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Interpreter of jihad

Ayesha Jalal, a Pakistani professor at Tufts University, enters Islam’s hottest debate from an Indian standpoint, rather than the Arab world’s. Zia Haq tells us more...

books Updated: Aug 09, 2008 12:20 IST
Zia Haq

What is jihad? From an India-Pakistan perspective, few people can answer this question better than Pakistani-American writer and Mary Richardson professor of history at Tufts University, Ayesha Jalal.

Her latest book, Partisans of Allah: Meanings of Jihad in South Asia (2008), puts this core concept of Islam in perspective for the subcontinental audience.

Jalal began her India tour last week with a talk on the subject at New Delhi’s India International Centre.

This doubled up as her first book launch ever despite authoring as many as seven books. “Historians don’t need book launches,” she says, “politicians do.”

Diminutive and small-framed, but with good-looking angular features typical of Lahore women, Jalal hardly looks like one who can ruffle feathers. But you have to know who she is. Her ancestry is legendary: she is the grandniece of well-known Urdu writer Sadaat Hasan Manto. Her qualifications are thoroughbred: a BA from Wellesley; and PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge.

Jalal’s credentials earned her a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship worth $265,000. Many people found it strange that a Pakistani was teaching Indian history on a global platform.

History may be cast in stone, but historians are all about posturing. Jalal enraged her countrymen when she stated that Mohammed Ali Jinnah had “feet of clay” and that he never actually wanted a separate Muslim state.

Then another torrid saga played out. Jalal shocked the US academia when she sued Columbia University alleging bias after her tenure as professor there was discontinued. She alleged that a lobby of faculty members from India objected to a Pakistani woman teaching Indian history and had “blocked her tenure application”.

Jalal opposed Columbia’s decision to accept a windfall grant from the Hinduja group to set up an institute for India studies. A federal judge in New York’s Southern District dismissed her case because the evidence of bias was, though “suggestive”, rather “thin”.

As a historian, Jalal is a rarity out of Pakistan. In the West, most subcontinental historians focus on India instead and along with Gardiner professor of history at Harvard, Sugata Bose, Jalal forms a formidable duo whose works have thrown bright flashes of light on the cultures of India and Pakistan. Now, we have a historical chance to know Jalal’s partisans of Allah, with her as their chief interpreter.

“Muslims have distorted the normative concept of jihad. The concept of jihad has changed throughout history, from being a spiritual exercise to a temporal one,” she tells the HT during a brief interview. As an original concept, it was meant to be a philosophical jadd-o-jehed or literally a struggle to live an ethical life.

“You are never born a Muslim. You struggle to become one,” she says.

As an armed struggle, jihad could have been called only by the state, upon the advice of the clergy and it could only be fought when Muslims were prevented from practising their religion. “And even then,” Jalal says, “it was meant to be taken up only if there was a reasonable degree of success assured.”

Jalal enters jihad from South Asia rather than from the Arab world. And how. The battle of Balakot, she says, was one prominent example. Syed Ahmad Shaheed of Rai Bareilly in UP fought the Sikhs, who — as allies of the British — had taken the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Jalal uses instances from undivided India to show how the concept of jihad changed.

Now, “non-state actors” had entered the stage of jihad. It began to be fought for territorial purposes and would soon turn into a political weapon to wage war against perceived enemies of Islam. Finally, we would have self-styled jihadis. (Bin Laden?)

But then the two prominent figures who also took it up were Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, a member of the Congress, and Maulana Mawdudi, the founder of Pakistan's Jamaat-e-Islami. Even Mawdudi, considered a fountainhead of mujahideen-like organisations of today, maintained that jihad was duty of the state, and not any private individual or organisation. (Al-Qaeda?)

Today’s jihad may be about the mujahideen and their bomb blasts, but this may change too. “As a historian, I cannot predict how,” she says and “it really depends on what actions we take today, which will determine the future.” Jihad, she argues, is an arrow that may well have missed its mark.