Under my byline

Downhill, uphill

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 11 March 2009


Charles Allen, God's TerroristsThe Taliban have Swat; they are a few hours by road from Islamabad, which is a few minutes by air from India. The wolves are coming down from the western hills. This is the ancient worry of the plains civilisation, older than history itself. Just presenting a threat in these terms triggers an atavistic jag of fear, the urge to circle to protect the children and cattle. When the future becomes uncertain (Pakistani citizens, in Lahore, wanting to kill cricketers? Now the pit looks bottomless) then that’s one of the basic props of our modern, middle-class civilisation shaken.

The strange thing is, though, that a careful look into the past usually reveals a more complicated story, one whose roots and sources trail here and there and turn up in unexpected places. So, where now we fear the arrival of militant fundamentalism from that side of the border, the invasion of our body politic by the foreign pathogen, in the 18th-19th centuries that same jihadist disease travelled in the opposite direction: from the north Indian heartland to the tribal western fringe of the empire.

So says Charles Allen in his provocatively titled 2006 book, God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad (reviewed on this page on September 6, 2007). Allen shows how Wahhabism developed simultaneously in the Arabian peninsula and India, and what the political results were in both lands.

At the back of the book are two fascinating “family trees” which summarise his story. One diagrams the interconnections between the family of Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the revolutionary cleric, and that of Emir Muhammad ibn Saud, the Bedouin ruler of Nejd whose descendants sit on the Saudi throne today. The other traces the lineage of Wahhabist clerics and leaders in their other stronghold, South Asia. Together, the two “trees” offer some answers to the question of why Wahhabism, which was in fact alien to either environment (it’s hard work to be a puritan), found fanatic adherents then and continues to find purchase now.

The puritanism Imam al-Wahhab preached wasn’t invented by him but can be traced back to the 12th-13th century. Because the ideas were around, Allen says, learned hajjis from 18th-century India who stayed awhile in Mecca-Medina to study were exposed to them. Upon their return to India a few of the most capable established new lineages in the leading madrasas, including in Delhi.

They did not have an immediate political effect, of course. Even al-Wahhab had little impact — until he teamed up with ibn Saud, the warlord of backward, landlocked Nejd who was looking to gear his tribe for major conquests. In that partnership, al-Wahhab’s call for discipline and his assertion that all other forms of Islam were false were excellent tools to organise and motivate the Nejdis for jihad against their Muslim neighbours. Then, crucially, ibn Saud’s successor combined in himself the offices of imam and emir, becoming something new: a sacred ruler. In no long time, the Sauds controlled most of Arabia.

In India too, it was where urban ideologues met a proud and violent tribal society that jihadism finally grew from thought to deed. Allen follows Syed Ahmad Barelvi as he built up a small following in the plains, then went west to Pathan lands. From there he believed he could return as the Imam-Mahdi, the promised messiah, to win India once again for Islam.

He failed, and was killed in battle by the British — but his idea and his followers lived on, and on, and on. It was impossible to stamp them out. Things would settle, until a plainsman arrived to preach jihad again. And, if Allen is right (his sources are all British), the network of madrasas and sponsors in the plains who supplied the jihadised northwest with men, money, materials and propaganda was one of the motors of 1857.

The parallel with our times is unavoidable, though Allen carefully refrains from drawing it. The radicalised Pathans are fodder for jihadist outsiders; and the money and ideas appear to come from Wahhabist institutions. The Taliban’s Mullah Omar is an imam-emir with more than a touch of messianic aspiration.

Also: the common enemy. The sense of calamity in Islam is 500 years old, dating from the loss of Spain in 1492. Since then Islam has felt itself on the defensive, and perhaps cheated of its destiny as a world religion. But that will not change soon. And, unfortunately, globalisation won’t help: it tends to impair local compromise and the natural, healthy, otherwise-inevitable development of heterodoxy.


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