Book review: Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia

Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, by Ayesha Jalal, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2008, Paperback, 400 pgs, $21.15 Amazon, ISBN-13: 978-0674047365-


by Arnold Zeitlin     18 January 2021

The concept of jihad has roiled the Islamic world and the rest of the world since the beginning of the Islamic era. The Arabic word, ‘jihad,’ means struggle or striving, particularly toward a praiseworthy aim. But tap the Internet, and one gets the definitions that have caused so much controversy. One definition has jihad as a spiritual struggle within oneself against sin. Another has jihad as a struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam. The latter definition has caused so much consternation as the rationale for “holy war,” even against co-religionist Muslims, by the Islamic State, Al-Queda, and numerous other organizations trying to change societies by force. Jihadist no longer means an individual struggling against sin.

Ayesha Jalal, a professor at Tufts University in the United States, in her book, published a decade ago but still valuable in its dissection of the ways of jihad in South Asia, aims to set the record straight.

“By teasing out the shifting interpretations of jihad in different historical phases, I aim to restore its essential meaning as an ethical struggle to be human and thereby more effectively combat the forces of disequilibrium that plague the contemporary world.” Leaving little doubt as to which side of the jihad controversy she stands, Jalal adds:

“Armed struggle in the way of God is a contradiction in terms, without reference to the ethical values outlined in the Quran. Jihad today is a pliable instrument in the hands of a few who are more politically motivated than ethically grounded. Their version of jihad has in turn nourished ill-informed denunciations of Islam, most notably among commentators and policymakers in the West.”

Jalal surveys jihad as it has been proclaimed in South Asia, reaching as far back as Muhammed bin Qasim’s conquest of Sind in 712 and ending in the present.

Jihad as holy war often goes awry, as she illustrates in several examples that take on the appearance of dark comedy.

The charismatic Sayyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly wandered through northwest India in 1826, enlisting an army for jihad against Sikhs.  He welcomed a band of Yusufzai Pathans who joined a battle against 10,000 Sikhs near Nowshera.

“A surprise nocturnal attack ended in disaster;” writes Jalal. “the local recruits thought the success of the attack entitled them to engage in wholesale looting, but as the tribesmen concentrated on collecting goods….the Sikhs were able to regroup and inflict losses on Sayyid Ahmad’s men…”

Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi, angered by the collapse in World War I of the Ottoman Empire to what he regarded as “Christian” forces in Europe, proclaimed jihad in 1919 to liberate India from British rule. He managed to get a fledgling Afghan army massed on the Indian border, but when the time came to fight, “the Afghans did not even cross the Indian border…soldiers refused to obey orders…tribesmen looted the property of their co-religionists, ‘as if the purpose of jihad was to obtain a few yards of cloth.'”

And yet jihad, with the assistance of the American CIA and Pakistan’s InterServices Intelligence (ISI), helped drive the Soviets from Afghanistan, with consequences that distress Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East today.

Jalal notes at that time, maulvis operating madrassas in Pakistan offered their students for jihad.

“As the ISI became used to the influx of American money,” she writes, “the maulvis became addicted to the business of jihad. The existence of a well-run jihad industry made Pakistan a haven for foreign students excited by the prospect of attaining martyrdom by fighting the godless and satanical governments of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.”

Jalal devotes almost an entire chapter to Sayyid Abu Ala Mawdudi, founder of Jamaat-i-Islami, which became a political party with limited impact in Pakistan and Bangladesh. She equates him with Egyptian theorist Sayyid Qutb as initiators of violent jihad.  “True faith demands that the friend of humanity should take up the sword and should not rest until the rights of God’s creation have been restored,” is how Jalal describes Mawdudi’s jihad creed, adding: “Islam left Muslims with no alternative but to wage jihad to establish God’s government on earth.”

Mawdudi’s success in Pakistan was limited, Jalal concludes, adding: “Yet his idea of jihad, which set the temporal quest for power above personal ethics, would have powerful echoes in the Middle East, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as among militant groups in South Asia that sprang up after his death.”

In a conclusion that may be a decade old but still resonates today, Jalal writes of “this constricting of the heart and narrowness of the mind among the would-be partisans of Allah which has reduced the concept of jihad to violent struggle against infidels, whether armed or unarmed — innocent men, women, and children. Like an arrow that has left the bow and flown wide of the mark, jihad in the modern world has become a political weapon with which to threaten believers and unbelievers alike. Only by retrieving the arrow and straightening its jagged edges and twisted feathers can Muslims aspire to attain those high ethical values which are the embodiment of faith-based on submission to God.”