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M.J. Akbar

M.J. Akbar is the editor of The Asian Age newspaper and author of a new book, The Shade of Swords, in which he seeks to clairify the meaning of ‘Jihad’. He recently talked with Philosophy Now.

Could you explain the concept of ‘Jihad’ What precisely is it and what is it not?

Let’s get one thing out of the way: terrorism is not Jihad. In fact there are very specific injunctions as explained in my book against any violence to innocents and to the old, women and children in particular. You cannot even do violence to trees during a Jihad, a clear refutation of any scorched earth tactics. It is said that the troops of Imameddin Zengi, the Sultan who began to reverse the Crusader tide and was widely admired for his Jihad, walked in such a straight defile through fields that not an inch of crop was damaged.

What is Jihad? Perhaps the opening sentences of the book begin to define this concept: The Shade of Swords is not an invitation to kill. It is an invitation to die.

Jihad can best be called a war against injustice in which martyrs are promised Paradise. Death is the gate through which they enter the presence of Allah as his favourites. This is the bargain offered by Allah and accepted by the shaheed or martyrs. Jihad is a struggle against both the enemy without and the enemy within and, as has often been pointed out, the struggle within is accorded the status of the higher Jihad, or the Jihad e Akbar as against the Jihad e Asghar. When a believer feels that injustice has been done to his faith, his people, his land, he responds to the call of Jihad. But this call can only be made by a proper authority that understands the implications of what it is doing. It cannot be made by a stray individual or a maverick. Islam does not really permit individual wars.

What are the distinguishing features of a ‘fundamentalist Muslim’ as opposed to an orthodox Muslim?

This is a perceptive and important question if only because the answer might seem a trifle unusual. Islam remains a living faith in an age when religion is less than fashionable in the Christian West. Faith is treated with some disdain in the Christian world. Ask a Christian, even a churchgoer, if he really believes that Jesus turned water into wine or fed a multitude with a few loaves and fishes or raised Lazarus from the dead and he will squirm or suggest that these stories might also be considered parables. But any Muslim, even one who does not go to a mosque, believes that the Quran is the word of God, that it was delivered to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. He believes that angels came to the help of the Prophet when he was fighting his Jihad at the battle of Badr where he was heavily outnumbered on the field and in some despair. The difference between the orthodox and heterodox Muslim is not that different in matters of faith. Every Muslim believes in the fundamentals of his faith, as it were, but that does not make him a fundamentalist.

I would say that the fundamentalist Muslim is one who uses elements of the doctrine, rather than the spirit of Islam, to practice bigotry, or oppression - mostly against fellow Muslims! Take the Taliban in Afghanistan. For me the Taliban was wrong long, long before 11 September, when it mistreated women and shut the doors of knowledge to its own people. Islam, famously, opened the doors of knowledge and the Prophet asked Muslims to go as far as to China in the pursuit of knowledge if necessary. The age before Islam was known as the age of Jahilya or ignorance. Islam was a liberation. The Taliban turned it into an imprisonment. Now here comes a point – for all the lip service that the West offered against the Taliban, it did not prevent America from negotiating for its oil interests with the Taliban. A deal was in the works when 11 September happened…

Do you feel that the concept of Jihad is a productive one for Muslims in the modern world?

Before we address the main question, is ‘modern’ necessarily synonymous with superior? There is nothing particularly modern about the desire among societies for civilisation, sanity and peace. Second, when does ‘modern’ begin? Only after the second world war and the Holocaust, a ghastly crime committed by German Christians against Jews, a culmination of a history of oppression against Jews, the high points of which came during the Crusades and the Inquisition?

As far as Jihad is concerned, it is a concept defined in the Quran and a part of Islamic faith. The Quran is not seen by Muslims as ‘modern’ or ‘ancient,’ but as the word of God and therefore timeless. For Hindus the Gita is as modern today as it was during the war of Mahabharata, and for Buddhists the sermon of the wheel is as modern today as it was when Gautama gave it some 2,500 years ago. Those with faith do not change it or modify. It is relevant here to further explain Jihad through the actions of the man who gave the call for the first Jihad, the Prophet. Muhammad did not seek war. He had actually left his home town Mecca and migrated to Medina to avoid war. But he was forced into Jihad when his persecutors and enemies came after him to kill him and destroy Islam. That is when the war verses of the Quran were received by Muhammad.

Will Jihad continue in the future? As long as Muslims feel that there is injustice, and I grant that such a grievance may be very subjective, someone or the other will find a cause for war, however lonely that person may be.

Do you think that the Islamic world will move away from embracing fundamentalism in the future?

The Islamic people are not fundamentalist. Some of their governments and some Islamic organisations are. The irony is that most of the fundamentalism has been perpetrated and spread by a family that has been nurtured by America and Britain, who continue to do this because this family serves their economic interests most loyally. I am talking about the Saud family of course. The West has no interest in democracy and freedom in countries run by governments that pay back through what might be called economic obedience. Tony Blair shrugs off Saud despotism as part of some ‘local culture’ as if Arabs did not deserve freedom of expression and human rights. What the Islamic world yearns for from Morocco to Indonesia is democracy and freedom from feudalism and dictatorship. That is the real issue. That will be the reason for the next explosion on the streets of the Muslim world.

Why is your book called ‘ The Shade of Swords’ ?

There is a famous hadith or a saying of the Prophet: Paradise, he said, is under the shade of swords. The image is startling and intense. It is an antidote to despair and defeat. When you can find the faith to walk calmly, under the shade of swords, towards martyrdom and the promise of Paradise, you become something that you never believed you could be. When you do not fear death there is nothing else to be afraid of.

You say that governments of Muslim countries have failed to represent the interests of their people. Do you have any ideas on how this gap could be closed?

The Muslim world is post-colonial. But if the term neo-colonialism has any meaning then that meaning has to be found in the Islamic world. It is littered with unrepresentative governments sustained by the West. The paradox is that even those nations which claimed to fight against colonialism and neocolonialism have now lapsed into dictatorships, many of them brutal. Blaming the West is not the whole answer. Muslim elites have used the aberrations and contradictions to set up modern dynasties or simply exercise power with the help of the army. This is doubly unfortunate because the Islamic policy has always kept space for accountability and responsibility. Modern democracy is a natural extension of the Islamic spirit. To suppress it in the Muslim world is a double tragedy.

Do you think that the kinship between Islam and Christianity could contribute to a reconciliation today between the Muslim world and the West?

Kinship is a good word. Islam and Christianity are, after all, cousin religions as it were. For Muslims, Jesus is the second last Prophet rather than the last one. The Church of course had to call Muhammad an impostor – otherwise it would have to deny Jesus the status of the ultimate redeemer. But over the years Muslims and Christians have made caricatures of each other in their minds. Better understanding is essential and that can only happen through a dialogue and through a less vitriolic media.

Islam has a great philosophical tradition which is widely admired by Western philosophers. Do you think that the medieval Islamic philosophers said anything which is applicable to the problems facing the Islamic world today?

A great deal. Let me offer only one instance. The west defines history in the terms of Gibbon: the decline and fall. This of course presupposes a rise; you cannot decline without having risen. In Islam the sequence is extended, as Ibn Khaldun wrote, to rise, decline, fall and then renewal. The renewal comes through faith.

A very powerful intellectual, Hassan Sabah, outlined the rationale of what might be called terrorism in the eleventh century. Hassan Sabah was popularly known as the leader of the Assassins and the Old Man of the Mountains (Marco Polo brought him to the notice of the western world incidentally). When Sabah was asked if he was afraid of death he replied: Do you threaten a duck with water?

But the argument was turned around by the genius of Imam Ghazali who warned that random terror would destroy Muslims before it destroyed the enemy. Simultaneously the Muslim establishment, in the form of Zengi and Nuruddin and Saladin, heard the voice of the street and inspired the change that made the Assassins irrelevant. I may add that Saladin’s war was never against Christians. It was against Crusaders who had occupied Palestine. Saladin allowed Christians and Jews to live in Jerusalem from where they had been evicted by the Crusaders.

My favourite story of life and death is from that great scientist-philosopher also of that time, Omar Khayyam. When Khayyam was asked if he was afraid of death he wondered what there was to be afraid of. After death, he said, there was either nothing, in which case nothing mattered. Or there was God, in which case there was mercy.

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