September 19, 2020
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Unholy Jehad

The very concept of Jehad has been hijacked outside India. It is high time Indian Muslims showed the way forward with a vision of the 21st century and beyond.

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Unholy Jehad
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Jehad has become a household name today. Every time the word comes up, swords start dangling, bombs start exploding, planes start crashing and trains start burning in our imagination. We hear the sounds of Allah-u-Akbar followed by cries of hapless, innocent people. Faces of Osama and Saddam immediately appear on our mental screens, as do those of hundreds of other faceless young men and women all over the world, who choose to explode themselves as human bombs. And yet -- and yet, just a few decades ago, the word Jehad was quite benign, its use mostly restricted to a few academic and Islamic circles.

The concept of Jehad, which is widely understood as holy war, came into existence nearly 1400 years ago. Following the message from God, when Prophet Muhammad started preaching the gospel of Islam among the existing tribes of Quraysh in Mecca (610 A.D.), his message was met with a strong opposition as had been those of his predecessors in the region -- Moses and Jesus -- at the hands of the ruling tribe.

Harsh punishments, even death, was often prescribed for those who accepted Muhammad’s message of Islam. To escape that persecution and attempts on his life, Muhammad, and a few of his followers, had to flee Mecca to Ethiopia and later Medina, where the message of Islam found wider acceptance. Muslims who were poor and weak, and were made slaves, continued to be the victims of the brutalities of Quraysh in Mecca. The concept of Jehad originated during those uncertain and extremely stressful times when a nascent Muslim community was taking shape amidst hostile and belligerent forces.

The Muslims had to build a viable community for themselves and others by fighting in self-defense, which they did through Jehad. The Quraysh attacked Medina three times, but were defeated. In 630 A.D., 2 years before his death, Muhammad marched to Mecca with a large army of his followers when Quraysh breached the peace treaty of 628 A.D. that allowed Muslims to go to Mecca for Hajj. Following the triumph, Mecca was liberated, slaves freed and a rule of law established.

Jehad, even in those trying times, was never meant to be a declaration of war against other religions, or innocent people. The literal meaning of the word Jehad is ‘striving’. This was elucidated by Prophet Muhammad on his victorious return from a battle:

"We return from the little Jehad to the greater and more difficult Jehad, that of conquering the forces of evil in ourselves and our society in all the details of our daily life’ (Hadith).

Prophet Muhammad put the emphasis of future Jehad not only on striving to establish a rule of law and justice for the community but also observance of religious and moral principles. The intriguing question is: Why has the Muslim community, in its interpretation and practice of Jehad, today, moved so far away from that original and the larger meaning given by the Prophet? Why have they reduced it to a concept with no dignity and little morality, which fosters religious extremism and indiscriminate violence on innocent people -- everything it was not intended to be?

There is no single explanation for this apparent deviation.

Arguing that Islamic fundamentalists are ultimately struggling against the dramatic changes brought about by secularism and modernism, British historian Bernard Lewis contends

"Islamic fundamentalism has given an aim and a form to the otherwise aimless and formless resentment and anger of the Muslim masses at the forces that have devalued their traditional values and, in the final analysis, robbed them of their beliefs, their aspirations, their dignity, and to an increasing extent even their livelihood."

The early Islamic period, especially the Abbasid rule, was a golden era in which literature, philosophy, theology, mathematics, and the natural sciences flourished, nourished by the encounter of Arab thought and culture with Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Persian, and Indian traditions. This was also a critical period for the evolution of Islamic art, one in which a distinctive style and new techniques were introduced and disseminated throughout the empire.

The decline of Islamic empire started in the early twentieth century, following its earlier and continued failure to adapt to a new understanding of the world brought about by the epistemological transformation, also known as the "scientific revolution", which brought a series of changes in the structure of European thought, through systematic doubt, empirical and sensory verification, the abstraction of human knowledge into separate sciences, and the view that the world functions like a machine.

The Muslim world at large failed to participate, or contribute to this new revolutionary understanding and follow the emerging world order. They also failed to follow the lead of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who abolished the Caliphate after nearly thirteen hundred and fifty years of existence, and put Turkey on a firm path of progress and power. From there on, the rest of the Muslim world kept slipping deeper into despair, frustration, anarchy, and more recently, extremism and terrorism.

Jehad, or as it has been invoked falsely, is, indeed, just one excuse and an outlet of that frustration.

It is remarkable, however, that the Indian Muslims at large have not followed this distorted version of Jehad as an instrument of religious extremism to express their resentment and anger despite extreme local provocation, humiliation, and violence leveled against them and their religious practices in India today. They have been a shining example of tolerance, forbearance, and understanding.

While the Islamic world at large has failed to understand the true meaning of Jehad intended by the Prophet, Indian Muslims, at large, seem to be practicing it in every detail of the word intended and understood for the 21st century. They deserve praise for their understanding and efforts. Labeling them indiscriminately as 'anti-national' and 'terrorists' as is being done in recent times, and inflicting pain and deliberate economic and social hardships upon them, is misguided and mischievous. Creating communal polarization by dividing communities, even if it seems like good politics to a few in the power, is a bad policy for any one who has national interests at heart. Such efforts invariably can lead to precipitate a trouble that does not exist in India.

We should take a lesson from the experience of those countries, which are torn due to religious strife that has resulted in creating an environment of violence and uncertainty, where innocent people have to live in a state of constant danger and fear for their lives. Illiteracy, poverty and lack of opportunities, often, are enough to frustrate a person. Adding injustice to that, results in an explosive mix. Religion then becomes just an excuse to vent the frustration. We should not allow import of that mix in India.

Indian Muslims largely owe their success to freedom, access to education, and abundant opportunities to excel, which had always been available to them. This is because a majority of Hindus are secular, broad-minded and believe in the concept of sarva dharma sambhav. But as the wave of fascism and opportunism sweeps the nation, and the consequences of Jehad waged by other Muslims around the world come into sharper focus, this Hindu majority, against its own beliefs, is slowly but surely turning to the right. The challenge facing the Indian Muslims today is to reach across and to bridge the religious divide that has deliberately been created by religious extremists of all hues, and unite all Indians regardless of their religion for the common good of the country.

The issue of Babri Masjid has been the single largest factor that has helped create the Hindu-Muslim divide we see in India today. I believe the majority of Muslims would willingly have handed over the mosque had they believed Babar actually had destroyed a temple and built the mosque there. The issue, unfortunately, has become badly politicized in recent times. Will the archaeological survey, that is being carried out,  provide a conclusive and satisfactory solution for both the parties concerned? It remains an open question.

However, that, I think, is a reminder of the challenge Indian Muslims face today. Should the final court verdict be favorable to the Muslims, their next step would have to be equally deliberate and thoughtful, with a vision of communal harmony. Reconstructing the Masjid as a gesture of triumph will hardly be consistent with that vision of reaching out and building communal understanding with the Hindu community.

At the same time, giving away the site quietly and unconditionally despite a favorable court verdict also will not help arrest the process of digging up the past by fanatics to create further religious polarization and unnecessary trouble between Muslims and Hindus, especially as there seems no acceptable authority that could ensure enforceability of any such conditions or agreement that could be mutually agreed upon by the two communities. The bigger question, as always, remains unarticulated: who represents the communities?

The future of Hindu-Muslim relationship as well as the future of fascism in India depends upon arriving at an understanding on this issue, and therefore on the next step Muslim community will take. Muslim intellectuals and leadership must initiate a debate as to what should be done in the case of a favorable -- or an unfavourable -- court verdict.

It places a heavy burden on the Indian Muslims who must not allow personal, or religious prejudices to guide their decision. Nor should it be influenced by intimidation from extremists of either side. This is a Jehad they have to fight and win for India and as Indians for themselves too.

Jehad of the 6th century helped build the Muslim community in the Arabia and beyond. Without that there would have been no Islam. But another misnomered Jehad -- the act of extremism --  threatens the tenets and adherents of Islam. Indian Muslims, who have done remarkably well following the guidelines of the Prophet in waging their internal Jehad, must take the lead and show the world that consistent with our times, Jehad today can have the understanding of the 21st century and yet the power of the 6th.


Dr. Najid Hussain, is the president of a small consultancy specializing in radiation services. He was earlier a Professor at the University of Delaware. He is also the son-in-law of the late M.P. Ahsan Jafri.


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