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A Book Review of Jihadi Terrorism: On the Trails of its Epistemology and Genealogy: T. S. Girishkumar

Post-9/11, two words, namely Jihad and Terrorism, have acquired much of our attention. These terms unintentionally as well as intentionally are used interchangeably, often, to indicate that Islam and terrorism share an organic relationship. The book under review, on the face of it, seems to defy this generic discussion and claims ‘to construct the epistemology of Terrorism through a historical analysis of ninety years of India’.  The first paragraph of the blurb of the book declares, “The term jihad has nothing to do with “terror” in Islam. Jihad in Islam is simply an honest, pious, and sincere effort. Here the expression “Jihadi Terrorism” is a borrowed one, from what is popularly meant to address a contemporary problem.”

However, as soon as you start reading the book, you are encountered with altogether contradictory arguments, which essentially try to ‘historically’ validate and reinforce phrases like ‘all Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslim’. The book is as good as propaganda literature that is published by some Hindutva outfit, as, while  reading the book at times, you are unable to comprehend whether you are reading work of an academician or articles in the journals like Jan Sangh Samachar, Panchjanya or The Organiser.       JIHADI TERRORISM_ON THE TRAILS OF ITS EPISTEMOLOGY AND GENEALOGY

According to the author, the menace of terrorism in South Asia, as witnessed and practiced today is the direct result of ‘intellectual backing’ of Muslim intellectuals and community leaders. The author examines the writings and speeches of “intellectuals (1857-1940) with separatist ideas, mostly Muslim” (emphasis mine). And who are these Muslim intellectuals with separatist ideas? To name a few, (Sir) Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Mohammed Ali (Jauhar), Aga Khan, Hasrat Mohani, Akbar Allahabadi and Mohammed Iqbal, among others. Almost all the notable Muslim intellectuals of the time (1857-1940) are there in the list or you will at least find their mention. And they are termed as ‘The Forerunning Separatist Intellectuals’, which is also the title of the second chapter.

Laying the foundation of his arguments in the first chapter the author states, “There is no denying the fact that terrorism has an epistemology of its own; without which it can cannot take roots and functions; fits into minds of many and, and then finally making practices of explosions as well as mass destructions.” And then he goes on to say, “Perhaps one could trace an epistemology of terrorism right into the very concept of Islam itself, thereby making (Mohammad bin) Qasim a follower of that binding epistemology. But then, it is not very easy to understand and interpret contemporary terrorism through such an epistemology, though this might be universal in appearance, but in fact shall fail to explain the phenomenon of terrorism as experienced and understood today, and perhaps in days to come. Hence, my venture had been to locate the intellectual backing of terrorism, its beginning, how and to what extent the intellectual legitimisation of terrorism had grown into something akin to an occult science which had become cancerous into young and fertile Muslim minds.”

While there is a lot to say about the book, but due to limited space, I am focusing on two major arguments of the book, namely the role of (Sir) Sayyid Ahmad and the role of Urdu in providing intellectual inputs in Jihadi Terrorism.  I have also decided to focus on Sir Sayyid because of two reasons, that he is widely respected in modern Muslim societies and that he is the most referred intellectual in the book under review.

Examining the writings and speeches of Sir Sayyid, the author opines, “It was none other than Sayyid Ahmad himself who founded the Mohammedan Educational Conference, and the purpose of which is explicit. On the face of it, it was all for the welfare of the Muslims in India, but it was directed towards differences and hate philosophy to the Hindus.” On the very next page he claims, “Sayyid Ahmad was slowly making Hindus the enemies of Muslims, and convincing the Muslims that they are a separate ‘Nation’. Now Muslims will have to work hard towards protecting their religion, and everything, at any cost. Whatever action performed and sacrifices made for the “noble” cause of Islam shall be rewarded by the God Almighty himself, and to suffer martyrdom shall just be the desideratum.” And then he categorically asks, “Now, what more is further requisite to see these things as the beginning of Jihadi terrorism?”

Yet, the author does not stop there. He further writes, “The extent of Islamic fundamentalism spelt out by Sayyid Ahmad as pure venom is amazing. Even one speech is sufficient to drive a common Muslim crazy to pick up weapons of destruction against a non-Muslim. He clearly says that Muslims cannot live with non-Muslims, and if there are non-Muslims in a society, they will have to be overpowered and subjugated.” “Here”, according to the author, “Sayyid Ahmad becomes really the descendants of the barbaric Muslim invaders, which he often proudly calls his ancestry! He was a very well learned man, educationist, scholar, and so on, a very good friend of the British, etc…But then, he undoubtedly, he had lead the common Indian Muslim into Islamic fundamentalism which resulted in today’s Jihadi terrorism.”

In history, my senior historian friend-cum-teacher, Dilip Simeon told me, “it’s important to evaluate the tendencies while examining the historical facts but being tendentious is not a good thing.” The biggest problem with the book under review and arguments of the author is he is too tendentious. In result, he disregards many well known historical facts and sources. There is no mention of Sir Sayyid’s oft-quoted remark on Hindu-Muslim unity, “India is like a bride which has got two beautiful and lustrous eyes – Hindus and Musulmans. If they quarrel against each other, that beautiful bride will become ugly.” Similarly, there is no refinance of Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (Causes of the Indian Revolt), an essay written by Sir Sayyid, discussing factors leading to the 1857 Rebellion, published in 1859. Moreover, while one finds selective quotations from Congressmen like Bipin Chandra Pal and Badaruddin Taiyyabji, there is no mention of Dadabhai Naoroji and Surendranath Banerjee, or, for that matter Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who thought highly about him and respected him despite having differences.

According to the grand old man, Dadabhai Naoroji, “Sir Syed Ahmed was a nationalist to the backbone. … In various ways, I knew that his heart was in the welfare of all India as one nation. He was a large and liberal-minded patriot. When I read his life some time ago, I was inspired with respect and admiration for him”. He quoted a presumably earlier statement of Sir Syed’s in which he had said: “In the word ‘nation’ I include both Hindus and Mohammedans, because that is the only meaning I can attach to it”. (Dadabhai Naoroji’s Speeches and Writings, G. A Natesan & Co, 2nd Edn, Madras: 1917, p 94-95).  And all this not to say, Sayyid Ahmad or for that matter any Muslim intellectual may not be and should not be criticized. But we must keep in mind that things can’t be seen out of context as Jawaharlal Nehru in his autobiography while wring about Sir Sayyid, rightly observes amid his criticism, “It is possible that had he lived a generation later, he would himself have given another orientation to that message” (An Autobiography: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund Reprint (with OUP), New Delhi, 1984, p. 464).

A similar partisan approach has been adopted by the author while discussing the issue of Hindi/Hindustani/Urdu and its relationship with ‘Separatism and Widening of the Hindu-Muslim Gap’, which ultimately lead to present day terrorism, to use the author’s borrowed term, Jihadi Terrorism. Commenting on the issue, the author writes, “It is interesting to note how they both (Hindu-Muslim) understand the very same language used as mother-tongue. Hindus called it either as Hindi or Hindustani, but the Muslims called the same language as Urdu. Hindus used the Indian Devanagari script to write Hindi, which was the most natural, the same script used for writing Sanskrit language. Muslims, in their despair to find a script to write the same language, went straight for the Persian or Farassi script to write the same language and called it Urdu.” But the question is, was it really so simple? While it is a fact that, as Shamsur Rahman Faruqi notes in his seminal work, Early Urdu Literary Culture and History(OUP, New Delhi: 2001, p.1), “Urdu as a language name is of a comparatively recent origin”. But to blame Urdu and Urdu movement squarely for everything is not justifiable. The issue is much more complex than it is dealt by the author. In this regard, a recent study by Kavita Datla, who is an Assistant Professor of history at Mount Holyoke College (US), The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India (Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi: 2013) helps us to reach on a more nuanced understanding of the origins and development of Urdu language.

Reprinted from The Book Review Journal, February 2014