Religion as war
A review of M.J. Akbar's The Shade of Swords. Jihad and the Conflict Between Islam and Christianity.

By Sreeram Chaulia

We went to the jihad filled with joy, and I would go again tomorrow. If Allah had chosen me to die, I would have been in paradise ...

— Ijaz Khan Hussein, a Pakistani pharmacist who fought in the latest Afghan war, when asked if he was disappointed by the Taliban's defeat in January 2002.

Midway through this book, a contentious statement by one of M.J. Akbar's great journalistic peers, Arun Shourie, flashed back to memory. Addressing undergraduates at St. Stephen's College, Delhi, in 1997, Shourie said, "If you perform a thorough study of comparative religions, then Islam emerges as the most fundamentalist and intolerant of all world faiths."

By the end of the book, Akbar managed to convince me that there is little to choose between Islam and Christianity in terms of fanaticism, be it in literal and radical interpretations of the scriptures or in their urge to violence. While the impulsive fury of jihad has become a commonplace topic in present times, it is often forgotten that Christianity has throughout much of history displayed no less militant zeal and warrior mentality in furthering its claim over conquered territories. The Shade of Swords sets the record straight and reaches into the heart of what V.S. Naipaul calls the two central "revealed religions," and their conflicting claims of universality and one-upmanship.

Jihad: An invitation to die

Akbar's conceptual framework in the introduction derides "politically correct" interpretations of Islamic texts as "the first trap to be avoided." Most Muslims understand jihad as jihad al asghar, the war fought on a battlefield, and not jihad al akbar (internal cleansing of impurities). There is hardly any spiritual cleansing involved in jihad against the "infidels" (kaffir), "apostates" (murtadd) and "hypocrites" (munafiqeen). "Islam is essentially a soldier's religion" (p.10). When Prophet Muhammad's follower, Umar, asked if it was true that Muslims who died for the cause would go to heaven and pagans to hell, the Messenger replied, "a single spell of fighting in Allah's cause was better than all the world. Know that paradise is under the shade of swords." (p.11).

The spirit of jihad entered Islam at the battle of Badr (AD 624), when the Prophet led barely 300 believers against his enemies of the Quraysh tribe who were three times stronger and miraculously defeated them. The phenomenal success of Muslim arms in the centuries to come all derived inspiration from Badr, where a heavily outnumbered force of the faithful decimated a much stronger opponent because they received Allah’s help in the midst of battle. Jihad’s wellspring rests on the conviction that "Martyrdom is the Muslim’s duty, victory is Allah’s responsibility." (p.9) The miracle of renewal and the return of victory are to be believed in by those who survive and get defeated, for loss in one battle is merely a temporary setback.

Islamic jurisprudence has, over time, also evolved theological justifications for unrelenting jihad. Muslims remain content in the Dar al Islam, where the Sharia rules all forms of social and religious behavior, but when a Muslim is denied his right to live by his own divine law, "then he is in Dar al Harb, or the House of War, and jihad becomes obligatory upon him." (p.36). Verse 191, Sura 2, of the Quran explicitly enjoins upon the ummah, the community of believers, to punish enemies of the faith in this fashion: "And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out." Coupled with what Akbar calls ‘The Medina Syndrome’ (the perception that Islam is perennially under threat from powerful enemies), the only answer for pious Muslims in despair is "unity, faith and war."

Islam and the Christian threat

The fundamental ideological incompatibility between Islam and Christianity rests upon respective non-acceptance of Christ and Muhammad. Verse 171, Sura 4, of the Quran warns against Christian use of the term "son of God" for Jesus. "Say not ‘Trinity’: desist… Jesus was no more than a messenger of Allah, who is far above having a son." (p.41). The Dome of the Rock inside the Al Aqsa mosque is a challenge to Christians to renounce the Trinity and return to monotheism and Allah. Christians, on their part, sullied Muhammad as an impostor, a libertine and an evil counselor who tricked the Arabs. Equating Muhammad with the devil and anti-Christ, Dante Alighieri's poems confine him to the "eighth circle of hell." By the medieval times, linguistic violence and hatred for each other had become unbridgeable, with geographic contiguity between the Caliphates and the Byzantine empire stoking the fires of Holy War. Popes decided that "Christianity was in danger" and the Church demanded its own martyrs. "One Jihad asked for another." (p.63)

The book of jihad in the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) contains a legend that Muhammad had predicted in his own lifetime that the first Muslim army to invade Caesar's city (Constantinople) would be forgiven all their sins. In the opening tussle for Jerusalem (AD 636), Umar's troops wrested the initiative from Heraclius' superior numbers when "blinding sandstorms blew straight into the eyes of the enemy." Yet another "help from the heavens" against the Jaddals (followers of the Muslim equivalent of anti-Christ).

By AD 730, jihadis had taken Andalusia (Spain), scorched the Goths and were tantalizingly close to Paris, so much so that historian Edward Gibbon wondered whether the day might arrive when "the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Muhammad." (p.51) But the tide turned against Islam by the 11th century, marked by victorious Crusaders reclaiming Jerusalem and mass slaughtering Muslims and Jews. As a mark of savage celebration, the Christians did not remove the rotting bodies from Al Aqsa until Christmas. "Their stench has not gone nine hundred years later," says Akbar, commenting on the outrage that memory still causes in the indoctrinated minds of mujahideen. (p.71) One of Islam's greatest warriors, Saladin the Kurd, gained his revenge in the 12th century and had the satisfaction of getting the Khutba (mosque sermon) read from Al Aqsa in 1187, demanding vengeance against infidels and preaching victory had come not from swords or tactics, but from Allah.

Christians under the Ottoman Empire

After the seat of Islamic power shifted to the Ottoman Turks in late medieval times, Mehmet II revived the jihad against Constantinople, egging his soldiers on to the Prophet's prophecy that ghazis (Allah's warriors) will attain paradise. Even though the Ottoman empire was at times based on tolerance towards Ahl-i-Kitaab (people of the book, Jews and Christians), Mehmet and his successors ensured that no "Christian fifth column" would join hands with the European powers. In edicts reminiscent of the Taliban, minorities were ordered to wear distinguishing headgear and told that "the attitude of non-Muslims should be one of humility and abjection." (p. 89). Orders were given for officials to go to Christian territories like Bosnia to kidnap young Christian boys, circumcise and convert them to Islam and train them as elite Praetorian guards (Janissaries). Ironically, it was the revolt of the Janissaries that triggered the decline of the Ottomans and led to several defeats for Islam. Students of Islamic history in Pakistani madrassas (religious schools) are today taught about this treacherous nature of the infidels.

Green Crescent over Delhi

Afghan warlord Mahmud of Ghazni's sacking of the Somnath temple in AD 1026 was based not just on jihadi logic but on the belief that the pre-Islamic idol, Manat, which escaped the Prophet's wrath, was now resting in the Hindu temples of Gujarat. "In destroying Manat, he had carried out what were said to be the very orders of the Prophet. He was therefore doubly a champion of Islam." (p.101) Mahmud's exploits in India, colorfully recorded by chronicler Al Beruni, were as follows, "Utterly ruined the prosperity of the country, and performed wonderful exploits by which the Hindus were tuned into atoms of dust scattered in all directions." (p.103)

When Babur ordered a jihad against Rajputs at the battle of Khanwa in 1527, his intention may have not been mere looting and iconoclasm, but the language for galvanizing soldiers was the same as Mahmud's. And the language of victory was the same too, "Between the first and second prayers, there was a miracle … the right and left of the army of Islam rolled back the left and right of the doomed infidels." (p.106) Likewise, Babur's grandson, Akbar, wrested victory against Hemachandra from the jaws of defeat in the second battle of Panipat (1556), leading Abul Fazl to exclaim later that it was "Allah's divine wrath against the infidel, a victory for jihad."

While jihad in the Indian subcontinent was primarily waged against Hindus, the "Christian scourge" was an ever-present threat. Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese martial navigator sent to explore the sea route to India, "took pleasure in torturing Muslims by pouring boiling fat on their skins." (p.118). Alfonso Albequerque followed in his predecessor's footsteps and reported back to Lisbon in 1510 that he had slain 6,000 Muslims in four days. "No matter where we found them, we did not spare the life of a single Muslim, we filled the mosques with them and set them on fire." (p.120) When the British finally eliminated fellow European competition for India, the Sultan of Bengal, Siraj ud Daula, suffocated 43 Englishmen to death in Calcutta (infamous as the "Black Hole" incident). Even though the British were less crusading in their expansionism, Akbar notes that the Black Hole "added a moral zeal to their cause."

Muslim separatism and loss of glory

As the seats and appurtenances of power slipped away from the Mughals into the hands of the infidel British, Indian Muslims increasingly took the jihad route as the only way of surviving in Dar al Harb. Shah Waliullah (1703-62), one the earliest theoreticians of the Christian menace in South Asia, analyzed that in the moment of despair, there was only one answer: jihad. He invited Afghan marauder Ahmad Shah Abdali to invade India and oust the Cross, "so Muslims may obtain rescue from the hand of the unbelievers." Like Waliullah, Jamaluddin Afghani, an Iranian mullah, went around the subcontinent preaching that the Western-Christian advance from Africa to India can be reversed by pan-Islamism and jihad supported by science and technology. Waliullah's pupil, Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi, took the struggle one step further and launched an "eternal jihad" against kaffirs and troubled the British, the Sikhs and the Hindu rulers of North West India endlessly in the 19th century. The Barelvi-inspired Risala-Jihad war song, ranting "fill the uttermost ends of India with Islam, so that no sounds may be heard but Allah! Allah!," struck terror in British hearts during the 1857 revolt.

The Russians were equally embattled by sporadic Islamic "armies of retribution" that intermittently sprang up without prior notice in the Caucasus and Afghanistan, terrorizing garrisons and forts. Ghazi Mullah and Imam Shamyl organized hordes of jihadis across Central Asia declaiming that not a single pilgrimage would be accepted by Allah if a Russian existed in their midst. The legend of Shamyl lives to exhort holy warriors in Chechnya and Daghestan today.

Akbar opines that the Muslim separatist claim in the Indian subcontinent was a direct result of the faltering fortunes of political Islam in South and Central Asia. Muhammad Ali Jinnah could easily tap into the Dar al Harb bogey in the 1940s, stretching the line of lament and loss felt ever since the Mughals were sidelined after 1857. Muslims in India began viewing themselves distinctly as a minority only after the Christian takeover of Delhi. "Jinnah fertilized a fear from the Islamic subconscious" and successfully spearheaded the partition of India that led to the creation of Pakistan in 1947. (p.183) Gandhi had attempted harnessing jihad into a non-violent path during the Khilafat agitation of the early 1920s, but "the Muslim mind could not understand the sanctity of non-violent jihad for the liberation of the holy places." (p.175) Khilafat leaders were "relieved at a jihad that had become violent" in the Moplah rebellion and never looked back at the unified India chimera after that. Though Jinnah idolized the secular Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Akbar likens him as closer to Saladin, a saviour of Islam when it was perceived to be in peril.

Jihad in the age of Osama

Osama bin Laden is in the tradition of the 11th century Iranian Hasn-i-Sabbah, a mastermind of assassinations and guerrilla warfare who commanded a network of missionaries and terrorists who were the most feared force of the time. Christian crusaders like Richard II and Arab emirs who permitted Christians to triumph were endlessly terrorized through suicide missions remotely controlled by Sabbah from the Alamut castle.

When bin Laden issues fatwas laying down "the ruling to kill the Americans - civilian and military - is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country", it is the spirit of Sabbah, Saladin and thousands of other mythic warriors possessed by intense hatred of Christianity. Bin Laden's constituency comprises Muslims the world over who "possess a deep and powerful anger against the Christian West, an anger provoked by slander against their beloved prophet, bred by unceasing war, and now nurtured by Muslim impotence against Israel." (p.192) The anger of the "Muslim Street" is not merely socio-economic, as some are positing. Muslim anguish is about departed glory, contrasted to Jewish revival after 2,000 years backed by the secular West. As has often happened in the past, Muslim radicals have latched on to certain enemies to explain the current decay in the holy lands and around the world. They "need someone to blame, apart from themselves. America is necessary." (p.198)


Akbar often muses through the book how Pakistan, a homeland for Muslims, "turned jihad into an instrument of state policy from its inception" and became "the breeding ground for the first international Islamic brigade in the modern era." The answers only partly lie in the machinations of the Pakistani army and intelligence and more substantially in the "sources of anger that have never deserted the Islamic mind. Pakistan's anger against India is larger than the problem over Kashmir." (p.162) The Taliban, who were until recently the firmest allies of the Pakistani state and clerics, could not have been mistaken for soldiers of "true Islam" and trained in Pakistan if it were not for this rage and Islam's dependence on enemies to fortify itself. Violence against Pakistani Christians like the Masihs under blasphemy laws cannot simply be an issue of Sharia and theocracy. Since the recruitment for jihad is done in the mind, Akbar advises America that it "cannot fight a battle in the mind only with special forces and cruise missiles." (p.213)

The Shade of Swords is the most honest and candid survey produced in print about the roots of rage in Islam and Christianity. Akbar has resolved any doubts about the contemporary relevance of perceived injustices of history and set at rest apologist arguments that the "revealed religions" do not in themselves contain the sparks of bitter hate and that only a few "misguided" zealots have distorted peaceful faiths. What is misguided to the dilettante columnist and careful politician is actually "holy" for the initiated. The secular world can ill afford to assume that the ghosts of jihad have been buried in the recent Afghan war. They should never fail to reckon with the faithful child who can walk with complete calm under the shade of swords.

BOOK REVIEWS (September 5 2002 2:02:20 AM )

BOOK REVIEWS (September 5 2002 2:02:20 AM )

BOOK REVIEWS (September 5 2002 2:02:20 AM )

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