Edited By Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurence Louër
This book explores the religious interface between the Gulf and South Asia. By “Gulf” the editors mean West Asia, not just the 6-member Gulf Cooperation Council. South Asia has the largest Muslim population of any region in the world—500 million. In the course of Islamisation, which began with the 8th century invasion of Sindh by Muhammad bin Qasim, the region developed a distinct Indo-Islamic Civilisation culminating in the Mughal Empire. While paying lip service to the religious centres in the Gulf, including Mecca and Medina, this civilisation cultivated its own variety of Islam based on Sufism.
Over the last five decades or so, pan-Islamic ties between these two regions have intensified. Eleven scholars from different continents have contributed to this volume which explores “the ideological, educational, and spiritual networks, which have gained momentum due to political strategies, migration flows and increased communications.” It also examines the “cultural proxy war” between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi-funded madrasas have reduced the hold of Sufi Islam. Pakistan’s government has no reliable figures for the number of madrasas, nor for the inflow of Saudi money.
A five-page glossary right at the beginning is very useful to the non-scholar reader. For example, ’aql means ‘rational reasoning’ whereas akhlaq means ‘morality, values’. Keeping in mind the international readership, even kurta pyjama is explained. This book is perhaps primarily meant for the scholars, but most helpfully there is a ‘conclusion’ at the end of most chapters. The non-academic reader might perhaps read the ‘conclusion’ first before the text.
The range is impressive: Pakistani madrasas, Jihadism, the Salafi Emirate of Kunar, the Haqqani network, the Gulf connection of the Taliban, Pakistani Sufism in the Gulf, the Sunni hub in Iran, and Shi’a networks of learning in India. Jaffrelot, who writes often in the Indian media, begins his essay ‘South Asian Muslims’ Interactions with Arabian Islam until the 1990s’ with three quotations. Tellingly, the one from General Zia-ul-Haq reads: “There is no such thing as South Asian Islam. There is only one true Islam, based on the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad.”
In 711, the Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik, upon hearing that some Arab traders had been captured by the ruler of Sindh, asked the governor of Baghdad to send an army to liberate them. This led to Muhammad bin Qasim capturing the whole of Sindh, marking the entry of Islam to the subcontinent. However, it was not the sword that brought Islam “in a sustainable manner”, but the Sufis who came from outside Arabia. They made India “a sacred land for Muslims”. The Muslims in India distanced themselves from the holy cities of Arabia and initiated spiritual relations with the Hindus. Deciding not to convert the latter, the Sufis started a spiritual dialogue with them. The culmination was the secular policies of Akbar, which saw spiritual treatises being translated from Sanskrit to Persian and Arabic. The reader might find it difficult to suppress the thought that some of the anti-secularist lobbies active now need to read this essay.
At the time of the 1971 India-Pakistan war, which resulted in the liberation of Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia gave a loan of $20 million to Pakistan. Pakistan’s President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who took over after the surrender of his country’s armed forces, went on a ‘journey of resistance’ to Muslim countries seeking money to build an ‘Islamic bomb’. The Saudis responded handsomely and later in 1974 Bhutto hosted the second summit of the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation). The Wahhabisation of Pakistan would begin soon afterwards during the rule of Zia ul-Haq. The Saudis now concentrated their attention on the education system by funding madrasas and universities.
Ayesha Siddiqa in her essay ‘Pakistani Madrasas’ points out that it was the 9/11 attacks in the US that compelled the world to take note of the harm that the madrasas could do by encouraging extremism and violence. But Saudi-Pakistan relations go back to the 1950s when, prodded by Britain, Pakistan drew closer to Saudi Arabia. However, religion did not play an important role then. Jinnah was seen in Saudi Arabia as an “English-speaking orientalist” with his Parsee wife. It was geopolitical interest, specifically the need to counter Soviet influence and Nasser’s pan-Arabism, that prompted Saudi Arabia to grow closer to Pakistan. The 1960s saw the start of large-scale Pakistani migration to the Gulf. Saudi-funded Deobandi madrasas reduced the hold of Sufi Islam in south Punjab. The Pakistan government does not have reliable statistics on the number of madrasas in the country; different agencies give different figures. Nor is there good information on the flow of money from Saudi Arabia.
Samina Yasmeen in her essay ‘Narratives of Jihad and Islamic Identity’ deals with the “transnational links between Salafi thinking in the Gulf and Pakistan.” The reader might be struck by some of the poems quoted. For example, Umm Hamad writes:
I am a poet of Jihad
My words bleed
The sound of my voice bleeds
This story bleeds
The setting moon across the horizon bleeds
The early morning rays bleed
Oppressors occupy the land of Kashmir
This heaven on earth is
smoldering and bleeding.
Vahid Brown’s essay is on ‘The Salafi Emirate of Kunar’, which was founded in Afghanistan in 1990, predating the Islamic State that is now nearing its ‘territorial’ end in Syria. Brown gives a good deal of useful information, but a map would have been helpful. Antonio Guistozzi’s piece ‘The Arab Gulf Connections of the Taliban’ cogently refutes the common notion that the Taliban and other radical groups have been getting funding only from non-state actors in the Gulf. The author demonstrates that the Taliban’s emirate did get money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in 2003-04. It was Pakistan that persuaded the Gulf states to make these donations. The funds were initially routed through Pakistan, but later the two monarchies started giving money directly to the Taliban.
Radhika Gupta’s essay ‘Seeking knowledge from the cradle to the grave’ is about the Shi’a networks of learning in India. The title of the essay is a quote from the Qur’an. After the 1979 Revolution, Iran started ’exporting’ the ideology of the revolution across the Shi’a world, including India. Networks of learning extend beyond the madrasa and maktab (Qur’anic school) and include religious classes outside, as well as ‘technologically mediated avenues’. The violent anti-Shi’a movement in Pakistan has its origins in Saudi Arabia. In the 1970s, Ihsan Ilahi Zahir returned from studying at the Islamic University of Madinah and campaigned to exclude the Shi’a from the house of Islam.
The editors have in the last chapter summed up their conclusions. Since the 1980s, with the support of Jama’at-e-Islami, Pakistan has been promoting Muhammad bin Qasim as a role model celebrated on the ninth and tenth of Ramadan. In Pakistan there is a state-driven Saudisation. According to US intelligence, Mahmoud Mohammad Ahmed Bahaziq, a Saudi, is the chief financier of Lashkar-e-Toiba. Saudi Arabia has been using Sunni extremists who it funds to put pressure on Pakistan to agree to its demands, such as troops for Yemen.
Regionalism has been an antidote to Salafism in South Asia. G.M. Syed said, “I am Sindhi for 5,000 years, I am Muslim for 1,400 years, I am Pakistani for 63 years.”
Regionalism, often mixed with Sufism, has been an antidote to Salafism in South Asia. For example, Sindhi nationalists look at them themselves as descendants of the Indus Civilisation. Their ideologue, G.M. Syed (1904-95) used to say, “I am Sindhi for 5,000 years, I am Muslim for 1400 years, I am Pakistani for 63 years.”
Saudi Arabia has been sending millions of Riyals to the Islamic Mission Trust in Malappuram and similar organisations in Kerala where Salafism is gaining strength. The rise of Hindu nationalism is turning Indian Muslims into ‘second-class citizens’. The final conclusion is that Indo-Islamic civilisation will transform itself into something new in the 21st century. The writers do not say in which way.
The book will be of more interest to scholars than to the general public. It should be read by policy-makers across the world, especially in the West. Even the general reader interested in the religious interaction between the Indian subcontinent and West Asia will benefit from reading this well brought-out edition written in a jargon-free style. The notes are exhaustive, though an index might have been useful.
(Ambassador K.P. Fabian’s book The Arab Spring That Was and Wasn’t is slated to be out later this year.)