Jinnah, in a Class of His Own

Posted on June 3, 2009 by


by Eqbal Ahmad

Dawn, 11 June 1995


Mohammad Ali Jinnah is an enigma of modern history. His aristocratic English lifestyle, Victorian manners, and secular outlook rendered him a most unlikely leader of India’s Muslims. Yet, he led them to separate statehood,  creating history and, in Saad R. Khairi’s apt phrase, ‘altering geography’.

Several scholars, among them H.M. Seervai, Aisha Jalal and Saad R. Khairi, help explain his shift from Indian nationalism to Muslim separatism but the mystery of Jinnah’s appeal remains. After all, neither Muslim nationalism nor the idea of Pakistan originated with him; he embraced them somewhat reluctantly.

There is another way of viewing the matter. In the twentieth century, two extraordinary personalities competed for the leadership of Indian Muslims. They were Abul Kalam Azad and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. As a point of departure in comprehending the aspirations of Muslims in India, we might review their biographical profiles.

The contrasts in their family background, education, culture, and styles of leadership were remarkable. Azad’s ancestors belonged since Emperor Babar’s time to the Persian and Urdu-speaking Muslim aristocracy of India. His great-grandfather was one of the last Ruknul Mudarrasin, a position roughly analogous to today’s ‘minister of education’, in Mughal India. After the War of 1857 his family migrated to Madina where it intermingled with the Sharifain aristocracy. Azad’s mother was a daughter of Sheikh Mohammed Zaher Watri, in his time Madina’s best known ‘Alim’. His father Maulana Khair al-Din gained much fame in the Muslim world for his ten-volume work on Islam, and for his central role in the restoration of Nahr Zubeida, Makkah’s main source of water. Among Indian Muslims who were still wistful over a lost empire, and reeling from the excesses of British colonisation, it is hard to envision a family with better credentials than Abul Kalam Azad’s.

Abul Kalam was a most worthy scion of an extraordinary family with roots deep in the duality—Indian and pan-Islamic—to which South Asia’s Muslims have been historically linked both psychologically and culturally. Born in Makkah, he was fluent in Arabic, at ease in Persian, and a most gifted writer of Urdu prose. He was deeply immersed in the mystical tradition of Islam. As early as 1919 he wrote on Sarmad Shaheed and the grand dichotomy between state and civil society in Islam. His later commentaries on the Holy Qura’an are still regarded as among the best in the world.

“Who is your master among the mufassareen?” I asked the late Maulana Kausar Niazi some years ago. “Abul Kalam” he replied reflexively. Al-Hilal, the magazine Azad founded in 1912, at age 22, marked the beginning of serious, mass circulation Urdu journalism. With its successor al-Balgah, it remains a milestone in the development of Urdu as a popular vehicle of political and social discourse. Azad was a spellbinding speaker and, like Jinnah, an ardent nationalist. In 1923, at age 35, he was the youngest man to be elected president of the Indian National Congress, a record Nehru will break later. An overwhelming majority of India’s Ulema supported him.

The man we shall later revere as the Quaid-i-Azam was a contemporary of Azad, and a most unlikely contender for Muslim leadership. He was born in 1876; Azad in 1890. But beyond the proximity of age, the two stood in sharp contrast to each other. While Azad’s aristocratic roots lay in the Muslim heartland of UP and Bengal, Jinnah was born to a middle class business family in the port town of Hindu-dominated Karachi. At age 21 he moved to England, thence to Bombay, the modern gateway to British India. Unlike Azad who belonged to the majority Sunni denomination of Islam, Jinnah came from the minority Shi’a community. He was the prototypical westernized Indian, tutored at Lincoln’s Inn, tailored at Saville Row, in his youth a Shakepearian actor, a constitutionalist barrister in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, married to a Parsi woman. More at home in English than his native Gujrati, Jinnah spoke little Urdu which he would later designate as Pakistan’s official language, knew neither Persian nor Arabic, and had only the rudimentary knowledge of Islam which is common to western educated Muslims. He was anathema to an overwhelming majority of the Ulema of the subcontinent, including so grand a figure as Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani and such ideologue as Abul Ala Maudoodi.

Mr. Jinnah made little effort to overcome his obvious handicaps. Unlike Barrister M.K. Gandhi with whom Jinnah shared similarities of language, class, and education, and who donned the Mahatma’s home spun dhoti, Jinnah stuck to his western ways and pin-stripe suits. He bowed but rarely to populist symbols, appearing only occasionally at political ralies, and shunning the display of emotion in public. Reasoned arguments and cold logic were the hallmark of Jinnah’s discourse. He spoke at political rallies as though he were addressing a courtroom, or a conference of lawyers. This is not the populist style anywhere, least of all in South Asia. Yet, in less that a decade of his return from London in 1935, he had eclipsed his political foes no less than colleagues in the Muslim League, and successfully established himself and the League as the sole spokesman of India’s Muslims. In the elections of 1937 the Muslim League barely survived as a minor political party; in 1940 it set Pakistan as its goal. Barely seven years later the new state was born.

In the Introduction to this first volume of Jinnah papers Professor Zaidi has asked this central question: “What then turned Jinnah into the embodiment of Muslim hopes and aspirations?” One answer, admirably documented by Saad Khairi and H.M. Seervai, is that the leadership of the Indian National Congress allowed Jinnah no alternative even though he constantly probed for one. But a deeper explanation offered in Professor Zaidi’s Introduction worth quoting:

“What distinguished Jinnah from his great contemporaries is that he was quite self-consciously a modern man – one who valued, above all, reason, discipline, organisation, and economy. Jinnah differed from other Muslim Leaders in so far as he was uncompromisingly committed to substance rather than symbol, reason rather than emotion, modernity rather than tradition.

But how could this apparently modern figure so powerfully appeal to a people laden with tradition and religious inertia? I should summarise Professor Zaidi’s answer to this question: Jinnah’s peculiar appeal worked because collectively Indian Muslims had an instinctive if inarticulate grasp of recent history. “It was a community conscious of its declining condition, and it had experienced the ineffectiveness of old remedies. After all, neither the revivalist prescriptions of Shah Waliullah, nor the fiery war cries of Syed Ahmed Shahid, nor the flamboyant, though confused, demarche of the Khilafat movement – with which Abdul Kalam Azad had become associated and from which Jinnah kept a pronounced distance – provided relief from the ills which afflicted Muslim society in India. Restorationist alternatives had nearly exhausted when Jinnah re-entered the second act of contemporary Muslim tragedy in India. On their part, leaders of the Indian National Congress were so overcome with hubris that they refused to open viable political doors to this wounded and bewildered people.

Significantly, by then the modernist view of the causes of Muslim decline and of the remedies it required, especially as articulated by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and his ideological successors, including Iqbal, had seeped into the consciousness of the Muslim intelligentsia. There was to this phenomenon also a pan-Islamic context: In the 1930s the Muslim world as a whole had entered what Albert Hourani has described as the Liberal Age when Muslim nationalism grew exponentially on the premises of modernism and reform. Mr Jinnah returned from England in 1935 to find himself swept to the crest of this wave.

In the four decades that have followed his passing, Pakistan has moved precipitously away from the country its founding father had envisioned, and the people had created at costs beyond counting. The two volumes of Jinnah Papers and the archives from which they are drawn do not tell the story of the cowardice and betrayals which followed the Quaid-i-Azam. What they do tell us is who he was, how he waged a difficult and deeply painful struggle for statehood, the vision he nourished, and the hopes he had for this country. I would like to recall him and remind us in passing of what we have done with his legacy. I am sorry if in the process I cause some discomfort to some of you readers.