COVER STORY: Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea

Published August 3, 2014
1947: A caravan making its way to a new homeland - Photo by Margaret Bourke-White
1947: A caravan making its way to a new homeland - Photo by Margaret Bourke-White

EVEN today, in classrooms across Pakistan, children are sometimes told that Muhammad Bin Qasim was the first Pakistani, with his war against Raja Dahir marking the first instance of the kind of Hindu-Muslim conflict that would form the basis of the Two-Nation Theory. Putting to one side the actual facts of Muhammad Bin Qasim’s foray into Sindh, driven more by regional politics and the promise of lucre rather than any burning desire to spread Islam, the creation of a link between events in 712 and 1947 serves a clear ideological purpose for the custodians and propagators of Pakistan’s mainstream nationalist narrative; it establishes a historical connection between Islam and the territory that now comprises Pakistan, and it reinforces the notion that the defining conflict in the subcontinent was, and remains, the clash between Islam and Hinduism.

Ironically, the story of Muhammad Bin Qasim is one that shows how, even in its contemporary, official manifestations, Pakistan’s nationalism is beset with contradictions. Whereas the classical model of nationalism and the nation-state, as derived from Europe, emphasises (if often fictitiously) the enduring links between language, community, and territory, the poster child for Pakistani nationalism is an Arab invader lacking any connection to the spaces and people that would subsequently constitute the Pakistani nation. The peculiar nature of Pakistan’s nationalism can also be discerned from the torturous geography that defined the new country in 1947, with the existence of its Eastern and Western wings, as well as hundreds of ‘enclaves’ along the East Pakistani border with India, completely defying the logic of territorial contiguity that usually maps that nation on to the state.

Finally, the notion that Pakistan was created as a homeland for all of the Muslims of the subcontinent, united as they were by the force of common religious belief in the face of untrammelled Hindu aggression, is difficult to reconcile with the fact that tens of millions of Muslims continue to live in India, and that millions more chose to separate from Pakistan with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Pakistan’s ongoing struggles with ethno-nationalist movements and sectarian violence also illustrate the hollowness of the claim that being ‘Muslim’ is sufficient to bind the people of the country together.

In Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea, the argument Faisal Devji presents about the creation of Pakistan provides a framework within which the contradictions listed above can potentially be resolved. For Devji, Pakistan represents an example of Zionism, which he interprets as being a political form in which national identity is defined primarily by religion. In this respect, so the argument goes, Pakistan bears a close resemblance to Israel; both nations were created amidst the decline of the British Empire, they ostensibly represented homelands for minorities fleeing real and perceived persecution, and they came into being with the transfer of large populations into territories that had previously not been inhabited by them.

Viewed through this lens, nationalism in Israel and Pakistan was not rooted in claims about specific territorial boundaries or even ethnic and linguistic groupings; instead, it decoupled the idea of the nation from its traditional markers, basing itself instead on the existence of a religious community, bound together by common beliefs that transcended questions of territory, language and ethnicity. All Jews were, and are, welcome to settle in Israel regardless of their previous territorial affiliations and, in 1947, the same was true of Pakistan with respect to the subcontinent’s Muslim population. If, as Benedict Anderson argues, all nations are essentially “imagined communities” in which identity and solidarity are constructed by the propagation of shared cultural values through a common linguistic medium within a defined territory, the Israeli and Pakistani nations were imagined primarily as religious communities superimposed onto relatively arbitrary physical spaces.

Comparing Pakistan with Israel in this fashion is not new. Indeed, as Devji himself mentions near the start of the book, no less a personage than General Ziaul Haq noted the similarities between the two countries in 1981. Probing beneath the surface, however, it might reasonably be argued that there are important differences in form and process that distinguish the creation of Israel from that of Pakistan, with the most notable of these being that the territory of Israel has a deep spiritual and historical significance for many Zionists that belies Devji’s emphasis on the non-territorial nature of Zionist nationalism.

Nonetheless, Muslim Zion is primarily a book about Pakistan, rather than Israel, and the conceptual framing Devji employs to compare the countries provides for a rich and nuanced exploration of the different factors and debates that went into the conceptualisation of Pakistan. Following from this, Muslim Zion is also not a history book in the classical sense of the term; while Devji does speak at length about the past, and has little to say about contemporary Pakistan, the book reads more like an intellectual history, exploring the genesis of an idea rather than actual events and broader political, economic, and social developments.

As the history of an idea, Muslim Zion makes an important contribution to our understanding of the creation of Pakistan, devoting most of its pages to examining the political beliefs and principles of a range of South Asian Muslim leaders including Syed Ahmad Khan, the Aga Khan, Allama Iqbal and, most notably, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. For Devji, the central question that preoccupied these men, and others like them, was the status and position Muslims would have as a minority community within India, both under the British and in any post- colonial dispensation.

Here, particularly when discussing the Muslim League and Jinnah, Devji convincingly argues that the problem increasingly came to be defined in terms of representation and constitutionalism, with the definition of Muslims as a ‘nation’ becoming a means through which to resolve this dilemma. Believing that minority status ultimately led to an existence, even under democracy, that was entirely dependent on constitutional safeguards and the goodwill of the majority, Jinnah argued that viewing the Muslims of India as a nation provided the justification for offering them political parity with the Hindus of the subcontinent.

In this formulation, numbers and territory were irrelevant; if it could be established, in principle, that Muslims had a distinct national identity that entitled them to the same rights as other nations, then the precise mechanisms through which those rights could be realised were of little importance as long as they were guaranteed. For Devji, it is this that explains the often ambivalent and vague view the Muslim League had of Pakistan’s eventual territorial boundaries, with administrative concerns driving exercises in cartography rather than any deeper attachment to specific pieces of land. This also explains why, as late as 1946, the Muslim League was willing to accept a united India with a loose federal structure; as long as the principle of parity was maintained within India, guaranteeing the rights of the country’s Muslims, there was no need for a separate Pakistan.

Interestingly enough, Devji also suggests that the model of identity politics that emerged out of the struggle for Muslim representation also influenced Gandhi and Ambedkar, providing them with an idiom with which to champion the cause of dalits in India. The partition of India also had the effect of elevating the concerns of non-Muslim minorities and lower castes in India, essentially echoing Jinnah’s own view that creating a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent, who were otherwise too numerous to be a minority in India, would potentially solve the problem of communal discord, leaving India free to develop its own national identity and democratic politics in a more inclusionary way.

At this point, it becomes possible to draw another comparison between Pakistan and Israel, namely the use of religious idiom to inform a purely secular political project. As Devji argues throughout Muslim Zion, Jinnah and other elements of the Muslim leadership were drawn from the elite, leading lives that were fundamentally disconnected from the people they ostensibly represented. For Jinnah in particular, shaped as he was by his understanding of European political history and British constitutionalism and democratic practice, ‘Muslim’ was simply a means through which to define a community that required representation.

As such, the state of Pakistan was never meant to be a theocracy or a public arbiter of morality, and was instead simply conceptualised as a means through which to guarantee and provide political rights. Indeed, as Devji points out through his analysis of Jinnah’s written work and public statements, the Quaid was often contemptuous of India’s Muslim population, echoing a colonial discourse that characterised them as backward. In this context, the national project also potentially served to provide the means through which to provide for the uplift of the community, creating a new social contract between state and citizen that would lead to greater economic and political maturity. For Jinnah, Pakistan was more about the attainment of an abstract principle than an attempt to safeguard Islam as it existed in India.

According to Devji, the fear that Muslims would constitute a persecuted minority in India stemmed at least in part from the emergence in the 19th century of a broader Indian nationalist narrative epitomised by the Congress Party. The creation of any national identity necessarily involves the designation of who can or cannot be part of the nation, and just as the Jews in Europe found themselves being marginalised by the totalising tendencies of the nationalisms that gave rise to modern European nation states, Devji argues that thinkers like Iqbal feared a similar fate awaited the subcontinent’s Muslims in an undivided India.

Using the European Jewish diaspora as an inspiration, Iqbal and others argued for the possibility of defining a Muslim nationalism that rested not just on the practice of a common rituals, but also on beliefs and a global history that extended beyond the subcontinent itself. To a lesser extent, the British Empire, as well as Communism, served a similar purpose, illustrating how ideas could forge identities that were not bound by borders. If Jinnah’s concerns about representation and constitutionality represented the political concerns that helped to shape the idea of Pakistan, Iqbal’s work provided the template for the creation of an actual Muslim identity.

It is here, however, that the central contradiction of Pakistan’s Zionism becomes clear. Premised on recognising the rights of a minority community, and emphasising the existence of an imagined Muslim nation, Pakistan had to contend with the fact that, within its own territorial boundaries, such claims could also be made by other social groupings. In defining ‘Muslim’ as an identity within India, it was necessary not only to reject broader civic conceptions of Indian nationalism, but also to negate the existence of difference within the Muslim community. Questions of caste, clan, ethnicity, and class had to be subsumed within the broader Muslim nationalist narrative, as did the historical links that joined the people of Pakistan to the territories they lived in and migrated to. This was epitomised by the selection of Urdu as a national language, a choice that re-emphasised the de-territorialised and ahistorical link between the new Muslim nationalism and the people who adhered to it. Forging Muslim solidarity meant negating alternative forms of identity, and also implied adherence to a specific vision of what it meant to be Muslim, a tension that Devji captures through an examination of Iqbal’s view of Ahmadis as being a divisive force within the fabric of the broader ‘Muslim’ polity.

Devji begins and ends Muslim Zion with reference to Hegel, emphasising the need to understand the role ideas can play in shaping history. As such, it is perhaps fitting that Devji’s Hegelian approach focuses on how Pakistan emerged as a result of the negation of the concept of Indian nationalism, and then turns to how Pakistan’s post-colonial travails with questions of identity represented a negation of the negation. In attempting to escape the shackles imposed by a demographic Hindu majority in India, Jinnah and his successors, perhaps inadvertently, created a situation in which the same constraints would be imposed on ethnic and religious minorities in Pakistan.

Muslim Zion is a compelling read, written with great erudition and full of complex ideas presented in an eminently readable and accessible form. To the extent that there are some problems with the book, these are mostly sins of omission. For one, the history of Israel and the Zionist movement is dealt with in a cursory fashion that does not really do the comparison with Pakistan justice, even if the central idea about Zionism as a political form remains valid.

Secondly, given the comprehensive way in which Devji lays out the contradictions at the heart of the idea of Pakistan, it would have been interesting to see his insights applied to more contemporary developments in the subcontinent, particularly with regards to the spread of religious orthodoxy and violence in Pakistan, and the rise of Hindu nationalism in India.

Thirdly, while Devji does spend some time examining the elite character of British India’s Muslim leadership, particularly with regards to the role played by the rich capitalists and merchants, he does not really pay sufficient attention to the other groups and interests that were at work in this period in history. Even though the book explicitly seeks to examine history through the development and movement of ideas, rather than the banal reconstruction of events and processes, it is important to note that there were multiple competing ideas of what Pakistan meant. Anushay Malik has, for example, examined the competing nationalist narratives that informed Leftist politics in the areas that would become Pakistan, while Neilesh Bose has examined how Bengali Muslim politics in the late colonial period was informed by its own literary and intellectual context, rather than the current of the North Indian nationalist movements. While Devji is sensitive to the differentiated nature of Muslim thought and politics in this period, the book devotes relatively less space to exploring these alternative visions of Pakistan.

After going though Muslim Zion, it is difficult not to agree with Faisal Devji when he argues that Pakistan is a nation without history, rejecting its past through the pursuit of a universalistic, de-territorialised Muslim identity as a means through which to construct its future. That the country has failed to do this, despite the often heavy-handed attempts of the state, illustrates the tensions and contradictions at the heart of such an enterprise. Muslim Zion is strongly recommended for those who wish to develop a more nuanced understanding of Pakistan’s existential angst.

The reviewer is Assistant Professor of Political Science at LUMS

Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea


By Faisal Devji

Harvard University Press, US

ISBN 978-0-674-07267-1



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