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MHQ Book Review: God’s Terrorists

By Dennis Showalter
8/6/2018 • MHQ Magazine

God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad

Charles Allen, Da Capo Press, 2006, 349 pages, $26.95.

Charles Allen, best known for solid narratives of the British experience in India intended for general audiences, here offers a book requiring consideration on two levels. It is structured as a narrative of Muslim resistance to British rule. That alone is a substantial contribution. As British influence and governance expanded north and west into Muslim-ruled and Muslim-inhabited regions, British troops and officials encountered a spectrum of challenges. These ranged in scale from the assassination of individual officials to endemic, low-level rebellion in the region known as the Northwest Frontier, to uprisings demanding the commitment of several divisions for their suppression, to the great revolt itself: the uprising of 1857 that shook the Raj to its foundations and caused a fundamental restructuring of India’s governance.

Allen tells this story well, from fiascoes like the 1842 invasion of Afghanistan that resulted in the annihilation of an entire army, to now-forgotten border skirmishes such as the Gordon Highlanders’ storming of the Dargai Heights in 1897,accompanied by their skirling bagpipes. It is the second dimension of his work, however, that renders it both useful and controversial.

Some standard accounts explain Muslim resistance to Britain in a general religious and cultural context: natural and predictable when nonbelievers first encounter a branch of the House of Islam, in this case intensified because both parties to the conflict saw themselves as conquerors and rulers. Another interpretation focuses on the tribal cultures of India’s northwest, the Pathans in particular. This approach describes, often in romanticized contexts, a society living by its own laws and the faith of Islam, ruled by males and based on personal honor, its citizens respecting no rule imposed by force and prepared to fight to the death to live as they choose. Conflicts were predictable—this time between warrior peoples who fought as much for the joy of fighting as for any mundane reasons.

Allen acknowledges both approaches, but finds them incomplete. Instead, he explains Muslim resistance as shaped by the migration of a particular version of Islam, one with a powerful impact both regionally and locally. His key is Wahhabism. Allen describes the sect’s origins in eighteenth-century Arabia as a reform movement, and its increasing focus on jihad, holy war against infidels, as the finest act a believer could perform. An Egyptian army broke Wahhabi secular power in Saudi Arabia in 1818. But its spiritual force endured, inspiring pilgrims who carried it to India in the 1820s. By that time, Muslim political power had eroded to a point that a spiritual crisis ensued. In the void, Wahhabism’s absolutist, apocalyptic elements spread like wildfire through the mosques, madrassas, and bazaars of northern India’s Muslim community.

Allen demonstrates the consistent British inability to understand Wahhabism sufficiently to be able to cope with it ideologically or through the legal system. He makes a convincing case that the discontent among the Bengal army’s sepoys was fueled more by religious zealotry than by the social and economic grievances that are usually cited. He argues that the so-called Hindustani fanatics, refugees from British rule who established themselves in Pathan tribal territory even before the sepoy mutiny, were essentially Wahhabi zealots who had found all too fruitful ground for their principles.

Through the bulk of the book, Allen presents Wahhabism and Wahhabis as the inspiration of a Muslim intransigence that arguably continued to grow more extreme in belief and more violent in action until the end of British rule. Revolt and resistance could hardly be expected to express themselves in political terms, given the almost complete absence in Muslim northern India of anything resembling a political society, at least until well into the twentieth century.

Religion was the only matrix for the ideas, the only source of the language. Wahhabism played an important role in what might be called consciousness-raising. Wahhabi missionaries preached holy war. They spoke of the Promised One, the Mahdi who would come and cleanse the land. Their messages interfaced with those of the Sufi mystics, long established in the region, and with the words of itinerant preachers and holy men.

Abstract theological conflicts among the doctrines tended to blur, however, in a theologically unsophisticated society whose leading figures were men of action rather than reflection, and which faced a tangible, comprehensive, external challenge more powerful than any in its experience. Wahhabism, in short, was neither the golden thread nor the philosopher’s stone that Allen presents. Calls for jihad tended to be generic, and limited in appeal to particular clan or tribal groups.

Nor can Muslim resistance in northern India be legitimately connected with terrorism except on its peripheries. Even the encounters Allen describes are overwhelmingly military engagements, across a recognized spectrum from force on force to guerrilla ambushes. British and Hindu soldiers who fell into tribesmen’s hands usually suffered grisly fates. Pathans did not, however, seek out noncombatants, women, and children as preferred targets of random violence. Early examples of that behavior are better sought in Bengal, among its Hindu community.

An overstated case does not negate a book’s value. Connections among what Allen calls the “unholy alliance” of Wahhabism, the Taliban, and al-Qaida may be more ephemeral than he believes. Nevertheless, God’s Terrorists establishes beyond dispute that the roots of those connections run deep.

 

Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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