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'Islamism, a Phoenix waiting to arise from the ashes'

By M J Akbar
February 08, 2016 14:59 IST
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'Small bands of terrorists believe they can destabilise superpowers if they are ready to become martyrs.'
'Since the road to paradise is under the shade of swords, it is a win-win situation for those ready to die for the cause of Allah.'

Incisive editor, brilliant scholar on Islam, and now BJP leader, M J Akbar is at his intellectual best when he dissects the Muslim world and its problems, and offers up a solution from his unique perspective. presents Akbar's R N Kao Memorial Lecture in New Delhi. The second of a 3-part series.

  • Part 1: 'Gandhi became the first non-Muslim to lead a jihad'

    The ideological struggle for the future had begun two centuries before. Two theologians, one Indian and the other Arab, born in the same year, 1703, offered theses that control the narrative till today.

    Shah Waliullah, born in Delhi, died in the 1760s; Muhammad ibn Abd-al Wahab was born in Najd and died in 1787.

    After witnessing Mughal impotence in 1739, Shah Waliullah offered a salient prescription: Shias were apostates (murtadd) who had betrayed Islam and hence beyond trust; he urged Sunni unity; traced Sunni decline to dynastic monarchies which had abandoned the practice of consensus in the choice of caliph; blamed Mughals for wasteful expenditure on monuments rather than public welfare (The Taj Mahal had been built rather recently); and, most significantly, accused Mughal elites of deviation by adopting Hindu practices, and allying with Hindus and Shias. This was shirq, or compromise with polytheism.

    His list of 'sins' is in fact recognition of Mughal inclusiveness, which so perturbed Aurangzeb and which certainly outlasted him.

    His resolution for shirq was a physical and cultural 'theory of distance' between believer and infidel, and advocated a line that resonates powerfully in ontemporary below-the-radar discourse: 'Nearer to Arabia, closer to Allah.'

    His political contribution was significant. When the Marathas entered Delhi in 1758, he invited Ahmad Shah Abdali to cross the Khyber and save Muslim rule. This is, interestingly, a 'threat' which would be repeated for generations, in the rhetoric of leaders like Sir Syed Ahmad and prominent figures of the Muslim League in the pre-Partition phase.

    A new force soon overshadowed such concerns. In 1803, Lord Lake entered Delhi. Shah Aziz, Shah Waliullah's son, responded with a famous fatwa declaring India a Dar ur Harb, or House of War. The British represented, in his view, a threat to Islam. Aziz's disciple, Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi [1786-1831] launched the jihad in the 1820s that would continue under his successors till the 1870s.

    Barelvi's manifesto, written in 1818, shows how close the ideologies of Waliullah and Abdul Wahab were, although Barelvi met Wahabis only when he went on Haj between 1822 and 1824. Barelvi attacked Indians who indulged in shrine worship (going to a dargah) and 'obnoxious' behaviour like singing and dancing during weddings.

    It is easy to see why the Taliban venerate his shrine at Balakot, despite the injunction against 'shrine worship.'

    In Arabia, Wahabis might have withered but for a charismatic disciple, Muhammad ibn Saud, emir of Najd who stunned the Ottomans by conquering Mecca and Medina by 1804. In India, the British began to describe Waliullah's followers as Wahabis, and were forced into bitter battles against the 'Fanatical Host.'

    In 1867, a few ulema from the Waliullah school of thought, led by Maulanas Nanotvi and Gangohi, started a seminary that has become an international force, Deoband.

    However, Deoband's Maulanas, having experienced 1857, accepted the need for collaboration with Hindus against British. They remained deeply committed, though, to cultural distance, initiating what has not matured into identity politics.

    But simultaneously sections of the elite, led by Sir Syed, felt that the British were here to stay and their best interests lay in partnership with the new rulers so that they could regain the administrative and educational ascendancy they had enjoyed in the past.

    Shah Waliullah's inheritance, thereby, broke into two directions: Cultural separation through Deoband, and political separation through Sir Syed. The politics of separation led inevitably to separate electorates in 1909 and Partition in 1947.

    After Partition, Pakistan's Muslim League leaders staved off cultural Wahabism for a while, but lost the political argument very quickly, when they accepted Pakistan as an Islamic State in the objectives resolution.

    Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, from the UP landed aristocracy, thought he was conceding nothing more than words; in fact, he was setting the compass towards General Zia-ul Haq's Sharia-compliant Nizarn-e-Mustafa.

    Pakistan is the first Islamic Republic in the post-colonial era, and 'Islamism' has changed not only behaviour but history books and polity.

    The failure of Islam to keep Pakistan together in 1971 did nothing to weaken its hold on the social and political imagination. While Bangladesh reinvented itself along linguistic ethnicity, a shattered Pakistan reinforced the belief that Islam was the only glue; that is was not Islam which was to blame, but the inability of Muslims to understand their faith.

    The conflation of Islam and nationalism has been a guarantee for instability, because religion has never been the basis for political unity anywhere, including in the history of Muslims. Why else would there be 22 Arab nations?

    Reality of Caliphs and Imagined History

    Internal conflict, which quickly grew into civil war, broke out even in Islam's pristine age, over succession to the Prophet, leading to the Sunni-Shia divide.

    Of the first four 'Rightly-Guided' caliphs, only one, Abu Bakr, died in bed. Umar, Usman and Ali were assassinated.

    Umar was murdered by a Persian servant in 644; Usman was killed in 656 by Mohammed, son of Abu Bakr, because of factional quarrels; Ali was assassinated in 660 by a rebel. In 657 Ali, who shifted his capital to Kufa, faced Muawiya at Siffin, Syria, in what is known as the Battle of the Camel.

    Muawiya, with the Prophet's Aisha as an ally, accused Ali of instigating the murder of Usman. Muawiya seized power after he forced the resignation of Ali's son Hasan, and established the first dynasty, that of Umayyads.

    When Muawiya died in 680, Hasan's brother Husain challenged Muawiya's son Yazid, but, heavily outnumbered, was killed at Karbala in 680, a martyrdom that is central to Shia lament.

    Blood and confusion travelled together till the comparative stability of the reign of Abdal Malik.

    Caliphates became dynasties; 14 Umayyads, 37 Abbasids; and, in the last phase, 26 Ottomans between 1517 and 1924 when Ataturk abolished the institution and turned Turkey towards modernity. In 1517 Selim the First was unsentimental when he wrested the caliphate from Arabs; he claimed the office by the right of the sword.

    As in any dynasty, great names mixed with mediocre ones. The best caliphs had open minds. Harun al Rashid (786-809) had Sanskrit texts and Greek philosophers translated for his House of Wisdom in Baghdad. He also partied with his court poet Abu Nawwas, who wrote classical verse.

    The Ottoman Caliph Bayezid sent boats to rescue Jews expelled by the Spanish Inquisition.

    In 1839 Abdulmecid the First introduced secular law alongside Sharia, gave non-Muslims equal rights, banned slavery and opened taverns.

    Abdulhamid, who ruled between 1876 and 1909 and was the last caliph to exercise genuine power, loved music; his daughters played the piano and sons the cello. On Thursday nights he would join Sufis in dhikr, and the next day his imperial orchestra would play Offenbach on the way home after Friday prayers.

    Western music was played at imperial banquets. His wife Sehsuvar was painted reclining with Goethe's Faust in her hand -- and not a veil in sight. French was a court language, along with Persian, Armenian and Arabic.

    None of them would have been considered 'legitimate' by today's Islamist radicals.

    The office of the caliphate has Quranic sanction. It derives from khalf, meaning 'left behind', or inheritor. It might surprise some hardliners to learn that the model caliph in the Quran is King David. Verse 2:30 says: 'Behold, thy Lord said to the angels, I will create a viceregent [khalifah] on earth.'

    The first was Adam, the second was David. The great example of faith against odds, and belief in Allah as a prerequisite for victory, is that of David who fought Goliath.

    Verse 2:249 says: 'How oft by Allah's will hath a small force vanquished a big one? Allah is with those who steadfastly persevere.'

    This verse inspires the conviction that numbers do not matter on a battlefield as long as you have faith. In today's context, therefore, small bands of terrorists believe they can destabilise superpowers, if they are ready to become martyrs.

    Since the road to paradise is under the shade of swords, it is a win-win situation for those ready to die for the cause of Allah.

    This is jihad fi sabil Allah: War in the cause of Allah [also, incidentally, the official motto of the Pakistan armed forces].

    No poet used the phrase, shade of swords, more effectively, or evoked the romance of an Islamic past better that that great poet of loss, Sir Muhammad Iqbal, who is rightly revered in Pakistan as an intellectual architect of the two-nation theory.

    Iqbal: Questions and Answer

    Iqbal's most influential work is surely Shikwa, the complaint, followed by Jawab-e-Shikwa, the answer to this complaint.

    Shikwa first recited in Lahore in 1909, was an unusual lament, for it laid the blame for Muslim decline not on man, but on God.

    Ay Khuda! Shikwa-e-arbab-e-wafa bhi sun ley, khugarey-hamd sey thora gila bhi sun ley.

    Hear You, O God! These sad complaints from those of proven fealty;br />From lips accustomed but to praise hear You these words in blame of You!

    Tujhko maloom hai leta tha koi naam tera, Kuwat-e-baazu-e­-Muslim ney kiya kaam tera.

    And can You say that even once one of these did Your name recite?
    It was the might of Muslim arms fulfilled Your task and gave them Light.

    Thhey hameen ek tere maarika-aaraon mein, Khuskiyon me kabhi larhte, kabhi dariyaon mein, Oee aazanein kahbi Europe ke kalisaaon (churches) mein, Kabhi Africa ke taptey huey sahraaon mein, Shaan aakhon mein najanchti thijahandaro ki, Kalima padhte they hami chaon mmein talwaraon ki.

    It is we and we alone who thronged as warriors on Your fields of fray,
    And now upon the land we fought and now upon the salt sea spray.

    We made our azaan's call resound beneath proud spires in Western lands,

    And made that magic melody thrill over Africa’s burning sands.

    The pageantries of mighty kings to us were shows that mattered not,

    Beneath the shade of blades unsheathed in Kalima we glory sought.

    Torhey makhluq-e-Khudawand key paikar kisne? (False gods humbled)/Kaat kar rakh diye kuffar ke lashkar kisne? Kisney thanda kiya aatish-kad-Iran ko? / Kisney phir zinda kiya tazkir­ey-yazdaan (One God) ko?

    Who smashed to dust man's handwrought gods, those things of straw and earth and clay?
    And who did unbelieving hosts to spread Your name and glory slay?

    And who was it that quenched and cooled the fiery urns of fair Iran?

    And in that land did once again revive the worship of Yazdan?

    Aa gaya ain ladhai main agar waqt-e-nimaaz, Qibla hokey zameen-bos hui qaum-e-Hijaaz, Ek hi saf mein khare ho gaye Mahmud-o-Ayaz, Na koi banda raha aur na koi banda nawaz.

    When worship's ordained hour was come, and furious raged the battle's fray,
    Those men of Hijaz, staunch in You, facing Your Ka'aba, bowed to pray.

    Mahmood the king and slave Ayaz, in line, as equals, stood arrayed,
    The lord was no more lord to slave: while both to the One Master prayed.

    Rahmatey hain teri aghiyaar ke kaashanon (homes of unbelievers) par, Barq girti hai to bechaarey Mussalmanon par.

    Yet see how still Your bounties rain on roofs of unbelieving clans,
    While strikes Your thunderbolt the homes of all forbearing Mussalmans!

    Jawab was recited in Lahore too, in 1913, to raise funds for Turkey, then defending Istanbul from the Bulgarian army.

    Allah's answer:

    Qaum mazhab sey hai, mazhab jo nahin tum bhi nahin, Jazba­e-baham jo nahin, mehfil-e anjum bhi nahin.

    Unto a nation faith is life, You lost your faith and fell,
    When gravitation fails, must cease concourse celestial.

    Waz main tum ho Nasara, to tamdud mein Hunud, Yeh Musalman hai jinhey dekh ke sharmaye Yahud, Yunh to Sayyad bhi ho, Mirza bhi ho, Afghan bhi ho, Tum sabhi kuch ho, batao to Muslaman bhi ho.

    From Christians you have learnt your style, your culture from Hindus;
    How can a race as Muslims pass who shame even the Jews?

    You are known as Syed, and Mughal, you call yourselves Pathan;
    But can you truly claim as well the name of Mussalman?

    Aql hal teri sipar, ishq hai shamsheer teri, Mere dervish! Khilafat hai jahangeer teri, Mai siwa Allah ke liye aag hai takbeer teri, Tu Musalman ho to kaqdeer hai tadbeer teri, Ki Muhammad sey wafa tooney to Ham terey hain, Yeh jahaan cheez hai kya, loh-o-qalam terey hain.

    Your shield be wisdom, be your sword the flaming love divine,
    My fond dervish! do you not know that all the world is yours?

    All else but God is at your feet, If sounds your takbeer great;

    If you a Muslim truly are, your effort is your fate.

    To my Muhammad be but true, And you have conquered me;

    The world is nothing you will command my pen of destiny.

    The caliphate cannot be missed in the answer that Iqbal fashioned for Allah.

    (Translations into English, courtesy:

    The Search for Modernity

    If the challenge of the 20th century was freedom from colonialism, then the struggle of the 21st is around the content of nationalism.

    Will the renaissance come from a modern definition of a nation-State, or from a structure like the doctrinaire caliphate, which despite its flaws in practice still created a historic glory?

    The first Muslim leader to answer this question, with astonishing clarity, was Kemal Mustafa Ataturk. He understood the rational causes of Ottoman decline, the loss technological ascendancy, scientific innovation, gender equality and the fact that the caliphate had become defunct as an idea.

    On the eve of the First World War, the Ottoman empire had only around 17,000 workers in a population of 25 million: it was still an agricultural economy. Ataturk could ignore the ulema because his credentials as a nationalist who had saved his country from foreign invasion and dismemberment was impeccable. He had the trust of the people.

    If we want to understand America's dominations of the 20th century, just list some American inventions from the 19th or 18th: Benjamin Franklin gave us the stove, bifocals and lightning rod; Charles Goodyear, vulcanised rubber, Walter Hunt, the fountain pen, safety pin and breech-loading Winchester; Elias Howe, the sewing machine; Joseph Henry (a professor at Princeton), the telegraph; Graham Bell, the telephone. There were 30,000 miles of railways in America by 1860. How many telephones existed in Istanbul in 1880, when there were 60,000 phone lines in America?

    The situation in the Arab world through the 20th century was bleak. Where neo-colonies could not be sustained, the alternative was army-backed dictators or despots who tended to create their own dynasties.

    Worse, these armies were repeatedly defeated by the focal regional foe, Israel; the disaster of 1967, despite the advantage of numbers, became an imperishable memory bewildering the citizen and offering opportunity for a Phoenix waiting to arise from the ashes, Islamism.

    Coming up next week, Part 3 of M J Akbar's fascinating lecture!

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