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NON-FICTION: IN DEFENCE OF THEOLOGY

August 20, 2017

Chivalry and terror are the opposing faces of warfare. The first is usually attributed to regular armies, the second to irregular guerrilla forces. Since the last 40 years, terror has been popularly associated mainly with militant Muslim fighters. Yet Islamist militancy did not begin with either the Soviet Union’s or the United States’ invasions of Afghanistan; it began with the Kharji who rose against Hazrat Ali in 657.

The Kharji took to terror, killing the wives and children of those who disagreed with them. They were the first manifestation of zealotry in the Muslim world. At the other end of the sectarian spectrum, a few centuries hence, were the Qarmatians who destabilised established kingdoms. From Arabia hailed Abdul Wahab and in South Asia we see Syed Ahmad Shaheed, Titu Mir and the Faraizi Movement. They were all puritans and zealots. What marks contemporary terror is that swords and lances have been replaced with hand grenades and rocket launchers.

The change of which author Ghani speaks in his book Did Islam Change? Or Did the Muslims Change? was gradual and had its own momentum or what A.J. Toynbee called rout and rally. The Iranian revolution proceeded from a previously quietist sect. This shows that though militancy and aggression are contrary to the spirit of Islam, the impulse to terrorism has existed in certain sections of Islamic society from a very early date.

A thesis explicating how modern perceptions of jihad are misconstrued from original meanings has its own set of problems

Ghani has endeavoured to show that terrorist practices are against the scripture and tenets of Islam. In this he has very largely succeeded. However, how he achieves this is by a tortuous method, needing clarification. This book can be divided into two parts. 1) What is Islam, and 2) who are Muslims?

Ghani does not trace the history of terror as outlined above. He attacks Islamic historiography by emulating F.E. Peters (Jesus and Muhammad: Parallel Tracks, Parallel Lives) who says that Ibn Is’haq wrote his Sirat Rasul Allah generations after Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and moreover the original manuscript does not survive.

Ghani adds: “One of the edited copies of Sirat Rasul Allah was further edited by Ibn Hisham (d.833), which in turn was paraphrased by Tabari (d.923).”

Now this is ignoring the structure of Islamic historiography. The original holograph is indeed lost, but Ibn Hisham did not edit Ibn Is’haq’s work, He only cited long passages from it. Out of 800 pages, only 100 have been added by Ibn Hisham and Tabari did not rely on any edited version of Ibn Is’haq. Ibn Is’haq has cited his sources going back to eyewitnesses. And he was not the first to write on the Prophet.

Ghani adopts a similar stance to the six canonical Hadith collections: “None of these gifted men were born within two and a half centuries of the Prophet or his Companions. The Muhaddithin could also edit a Hadith to improve upon its form and style.”

This is highly misleading. The structure of Islamic historiography is the khabar [news]. Historians and traditionists (muhaddithin) compiled compendiums of khabar. They were late in coming because they had to wait for the development and spread of calligraphy. It was against the responsibility of the muhaddith to edit or improve the draft. This was the province of forgers. Here Ghani is falling back on Ignaz Goldziher and Joseph Schacht in challenging the authenticity of Hadith though works by Nabia Abbott and Ursula Sezgin refuting these authors have been published long ago.

In countering the allegation that pristine Islam was militant, Ghani adduces wider meanings for the words qatal and jihad. In the latter, he has been anticipated by Reuven Firestone (Jihadi) who also says that the literal meaning is to “strive.” Ghani, on the basis of Q 60:8-9 calls jihad self-defence: “Note that words such as ‘pagan,’ ‘idolater’ and ‘polytheist’ are nowhere mentioned in these verses with regard to the identity of those against whom Islam grants permission to fight in defence of the freedom of worship.” So far Ghani is credible, but when he goes on to say: “Nor do these words occur in any other verse relating to the conditions and principles that merit jihad,” he is wrong.

“O Prophet, strive (jahid) against the infidels and the hypocrites.” Q 9:73. Only history tells us that the Prophet never fought against the hypocrites. Likewise, with Q 4:84, “And fight in the way of God, and it is obligatory on none but yourself (nafsi) but motivate believers.” Jihad becomes obligatory on the one who did not personally fight. This means that recourse to an esoteric element in jihad has to be taken.

It is when Ghani comes to the incident of the Banu Quraizha that he reveals why he is sceptical with regard to Islamic historiography in general and Ibn Is’haq’s Sirat Rasul Allah in particular. It is here that the Prophet has been accused by Western writers of massacring Jews. Instead of taking recourse to denial or expiation, this is where Ghani should have read the Holy Quran: “And He brought those of the people of the scripture who supported them down from their strongholds and cast panic in their hearts. Some you slew and some you made captive.” Q 33:26.

Both Nawab Ali (author of Seerat-i-Rasul Allah) and Barakat Ahmad (author of Muhammad and the Jews: A Re-examination) have asserted on the basis of this verse to show that a general massacre did not take place.

Ghani explains the stricture against befriending Jews and Christians by limiting the injunction to only the combatants among them. Such considerations, when applied to current times, are suggestive, but not conclusive. The ulema would categorise them under exegesis by opinion (tafsir bi’l rai). Similar is the method adopted by Ghani regarding the anti-Islamic comments of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Robert Spencer etc.

“Such views derive from cherry-picking specific lines from the Quran on war and battle in total disregard to the context. This is like quoting the rules of engagement by US federal agencies [such as] the FBI as being part of the US Constitution.” Now, verses of the Quran stand in relation to one another like articles of a constitution, not a constitution and a subsidiary text.

Where does this all lead to? The injunction “Do not transgress”

Q 2:190 is sufficient to show to Ghani that there is no room for terrorism in Islam. At several places Ghani writes of the militants: “The Taliban (and now ISIL’s) antics in their so-called jihad are the exact opposite of what Islam teaches.” With reference to Q 8:27, the people converging on Afghanistan/Pakistan have: “ruthlessly and most shamefully used, abused, disfigured, and rearranged the ancient tenets of Islam for their own selfish ends.” From here Ghani leads us to giving thanks to those who control the fortunes of the Middle East: “Muslims are instructed not to befriend those who have persecuted and driven Muslims from their homes. Some modern-day Christian nations of the West have opened their doors to welcome Muslims.”

With Austria threatening to seal the Italian border, this is not in evidence. Not content with maligning Pakistan for the Kashmir uprising, Ghani goes on to say: “Rather than admit to their own hypocrisy, these people call the US and its allies ‘invaders’ and ‘occupiers’ and demand that they leave.” Let us seek our own indictment.

The reviewer is a retired associate professor of Islamic History at Government National College, Karachi

Did Islam Change? Or Did the
Muslims Change?
By Ghani
White Ink Press
ISBN: 978-0997413335
386pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 20th, 2017