Qasmi. You have mentioned how Islam and our understanding of it have been created through an interface of Islam and modernity or Islam and liberalism. In what ways do you think modernity has led to our understanding of Islam?
Jalal. This tendency to say that Islam is somehow incompatible with modernity or liberalism is really very much a construct of the West and its antagonistic views of Islam. What I am trying to do is turn the gaze inward, to see how people were writing during the colonial period. Muslims from across the board – from all spectrums, religious and Western – responded to the colonial experience. It was by no means a closed experience; it was a much more creative interaction. There were Muslims who accepted the purely Western standards but there were many other variants – such as anti-colonialists who were moved by socialist-communist ideas or by Islamic ideas.
Qasmi. Then there is also the important factor of codification which has made Islam into a closed system.
Jalal. When it comes to the legal domain, you are absolutely right. Sharia was a moral precept but the question of precedence in colonial case law codified those precepts. What we call Sharia is Anglo-Muhammadan Law. I am not saying its solely colonial judges who created this – it was also the Muslim elite. Let me give you one example. We assume that there has been a struggle between modernity and tradition but, in fact, what we call tradition is at the heart of modernity.
When the colonial state began intervening in the legal domain, it was not as if modern colonial laws were all against tradition. In fact, tradition defined those laws because the colonial state had to navigate the tradition with the elite’s help. This way, many traditional things became entrenched in the name of modernity, including patriarchy.
Qasmi. You have written about jihad’s 200-year history in India, starting with Syed Ahmad Shaheed. You have also distinguished between jihad which is an internal striving and jihad that endorses militaristic activities. How do you explain these different notions?
Jalal. I have argued that both internal and external jihad have coexisted and internal jihad was considered the greater jihad than the external one.
What has happened in recent times is that the militaristic jihad has become the greater jihad. The prevalent view is that you can be the most sinful human being, even a murderer, but your sins will all be washed if you have made jihad for Allah. There is also a complete inversion of the concept that only the state or the ulema can declare jihad. Call it democratisation of jihad – as Faisal Devji does – but this has completely gone out of hand.
Qasmi. Abul A’la Maududi [the founder of Jamaat-e– Islami] had to take back his views on jihad in 1948 when the war in Kashmir started and the Pakistani state put pressure on him to declare that war as jihad.
Jalal. Maududi said the war in Kashmir was not jihad. He said if Pakistan wanted to do a jihad in Kashmir then, first of all, it must break all diplomatic relations with India. What Hafiz Saeed and others like him are saying about jihad is quite different. Their concept of jihad is a function of disappointments with the postcolonial state and the desire to win sovereignty. It is also a function of the fact that the post-colonial state and its elites are seen to be in cahoots with the West.
There is a real alliance between the Western paradigm and these people. Like them, the West also insists that jihad is militaristic. Wherever there is a mention of jihad in traditional Islamic literature, it is not always militaristic. The insistence on this kills the complexity of the Muslim tradition.
Qasmi. How do you think Edward Said’s Orientalism has changed things in American academia as well as in American media?
Jalal. I think sound bites are still winning the game. In the academy, however, there is much more nuance. Some excellent scholarship is coming out of the West on Islam, in fields such as Islamic legal studies.
When I started teaching at the Fletcher School in 2003, all the books on Islam in the library there denoted a real thirst to know, a genuine curiosity. After the Iraq War, with American boots on the ground, the sense of war diluted the way we discussed books such as Said’s Orientalism and Bernard Lewis’ attack on him. People began to read these books through the prism of their modern predicament of being at war with the Muslim world. That made a very crucial difference.
Qasmi. What is your opinion on the nexus between knowledge and power, and the ways it has been exemplified in the American academia?
Jalai. I think Said got it right. In his book Covering Islam he talks about the nexus between the academy, the multinationals, the media and the White House. The amazing thing about the American academy, however, is that, while this knowledge-power nexus exists, there are people who are producing genuine knowledge, though they are not invited to contribute to policy. If you look at the media, some of the best scholars who are producing excellent work don’t get invited to speak on the media. Why? Because America has been at war.
When we criticise the West in broad terms, we must also realise that there are still spaces in the same West where people are arguing against their own government’s policy. That, I think, cannot be said easily about some other parts of the world.
Courtesy: Herald, April 2018