Brigadier General S. K. Malik’s book Quranic Concept of War was published in Lahore in 1979. Malik articulates a uniquely Islamic contribution to ‘just war’ theory, using the Qu’ran to discuss wartime ethics and the nature of modern jihad. The book remains relatively obscure in the West, although it has recently gained more attention as a result of the War on Terror. It remains an important text for understanding the nature of Islamic militarism in Pakistan and its neighbours.
Quranic Concept of War is a complicated text, particularly for Western audiences who are unfamiliar with its references to Islamic history. As a result, the best approach is to divide this critical analysis into several parts. It will begin with the book’s foreword and preface. Although they are brief, these excerpts indicate that Malik was a profound influence on General Zia ul-Haq, and Pakistani Ambassador to India Bukhsh K. Brohi, respectively. Their comments also betray several important points on the book’s use of Qu’ranic interpretation, as well as the wider context in which it was written.
Malik begins with four verses from Surat al-Baqarah (30 – 34), one of which is included here:
And when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.” They said, “Will you place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify you?” Allah said, “Indeed, I know that which you do not know.”
This section of the Surah is a conversation between Allah, His angels, and eventually Adam, in which He emphasizes that His subjects must pledge fealty to His Will, which is fundamentally unknowable. Malik cites it at the beginning of Quranic Concept of War because it encapsulates the central point of the book. He believes that Muslims are required to obey the literal word of Allah, as revealed through the Qu’ran, and execute His Will through behaviours including the proper implementation of the laws of combat. Essentially, Allah is our master, and in the context of war, Muslims are required to become projections of His Will.
The obvious problem is that the Qu’ran is not literally instructing Malik to do anything. It is often noted that Muslims like Malik are fetishizing the Qu’ran when they speak of it in this manner. However, this isn’t entirely true. It is more accurate to say that Malik is fetishizing his own interpretations of the text, which are shaped the military’s institutional aspirations in the face of broader social pressures.
This is precisely why his reference to Surat al-Baqarah is so alarming. Before he even began writing, Malik had fused a particular interpretation of the Qu’ran, as disseminated by an increasingly Wahhabi military, with the Will of Allah Himself. Thus, when he quotes the Qu’ran as calling for its audience to obey the unknowable Will of Allah, he is actually preparing them to execute the commands of the military without question.
This is especially intolerable given that Malik and his allies were reading the Qu’ran to justify their prefigured dictatorial ambitions. This is clear from Ambassador Brohi’s argument that verse 190 of Surat al-Baqarah calls for total war:
Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors.
Brohi’s argument is that the use of “you” in this verse means that the entire ummah is being addressed, meaning that the whole of society should be mobilized. While the Arabic text does indicate that the “you” is plural, Brohi’s analysis of the Surah is such a stretch that the only logical conclusion is that he already wanted total war, as a result of fifteen difficult years for the military as an institution.
While analyzing the book, it is important for readers to remember that Malik wrote it in 1979. Pakistan suffered a major strategic defeat in the 1965 India-Pakistan War, which irreversibly damaged its combat readiness against India, and narrowly averted a popular uprising with the 1969 resignation of General Ayub Khan.
Furthermore, it attempted to brutally suppress Bangladeshi nationalists following the electoral victory of the National Awami Party, leading to the formal secession of East Pakistan after the 1971 India-Pakistan War. It also engaged in further violence against Balochi nationalists under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, before Zia ul-Haq eventually moved against him outright in 1977. This is in addition to the advent of neoliberal globalization, and the ascendancy of a deeply religious post-independence generation to important posts, as most clearly illustrated by Zia.
By the time that Quranic Concept of War was published, the Pakistani military was an extremely savage entity, which explains the confrontational tone of the work. It was also deeply paranoid about leftist forces in the region, given their popularity under Bhutto, successful mobilizations in 1969 and 1971, and the fact that neighbouring Afghanistan experienced a Marxist-Leninist revolution in 1978. Malik’s preoccupations with Islamic warfare, and Brohi’s statements about total war, must be read in light of these developments.
They are certainly apparent in Zia ul-Haq’s foreword, in which he praises the book. He writes that the book “brings out with simplicity, clarity and precision the Qu’ranic philosophy on the application of military force, within the context of the totality that is jihad.” His use of ‘totality’ in reference to jihad is fascinating, particularly since he proceeds to blur the line between soldiers and civilians:
The professional soldier in a Muslim army, pursuing the goals of a Muslim state, CANNOT become ‘professional’ if in all his activities he does not take on ‘the colour of Allah.’ The non-military citizen of a Muslim state must, likewise, be aware of the kind of soldier that his country must produce and the ONLY pattern of war that his country’s armed forces may wage.
This passage seems to argue that jihad is more than a question of legitimate combat, as determined by the Qu’ran. Zia goes further to proclaim it as the ethical basis for a newly theocratic national character. Soldiers are meant to be religiously martial in all aspects of their lives, and civilians are instructed to internalize the combat discipline that is required of their military. This discursive move is clearly a reaction to trends in Pakistani society at the time, and in its emphasis on soldier-citizens, and jihad as a universal social ethic, anticipates future militant outfits like the Taliban.
Photograph courtesy of Kashif Mardani. Published under a Creative Commons License.