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Reviewed by:
  • Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia
  • Yasmin Khan
Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia. By Ayesha Jalal (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2008) 373 pp. $29.95

This book, by one of the most eminent scholars of South Asian history, unpacks the many layered meanings of jihad in South Asia. Taking a concept that is too often simplistically and reductively understood, it traces jihad’s centrality to Islamic thought in South Asia from precolonial times to the present day. It brilliantly asserts the importance of jihad as a “moving spirit” in Islam, and the shifting meanings of jihad as part of “a spiritual, intellectual and moral struggle” to establish personal and social equilibrium within the Muslim community (14). It deals with jihad as both internal striving and external action and does not shy away from times when jihad has resulted in fighting and the waging of war: “Both kinds of jihad have animated Muslims in varying measure, depending on the historical context”(303).

Jalal writes with a sensibility that is alive both to the inner meanings of faith and the pressures on intellectual ideas exerted by external, historical circumstance. Hence, her interpretations of jihad are not abstracted and stripped from their timeframe; Jalal comprehends the leading South Asian Islamic thinkers, from Shah Waliullah to A. K. Azad and Mawdudi, against the backdrop of their own historical and intellectual environment.

One of the book’s many strengths, and the virtue of its historical perspective, is its challenge to notions of fixity and unity in Islam by showing the scope for ijtihad (independent reasoning). Many changes over time have occurred as leading thinkers and Islamic groups have struggled with the tension between ethics and jurisprudence, the demands of politically expedient accommodation and resistance to political forces, alongside the inner struggle “to be human.” For instance, “it was not until the eighteenth century that fears about loss of Muslim sovereignty [End Page 473] triggered a redefinition of jihad as the obverse of aman (peace)” (15). Yet, above all, the intellectual debates between Muslims have been just as—if not more—important for the shaping of these ideas than encounters with non-Muslims. Political forces, both in the past and in the present, have appropriated and simplified historical jihads, such as Sayyid Ahmad’s war against the Sikh kingdom from 1826 to 1831.

As Jalal argues, South Asia has been a particularly important test bed for Islamic thought. South Asia, where Muslims have often faced being in a minority, shows how commonplace stereotypes of Islam fall short. In particular, Jalal stresses the redundancy of “the limited and sterile dichotomy between the religious and the secular” (241). Islamic thinkers have shown great versatility in accommodating different notions of state power. Yet, sadly, anticolonial and nationalistic expressions have lately given way to radical reinterpretations of jihad in Pakistan among groups that support unethical and dehumanized action. “Jihad has gone from being the core ethical principle of Islam to becoming a justification for unethical actions, in pursuit of worldly aims” (300).

This book opens up many more questions and should inspire new research about the ways in which interpretations of jihad by leading Muslim thinkers have filtered down beyond elites to Muslims in general.

Yasmin Khan
Royal Holloway
University of London


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pp. 473-474
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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