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Both the Modernist and the Radical Interpretations of Jihad Owe Much to Modernity with Its Emphasis on the Non-Binding Nature of Tradition

By Dr Tariq Rahman

January 16, 2019

The following is a summary of the main ideas of my recently published book entitled Interpretations of Jihad in South Asia: an Intellectual History. The book was published by De Gruyter publishers in Berlin in October 2018 but it has not arrived in Pakistan in large numbers so the following summary will enable potential readers to get a brief introduction to the book.

The main objective of the book is to understand how the concept of jihad is interpreted in South Asia. The two main questions which are answered in this book are: what are the major interpretations of jihad in the colonial and contemporary periods in South Asia? And, in what ways are the traditional/ classical Sunni notions of jihad different from those of the modernists (apologists, progressives) as well as radical Islamists?

I have attempted to answer these questions by focusing on the commentaries of the Qur’an in Urdu and other exegetical literature. Basically eight verses of the Qur’an have been taken and the way they have been interpreted by South Asian exegetes, has been recorded. This provides answers to the questions which are posed above. In this brief summary, it would not be appropriate to mention the verses in detail. However, a synoptic reference is possible. These are the verses in Surah al-Baqarah  (2: 190 and 191) which allow Muslims to reciprocate aggression in proportion to its intensity. Then there is a verse (2: 193) which says– what is repeated in Surah al-Anfal (8: 39)-that Muslims must fight till fitnah comes to an end and ‘religion is only for God’. I have also used two verses which suggest that peace and an amicable coexistence with non-Muslims is a desirable state of social existence. The first is from Surah al-Anfal (8: 61) which states that if the enemy is inclined towards peace so should Muslims; and the second is from Surah al-Mumtahinah (60: 8) which says that Muslims should be just and amicable towards those non-Muslims who have not fought them or caused them harm. To balance these peaceful verses, I have also included two verses which are often quoted as advocating eternal aggression. The first is called the ‘sword verse’ (9:5) and the second is called the ‘jiziyah verse’ (9: 29). Both are from Surah al-Tawbah. The first advocates fighting those who associate other powers with God (mushrikeen) using all the tactics of total warfare. The second advocates war against the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) till they are politically subdued (saghirun) and pay the poll tax (jiziyah). As mentioned above, the explanations of these verses have been traced out in thirteen Urdu exegeses (tafasir).

The modernist exegeses are by those who reinterpret the foundational texts of Islam (the Qur’ an and the hadith) to support liberal humanist values. For them jihad is defensive and, in the presence of international treaties of peace, aggressive warfare is not justified. Similarly, armed aggression against one’s own Muslim rulers or those who do not stop the practice of Islam, is not allowed

These commentaries fall into three broad categories: traditional or classical, modernist and radical Islamist. The first are exegeses by exegetes who follow classical models of exegesis such as Shah Abdul Qadir and the exegetes of Deoband. I have also used some of the classical paradigmatic exegeses such as those by Ibn-e-Kathir  and the famous Baidawi and Jalalayn. The latter two have been taught in the madrassas and are still taught in part in their Urdu translations. These have also been studied because of their influence on the Sunni ulema of South Asia. The modernist exegeses are by those who reinterpret the foundational texts of Islam (the Qur’ an and the hadith) to support liberal humanist values.  For them jihad is defensive and, in the presence of international treaties of peace, aggressive warfare is not justified. Similarly, armed aggression against one’s own Muslim rulers or those who do not stop the practice of Islam, is not allowed. They also rule out suicide attacks, the use of non-state actors in guerrilla warfare against anyone and attacks on non-combatants. Among those whose commentaries of the Qur’an have been used in this book are Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Abul Kalam Azad, Ghulam Ahmad Pervez, Wahiduddin Khan, Amin Ahsan Islahi, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi etc.

The third category is of Islamist radicals or militants who interpret the Qur’an and the Hadith in order to justify armed struggle against perceived Western domination and in order to create an Islamic society and state. In this context, I have mentioned the exegesis of Sayyid Qutb of the Ikhwan ul Muslimeen in Egypt which is available in English translation. I have also referred in detail to the exegesis of Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi who is classified as a revivalist not a militant. However, since Mawdudi influenced both Qutb and the Islamists who now operate in South Asia, it is necessary that his work should be given attention. I have also referred to the exegeses of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed and Masood Azhar in this context. The main contention of the Islamists is that the Muslim world is already subjected to warfare by the West and, in the case of Kashmir, by India. As Muslim leaders are unwilling to take up the cause of the subjugated Muslim masses, non-state actors who are willing to do so must do so. They believe that, as weapons of the weak, guerrilla warfare including suicide attacks, are permissible. This argument was given about the situation in Israel and Palestine but has been used in parts of South Asia as well. In short, the Islamists differ from the classical exegetes in that the former said that jihad can only be ordered by a Muslim ruler (amir), whereas the latter assert that in the contemporary context, when Muslim rulers are subservient to Western powers, it can be initiated and continued by non-state actors. Moreover, while in classical theory suicide attacks and the random killing of non-combatants is not allowed, the radical Islamists allow these as the tactics of the weak in an unequal conflict.

One of the questions which the book answers is what interpretive devices are used by different exegetes to reach such diverse conclusions. The devices used for the interpretations of the Qur’an are as follows: semantic expansion/ manipulation; abrogation (Naskh), causes or circumstances of revelation (Asbab ul Nuzul), specification (takhsis al-zaman wal makan), privileging principle over particulars, ideological imperatives, emphases and selection/markedness. For the hadith the last three are mostly used. Moreover, the authenticity of the tradition in question is also invoked. Since the space in this column does not allow me to explain all the uses of the devices mentioned above, I will only refer to two of them.

Both the modernist and the radical interpretations of jihad owe much to modernity with its emphasis on the agency of the individual and the non-binding nature of tradition. Moreover, all trends in the interpretations of jihad can ultimately be linked to the state of Muslim military power in the international context. When it was dominant, jihad was expansionist and triumphalist; when it was subservient to colonial dominance, jihad was interpreted as nothing more than the right of self-defence; and now, in the post-colonial context, jihad is interpreted as the right to resist Western hegemony through unconventional, guerrilla tactics.

This book is not a treatise of international relations, contemporary history or terrorism studies. Thus it mentions these conflicts, their causes etc only in passing and in so far as they are necessary for understanding the exegeses in question. However, the book is relevant for present issues of militancy in the name of religion because it provides an explanation of how foundational texts are interpreted to provide justifications for peace or war.

The author is an occasional, freelance columnist