In the light of history : How an Islamic State was carved out of a secular movement for Pakistan

Posted on September 19, 2010 by


By Farah Zia
First published in The News on Sunday, August 29, 2010

As we discuss the case for Pakistan as a secular state, it would be instructive to revisit the events of Pakistan movement to see how terms like “secularism” and “Islamic state” were played out in the years preceding partition.

The conduct of leadership that formulated and guided the movement, particularly that of Jinnah, and the role of religious leaders may lead us to a better understanding of history, which in our case, has been exceptionally problematic. It could not have been otherwise. Carving out a separate country for Muslims in India was not a simple idea. It had to be premised on the controversial “two-nation theory” which, as it turned out, could not sufficiently address the cause of the majority Muslim population left behind in India or the Hindu, Sikh and Christian minorities in what became Pakistan.

Pakistan’s history was equally problematic because its leaders, thinking that Muslims were a distinct nation, were seeking a nation-state where Muslims will be able to exercise their social and political rights. There was an inherent contradiction between the primacy accorded to the religious identity during the movement and the secular vision of Jinnah as enunciated in his August 11, 1947, speech for running the polity of the new state.

The movement itself passed through phases in history and acquired a religious flavour towards the very end, albeit for political exigencies, which only helped the cause of those who propagated Pakistan to be an Islamic state with no room for secularism. Little wonder that scholars of this school saw Jinnah’s August 11 speech as a “remarkable reversal.”

Historians like Hamza Alavi are of the view that rejection of secularism only strengthened religious fundamentalism and “half-educated and bigoted mullahs… are holding our civil society and the state to ransom.” While asserting that Pakistan movement “remained firmly committed to its secular concerns” he, like many others, has reminded us that the religious clergy was bitterly opposed to the idea of Pakistan and abused the secular leadership of the movement. Hence the terms like Kafir-e-Azam and Na Pakistan were reserved for Jinnah and the new state by none other than Jamaat-e-Islami under Maulana Maudoodi. Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind and Majlise Ahrar were equally bitter enemies of the idea of Pakistan.

Alavi has particularly talked about the leadership of Mulsim League being in the hands of educated Muslim professionals whom he calls “salariat” and how it was a movement of “Muslims” rather than a movement of “Islam”. It was organised along political lines and any attempts to put Islamic ideology on the League’s agenda and demands for setting up of an Islamic state were immediately aborted.

It is indeed true that the movement was a political struggle launched not by religious leaders but by secular men who did not want it to be theocracy but a modern, progressive state. But a political struggle has political compulsions — by the 1945/46 elections, therefore, the complexion of Muslim League changed and landed magnates and religious leaders were all welcomed into its fold in a bid to become a mass movement which was able to win the election. This phase of the movement indeed has a bearing on the subsequent speeches of its leaders as well as the conduct of the new state.

In this context, the personality of Jinnah as a secular leader or otherwise has been a subject of great discussion. Intriguingly, scholars on both sides of the divide have found it equally easy to paint Jinnah in their own light. In a state where Islam has been pitched as an opposing force to secularism — despite the historical facts that the movement largely stayed committed to secular ideals and the religious forces opposed the new country — Jinnah’s deliberate ambiguity on the subject has only complicated matters.

Truth is that an objective assessment of Jinnah is difficult; especially, because he did not utter the word “secular” during the entire course of the movement. In his significant article “Jinnah and the Islamic State – Setting the Record Straight”, Pervez Hoodbhoy has asked this relevant question as to whether Jinnah wanted a Muslim majority state or an Islamic state. He says that having stated that Hindus and Muslims could not live together as one nation, Jinnah “left a legacy of ambiguity.” And he did so because of the political compulsion of “building a coalition of zamindars, pirs and parts of the Indian Mulsim elite.”

Of course he did not share their retrogressive views and in the ultimate analysis, he must have thought, in the words of Hoodbhoy, “that a liberal, secular Pakistan would one day follow once the messy business of partition was over with, and it was unnecessary to raise the issue of secularism now.”

About the Quaid using the words Islamic state, Muslim state and Sharia interchangeable, Hoodbhoy quotes Ayesha Jalal who cautions that they need to be placed within the “proper historical context”. She says “He was from first to last a constitutionalist who had argued at the time of the debate on the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1930 that if there was a clash between a so-called religious and public morality, then morality had to prevail, mullah or no mullah. There was no change in this basic outlook even as he made tactical adjustments in his later years to accommodate new political exigencies. When asked to discuss the future constitutional framework for the Muslim homeland he was demanding, he insisted that it would be up to the people of Pakistan to decide what sort of a state they wanted even though he had no doubt that their choice would be for a moderate, democratic and forward-looking state.”

It may have been a logical consequence of a problematic history that Jinnah who was looking for a loose federation within the Cabinet Mission Plan ended up making a country that has stayed highly centralised all along. And arguably the most westernised political leader founded a country that refuses to call itself secular. Leaders on the other side managed to establish a different state altogether.

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