Ten Fictions that Pakistani Defense Officials Love to Peddle
C. Christine Fair
January 31, 2014 · in Analysis, Commentary
The U.S.-Pakistan “strategic dialogue” has restarted yet again. I would be remiss if I did not point that it has never been strategic and it has certainly not been a dialogue. No doubt the Pakistanis are worried that wary American taxpayers and their congressional representatives may close the checkbook for good when the last U.S. soldier departs from Afghanistan. In the spirit of perpetual rent-seeking, Pakistani defense officials have recently alighted upon Washington to offer the same tired and hackneyed narratives that are tailored to guilt the Americans into keeping the gravy train chugging along.
Here are the top ten ossified fictions that Pakistani defense officials are pedaling and what you need to know to call the “Bakvas Flag” on each of them.
1. “Our relationship should be strategic rather than transactional.”
Nonsense and here’s why. For the U.S.-Pakistan relationship to be “strategic,” there should be a modicum of convergence of interests in the region if not beyond. Yet, there is no evidence that this is the case. In fact, Pakistan seems most vested in undermining U.S. interests in the region. In the name of the conflict formerly known as the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the United States has given Pakistan some $27 billion in military and financial aid as well as lucrative reimbursements. However, during these same years, Pakistan has continued to aid and abet the Afghan Taliban and allied militant groups such as the Haqqani Network. These organizations are the very organizations that have killed American military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan along with those of our allies in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and countless more Afghans, in and out of uniform. This is in addition to the flotilla of Islamist militant groups that Pakistan uses as tools of foreign policy in India. Foremost among them is the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is proscribed by the United States and which is responsible for the most lethal terror operations in India and, since 2006, has openly operated against Americans in Afghanistan.
2. “The United States has been an unreliable ally.”
Rubbish. Pakistani officials enjoy invoking the two treaties, the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and the Southeast Treaty Organization (SEATO) through which the United States and Pakistan ostensibly were allies. They lament that despite these partnerships and commitments, the United States did not help Pakistan in its wars with India (1965 and 1971) and even aided non-aligned India in its 1962 war with Communist China. It should be noted that Americans were never party to CENTO; rather, they maintained an observer status, and Americans were leery of letting the Pakistanis join SEATO, fearing that it was a ruse to suck the alliance into the intractable Indo-Pakistan dispute. In point of fact, Pakistani officials beginning with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan, and General Ayub Khan repeatedly sought to join American military alliances in exchange for money and war materiel.
While Pakistan professed a commitment to America’s anti-Communist agenda, it sought these partnerships to build its military capabilities to continue challenging India. Until the 1950s, the United States had no such interest in Pakistan.
When the United States finally embraced such partnerships, the treaties were specifically designed to combat Communist aggression ensuring that the United States had no obligation to support Pakistan in its wars with India. The United States certainly had no obligation to support Pakistan in the 1965 war with India, which it started. Pakistan’s grouses about the American position during the 1971 war is particularly disingenuous. As Gary Bass has detailed, President Nixon violated numerous American laws to continue providing military support to the abusive West Pakistani regime as it prosecuted a genocidal campaign against the Bengalis in East Pakistan.
3. “The United States used Pakistan for its anti-Soviet jihad.”
More fiction. Pakistan and Afghanistan came into conflict immediately after Pakistan’s independence because Afghanistan rejected Pakistan’s membership in the United Nations and laid claim to large swaths of Pakistani territory in Balochistan, the tribal areas, and in the then-Northwest Frontier Province. As such, Pakistan began instrumentalizing Islamists in Afghanistan as early as the 1950s. Following the ouster of King Zahir Shah by Mohammed Daoud Khan in 1973, Daoud began prosecuting Afghanistan’s Islamists who opposed his modernizing policies. Shia Islamists fled to Iran and Sunni Islamists generally fled to Pakistan. In 1974, then-civilian Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto established a cell within Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to mobilize these exiled dissidents for anti-regime operations in Afghanistan. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq continued the nascent “Afghan jihad” after seizing power from Bhutto in 1977.
Despite Zia’s numerous pleas for support, the Carter administration had no interest in supporting Pakistan’s jihad in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion. In fact, in April of 1979, the administration sanctioned Pakistan for violating U.S. law with respect to progress on its nuclear weapons program. The United States did not begin overtly funding Zia’s “Afghan jihad” until 1982, only after the pro-Zia Reagan government was able to secure waivers for such aid due to the 1979 sanctions. Needless to say, the Reagan administration fully supported the “jihad” in Afghanistan. However, it is important to note that Pakistan funded its own Afghan policy out of its own resources well before the first American dollar entered the fray.
4. “The United States is responsible for the development of al Qaeda and Islamist militancy.”
Not entirely a pack of lies. It was not the United States that conceived of the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan as a “jihad.” That was Pakistan’s own invention. Pakistan was very distrustful of Pashtun nationalism and feared that an ethnic mobilization in Afghanistan would give a fillip to Pakistan’s own restless Pashtuns. Pakistan insisted upon a jihad and the Reagan Administration vigorously supported the operation, with Saudi assistance. The ISI insisted that it receive the funds from the CIA and run the jihadi groups. The ISI sought to limit the CIA’s access to the jihadi organizations and to the ISI. These fire walls remained intact, despite the CIA’s efforts to subvert them.
Owing to the ISI cell established by Z.A. Bhutto and subsequently maintained by Zia, the main militant groups were established and in place before the Soviets crossed the Amu Darya on Christmas Day 1979. That anti-Soviet jihad surely was the crucible that gave birth to the global Islamist militancy that mobilized under the banner of al-Qaeda. It is difficult to imagine the existence of al-Qaeda had the United States supported the insurgency in Afghanistan on ethnic rather than jihadist terms.
5. “The United States created the Taliban.”
Nonsense. This assertion deliberately conflates the so-called Afghan jihadi organizations from the 1970s and 1980s with the Taliban movement that emerged after 1994. Curiously, the former tended to be associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami variety of South Asian Islam while the latter are nearly exclusively Deobandi in orientation.
While the United States, along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, heavily funded the Islamist militants fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, the United States left the region in 1989. Pakistan remained engaged. General Zia was nonplussed that the Geneva Accords were signed to end the conflict in Afghanistan without an explicit statement that an Islamist government would be ensconced in Kabul. Pakistan continued to support the various Islamist militants, hoping that one would be able to stabilize Afghanistan and would act on Pakistan’s interests. First, the Pakistanis supported the Pashtun Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. When he failed to bring a pro-Pakistan, stable government, Pakistan switched support to the Taliban under the watch of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The Taliban emerged from an archipelago of Deobandi madrassahs in Pakistan who coalesced to challenge the predations of the jihad-era warlords who were ravaging Afghanistan. While the ISI did not create the Taliban, it did provide all the necessary support that enabled the organization to control most of Afghanistan by 1998. The United States at times flirted with recognizing the Taliban, but it did not create—much less facilitate—its rise.
6. “Pakistan has lost more due to its participation in the Global War on Terrorism than it has gained in U.S. assistance.”
Depends upon who is counting and what is counted. This claim has two components: economic and human.
With respect to the first, American and Pakistani interlocutors disagree on the actual amount of funding Pakistan has received and where that money went once it arrived in Pakistan. Much ($10.7 billion) of the American cash flowing to Pakistan has been in the form of Coalition Support Funds, which were intended to reimburse Pakistan’s military for the marginal costs associated with supporting the GWOT. Americans note that the terms of reimbursement were lucrative and lament there was little oversight of the program. That is the fault of the United States for poor scrutiny as much as it is Pakistan’s for submitting bogus or inflated claims. Pakistan’s military has complained that it has seen only a portion of this amount as the Pakistan government took a share first. The army grouses that it has become an “army for rent” in the eyes of Pakistanis and has suffered considerable losses while being deprived its economic dues.
So Pakistan is right to question the degree of American generosity and it is right to question whether payments for “services rendered” is even generosity. However, Pakistan is one of the biggest reasons why we are fighting the GWOT in the first place. The Pakistanis made the Taliban the effective force that they were on September 10, 2001, and Pakistan continues to undermine U.S. efforts to retard the Taliban’s efforts to retake power in Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden was safely ensconced in Abbottabad despite ten years of Pakistan assurances that he was not in Pakistan. And apart from the Taliban, Pakistan is responsible for much of the Islamist terrorism in India.
With respect to the second consideration, Pakistan asserts that it has been a victim of terror since 2001. Pakistanis claim that this is due to militant anger with Pakistan’s support of the United States and its various war efforts. There is some truth to this claim. However, the very militants savaging Pakistan are offshoots of the same militants that the state has long nurtured. Whose fault is this?
In fact, there is a strong case to be made that Pakistan owes India and the West generally, and the United States in particular, because of the enormous human and financial costs these states have had to undertake to manage a terrorism problem, much of which has a Pakistani “return address.”
7. “We care about Usama Bin Laden as much as you.”
Prove it. Pakistan’s government undertook a “comprehensive” examination of how it is that the world’s most wanted terrorist was found a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s premier military academy. The leaked report from the so-called Abbottabad Commission details Herculean incompetence and ineptitude. However, no one has been arrested for harboring Bin Laden. In fact, the only person that Pakistan has arrested was the doctor, Shakil Afridi, who cooperated with the CIA‘s efforts to locate him. If Pakistan’s military and intelligence agency seriously understood the gravity of the problem associated with Mr. Bin Laden’s lengthy sanctuary in an important cantonment town, someone should have been sacked (for example, the Intelligence Chief, the Army Chief, police and/or ministry of interior officials). And, if Pakistan was as serious about the “UBL” problem as it claims, it certainly should have identified and arrested collaborators who facilitated Bin Laden’s peri-urban redoubt.
8. “Pakistan has an enduring interest with peace with India.”
Really? Tell me more. Pakistan has started every war with India over Kashmir and then failed to win any of them. Pakistan continues to sustain a flotilla of militant groups whose stated objectives are to coerce India to make some concession to Pakistan on Kashmir and generally to foment communal violence between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities. These groups now operate throughout India. Under Pakistan’s expanding nuclear umbrella, these groups have been able to undertake attacks far beyond Kashmir including the 2001 attack on India’s parliament, the 2006 attack on Mumbai’s commuter rail system and the 2008 multi-day siege of Mumbai among numerous other lesser known rampages. While it is true that Pakistan must implement a defense policy based on India’s defense capabilities rather than assumptions about India’s most magnanimous intentions, it is also true that India would have no interest in Pakistan if it were not for the numerous terrorist groups that Pakistan supports.
9. “Pakistan wants a stable Afghanistan.”
Maybe. Pakistan does want a stable Afghanistan provided that it is hostile to India and amenable to Pakistan. Pakistan has never accepted Afghanistan as a neighbor and insists upon it being a client state. If Pakistan cannot create an Islamist, pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul that is inhospitable to India, it would prefer chaos that it can manage.
Pakistan is seeking to calibrate many different developments in Afghanistan. First, it wants the United States to retain some presence such that it can continue marketing its relevance to Washington. Second, it wants some degree of Taliban representation in the Afghan government. However, it is not in Pakistan’s interests that the Taliban reconquer Afghanistan. After all, some Talibs hate Pakistan as much if not more than they hate the United States. An anti-Pakistan Taliban government could even offer reverse sanctuary to the Pakistani Taliban who fight the Pakistani state. This means that the Pakistanis prefer that the United States prop up a weak regime in Kabul. This will ensure permanent Pakistani relevance to Washington (and a concomitant stream of revenue) and it will encourage the Afghan Taliban to remain focused on Afghanistan—not Pakistan. As the U.S. security umbrella retracts, Pakistan can be sure that India will make a hasty retreat from the areas most important to Pakistan in the south and east of Afghanistan.
10. “The biggest hindrance to U.S.-Pakistan relations is a ‘trust deficit.’”
Is it Ground Hog Day? Pakistan has long marshalled a highly stylized history of American perfidy such that it can guilt the Americans into continued support. However, as the above shows, the problem is not a deficit of trust, but rather, a surplus of certitude. Both sides fully understand that America’s allies such as India are Pakistan’s enemies and Pakistan’s allies, such as the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, are the enemies of the United States. Both sides are certain that they want fundamentally different futures in Afghanistan and in India. Thus the biggest hindrance is the obfuscated reality that, in many ways, the United States and Pakistan are more enemies than they are allies.
C. Christine Fair is an assistant professor at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service. Follow her on twitter at @cchristinefair. She is the author of Fighting to the End: the Pakistan Army’s Way of War (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2014).
Interactive special: The consortium of terror
Despite hundreds of attacks and the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis, there is still a great deal of confusion about the number, nature and end goals of the militant organisations operating in Pakistan. For some, they remain figments of a fevered imagination. To others they are proxies of foreign powers.
This belief has not come out of the blue. It is part of an obscurantist narrative the state itself created and propagated. The problem with this narrative is that while it may have delegitimised some jihadi groups within public ranks, it is counter productive in the long run for a number of reasons. First of all, it fails to address the very ideology that promotes militancy and hence the state’s failure to present an effective counter-ideology. Secondly, the jihadi groups simply have to prove that the state-promoted narrative is a “baseless lie” to win recruits, as indicated by scores of interviews of jihadis. The fact is that these groups are very much in existence and the ones who carry out attacks against Pakistan’s civilians and armed forces have a clear and stated objective: to dominate and overthrow the Pakistani state.
Unfortunately, the state has also promoted a concept of “good” and “bad” militants. This narrative itself has been problematic. There are often strong links between the “good” and “bad” jihadis that also take the form of material, logistical, manpower and other support.
As Pakistan debates engaging the Islamist militants in the tribal areas and beyond, it is imperative that the policy-makers as well as the public understand the militant groups and their interrelations.
The following is an interactive of the militant landscape of Pakistan. Click on each group for more information:
The remaining six
Splinters, subdivisions, and shadow groups:
A small organisation affiliated with the TTP. Its primary focus is targeting armed forces personnel and politicians. Among others, the group is responsible for the killing of the former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Law Minister Israr Gandapur. As with AQ and TTP, Ansar al-Mujahideen aims to turn Pakistan into an “Islamic State” and use the state to launch “jihad” against other belligerent states.
The other militants:
Formed in the early 90s in Afghanistan, the group has been primarily operating in Indian-held Kashmir. It seeks to “liberate” the people of Kashmir from “Indian oppression” and establish an Islamic state” in the region.
It sees India, the United States and Israel as eternal enemies of Islam and boasts about defeating them through armed struggle. Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the head of Jamat-ud-Dawa denies that his charity is simply a cover for the banned militant outfit. However the lower cadre not only acknowledges their connection with LeT but proudly boast about their operations in India.
In line with their particular brand of Salafism, the organisation is strongly opposed to rebellion against the Pakistani state. They say that while the ruling elite are living in a state of sin, rebelling against them is not permissible. Largely avoiding questions about other Muslim sects, the LeT says there should be unity within the Ummah and the priority should be to target the “real enemy” — the US, India and Israel, as they say.
Members of the group say they are bracing themselves for the Ghazwa-i-Hind — a grand war in which Muslims will regain control of India, they claim.
Jaish-e-Muhammad was formed in 2000 by Maulana Masood Azhar. Shortly after its inception, it effectively swallowed a previously existing but now largely defunct Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). Its primary goal is to “liberate” Kashmir from Indian rule and it has carried out various attacks on Indian interests including the 2001 attack on Indian parliament. The group was banned by then President Pervez Musharraf and rebranded itself as Khuddam-ul-Islam. It continues to engage in open fundraising outside many Pakistani mosques on Fridays.
The group emerged as an offshoot of Jaish-e-Muhammad after serious differences emerged between various commanders. TGI is led by Commander Abdul Jabbar and operates primarily in Afghanistan.
Publicly, the organisation opposes rebellion against the Pakistani state. It stresses on its cadre to focus on Afghanistan.
The group has recently emerged in parts of Balochistan bordering Iran. It has targeted Shia Muslims and claims to be countering Iranian interference in Pakistan. The group also seeks to extend the theatre of war into Iran.
The group was formed in the 90s in response to the anti-Shia violence perpetuated by Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). It maintains a very low profile and seeks to primarily target leaders of anti-Shia militant organisations such as SSP and LJ. Its leader Syed Ghulam Raza Naqvi has been in prison since the mid-90s. Pakistani intelligence agencies claim the group is backed by Iran in a bid to extend its influence in the region.
For Pakistan, sub-conventional threat is a reality of present time. This, however, does not mean that the conventional threat has receded. It will be an overstatement to consider sub-conventional threat as existential. It is transient in nature and would pass by when its string pullers abdicate mischief. The country is certainly pitched against a nebulous enemy; and alongside this, the conventional threat has also grown manifold. These threats could only be defeated through collective national will and multi-dimensional efforts in which the armed forces have a critical role to play; they have to act in harmony with other instruments of the state. However, political leadership has to take the lead.
Much hype has been created about an addition (read revamping) of a chapter on “Sub-conventional warfare” to the Green Book, or the ‘Army Doctrine’. By all counts, it would be naive to call it a major shift in the doctrine. While living in a global village, it would be improper to assume that any internal threat could sustain itself without external linkages like indoctrination, logistic facilitation and even active intervention.
Though the, contour and magnitude of internal threat has changed, no military can ever overlook that the easiest way for the external threat to succeed is to come riding on the shoulders of internal disorder. There was no angry Bengali sitting between the two generals when surrender document was signed in Dhaka on 16 December, 1971; nonetheless Indian aggressors came in on the pretext of liberating that invisible angry Bengali—missing from the historic ‘Niazi-Arura’ frame.
Pakistan’s military is watchful of the actors causing internal strife and is also mindful of their external string pullers. Its ultimate objective is to remain fully prepared to engage and defeat the external enemy, should it embark on exploiting internal disorder through direct intervention. Chief of Army Staff General Kayani had already articulated the newly promulgated doctrine in his well-known independence night speech at the PMA Kakul: “No state can afford a parallel system or a militant force…otherwise we’ll be divided and taken towards a civil war. Our minds should be clear on this.”
Pakistan continues to face numerous external threats as well. Speaking about one dimension of these threats, Pakistan’s secretary of defence has recently acknowledged an open secret that the US and Britain were (and are) against Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Pakistan’s nuclear programme has remained an eye sore for the West, especially the United States, since its formulation days. Further elaborating on external threats, the secretary also pointed out that the US had also used other (undeclared) intelligence networks against Pakistan. Moreover, the involvement of nearly half a dozen foreign intelligence agencies in fermenting and sustaining the unrest in Baluchistan has often been acknowledged by high-ranking Pakistani leaders and independent analysts.
It would be a misperception to assume that military leadership now come to regard internal threats as the biggest danger to the country’s security and has brought a major shift in its operational priorities, as has been widely misconstrued by foreign and national media. Reportedly, the new doctrine has been added to the Green Book under the chapter “Sub-conventional warfare”. It describes the guerrilla activities on the country’s western borders and tribal areas, and the bombings carried out by various organisations on some institutions or citizens, as the biggest threat to the country’s security. The theme is a part of a publication which is updated by the army on a regular basis to review its operational preparedness and professional capabilities.
In an overstatement, the BBC reported (on Jan’ 02) that: a new ‘Army Doctrine’ – shifting focus off the conventional enemy on the east to some organisations and individuals within the country and their associates across the western border – comes after some eleven years of war against terror. It further stated that Pakistan has been treating its eastern neighbour as its enemy number one, and this is the first time that internal security hazards have been dubbed as more serious threat to the country’s sovereignty, which is a significant shift in the army’s doctrine; without naming any militant outfit, the new chapter also talks about the militant intrusion in Pakistani areas from across the border in Afghanistan. The BBC quoted a senior army official, as saying that the purpose of adding the new chapter to the book was to prepare the military to fight the new ‘internal’ threat and to get the required popular and political support.
All militaries are trained to counter insurgencies and so is Pakistan’s military. Successful operations in Swat and Malakand indicate superb handling of the military aspect of insurgency. Where we have faltered is the lack of robust political processes to convert tactical gains through military action into strategic peace via political integration. Nonetheless, reclamation of Swat is a success story which has many lessons for the contemporary militaries dealing with insurgency. Moreover, Pakistan’s armed forces have the full capacity to launch an operation in North Waziristan. However, this operation would not be successful till the Pak-Afghan border is sealed; otherwise the terrorists would run away to Afghanistan; rest, rearm and come back to fight on another day.
Success of Pakistan’s military in dealing with internal threat can be measured from the fact that militant leaders in their back-to-back statements sent to the media last week have offered ceasefire and negotiations. Rhetoric attached to these offers aside, militant outfits only offer for talks when they are under severe pressure. While military action has exerted appropriate pressure and brought the militants to this point, it is for the political leadership to seize the moment and capitalize on it. Pending the decision, military operation should continue. Political leadership needs to weigh the offer and take the decision. If the talks are to begin, then conducive environment should be created for their success, while watchfully observing and ensuring that militants do not exploit the parleys as a mean to gain time to consolidate their position militarily. Militant outfits have a poor track record of honouring their commitments; they also lack a centrally responsible leadership that could own and implement the decisions of any agreement. Presumably, the interior ministry has shown government’s inclination to consider the offer made by Hakimullah. Gradually, other factions could also be taken on board. If Americans can talk to Afghan Taliban, why can’t we? Apart from the contents of the new chapter in the Green Book, terminal phase of the strategy to handle sub-conventional threat is negotiations and political processes backed by robust deterrence. Military has forced the militants to ask for negotiations; ball is now in political leadership’s court.
The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Gentlemen, I am deeply grateful to you for the honour you have conferred upon me in inviting me to preside over the deliberations of the All-India Muslim League at one of the most critical moments in the history of Muslim political thought and activity in India. I have no doubt that in this great assembly there are men whose political experience is far more extensive than mine, and for whose knowledge of affairs I have the highest respect. It will, therefore, be presumptuous on my part to claim to guide an assembly of such men in the political decisions which they are called upon to make today. I lead no party; I follow no leader. I have given the best part of my life to a careful study of Islam, its law and polity, its culture, its history and its literature. This constant contact with the spirit of Islam, as it unfolds itself in time, has, I think, given me a kind of insight into its significance as a world fact. It is in the light of this insight, whatever its value, that, while assuming that the Muslims of India are determined to remain true to the spirit of Islam, I propose not to guide you in your decisions, but to attempt the humbler task of bringing clearly to your consciousness the main principle which, in my opinion, should determine the general character of these decisions.
[] Islam and Nationalism
[[1a]] It cannot be denied that Islam, regarded as an ethical ideal plus a certain kind of polity – by which expression I mean a social structure regulated by a legal system and animated by a specific ethical ideal – has been the chief formative factor in the life-history of the Muslims of India. It has furnished those basic emotions and loyalties which gradually unify scattered individuals and groups, and finally transform them into a well-defined people, possessing a moral consciousness of their own. Indeed it is not an exaggeration to say that India is perhaps the only country in the world where Islam, as a people-building force, has worked at its best. In India, as elsewhere, the structure of Islam as a society is almost entirely due to the working of Islam as a culture inspired by a specific ethical ideal. What I mean to say is that Muslim society, with its remarkable homogeneity and inner unity, has grown to be what it is, under the pressure of the laws and institutions associated with the culture of Islam.
[[1b]] The ideas set free by European political thinking, however, are now rapidly changing the outlook of the present generation of Muslims both in India and outside India. Our younger men, inspired by these ideas, are anxious to see them as living forces in their own countries, without any critical appreciation of the facts which have determined their evolution in Europe. In Europe Christianity was understood to be a purely monastic order which gradually developed into a vast church organisation. The protest of Luther was directed against this church organisation, not against any system of polity of a secular nature, for the obvious reason that there was no such polity associated with Christianity. And Luther was perfectly justified in rising in revolt against this organisation; though, I think, he did not realise that in the peculiar conditions which obtained in Europe, his revolt would eventually mean the complete displacement of [the] universal ethics of Jesus by the growth of a plurality of national and hence narrower systems of ethics.
[[1c]] Thus the upshot of the intellectual movement initiated by such men as Rousseau and Luther was the break-up of the one into [the] mutually ill-adjusted many, the transformation of a human into a national outlook, requiring a more realistic foundation, such as the notion of country, and finding expression through varying systems of polity evolved on national lines, i.e. on lines which recognise territory as the only principle of political solidarity. If you begin with the conception of religion as complete other-worldliness, then what has happened to Christianity in Europe is perfectly natural. The universal ethics of Jesus is displaced by national systems of ethics and polity. The conclusion to which Europe is consequently driven is that religion is a private affair of the individual and has nothing to do with what is called man’s temporal life.
[[1d]] Islam does not bifurcate the unity of man into an irreconcilable duality of spirit and matter. In Islam God and the universe, spirit and matter, Church and State, are organic to each other. Man is not the citizen of a profane world to be renounced in the interest of a world of spirit situated elsewhere. To Islam, matter is spirit realising itself in space and time. Europe uncritically accepted the duality of spirit and matter, probably from Manichaean thought. Her best thinkers are realising this initial mistake today, but her statesmen are indirectly forcing the world to accept it as an unquestionable dogma. It is, then, this mistaken separation of spiritual and temporal which has largely influenced European religious and political thought and has resulted practically in the total exclusion of Christianity from the life of European States. The result is a set of mutually ill-adjusted States dominated by interests not human but national. And these mutually ill-adjusted States, after trampling over the moral and religious convictions of Christianity, are today feeling the need of a federated Europe, i.e. the need of a unity which the Christian church organisation originally gave them, but which, instead of reconstructing it in the light of Christ’s vision of human brotherhood, they considered fit to destroy under the inspiration of Luther.
[[1e]] A Luther in the world of Islam, however, is an impossible phenomenon; for here there is no church organisation similar to that of Christianity in the Middle Ages, inviting a destroyer. In the world of Islam we have a universal polity whose fundamentals are believed to have been revealed but whose structure, owing to our legists’ [=legal theorists’] want of contact with the modern world, today stands in need of renewed power by fresh adjustments. I do not know what will be the final fate of the national idea in the world of Islam. Whether Islam will assimilate and transform it, as it has before assimilated and transformed many ideas expressive of a different spirit, or allow a radical transformation of its own structure by the force of this idea, is hard to predict. Professor Wensinck of Leiden (Holland) wrote to me the other day: “It seems to me that Islam is entering upon a crisis through which Christianity has been passing for more than a century. The great difficulty is how to save the foundations of religion when many antiquated notions have to be given up. It seems to me scarcely possible to state what the outcome will be for Christianity, still less what it will be for Islam.” At the present moment the national idea is racialising the outlook of Muslims, and thus materially counteracting the humanizing work of Islam. And the growth of racial consciousness may mean the growth of standards different [from] and even opposed to the standards of Islam.
[[1f]] I hope you will pardon me for this apparently academic discussion. To address this session of the All-India Muslim League you have selected a man who is [=has] not despaired of Islam as a living force for freeing the outlook of man from its geographical limitations, who believes that religion is a power of the utmost importance in the life of individuals as well as States, and finally who believes that Islam is itself Destiny and will not suffer a destiny. Such a man cannot but look at matters from his own point of view. Do not think that the problem I am indicating is a purely theoretical one. It is a very living and practical problem calculated to affect the very fabric of Islam as a system of life and conduct. On a proper solution of it alone depends your future as a distinct cultural unit in India. Never in our history has Islam had to stand a greater trial than the one which confronts it today. It is open to a people to modify, reinterpret or reject the foundational principles of their social structure; but it is absolutely necessary for them to see clearly what they are doing before they undertake to try a fresh experiment. Nor should the way in which I am approaching this important problem lead anybody to think that I intend to quarrel with those who happen to think differently. You are a Muslim assembly and, I suppose, anxious to remain true to the spirit and ideals of Islam. My sole desire, therefore, is to tell you frankly what I honestly believe to be the truth about the present situation. In this way alone it is possible for me to illuminate, according to my light, the avenues of your political action.
[] The Unity of an Indian Nation
[[2a]] What, then, is the problem and its implications? Is religion a private affair? Would you like to see Islam as a moral and political ideal, meeting the same fate in the world of Islam as Christianity has already met in Europe? Is it possible to retain Islam as an ethical ideal and to reject it as a polity, in favor of national polities in which [the] religious attitude is not permitted to play any part? This question becomes of special importance in India, where the Muslims happen to be a minority. The proposition that religion is a private individual experience is not surprising on the lips of a European. In Europe the conception of Christianity as a monastic order, renouncing the world of matter and fixing its gaze entirely on the world of spirit, led, by a logical process of thought, to the view embodied in this proposition. The nature of the Prophet’s religious experience, as disclosed in the Quran, however, is wholly different. It is not mere experience in the sense of a purely biological event, happening inside the experient and necessitating no reactions on its social environment. It is individual experience creative of a social order. Its immediate outcome is the fundamentals of a polity with implicit legal concepts whose civic significance cannot be belittled merely because their origin is revelational.
[[2b]] The religious ideal of Islam, therefore, is organically related to the social order which it has created. The rejection of the one will eventually involve the rejection of the other. Therefore the construction of a polity on national lines, if it means a displacement of the Islamic principle of solidarity, is simply unthinkable to a Muslim. This is a matter which at the present moment directly concerns the Muslims of India. “Man,” says Renan, “is enslaved neither by his race, nor by his religion, nor by the course of rivers, nor by the direction of mountain ranges. A great aggregation of men, sane of mind and warm of heart, creates a moral consciousness which is called a nation.” Such a formation is quite possible, though it involves the long and arduous process of practically remaking men and furnishing them with a fresh emotional equipment. It might have been a fact in India if the teaching of Kabir and the Divine Faith of Akbar had seized the imagination of the masses of this country. Experience, however, shows that the various caste units and religious units in India have shown no inclination to sink their respective individualities in a larger whole. Each group is intensely jealous of its collective existence. The formation of the kind of moral consciousness which constitutes the essence of a nation in Renan’s sense demands a price which the peoples of India are not prepared to pay.
[[2c]] The unity of an Indian nation, therefore, must be sought not in the negation, but in the mutual harmony and cooperation, of the many. True statesmanship cannot ignore facts, however unpleasant they may be. The only practical course is not to assume the existence of a state of things which does not exist, but to recognise facts as they are, and to exploit them to our greatest advantage. And it is on the discovery of Indian unity in this direction that the fate of India as well as of Asia really depends. India is Asia in miniature. Part of her people have cultural affinities with nations of the east, and part with nations in the middle and west of Asia. If an effective principle of cooperation is discovered in India, it will bring peace and mutual goodwill to this ancient land which has suffered so long, more because of her situation in historic space than because of any inherent incapacity of her people. And it will at the same time solve the entire political problem of Asia.
[[2d]] It is, however, painful to observe that our attempts to discover such a principle of internal harmony have so far failed. Why have they failed? Perhaps we suspect each other’s intentions and inwardly aim at dominating each other. Perhaps, in the higher interests of mutual cooperation, we cannot afford to part with the monopolies which circumstances have placed in our hands, and [thus we] conceal our egoism under the cloak of nationalism, outwardly simulating a large-hearted patriotism, but inwardly as narrow-minded as a caste or tribe. Perhaps we are unwilling to recognise that each group has a right to free development according to its own cultural traditions. But whatever may be the causes of our failure, I still feel hopeful. Events seem to be tending in the direction of some sort of internal harmony. And as far as I have been able to read the Muslim mind, I have no hesitation in declaring that if the principle that the Indian Muslim is entitled to full and free development on the lines of his own culture and tradition in his own Indian home-lands is recognized as the basis of a permanent communal settlement, he will be ready to stake his all for the freedom of India.
[[2e]] The principle that each group is entitled to its free development on its own lines is not inspired by any feeling of narrow communalism. There are communalisms and communalisms. A community which is inspired by feelings of ill-will towards other communities is low and ignoble. I entertain the highest respect for the customs, laws, religious and social institutions of other communities. Nay, it is my duty, according to the teaching of the Quran, even to defend their places of worship, if need be. Yet I love the communal group which is the source of my life and behaviour; and which has formed me what I am by giving me its religion, its literature, its thought, its culture, and thereby recreating its whole past as a living operative factor, in my present consciousness. Even the authors of the Nehru Report recognise the value of this higher aspect of communalism. While discussing the separation of Sind they say, “To say from the larger viewpoint of nationalism that no communal provinces should be created, is, in a way, equivalent to saying from the still wider international viewpoint that there should be no separate nations. Both these statements have a measure of truth in them. But the staunchest internationalist recognises that without the fullest national autonomy it is extraordinarily difficult to create the international State. So also without the fullest cultural autonomy – and communalism in its better aspect is culture – it will be difficult to create a harmonious nation.”
[] Muslim India Within India
[[3a]] Communalism in its higher aspect, then, is indispensable to the formation of a harmonious whole in a country like India. The units of Indian society are not territorial as in European countries. India is a continent of human groups belonging to different races, speaking different languages, and professing different religions. Their behaviour is not at all determined by a common race-consciousness. Even the Hindus do not form a homogeneous group. The principle of European democracy cannot be applied to India without recognising the fact of communal groups. The Muslim demand for the creation of a Muslim India within India is, therefore, perfectly justified. The resolution of the All-Parties Muslim Conference at Delhi is, to my mind, wholly inspired by this noble ideal of a harmonious whole which, instead of stifling the respective individualities of its component wholes, affords them chances of fully working out the possibilities that may be latent in them. And I have no doubt that this House will emphatically endorse the Muslim demands embodied in this resolution.
[[3b]] Personally, I would go farther than the demands embodied in it. I would like to see the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan amalgamated into a single State. Self-government within the British Empire, or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated North-West Indian Muslim State appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of North-West India. The proposal was put forward before the Nehru Committee. They rejected it on the ground that, if carried into effect, it would give a very unwieldy State. This is true in so far as the area is concerned; in point of population, the State contemplated by the proposal would be much less than some of the present Indian provinces. The exclusion of Ambala Division, and perhaps of some districts where non-Muslims predominate, will make it less extensive and more Muslim in population – so that the exclusion suggested will enable this consolidated State to give a more effective protection to non-Muslim minorities within its area. The idea need not alarm the Hindus or the British. India is the greatest Muslim country in the world. The life of Islam as a cultural force in the country very largely depends on its centralisation in a specified territory. This centralisation of the most living portion of the Muslims of India, whose military and police service has, notwithstanding unfair treatment from the British, made the British rule possible in this country, will eventually solve the problem of India as well as of Asia. It will intensify their sense of responsibility and deepen their patriotic feeling.
[[3c]] Thus, possessing full opportunity of development within the body politic of India, the North-West Indian Muslims will prove the best defenders of India against a foreign invasion, be that invasion one of ideas or of bayonets. The Punjab with 56 percent Muslim population supplies 54 percent of the total combatant troops in the Indian Army, and if the 19,000 Gurkhas recruited from the independent State of Nepal are excluded, the Punjab contingent amounts to 62 percent of the whole Indian Army. This percentage does not take into account nearly 6,000 combatants supplied to the Indian Army by the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. From this you can easily calculate the possibilities of North-West Indian Muslims in regard to the defence of India against foreign aggression. The Right Hon’ble Mr. Srinivasa Sastri thinks that the Muslim demand for the creation of autonomous Muslim states along the north-west border is actuated by a desire “to acquire means of exerting pressure in emergencies on the Government of India.” I may frankly tell him that the Muslim demand is not actuated by the kind of motive he imputes to us; it is actuated by a genuine desire for free development which is practically impossible under the type of unitary government contemplated by the nationalist Hindu politicians with a view to secure permanent communal dominance in the whole of India.
[[3d]] Nor should the Hindus fear that the creation of autonomous Muslim states will mean the introduction of a kind of religious rule in such states. I have already indicated to you the meaning of the word religion, as applied to Islam. The truth is that Islam is not a Church. It is a State conceived as a contractual organism long before Rousseau ever thought of such a thing, and animated by an ethical ideal which regards man not as an earth-rooted creature, defined by this or that portion of the earth, but as a spiritual being understood in terms of a social mechanism, and possessing rights and duties as a living factor in that mechanism. The character of a Muslim State can be judged from what the Times of India pointed out some time ago in a leader [=front-page article] on the Indian Banking Inquiry Committee. “In ancient India,” the paper points out, “the State framed laws regulating the rates of interest; but in Muslim times, although Islam clearly forbids the realisation of interest on money loaned, Indian Muslim States imposed no restrictions on such rates.” I therefore demand the formation of a consolidated Muslim State in the best interests of India and Islam. For India, it means security and peace resulting from an internal balance of power; for Islam, an opportunity to rid itself of the stamp that Arabian Imperialism was forced to give it, to mobilise its law, its education, its culture, and to bring them into closer contact with its own original spirit and with the spirit of modern times.
[] Federal States
[[4a]] Thus it is clear that in view of India’s infinite variety in climates, races, languages, creeds and social systems, the creation of autonomous States, based on the unity of language, race, history, religion and identity of economic interests, is the only possible way to secure a stable constitutional structure in India. The conception of federation underlying the Simon Report necessitates the abolition of the Central Legislative Assembly as a popular assembly, and makes it an assembly of the representatives of federal States. It further demands a redistribution of territory on the lines which I have indicated. And the Report does recommend both. I give my wholehearted support to this view of the matter, and venture to suggest that the redistribution recommended in the Simon Report must fulfill two conditions. It must precede the introduction of the new constitution, and must be so devised as to finally solve the communal problem. Proper redistribution will make the question of joint and separate electorates automatically disappear from the constitutional controversy of India. It is the present structure of the provinces that is largely responsible for this controversy.
[[4b]] The Hindu thinks that separate electorates are contrary to the spirit of true nationalism, because he understands the word nation to mean a kind of universal amalgamation in which no communal entity ought to retain its private individuality. Such a state of things, however, does not exist. Nor is it desirable that it should exist. India is a land of racial and religious variety. Add to this the general economic inferiority of the Muslims, their enormous debt, especially in the Punjab, and their insufficient majorities in some of the provinces as at present constituted, and you will begin to see clearly the meaning of our anxiety to retain separate electorates. In such a country and in such circumstances territorial electorates cannot secure adequate representation of all interests, and must inevitably lead to the creation of an oligarchy. The Muslims of India can have no objection to purely territorial electorates if provinces are demarcated so as to secure comparatively homogeneous communities possessing linguistic, racial, cultural and religious unity.
[] Federation As Understood in the Simon Report
[[5a]] But in so far as the question of the powers of the Central Federal State is concerned, there is a subtle difference of motive in the constitutions proposed by the pundits of India and the pundits of England. The pundits of India do not disturb the Central authority as it stands at present. All that they desire is that this authority should become fully responsible to the Central Legislature which they maintain intact and where their majority will become further reinforced on the nominated element ceasing to exist. The pundits of England, on the other hand, realising that democracy in the Centre tends to work contrary to their interests and is likely to absorb the whole power now in their hands, in case a further advance is made towards responsible government, have shifted the experience of democracy from the Centre to the provinces. No doubt, they introduce the principle of Federation and appear to have made a beginning by making certain proposals; yet their evaluation of this principle is determined by considerations wholly different to those which determine its value in the eyes of Muslim India. The Muslims demand federation because it is pre-eminently a solution of India’s most difficult problem, i.e. the communal problem. The Royal Commissioners’ view of federation, though sound in principle, does not seem to aim at responsible government for federal States. Indeed it does not go beyond providing means of escape from the situation which the introduction of democracy in India has created for the British, and wholly disregards the communal problem by leaving it where it was.
[[5b]] Thus it is clear that, in so far as real federation is concerned, the Simon Report virtually negatives the principle of federation in its true significance. The Nehru Report, realising [a] Hindu majority in the Central Assembly, reaches a unitary form of government because such an institution secures Hindu dominance throughout India; the Simon Report retains the present British dominance behind the thin veneer of an unreal federation, partly because the British are naturally unwilling to part with the power they have so long wielded and partly because it is possible for them, in the absence of an inter-communal understanding in India, to make out a plausible case for the retention of that power in their own hands. To my mind a unitary form of government is simply unthinkable in a self-governing India. What is called “residuary powers” must be left entirely to self-governing States, the Central Federal State exercising only those powers which are expressly vested in it by the free consent of federal States. I would never advise the Muslims of India to agree to a system, whether of British or of Indian origin, which virtually negatives the principle of true federation, or fails to recognise them as a distinct political entity.
[] Federal Scheme As Discussed in the Round Table Conference
[[6a]] The necessity for a structural change in the Central Government was seen probably long before the British discovered the most effective means for introducing this change. That is why at rather a late stage it was announced that the participation of the Indian Princes in the Round Table Conference was essential. It was a kind of surprise to the people of India, particularly the minorities, to see the Indian Princes dramatically expressing their willingness at the Round Table Conference to join an all-India federation and, as a result of their declaration, Hindu delegates – uncompromising advocates of a unitary form of government – quietly agreeing to the evolution of a federal scheme. Even Mr. Sastri who only a few days before had severely criticised Sir John Simon for recommending a federal scheme for India, suddenly became a convert and admitted his conversion in the plenary session of the Conference – thus offering the Prime Minister of England an occasion for one of his wittiest observations in his concluding speech. All this has a meaning both for the British who have sought the participation of the Indian Princes, and for the Hindus who have unhesitatingly accepted the evolution of an all-India federation. The truth is that the participation of the Indian Princes, among whom only a few are Muslims, in a federation scheme serves a double purpose. On the one hand, it serves as an all-important factor in maintaining the British power in India practically as it is; on the other hand, it gives [an] overwhelming majority to the Hindus in an All-India Federal Assembly.
[[6b]] It appears to me that the Hindu-Muslim differences regarding the ultimate form of the Central Government are being cleverly exploited by British politicians through the agency of the Princes who see in the scheme prospects of better security for their despotic rule. If the Muslims silently agree to any such scheme, it will simply hasten their end as a political entity in India. The policy of the Indian federation thus created, will be practically controlled by [the] Hindu Princes forming the largest group in the Central Federal Assembly. They will always lend their support to the Crown in matters of Imperial concern; and in so far as internal administration of the country is concerned, they will help in maintaining and strengthening the supremacy of the Hindus. In other words, the scheme appears to be aiming at a kind of understanding between Hindu India and British Imperialism – you perpetuate me in India, and I in return give you a Hindu oligarchy to keep all other Indian communities in perpetual subjection. If, therefore, the British Indian provinces are not transformed into really autonomous States, the Princes’ participation in a scheme of Indian federation will be interpreted only as a dexterous move on the part of British politicians to satisfy, without parting with any real power, all parties concerned – Muslims with the word federation; Hindus with a majority in the Centre; the British Imperialists – with the substance of real power.
[[6c]] The number of Hindu States in India is far greater than Muslim States; and it remains to be seen how the Muslim demand for 33 percent [of the] seats in the Central Federal Assembly is to be met within a House or Houses constituted of representatives taken from British India as well as Indian States. I hope the Muslim delegates are fully aware of the implications of the federal scheme as discussed in the Round Table Conference. The question of Muslim representation in the proposed all-India federation has not yet been discussed. “The interim report,” says Reuters’ summary, “contemplates two chambers in the Federal Legislature, each containing representatives both of British India and States, the proportion of which will be a matter of subsequent consideration under the heads which have not yet been referred to the Sub-Committee.” In my opinion the question of proportion is of the utmost importance and ought to have been considered simultaneously with the main question of the structure of the Assembly.
[[6d]] The best course, I think, would have been to start with a British Indian Federation only. A federal scheme born of an unholy union between democracy and despotism cannot but keep British India in the same vicious circle of a unitary Central Government. Such a unitary form may be of the greatest advantage to the British, to the majority community in British India, and to the Indian Princes; it can be of no advantage to the Muslims, unless they get majority rights in five out of eleven Indian provinces with full residuary powers, and one-third share of seats in the total House of the Federal Assembly. In so far as the attainment of sovereign powers by the British Indian provinces is concerned, the position of His Highness the Ruler of Bhopal, Sir Akbar Hydari, and Mr. Jinnah is unassailable. In view, however, of the participation of the Princes in the Indian Federation, we must now see our demand for representation in the British Indian Assembly in a new light. The questions is not one of [the] Muslim share in a British Indian Assembly, but one which relates to representation of British Indian Muslims in an All-India Federal Assembly. Our demand for 33 per cent must now be taken as a demand for the same proportion in the All-India Federal Assembly, exclusive of the share allotted to the Muslim states entering the Federation.
[] The Problem of Defence
[[7a]] The other difficult problem which confronts the successful working of a federal system in India is the problem of India’s defence. In their discussion of this problem the Royal Commissioners have marshalled all the deficiencies of India in order to make out a case for Imperial administration of the Army. “India and Britain,” say the Commissioners, “are so related that India’s defence cannot, now or in any future which is within sight, be regarded as a matter of purely Indian concern. The control and direction of such an army must rest in the hands of agents of Imperial Government.” Now, does it [not] necessarily follow from this that further progress towards the realisation of responsible government in British India is barred until the work of defence can be adequately discharged without the help of British officers and British troops? As things are, there is a block on the line of constitutional advance. All hopes of evolution in the Central Government towards the ultimate goal prescribed in the declaration of 20th August 1917, are in danger of being indefinitely frustrated, if the attitude illustrated by the Nehru Report is maintained, that any future change involves the putting of the administration of the army under the authority of an elected Indian Legislature. Further to fortify their argument they emphasize the fact of competing religions and rival races of widely different capacity, and try to make the problem look insoluble by remarking that “the obvious fact that India is not, in the ordinary and natural sense, a single nation is nowhere made more plain than in considering the difference between the martial races of India and the rest.” These features of the question have been emphasised in order to demonstrate that the British are not only keeping India secure from foreign menace but are also the “neutral guardians” of internal security.
[[7b]] However, in federated India, as I understand federation, the problem will have only one aspect, i.e. external defence. Apart from provincial armies necessary for maintaining internal peace, the Indian Federal Congress can maintain, on the north-west frontier, a strong Indian Frontier Army, composed of units recruited from all provinces and officered by efficient and experienced military men taken from all communities. I know that India is not in possession of efficient military officers, and this fact is exploited by the Royal Commissioners in the interest of an argument for Imperial administration. On this point I cannot but quote another passage from the Report which, to my mind, furnishes the best argument against the position taken up by the Commissioners. “At the present moment,” says the Report, “no Indian holding the King’s Commission is of higher army rank than a captain. There are, we believe, 39 captains of whom 25 are in ordinary regimental employ. Some of them are of an age which would prevent their attaining much higher rank, even if they passed the necessary examination before retirement. Most of these have not been through Sandhurst, but got their Commissions during the Great War.” Now, however genuine may be the desire, and however earnest the endeavour to work for this transformation, overriding conditions have been so forcibly expressed by the Skeen Committee (whose members, apart from the Chairman and the Army Secretary, were Indian gentlemen) in these words: Progress…must be contingent upon success being secured at each stage and upon military efficiency being maintained, though it must in any case render such development measured and slow. A higher command cannot be evolved at short notice out of existing cadres of Indian officers, all of junior rank and limited experience. Not until the slender trickle of suitable Indian recruits for the officer class – and we earnestly desire an increase in their numbers – flows in much greater volume, not until sufficient Indians have attained the experience and training requisite to provide all the officers for, at any rate, some Indian regiments, not until such units have stood the only test which can possibly determine their efficiency, and not until Indian officers have qualified by a successful army career for the high command, will it be possible to develop the policy of Indianisation to a point which will bring a completely Indianised army within sight. Even then years must elapse before the process could be completed.”
[[7c]] Now I venture to ask: who is responsible for the present state of things? Is it due to some inherent incapacity of our martial races, or to the slowness of the process of military training? The military capacity of our martial races is undeniable. The process of military training may be slow as compared to other processes of human training. I am no military expert to judge this matter. But as a layman I feel that the argument, as stated, assumes the process to be practically endless. This means perpetual bondage for India, and makes it all the more necessary that the Frontier Army, as suggested by the Nehru Report, be entrusted to the charge of a committee of defence, the personnel of which may be settled by mutual understanding.
[[7d]] Again, it is significant that the Simon Report has given extraordinary importance to the question of India’s land frontier, but has made only passing references to its naval position. India has doubtless had to face invasions from her land frontier; but it is obvious that her present masters took possession of her on account of her defenceless sea coast. A self-governing and free India will, in these days, have to take greater care of her sea coast than [of her] land frontiers.
[[7e]] I have no doubt that if a Federal Government is established, Muslim federal States will willingly agree, for purposes of India’s defence, to the creation of neutral Indian military and naval forces. Such a neutral military force for the defence of India was a reality in the days of Mughal rule. Indeed in the time of Akbar the Indian frontier was, on the whole, defended by armies officered by Hindu generals. I am perfectly sure that the scheme for a neutral Indian army, based on a federated India, will intensify Muslim patriotic feeling, and finally set at rest the suspicion, if any, of Indian Muslims joining Muslims from beyond the frontier in the event of an invasion.
[] The Alternative
[[8a]] I have thus tried briefly to indicate the way in which the Muslims of India ought, in my opinion, to look at the two most important constitutional problems of India. A redistribution of British India, calculated to secure a permanent solution of the communal problem, is the main demand of the Muslims of India. If, however, the Muslim demand of a territorial solution of the communal problem is ignored, then I support, as emphatically as possible, the Muslim demands repeatedly urged by the All-India Muslim League and the All-India Muslim Conference. The Muslims of India cannot agree to any constitutional changes which affect their majority rights, to be secured by separate electorates in the Punjab and Bengal, or [which] fail to guarantee them 33 percent representation in any Central Legislature. There were two pitfalls into which Muslim political leaders fell. The first was the repudiated Lucknow Pact, which originated in a false view of Indian nationalism and deprived the Muslims of India of chances of acquiring any political power in India. The second is the narrow-visioned sacrifice of Islamic solidarity, in the interests of what may be called Punjab ruralism, resulting in a proposal which virtually reduces the Punjab Muslims to a position of minority. It is the duty of the League to condemn both the Pact and the proposal.
[[8b]] The Simon Report does great injustice to the Muslims in not recommending a statutory majority for the Punjab and Bengal. It would make the Muslims either stick to the Lucknow Pact or agree to a scheme of joint electorates. The despatch of the Government of India on the Simon Report admits that since the publication of that document the Muslim community has not expressed its willingness to accept any of the alternatives proposed by the Report. The despatch recognises that it may be a legitimate grievance to deprive the Muslims in the Punjab and Bengal of representation in the councils in proportion to their population merely because of weightage allowed to Muslim minorities elsewhere. But the despatch of the Government of India fails to correct the injustice of the Simon Report. In so far as the Punjab is concerned – and this is the most crucial point – it endorses the so-called “carefully balanced scheme” worked out by the official members of the Punjab Government which gives the Punjab Muslims a majority of two over Hindus and Sikhs combined, and a proportion of 49 percent of the House as a whole. It is obvious that the Punjab Muslims cannot be satisfied with less than a clear majority in the total House. However, Lord Irwin and his Government do recognise that the justification for communal electorates for majority communities would not cease unless and until by the extension of franchise their voting strength more correctly reflects their population; and further unless a two-thirds majority of the Muslim members in a provincial Council unanimously agree to surrender the right of separate representation. I cannot, however, understand why the Government of India, having recognised the legitimacy of the Muslim grievances, have not had the courage to recommend a statutory majority for the Muslims in the Punjab and Bengal.
[[8c]] Nor can the Muslims of India agree to any such changes which fail to create at least Sind as a separate province and treat the North-West Frontier Province as a province of inferior political status. I see no reason why Sind should not be united with Baluchistan and turned into a separate province. It has nothing in common with Bombay Presidency. In point of life and civilization the Royal Commissioners find it more akin to Mesopotamia and Arabia than India. The Muslim geographer Mas’udi noticed this kinship long ago when he said: “Sind is a country nearer to the dominions of Islam.” The first Omayyad ruler is reported to have said of Egypt: “Egypt has her back towards Africa and face towards Arabia.” With necessary alterations the same remark describes the exact situation of Sind. She has her back towards India and face towards Central Asia. Considering further the nature of her agricultural problems which can invoke no sympathy from the Bombay Government, and her infinite commercial possibilities, dependent on the inevitable growth of Karachi into a second metropolis of India, it is unwise to keep her attached to a Presidency which, though friendly today, is likely to become a rival at no distant period. Financial difficulties, we are told, stand in the way of separation. I do not know of any definite authoritative pronouncement on the matter. But assuming there are any such difficulties, I see no reason why the Government of India should not give temporary financial help to a promising province in her struggle for independent progress.
[[8d]] As to the North-West Frontier Province, it is painful to note that the Royal Commissioners have practically denied that the people of this province have any right to reform. They fall far short of the Bray Committee, and the Council recommended by them is merely a screen to hide the autocracy of the Chief Commissioner. The inherent right of the Afghan to light a cigarette is curtailed merely because he happens to be living in a powder house. The Royal Commissioners’ epigrammatic argument is pleasant enough, but far from convincing. Political reform is light, not fire; and to light every human being is entitled, whether he happens to live in a powder house or a coal mine. Brave, shrewd, and determined to suffer for his legitimate aspirations, the Afghan is sure to resent any attempt to deprive him of opportunities of full self-development. To keep such a people contented is in the best interest of both England and India. What has recently happened in that unfortunate province is the result of a step-motherly treatment shown to the people since the introduction of the principle of self-government in the rest of India. I only hope that British statesmanship will not obscure its view of the situation by hoodwinking itself into the belief that the present unrest in the province is due to any extraneous causes.
[[8e]] The recommendation for the introduction of a measure of reform in the North-West Frontier Province made in the Government of India’s despatch is also unsatisfactory. No doubt, the despatch goes farther than the Simon Report in recommending a sort of representative Council and a semi-representative cabinet, but it fails to treat this important Muslim province on [an] equal footing with other Indian provinces. Indeed the Afghan is, by instinct, more fitted for democratic institutions than any other people in India.
[] The Round Table Conference
[[9a]] I think I am now called upon to make a few observations on the Round Table Conference. Personally I do not feel optimistic as to the results of this Conference. It was hoped that away from the actual scene of communal strife and in a changed atmosphere, better counsels would prevail and a genuine settlement of the differences between the two major communities of India would bring India’s freedom within sight. Actual events, however, tell a different tale. Indeed, the discussion of the communal question in London has demonstrated more clearly than ever the essential disparity between the two great cultural units of India. Yet the Prime Minister of England apparently refuses to see that the problem of India is international and not national. He is reported to have said that “his government would find it difficult to submit to Parliament proposals for the maintenance of separate electorates, since joint electorates were much more in accordance with British democratic sentiments.” Obviously he does not see that the model of British democracy cannot be of any use in a land of many nations; and that a system of separate electorates is only a poor substitute for a territorial solution of the problem. Nor is the Minorities Sub-Committee likely to reach a satisfactory settlement. The whole question will have to go before the British Parliament; and we can only hope that the keen-sighted representatives of [the] British nation, unlike most of our Indian politicians, will be able to pierce through the surface of things and see clearly the true fundamentals of peace and security in a country like India. To base a constitution on the concept of a homogeneous India, or to apply to India principles dictated by British democratic sentiments, is unwittingly to prepare her for a civil war. As far as I can see, there will be no peace in the country until the various peoples that constitute India are given opportunities of free self-development on modern lines without abruptly breaking with their past.
[[9b]] I am glad to be able to say that our Muslim delegates fully realise the importance of a proper solution of what I call [the] Indian international problem. They are perfectly justified in pressing for a solution of the communal question before the question of responsibility in the Central Government is finally settled. No Muslim politician should be sensitive to the taunt embodied in that propaganda word – communalism – expressly devised to exploit what the Prime Minister calls British democratic sentiments, and to mislead England into assuming a state of things which does not really exist in India. Great interests are at stake. We are 70 millions, and far more homogeneous than any other people in India. Indeed the Muslims of India are the only Indian people who can fitly be described as a nation in the modern sense of the word. The Hindus, though ahead of us in almost all respects, have not yet been able to achieve the kind of homogeneity which is necessary for a nation, and which Islam has given you as a free gift. No doubt they are anxious to become a nation, but the process of becoming a nation is kind of travail, and in the case of Hindu India involves a complete overhauling of her social structure.
[[9c]] Nor should the Muslim leaders and politicians allow themselves to be carried away by the subtle but fallacious argument that Turkey and Persia and other Muslim countries are progressing on national, i.e. territorial, lines. The Muslims of India are differently situated. The countries of Islam outside India are practically wholly Muslim in population. The minorities there belong, in the language of the Quran, to the ‘people of the Book’. There are no social barriers between Muslims and the ‘people of the Book’. A Jew or a Christian or a Zoroastrian does not pollute the food of a Muslim by touching it, and the law of Islam allows intermarriage with the ‘people of the Book’. Indeed the first practical step that Islam took towards the realisation of a final combination of humanity was to call upon peoples possessing practically the same ethical ideal to come forward and combind. The Quran declares: “O people of the Book! Come, let us join together on the ‘word’ (Unity of God), that is common to us all.” The wars of Islam and Christianity, and later, European aggression in its various forms, could not allow the infinite meaning of this verse to work itself out in the world of Islam. Today it is being gradually realised in the countries of Islam in the shape of what is called Muslim Nationalism.
[[9d]] It is hardly necessary for me to add that the sole test of the success of our delegates is the extent to which they are able to get the non-Muslim delegates of the Conference to agree to our demands as embodied in the Delhi Resolution. If these demands are not agreed to, then a question of a very great and far-reaching importance will arise for the community. Then will arrive the moment for independent and concerted political action by the Muslims of India. If you are at all serious about your ideals and aspirations, you must be ready for such an action. Our leading men have done a good deal of political thinking, and their thought has certainly made us, more or less, sensitive to the forces which are now shaping the destinies of peoples in India and outside India. But, I ask, has this thinking prepared us for the kind of action demanded by the situation which may arise in the near future?
[[9e]] Let me tell you frankly that, at the present moment, the Muslims of India are suffering from two evils. The first is the want of personalities. Sir Malcolm Hailey and Lord Irwin were perfectly correct in their diagnosis when they told the Aligarh University that the community had failed to produce leaders. By leaders I mean men who, by Divine gift or experience, possess a keen perception of the spirit and destiny of Islam, along with an equally keen perception of the trend of modern history. Such men are really the driving forces of a people, but they are God’s gift and cannot be made to order.
[[9f]] The second evil from which the Muslims of India are suffering is that the community is fast losing what is called the herd instinct. This [loss] makes it possible for individuals and groups to start independent careers without contributing to the general thought and activity of the community. We are doing today in the domain of politics what we have been doing for centuries in the domain of religion. But sectional bickerings in religion do not do much harm to our solidarity. They at least indicate an interest in what makes the sole principle of our structure as a people. Moreover, the principle is so broadly conceived that it is almost impossible for a group to become rebellious to the extent of wholly detaching itself from the general body of Islam. But diversity in political action, at a moment when concerted action is needed in the best interests of the very life of our people, may prove fatal.
[[9g]] How shall we, then, remedy these two evils? The remedy of the first evil is not in our hands. As to the second evil, I think it is possible to discover a remedy. I have got definite views on the subject; but I think it is proper to postpone their expression till the apprehended situation actually arises. In case it does arise, leading Muslims of all shades of opinion will have to meet together, not to pass resolutions, but finally to determine the Muslim attitude and to show the path to tangible achievement. In this address I mention this alternative only because I wish that you may keep it in mind and give some serious thought to it in the meantime.
[] The Conclusion
[[10a]] Gentlemen, I have finished. In conclusion I cannot but impress upon you that the present crisis in the history of India demands complete organisation and unity of will and purpose in the Muslim community, both in your own interest as a community, and in the interest of India as a whole. The political bondage of India has been and is a source of infinite misery to the whole of Asia. It has suppressed the spirit of the East and wholly deprived her of that joy of self-expression which once made her the creator of a great and glorious culture. We have a duty towards India where we are destined to live and die. We have a duty towards Asia, especially Muslim Asia. And since 70 millions of Muslims in a single country constitute a far more valuable asset to Islam than all the countries of Muslim Asia put together, we must look at the Indian problem not only from the Muslim point of view, but also from the standpoint of the Indian Muslim as such. Our duty towards Asia and India cannot be loyally performed without an organised will fixed on a definite purpose. In your own interest, as a political entity among other political entities of India, such an equipment is an absolute necessity.
[[10b]] Our disorganised condition has already confused political issues vital to the life of the community. I am not hopeless of an intercommunal understanding, but I cannot conceal from you the feeling that in the near future our community may be called upon to adopt an independent line of action to cope with the present crisis. And an independent line of political action, in such a crisis, is possible only to a determined people, possessing a will focalised by a single purpose. Is it possible for you to achieve the organic wholeness of a unified will? Yes, it is. Rise above sectional interests and private ambitions, and learn to determine the value of your individual and collective action, however directed on material ends, in the light of the ideal which you are supposed to represent. Pass from matter to spirit. Matter is diversity; spirit is light, life and unity.
[[10c]] One lesson I have learnt from the history of Muslims. At critical moments in their history it is Islam that has saved Muslims and not vice versa. If today you focus your vision on Islam and seek inspiration from the ever-vitalising idea embodied in it, you will be only reassembling your scattered forces, regaining your lost integrity, and thereby saving yourself from total destruction. One of the profoundest verses in the Holy Quran teaches us that the birth and rebirth of the whole of humanity is like the birth and rebirth of a single individual. Why cannot you who, as a people, can well claim to be the first practical exponents of this superb conception of humanity, live and move and have your being as a single individual? I do not wish to mystify anybody when I say that things in India are not what they appear to be. The meaning of this, however, will dawn upon you only when you have achieved a real collective ego to look at them. In the words of the Quran, “Hold fast to yourself; no one who erreth can hurt you, provided you are well guided” (5:104).
Researchers with a variety of academic and theological interests are proposing controversial theories about the Koran and Islamic history, and are striving to reinterpret Islam for the modern world. This is, as one scholar puts it, a “sensitive business”
January 1, 1999
The Atlantic Monthly
IN 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana’a, in Yemen, laborers working in a loft between the structure’s inner and outer roofs stumbled across a remarkable gravesite, although they did not realize it at the time. Their ignorance was excusable: mosques do not normally house graves, and this site contained no tombstones, no human remains, no funereal jewellery.
It contained nothing more, in fact, than an unappealing mash of old parchment and paper documents—damaged books and individual pages of Arabic text, fused together by centuries of rain and dampness, gnawed into over the years by rats and insects. Intent on completing the task at hand, the laborers gathered up the manuscripts, pressed them into some twenty potato sacks, and set them aside on the staircase of one of the mosque’s minarets, where they were locked away—and where they would probably have been forgotten once again, were it not for Qadhi Isma’il al-Akwa’, then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, who realized the potential importance of the find.
Al-Akwa’ sought international assistance in examining and preserving the fragments, and in 1979 managed to interest a visiting German scholar, who in turn persuaded the German government to organize and fund a restoration project. Soon after the project began, it became clear that the hoard was a fabulous example of what is sometimes referred to as a “paper grave”—in this case the resting place for, among other things, tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Koran, the Muslim holy scripture.
In some pious Muslim circles it is held that worn-out or damaged copies of the Koran must be removed from circulation; hence the idea of a grave, which both preserves the sanctity of the texts being laid to rest and ensures that only complete and unblemished editions of the scripture will be read.
Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., or Islam’s first two centuries—they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence.
What’s more, some of these fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless, and unchanging Word of God.
The mainly secular effort to reinterpret the Koran—in part based on textual evidence such as that provided by the Yemeni fragments—is disturbing and offensive to many Muslims, just as attempts to reinterpret the Bible and the life of Jesus are disturbing and offensive to many conservative Christians.
Nevertheless, there are scholars, Muslims among them, who feel that such an effort, which amounts essentially to placing the Koran in history, will provide fuel for an Islamic revival of sorts—a reappropriation of tradition, a going forward by looking back. Thus far confined to scholarly argument, this sort of thinking can be nonetheless very powerful and—as the histories of the Renaissance and the Reformation demonstrate—can lead to major social change. The Koran, after all, is currently the world’s most ideologically influential text.
Looking at the Fragments
THE first person to spend a significant amount of time examining the Yemeni fragments, in 1981, was Gerd-R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography based at Saarland University, in Saarbrücken, Germany. Puin, who had been sent by the German government to organize and oversee the restoration project, recognized the antiquity of some of the parchment fragments, and his preliminary inspection also revealed unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment.
Enticing, too, were the sheets of the scripture written in the rare and early Hijazi Arabic script: pieces of the earliest Korans known to exist, they were also palimpsests—versions very clearly written over even earlier, washed-off versions. What the Yemeni Korans seemed to suggest, Puin began to feel, was an evolving text rather than simply the Word of God as revealed in its entirety to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century A.D.
Since the early 1980s more than 15,000 sheets of the Yemeni Korans have painstakingly been flattened, cleaned, treated, sorted, and assembled; they now sit (“preserved for another thousand years,” Puin says) in Yemen’s House of Manuscripts, awaiting detailed examination. That is something the Yemeni authorities have seemed reluctant to allow, however. “They want to keep this thing low-profile, as we do too, although for different reasons,” Puin explains.
“They don’t want attention drawn to the fact that there are Germans and others working on the Korans. They don’t want it made public that there is work being done at all, since the Muslim position is that everything that needs to be said about the Koran’s history was said a thousand years ago.”
To date just two scholars have been granted extensive access to the Yemeni fragments: Puin and his colleague H.-C. Graf von Bothmer, an Islamic-art historian also based at Saarland University. Puin and Von Bothmer have published only a few tantalizingly brief articles in scholarly publications on what they have discovered in the Yemeni fragments.
They have been reluctant to publish partly because until recently they were more concerned with sorting and classifying the fragments than with systematically examining them, and partly because they felt that the Yemeni authorities, if they realized the possible implications of the discovery, might refuse them further access. Von Bothmer, however, in 1997 finished taking more than 35,000 microfilm pictures of the fragments, and has recently brought the pictures back to Germany.
This means that soon Von Bothmer, Puin, and other scholars will finally have a chance to scrutinize the texts and to publish their findings freely—a prospect that thrills Puin. “So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word,” he says.
“They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sana’a fragments will help us to do this.”
Puin is not alone in his enthusiasm. “The impact of the Yemeni manuscripts is still to be felt,” says Andrew Rippin, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, who is at the forefront of Koranic studies today. “Their variant readings and verse orders are all very significant. Everybody agrees on that. These manuscripts say that the early history of the Koranic text is much more of an open question than many have suspected: the text was less stable, and therefore had less authority, than has always been claimed.”
BY the standards of contemporary biblical scholarship, most of the questions being posed by scholars like Puin and Rippin are rather modest; outside an Islamic context, proposing that the Koran has a history and suggesting that it can be interpreted metaphorically are not radical steps. But the Islamic context—and Muslim sensibilities—cannot be ignored.
“To historicize the Koran would in effect delegitimize the whole historical experience of the Muslim community,” says R. Stephen Humphreys, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “The Koran is the charter for the community, the document that called it into existence. And ideally—though obviously not always in reality—Islamic history has been the effort to pursue and work out the commandments of the Koran in human life. If the Koran is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of fourteen centuries is effectively meaningless.”
The orthodox Muslim view of the Koran as self-evidently the Word of God, perfect and inimitable in message, language, style, and form, is strikingly similar to the fundamentalist Christian notion of the Bible’s “inerrancy” and “verbal inspiration” that is still common in many places today. The notion was given classic expression only a little more than a century ago by the biblical scholar John William Burgon.
The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Book of it, every Chapter of it, every Verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it … every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High!
Not all the Christians think this way about the Bible, however, and in fact, as the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1981) points out, “the closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Kur’an in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ.” If Christ is the Word of God made flesh, the Koran is the Word of God made text, and questioning its sanctity or authority is thus considered an outright attack on Islam—as Salman Rushdie knows all too well.
The prospect of a Muslim backlash has not deterred the critical-historical study of the Koran, as the existence of the essays in The Origins of the Koran (1998) demonstrate. Even in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair the work continues: In 1996 the Koranic scholar Günter Lüling wrote in The Journal of Higher Criticism about “the wide extent to which both the text of the Koran and the learned Islamic account of Islamic origins have been distorted, a deformation unsuspectingly accepted by Western Islamicists until now.”
In 1994 the journal Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam published a posthumous study by Yehuda D. Nevo, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, detailing seventh- and eighth-century religious inscriptions on stones in the Negev Desert which, Nevo suggested, pose “considerable problems for the traditional Muslim account of the history of Islam.”
That same year, and in the same journal, Patricia Crone, a historian of early Islam currently based at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, published an article in which she argued that elucidating problematic passages in the Koranic text is likely to be made possible only by “abandoning the conventional account of how the Qur’an was born.” And since 1991 James Bellamy, of the University of Michigan, has proposed in the Journal of the American Oriental Society a series of “emendations to the text of the Koran”—changes that from the orthodox Muslim perspective amount to copyediting God.
Crone is one of the most iconoclastic of these scholars. During the 1970s and 1980s she wrote and collaborated on several books—most notoriously, with Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977)—that made radical arguments about the origins of Islam and the writing of Islamic history.
Among Hagarism’s controversial claims were suggestions
- that the text of the Koran came into being later than is now believed (“There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century”);
- that Mecca was not the initial Islamic sanctuary (“[the evidence] points unambiguously to a sanctuary in north-west Arabia … Mecca was secondary”);
- that the Arab conquests preceded the institutionalization of Islam (“the Jewish messianic fantasy was enacted in the form of an Arab conquest of the Holy Land”);
- that the idea of the hijra, or the migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622, may have evolved long after Muhammad died (“No seventh-century source identifies the Arab era as that of the hijra”); and
- that the term “Muslim” was not commonly used in early Islam (“There is no good reason to suppose that the bearers of this primitive identity called themselves ‘Muslims’ [but] sources do … reveal an earlier designation of the community [which] appears in Greek as ‘Magaritai’ in a papyrus of 642, and in Syriac as ‘Mahgre’ or ‘Mahgraye’ from as early as the 640s”).
Hagarism came under immediate attack, from Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike, for its heavy reliance on hostile sources. (“This is a book,” the authors wrote, “based on what from any Muslim perspective must appear an inordinate regard for the testimony of infidel sources.”)
Crone and Cook have since backed away from some of its most radical propositions—such as, for example, that the Prophet Muhammad lived two years longer than the Muslim tradition claims he did, and that the historicity of his migration to Medina is questionable.
But Crone has continued to challenge both Muslim and Western orthodox views of Islamic history. In Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987) she made a detailed argument challenging the prevailing view among Western (and some Muslim) scholars that Islam arose in response to the Arabian spice trade.
Gerd-R. Puin’s current thinking about the Koran’s history partakes of this contemporary revisionism. “My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad,” he says. “Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants.”
Patricia Crone defends the goals of this sort of thinking. “The Koran is a scripture with a history like any other—except that we don’t know this history and tend to provoke howls of protest when we study it. Nobody would mind the howls if they came from Westerners, but Westerners feel deferential when the howls come from other people: who are you to tamper with their legacy? But we Islamicists are not trying to destroy anyone’s faith.”
Not everyone agrees with that assessment—especially since Western Koranic scholarship has traditionally taken place in the context of an openly declared hostility between Christianity and Islam. (Indeed, the broad movement in the West over the past two centuries to “explain” the East, often referred to as Orientalism, has in recent years come under fire for exhibiting similar religious and cultural biases.)
The Koran has seemed, for Christian and Jewish scholars particularly, to possess an aura of heresy; the nineteenth-century Orientalist William Muir, for example, contended that the Koran was one of “the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation, Liberty, and the Truth which the world has yet known.” Early Soviet scholars, too, undertook an ideologically motivated study of Islam’s origins, with almost missionary zeal: in the 1920s and in 1930 a Soviet publication titled Ateist ran a series of articles explaining the rise of Islam in Marxist-Leninist terms.
In Islam and Russia (1956), Ann K.S. Lambton summarized much of this work, and wrote that several Soviet scholars had theorized that “the motive force of the nascent religion was supplied by the mercantile bourgeoisie of Mecca and Medina”; that a certain S.P. Tolstov had held that “Islam was a social-religious movement originating in the slave-owning, not feudal, form of Arab society”; and that N.A. Morozov had argued that “until the Crusades Islam was indistinguishable from Judaism and … only then did it receive its independent character, while Muhammad and the first Caliphs are mythical figures.
“Morozov appears to have been a particularly flamboyant theorist: Lambton wrote that he also argued, in his book Christ (1930), that “in the Middle Ages Islam was merely an off-shoot of Arianism evoked by a meteorological event in the Red Sea area near Mecca.”
Not surprisingly, then, given the biases of much non-Islamic critical study of the Koran, Muslims are inclined to dismiss it outright. A particularly eloquent protest came in 1987, in the Muslim World Book Review, in a paper titled “Method Against Truth: Orientalism and Qur’anic Studies,” by the Muslim critic S. Parvez Manzoor.
Placing the origins of Western Koranic scholarship in “the polemical marshes of medieval Christianity” and describing its contemporary state as a “cul-de-sac of its own making,” Manzoor orchestrated a complex and layered assault on the entire Western approach to Islam.
He opened his essay in a rage.
The Orientalist enterprise of Qur’anic studies, whatever its other merits and services, was a project born of spite, bred in frustration and nourished by vengeance: the spite of the powerful for the powerless, the frustration of the “rational” towards the “superstitious” and the vengeance of the “orthodox” against the “non-conformist.”
At the greatest hour of his worldly-triumph, the Western man, coordinating the powers of the State, Church and Academia, launched his most determined assault on the citadel of Muslim faith. All the aberrant streaks of his arrogant personality—its reckless rationalism, its world-domineering phantasy and its sectarian fanaticism—joined in an unholy conspiracy to dislodge the Muslim Scripture from its firmly entrenched position as the epitome of historic authenticity and moral unassailability.
The ultimate trophy that the Western man sought by his dare-devil venture was the Muslim mind itself. In order to rid the West forever of the “problem” of Islam, he reasoned, Muslim consciousness must be made to despair of the cognitive certainty of the Divine message revealed to the Prophet.
Only a Muslim confounded of the historical authenticity or doctrinal autonomy of the Qur’anic revelation would abdicate his universal mission and hence pose no challenge to the global domination of the West. Such, at least, seems to have been the tacit, if not the explicit, rationale of the Orientalist assault on the Qur’an.
Despite such resistance, Western researchers with a variety of academic and theological interests press on, applying modern techniques of textual and historical criticism to the study of the Koran. That a substantial body of this scholarship now exists is indicated by the recent decision of the European firm Brill Publishers—a long-established publisher of such major works as The Encyclopaedia of Islam and The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition—to commission the first-ever Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an.
Jane McAuliffe, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toronto, and the general editor of the encyclopedia, hopes that it will function as a “rough analogue” to biblical encyclopedias and will be “a turn-of-the-millennium summative work for the state of Koranic scholarship.” Articles for the first part of the encyclopedia are currently being edited and prepared for publication later this year.
The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an will be a truly collaborative enterprise, carried out by Muslims and non-Muslims, and its articles will present multiple approaches to the interpretation of the Koran, some of which are likely to challenge traditional Islamic views—thus disturbing many in the Islamic world, where the time is decidedly less ripe for a revisionist study of the Koran.
The plight of Nasr Abu Zaid, an unassuming Egyptian professor of Arabic who sits on the encyclopedia’s advisory board, illustrates the difficulties facing Muslim scholars trying to reinterpret their tradition.
THE Koran is a text, a literary text, and the only way to understand, explain, and analyze it is through a literary approach,” Abu Zaid says. “This is an essential theological issue.”
For expressing views like this in print—in essence, for challenging the idea that the Koran must be read literally as the absolute and unchanging Word of God—Abu Zaid was in 1995 officially branded an apostate, a ruling that in 1996 was upheld by Egypt’s highest court. The court then proceeded, on the grounds of an Islamic law forbidding the marriage of an apostate to a Muslim, to order Abu Zaid to divorce his wife, Ibtihal Yunis (a ruling that the shocked and happily married Yunis described at the time as coming “like a blow to the head with a brick”).
Abu Zaid steadfastly maintains that he is a pious Muslim, but contends that the Koran’s manifest content—for example, the often archaic laws about the treatment of women for which Islam is infamous—is much less important than its complex, regenerative, and spiritually nourishing latent content. The orthodox Islamic view, Abu Zaid claims, is stultifying; it reduces a divine, eternal, and dynamic text to a fixed human interpretation with no more life and meaning than “a trinket … a talisman … or an ornament.”
For a while Abu Zaid remained in Egypt and sought to refute the charges of apostasy, but in the face of death threats and relentless public harassment he fled with his wife from Cairo to Holland, calling the whole affair “a macabre farce.”
Sheikh Youssef al-Badri, the cleric whose preachings inspired much of the opposition to Abu Zaid, was exultant. “We are not terrorists; we have not used bullets or machine guns, but we have stopped an enemy of Islam from poking fun at our religion…. No one will even dare to think about harming Islam again.”
Abu Zaid seems to have been justified in fearing for his life and fleeing: in 1992 the Egyptian journalist Farag Foda was assassinated by Islamists for his critical writings about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and in 1994 the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed for writing, among other works, the allegorical Children of Gabalawi (1959)—a novel, structured like the Koran, that presents “heretical” conceptions of God and the Prophet Muhammad.
Deviating from the orthodox interpretation of the Koran, says the Algerian Mohammed Arkoun, a professor emeritus of Islamic thought at the University of Paris, is “a very sensitive business” with major implications. “Millions and millions of people refer to the Koran daily to explain their actions and to justify their aspirations,” Arkoun says. “This scale of reference is much larger than it has ever been before.”
Muhammad in the Cave
MECCA sits in a barren hollow between two ranges of steep hills in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia. To its immediate west lies the flat and sweltering Red Sea coast; to the east stretches the great Rub’ al-Khali, or Empty Quarter—the largest continuous body of sand on the planet. The town’s setting is uninviting: the earth is dry and dusty, and smolders under a relentless sun; the whole region is scoured by hot, throbbing desert winds.
Although sometimes rain does not fall for years, when it does come it can be heavy, creating torrents of water that rush out of the hills and flood the basin in which the city lies. As a backdrop for divine revelation, the area is every bit as fitting as the mountains of Sinai or the wilderness of Judea.
The only real source of historical information about pre-Islamic Mecca and the circumstances of the Koran’s revelation is the classical Islamic story about the religion’s founding, a distillation of which follows.
In the centuries leading up to the arrival of Islam, Mecca was a local pagan sanctuary of considerable antiquity. Religious rituals revolved around the Ka’ba—a shrine, still central in Islam today, that Muslims believe was originally built by Ibrahim (known to Christians and Jews as Abraham) and his son Isma’il (Ishmael).
As Mecca became increasingly prosperous in the sixth century A.D., pagan idols of varying sizes and shapes proliferated. The traditional story has it that by the early seventh century a pantheon of some 360 statues and icons surrounded the Ka’ba (inside which were found renderings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, among other idols).
Such was the background against which the first installments of the Koran are said to have been revealed, in 610, to an affluent but disaffected merchant named Muhammad bin Abdullah. Muhammad had developed the habit of periodically withdrawing from Mecca’s pagan squalor to a nearby mountain cave, where he would reflect in solitude. During one of these retreats he was visited by the Angel Gabriel—the very same angel who had announced the coming of Jesus to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth some 600 years earlier.
Opening with the command “Recite!,” Gabriel made it known to Muhammad that he was to serve as the Messenger of God. Subsequently, until his death, the supposedly illiterate Muhammad received through Gabriel divine revelations in Arabic that were known as qur’an (“recitation”) and that announced, initially in a highly poetic and rhetorical style, a new and uncompromising brand of monotheism known as Islam, or “submission” (to God’s will). Muhammad reported these revelations verbatim to sympathetic family members and friends, who either memorized them or wrote them down.
Powerful Meccans soon began to persecute Muhammad and his small band of devoted followers, whose new faith rejected the pagan core of Meccan cultural and economic life, and as a result in 622 the group migrated some 200 miles north, to the town of Yathrib, which subsequently became known as Medina (short for Medinat al-Nabi, or City of the Prophet). (This migration, known in Islam as the hijra, is considered to mark the birth of an independent Islamic community, and 622 is thus the first year of the Islamic calendar.)
In Medina, Muhammad continued to receive divine revelations, of an increasingly pragmatic and prosaic nature, and by 630 he had developed enough support in the Medinan community to attack and conquer Mecca. He spent the last two years of his life proselytizing, consolidating political power, and continuing to receive revelations.
The Islamic tradition has it that when Muhammad died, in 632, the Koranic revelations had not been gathered into a single book; they were recorded only “on palm leaves and flat stones and in the hearts of men.” (This is not surprising: the oral tradition was strong and well established, and the Arabic script, which was written without the vowel markings and consonantal dots used today, served mainly as an aid to memorization.)
Nor was the establishment of such a text of primary concern: the Medinan Arabs—an unlikely coalition of ex-merchants, desert nomads, and agriculturalists united in a potent new faith and inspired by the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad—were at the time pursuing a fantastically successful series of international conquests in the name of Islam. By the 640s the Arabs possessed most of Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Egypt, and thirty years later they were busy taking over parts of Europe, North Africa, and Central Asia.
In the early decades of the Arab conquests many members of Muhammad’s coterie were killed, and with them died valuable knowledge of the Koranic revelations. Muslims at the edges of the empire began arguing over what was Koranic scripture and what was not. An army general returning from Azerbaijan expressed his fears about sectarian controversy to the Caliph ‘Uthman (644-656)—the third Islamic ruler to succeed Muhammad—and is said to have entreated him to “overtake this people before they differ over the Koran the way the Jews and Christians differ over their Scripture.”
‘Uthman convened an editorial committee of sorts that carefully gathered the various pieces of scripture that had been memorized or written down by Muhammad’s companions. The result was a standard written version of the Koran. ‘Uthman ordered all incomplete and “imperfect” collections of the Koranic scripture destroyed, and the new version was quickly distributed to the major centers of the rapidly burgeoning empire.
During the next few centuries, while Islam solidified as a religious and political entity, a vast body of exegetical and historical literature evolved to explain the Koran and the rise of Islam, the most important elements of which are hadith, or the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad; sunna, or the body of Islamic social and legal custom; sira, or biographies of the Prophet; and tafsir, or Koranic commentary and explication. It is from these traditional sources—compiled in written form mostly from the mid eighth to the mid tenth century—that all accounts of the revelation of the Koran and the early years of Islam are ultimately derived.
“For People Who Understand”
Roughly equivalent in length to the New Testament, the Koran is divided into 114 sections, known as suras, that vary dramatically in length and form. The book’s organizing principle is neither chronological nor thematic—for the most part the suras are arranged from beginning to end in descending order of length.
Despite the unusual structure, however, what generally surprises newcomers to the Koran is the degree to which it draws on the same beliefs and stories that appear in the Bible. God (Allah in Arabic) rules supreme: he is the all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-merciful Being who has created the world and its creatures; he sends messages and laws through prophets to help guide human existence; and, at a time in the future known only to him, he will bring about the end of the world and the Day of Judgment. Adam, the first man, is expelled from Paradise for eating from the forbidden tree. Noah builds an ark to save a select few from a flood brought on by the wrath of God. Abraham prepares himself to sacrifice his son at God’s bidding. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and receives a revelation on Mount Sinai. Jesus—born of the Virgin Mary and referred to as the Messiah—works miracles, has disciples, and rises to heaven.
The Koran takes great care to stress this common monotheistic heritage, but it works equally hard to distinguish Islam from Judaism and Christianity. For example, it mentions prophets—Hud, Salih, Shu’ayb, Luqman, and others—whose origins seem exclusively Arabian, and it reminds readers that it is “A Koran in Arabic, / For people who understand.”
Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, however, the Koran is often extremely difficult for contemporary readers—even highly educated speakers of Arabic—to understand. It sometimes makes dramatic shifts in style, voice, and subject matter from verse to verse, and it assumes a familiarity with language, stories, and events that seem to have been lost even to the earliest of Muslim exegetes (typical of a text that initially evolved in an oral tradition).
Its apparent inconsistencies are easy to find: God may be referred to in the first and third person in the same sentence; divergent versions of the same story are repeated at different points in the text; divine rulings occasionally contradict one another. In this last case the Koran anticipates criticism and defends itself by asserting the right to abrogate its own message (“God doth blot out / Or confirm what He pleaseth”).
Criticism did come. As Muslims increasingly came into contact with Christians during the eighth century, the wars of conquest were accompanied by theological polemics, in which Christians and others latched on to the confusing literary state of the Koran as proof of its human origins. Muslim scholars themselves were fastidiously cataloguing the problematic aspects of the Koran—unfamiliar vocabulary, seeming omissions of text, grammatical incongruities, deviant readings, and so on.
A major theological debate in fact arose within Islam in the late eighth century, pitting those who believed in the Koran as the “uncreated” and eternal Word of God against those who believed in it as created in time, like anything that isn’t God himself. Under the Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-833) this latter view briefly became orthodox doctrine. It was supported by several schools of thought, including an influential one known as Mu’tazilism, that developed a complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal understanding of the Koran.
By the end of the tenth century the influence of the Mu’tazili school had waned, for complicated political reasons, and the official doctrine had become that ofi’jaz, or the “inimitability” of the Koran. (As a result, the Koran has traditionally not been translated by Muslims for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. Instead it is read and recited in the original by Muslims worldwide, the majority of whom do not speak Arabic.
The translations that do exist are considered to be nothing more than scriptural aids and paraphrases.) The adoption of the doctrine of inimitability was a major turning point in Islamic history, and from the tenth century to this day the mainstream Muslim understanding of the Koran as the literal and uncreated Word of God has remained constant.
GERD-R. Puin speaks with disdain about the traditional willingness, on the part of Muslim and Western scholars, to accept the conventional understanding of the Koran. “The Koran claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen,’ or ‘clear,’” he says. “But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense. Many Muslims—and Orientalists—will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible.This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation.
If the Koran is not comprehensible—if it can’t even be understood in Arabic—then it’s not translatable. People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not—as even speakers of Arabic will tell you—there is a contradiction. Something else must be going on.”
Trying to figure out that “something else” really began only in this century. “Until quite recently,” Patricia Crone, the historian of early Islam, says, “everyone took it for granted that everything the Muslims claim to remember about the origin and meaning of the Koran is correct. If you drop that assumption, you have to start afresh.” This is no mean feat, of course; the Koran has come down to us tightly swathed in a historical tradition that is extremely resistant to criticism and analysis. As Crone put it in Slaves on Horses,
The Biblical redactors offer us sections of the Israelite tradition at different stages of crystallization, and their testimonies can accordingly be profitably compared and weighed against each other. But the Muslim tradition was the outcome, not of a slow crystallization, but of an explosion; the first compilers were not redactors, but collectors of debris whose works are strikingly devoid of overall unity; and no particular illuminations ensue from their comparison.
Not surprisingly, given the explosive expansion of early Islam and the passage of time between the religion’s birth and the first systematic documenting of its history, Muhammad’s world and the worlds of the historians who subsequently wrote about him were dramatically different. During Islam’s first century alone a provincial band of pagan desert tribesmen became the guardians of a vast international empire of institutional monotheism that teemed with unprecedented literary and scientific activity.
Many contemporary historians argue that one cannot expect Islam’s stories about its own origins—particularly given the oral tradition of the early centuries—to have survived this tremendous social transformation intact. Nor can one expect a Muslim historian writing in ninth- or tenth-century Iraq to have discarded his social and intellectual background (and theological convictions) in order accurately to describe a deeply unfamiliar seventh-century Arabian context. R. Stephen Humphreys, writing in Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (1988), concisely summed up the issue that historians confront in studying early Islam.
If our goal is to comprehend the way in which Muslims of the late 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries [Islamic calendar / Christian calendar] understood the origins of their society, then we are very well off indeed. But if our aim is to find out “what really happened,” in terms of reliably documented answers to modern questions about the earliest decades of Islamic society, then we are in trouble.
The person who more than anyone else has shaken up Koranic studies in the past few decades is John Wansbrough, formerly of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Puin is “re-reading him now” as he prepares to analyze the Yemeni fragments. Patricia Crone says that she and Michael Cook “did not say much about the Koran in Hagarism that was not based on Wansbrough.” Other scholars are less admiring, referring to Wansbrough’s work as “drastically wrongheaded,” “ferociously opaque,” and a “colossal self-deception.” But like it or not, anybody engaged in the critical study of the Koran today must contend with Wansbrough’s two main works—Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (1977) and The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (1978).
Wansbrough applied an entire arsenal of what he called the “instruments and techniques” of biblical criticism—form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, and much more—to the Koranic text. He concluded that the Koran evolved only gradually in the seventh and eighth centuries, during a long period of oral transmission when Jewish and Christian sects were arguing volubly with one another well to the north of Mecca and Medina, in what are now parts of Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Iraq. The reason that no Islamic source material from the first century or so of Islam has survived, Wansbrough concluded, is that it never existed.
To Wansbrough, the Islamic tradition is an example of what is known to biblical scholars as a “salvation history”: a theologically and evangelically motivated story of a religion’s origins invented late in the day and projected back in time. In other words, as Wansbrough put it in Quranic Studies, the canonization of the Koran—and the Islamic traditions that arose to explain it—involved the
attribution of several, partially overlapping, collections of logia (exhibiting a distinctly Mosaic imprint) to the image of a Biblical prophet (modified by the material of the Muhammadan evangelium into an Arabian man of God) with a traditional message of salvation (modified by the influence of Rabbinic Judaism into the unmediated and finally immutable word of God).
Wansbrough’s arcane theories have been contagious in certain scholarly circles, but many Muslims understandably have found them deeply offensive. S. Parvez Manzoor, for example, has described the Koranic studies of Wansbrough and others as “a naked discourse of power” and “an outburst of psychopathic vandalism.” But not even Manzoor argues for a retreat from the critical enterprise of Koranic studies; instead he urges Muslims to defeat the Western revisionists on the “epistemological battlefield,” admitting that “sooner or later [we Muslims] will have to approach the Koran from methodological assumptions and parameters that are radically at odds with the ones consecrated by our tradition.”
INDEED, for more than a century there have been public figures in the Islamic world who have attempted the revisionist study of the Koran and Islamic history—the exiled Egyptian professor Nasr Abu Zaid is not unique. Perhaps Abu Zaid’s most famous predecessor was the prominent Egyptian government minister, university professor, and writer Taha Hussein.
A determined modernist, Hussein in the early 1920s devoted himself to the study of pre-Islamic Arabian poetry and ended up concluding that much of that body of work had been fabricated well after the establishment of Islam in order to lend outside support to Koranic mythology. A more recent example is the Iranian journalist and diplomat Ali Dashti, who in his Twenty Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed (1985) repeatedly took his fellow Muslims to task for not questioning the traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life, much of which he called “myth-making and miracle-mongering.”
Abu Zaid also cites the enormously influential Muhammad ‘Abduh as a precursor. The nineteenth-century father of Egyptian modernism, ‘Abduh saw the potential for a new Islamic theology in the theories of the ninth-century Mu’tazilis. The ideas of the Mu’tazilis gained popularity in some Muslim circles early in this century (leading the important Egyptian writer and intellectual Ahmad Amin to remark in 1936 that “the demise of Mu’tazilism was the greatest misfortune to have afflicted Muslims; they have committed a crime against themselves”).
The late Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman carried the Mu’tazilite torch well into the present era; he spent the later years of his life, from the 1960s until his death in 1988, living and teaching in the United States, where he trained many students of Islam—both Muslims and non-Muslims—in the Mu’tazilite tradition.
Such work has not come without cost, however: Taha Hussein, like Nasr Abu Zaid, was declared an apostate in Egypt; Ali Dashti died mysteriously just after the 1979 Iranian revolution; and Fazlur Rahman was forced to leave Pakistan in the 1960s. Muslims interested in challenging orthodox doctrine must tread carefully. “I would like to get the Koran out of this prison,” Abu Zaid has said of the prevailing Islamic hostility to reinterpreting the Koran for the modern age, “so that once more it becomes productive for the essence of our culture and the arts, which are being strangled in our society.”
Despite his many enemies in Egypt, Abu Zaid may well be making progress toward this goal: there are indications that his work is being widely, if quietly, read with interest in the Arab world. Abu Zaid says, for example, that his The Concept of the Text (1990)—the book largely responsible for his exile from Egypt—has gone through at least eight underground printings in Cairo and Beirut.
Another scholar with a wide readership who is committed to re-examining the Koran is Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian professor at the University of Paris. Arkoun argued in Lectures du Coran (1982), for example, that “it is time [for Islam] to assume, along with all of the great cultural traditions, the modern risks of scientific knowledge,” and suggested that “the problem of the divine authenticity of the Koran can serve to reactivate Islamic thought and engage it in the major debates of our age.”
Arkoun regrets the fact that most Muslims are unaware that a different conception of the Koran exists within their own historical tradition. What a re-examination of Islamic history offers Muslims, Arkoun and others argue, is an opportunity to challenge the Muslim orthodoxy from within, rather than having to rely on “hostile” outside sources. Arkoun, Abu Zaid, and others hope that this challenge might ultimately lead to nothing less than an Islamic renaissance.
THE gulf between such academic theories and the daily practice of Islam around the world is huge, of course—the majority of Muslims today are unlikely to question the orthodox understanding of the Koran and Islamic history. Yet Islam became one of the world’s great religions in part because of its openness to social change and new ideas. (Centuries ago, when Europe was mired in its feudal Dark Ages, the sages of a flourishing Islamic civilization opened an era of great scientific and philosophical discovery.
The ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans might never have been introduced to Europe were it not for the Islamic historians and philosophers who rediscovered and revived them.) Islam’s own history shows that the prevailing conception of the Koran is not the only one ever to have existed, and the recent history of biblical scholarship shows that not all critical-historical studies of a holy scripture are antagonistic. They can instead be carried out with the aim of spiritual and cultural regeneration. They can, as Mohammed Arkoun puts it, demystify the text while reaffirming “the relevance of its larger intuitions.”
Increasingly diverse interpretations of the Koran and Islamic history will inevitably be proposed in the coming decades, as traditional cultural distinctions between East, West, North, and South continue to dissolve, as the population of the Muslim world continues to grow, as early historical sources continue to be scrutinized, and as feminism meets the Koran. With the diversity of interpretations will surely come increased fractiousness, perhaps intensified by the fact that Islam now exists in such a great variety of social and intellectual settings—Bosnia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United States, and so on.
More than ever before, anybody wishing to understand global affairs will need to understand Islamic civilization, in all its permutations. Surely the best way to start is with the study of the Koran—which promises in the years ahead to be at least as contentious, fascinating, and important as the study of the Bible has been in this century.
Three generations ago a great deal was known about Muslim extremism in India, and with good cause–indeed, one of my great-grandfathers was standing beside the viceroy when he was knifed to death by an alleged Wahhabi assassin in 1871. But by my grandfathers’ time that experience was fast being forgotten, and by my father’s generation it had been buried in the archives. Had this present generation been more aware of the true history of Indian Wahhabism, our governments might perhaps have been more wary of engaging in war by proxy following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. And if we are ever to come to terms with why so many young men have given and continue to give their lives to jihad in what the British knew as the North-West Frontier, and why so many cling to the belief that this same region is a dar-ul-Islam or “domain of the faith” second only to Mecca and Medina, then we have to understand what Wahhabism accomplished there, not only in the 1980s and 1990s but a full century and a half earlier.
I must admit that until very recently I shared this general ignorance. I can remember traveling from Swat to Hazara in the late 1990s and being absolutely baffled when a local khan told me to be sure, as I crossed the Indus at the Tarbela Dam, to look out for the site of what he called the Hindustani Camp, “which you British called the Fanatic Camp.”
So let me begin by examining what we mean by Wahhabism: the reformist theology first expounded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1702/3-91) in Nejd in the 1740s, espoused by the local chieftan Muhammad ibn Saud, and subsequently applied by these two houses–the al-Saud and the aal as-Sheikh (as the descendents of Sheikh Abd-al-Wahhab are known) in interdependent alliance until Wahhabism became the established form of Islam in the state bearing the name of Emir ibn Saud since the 1920s.
Ever since Wahhabism took root in Indian soil its adherents have consistently denied being Wahhabis. Their dissembling was aided by the inability of the British authorities to recognize that the scores of uprisings and assassinations that marred the Pax Britannica of India’s North-West Frontier from the 1840s onward were anything more than local troubles stirred up by “mad mullahs.” This misrepresentation was subsequently compounded by the distortions of nationalist historians writing after independence, who represented Wahhabi rebels as freedom fighters. As a result, our understanding of the forces that gave rise to Islamist fundamentalism on the Indian subcontinent has been seriously distorted.
The man credited with importing Wahhabism into India is Syed Ahmad of Rae Bareili (1786-1831), who returned from pilgrimage in Mecca in 1824 to begin a holy war against the Sikhs aimed at restoring the Punjab to Muslim rule. But the argument that Syed Ahmad picked up his ideas of Wahhabi intolerance and jihad while in Arabia is untenable. The reality is that he had already accepted the basic tenets of Wahhabism long before sailing to Arabia, as a student of the Madrassa-i-Ramiyya religious seminary in Delhi and as a pupil of its leader, Shah Abdul Aziz, son of the reformer Shah Waliullah of Delhi.
Shah Waliullah is the key figure here–a man as much admired within Sunni Islam as a great modernizer (the historian Aziz Ahmad rightly describes him as “the bridge between medieval and modern Islam in India”) as Abd al-Wahhab is reviled. The one, after all, was a follower of the tolerant, inclusive Hanafi school of jurisprudence and a Naqshbandi Sufi initiate, while the other belonged to the intolerant, exclusive Hanbali school, was viciously anti-Sufi and anti-Shia, and deeply indebted in his prejudices to the notorious fourteenth-century jurist of Damascus, Ibn Taymiyya–the ideologue whose reinterpretations of militant jihad are today cited by every Islamist. Yet these two key figures have far more in common than their respective admirers are willing to accept. Not only were they exact contemporaries, they almost certainly studied in Medina at the same period–and had at least one teacher in common.
Shah Waliullah came to Mecca on hajj in 1730, when he was 27, and then spent 14 months studying in Medina. First among his teachers was Shaikh Abu Tahir Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Kurani al-Madani, a renowned teacher of Hadith (the statements and examples of conduct of the Prophet gathered into a corpus to become, together with the Koran, the basis of sharia–the divinely ordained laws governing all aspects of behavior) in whose library the young Shah Waliullah studied the works of Ibn Taymiyya. In the case of Abd al-Wahhab the facts are not quite so well documented, but we know that he studied Hadith in Medina in his late twenties under the Indian Muhammad Hayat al-Sindi, a Naqshbandi sufi and a Shaft jurist who was an admirer of Ibn Taymiyya and a student of Ibrahim al-Kurani–the teacher who taught Hadith to Shah Waliullah and introduced him to the ideas of Ibn Taymiyya. So we have the intriguing possibility that the two greatest Sunni reformers of their age not only sat at the feet of the same teachers but may even have sat in the same classes. We can also be confident that some of these teachers encouraged their students to follow Ibn Taymiyya’s hard line and to regard militant jihad as a prime religious duty–which is what both Abd al-Wahhab and Shah Waliullah then went home to implement.
On his return to India, Shah Waliullah preached the oneness of God and called a return to the basics. Just as Ibn Taymiyya had done, he defied custom by setting himself up as a mujtahid (one who makes his own interpretations of established religious law by virtue of informed reasoning), and indulging in independent reasoning (ijtihad). In central Arabia, Abd al-Wahhab did likewise –the only major difference between the two being that Abd al-Wahhab succeeded in imposing his reading of Islam on his countrymen while Shah Waliullah failed, for lack of a strong champion.
With the British takeover of the Mughal capital of Delhi in 1803 and the humiliating demotion of the emperor to the status of a pensioner, Shah Waliullah’s eldest son and successor, Shah Abdul Azziz, issued a fatwa, or religious judgment, that Delhi had been enslaved by kuffr (paganism). He declared Hindustan to be a dar al-harb or “domain of enmity” and that it was now incumbent on all Muslims to strive to restore India to Islam. This was no more than a gesture, but it set a goal that his student Syed Ahmad did not forget.
After a murky period as a mercenary, Syed Ahmad returned to his religious studies, to reemerge in his early thirties as a visionary revivalist and preacher. He very soon acquired disciples, of whom the first two were the nephew and son-in-law of his former teacher. Many Sunnis now saw him as the inheritor of the mantle of the Shah Waliullah and hundreds flocked to join his cause, among them a young man called Wilayat Ali, who deserves special mention not only because he became an important leader of the Wahhabi movement but because of his antecedents. It seems to have been overlooked–by historians determined to distance Syed Ahmad’s movement and Arabian Wahhabism–that Wilayat Ali was initially a student of Ghulam Rasul of Benares. The significance of Ghulam Rasul is that he spent many years in Arabia–not in Mecca or Medina but in the remote province of Nejd, the seat of Wahhabism. When he returned to Benares he took the name of Hajji Abdul Haq and became known as the Nejdi Sheikh. He also brought with him a radical version of Islam that we can confidently label as “Wahhabism,” which means that it was already established in India before Syed Ahmad began his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1821.
The Five Articles of Faith
Syed Ahmad’s teachings were now based on five main articles of faith (as summarized by T. E. Ravenshaw in his Historical Memorandum on the Sect of the Wahabees, 1864): “Reliance on one Supreme Being [tawhid]; repudiation of all forms, ceremonies, and observances of the modern Mahomedan religion, retaining only such as are considered the pure doctrines of the Koran [bidat]; the duty of holy war for the faith [jihad] against infidels generally; blind and implicit obedience to their spiritual guides; expectation of an Imam who will lead all true believers to victory over infidels.” The first four of these articles accorded with the teachings of Abd al-Wahhab, but the last was the quintessential Shia belief that at the end of days a messiah-figure known as the Imam Mahdi, or the “expected one,” would come to the rescue of Islam. Divisions now began to appear between Syed Ahmad’s more hardline followers in Patna, who saw themselves as Wahhabis in all but name, and those in Delhi, led by the grandson of Shah Waliullah, Shah Muhammad Ishaq (hereafter referred to as the “Delhi-ites”).
In December 1825, the fortress of Bharatpur was taken with great slaughter–a further demonstration of the ascendancy of the British. “Fate has been so kind to the accursed Nazarenes and the mischievous polytheists,” Syed Ahmad wrote to a friend. “My heart is filled with shame at this religious degradation and my head contains but one thought, how to organize jihad.” He decided the time had come to emulate the Prophet, who had preceded his Islamic conquest by making a retreat (hegira) from the land of enmity of Mecca and migrating to the land of faith of Medina. Syed Ahmad arranged that Patna should serve as his movement’s main base in Hindustan. However, his fighting base had to be a domain of the faith, ideally Afghanistan.
In January 1826, he commenced his retreat along with some 400 armed mujahidin (“strivers for the faith”). At the same time, he wrote to Muslim rulers such as the emir of Bokhara, exhorting them to support his jihad–not against British imperialism, as it is so often portrayed, but to purge Hindustan of “the impurities of polytheism and the filth of dissonance.” The response was lukewarm and when Syed Ahmad’s army eventually reached Kabul by way of the Bolan Pass they found themselves unwanted. With their numbers greatly reduced they finally emerged from the Khyber Pass onto the Vale of Peshawar, occupied by Pathans of Afghan origin but then ruled over by the Sikhs. Here they were received as liberators and a sanctuary was provided for them at Sittana in the massif known as the Mahabun Mountain, jutting into the plains from the hills of Swat and Buner. This had long been regarded as a land of saints and now became the Wahhabis’ dar al-Islam. Astonishingly, it remained the Wahhabi stronghold, or what the British called the Fanatic Camp, to the end of the nineteenth century.
In fall 1826, Syed Ahmad summoned all Muslims to join his holy war. The Pathans rallied to his cause and he was formally chosen as the movement’s imam and commander of the faithful, echoing the titles of the early caliphs. His war began in spring 1827, initially with a military disaster but then with a series of victories against the Sikh armies that culminated in the capture of Peshawar in 1830. To mark this great victory, Syed Ahmad declared himself badshah, or king of kings, possibly as a preliminary to presenting himself as the longed-for Imam Mahdi. He also imposed strict Wahhabi rules on Peshawar and the surrounding country. After two months the locals rebelled and every Hindustani jihadist found in the Vale was dragged from his prayers and put to the sword. Syed Ahmad and his companions survived the massacre and fled across the Indus River into Hazara, only to be cornered by a Sikh army. On May 8, 1831, Syed Ahmad, his two closest disciples, and some 1,300 Hindustanis made their last stand and died bravely.
That should have ended the fundamentalist movement. But led by Wilayat Ali, the original Wahhabi convert, the Wahhabis in the plains regrouped. Wilayat Ali lacked charisma but was a brilliant propagandist, confecting the story that Syed Ahmad was not really dead but merely waiting in the mountains to resume the jihad, thus reshaping Wahhabism into a cult centered on its hidden imam. A secret network based on Patna was established by which funds, supplies, and weapons were sent along a covert caravan trail to the Mahabun Mountain, along with volunteers to be trained as mujahidin. Finally, in spring 1851, Wilayat Ali and his younger brother, Inayat Ali, with hundreds of armed men, made their hegira from the plains to the Punjab frontier, with the aim of recommencing the jihad in the winter of 1853-54.
All this went largely unnoticed by the British authorities, until August 1852, when a bundle of “treasonable correspondence” was seized that revealed the existence of a sect of fanatic Muslims in Patna. A raid on the Wahhabis’ base was carried out, but after a stand-off the governor general concluded that the troublemakers in the mountains should be left alone “since they are insignificant.”
In the event, the commissioner of Peshawar, Frederick Mackeson, chose not to leave the Hindustani Fanatics alone. In January 1853, in response to an appeal from a local chief, he launched a raid on the Hindustani camp at Sittana, driving its inhabitants further into the mountains. But he failed to follow up; a decision that probably cost him his life, since in the following September he was knifed to death in his bungalow by a tribesman from Swat. Nevertheless, the raid forced the Hindustanis to put off their jihad, which was rescheduled for the summer of 1857.
The events of the great Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 are well known, but the part played by the Wahhabis deserves closer examination. All the evidence suggests that the Wahhabis refused to align themselves with the non-Wahhabi rebels, in part because they regarded the king of Delhi, Bahadur Shah, as a heretic due to his religious tolerance, but also because they had their own plans. The main fighting arm of the Wahhabis were the Hindustani Fanatics up at Sittana, but they too remained inactive until several hundred mutinous soldiers arrived in their camp. Wilayat Ali had died of a fever a year earlier so it was his younger and more intemperate brother, Inayat Ali, who responded by launching a raid into the plains, apparently believing that he would be joined by mujahidin sent up from Patna. Instead, the Hindustanis were subjected to a series of assaults that forced them to retreat even deeper into the mountains.
In April 1858 the British military commander in Peshawar led a three-pronged assault on the Mahabun Mountain to wipe out the Hindustani Fanatics once and for all. Inayat Ali had just died of fever, and the Wahhabis were again taken by surprise. The mujahidin were surrounded and all but wiped out, yet somehow Wilayat Ali’s eldest son, Abdullah Ali, escaped to fight another day. The survivors moved to an abandoned settlement named Malka, where they were entirely dependent on the charity of their neighbors. Amazingly, the Wahhabis bounced back, again thanks to official indifference. They rebuilt their organization and reopened their underground trail to the North-West Frontier. The outcome was a series of arrests in the plains, and a disastrous campaign, mounted at huge cost to destroy the Fanatic Camp at Malka, so clumsily executed that it achieved nothing beyond uniting the Pathan tribes against the British and raising the Wahhabis’ prestige as champions of Islam.
By beating detainees to extract confessions and using “approvers” to turn Queen’s evidence, the Wahhabi organization in plains India was broken up, leading to a series of high-profile trials in the 1860s and 1870s. One curious feature of these trials was that those convicted, besides being shackled in irons, were dressed in orange overalls (a color code replicated at the U.S. base at Guantanamo). A number of leaders were condemned to death, subsequently commuted to transportation for life on the Andaman Islands, and others sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. A special commission was then set up to examine the extent of the threat posed by the sect, producing the first detailed report on the Wahhabi movement–Ravenshaw’s memorandum. This documented for the first time its extraordinary sophistication and its long history of armed jihad.
Then, in 1871, the whole issue came back to a fresh boil with the murder of the British chief justice, John Norman, on his way into court to preside over a Wahhabi trial in Calcutta. He was stabbed to death by a Pathan who went to the gallows without giving a coherent account of his motives. This was followed five months later by the unprecedented assassination of a viceroy, Lord Mayo, while on tour in the Andaman Islands. His attacker, also a Pathan, had served as orderly to a number of British political officers in Peshawar. The British in India united in concluding that the Wahhabis were behind the assassination, but no evidence was found to support this belief. Yet two possibly unconnected events remain unexplained: a grandson of Wilayat Ali was found to have visited the Andaman Islands shortly before Lord Mayo’s arrival, and a person or persons unknown had given a great feast for the killer on the night before the murder.
Remarkably, the Wahhabis on the Mahabun Mountain survived the purges. Under the leadership of Abdallah Ali, they moved from one hideout to another, harassed in turn by the local tribes and the British authorities. In 1873, Abdullah Ali’s youngest brother in Patna appealed for an official pardon, rejected on the grounds that the Hindustani Fanatics would eventually be forced to give up. But the government was, as often before, indulging in wishful thinking. The Hindustanis clung on, kept alive by handouts from the Pathan tribes.
When a British journalist came to write about the North-West Frontier in 1890, he noted that the Hindustanis were widely admired among the tribes for their “fierce fanaticism.” Their colony was celebrated locally as the Kila Mujahidin, or “the Fortress of the Holy Warriors,” wherein they “devoted their time to drill, giving the words of command in Arabic, firing salutes with cannon made of leather, and blustering about the destruction of the infidel power of the British.” It was said that they were still awaiting the return of Syed Ahmad, their Hidden Imam. Then came the great frontier uprising of 1897-98, beginning in Swat and spreading like the proverbial wildfire south through tribal country, and requiring an army of 40,000 to reduce them to submission. It is worth examining the source from which the mullah who incited the uprising drew his ideas. Known to the British as the “Mad Fakir,” Mullah Sadullah was a 60-year-old native of Buner who reappeared in his homeland after many years’ absence to proclaim that he had been visited by Syed Ahmad the Martyr and had been ordered by him to turn the British out of Swat and the Vale of Peshawar. He had with him a 13-year-old boy named Shah Sikander (Alexander) who claimed to be the legitimate heir to the throne of Delhi. Unfortunately for the mullahs, British bullets did not turn to water as he had predicted, and the boy was among the many tribesmen killed in the fighting.
Many young Wahhabis, easily identified by their distinctive black waistcoats and dark blue robes, fought and died in the uprising. We can now see that two great legacies of Syed Ahmad on the frontier were, first, the “jihadization” of the Pathans; and, second, the reinforcement of the belief that the border region was a domain of the faith, to be defended at all costs.
But there was a third, more potent, legacy. The Wahhabi trials and assassinations led to discussions in the vernacular newspapers and in the mosques as to where a Muslim’s first loyalties lay. Convocations of muftis and other jurists met in Calcutta and Delhi and, after much agonizing, produced differing declarations. In Calcutta, they decreed British India to be domain of the faith, wherein religious rebellion was unlawful. In Delhi, however, they found the country to be a domain of enmity–but went on to state that rebellion was nevertheless uncalled for. At the same time, many ordinary Muslims, despite their misgivings about Wahhabi dogma, interpreted the trials as victimization of fellow Muslims. A number of historians have cited this as explaining the decline of Muslims in government employ from this time onward. The sadder reality is that this decline was part of a wider pattern of withdrawal from public life as the Muslim community began a retreat into the past.
Spearheading the great leap backward were two groups of mullahs, both with Wahhabi associations, both linked to the path of Islamic revivalism originally initiated in Delhi by Shah Waliullah. The more extreme of the two set up a politico-religious organization known as Jamaat Ahl-i-Hadith, the Party of the Tradition of the Prophet. One of its founders was Sayyid Nazir Husain Muhaddith Dihlawi, the leader of the Wahhabi “Delhi-ites.” The Ahl-i-Hadith movement’s many critics were quick to label it “Wahhabi,” and to this day it continues to be described and denounced as such. In Pakistan today it has over 400 madrassas and has sponsored a number of militant organizations linked to terrorism.
A second group of clerics was led by two students of Sayyid Nazir Husain who, in 1857, had attempted to set up their own domain of the faith north of Delhi: Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi and Rashid Ahmed Gangohi. In May 1866, they founded their own madrassa at Deoband, a hundred miles north of Delhi. They drew their students from the peasantry and refused government funding. Boys as young as five were accepted and often remained there until adulthood, so that many came to identify with the madrassa as their main home and the teacher as a surrogate parent. Although modeled on the university, the ethos of Deoband was that of the seminary. English was prohibited, Urdu served as the lingua franca, and all students began their studies by learning the Koran by heart in the original Arabic. The theology taught at Deoband was an uncompromising fundamentalism mirroring that of Wahhabism. It denounced the worship of saints, the adorning of tombs, and such activities as music and dancing; it waged a ceaseless war of words against Shias, Hindus, and Christian missionaries; it distanced itself from all that was progressive in Indian society; and it retained militant jihad as a central pillar of faith but focused this jihad on the promotion of Islamic revival.
At the same time, Deoband exploited modern technology, especially in the dissemination of fatwas on every issue brought before its muftis. By this means Deoband gained the support of the masses, providing Muslims with a new sense of identity and an alternative to the British model. In 1879, the institution assumed the additional name of Dar ul-Ulum, the Abode of Islamic Learning. By then it was already becoming renowned throughout the Islamic world as a center of religious study second only to Al-Aqsa in Cairo, producing an ever growing cadre of graduates who formed a class of reformist clerics not unlike the Jesuits of the Catholic Counter-Reformation: a politicized group who could compete against all other clerics to advantage and, above all, disseminate the teachings of Deoband in their own madrassas. The first of these graduates, Mahmood ul-Hasan, duly became rector of Dar ul-Ulum Deoband and in 1915 set up his own clandestine mujahidin army in an attempt to replicate Syed Ahmad–a bid that ended in disaster, with the imprisonment of its leader and over 200 followers. By 1900, Dar ul-Ulum Deoband had founded over two dozen allied madrassas in northern India. Today that figure stands, remarkably, at over 30,000 worldwide. The consequences for Islam have been profound, resulting in a seismic shift within Sunni Islam in South Asia, which became increasingly conservative and introverted, less tolerant and more inclined to look for political leadership from the madrassas and the madrassa-trained politician. It also gave new force to an old ideal: that a Muslim’s first duty was to his religion and that he had an absolute obligation to defend Islam wherever it was under attack. Nowhere has this new force made more impact than in Pakistan, where the Deobandi-led politico-religious party known as Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), the “Party of Scholars of Islam,” has widespread support in the Pathan tribal areas. Pakistan now has well over 7,000 JUI, Deobandi, or Ahl-i-Hadith madrasas. It was here in the 1980s and 1990s that the Taliban’s leaders and many of its rank-and-file were educated and jihadized. And it is here, in this frontier region, that Osama bin Laden most surely confounds a superpower’s efforts to find him, dead or alive.
This essay is drawn from a lecture given at the Royal Society for Asian Affairs at Canning House in London on February 23, 2005.
Charles Allen is a historian of the British colonial period in South Asia. His recent publications include Soldier Sahibs: The Men Who Made the North-West Frontier and The Buddha and the Sahibs: The British Discovery of Buddhism. He recently received the Sir Percy Sykes Memorial Medal for his work in “stimulating public interest in Britain’s imperial encounter with Asia.” His history of Wahhabism will be published in Britain later this year.