God's Terrorists-The Wahabbi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad
From nineteenth century Arabia to this day, the world is coming to terms with the forces of Islamic revival, which, intense but protracted at first, led to an underestimation that is now much repented. Spreading from the deserts of what is now the Middle East, this movement arrived in India with a force and vigor hitherto unmatched. Taking the region by storm, it spread resolutely - from the arid deserts of West Asia to the passes of the Khyber, from the plains of Bengal to the Deccan plateau. For the study of Islamic fundamentalism, the lexicon is vast - jihad, sharia, Sunni, Shia, Wahabbi, Salafi, Taliban, Al Qaeda - but an outsider's understanding of this dimension of Islam can only be superficial. Post 9/11, much has been written on this subject and both the inclination to gain a deeper understanding and the engagement on the issue are spell-binding.
In that context, God's Terrorists is a book one cannot ignore. Untiring in his effort to piece together the historical roots of the contemporary phenomenon of Jihad, much acclaimed historian Charles Allen makes a marvelous attempt. The book is set for the most part, in British colonial India - a subject of fascination for the author who is known to possess an almost encyclopedic knowledge. This becomes clear almost instantly. The reader is transported back and forth in time from the Colonial Raj into the late eighteenth century Arab world with ease.
The book starts off with a narration of the politically sensitive area of present-day Afghanistan. The narration of Pakhtun politics moves on to Delhi and to the heartland of alluvial India. The author talks in detail about the rise of the Deobandi School and its patrons in India and links it to developments in North West Frontier region. The vantage point is this area - the reader is made to look east towards India and west towards Saudi Arabia in a compelling history of events that took place in similar times and shaped the region as we know it today.
In his study of the Wahabbis, Allen follows a sect whose concepts today have gained a wider meaning. His history is not filled with solutions, but with an understanding of past events, key to understanding modern jihad. The biggest strength of the book is that it does not portend to make any predictions on the much contemplated fate of the Wahabbi movement, greatly intertwined with not only the geographical spectrum they are associated with, but also indeed the global arena that stands to be affected by it.
The subject matter is dealt with in detail and much description makes up the first half of the book. Colonial histories, tribal legends, the politics of almost two centuries are tightly woven. The scholarship of the author shines through - not only does he portray his command over the topic, but also demonstrates an acquaintance with the subject that is missing in most contemporary works.
The author's great skill is to imbue the individual charisma and influence of leaders of the movement from Sheikh ibn Taymiyya to Osama bin Laden with their historical significance. The emphasis on the personalities that clearly dominated the way the phenomenon of Islamic revivalism took place is marked. Interesting is the manner in which the author brings out the human dimension of the young Taliban militants; he calls them "unsmiling young men with untrimmed black beards who wore black turbans and black waist-coats" - an entirely personal perspective on the men whose minds remain beyond the realm of facile comprehension. The book is populated by characters who are representative of the historical currents flowing around them - Syed Ahmad of Rae Bareli finds place next to Mullah Muhammad Omar and the Patna Caliphs jostle for attention with the Al-Wahhab Al Saud family. Possibly too much onus is placed on the characters themselves, a strategy that produces the possibly unintended effect of glorifying these men (women of course are wholly absent). There is also a certain sincerity to the project that ironically betrays empathy.
Nevertheless, as a reference point, the book provides an understanding like few others - the maps, the practical difficulties of dealing with Arab names and the understanding of colonial and imperial ambitions are all skillfully managed. Previous works on the subject like Sir William Hunter's "Our Indian Mussalmans - Are they bound in Conscience to Rebel against the Queen?" have also been well-employed.
A wider comprehension is also to be found - in a splendid expos� of one of the founding schools of radical thought in India, Allen says, "Indefatigable as missionaries, careless of themselves blameless in their lives, supremely skilful in organizing a permanent system for supplying money and recruits, the Patna Caliphs stand forth as the types and exemplars of the Sect." He could not be more right. Such crucial dimensions to understanding the Al-Qaeda are dispersed through the book.
The political ramifications are also elaborated - Allen talks about the British Raj in its prime in the Indian subcontinent and the legacy it left behind post 1947. Also how the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia funded a movement in Islam in their own interests which was a coming together of multiple fragmented ideologies - "a reuniting of two strands of a common ideology long separated". What sets the book apart from most others is the caution against being prescriptive. The author is only engaging with the issue - putting together a puzzle he does not claim to have solved entirely.
All the same, there are some underlying issues with this approach. Towards the end, the reader will find the book somewhat dissatisfying, albeit knowing that it was not meant to be conclusive. The book will leave you with the hope for something more substantial, certainly not in terms of the matter it chooses to deal with or the manner in which it does, but with the lack of firmness that would have befitted a work so richly heavily laden with detail.
There are present discomforting hints of it being part of a larger project - the book borders on the speculative and is politically correct. As a result, it is stirring in places, but unable to culminate into a larger thought provoking exercise - in his effort to arouse curiosity the author might have slipped into a faltering tendency to leave questions unanswered and links unexplained. At the beginning, the author promises to make apparent larger trends rooted in historical reasons; in the end the book meanders to a halt, with an ode to Osama. Perhaps this is meant to offer an explanation for the movement he now spearheads. But it does not establish a correlation. In that sense, the slant of the work, no matter how well meaning, is towards a certain fatalistic acceptance of an outcome that is still uncertain and avertable.
Overall, the reader will profit immensely from having a thorough read and the book will provide at later points, a worthy reference. If seeking solutions to unanswered questions is your interest, the book might seem rather tedious. But this is on no account a work that should go unread.