| Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia
by Ayesha Jalal
Harvard University Press, 2008
The upsurge of jihad among Muslims around the world has forced intellectual comparisons with ‘terrorist’ movements in Europe. Western scholars have found similarities between the policies of al-Qaeda today, and both those of the anarchist movement before World War I and the radical leftist movements of the second half of the 20th century in Europe. There is even an ‘intellectual content’ alluded to in al-Qaeda’s ideological archive, along similar lines as the political justification given by the anarchists as they planned their assassinations. The anarchists accepted the ‘collateral damage’ of the loss of innocent lives because the victims belonged to those “satisfied with the established order, all the accomplices and employees of Property and the State”, in the words of Emile Henry, the French anarchist who in 1894 planted a bomb in the Gare St Lazare, in Paris. For his part, Osama bin Laden has also justified the killing of innocent people in the attacks of 11 September 2001, saying: “They had chosen their government by way of their own free will, a choice which stems from their agreement to its policies.”
The creation of disorder is the most lethal weapon available against those who wish to arrange the world into a pattern commanding global consent. The agents of Islamic disorder adopt chaos as their objective because their voice is either not backed by those they wish to represent, or because the ‘enemy’ is simply too strong (due to global support) to tackle head-on. The idea is to break the order that has been created. In the first phase, this is to be replaced with disorder; later, intellectual solutions – provided by thinkers that al-Qaeda has adopted – are to be applied, in order to create a new order. Once again, the philosophers of al-Qaeda posit an alternative utopia, just as such figures such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin did for anarchism. The only difference in this case was that Europe never put its faith in an anarchist creed, while a surprising number of Muslims throughout the world believe, albeit to varying degrees, in the Islamic vision put forward by the philosophers of al-Qaeda.
One reason why the Islamic utopia – based on the negation of the modern state and liberal democracy – is alive and well is that it cannot be criticised. In Europe, the ‘disorder’ of the city-state was rebuked in the mental republic posited by Plato, a critique from which the West benefited, as it was able to remove some of the flaws of democracy. But the ‘disorder’ of the historical city-state of Medina cannot be criticised due to its prophetic reference and its confirmation through the divine revelation that the Muslims call wahi. It is from the city-state of the Prophet Muhammad and its tribal template that the Muslims of today extrapolate their ideal state. Muslims reject the modern nation state and its separation of religion and politics, and replace it with a global supranational umma, a concept that obliterates frontiers and joins disparate Muslim communities into a transnational caliphate. Since Medina was based on strict tribal law as laid down in the unchangeable Quran, the umma must be ‘retribalised’ for the realisation of an Islamic utopia.
So arises the most crucial part of this process – and that which justifies historian Ayesha Jalal’s writing of the new Partisans of Allah. Muslim thinkers began to conceive the modern state vis-à-vis the Quran during the 18th century, and quickly came up against the obstacles of modern ‘impurities’ that were rampant in their societies. Many of these were put down to the reinterpretations that had been imposed on the Quran by the local jurists of the various schools of Islam.
From the traditions of these thinkers was born, during the early 18th century in modern-day Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab, who urged apostasisation and death to Muslims who would not give up the impurities of modern times. It was he who coined the term jahiliyya for them, a reference to pre-Islamic Arab individuals, denoting a negation of Islam and a return to darkness. This term was next applied by the 20th-century Indian thinker Abul Ala Maududi, who used it non-violently in his description of Muslims not qualified to be citizens of the Islamic state. Maududi was to become the reigning Islamic thinker of Pakistan after 1947.
Ayesha Jalal focuses much of her work on the jihad, waged in the Subcontinent, of Sayyid Ahmad Shaheed (1786-1831), as an example of perhaps the most immaculate articulation of the theory of jihad. Sayyid Ahmad may have conceived his holy war against the East India Company while living in Rai Bareilly, in central North India, but he moved his warriors to the modern-day NWFP because he thought that the Pashtun communities living in the tribal areas under Sikh ‘occupation’ were better Muslims than the settled Muslims of the plains. Here was the first indication that an Islamic utopia could be constructed more easily in a tribal society. Most likely, Sayyid Ahmad was hoping to take on the British after creating in the NWFP a mini-state on the pattern of Medina, and probably hoped to reform the ‘contaminated’ Muslims of the plains as a means of enhancing his challenge to the British.
Centuries later, al-Qaeda likewise re-discovered the Pashtun, straddling the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as a promising tribal matrix in which an Islamic utopia could grow into a centre of the eventual global caliphate. During his own time, Sayyid Ahmad was feared by Muslims in the urban centres of India, because they thought he would use ‘retribalisation’ as a method of returning them to the ‘true faith’. Today, Pakistan fears al-Qaeda and its Pashtun foot soldiers, as it sees the same kind of process in evidence under what is being called Talibanisation.
Sayyid Ahmad’s stereotype
Jalal has a fair claim to understanding the various communal narratives of Muslim India, as was proved in her monumental work from 2000, Self and Sovereignty: Individual and community in South Asian Islam since 1850. Her latest book largely grew out of this earlier work, and her identification of one of the most ideologically ‘explained’ holy wars of 19th-century India is intended to explain the location of al-Qaeda inside Pakistan’s tribal areas in the 21st century.
The story goes like this. In 1826, Sayyid Ahmad, convinced of his own semi-divinity and admired by many for his exact adherence to Islam, marched from Rai Bareilly towards Peshawar with an ‘army’ of 600 local Muslims optimistically posing as warriors. The aim was to establish an Islamic state in the land of the Pashtun. As Sayyid Ahmad meandered between these points, he was greeted by Muslim rulers who proved far from keen to support his jihad. In Kandahar, however, 200 Pashtun warriors did join him, clearly in expectation of the loot that jihad, in their view, would inevitably bring in its wake. Some members of the Yusufzai tribe (one of the largest of the Pashtun tribes), irritated by Sikh rule, also joined his lashkar. These converts notwithstanding, if Sayyid Ahmad thought he was walking into a people of uniform views, he was mistaken. The Durrani Pashtun of Peshawar, for instance, were unenthusiastic about his movement. Scared of internecine Pashtun warfare, they had already allied themselves with the Sikhs.
In his force’s first engagement with the Sikh army, near Peshawar, Sayyid Ahmad suffered a defeat. His soldiers had taken to looting after the first attack, and thereby allowed the Sikhs to regroup and attack again. The next battle met with the same fate, with the Pashtun warriors starting to loot before the battle was won, and subsequently failing to regain a decisive edge. The warriors fought over the spoils of war, and the various groups carried off what they thought was their share; meanwhile, few were paying much heed to Sayyid Ahmad, despite the fact that the lure of loot had attracted some 80,000 local warriors to his force. A part of his army finally refused to fight, and Sayyid Ahmad was eventually poisoned by the Durranis, who feared his growing spiritual power.
Jalal notes that the parallels with recent events are shockingly close. Sayyid Ahmad’s main objective was the expulsion of the British from India, while Osama bin Laden’s foray into Pakistan was also a phase in his jihad against America. Sayyid Ahmad was under pressure from the puritans of the faith from India to first wage war against the “Muslim infidels”; for this, he had to enforce Sharia law on the Pashtun population of Hazara, which was under his military control. “The scope of the laws was broadly defined to include the compulsory enforcement of Islamic injunctions relating to prayers and fasting,” the author writes,
as well as a ban on usury, polygamy, consumption of wine, distribution of a deceased man’s wife and children among his brothers, and involvement in family feuds. Anyone transgressing the sharia after swearing allegiance to Sayyid Ahmad was to be treated as a sinner and a rebel. Any breach was punishable by death, and Muslims were prohibited from saying prayers at the funerals of such people. Two weeks later, after another meeting of tribesmen, Sayyid Ahmad began appointing judges in different parts of the frontier … the moves infringed on the temporal powers of the tribal chiefs and seriously undermined the prerogatives of local religious leaders.
As Pakistan loses more and more territory to al-Qaeda and its Taliban warlords, the Sharia is being imposed on the ‘conquered’ Muslim communities. South Waziristan has been declared an emirate of the Taliban, from where attacks are mounted in Pakistan. Just as the funds at Sayyid Ahmad’s disposal came from India, so too is the money spent by South Waziristan warlord Baitullah Mehsud emanating from the Arabs of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Prohibitions in areas far from his headquarters include violent bans on music and entertainment video, live theatre and cinema, and girls’ education.
The process unleashed by Osama bin Laden in Pakistan is hostile to local folk culture. So too was the jihad of Sayyid Ahmad, though the latter’s army was weaker than the Sikh overlords of the 19th-century Frontier, and the local Muslim population was not ready to accept him. The clergy of Hazara were subsequently able to stand up and oppose Sayyid Ahmad when he tried to impose ushr, a high agricultural tax. In contrast, in Pakistan today many sympathise with al-Qaeda, as populations living under its control are persuaded by the same varieties of intimidation that have been practised by those who have historically spread the ‘true faith’ through jihad.
The tribal museum
Pakistan has long maintained a policy of ‘protection’ of the tribal way of life in large stretches of Pashtun territory along its border with Afghanistan. In the past, many anthropologists have defended this ‘tribal museum’ policy, because it has tended to protect a way of life from the encroachment of modern socialisation and urbanisation. Increasingly, however, others see the retention of these policies as part of a national military strategy. Pakistan first used the ‘tribals’ in the 1948 war with India in Kashmir. This approach was again used during the 1965 war, and was to be used one more time (with global and American support) against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Pakistan Army was also to use some jihadi militias containing Pashtun elements in its policy of ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, when it supported the Taliban government during the late 1990s.
Jalal notes that in the battlefield of Balakot, where Sayyid Ahmad was eventually martyred in 1831, another kind of crossborder jihad is today being carried out by other mujahideen force. “To this day Balakot, where the Sayyid lies buried, is a spot that has been greatly revered,” she writes, “not only by militants in contemporary Pakistan, some of whom have set up training camps near Balakot, but also by anti-colonial nationalists who interpreted the movement as a prelude to a jihad against the British in India.” Not far from Balakot, the votaries of Sayyid Ahmad are now fighting on the side of al-Qaeda against ‘imperialist’ America and its client state, Pakistan; in so doing, they are killing more Muslims than Americans, just as the Sayyid killed more Muslims than Sikhs.
In the territories where al-Qaeda has installed its Arab and Central Asian warriors, the memory of Sayyid Ahmad’s jihad has not faded, because the narrative of Pakistani nationalism has not been allowed to intervene in these areas. The seven tribal agencies of Pakistan are ‘pristine’ territory, where ancient memory reinforces an honour-based society that lives on the basis of weapons. In Bajaur, where in 2006 a CIA-directed air attack killed 18 civilians, the memory of Sayyid Ahmad’s 19th-century jihad is particularly vibrant.
Bajaur itself acquired strategic importance during the Soviet-Afghan war, as it was from here that the attacks on the Soviet troops began during the early 1980s. They were backed by the jihadi training camp of Chamarkand, run since 1920 by an organisation called Jamaat al-Mujahideen, itself established by the remnants of Sayyid Ahmad’s jihad. Indeed, the Jamaat claims that its own activities are “only a continuity” of the Sayyid’s movement. The Jamaat sent (and continues to send) its warriors to Kashmir to fight Pakistan’s first war against India because it claims Kashmir to be a part of Sayyid Ahmad’s jihad. Due to the Jamaat’s puritanism and its handling of the training camp of Chamarkand, Bajaur was destined to become the transit camp for all Saudi-Wahhabi-linked militias fighting in Afghanistan. It is because of this old link that al-Qaeda’s ‘high-value’ targets have often been detected here, and air action – probably through American drones – directed on them by the Pakistan Army.
In Pakistan, where al-Qaeda’s war against America is being fought through the process of Talibanisation, culture is being exterminated in favour of a transformation that relies on retribalisation. And this process has taken place not only in the Pashtun hinterland, which was already allowed to remain under tribal control, but also in Punjab, where tribe-oriented panchayats have begun to assert themselves in parallel to the state’s declining judicial system. Much of Islamic law pertaining to crime, such as qisas and diyat (murder and blood money), presumes a tribal milieu for its implementation. The state has to be eliminated if one wants to fight a war in the name of Islam, because Islam is not clear on the principle of the ‘monopoly of violence’ of the state in the amr and nahi injunctions of the Quran. Punishment for deviation from what is deemed good, for instance, can be inflicted through vigilante action, and not strictly by the state. Ironically, jihad as punishment for deviation from the ‘good’ seeks to win against the enemy by first undoing the state it ostensibly seeks to defend.
The vehicle of this undoing is the madrassa, where the narrative of jihad is alive and well in the shape of the Deobandi memory of Sayyid Ahmad. As alluded to earlier, the jihad promoted by the madrassa kills more Muslims than infidels, in the tradition of the Sayyid. Like him, al-Qaeda has come to the tribal areas of Pakistan looking for a people who can embrace jihad with the passion that only tribal societies can offer, built as they are on the cult of war. After 2001, al-Qaeda went looking for a suitable next home in quintessentially tribal Somalia, but was foiled by the US and its allies. Instead, it has successfully entrenched itself in Pakistan’s tribal areas, due to the allegiance it receives from the local population – always with memories of Sayyid Ahmad shining in their eyes. In addition, the large hinterland of urban Pakistan resonates strongly in favour of Osama bin Laden’s promised jihadi utopia.
In Partisans of Allah, Jalal has effectively debunked the concept of jihad as currently understood. In the aftermath of the 9/11 strikes, American scholar John Esposito was unpleasantly surprised when he tried to discuss jihad with a number of Islamic scholars during a media-hosted roundtable. The scholars’ verdict deviated from the traditional colonial subterfuge that jihad was merely an effort (jahada) to improve oneself, and not to kill (qital). Instead, the scholars, sensing the coming-to-power of al-Qaeda, stated exactly the opposite. Then came another verdict, on the question of whether qital can be only defensive. There too there was no dearth of grounds on which a defensive jihad could be claimed for 9/11 – topped, needless to say, by ‘the injustice of Palestine’. In the light of Jalal’s survey of the subject, it is no longer safe today to give credence to the Islamic scholar who explains the terrorism of al-Qaeda as jihad due to its strategy of fighting the ‘collaborators’ of America – and, hence, the killing of Muslims who do not fight against America as jihad against America. If Jalal has sought to explain jihad, then the historical survey of how the concept has been given different meanings at different times in history is its high point.
~ Khaled Ahmed is an editor with The Friday Times, Lahore.