The Shade of Swords

Muslim Indian journalist M. J. Akbar sets out to chronicle the history of "jihad" (popularly but sometimes misleadingly translated as "holy war") from the seventh century to the present day. His purpose is to provide a context for understanding what he calls "one Islamic response to the perceived world-domination by the United States...[J]ihad stands out through its ability to shift the tides of history on a day like 11 September 2001." Disturbingly, his explanation of the religious context of the September 11 terrorist attacks amounts to an encomium honoring jihad in its most literal and violent manifestations as a vital part of the Islamic faith.

Akbar chooses to explain jihad by celebrating the military triumphs of the Prophet Muhammad and the victories scored by Saladin during the Crusades. In dealing with the latter topic, the author (quite rightly) emphasizes Muslim chivalry in contrast to crusader brutality-even though he brings little that is new to the subject, insofar as he relies heavily on recently published English-language secondary sources. Akbar recalls the protection afforded religious minorities by medieval Muslim emirs and then details the savagery visited on "Saracens" and heretics in Christian states of the Middle Ages. A salutary reminder, all of this, given the hostile comments about Islam made by certain Christian leaders in our country.

The book’s title, The Shade of Swords, is drawn from the prophetic saying that "Paradise is to be found under the shade of swords." Unfortunately, all discussions of Islam in recent months take place under the shadow of September 11 and the ongoing war on terrorism. In that context, it is important to remember that Islam distinguishes between the "lesser" and the "greater" jihad: the lesser (and easier) war against external enemies and the far more difficult struggle to purify al-nafs, the appetitive self within every person, which, as the Qur’an reminds us, "continually incites us to evil."

Akbar acknowledges this important distinction but then brushes it aside. From his introduction: "There are Muslims today, for instance, who will convert jihad into a holy bath rather than a holy war, as if it is nothing more than an injunction to cleanse yourself from within." He derides such approaches as nothing more than an attempt to "suit contemporary ’politically correct’ requirements."

Akbar is certainly right in saying that any discussion of jihad must take account of its manifestations in violent struggle. To do otherwise would be dishonest. Yet he narrows his focus in a curious way (as suggested by his subtitle, "The Conflict between Islam and Christianity"), making the Crusades his defining paradigm for Muslim-Christian relations up through the twenty-first century. Thereafter throughout the book he narrows the discussion further by describing present-day jihad as the struggle of Muslims against the United States. (He omits any mention of the jihad currently being directed by Islamic militants against Christians in Indonesia.)

Certainly, Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda entourage would agree with the notion of targeting America. Akbar, however, despite his repeated references to Al Qaeda, does not analyze the jihad vocabulary in the fatwas of bin Laden, the important Testament of his collaborator Ayman al-Zawahiri (the Arabic text of which has been available on the Internet since December 2001), or the "hijacker’s manual" found in the luggage of Muhammad Atta.

Despite the Muslim-Christian focus announced in the title, Akbar digresses to survey the history of jihad in India. Here he details the victories of warlords, such as Mahmud of Ghazna, over Hindu populations. In the context of Indian history, the author makes the briefest reference-a single sentence only-to the military triumph of the Muslim Mughal emperor Aurangzeb over his elder brother and rival, Dara Shikoh (1615-58).

The story of this rivalry would have been relevant. Dara Shikoh, crown prince and eldest son of Shah Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame), was a mystic and Sufi disciple with an interest in India’s diverse religious heritage. Like his great-grandfather, Akbar the Great, the young prince cultivated good relations with his Hindu subjects. Dara Shikoh studied Sanskrit and collaborated with Hindu pundits on Persian translations of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. His younger brother Aurangzeb (who gained a reputation for ostentatious orthodoxy) secured a fatwa from Muslim legal scholars denouncing Dara Shikoh as an apostate. He then had the crown prince murdered. Once in power, Aurangzeb unleashed holy war against those identified as heterodox within India’s Islamic community (most notably the Shia minority). He also antagonized the Hindu population by imposing discriminatory taxation targeting non-Muslims.

The bitter legacy lingers. While visiting the Faisal Mosque in the Pakistani city of Islamabad in the spring of 2002, I was handed copies of fliers calling on Pakistanis to purify their faith of "pagan" Hindu influences. These texts cited with approval the seventeenth-century example of Aurangzeb and his violence against those who failed to revere sufficiently the precepts of Islam.

Including the story of Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh would have given the author an opportunity to explore a neglected aspect of jihad: the use of takfir (denouncing fellow Muslims as kafirs or unbelievers) as a justification for holy war. The author could have built a coherent history of intra-Muslim jihad by noting thematic similarities between eighteenth-century Wahhabism (which he treats briefly) and the Kharijite and Qarmatian insurrections of the early Middle Ages. All these movements waged jihad against fellow Muslims.

Such a history could then examine the confrontation between Islam and modernity and the embodiment of this conflict in the life of Sayyid Qutb (who died in 1966), the Egyptian Muslim ideologue who condemned twentieth-century Egyptian society as a "new jahiliyah" (age of paganism), where a pious minority found themselves surrounded by secular-minded pseudo-Muslims. Qutb’s themes of alienation were further articulated by the militant group al-Takfir wa-al-Hijrah (Denunciation and Exodus), which was implicated in the violence in Egypt that culminated in the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

For this reviewer the most problematic aspect of The Shade of Swords is its characterization of Muslim-Christian relations. Akbar traces the origin of the Crusades, and their latter-day manifestations up through the twenty-first century, to what he calls "a basic, even fundamental, theological and ideological difference": Islam’s and Christianity’s divergent understandings of Jesus and his salvific role. "It is consequently incumbent upon the church," announces Akbar, "to declare Muhammad an impostor...The Qur’an venerates Jesus; for the church to return the compliment would be suicide."

Such statements-to put it mildly-are unhelpful. They essentialize Muslim-Christian tensions as eternal and irreconcilable. Worse, they fail to take into account recent developments such as the Second Vatican Council and the promulgation of Nostra aetate, with its statement of respect for Islam and other non-Christian faiths. The political dimensions of present-day international conflicts are hard enough to deal with. Let’s not add to these an overlay of theological inevitability.

Published in the 2003-01-17 issue: 
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David Pinault is director of Santa Clara University's program in Arabic, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies. His latest book is the novel Museum of Seraphs in Torment.

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