By Phillip Jenkins
If we needed reminding, the carnage in Mumbai proved yet again that South Asia is home to some of the world’s deadliest Islamist terrorists. Usually missing from press coverage, though, is any sense of the origin of these movements, which are often assumed to be tied to the grievances of the Arab Middle East and the fate of Jerusalem.
That is a misconception. Historically, the roots of radical Islam belong at least as much in South Asia as in the Middle East. And one individual, wholly unfamiliar to most Westerners, played an indispensable role in founding and shaping that movement. When modern radicals call for Sharia law, when they demand an Islamic state active in every sphere of life, when they urge a revolutionary jihad against the infidel world, they are drawing on the ideas of an India-born cleric called Maulana Mawdudi.
Modern Islamism traces its origins to three men born in the opening years of the 20th century. Two of them are well known in the West: Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb. Both, however, owed an immense intellectual debt to the third man, Syed Abul Ala Mawdudi, known by the honorific “Maulana”, which means master. Until his death in 1979, Mawdudi was the critical link between the various theatres of transnational activism, between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian Revolution, between Kashmir and Western Europe. Mawdudi’s thinking was South Asian in origin and character, as was the international Islamist movement he inspired – a movement whose flowering we are still watching today.
Mawdudi was born in what is now the state of Maharashtra, in a British-ruled India littered with monuments of a collapsed Muslim power. It was a world marked by the humiliating political failure of the Islamic regimes, the same failure that so influenced Qutb and Khomeini as well. In India, restive under what they saw as infidel domination, Muslims struggled to find a role in a nationalist movement in which Hindus massively outnumbered them. Making matters more difficult for religious Muslims, even the available forms of modernisation and anti-imperialism were Western and radically secular as well. As a young journalist in the 1920s, Mawdudi plunged into Western literature and political thought, but he borrowed heavily from these traditions in order to modernise Islamic ideology.
Mawdudi’s ideas have become such familiar commonplaces of the Islamist worldview that we can scarcely appreciate how radically innovative they were. His guiding assumption was a totalistic view of Islam: Everything in the universe was God’s creation, so Muslims could freely use modern technology and organisation – but only to build a visionary new Islamic order. Where Mawdudi broke from his contemporaries was in his utter rejection of all historic Islamic models as unworthy of Islam’s First Age: He condemned virtually every achievement of Islamic politics and culture as jahiliyya, ignorance, the word normally used to describe the pagan darkness that prevailed in Arabia before Muhammad’s time. Muslims who resisted the call were part of a new jahiliyya and could legitimately become the targets of jihad.
This total rejection of the past shaped Mawdudi’s views of the Islamic state, which he believed should be founded on iqamat-i-deen, “the establishment of religion.” In this theocratic vision, society and the state would be subject entirely to Islamic law, Sharia, which comprehended every aspect of human life and behaviour. Mawdudi claimed that such a state would be a theo-democracy, in which elected officials would rule under clerical guidance. Yet it is difficult to understand his model as anything but totalitarian. As everything was subject to God, there could be no personal or private life that was not subject to law. Even he seemed to understand that. “Considered from this aspect,” he wrote, “the Islamic State bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states.”
Not surprisingly, Mawdudi preached an absolute confrontation between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. His Islamic state would free itself from all non-Muslim influences and would wage jihad against the whole non-Muslim world. In fairness, he makes it clear that he is talking about a spiritual rather than a military campaign, but his language easily lends itself to violent interpretations.
Mawdudi’s strategic genius lay in integrating traditional and modern forms of authority. Like so many of the pioneers in Islamist movements, his roots lay in the Sufi tradition, which united personal mysticism with military prowess. Critically for modern developments, Sufis organised in close-knit and secretive fraternities pledged absolutely to a spiritual teacher – a structure that proved ideal for clandestine organisation and resistance. The tradition, under Mawdudi’s leadership, segued naturally into Leninist ideas about the revolutionary party with its faithful cadres.
In 1941, Mawdudi incorporated these ideas into Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which he envisaged as a vanguard political party in the Leninist mold. In revolutionary style, JI also developed its network of associated organisations and fronts, including unions and student groups, with branches in India, Kashmir, and Bangladesh. Mawdudi headed the group until his retirement in 1972.
Although he remained based in Pakistan, Mawdudi was a principal founder of what became a global revolutionary cause. Early in his career, he found faithful pupils in Egypt, where in 1928 Hassan al-Banna founded the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood. At least by the early 1940s, al-Banna was reading Mawdudi. So was Sayyid Qutb, an Ikhwan alumnus who built on Mawdudi’s stark picture of a civilisational clash between Islam and its enemies. Qutb borrowed and expanded Mawdudi’s concept of jahiliyya, and he loved the heroic image of the Islamist party as revolutionary vanguard.
By the 1970s, Mawdudi’s ideas – particularly his writings on jihad – were appearing freely in the works of Islamic radicals in Egypt, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere. The more time Arab radicals spent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the more assuredly they would be exposed to JI and to Mawdudi’s thought. His ideas influenced Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian militant who served as a mentor to the young Osama bin Laden during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. South Asian communities overseas, including significant numbers in Britain, were hugely influenced by Mawdudi’s work. Remarkably, Mawdudi’s impact also extended to Shi’ite Iran, where Ayatollah Khomeini reputedly met Mawdudi as early as 1963 and later translated the Master’s works into Farsi. To the present day, Iran’s revolutionary rhetoric often draws on his themes.
But it was on the subcontinent itself that Mawdudi had his greatest impact. Ever since the new nation of Pakistan was created in 1947, JI has campaigned to institutionalise Islamic values in every part of Pakistani society. The party initially met strong resistance, and Mawdudi was jailed four times and even survived a death sentence. But Islamisation spread rapidly from the 1970s onward. Pakistan institutionalised Islamic views of banking and interest, clamped down on alcohol and passed a new blasphemy law. Gender issues were a major battlefield, as JI struggled against enhanced women’s rights and contraception. JI supported Pakistan’s loathsome Hudood Ordinance of 1979, which made it virtually impossible to prosecute rapists while allowing the woman who reports a rape to be charged with fornication.
JI’s success extended beyond elections and legislation. Jamaatis infiltrated Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments, which, by the 1970s, were rife with hard-line Islamist views. These agencies, especially the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), became the main conduit for Saudi money and influence, a link that became all the stronger during the Afghan war. In Kashmir, too, JI cooperated closely with ISI and sponsored its own mujahideen militia. JI is certainly not the only player in the revolutionary Islamist world and, over the past decade, it has been supplanted by other, still more extreme groups. But without the framework provided by Mawdudi and JI, the other movements would never have developed as they did.
The neglect of Mawdudi’s influence is a sad comment on Western knowledge about Islam and its history, but it also has worrying policy consequences. If modern Islamism is seen as an outgrowth of Middle Eastern conflicts and grievances, then those seeking a solution put a premium on resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But we can just as plausibly see Islamist extremism as the product of a wholly different region and culture that has minimal investment in Palestinian issues. Nor would this particular kind of anti-Westernism just fade away even if the Palestine issue were ever settled.
The continuing danger of Islamist radicalism in Pakistan is all the more alarming given that nation’s volatile strategic position. As a US congressional report released in November noted, “Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan.” If Mawdudi’s heirs are not to see his vision realised, the incoming US administration needs to take Pakistan very seriously. At a minimum, it should spend at least as much time seeking a settlement in Kashmir as in Palestine.
Philip Jenkins is the author of The Lost History of Christianity. © The New Republic, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.