Jihad in South Asia: A review of ‘Interpretations of Jihad in South Asia: An intellectual History’

Book cover: Interpretations of Jihad in South Asia: An intellectual History

By Farooq Sulehria

June 28, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Unidimensional orientalist explanations of jihad have been convincingly countered by a number of scholars. Only a holistic approach that takes into account multiple factors, such as colonial legacies and contemporary socio-economic and political realities in the Muslim world, can offer a nuanced understanding of the phenomenon. 

However, any investigation into the concept of jihad, popularised by al-Qaida and its South Asian cousins such as the Taliban, also requires an enquiry into “interpretations” (notions) of jihad that appeal to the jihadi outfits that have dominated global headlines since the 1980s. Emphasis on interpretations is vital. After all, jihad is a highly contested term. 

In his award-winning tome, Interpretations of Jihad in South Asia: An intellectual History (2019), Tariq Rehman not only documents the interpretations that have motivated contemporary jihadis; he also demonstrates how aggressive interpretations by the fundamentalist Ulema in South Asia have outwitted defensive interpretations by reformist/modernist Muslim scholars. 

Rehman, however, distinguishes his work from theology and places it “within the discipline of the history of ideas” (p13): “Whereas a theologian is expected to give an essentially theological interpretation of what jihad is, a historian of this idea may trace out what theologians and other intellectuals have said about it and place it in the context of such larger intellectual frameworks as the impact of modernity, the interaction of political forces, and cultural trends. Such a history deals with the formation of an idea and its evolution over time and relates it to the forces which play upon it to give it the meanings and implications it imbibes over time” (p13). 

The distinction is indeed vital because it distinguishes his study from culturalist and orientalist explanations. 

The book begins by identifying 8 Quranic verses used by interpreters in Urdu language exegeses. In total, there are 183 war-related verses (meticulously categorised into six subjects and annexed to the book). The first three, rather dense chapters state the book’s aim and methodology, and narrate interpretive devices such as lexis (lugha), abrogation (nashk), occasions of revelation (asbab al-nuzul), and specification (takhsis al-zaman wa’l-makan). Familiarity with and understanding of interpretive devices is indeed pivotal in any informed debate on jihad, as will be made obvious below.

Chapter 4 (“Jihad and the Family of Shah Waliullah”) through to the penultimate chapter (“Refuting the radicals”) reads like a thrilling history of jihadist ideas. While the focus remains on Quranic exegesis carried out since the 18th century, Rehman understandably travels temporally and spatially beyond 18th century South Asia. His study covers the early centuries of Islam as well as the Muslim empire in Iberia in the Middle Ages. 

In relation to South Asia, Rehman begins his history of jihadi ideas by exploring the interpretations popularised by Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) and his family. This family is important not merely because certain family members led the “jihad” against the Sikh empire in the 1830s; the “Silk Letters conspiracy” against the British colonial rulers in the 1910s was also an intellectual legacy one may attribute to the Waliullah family. 

Chapters 5 and 6 analyse “colonial modernists”[1], notably Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, as well as clandestine movements invoking jihad to resist British colonialism. Rehman identifies four such resistance movements: the Faraidi movement of Bengal, the anti-British revolt of 1857, the Wahabi networks extending from Patna to FATA, and the Silk Letters conspiracy. 

Chapter 7 (“The Age of Mawdudi”), and the next chapter (“Radical Imports”), do not merely serve as a transition from colonial to post-colonial Pakistan but also demonstrate the transnationality of jihadist ideas. The two chapters show that South Asia, in particular Pakistan, has not merely been a receptor of transnational jihadi ideas arriving from the Middle East but has been an exporter of such ideas. Syed Qutab, for instance, was inspired by Mawdudi. 

The next chapter sums up the contemporary jihadist discourses peddled by Hafiz Saeed, chief of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), and Masood Azhar, who heads Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). The second last chapter profiles modernist interpretations aimed at, as the title suggests, “Refuting the Radicals” such as Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar. Prominent among such modernists is Maulana Wahid-ud-Din. 

The above routine summation does not mirror the encyclopedic scope of this rigorously researched study interlaced with scholarly insights. Therefore, instead of offering a routinised review of the book, this author would prefer to flag some key themes (as well as sub-themes) and lessons one may draw on the basis of Rehman’s groundbreaking work.

No rebels

First, none of the exegetes, whether modernist or radical, analysed in this work refute the idea of jihad. Not even the most provocative among the modernists: Syed Ahmed Khan (SAK). While SAK “dismisses the physical hell and heavens, genis, the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary, and so on as either metaphor or misunderstanding” (p119-120), refutation is not applied in the case of jihad. He only unsettles the prevalent idea of jihad. Likewise, his modernist successors continue constructing jihad as a defensive exercise, but none, including Charagh Ali (1844-1895), Mahdi Ali Khan (1837-1907), Shibli Numani (1857-1914) and Anwer Ali (1849-1928), goes as far to refute it altogether. Instead, they all use various interpretive devices discussed above to feature jihad as a defensive measure against the invaders. 

Ironically, radicals deploy similar interpretive devices as well as sources (Quran and Hadith) to justify an aggressive jihad. The only radical departure or exception is Mirza Ghulam Ahmed (1835-1908). However, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed is given short shrift in Rehman’s work because the sect he founded, Ahmediya, is seen as heretical and remains marginalised (besides being a target of state-sanctioned persecution) in Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia. (Because Shia constitute a minority sect in the South Asian context, Rehman has also excluded Shia interpretations of jihad.) 

Second, a singular interpretation of jihad is not possible. Rehman concedes: “…if some readers are looking for a theological interpretation of jihad by the author, they will be disappointed. In any case, even if such an interpretation had been offered, it would have been no more than yet another, rather than the only, interpretation. Indeed, the point of this study is that there are more than one interpretation of ideas; that all interpretations are subject to change because of external dominant discourses, and, hence, there is no fixed, unchanging intellectual monolith called jihad” (p20). 

In other words, it is the balance of social forces that determines the fate of modernist as well as radical interpretations offered in a given time and space. Rehman also acknowledges, “…modernists were not seen by everyone as champions of Islam and forward-looking progressives. They were also regarded as misguided stooges of the West” (p134). This brings us to a third conclusion one may arrive at through the book under review.

Balance of forces

There are four major schools of law for Sunnis: Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi and Hanbali. Chiragh Ali, in his effort to refute orientalising discourses, points out that at least 19 people made schools of law but only four have survived. 

Likewise, in chapter 7, Rehman devotes considerable attention to Mawdudi’s nemesis: Ghulam Ahmed Parwez (1903-1985). Parwez, an anti-West modernist, was an impressive scholar of Islam and had a considerable and growing following in Pakistan of the 1960s. However, as Rehman observes, “While Parwez’s clientele has dwindled in the last several decades as Pakistan has taken a turn to more literal and scriptural interpretations of Islam, Mawdudi has not. The latter has his enthusiastic and diehard supporters in Pakistan and abroad” (p194). 

While Rehman does not explore either the disappearance of schools of law or the dwindling of Parwez’ clientele, the answer is obvious through a comparison of Mawdudi and Perwez. While the former was a beneficiary of Saudi monarchy and state patronage under the Zia dictatorship, the latter was not lucky enough to receive such powerful patronage. 

The next theme, a grim one, is the delineation of and repugnance for the non-Muslims, in particular the Hindus (pp, 82, 86-87, 97-100,107, 183, 232). While Protocols of the Elders of Zion remain in vogue to expose the evil non-Muslim designs, Mawlana Fdl Muhammad Yusufza’i, a contemporary cleric at the Jamia Islamia Banuri Town in Karachi, recommends that “non-Muslim countries should be attacked at least once” (p232). 

The otherfication of Hindus, later non-Muslims, as jihad goes global in the 1980s, begins from a purely economic aspect when Muslims established their first kingdom. Initially, it was their status as Dhimmis that concerned Muslim exegetes. In fatawa-e-Alamgiri, for instance, the treatment of dhimmis “is based on repugnance for their religious views but neither cruelty nor injustice is permitted. Exhibition of repugnance for them, however, is not included in cruelty. For instance, it is suggested that ‘shaking hands with dhimmis is not approved (makruh) and if this is done while in a state of ablution, a Muslim should wash his hand’.”

Later, as the colonial challenge emerges, Shah Waliullah begins to portray Hindus as cheaters and scheming, and holds them responsible for Muslim poverty (p97-98).  To quote Rehman: “The main reason for the downfall of Muslim power in Shah Waliullah’s eyes was, besides Muslims not observing the injunctions of the Shari’ah, their involving Hindus in the affairs of the state” (p99). 

“Since representations are constructed by groups, it is important to remember that one function of such representations is to create, uphold, and legitimize identities” (p66). Hence, at least in the early delineations of Hindus, it might have been an effort to justify domination of Muslims and subordination of conquered Hindus. The references to dhimmis and Rehman’s take on representations is indeed valuable to analysing present-day politics in the Indian subcontinent, where Babri Mosque remains a burning issue. 

Curiously, as Indian nationalism translates into a political project by way of the Indian National Congress (INC) and Deoband ulema ally with the INC instead of Jinnah’s All India Muslim League (AIML), one also witnesses actions and discourses of inter-faith harmony. 

For instance, during the Khilafat Movement, “Hindu speakers were invited to deliver speeches and lectures in mosques. Deoband duly issued a fatwa to justify such lectures by arguing: ‘this is help from the unknown since it is in support of Muslims and God is giving such help through the means of unbelievers’.” (p160). Abul Kalam Azad, himself a Congress leader, in his exegesis refers to Hindu-Muslim relations and in an address to Majlis-e-Khilafat invokes Verse 60:8 to argue in favour of Hindu-Muslim friendly relations (p158).

Shibli Numani (1857-1914), even before the Khilafat Movement, in his famous Maqalat, “takes the unusual step of blaming Muslims for having committed acts of aggression against Hindus” (p130). He points out: “It is we who invaded their country and destroyed their famous temple Somnath and others in Banaras and Muthra” (p130). 

Lastly, what stands out is the Muslim clergy’s embarrassingly provincialised world outlook. Capitalism, colonialism and imperialism as concepts and phenomena remain an enigma to modernists as well as jihadists explored in the book.

Instead of understanding global changes, with Europe as the powerhouse of gigantic transformations in the 17th century onwards, the lens of religion is deployed to view colonial occupation as if the world had not moved on beyond the Crusades. From Shah Waliullah to Mawdudi, the decline of the Muslim empire in the Indian subcontinent is explained away by Ulema through the clichéd slogan: Ummah has strayed from the path of Islam. Or, according to Azad, “lack of warlike preparations had led to the downfall of Muslims” (p162). 

One of the catastrophic consequences of this myopic view of the global challenges posed by colonial and imperial phases of capitalism was the debate on Darul Harb. As against Darul Islam, Darul Harb is a land ruled by infidels and faithful who are supposed to migrate from Darul Harb to Darul Islam. 

At a time when nation-states were emerging and colonialism was expanding, Shah Abdul Aziz (1746-1824), son of Shah Waliullah, was issuing fatwas on the question of India becoming Darul Harb (pp, 83, 105-110, 139, 150-53, 166). Rehman shows that Aziz did not argue for migration. However, for a whole century, a number of scholars, including Abul Kalam Azad, subscribed to the notion of colonial India as Darul Harb. These Darul Harb discourses translated into a human tragedy during the Silk Letters movement. Rehman notes: “One estimate is that about 40,000 people went to Afghanistan between March and April 1920. Kabul’s population was only 60,000 and this influx of so many people strained the resources of that poor landlocked country … food items became so dear that there was nearly a famine in Kabul. Eventually King Amanullah was forced to order the army to throw the refugees out or induce them to leave for some far off location” (p150). 

Modernity to blame?

Though a critique of Rehman’s exceptionally well-researched and comprehensively argued book is somewhat pretentious, two points drew this author’s attention. 

First, Rehman, like many contemporary scholars, does not specifically and precisely characterise Islamic fundamentalism. While he points out that terminologies such as Islamism, political Islam, Wahabism, Salafism, neo-fundamentalism and radical Islamists have been deployed to characterise jihadists (pp1-3), he himself does not subscribe to any one description and switches between various characterisations.

Arguably, an apt characterisation of Islamic fundamentalism is to define it as a political project to capture the state and implement Sharia. There are political projects such as Muslim Brotherhood and Jamat-e-Islami that do not deploy jihad as a strategy to reach their goal of Sharia (they can be described as evolutionists). However, the Taliban or al-Qaeeda want an Islamic revolution, as an urgency, through the barrel of a gun (one can call them as “revolutionists”). However, they all want Sharia after capturing the state. Hence, all are fundamentalists. 

Space does not allow to establish the inadequacy of other terminologies such as political Islam or Islamism. Suffice to point out that every political project deploying religion as their platform is not necessarily fundamentalist. A (provocative) case in point is Turkey’s AKP, the Justice and Development Party. Despite the recent authoritarian turn by Erdogan, the AKP can not be described as a fundamentalist party because it does not subscribe to a Sharia project. It is a conservative party, no doubt, but not fundamentalist. One can also point to Mujahideen-e-Khalq during the 1970s (Iran) or the now-marginalised outfit operating in the Pakistani province of Sindh, Jamiat Ulema-e-Sindh.[2] Both parties can be described as “Islamic socialists”, somewhat analogues to Christian theology.

Likewise, Rehman reduces the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to a reaction against modernity. He quotes Reuven Firestone and Bernard Lewis to build his case (p5). Rehman writes: “…the contemporary militant movements called jihad are a modern phenomenon created, in great part, by the reaction to modernity in general and the international situation in the world as perceived by many Muslims. This is true in the obvious sense that modern conditions – rapid change, dislocation, access to news sharpening grievances against the USA and Israel, a sense of community created by the idiom of a Muslim group spread internationally, the use of technology – did not exist earlier”.

He takes a nuanced position by adding: “But whether it is also true in the deeper philosophical sense of reacting to modernity with its grand narratives and a sense of the triumphant, rational West is yet to be established” (p16). 

However, assigning any primacy to modernity as a causal factor to understanding the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is indeed a reductive approach.[3] A convincing thesis, explaining the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, can not be mounted unless one takes into account the following factors.

First, the failure of capitalist development and the ability of fundamentalist forces to offer an “alternative society” through extensive charity networks comprised not merely of mosques and madrassas but also hospitals, banks, schools and universities. 

Likewise, a failure of Arab/Muslim left-wing projects paved the way for the rise of fundamentalists. In fact, every time a progressive alternative is lacking, what Gramsci calls “morbid symptoms” begin to appear. 

“The jihad card with its attendant vocabulary was one factor among many to bring pressure upon the British but it lacked the widespread appeal which the idea of nationalism – composite Indian (Congress) or Muslim (Muslim League) – had on the masses” Rehman himself notes (p150), while commenting on the marginality of jihadist discourses in the 1920s’ Khilafat Movement. 

Similarly, the patronage lent by imperialism and petro-dollars from the Gulf sheikhdoms bankrolling “alternative society” should also be factored into any cogent analysis of this phenomenon.[4] 

Despite such minor slippages, which in no way distract or undermine the quality of the actual topic, this book is a valuable and timely contribution. 


[1] Rehman employs the term “modernist” for interpreters of Islam who seek to “rethink or adapt Muslim institutions, norms, and discourses in light both of what they take to be ‘true’ Islam, as opposed to how the Islamic tradition evolved in history, and of how they see the challenges and opportunities of modernity.” 

[2] For a detailed discussion, see Achcar, G and Smith, A (2016) “Islamic fundamentalism, the Arab Spring, and the Left”. International Socialist Review. No 103. Accessed on 1/2/2019: https://isreview.org/issue/103/islamic-fundamentalism-arab-spring-and-left. Also, see Sulehria, F (2020) “Jihad on Screen”. In Abbas, Q and Sulehria,F (eds) From Terrorism to Television. Routledge India. Forthcoming. 

[3] Maxime Rodinson passionately rejected culturalist notion that the Muslim world is not receptive of modernity. See, for instance, Rodinson, M (2015) Marxism and the Muslim World. London: Zed Books, Ch 7, pp 142-162.

[4] I have explored this argument elsewhere in detail. See, Sulehria, F (2022) “Pakistan as an ‘Islamic Zion’”. South Asian Survey. 29(1), pp 61-80.