Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


'Pakistani culture': Who made who?

Updated March 29, 2015


Abul Aala Maududi, Photos provided by the writer
Abul Aala Maududi, Photos provided by the writer

What is ‘Pakistani culture?’ We keep hearing about it but struggle to define it in a manner that is convincing enough for it to bag a nod of agreement from a large body of people in the country.

After 67 years of independence, a culture has indeed developed but only rarely has it been studied and documented. Instead, much of the effort in this context has gone into determining and then advocating what should be (as opposed to what is) Pakistani culture. But there have been some exceptions.

Though even after six decades the country as a whole has yet to agree upon a consensus idea about Pakistani culture — and most Pakistanis have been unable to understand the notion of culture outside of their own ethnic, religious, sectarian and sub-sectarian biases — over the years some truly remarkable intellectual exercises have taken place to study what is (and should) constitute Pakistani culture.

When Pakistan was spun into a reality in 1947 through a nationalist theory that described the Muslims of India as being a separate cultural and political entity in the region, the left and liberal supporters of the country’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, understood his separatist impulse as an attempt to create a Muslim-majority country that would inherently negate the environment of communal strife that had engulfed India.

To the liberals and those on the left, Jinnah had envisioned a separate country as being a haven of communal harmony because it would have a majority that was once a ‘persecuted minority’ in India. This way (theoretically) Pakistan was more likely to eschew and escape the historical and political dynamics that had plunged India into a riotous religious and communal whirlpool.

Various voices have been raised in the ongoing debate over what ‘Pakistani culture’ is

But whereas the liberals and those on the left saw the separatist aspect behind the movement that created Pakistan as a purely political manoeuvre to rescue India’s Muslim minority from the rising tide of communal strife in pre-partition India, those on the right understood it in more theological terms.

They understood the creation of Pakistan as a first step to enact an Islamic State in South Asia that would then be expanded into other regions as a possible caliphate.

For this they saw Jinnah’s move and achievement simply as an evolutionary stepping stone from where the political leadership must fall into the hands of religionists who would kick-start their campaign by first ‘Islamising’ the society from below (through Islamic evangelism) so society could be prepared to willingly accept ‘Islamic laws’ imposed from above (the state).

One of the leading proponents of such a theory was prolific Islamic scholar, Abul Ala Maududi. To him anything ‘Indian/Hindu’ (or for that matter, ‘Western’) that was prevalent in the Pakistani culture and society should be done away with and replaced with laws and acts that were ‘Islamic.’

Of course, with Pakistan boasting of various strands, sects and sub-sects of Islam, Maududi’s definition of ‘Islamic’ was not only at odds with the thinking of the left and the liberals, but he was also vehemently opposed by the country’s Shia, Sunni Barelvi and even by the more puritanical Sunni Deobandi leaderships.

Jinnah’s early death in 1948 had left behind a huge vacuum, leaving his party (the Muslim League) haphazardly responding to Maududi’s theory by trying to fuse it with what the party believed was Jinnah’s original intent.

In the late 1950s, famous Pakistani historian, I. H. Qureshi, published a book called The Pakistani Way of Life.

Though a vivid thinker and fluent writer, Qureshi’s book is nothing more than a somewhat moderate version of what Maududi was already advocating.

But whereas Maududi was speaking more as a theoretical political Islamist, Qureshi attempts to stoop and become a cultural propagandist who (at least in the mentioned book) only manages to offer a rather bare description of ‘Pakistaniat.’

He completely ignores the dynamics of the cultures of the country’s various ethnic, religious, sectarian and sub-sectarian communities that were contributing in the construction of Pakistan’s culture as a whole. Instead he ends up offering a rather absolutist (if not entirely naïve) idea of faith and culture (in Pakistan) emitting from a small upper-middle-class elite that was neither liberal nor entirely conservative. Qureshi was part of such an elite.

Such perceptions (and also those held by men such as Maududi) would begin to be challenged in the 1960s by renowned Urdu poet and journalist, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Photos provided by the writer
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Photos provided by the writer

He began authoring various essays on what (he believed) was Pakistan’s culture. The essays were collected and published by the populist government of Z. A. Bhutto in 1975. The collection was called ‘The Faiz Report’.

The report is a detailed study of the political, economic and cultural origins of the region that became Pakistan and of the historical roots of the people who after 1947 had become Pakistani.

Faiz’s conclusion was that the Pakistani culture was a combination of cultures — driven and energised by the individual cultures of the various Islamic sects and ethnic groups present here. He added that Pakistan’s culture was also being contributed to by elements of Western culture inherited by the country from the region’s colonial past; and by the distinct cultures of various minority groups residing in Pakistan. To him Pakistan’s culture was naturally pluralistic and not monolithic. It was still an on-going process.

A great admirer of Mohammad Iqbal, Faiz also suggested that Islam is universal and cannot be associated with a single nation. He wrote that Pakistan has its own culture that has many aspects, one of which was Islam. ‘We do not have a monopoly on Islam,’ he insists in the report.

This also meant that Jinnah had strived to safeguard a number of varied cultural, economic and political aspects associated with India’s Muslims, one of which was the religion that they follow. To men like Faiz, religion alone was not the sole reason behind Pakistan’s creation.

Whereas the rightists condemned the liberal points of view on Pakistani culture as a mixture of acts ‘aping the West’ and displaying the desire to retain certain unwanted ‘Hindu practices’, the liberals have mocked the rightists for failing to mould an identity that was in tune with the historical trajectories of Pakistan’s various stands of Islam. They accuse the rightists of ‘aping the Arabs’ (especially those from oil-rich monarchies), and for encouraging Pakistanis to behave like ‘fake Arabs’ and even second-class Muslims.

In 1973 another interesting study appeared in this context. It was authored by Dr Hameeduddin, a Pakistani professor of history at the Harvard University.

In a remarkable twist, Hameeduddin’s study, The Quest for Identity, concluded that Pakistan’s cultural identity should be shaped (in the minds of its people and those of the foreigners) by living Sufis who should be trained in the art of cultural diplomacy.

In an interesting paragraph at the end of his study, Hameeduddin wrote: ‘The common people in the West are being swayed by the hypnotic influence of (Indian) spiritualists who flock the land and present India as a country of pacifists who are incapable of any aggressive action and have always been threatened by the Pakistani bullies who were supplied with US arms. Could Pakistan catch up with this influx in the West by sending a stream of Sufi saints?’ He asks.

In Pakistan, Hameeduddin pleaded that the state should hurl the Sufis into the modern orbit of cultural engineering. This to him would truly shape Pakistan’s unique nationalist character in the Muslim world.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 29th, 2015

On a mobile phone? Get the Dawn Mobile App: Apple Store | Google Play