Revisiting the Pakistani Grand Narrative

Posted on December 6, 2009 by


By Zia Ahmad

Courtesy Pak Tea House

“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.”

(Jean-François Lyotard)

Most of the cultures around the world have an innate tendency to view themselves at the center of the universe. As with individuals this may be owing to the inability for some to live outside one’s head. The centrist view is enforced by following a given set of codes and traditions that reaffirms the uniqueness and superiority of the given clan, tribe, culture or civilization over others. This view is further informed by a given sense of history that adds significant gravity to the culture’s place in this world – and in some cases even in the one after. This sense of history is communicated, over generations, through an esoteric mix of myths, historical retellings, sacrosanct parchments and possibly just about all that goes into making stories and fables.

In the second half of the twentieth century, certain scholars who helped to flesh out the post modern perspective culturally, the communication of history was seen as a story told on a larger scale for the benefit of a crowd significantly larger than your average theatre going audience. This sort of storytelling was appropriately called Metanarrative or a Grand narrative.

Meta/Grand narratives are said to simplify and condense historical experiences and knowledge under one convenient umbrella which may be attached to a singular ideology. In constructing a grand narrative, a highly objective position is assumed through which a conversely subjective and biased overall knowledge is communicated to the respective followers of the ideology. A number of factors are discounted while designing a grand narrative. The inherent randomness found in the natural fabric of the universe, of existence is grossly overlooked.

Furthermore grand narratives are laid down and maintained by political structures that seek to sub-ordinate physical and natural laws to any given ideology. The history of things is chiseled accordingly. Concepts and opinions are presented as facts. The sheer diversity of the human experience is discarded in favor of one monolithic ideology.

A more obvious criticism of grand narratives can be leveled on the account of the impossibility of one singular doctrine to be embraced by a multitude of people (ideally the entire species) coming from radically divergent and varied backgrounds.

This “incredulity” or disbelief towards grand narrative was articulated by Jean-François Lyotard in his seminal document The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979). He viewed the construction, existence and influence of grand narratives as limiting and reductive, the critique of which is definitive of the post modern discourse.

One of the chief tasks any grand narrative seeks to undertake is the defining and laying out “the truth.”

In a post modern discourse the validity of a singular generalizing truth is often contested. The idea of one ideology or theory to hold the ground for the entire species can be seen as both a naïve and simplified account of history or a manipulative attempt to keep the political structures empowered. Organized religion, established folklore, national histories, social experiments and myth of progress via science all fall under the auspices of grand narratives.

As in any other story, popular grand narratives have their share of heroes and villains engaged in a series of dramatic conflicts. The snake introduces temptation to Adam in the Garden of Eden, Moosa contends with the Pharaoh and parts a sea, Darwin battles religious dogma and the proletariats take it out on the street against the big, fat bourgeois. Indeed ideological themed histories are structured with mass appeal marketability in mind.

The Pakistani grand narrative, coupled with the grand Sunni narrative, is studiously inculcated into our collective psyche and stipulates Pakistan firmly placed at the center of the world serving as the fortress of Islam. It is further invoked that Pakistan translates into the first pillar of Islam – “Pakistan ka mutlab kya? lā ‘ilāha ‘illallāh”. The government sanctioned narrative of our country lavishes extravagant amount of importance on national unity, discipline and faith that are inscribed in paper but not in practice. The same narrative makes broad rudimentary lingual and ethnic divisions scattered over four provinces that have been supremely ineffectual. “Char suboon ki Pehchaan – Pakistan Pakistan” has served as a jingoistic call for some time now that criminally sidelines other prominent ethnicities and conveniently forgets the pre 1971 categorization of administrative units.

The national narrative is fused with a prescribed religious bent that, just like any other major grand ideology, insists on its own universality and absoluteness. To question the ideology amounts to heresy and is discouraged from an early stage. Brandishing dissenters in the Christian tradition has long been abandoned and to this day we are only too eager to label the fellow Muslim as kafir on the slightest pretext. In addition, echoing the propagation of the four province projection, other variants of Islam are marginalized and even ignored, as are the non-Muslim religious ilk, in building a monolithic religious identity of Pakistan that empowers a crude majority and alienate others.

The reductive critique leveled against grand narratives manifests itself in Islamic quiz shows so often played in Ramazan where the history of the world is marked as 8000 years old! A romantic history is weaved under the narrative that turns the existence of Pakistan complacent. Since the country was liberated on the 27th night of Ramazan it has Allah Almighty’s special eye on it and, rest assured, no harm shall come to our Pakistan. So we have been told over and over again for every calamity that is blamed on “foreign hands”. Our abidance to the Pakistani grand narrative absolves us of any wrongdoing and actively discourages self-evaluation.

In this light our imposing and limiting national narrative has been less than successful in representing Pakistan in its entire complex, layered and multifaceted splendor. It has done no service to the country or its people. Having clearly outstayed its welcome time is high to argue for the existence of a, as Lyotard called it, “multiplicity of theoretical standpoints” that are divergent localized narratives that are contingent to the relevant culture’s history and environment.

Whatever way, the postmodern critique of grand, all-encompassing narratives, deserves to be applied to the Pakistani model. The need for a pluralistic Pakistan is paramount more than ever, before and whatever mix of myth and wish-fulfillment that worked in previous times has to be debunked. It has to be understood by Pakistanis that the beliefs held true and pure by us don’t hold the same for the rest of the world. To conduct a field test, next time you come across a non-Pakistani Muslim ask him if he agrees Pakistan is the fortress of Islam. Even better try asking him Pakistan ka mutlab kya?