Governance in Pakistan – 7: Which Islam?

The question left over from the last post was the following:

Given that it had become inevitable for Pakistan to have a religious identity (for reasons articulated by Professor Ralph Russell in the previous post) why was the tradition of Islam that was indigenous to the subcontinent ignored in favor of one imported from Saudi Arabia?

As we have mentioned, Professor Russell was not a political or religious scholar and he never sat down to explicitly address this question. However, in his essays he left behind numerous astute observations that we can use to begin crafting a plausible answer.

Our aim is not to reach a definitive conclusion but to see how the mind of a trained humanist works, how from certain observations a hypothesis is derived, and how facts are linked through a chain of reasoning to arrive at conclusions that can be tested against the outcomes of real life.

Such a process based on reasoning need not always lead to the correct explanation but it provides the reader the opportunity to identify particular links in the argument that he or she disputes or disagrees with and to offer a new explanation based on the substitutions. It is important to be clear about what one disagrees with and to be able to suggest alternatives that stand up to criticism. The ensuing dialogue forms the basis of the method of intellectual enquiry.

Let us take Professor Russell’s essay Aziz Ahmad, South Asia, Islam and Urdu and note straight away his observation in passing about the fundamentals of intellectual discourse.

Aziz Ahmad was for a while (beginning in 1957) a colleague of Professor Russell’s at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Professor Russell mentions that he had sharp and vigorously pursued disagreements with Aziz Ahmad on the methodology of teaching Urdu to foreign students:

Such disagreements were not infrequent. That being so, it surprised and puzzled him when he found that this in no way inhibited my whole-hearted praise of his talents and of his published work. (He came from a milieu where it is indeed rare for these two things to go together.)

One must admit that it remains rare even today.

Professor Russell mentions that often the best understanding of social situations is to be found in literature:

For example, the problem of Kashmir is one of the major problems of the politics of the post-1945 period. An important element in the determining of the present situation was the internal political struggle of the 1930s and the 1940s. Where can one find a vivid picture of Kashmir during those years? In Aziz Ahmad’s novel Aag. But those who (if they knew about it) would like to read it for this purpose, can’t. And those who can read it aren’t for the most part interested in doing so for this purpose.

At this point a question that naturally arises is: What about historians and social scientists in Pakistan and India who write in English but know Urdu well? Don’t they use these materials? The answer is: For the most part, no. Why not? For several reasons. First, numbers of them come in the category already described, of people who have acquired their English at the cost of letting their Urdu rust. Secondly, many of them are more English than the English, more royalist than the king.

In a society where conventions have for centuries been more rigid than in the West, English-derived conventions (for example, that a novel cannot be a worthwhile source for academic studies of this kind) are observed with a rigidity which the Western world does not apply to them. Even where non-fictional writing is concerned they think (often, but not always, rightly) that works written in Urdu lack the scholarly qualities of works written in English, and that therefore no self-respecting scholar pays any attention to them. Even if the premise were wholly correct (and it isn’t) the conclusion doesn’t follow from it. But there it is. They think that the premise is correct, and that the conclusion does follow from it; and they act accordingly.

Note Professor’s Russell’s hypothesis and the argument he is constructing: that the Pakistani ruling elite was alienated from its own traditions and often contemptuous of them. If this was its attitude towards Urdu, imagine what it must have been towards the languages of the masses and what its perception must have been of the folk wisdom and traditions of illiterate people.

When a ruling elite is alienated from its own traditions it is all the more susceptible to the presumed superiority of outside ones. As Professor Russell observed, it was more English than the English. And similarly, it was more Arab than the Arabs.

And so when Saudi Islam came backed by large amounts of money there was no resistance, intellectual or otherwise. The game was over.

This is where Professor Russell’s chain of reasoning leads us. If you have a different explanation we can build a discussion around it.

Let us end by adding a general observation of Locke about human beings to Professor Russell’s observation of the Pakistani intelligentsia:

Most men are simply too lazy or ill trained to apply themselves to the dull work of sifting through evidence and reasoning properly. They prefer pseudo-certainties, even if those are inherited from tradition and untested by experience; and once they are committed to dogmas, they enjoy imposing them on others. This is how religious superstitions are born and perpetuated. But that also means that they can be combated if human beings are given enough leisure and training to let their natural faculties develop.

The bottom line is that it is important to learn to reason; and this learning requires training; and this training can only be imparted by educational institutions, preferably early in life.

We have a challenging agenda before us.

Professor Russell’s essay is from his book How Not to Write the History of Urdu Literature and Other Essays on Urdu and Islam. The observation from Locke is to be found on page 94 in the book by Mark Lilla (The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West).

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10 Responses to “Governance in Pakistan – 7: Which Islam?”

  1. yayaver Says:

    You have written here clearly why Saud Islam taking over sufism here. And you resonate with my mind with reason like–“it was more English than the English. And similarly, it was more Arab than the Arabs.”. I would also like to put more emphasis on land reforms in Pakistani context. India has Bhoodan movement and breakeing of Zamindari system but can you tell me more detail about land distribution to peasents post independece period? Please throw some light that why naxal movement like India has not happened in pak.I think, the huge diversities between elite and labor class without having buffer middle class is major reason of fall of pak in such civil war like situation.

  2. SouthAsian Says:

    Yayaver: In following up a recent comment on another post I realized that this important question by you has remained unanswered for long. Please accept my apologies.

    There were at least two formal proclamations of land reforms in Pakistan but the implementation was subverted each time by vested interests. The class composition of the early Indian leadership was different from that in Pakistan which can account for some of the variation. There is also more democratic space in India and less ability to subvert the democratic process – in Pakistan any semblance of the shift of power was forsetalled by a military coup.

    While there has not been the exact parallel of a Naxal movement in Pakistan, there have been other variants of struggles for local autonomy – Bangladesh and the struggles in Baluchistan can be considered as examples. I suppose a case can be made that the subnational question remains unresolved in Pakistan and any other type of struggle (e.g., ideological) morphs into a broader nationalist one.

    The small size of the middle class has definite negative implications but perhaps not in the sense you imply. The much larger middle class in India has not been able to prevent the rise of the Naxal movement. So, some other explanation for the growth of the Naxal movement in India has to be found.

  3. Arun Gupta Says:

    I just read essay 5,6,7 of this series – thanks for a great illustration of how to use knowledge and reason to connect the dots in a plausible way and how to present it so that specific links can be challenged and modified and alternate hypotheses can be arrived at.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Thanks for the appreciative words. We are interested in South Asia but do not represent any South Asian interest. We place our faith in evidence and logic. If a conclusion challenges our prior beliefs we are prepared to revise them. We wish to be a voice for civil society so we aim to remain civil at all times. All this should be easy but often it is not. There is an interesting article that tries to explain why this might be the case: How Facts Backfire.

      • Arun Gupta Says:

        This essay for instance, helps me disentangle Jinnah’s long-term vision versus his tactics. Further, the point where I disagree with the articles is that I believe that neither Jinnah nor anyone in the Muslim League have left us any deep thought as to the political constitution of the Muslim nation they were creating. It was rather vague, “democracy, fraternity, equality based on Islam” – which could mean almost anything, and decided by a constituent assembly.

        The problem is that Gandhi, Nehru, Congress, etc., are positively garrulous compared to Jinnah & co. To find out what Jinnah thought is a challenge, let alone to trace how his conception of Pakistan might have changed between the time he first thought of it (1930, as per Wolpert) to Aug 11, 1947.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Arun: This is a correct observation. There is very little articulation of Muslim opinion or intellectual thought, especially in English. There is more material in Urdu but it is much less accessible. We have to thank Western academics for bringing some of it to our attention. One important text is by Barbara D. Metcalf (Husain Ahmad Madani: The Jihad for Islam and India’s Freedom. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009. x 174 pages). Maulana Azad, Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar and Maulana Shaukat Ali Jauhar are other sources that wrote prolifically in Urdu. There must also be something by or about Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Together these should illustrate the diversity of Muslim opinion at that time dispelling the impression that the Muslim League represented the embodiment of Muslim sentiment. The interesting question is what drove Muslim sentiment into the League camp between 1937 and 1946?

          I am reminded here of a comment by William Dalrymple who wrote The Last Moghul based on material long available in the Delhi archives. He speculated that Indian historians had not looked at this material for all this time simply because most of them could not read Urdu or Persian. This is indeed a big loss to our understanding of the intellectual currents of those times.

  4. Kamran Says:

    It is true that Jinnah after suffering a crushing defeat in 1937 elections, more particularly in Muslim majority provinces, apparently made a tactical compromise with the traditional Islamic forces of Ulema, Mashaikh, and Peers holding immense influence over the Muslim masses in rural hinterlands of Punjab, Bengal, the NWFP, and Sindh to whom he had never given any deference; at times, even publicly opposed them, in the past. An astute political observer and analyst as he was, coming from an urban and different social background, he had clearly seen that in terms of electoral politics his extremely narrow support base of the urban centres of Muslim minority provinces of India like UP, Behar, Madras, and Bombay is not going to take him anywhere near his cherished yet secular goal of an ‘independent Muslim majority state’ within or without India. Without leveraging the religious sentiments of mass population (the idea which Jinnah himself bitterly opposed in 1920’s when Gandhi introduced this dangerous element in the national independence movement to garner mass support for Swaraj) the dream of Pakistan was apparently never to be realized.
    It was time to change the means for achieving the objective. As Ralph Russel has correctly noted, 1939 onwards, and more particularly from the days of Congress’ ‘Quit India’ offensive in 1942, we witness a subtle change in the public dressing, demeanor, and religious idiom of Jinnah’s public addresses. Muslim League’s apparatus more openly geared itself to unleash a genie of Ulema, Mashaikh, and Peers fanning out in the rural Punjab, NWFP, and Bengal gathering mass support for Pakistan. The effectiveness of the new ‘means’ was undoubtedly astounding. The momentum gathered in the rural hinterland of Muslim majority areas swiftly made Muslim League by 1945 a major political force to reckon with.
    The question Ralph Russel and you have raised is why the Muslim elite of the time and later chose a different and narrow strand of Islam instead of a more tolerant version that was indeed more popular among masses. If I correctly read it you have ascribed two reasons to it: 1) our political and religious elite was alienated from the masses and was ‘more Arab than the Arabs’, and, 2) when Saudi Islam came with the backing of Arab money it was gladly accepted.
    While the first reason is only partly true, in my view, the issue has more dimensions:
    1. The so-called battle between broadly two strands of Islam, one, a bigoted, fundamentalist and ‘exclusive’ version what we can call today’s Saudi version of Islam, and the other a tolerant, spiritual and ‘inclusive’ Sufi version of Islam is an old one continuing all across Muslim world and is not peculiar to India and Pakistan. One can safely assume its cabalistic roots go back to the later days of prophet.
    2. The Sufi Islam took many forms and its different variants developed with the traditions of Hasan Basari, Rabia Basri, Maroof Karkhi, Bayazid Bistami, Junaid Baghdadi, Abu Mansur Hallaj, and Abdul Qadir Jilani in Iraq. Data Gunj Bakhsh coming from Ghazni and having lived in Iraq sowed the seeds in Lahore in India shortly after the days of Mehmud Ghaznavi, followed by Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, Fariduddin Gunj Shakar in Pak Pattan, and Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. This was the moderate, ‘inclusive’ and populist tradition of Islam that had clashed in the seventeenth century of India in the symbolism of Dara Shikoh with the opposing narrow bigoted tradition symbolized by many historians in Aurangzeb. This happened when technologically advanced European powers had started landing on the Indian shores.
    3. Most of the Pakistani people have long tradition of believing and living their daily lives in this tolerant Sufi tradition of Islam. It is evident in popular folk poetry and music and presence of innumerable shrines and Dragahs in almost every village and town in Pakistan, not only in Sindh and Punjab but, contrary to general belief, also, perhaps more so, in almost all of Pukhtoon lands.
    4. The other ‘exclusive’ version of Islam insisting on going back to the ‘original’ and purer forms was always there but was first compiled and given systemic presentation by Imam Ibn Taymiya, a little after the chaos that followed the Mongol’s sacking of Baghdad in 1258. Imam Ibn Taymiya preached aggressive Jihad against non-Muslims as part of the belief and condoned killing of Muslims who side with the non-Muslims. This was the tradition that partly developed with Ahmad Sarhindi Mujadid Alf Sani in early 17th century and later in full by Shah Waliullah in India, and Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab in Arabia in the later part of 18th century.
    5. As this version of Islam primarily developed to give impetus to a resistance movement against non-Muslim foreign occupiers (Mongols in Iraq, Hindus, Sikhs or Europeans in India; later, this tradition of Jihad was also used against Muslim but foreign Turks in Arab lands) it assumed the forms of a militant political Islam while the other more popular Sufi version of Islam remained essentially a-political. The Muslim Ulema in India who actively participated in anti-Sikh and anti-British Jihad belonged to this political militant tradition of Islam known as Deobandi after this denomination’s first formal training school that was established in the town of Deoband in UP, India.
    6. At the time the Islamic religious element was introduced in Indian politics in a big way by the Muslim League post 1939, its natural allies at the executive level were Deobandi Ulema who were well trained in political and organizational skills. More holistic neutral Islamic phraseology was used to elicit support of the Ulema, Mashaikh, and Peers mostly steeped in more popular and much more influential Sufi version of Islam for a vague common cause of religion. A few Islamic scholars belonging to some variants of Deobandi Islam who were, like Abul A’ala Maudoodi , perhaps, more honest with their faith, did not agree to make this compromise and refused joining hands with impure elements. They only joined the bandwagon after Pakistan was established, finding it as a good opportunity for them to make their own imprint on its new slate.
    7. While most of the grassroots mobilization work was actually done by Sufi Islam oriented Mashaikh and Peers, the organizational and constitutional inputs were provided by Deobandi Ulema like putting pressures for the adoption by the Constituent Assembly and drafting of well known ‘Objectives Resolution’ in 1949 as mandatory part of the constitution-making process and subsequent non-tolerant aggressive anti-Ahmadi movement of 1951. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s attempt to revive his secular orientation in his oft-quoted speech of 11 August 1947 before the Constituent Assembly just couldn’t make the tide turn. The genie had come out of the bottle and it was difficult to put it back.
    8. My view is that while most of the ruling elite of Pakistan (by the term ‘elite’ I mean the politicians, bureaucrats, and the military generals holding the decisive powers in the ruling power block and the social classes providing them support) actually belonged to the tradition of Sufi and tolerant version of essentially apolitical Islam they didn’t have the wherewithal for overcoming the challenge of the organizational and intellectual capital of Deobandi Islam in the state and political structures. It seems other Ulema and scholars of more tolerant Islamic traditions were initially duped and later were held hostage to the aggressive political campaigns of intolerant Islamic trends.
    9. A subsequent effort to push back this intolerant Islamic trend was indeed made by the political elite in Pakistan during late 1950’s and early 1960’s. It remained in the sidelines for better part of 1960’s and early 1970’s, barely surviving for striking a comeback at an opportune time. It received a shot in the arm in 1970’s when a large number of Pakistani workers temporarily immigrated to Saudi Arabia and other Arab lands to provide labour for the massive infrastructure construction exercise ever undertaken in the history of mankind. This resulted in not only the large inflow of foreign exchange in the country but also the import and spread of the ideas based on Saudi version of Islam, hitherto mostly unfamiliar to the genius of Indian Islam. The state’s dependence on now critical oil supplies and foreign exchange flowing in from Arab lands also increased considerably during this period.
    10. It was in this backdrop when after Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, a massive Afghan Jihad was organized by the Pakistan army with the help of US arms supplies and bagfuls of Saudi money fully exploiting the ideology of the militant political Islam for recruiting large number of unsuspecting Jihadis from all over the Muslim world, the predominance of militant Salfi Islam in Pakistan’s polity was already a foregone conclusion. We like it or not, it was not a matter of choice for Pakistani elite; we must understand a massive jihad could not have been organized on the ideological base of a Sufi version of a tolerant, ‘inclusive’ Islam. Fact is other than adopting the ideology of militant political Islam for this massive exercise there was simply no other alternative.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Kamran: You have provided a better explanation. It is the objective that determines which variant of an ideology attains dominance. Clearly, the objectives adopted after 1939 called for a political and aggressive Islam and time has not diminished that need. With strong feedback effects through control of education and the media this variant has now become the norm.

      This much is clear. Using this template, it becomes interesting to revisit the earlier period in which the other variant of Islam had become dominant in South Asia. The analysis would argue against the very simplistic understanding of the past viewed from the vantage point of the present, i.e., the past as a perpetual conflict of hostile religions.

    • Vinod Says:


      What about the ‘modernist’ version of Islam, as espoused by thinkers like Iqbal, and his influence on Jinnah, if any?


      The constitution of Pakistan has yet to be framed by the Pakistan Constituent Assembly. I do not know what the ultimate shape of this constitution is going to be, but I am sure that it will be of a democratic type, embodying the essential principle of Islam. Today, they are as applicable in actual life as they were 1,300 years ago. Islam and its idealism have taught us democracy. It has taught equality of man, justice and fairplay to everybody. We are the inheritors of these glorious traditions and are fully alive to our responsibilities and obligations as framers of the future constitution of Pakistan. In any case Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic State to be ruled by priests with a divine mission. We have many non-Muslims –Hindus, Christians, and Parsis –but they are all Pakistanis. They will enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizens and will play their rightful part in the affairs of Pakistan.

  5. Kamran Says:

    Anjum: You are right. This requires a serious study and the findings should be quite interesting. My thoughts are as follows:

    1. The early Muslim conquerors and later rulers in India were mostly military adventurers and not really interested in the spread of Islam as such. Their interest in Islam was at best for maintaining a pious public face and playing to the gallery for mainly keeping their troops, and generally the Muslim population under control and in order.

    2. Most of the propagation of Islam in India was, therefore, by default, at the hands of those who were often imbued with Sufi Islamic teachings and were closer to the people at large at the grassroots level. There is a strong tradition among these people of travel to far off lands seeking esoteric ‘knowledge’ and spreading the ‘light’. With their humane conduct they always attracted common men and eventually built large followings among people of all caste and creed.

    3. The sustained popularity of these ordinary people in stark contrast of the contemporary great kings and royal patriarchs is clearly evident from almost 24/7 milling crowds on the shrines like those of Data Gunjbaksh in Lahore, Moinuddin in Ajmer and Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi compared with depressing desolation in the tombs of great kings like Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan, and Aurangzeb situated not very far from these shrines.

    4. Gradually, a complex web of multiple networks of independent yet interconnected silsilas (a chain of peers, the masters and spiritual guides, khalifas, the mandate-holders for spreading the spiritual message onwards in far off lands, and mureeds, the simple followers developed in Sufi Islam.

    5. A great impetus to the wider spread of this strand was also due to the steady influx of the persecuted scholars of Shia denominations of Islam, particularly the much persecuted Ismailis from aggressive Sunni Turk dominated lands of Iraq, Khurasan, Persia, and the Central Asia taking refuge in various parts of India, mostly getting absorbed among the local population in western parts of India. They were mostly steeped in cabalistic traditions of spiritual Islam preaching their message while avoiding the watchful eyes of those Ulemas who were more at ease in the corridors of secular power.

    6. It was only over time that a new parasite class evolved around the shrines as gadinashins (successors) of these venerated people and quite a few downright imposters who gradually accumulated considerable wealth and acquired power and royal land grants essentially for maintaining these large followings in peace.

    7. It was in this backdrop that the milieu of Indian Islam evolved where innumerable shrines and dargahs of dead sufis and living peers became radiating centres of Islam. At times, few of influential Sufis also crossed paths with the autocratic kings of their times and had to pay the price dearly.

    8. The intellectual poverty and absolute decadence of the ruling elite – Mughal, Pathan, Marhatta alike – couldn’t have taken it long before it crumbled on its feet during 18th century. With the swift rise and victory of European powers and collapse of the political power structures of the local ruling elite of India, the Indian Islam produced two responses: first, passionate jihad against infidels, mainly led by deobandi ulemas after making parts of Pukhtoon lands of present day Pakisitan, FATA and Afghanistan as their base (present day Pakistani Taliban’s jihad in FATA is only a continuity of that long tradition of Syed Ahmed Brailvi), and, second, patient reorganization and re-tooling of Muslims for meeting the challenge by acquiring modern western knowledge, mainly led by Sir Syed Ahmed of Delhi.


    9. Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi (in fact, from Punjab), Jamaluddin Afghani of Pan-Islamic Movement, Allama Iqbal, and M.A. Jinnah are different variants of the second response. They all, in different ways, attempted to rally Muslims at large for meeting the challenge of modern western imperialism and also gradually evolved, moving from one position to the other, during their public careers.

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