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Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia

Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia by Ayesha Jalal. Harvard University Press, 2008, 373 pp.

Jihad is a deceptively simple topic. It seems to have only two sides—the inner struggle, which the faithful engage in to purify themselves of negative qualities, and the outer struggle, which may call an individual to go to war and lay down his or her life. But when probed deeper, both the inner and outer struggles have countless gradations which cannot be analyzed in a vacuum. Politics, personalities, competing theologies, history, and culture play significant roles in determining how jihad is manifested in a particular society.

Ayesha Jalal, a professor at Tufts University and an expert in South Asian history, takes on the daunting task of analyzing the concept of jihad in Partisans of Allah. Dr. Jalal believes that many leaders in the contemporary world have taken the concept of jihad to suit their political purposes. This has led policy makers in the West to misinterpret Islam to the same degree as the colonial powers did in South Asia. Neither of these statements is new or particularly insightful, however, Jalal’s method of analysis is certainly unique. She uses historical writings of numerous South Asian leaders to show the many facets of jihad. Her aim is to restore what she believes is the essential meaning of jihad—an ethical struggle to be human.

One may logically ask why analyze jihad in South Asia and not in the Middle East. After all, Islam originated in the Middle East. Concentrating on South Asia allows Jalal to escape somewhat from preconceived notions many may have about Islam in the Middle East. South Asia is also home to one of every three Muslims in the world and a region where many strands of Islam have come together to coexist with Hinduism, Christianity, and other religions for hundreds of years. This multicultural, multiconfessional subcontinent provided Dr. Jalal an ideal backdrop to show the many interpretations of jihad and how it can be and has been used by leaders to further their personal or political desires completely unrelated to theology. She further explains that once Islam was planted in the subcontinent, it developed on its own trajectory, which was not closely influenced by Middle Eastern writers.

Jalal takes the reader on a journey through the Islamic history of the Indian subcontinent. Starting with pre-colonial times in the early fourteenth century, she analyzes influential Muslim theologians, poets, and other leaders right up to the present time to show what contextual factors, especially colonialism, likely led each to adopt a particular view of jihad. Generations of these influential writers began their careers with very polemic ideas. Each, however, modified their views in response to influences of other contemporary leaders and the wishes of their followers. This showed that their view of jihad was not likely rooted in a particular religious belief, but rather may have been influenced by the negative aspects of colonial rule or their own personal desire to lead. This dynamic situation in South Asia allows Jalal to explore fully the varying interpretations of jihad.

One of the most interesting areas Jalal explores is how the Sufi strand of Islam worked to temper the more radical interpretations of the religion. Sufism flourished in South Asia because many Hindus found commonalities between it and the mystical tradition in their own religion. South Asian Sufis never completely accepted the primacy of jihad as an outer struggle and preferred to concentrate their efforts on their inner struggle to perfect their own behaviors and thoughts. Unlike the Middle East, where Sufi teachings had little effect on the general population, in South Asia, Sufism played a large role in the discourses amongst the leaders. Jalal believes Sufi thought was very effective in influencing the different interpretations of Islam in South Asia and it was the Sufis’ focus on the inner struggle definition of jihad which revealed the true meaning.

Though Jalal clearly shows how the concept of jihad was in a constant state of evolution in South Asia, she paints a very narrow view of the South Asian political culture. She implies that all Muslims in South Asia reacted negatively to colonial rule and this reaction made them follow one of the various self-styled religious leaders who were encouraging jihad against the colonial powers. What she misses is that secularism and liberal ideals brought to the Indian subcontinent by the colonial powers, particularly by the British, played a significant role in shaping the thought of South Asians, including Muslims. Their influences were substantial and may have had as much of a tempering effect on the more radical elements of their society as the Sufis.

Despite this shortcoming, Dr. Jalal’s book is one that strategists should study to gain a deeper perspective on the dynamics of Islam and jihad in South Asia. The interpretations of the religion in that region of the world differ enough from the Middle East to make this book an important part of the South Asian strategist’s permanent library.

Lt Col Rizwan Ali, USAF

National War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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