Can the Afghan Taliban learn from their greatest Sheikh?

According to Husain Ahmad Madani, only a draconian state could enforce Islamic conformity given Muslims’ own diversity

“Muslims today remember only the word ‘jihad’, but they do not remember that in opposition to rebels against Islam and enemies of the community…. patience, forbearance, and high ethics were spoken of as jihad-i akbar (‘the greater jihad’). In this greater jihad, there is no need of sword or dagger, but only strength, resolve, and action”[i].

Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani (1879–1957) was one of the most important Muslim figures in the history of twentieth-century South Asia. He was a traditionally educated Islamic scholar who studied at the Darul ‘Ulum at Deoband, the” madrasa” (seminary) that gives the “Deobandi” sectarian orientation its name. The American Historian and expert on the Islamic thought in South Asia, Barbara Metcalf has offered an incisive and incredible account of the life of Maulana Madani (Maulana is an honorific title for an Islamic scholar), covering both his political activism, as well as his spiritual and religious contributions[ii]. As I was reading through her meticulously researched account, I realised how great a debt we Easterners owe to these inquisitive orientalists who have brought those historical figures back to the mainstream academic discourse which we ourselves had long forgotten. Madani is indeed a much-remembered and much cited-figure amongst the Deobandi Seminaries, but within the larger public atmosphere in India and Pakistan, he remains somewhat unknown. 

Madani started his political activism with his involvement in the India’s nationalist movement. He joined the Gandhian non-cooperation movement at its inception, dressing in the handloomed cloth popularised by Gandhi as a symbol of resistance. From 1916 to India’s independence in 1947, he was arrested at least once every decade.  

Although religiously a traditionalist, he was quite novel in his political imagination. As the Indian independence approached, Madani stood fervently opposed to those Muslims who campaigned for a separate homeland for Muslims. Instead, he argued that Muslims could live as observant Muslims in a religiously plural society where they would be full citizens of an independent, secular India. He insisted that the fundamental institution of contemporary political life was the territorial nation state and that the political culture of the day was one of citizen-based civic and human rights. He criticized the idea of organizing a polity on Islamic grounds, dismissing it as unrealistic. His uniqueness rests in his being both a political activist and an influential Islamic scholar who was able to frame his advocacy of modern territorial nationalism within the context of Islamic traditions.

His support for territorial nationhood landed him into dispute with certain other Islamic thinkers of his time, most notably the poet and Philosopher and the chief ideologue of Muslim territorial autonomy in the Subcontinent, Dr. Mohammad Iqbal, and the then emerging Islamist scholar Syed Abul Ala Maududi.

Iqbal strongly denounced Madani’s views, accusing him of misinterpreting Islam. He wrote three vitriolic Persian couplets:

“The non-Arab (‘ajam) still does not know the secrets of the faith

Thus from Deoband Husain Ahmad proves somewhat strange

Singing out high on the pulpit

That millat is based on land (watan).

What does he know of the stance of the Arab Messenger, on whom be peace?

Bring yourself close to Mustafa, for his alone is faith complete

If you cannot approach him you’re just an Abu Lahab!”[iii]

This was quite presumptuous for many a reason. First, it suggested that Madani being a non-Arab (Ajami) did not quite understand Arabic- this being said about someone who taught Islamic and Arabic disciplines in the foremost Indian Seminary, and whose mastery of Arabic language was never contested even by those scholars who disagreed with him on certain theological matters. 

Second, it made a false equivalence between “millat’’, a term reserved for religious community, and “Qaum” which simply translates into nation. Madani had never asserted that “millat” derived from homeland- he always acknowledged that within the Muslims there existed a much stronger and special bond given their religious affinity. What he had stated is that one’s nationality in the present epoch is determined by one’s homeland, and not religious leanings. 

Third, worst of all, it equated Madani to Prophet Mohammad’s arch-rival, his own paternal uncle who rejected his message and was given the nickname of “Abu Lahab” (“Father of the Flame),”. The Qur’an mentions that he has been condemned till eternity “to roast at a flaming fire” (Sura CXI). 

Iqbal invoked him purposely, given the fact that Abu Lahab’s name also serves as a byword for Arabic linguistic eloquence coupled with the greatest moral/intellectual failure any human can make, the rejection of the Prophet of Islam. Thus, according to Iqbal, even if Madani was a master of Arabic language, it did not count for much- since if linguistic eloquence alone could have helped someone to come to the truth, then Abu Lahab would have done so too. 

Metcalf notes that “Since Maulana Madani was in fact a master of Arabic and Iqbal was not, Iqbal was undercutting an obvious criticism of his own authority before it was even made.[iv]” Thus, Madani, with all his expertise of Arabic, could still be wrong and Iqbal, with his very elementary knowledge, might still be right. 

This dialogue culminated in a book that Madani published in 1938, entitled “Composite Nationalism and Islam”, where he couched his support for a multicultural and multi-religious society within the framework of Islamic traditions and history. Addressing Iqbal’s distrust of his Arabic competence, he quite fittingly entitled the first substantive sub-heading of his book: “The key to Qur’anic vocabulary and the words of Hadith will come only from the Arabic tongue”[v]

“Approximately the first half of his treatise then proceeded to a meticulous examination of texts, provided both in Arabic and in Urdu translation, scrutinized in the light of Arabic usage as known from grammars and dictionaries of the Prophet’s own time, in order to deny what he saw as Iqbal’s equation of ‘‘qaum” and” millat””[vi]

He argued that in the Prophet’s usage a “qaum” (nation) could consist of believers and unbelievers who both act together for a common purpose—and that would be the model for the” qaum” (nation) of India.

He persuasively argued in favour of a multi-religious India by profusely citing passages from the Qur’an, which showed that the prophets shared the same territory with the people who rejected their message, and yet that did not make them two separate nations. According to Madani, the very spirit of the Qur’an is to encourage harmonious co-existence in a multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious world. To lend further credibility to his ideas, he cited the charter of Medina, created by the Prophet Mohammad upon his arrival in Medina, in which he unified Muslims, Jews, and Christians into a single nation. According to Madani, the Prophet of Islam himself created a constitution which unified people of different faiths into one nation, declaring them to constitute one community (“ummah”) separate from the people outside of the city. 

Madani was not the first to cite the constitution of Medina as a justification for a multi-religious state. Before him, another Indian Scholar, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, had also done the same. Like Madani, Azad was also both an Islamic theologian and a political leader. He served twice as the President of All India National Congress, and after the independence, became the first education minister of India. 

Both Madani and Azad were heavily criticised by Maududi, who at the time was developing his own Islamist political theory. Maududi dismissed the constitution of Medina as a mere political compromise made by the Prophet, which possessed no seminal status when it comes to the real ethos of an Islamic state. Maududi, unlike Madani, argued that non-Muslims can only have the status of “dhimmis” (protected citizens) in an Islamic state, and that also on the condition that they agree to pay the annual protection tax called “Jizya”. Furthermore, he regarded the entire notion of modern territorial nation-states as alien to Islam and considered secularism as the first step towards atheism. 

Addressing Maududi’s criticism, Madani said that theory like his gets you nowhere. “Siyasiyyat (politics) is not resolved through falsafiyyat (philosophy)”, he wrote[vii]. For Madani, the reality of the day was the anti-colonial and constitutional movement. Maududi’s effort to propose “an Islamic order” was both abstract and unrealistic. He argued further that given that among Muslims themselves there is hardly consensus on religious grounds: just what would Islamic rule mean? He provided a list of different sects and orientations within Islam and pointed out that each “considers his reasoning beyond that of Plato or Socrates”[viii].

Therefore, to maintain harmony in society, Madani argued, it is best that all different Islamic schools adopt persuasion, guidance, and advice as their only modus operandi. According to Madani, only a draconian state could enforce Islamic conformity given Muslims’ own diversity. Thus, it is clear that Madani’s opposition to Islamist politics was not simply based on the fact that Muslims were a minority in India, which made Islamic rule in the country improbable through pure democratic means. In fact, even in a predominantly Muslim state, he believed, there could be no agreement on the precise nature of Islamic rule, and therefore such activism is from the onset destined to incite religious tensions.

Madani also objected, in principle, to the assumption that there were Islamic “laws,” in the sense of absolute universals that were equally valid in all times and place. He commented that Maududi must be living in a fanciful world, a world where he could conveniently disregard the facts of India’s mixed and heterogeneous population.

“How could he imagine enforcing the rules he drew from theoretical premises, like the criminal penalties (stoning, prohibition, or monetary compensation for murder) that were typically enacted by any ruler claiming to be guided by Islamic law?”[ix] 

Madani concluded that such rules are neither applicable nor morally obligatory in a country like India. 

Maududi, dismayed by the Indian Ulamas’ support for religious pluralism, eventually threw his support behind the Pakistan movement. 

Madani’s noble efforts to prevent partition of India on religious grounds ultimately failed when in August 1947, the subcontinent was divided into Hindu-majority India, and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Madani advised the Deobandi scholars who migrated to Pakistan to remain loyal to their new country and dreamt of a peaceful co-existence between the two nations (alas! that too has not happened hitherto). 

Ironically, the Deoband scholars in the Pakistan started to campaign for Islamisation very soon, and in the 70s and 80s actively participated in the Afghan Jihad against Soviet occupation. Their attitude, therefore, became quite different from the Indian Deoband, which still strongly supports a secular structure. According to some scholars, Pakistani Deobandis, under the aegis of Pakistani Military and Saudi Riyals, became strongly infused with Wahhabism, and thus diverged from the Classical Islam that the Indian Deoband still adheres to. According to this theory, after the Iranian revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia was worried that the Muslim world would be dominated by a Shia country — Iran. So, they started funding seminaries which taught Wahhabi-styled Islam throughout the Muslim world, including Pakistan. Wahhabi influence continuously grew in Pakistan and Afghanistan throughout the 1980s, when the CIA and Saudi Arabia both funneled arms to mujahideen guerrilla groups fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the Cold War. Thus, slowly, the Wahhabi culture entered into Deobandi Islam. 

The Afghan Taliban also follows the Deobandi Islam, and most of its leadership consists of graduates from Deobandi seminaries, including in particular the famous (or infamous) seminary Dar al-Ulum Haqqania, which is based in the town of Akora Khattak, in Northwestern Pakistan. 

But the Taliban, much like most of their Pakistani associates, do not subscribe to the inclusive and democratised form of Islam that Madani supported. Though they continue to revere him, their methods display a sharp contrast to what Madani had struggled to disseminate. In the oddest of twists, the spiritual descendants of a scholar who according to Peter Hardy was the first to justify from within the Islamic traditions the concept of equal citizenship and participation in the state with non-Muslims (which was an exceptional change from what had existed in Medieval Islam)[x], became the very opposite; unwavering in their commitment to accord second-class status to non-Muslims, and eager to employ violence as their means to attain religious and political authority.  

Today, the world expects from Taliban to create an inclusive government- a government that speaks for all sections of Afghan population. Though, no one would normally expect in their wildest of imaginations that Taliban would adopt anything remotely similar to the model that Madani had proposed, but it is also true that without mending their ways, they may face serious difficulties in gaining recognition from the West, which can lead to a severe economic crisis within the country. Moreover, Afghans population has witnessed incessant warfare for over four decades. They crave for stability and internal religious and ethnic harmony. What better model could there be to achieve this than the one proposed by Maulana Madani in the 1930s, which is both Islamic and modern? Could the Taliban revert to the teachings of their greatest Sheikh, and truly demonstrate that they have changed (which they seem quite adamant to prove to the world)? I will end with this hope that the Soul of Maulana Madani would guide them to give up fundamentalism and accept moderation and inclusivity.


[i] Hasan, Tariq. Colonialism and the Call to Jihad in British India, P#177.

[ii] Metcalf, Barbara. Husain Ahmad Madani: The Jihad for Islam and India’s Freedom.

[iii] Armaghan-e-Hijaz (Gift from Hijaz)- Iqbal’s collection of poems.

[iv] Metcalf, Barbara. Husain Ahmad Madani: The Jihad for Islam and India’s Freedom, P#166.

[v] Husain Ahmad Madani. “Composite Nationalism and Islam”, P#7.

[vi] Metcalf, Barbara. Husain Ahmad Madani: The Jihad for Islam and India’s Freedom, P#168-69.

[vii] Maktubat, Volume I, P#396.

[viii] Maktubat, Volume I, P#399.

[ix] Metcalf, Barbara. Husain Ahmad Madani: The Jihad for Islam and India’s Freedom, P#199-200.

[x] Hardy, Peter. Partners in freedom and true Muslims: The political thought of some Muslim scholars in British India (1912-1947).

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