The World Beneath His Feet: The Axis Mundi, Al-Khidr, and The Cosmos in a Mughal Painting

Wrote 7 pages about this painting for a final.

The painting I shall examine in this work is of the Emperor Jahangir, fourth Mughal ruler, successor to Akbar The Great. In this iconic allegorical painting, the artist, Abu’l Hasan, represents Jahangir’s wealth and grandeur by depicting him shooting at a sickly figure of poverty with his royal bow. In the background, putti fly, bestowing him with his royal crown and offering aid in the form of  arrows. Jahangir stands upon a globe containing a lion and lamb seated in harmony, all resting atop a fish swimming atop a great expanse of water, with another passenger engaged in reading a text. In the background, a lone putto supports a line of hanging red tassels and bells, tied to the ground at a shrine.

I argue that this painting of Jahangir reflects his wealth and political power, that it is highly symbolic as per its use of representational imagery, and that much of the imagery indicates the influence of European styles on Mughal paintings in the early 1600s and on. To provide evidences for this argument, I will be comparing this painting with another painting that is part of a series of paintings by the same artist, as well as examining the historical background of the subject, artist, and the Mughal Empire.

The fourth emperor of the Mughal Empire, Nur-al-Din Mohammad Salim, otherwise known by his royal title, Jahangir, was an impatient successor to Akbar. He staged a rebellion in order to take power quickly, but was put down immediately. The reconciliation process that ended in Jahangir’s appointment to the throne was catalyzed by the royal women, who had close ties and influence with Akbar. Jahangir did not take long to begin a process of eliminating rulers who lived on the periphery of the empire who did not agree to his supremacy. This was a tradition inherited from his father, Akbar. Jahangir was an artistic man, with a true passion for art. He was a self-titled connoisseur, who claimed he could tell the artist of any part of any painting, regardless of how minute the detail. His paintings, commissioned by talented artists, often revealed his innermost cares and wishes for himself and his empire. In accordance with his love for art and literature, he penned his own memoirs during his reign. The result was a massive work which he completed in 1624, which he called the Jahangir-nama. Unfortunately, sources relate that Jahangir was overindulgent with the goods of this world, and eventually his decline came about as a result of alcoholism and opium addiction.

Abu’l Hasan, the artist known for creating some of the emperor’s most valued and iconic work, was raised close to Jahangir in the courts as a prince. He began painting at a very early age, about twelve or thirteen according to different sources, and was much loved by Jahangir for his work. Jahangir had much to say about the rarity and elegance of his work, and even composed a grand speech to exclaim his wonder at Abu’l Hasan’s painting ability:

On this day Abu’l Hasan, the painter, who has been honored with the title of Nadiru-z-zaman, drew the picture of my accession as the frontispiece to the Jahangir-nama, and brought it to me. As it is worthy of all praise, he receives endless favors. His work was perfect, and his picture is one of the ‘chefs d’oeuvre’ of the age. At the present time, he has no rival or equal…”

After a series of paintings was completed, Abu’l Hasan was given the royal title of Nadir-al-Zaman, the “zenith of the world”. He was affected by English painting styles, and his naturalistic style was inherited from the nascent English trends, much of which was worn as popular fashion. Some of these influences could be seen in his work depicting an infant ruler, whose expression, placement in a dark background, effects of darkness to create fullness in figure, and holding fruit can be traced directly over to similar portraiture in nascent England. Introducing English trends to both he and Jahangir was a man named Thomas Roe, who was an envoy to the emperor. It was he who oversaw the meeting between the emperor and Mercator, a highly significant event that eventually resulted in the appropriation of the ‘globe’ for the Mughal’s own representational needs.

The theme of globes in Mughal portraiture is prevalent in the early- to mid-1600s, and the tradition carries on past that period. Globes in Mughal paintings are used a unique manner. Whereas European paintings containing globes are structured so that the globes are tucked into the background, the Mughal paintings associate them almost exclusively to the subject of the painting in a direct manner, with the subject holding, stepping on, resting his feet on, or otherwise touching it. Another marked change in the usage of globes is that they are always associated with important figures, usually that of royalty. Previously, in their European usage, they could be associated with just about anyone, from mapmakers to merchants. Studying this set of changes in the usage of globes offers some insight into how the Mughals made the European globe their own. In the vein of representational imagery, the globe was used to symbolize both the Emperor’s presence in the world, being of his own people, but also a controller of that world, either dominating it by standing atop it, or holding it in his capable hands.

The conceit of the globe is also highly appropriate for a play on words using the Emperor’s name. Because the Emperor’s royal title is Jahan-gir, or “Owner of the World,” it also serves as a reminder of his perceived station. This tradition is carried on with the next in the royal line, with Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan, adopting the globe in his own paintings. Again, because his name is Shah-Jahan, or “Ruler of the World,” the name association is appropriate. Further proof of the centrality of the Mughal Empire in its unique use of the globe is the de-emphasis of Europe in the projection usually depicted. Though in the painting I use in this essay, the projection of the world is less visible than in other paintings of similar import, close inspection reveals in both this painting and others that the globe is centered around Mughal India, and in some instances even labeled or pointed towards conquered lands. A further comparison with another painting in the series shall be done later in this essay.

Before continuing the examination of the themes present in this painting, the medium of the painting must be discussed. Typically in Mughal painting workshops, artists would use paper imported from Iran but later began producing their own from the 16th century onward. The paint itself was usually made from animal, vegetable and mineral sources, and tools such as brushes from animal hair. Paper was usually glued on top of one another in layers to form hard surfaces to paint on, and hardened with agate. Usually there was a freehand drawing made, or a stencil,  in the case of the uncompleted Dying Inayat Khan, where a clear sketching is seen before any painting was applied to it.

Another major theme in this painting, and one of the features that stands out the most, is the depiction of poverty. A sickly old man, surrounded and colored in darkness (a feature that hints, along with the other paintings in the series, of a pre-colonial presence of color-based hierarchy) shrinking away from the presence of the ruler, shining with a halo surrounding him, and Jahangir shooting an arrow into his eyes. Several differences between the figure of poverty and the figure of wealth are present. Poverty is black, old, and emanates pestilence. The Emperor is guarded by angelic figures, water and greenery, and clothed in expensive garments, and is light-skinned. Given that Jahangir commissioned this painting to portray his ambitions, it can be assumed that his desire as an emperor was to cleanse his lands of poverty, and thereby eliminating figures that look like the old man.

It is in the study of this theme that a comparison with another painting in the series is necessary in order to fully flesh out the intentions of the artist in depicting poverty as such. The painting that I use to compare is that of Jahangir similarly firing an arrow from his royal bow into the severed head of one of his most important enemies, Malik ‘Ambar, the king of the Abyssinian Marathas. It is worth noting that this painting was likely done before the painting about poverty, indicated by the signature of Abu’l Hasan, who was called Nadir-uz-Zaman in the later painting but not in this one. In this painting, the globe is much more visible and contained in a stand, in a manner that is markedly more European.

It is interesting that Jahangir, though standing atop the globe, is still at eye level with the head of his enemy. It seems to indicate the seriousness and importance of his endeavor. The enemy here is also black, though this time by actual circumstance. Here, similarities can be established in how Jahangir envisions his enemies. In both wartime and relative peace, an enemy always exists. In the painting of Malik ‘Ambar, the cherubic putti appear to be more concerned with bestowing upon the Emperor weapons than crowning him with accomplishment. This indicates a sense of divine aid in defeating the enemy, a reassurance that divine forces are on his side.

The putti that adorn the periphery of both paintings are reminiscent of the cherubs of European Christian art, but here the artist utilizes their depictions for his own purposes, much like the way he did so with the globe. These putti are indeed European imports among the many that Abu’l Hasan gained in his study of the arts. Here they are used to endorse sovereignty.

The putti are just one set of many other living representations present in this painting. The representations of animals are possibly the largest part of this work, and each animal depicted in this work is representative of a vast sea of connotations, symbols, and spiritual significance. The first animal I shall examine is the fish that lays under the globe that Jahangir stands atop, and the rider of this fish. Usually, depictions of a man riding a fish or standing atop a fish in Islamic art is of the sage (sometimes understood as prophet, and within cult circles, as a deity) al-Khidr, The Green. Instead, the man, who is not clothed in green, and is actually wearing robes indicative of Hindu religious significance, is most likely the Manu, a title accorded to the Vedic progenitor of humanity, and the fish actually one of the avatars of Vishnu, who according to legend, saved Manu from the Great Flood. However, as Coomaraswamy asserts in his Khwaja Khadir And The Fountain Of Life, In The Tradition Of Persian And Mughal Art, it is not necessarily a matter of the figure being one or the other, but rather representative of both figures, as they are one and the same, viewed through two different traditions. He identifies that the mythology surrounding al-Khidr is perennial to multiple traditions, and is very deeply rooted in Vedic literature. This supports the theory that it is not simply that the artist of the painting chose to incorporate Hindu imagery to show the emperor’s support for Hindu law under his rule, but rather to emphasize a connection that already existed in order to reinforce those ties. Therefore, the waters on the bottom of the painting can also exist as a metaphor for what can be seen as the primordial myth of the Waters of Life.

The mystical tradition pertaining to the depicted fish also spans across the nascent Sufism of the Mughals. A Sufi saying by a master named Farid al-Din ‘Attar went:

“…placed Earth on the back of a bull, the bull on a fish, and the fish on the air.”

This is a mystical explanation of part of the creation myth, in which God mysteriously suspends the Earth in place, a phenomenon that Sufis of the time held to only be explainable through gnosis. Though the bull is not depicted in this particular painting, it is depicted in the painting of Malik ‘Ambar mentioned earlier in this essay, in the order mentioned in the saying, indicating that the presence of the fish actually serves multiple purposes for the intended audiences, while also serving as the archetypal fish of the universal mystical tradition. This explanation is likely, especially because of the emphasis of Akbar on the universality of tradition, where the Hindu and the Islamic mystical traditions share many myths and understandings of nature.

The lion and the lamb inside the globe are a highlight of the painting, an interesting and unique depiction of the predator and the prey, the Dad-o-Daam, and whereas the regal symbol of the lion is often depicted as destroying or hunting his prey, this depiction is of harmony between the two. This is allegorical for the power of the universal ruler who has the power and authority to reverse the laws of nature so that even the archetypal predator is tamed out of his nature. It also shows the reconciliatory power of the justice in the ruler’s system, where the oppressor and oppressed are brought into coexistence. This is not the only way that the imagery is used, however. The same images are also used in other paintings in the same series to show the superiority of one empire over another. The lion is used in this way to depict the areas of the Mughal Empire, and the lamb any enemies that were current.

The final piece of animal imagery that exists in this painting is that of the tassels on the line held up by the putto in the background of the image, alternating with the bells. These tassels are made of the tails of the yak, an animal considered auspicious and representative of good fortune. The use of yak’s tails in this manner can be seen on standards, and it is likely that Jahangir owned yaks in his royal zoo. It is difficult to ascertain where this tradition was inherited from, but it can be inferred that symbol of a yak’s tail was learned from the earlier Mongol traditions preceded the Mughals. The shrine-like object that the line is tied to, along with the bells, represent a real-life construction that was attached to the wall at the apartments at the Agra Fort. Jahangir had this put up in order to reassure his subjects of his openness in taking their cases of justice at any time.

Abu’l Hasan creates a painting representing the wealth and grandeur of Jahangir through the use of the conceit of the globe, the action of physically destroying poverty, themes of divine aid, and themes of justice. He demonstrates vividly the use of European imagery and styles, such as the halo, naturalistic styles, and Mercator’s’ Globe, mostly repurposed and appropriated for the Mughal’s own use. Finally, he paints a piece saturated with mythical and spiritual symbols, such as the presence of the fish that is important to both the Vedic and the Islamic traditions, and the globe atop the fish that is part of the mystical Sufi myth of creation, and therefore carries great mythological significance.


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  • Beach, Milo. “The Mughal Painter Abu’l Hasan and Some English Sources For His Style.” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 38 (1980): 6-33.
  • Ramaswamy, Sumathi. “Conceit of the Globe in Mughal Visual Practice.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 49.4. (2007): 751-782.
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  • Coomaraswamy, A.K. “Khwaja Khadir and the Fountain of Life, In The Tradition of Persian and Mughal Art.” Ars Islamica 1.2. (1934): 172-182.
  • Welch, Jr., Stuart. “Mughal and Deccani Miniature Paintings from a Private Collection.” Ars Orientalis 5 (1963): 221-233.

Conversion as Connection: Examining Latina/o Identity in The Americas

(This essay is in reference to Latina/o Musulman: The Construction of Latina/o Identity among Latina/o Muslims in the United States by Hjamil A. Martinez-Vasquez)

           Islam in the Americas is unique because it is irreversibly tied to problems of identity and ethnicity. Most Latina/o Muslims living in the United States and in South America are converts to Islam, many of whom must engage in negotiation processes, disillusionment with their previous faith, and unfair treatment by family and peers, as well as their own co-religionists. Muslims are also forced to reorient themselves to navigate structures of ethnic superiority. To deal with these obstacles, these converts strive to adopt alternative narratives, from aligning themselves with historical movements locally to drawing chronologically and culturally distant connections to empires. I seek to argue in this essay that the adoption of these narratives, and therefore conversion to Islam entirely, is ultimately about establishing connections with three entities: God, who is invisible and personal; the ummah, or Muslim global community, and the Latina/o communities they are part of. Hence, this essay will be divided into discussions of those three subjects.

            In order to gain background information about conversion, it is important that one examines statistics regarding the numbers of Latina/o Muslims (real and perceived) in the United States and South America, as well as distributions of gender and occupational makeup. Because individual conversion narratives, which will be explored later in this essay, cannot usually be taken as empirical fact, it is useful for both sets of material to complement one another.

            AMCC, the American Muslim Council in Chicago, estimates that in 1997, the population of Latin American Muslims in the United States was approximately 40,000. In the same estimate, that number had multiplied five times to 200,000 by 2006. Even the more conservative estimates of these numbers are indicative of this tremendous growth[1]. The question to be asked is, “who are the people in these statistics?” The density of this Muslim population increases in large cities, especially New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Most of them are converts to Islam, and most of these converts are females from ages 20-30, many of which are married with children. Just part of this rapid growth can be attributed to the relative size of Latin American families, which are generally larger than the average U.S. American’s.[2] However, this does not remotely account for the totality of the growth.

            Latina/o U.S. Americans are converting to Islam rapidly. To explore the factors that contribute to conversion, one may look to the individual narratives of converts to gain a general idea. I note that the immediate factors that contribute to conversion are usually based in a desire to explore theology, and the resulting feelings of misplacement. These feelings manifest themselves repeatedly in a disillusionment with Catholic (or other Christian) narratives, and a confusion or discomfort with Trinitarian beliefs, including the resultant system of law[3]. Also, Islam often presents to the convert a way of life rooted in logical practice, where the reasons for things are outlined clearly, and no command is arbitrary or confusing. Though this view may be overly simplistic when gauged according to traditional understandings of Islamic principles, this is nevertheless the way a large number of Latina/o Muslims perceive it to be, and therefore it is important to consider.

            One of the first narratives in Hjamil A. Martinez-Vasquez’s book, Latina/o y Musulman,of a woman named Sonia, presents a devout Catholic who began to explore questions of religion upon ‘lost’ feelings. She mentions preoccupations with the ‘mystery’ of the Trinity, and her search for a more logical understanding of faith.[4] The simplicity of Divine commands in the Islamic tradition is used as a measure of how logical the religion is altogether, and may even be a way of conflating the entirety of the religion with its practical aspects. That is, a view that Islam’s practicality is its spiritual benefit. It is no surprise, then, that in the Brazilian Muslim environment, which I will explore later in this work, the largest of the Islamic institutions belongs to the Salafi trend, which exemplifies this view of practicality.[5]

            The narrative of Roberto demonstrates the fascination with a practical aspect of Islam, the prayer ablutions (notably as a practice of cleanliness rather than one of any spiritual significance), as a catalyst for accepting the rest of the Islamic message.[6] This represents an openness, or even a tendency, to see Islam as being the rational choice within existing conventions of practice, rather than a completely new set of conventions. Societies employing this view often see a strict separation in that which is ‘spiritual’ and that which is practical, whereas this separation is difficult to establish in classical conceptions of Islamic thought.

            Latinas/os convert to Islam by a number of different means, the most important of which can be listed into five categories: interaction with other Muslim converts, interactions via the Internet, Latin American Muslim immigrant populations, prisons, and marriage.[7]  I aim to pinpoint some of the perennial processes of conversion among this population. Latina/o Americans often find themselves in a limbo upon conversion: they are not fully Muslim (a problem that can ultimately be attributed to racism by Muslims of other nationalities) and not fully Latina/o. Because of the contribution of this phenomenon to pressures already built up by disillusionment with their prior religions, an identity reconstruction process begins. Often, this process takes the form of ‘remembering’ their lost Muslim and African heritage to combat liminality, an in-betweenness that causes identity confusion.[8] This investigation of narratives eventually results in a rejection of the current ones, and replacement with new ones.[9]

            Connections via the Internet can be problematized in a number of ways. However, before the details of Islam on the Internet can be explored, narratives of converts who employed the use of the Internet must be brought in. In one such narrative, a convert named Maria goes online in order to find information about Islam, and ends up talking to Muslims, many of which are Latina/o. She feels awe at stumbling upon other Latina/o Muslims.[10] In this context, the Internet is used as both an encyclopedia of information where the convert may look up particulars about Islam, but also as a tool to virtually meet other Muslims, and form interpersonal relationships, which give far more insight into how Islam is practiced in reality than the ‘ideal’ information in books or pamphlets. The Internet is not often explored for its makeup, but rather its utility. This effectively glosses over important information about what ‘brand’ of Islam users are being exposed to, what country the majority of their encounters are coming from, and the validity of the information they learn about online.

            Another means of being exposed to Muslims that requires problematization is by living in communities with Muslim immigrants. Here, structures of Arab superiority are often exacerbated. When Latina/o Muslims convert to Islam, they are already plagued with a non-acceptance of their newly forming identity by their society, so often they seek to gravitate toward a new community, composed of Muslims. These communities, being mostly Arab, have their own tendencies to racially discriminate against Latinas/os, by seeing them as less capable Muslims.[11]

            We see the ways that converts actually find Islam through different means, but once they are situated in their new spaces, what logics do converts employ in order to make sense of the space they occupy? One of the most prominent rhetorics is that of their choice of Islam being the ‘rational’ or ‘logical’ choice. This is sometimes extended to mean “scientifically feasible” as in the Brazilian context.[12] As I discussed previously, this trend tends to downplay the role of spirituality that is traditionally seen as extra-practical, such as Sufism. Another rhetoric, closely related to the first, is an emphasis on independent[13] reasoning, that a Muslim may open the Qur’an and find inside the entirety of their religion through the power of interpretation. This is a logical next step in the process that first saw Sonia in a state of discomfort with mystery. Mystery here constitutes being told what to do (or what to believe) without perceptibly sufficient reason. Many converts, because of the way they are exposed to Islam, that is, as a distinct alternative rather than a logical progression, grow to pit Christian and Muslim theologies and law-particulars against each other, such as in the narrative of Roberto, in which the titular subject characterizes, quite blatantly, his previous views as being ‘black’ and his new ones as ‘white.’[14] This may be in part due to pressures from Christians, and taking up a defensive resolve against it in order to solidify their own place. Part of this rhetoric is also the willingness of some converts to separate from their families because their families are not particularly fond of Islam, or are hostile to it.

            The final logic that converts employ is the most important: the self-placement into a long trajectory, such as Islamic Spain. This trend is the result with an attempt to reconcile the act of conversion to latinidad, or the experience of being Latina/o American, the ‘Latin-ness.’ This particular trajectory is chosen because of the historical understanding of Spain as housing Islamic memories that were disrupted by Catholicism during the Spanish conquest. This mirrors their own experience contending with members of their own former religions, and may recall their own struggles with those religions.[15] It is interesting to note that this process of ‘going back’ may be another important definition of the rhetoric used for conversion itself; that the word often used by Muslims to convert to Islam is “reversion” not only because the common Islamic belief is that all people are born Muslim and adopt other belief systems through the ways they are raised[16], but also because these Latinas/os are imaginally reverting to the memories of Spain, an Islamic civilization they view as thriving and flourishing.[17] For many, the process of adopting long trajectories into the past actually continues to fit the latinidad, because they view it as in fact returning to the essence of what it means to be a Latina/o.

            I have discussed the context of the United States in depth, but still remaining are the unique peculiarities of the Brazilian conversion process. What features of the previously discussed paradigm are unique to the Brazilian context? Again, to explore further, one must examine statistics regarding the Muslim population.

            There are approximately one million Muslims in Brazil, a population that mostly formed in the 19th century, and was added to by diverse waves of migration, especially from, but not limited to the Middle East.[18] The Brazilian environment is rich with institutions that Muslims gravitate toward, and that represent the various sections of Islam that exist in that country. Individual mosques serve as community centers. For example, the SBMRJ, an organization that sports a mosque and represents a Salafi Sunni group of Muslims.[19] The Imam ‘Ali Mosque houses a Shi’i population.[20]

            This emphasis on institutions gives some import into the rise and spread of Islamic trends. Namely, Shi’i, ‘Alawi, Salafi, and Sufi. These are the trends which encompass the branches of Islam across the world, some of which are dramatically smaller than others. The influence of the Salafi trend is most present in new converts to Sunni Islam, and does not usually represent a ‘group’ so much as a way of thinking about Islam that involves independent reasoning and discourages the intense Teacher-Student relationship of Sufism. Salafis see that structure as obscuring too much necessary knowledge from the student, and catalyzing the process of innovation in Islamic practice and belief, which they ascribe to heresy. Sufism itself is also a trend more related to a way of thinking about Islam rather than a set ‘group’ although Sufi Brotherhoods, which are present in Brazil in the form of the Helveti Tariqah and others, are distinctly group-oriented.

            Other trends that exist are not directly related to branches of Islam. For example, unifying structures that seek to bring everyone under a single branch and de-emphasize cultural differences. This  is commonly manifested in the phrase “I am Muslim first and Latina/o second,” repeated widely among converts. Ethnification of Islam[21] pushes forward as well, the idea that Islam is really the religion of ‘The Arabs’ and that by becoming Arab by means of learning the language[22] (as is mentioned in a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad) or by emulating Arab immigrants, one may attain special distinction. A smaller movement of tabliq, or missionary strategies, also exists in Brazil.[23]

            The very same way that U.S. Latina/o Muslims draw a comparison and a historical narrative to Muslim Spain, a trend exists in the Brazilian context in which Muslims draw this connection to the Black Movement, through the life of Malcolm X. The film, which was viewed by many black Brazilians and ‘awakened’ them, is an example of yet another long trajectory established by Muslims who feel a desire to find a true place for themselves.[24]

            In conclusion, this discussion boils down to a single question: what is the place of Islam in the Americas? For many Latinas/os, as well as other Muslims, Islam is essentially a series of connections: Secret (Godly, personal), Interpersonal, and Inter-community. Latina/o Muslims value the power of identity, and are actively creating new narratives that paint Islam and Muslims as rational, logical, and thoughtful people, while remembering a beautiful past  marked by a golden age of Islamic civilization.

Featured Photo: Eve Rivera

[1] Martinez-Vasquez, Hjamil A. Latina/o y Musulman: The Construction of Latina/o Identity among Latina/o Muslims in the United States. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2010. 1.
[2]Ibid. 2-3
[3]Many converts seem to have had difficulty in accepting God as being human. Oliveira, Vitoria Peres, and Cecelia L. Mariz. Conversion to Islam in Contemporary Brazil. 106.
[4]Martinez-Vasquez, Musulman. 19-21.
[5]   Hilu Da Rocha Pinto, Paulo Gabriel. "Ritual, Ethnicity, and Religious Identity in the Muslim Communities in Brazil." Contemporary Religious Diversity and Change.266-269.
[6]Martinez-Vasquez, Musulman. 22-25
[7]Ibid. 15
[8]Ibid. 67
[9]Ibid. 3-4
[10]Ibid. 25-32
[12]Peres & Mariz, Conversion to Islam. 104.
[13]This is sometimes understood as being from 'one's own understanding.' Ibid. 105
[14]Martinez-Vasquez, Musulman. 23.
[15]Ibid. 92
[16]Peres & Mariz, Conversion to Islam. 105
[17]Martinez-Vasquez, Musulman. 93.
[18]Pinto, Muslim Communities. 266.
[19]Ibid. 266.
[20]Ibid. 270.
[21]Pinto, Muslim Communities. 271.
[22]Martinez-Vasquez, Musulman. 22-25.
[23]Pinto, Muslim Communities. 271.
[24]Peres & Mariz, Conversion to Islam. 108

Notes on Terrorism in The Global Islamic Context

Here is my second post on things that Dr. McCloud, Michael and I have been discussing and working on in the office. This time, our conversation was about rebellion and rulership, and how that translates into the modern questions of statehood and terrorism.

The Black Panthers could so easily be seen as a threat not by their visual icon of the AK-47, but because of the very notion that they could have the discipline and organization to groom, feed, and tutor children without the authority of the state. That is, without needing the servitude of the self to the state.

So what makes a terrorist organization? The IRA, the many-faceted Irish militia with the goal of expelling the British from their colonial land-grabs; the ELF, the organization with the aim of destroying infrastructure that destroys and exploits the Earth; the gangsters shooting up innocents on the South Side of Chicago; the United States’ military drones indiscriminately firing missiles at civilian compounds in Afghanistan. What do these have in common?

I’ll leave that an open question.

What makes a terrorist act?

Let’s cross-examine these characteristics with a Qur’anic implication found in Sura Qur’aysh:

For the covenants (of security and safeguard enjoyed) by the Quraish,
Their covenants (covering) journeys by winter and summer,-
Let them adore the Lord of this House,
Who provides them with food against hunger, and with security against fear (of danger).

This sura speaks clearly of security against fear in particular as a gift from God. This is a positive thing, and therefore the absence of this security is a negative thing. God provides people with this security, so what right does a person, a creature, have to take this away from people in a way that God has not divinely ordained?

Terrorist actions are then:

1. Unexpected,
2. Concerning a variety (or indiscriminate types) of targets, and
3. Concerning actors that have exploitable features (that the public can then use to justify their own hatred of these actors.

All these characteristics promote public fear. The second point in this list also involves in combat possible noncombatants (not innocents), which the Qur’an prohibits attacking. The juristic understandings of war also usually claim that a war is public insofaras the enemy knows that it is coming. Unexpected attacks are problematic for this reason. And so the exploitable features of the third point become more open, resonant, and exploitable.