By Yoginder Sikand

‘Jihad’ is a term that evokes a multitude of contradictory emotions and images. Many non-Muslims understand (or, as many Muslims would insist, misunderstand) it to mean ‘holy war’ against non-Muslim ‘infidels’, and more or less summarises what they allege is the fundamental inability of Muslims to live gracefully and in harmony with people of other faiths.

Many Muslims, too, understand jihad to mean physical war with what they regard as ‘infidels’, although as to whether or not it includes offensive war remains hotly debated. Contrary to these views about jihad is what some Muslim scholars insist is the true Quranic understanding of the term: struggle or sincere and sustained efforts in the path of God. Such jihadic struggles and efforts, they point out, need not necessarily be directed against non-Muslims, and they are also not necessarily all violent. Indeed, they argue, armed jihad is but only one form of it, and is to be resorted to only as a last resort, when all efforts for peaceful jihad have been tried but have failed. Any peaceful struggle for a noble purpose, say educating the illiterate or empowering the poor, including people of other faiths, may, according to this interpretation, be considered to be a jihad in the path of God.

Despite the fact that advocates of what they regard as the strictly Quranic (as opposed to the Muslim communal) understanding of the term jihad might indeed have adequate Quranic support for their stance, the fact remains that violent war against non-Muslims (mainly defensive, and, in some cases, offensive, too), is what many Muslims interpret jihad to mean. Fighting in self-defence is an internationally recognized human right, and so those who defend jihad, in the sense of defensive war in the face of attack, obviously cannot be faulted. But what can be faulted is the routine misuse of the concept of jihad in order to promote indiscriminate hostility, hatred and violence against non-Muslims in general and against Muslims belonging to rival sects, each of which lays claims to a monopoly over religious truth. This, unfortunately, has happened throughout Muslim history, and it has far from disappeared today. In fact, a number of self-styled ‘Islamic’ ideologues and activists, including half-baked mullahs, may well be called what is termed as ‘jihadists’, their understanding of Islam and its teachings about relations with people of other faiths and Muslims belonging to rival sects being fundamentally shaped by hate-driven and (what some Muslims would regard as) completely warped understandings of jihad. The appeal of such ideologues is greatly boosted by acts of oppression by non-Muslim forces, such as, in today’s context, the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s support for Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and human rights violations by Indian forces in Kashmir. Dictatorial rulers in most Muslim countries, backed by the West, are another factor for the appeal of ‘jihadist’ groups, who seek to mobilize popular dissent against them by mouthing slogans of jihad.

Pakistan is reportedly plagued by such ‘jihadists’, whose mounting influence owes to a host of factors, both internal as well as external. How do ordinary Pakistani Islamic clerics understand jihad? How, in their understandings of jihad, do they project people of other faiths and Muslims belonging to rival sects? How, given their particular understandings of the doctrine of jihad, do they envisage inter-community and inter-sectarian relations? These are issues of immense strategic significance. Needless to say, the very survival of Pakistan, as well as many other Muslim-majority countries, depends how these issues are played out in the years to come.

Mashal Books, one of Pakistan’s few progressive publishing houses, has an online project to document speeches delivered by Pakistani Muslim clerics on a wide range of issues. The publishing house’s website hosts a set of such speeches that deal principally with the issue of jihad. The contents of these speeches provide a valuable glimpse of how these clerics (and numerous others like them) construct jihad and the implications of these diverse interpretations for how they and their followers relate to others, whether non-Muslims or Muslims of rival sects.

The clerics whose sermons are hosted on the website belong to different Muslim sects. Each of these sects believes itself to have a monopoly of the divine truth, and each claims to be the only authentically Islamic sect. By definition, this means that all the other Muslim sects (and other religions as well) are believed to be deviant and false. Consequently, their adherents are branded, sometimes implicitly, and at other times very brazenly, as outside the Islamic fold and, hence, doomed to perdition in Hell, a fate that they are said to share with all non-Muslims. 

Not surprisingly, then, the clerics preach hatred for Muslims of other sects and non-Muslims in general, particularly when other sects and religions are discussed in the context of jihad. Accordingly, dialogue and reconciliation with Muslims of other sects and with non-Muslims are completely ruled out, and so is the possibility of ‘true believers’ existing harmoniously and peaceably with other Muslims and with people of other faiths. It is as if ‘true’ Muslims (variously defined by clerics belonging to the rival sects) must always be viscerally opposed to the rest of humanity (that is to say, all non-Muslims and all Muslims belonging to the rival sects). They are posited in a state of perpetual hostility and war, which is blessed as what is declared to be a divinely-ordained jihad. To fire their followers with hate, the clerics do not hesitate to use vile language, including choicest abuses, against their sectarian and religious rivals. Their lectures are peppered with references to wars fought between the early Muslims, led by the Prophet Muhammad, and their opponents, but are studiously silent on acts of reconciliation and dialogue with people of other faiths that also characterized the life of the Prophet. References to the wars fought by the Prophet (which, according to some Muslim scholars, were basically defensive in nature) are used as devices to mobilize support for wars (symbolic or real) that the clerics exhort their followers today to launch against those whom they identify as supposed ‘enemies of Islam’—who, in effect, is everybody, Muslim and non-Muslim, other than adherents of their own particular sect.

One such cleric is a certain Maulana Manzur Ahmad, who preaches at the Jamia Masjid Ahl-e Hadith in the town of Sheikhupura. He belongs to the sternly literalist Ahl-e Hadith sect, which is almost identical with the Saudi Wahhabis. He appears to be an ardent supporter of the dreaded terrorist outfit Lashkar-e Tayyeba, as is apparent from his laudatory references to a certain top Lashkar ideologue. He begins his speech by haranguing the Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari, calling him a ‘thief’, a ‘sick man’, a ‘liar’ and a ‘caster of the lustful gaze at other’s wives’, and even a ‘killer of his own wife’ and a ‘bastard’. He is particular incensed with Zardari for conniving with the Americans to unleash havoc in the country, and prays to God for him to be got rid of. Zardari is no democrat, of course, and his connivance with American imperialist designs in the region has earned him the wrath of vast numbers of Pakistanis, which radical Islamists like Maulana Ahmad are quick to tap and take advantage of.

But it is not just Zardari and his American patrons that are the target of the Maulana’s ire. As the Maulana sees it, all non-Muslims and non-Ahl-e Hadith Muslims, encapsulated in the evocative term ‘kufr’ or ‘infidelity’, are supposedly mortal enemies of Islam and its adherents, and hence must be firmly fought. ‘Infidelity’ and those who uphold it are, so the Maulana seems to argue, engaged in a relentless war against Islam (which is to say, the Ahl-e Hadith version of it). This is a war that can have no resolution until ‘infidelity’ is completely wiped off or till ‘infidels’ (that is to say, everyone except the votaries of Ahl-e Hadith-style Islam) are firmly subdued. Thus, the Maulana triumphantly declares, ‘The Wahhabi will press down kufr and hold aloft the flag of Unity of Allah.’ In the Maulana’s understanding, jihad is thus regarded as virtually synonymous with ‘press[ing] down’ ‘infidelity’, a ceaseless war against non-Muslims in general as well as, one supposes, Muslims of other sects, who are regarded by the Ahl-e Hadith as virtual infidels.

Maulana Muhammad Hanif, who preaches at the Jamia Masjid Loharan Wali in Attock, belongs to the Barelvi sect. The Barelvis follow a range of popular Sufi customs and beliefs which the Wahhabi Ahl-e Hadith and other Sunni groups, such as the Deobandis, regard as wholly ‘un-Islamic’ and as akin to polytheism. Accordingly, they regard the Barelvis as virtual apostates. The Barelvis answer them back in the same coin, branding them as unambiguously outside the Muslim pale. Radical Ahl-e Hadith and Deobandi activists have been responsible for blowing up Sufi shrines in Pakistan and killing large numbers of Barelvis, including their leaders. Not surprisingly, then, Maulana Hanif interprets jihad principally to galvanise his fellow Barelvis against the Wahhabis and the Deobandis, who, in the Pakistani context, appear as much greater and immediate threats to (the Barelvi version of) Islam than non-Muslims.

Maulana Hanif commences his impassioned lecture by referring to the war fought between Khalid bin al-Walid, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, and a false prophet named Musailama, shortly after the Prophet Muhammad’s death. By claiming to be a prophet after the Prophet Muhammad, Musailama, the Maulana relates, defied the general Muslim belief that Muhammad was the last prophet. This, he says, necessitated the launching of war or physical jihad against him. ‘Both sides raised the cry of Allahu Akbar (“God is Great!”), which scared the companions of the Prophet because they did not want to kill the believers in Oneness of Allah,’ relates the Maulana. But Khalid insisted that they must fight on, for the followers of Musailama had denied the finality of the prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad. Finally, the false prophet and his soldiers were killed.

The lesson that Barelvis must learn from this example, Maulana Hanif underscores, is that they must forever stridently oppose, resorting to physical violence in the name of jihad if need be, all those who deny the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad, including and particularly those who, in his estimate, falsely call themselves ‘Muslims’. These are people, he says, who are, in effect, ‘rebels against Islam’, and who, though they take the name of the Prophet Muhammad ‘on their tongues’, do not actually believe him to be God’s final prophet. He specifies in this regard the Qadianis, followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of the town of Qadian in Punjab, who claimed to be a prophet, and whom other Muslims are unanimous in condemning as apostates.

But the list does not stop here, and Maulana Hanif goes on to club the Qadianis with the Deobandis, arch-rivals of both the Barelvis and the Qadianis. He appears to suggest that the Deobandis are somewhat in the same league as the Qadianis in terms of some of their beliefs (a claim that the Deobandis would, of course, would be quick to counter). To press his point, he refers to what the Barelvis regard as anti-Islamic passages in a book by a leading Deobandi cleric, Qasim Nanotawi, noting that the founder of the Barelvi sect, Ahmad Raza Khan, had denounced Nanotawi as an apostate for what he considered to be his un-Islamic views, which he suggests he shared with the Qadianis. He argues that the Deobandis do not share the same beliefs about the stature of the Prophet Muhammad as the Barelvis, and, that, hence, the Deobandis are, along with a host of others, including the Qadianis, firmly outside the Muslim pale. Further in his speech, he seems to equate activists of the Deobandi-inspired Tablighi Jamaat, the largest Muslim religious movement in the world, with the deadly Kharijites (lit: ‘those who secede’), who were responsible for the slaughter of Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and the fourth Sunni Caliph and are not considered to be proper Muslims at all by Muslims in general.

Far from suggesting dialogue with the Deobandis and other Muslims (and with people of other faiths as well) in order to resolve their differences or to agree to live harmoniously despite them, Maulana Hanif insists on stressing and reinforcing these divisions, which serve as vital markers of identity that mark off the Barelvis from others and reinforce their claim to being the only ‘true believers’. He goes to the extent of insisting that ‘there will always be dispute between the rebels [non-Barelvis] and the defenders [Barelvis] […] They will never unite.’ Even the slightest hint of pan-Muslim ecumenism across the sectarian divide is thus to be stamped out as sheer anathema.

With clerics of each Muslim sect describing their own sect as the sole authentic Islamic community, branding all others as deviant, un-Islamic and, sometimes, even as apostates, it is hardly surprising that efforts to promote dialogue between the different Muslim sects have proven to be virtually impossible. For the same reason, genuine inter-faith dialogue for justice, compassion and harmony between Muslims and others continues to flounder, often facing stiff opposition from self-righteous clerics, who believe that they alone possess the truth and that everyone else, and all other religions, are wholly false and ungodly. It is as if they know the mind of God, and that all other creatures of His are His enemies. This problem is made even more intractable by routine appeals to violence in the name of jihad, symbolic, at times, physical on other occasions, in order to actively fan hatred against other sects and people of other faiths, as the Pakistani case so starkly illustrates. 

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore

Source:  New Age Islam