Pakistan nationalism is the direct outcome of Muslim nationalism, which emerged in India in the 19th century. Its intellectual pioneer was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.
Belonging to a family which had roots in the old Muslim nobility, Sir Syed’s prolific authorship on the Muslim condition in India (during British rule) and his activism in the field of education, helped formulate nationalist ideas in the Muslims of the region.
These ideas went on to impact and influence a plethora of Muslim intellectuals, scholars, politicians, poets, writers and journalists who then helped evolve Syed’s concept of Muslim nationalism into becoming the ideological doctrine and soul of the very idea of Pakistan.
Syed’s influence also rang loudly in the early formation of Pakistan nationalism.
However, his influence in this context began to recede from the mid-1970s when certain drastic internal, as well as external economic events; and a calamitous war with India in 1971, severely polarised the Pakistan society.
With the absence of an established form of democracy, this polarisation began to be expressed through the airing of radical alternatives such as neo-Pan-Islamism.
The Pan-Islamic alternative managed to elicit a popular response from a new generation of urban bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie. Its proliferation was also bankrolled by oil-rich Arab monarchies which had always conceived modernist Muslim nationalism as an opponent.
As a reaction, the Pakistan state changed tact and tried to retain the wavering status quo by rapidly co-opting various aspects of pan-Islamism; even to the extent of sacrificing many of the state’s original nationalist notions.
The gradual erosion of the original nationalist narrative created wide open spaces. These spaces were rapidly occupied, and then dominated by ideas which had been initially rejected by the Pakistani state and nationalist intelligentsia.
Here is from where Sir Syed’s presence begins to evaporate from the pages of textbooks and the nationalist narrative.
Muslim nationalism: A theological beginning
Muslim nationalism in South Asia did not exist till the end of Muslim rule here. The decline of the Mughal Empire, rise of British Colonialism, and the political reassertion of Hindus in India, provided the materials with which Muslim nationalism would first begin to shape itself.
Dr. Mubarak Ali has insightfully noted one very important (but often ignored) factor which helped create a sense of nationhood among sections of Muslims in India: i.e. the manner in which Urdu began to replace Persian as the preferred language of Muslims in India.
As Muslim rule receded, immigrants from Persia and Central Asia stopped travelling and settling in India because now there were little or no opportunities left for them to bag important posts in the courts of Muslim regimes.
The importance and frequency of Persian ebbed, gradually replaced by Urdu – a language which began to form in India from the 14th century CE.
Largely spoken by local Muslims (most of whom were converts); by the early 19th century, Urdu had already begun to make its way into the homes of the Muslim elite as well. This helped the local Muslims to climb their way up the social ladder and begin to fill posts and positions which were once the exclusive domain of Persian and Central Asian immigrants.
This initiated the early formation of a new Muslim grouping, mostly made-up of local Muslims who were now enjoying social mobility.
But all this was happening when the Muslim empire was rapidly receding and the British were enhancing their presence in India. This also facilitated the process which saw the Hindus reasserting themselves socially and politically after remaining subdued for hundreds of years.
With no powerful and overwhelming Muslim monarch or elite now shielding the interests of the Muslims in the region, the emerging community of local Muslims became fearful of the fact that its newly-found enhanced status might be swept aside by the expansion of British rule and Hindu reassertion.
Though many local Muslims had managed to make their way up the social ladder, the ladder now led to a place which did not have a powerful Muslim ruler. Thus, the new community was politically weak. It felt vulnerable and many of its members began accusing the later-day Mughals of squandering an empire due to their decadence.
Even some famous Muslim rulers of yore were criticised for putting too much faith in pragmatic politics and in inclusive policies, and not doing enough to use their powers to prompt wide-scale conversions.
During the heights of Muslim rule in India, the ulema had only been allowed to play a nominal role in the workings of the state. But as this rule receded, the ulema took it upon themselves to air the ambitions and fears of the new Muslim community.
The ulema insisted on explaining the decline of the Mughal Empire as a symptom of the deterioration of ‘true Islam’ in the region — due to the inclusive policies of the Mughals which strengthen the Hindus and extended patronage to Sufi saints and orders, and which, in turn, encouraged ‘alien ideas’ to seep into the beliefs and rituals of the region’s Muslims.
Such a disposition saw a number of ulema and clerics from the emerging Muslim community become drawn towards a radical puritan movement which had mushroomed 2000 miles away in Arabia (present-day Saudi Arabia) in the 18th century.
It was led by one Muhammad Al-Wahhab, a celebrant in the Nejd area of central Arabia who preached the expulsion and rejection of various practices and rituals from Islam which he claimed were distortions and heretical innovations.
A Muslim scholar from the Bengal in India, Haji Shariatullah, who was the son of an impoverished farmer, became smitten by Wahhab’s movement when he travelled to and stayed in Arabia in 1799.
On his return to India, he was extremely dismissive of the conduct of the last remnants of the Mughal Empire and conjectured that the Muslims of India had been declining as a community mainly due to the fact that they were practicing an inaccurate strain of Islam, which was adulterated by rituals borrowed from Hinduism.
Shariatullah was equally harsh on rituals he believed were a concoction of the centuries-old fusion of Sufism and Hinduism in the subcontinent.
Another figure in this regard was Syed Ahmad Barelvi who, though, an ardent follower of Sufism, believed that Sufism in India, too, was in need of reform, and that this could only be achieved by reintroducing the importance of following Sharia laws, something which one did not expect from the historically heterogeneous Sufi orders in India.
Sufism in the region had, in fact, largely opposed religious orthodoxy and was comfortable with the rituals and beliefs which had grown around it, especially among the local Muslims.
Syed Ahmad theorised that the Muslim condition was in decline because the beliefs of the common Muslims of India repulsed the idea of gaining political power through force. He suggested that this could only be achieved through the practice of the Islamic concept of holy war which was missing in the make-up of Islam in the subcontinent.
Syed Ahmad gathered a following from among common Muslims and set up a movement in the present-day Pakistan province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The area at the time was under the rule of the Sikhs who had risen to power at the end of the Aurangzeb regime.
Barelvi had gathered over 1000 followers and most of them belonged to various Pakhtun tribes. He implored them to shun their tribal customs and strive to fight a holy war against the ‘infidels’ (Sikhs and British) in the area and help him set up a state run on Sharia laws.
After offering stiff resistance to the Sikhs, Barelvi managed to establish a strong base in the region. He began to impose laws grounded in his idea of the Sharia. The move backfired when leaders of the tribes accused him of undermining their established tribal customs.
Many of these tribes which had initially helped him fight a guerrilla war against the Sikhs, rose up against him and pushed his movement deep into the rocky hills near Charsaada. In the town of Balakot, Syed Ahmad was surrounded by the Sikh army and killed in 1831.
The idea of ‘purifying’ Islam and Muslims in India (through vigorous preaching and holy war) formulated by men like Shariatullah and Syed Ahmad were expressions of the fears haunting the local Muslims.
These fears were also triggered by the mushrooming of aggressive Hindu reformist movements and also by the arrival of Christian missionaries from Britain.
The missionaries enjoyed a good response from lower-caste Hindus and from some local Muslims as well; and men such as Shariatullah and Syed Ahmad believed that the nature of Muslim beliefs in India (especially among common Muslims) was such, that it could be easily molded by the missionaries and the Hindu reformists.
To them, only a strict adherence to Islamic laws and rituals could save the Muslim community from being completely absorbed by the changing political and social currents and events.
The movements formed by Shariatullah and Syed Ahmad made the mosques and madrassas the cornerstones of the idea of nationhood among the local Muslims.
Indeed, these movements constitute one dimension of the formation of Muslim nationalism in South Asia.
But they collapsed when the British began to assert their authority. The movements elicited a surge of passion among many Indian Muslims, but these passions put the community on a course leading to further alienation and social and political deterioration, especially after the 1857 Sepoys Mutiny against the British.
The mutiny — remembered as a War of Liberation in present-day India and Pakistan — involved an uprising within sections of Hindus and Muslims in the British Army; but most of its civilian leaders were Muslims from the local Muslim community, and remnants of the old Muslim elite.
After the bloody commotion was brought under control, the last vestiges of Mughal rule were eradicated.
According to the British — whose power grew manifold after the failure of the rebellion — it were the Muslims who had played the more active role in the rebellion. Consequently, influential British authors such as Sir William Muir began fostering the myth of the Muslim with a sword in one hand and the Qu’ran in the other.
Two factors influenced the creation of this image: the first was, of course, the nature of the movements led by Shariatullah and Syed Ahmad decades before the Mutiny; and second was the lingering imagery in the West of Muslims authored by European Christian perseveres during the Crusades (1095-1291).
Muslim nationalism: The rational turn
It is interesting to note that in their writings on India before the 1857 upheaval, the British had largely conceived India to be a racial whole.
But things in this respect began to change drastically when the British (after 1857) began to investigate the social, political and cultural dynamics of the religious differences between the Muslims and the Hindus in the region, and then utilised their findings to exert more control over both the communities.
British authors were squarely criticised by Muslim scholars in India for looking at Islamic history from a Christian point of view and presenting the legacy of Islam as something which was destructive and retrogressive.
One of the first Muslim scholars to offer a detailed rebuttal did not come from the ulema circle and neither was he a cleric. He belonged to a family which had roots in the old Muslim nobility and elite. His name was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.
It is with him that the second (and more dominant) dimension of Muslim nationalism emerges in India.
And it is this dimension which evolved into becoming a movement that strived to carve out a separate Muslim-majority country in the subcontinent, and then further evolve to become Pakistani nationalism.
During the 1857 mutiny, Sir Syed had already established himself as a member of the scholarly Muslim gentry who had studied Sufism, mathematics, astronomy, and the works of traditional Islamic scholars.
After the Mutiny was crushed and literature, which cast a critical eye on Muslim history began to emerge, Khan put forward a detailed proposal which he hoped would not only contest the perceptions of Islam being formulated by the British, but also help the region’s Muslim community to reassess their beliefs, character and status according to the changes taking shape around it.
Khan reminded the British that Islam was inherently a progressive and modern religion which had inspired the creation of some of the world’s biggest empires, which in turn had encouraged the study of philosophy and the sciences during a period in which Europe was lurking aimlessly in the ‘Dark Ages.’
Sir Syed also asserted that the scientific and military prowess of the West was originally inspired and informed by the scholarly endeavors of medieval Muslim scientists and philosophers and that the Muslims had been left behind because this aspect of Islam stopped being exercised by them.
Interestingly, this thesis first put forward by the likes of Syed Ahmad Khan in the 19th century, still prevails within large sections of Muslims around the world today.
Sir Syed then turned his attention towards his own community. He was vehemently opposed to the militancy of men like Shariatullah and Syed Ahmad Barelvi, and he was also critical of the 1857 uprising, suggesting that such endeavors did more harm to Islam and the Muslims.
However, he refused to agree with the assessment of the British that it were the Muslims alone who instigated the 1857 mutiny. He wrote that the mutiny had been triggered by reckless British actions based on their ill-informed conceptions about Indian society.
Also read: 1857 — mutiny, betrayal or war of freedom?
According to noted historian, Ayesha Jalal, the concept of both Muslim and Hindu nationalism was largely the result of British social engineering which they began as a project after the 1857 Mutiny.
The project began when the British introduced the whole idea of conducting a census. A lot of emphasis was stressed upon the individual’s faith; and the results of the census were then segmented more on the bases of religion than on economic or social status.
The outcome was the rather abstract formation of communities based on faith, constructed through an overwhelmingly suggestive census, undertaken, not only to comprehend the complex nature of Indian society, but to also devise a structural way to better control it.
Sir Syed was quick to grasp this, and also the fact that the Hindu majority was in a better position to shape itself into a holistic community because of its size and better relations with the British after the 1857 Mutiny.
Sir Syed’s thesis correctly theorised that the Muslims needed to express themselves as a holistic community too, especially one which was positively responsive to the changes the British were implementing in the social, judicial and political spheres of India.
This constituted a break from the early dimensions of Muslim nationalism conjectured by the likes of Shariatullah and Syed Khan who had tried to express the idea of forming a Muslim community in India as a purely religious endeavor. The endeavor was to construct a homogenous Muslim whole in India which followed a standardised pattern of Muslim rituals and beliefs.
Nevertheless, this scheme was largely a failure because within the Muslim communities of the region were stark sectarian, sub-sectarian, class, ethnic and cultural divisions. And as was seen during Syed Ahmad Barelvi’s uprising in KP, once he began to implement his standardised ideas of the Sharia, he faced a fateful rebellion by his erstwhile supporters who accused him of trying to usurp their tribal influence and customs.
Sir Syed was conscious of these divisions and decided to address it by localising the European concept of nationalism.
So when the British began to club together economically, ethnically and culturally diverse groups into abstract Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities, reformers from within these communities leveraged the idea of European nationalism to overcome the contradictions inherent in the whole idea of community-formation by the British.
But this was easier said than done. Nationalism was a modern European idea which required a particular way of understanding history, society and politics for a people to come together as a nation.
This idea was absent in India before the arrival of the British. As Muslim rule began to ebb, men such as Shariatullah and Syed Khan attempted to club the Muslims of India as a community which shared theological commonalities with Muslim communities elsewhere in the world, and especially those present in Arabia.
During the last days of Muslim rule, clerics in Indian mosques had begun to replace the names of Mughal kings in their sermons (khutba) with those of the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, as if to suggest that the interests of the Muslims of India were inherently rooted outside India.
Indeed, the ulema had begun to conceive the Muslims of India as a unified whole, but this whole was not explained as a nation in the modern context, but as part of a larger Muslim ummah.
Sir Syed saw a problem in this approach. He decried that such an approach went against the changing tides of history.
He was perturbed by three main attitudinal negatives which he believed had crept into the psyche of the Muslims and were stemming their intellectual growth, and, consequently, causing their economic and political decline.
They were: decadence; worship of the past; and dogma.
Khan wrote that after reaching the heights of imperial power, Muslims had become decadent and lazy. When this led to them losing political power, they became overtly nostalgic about past glories which, in turn, solidified their inferiority complex (prompted by their current apathetical state in the face of the rise of the West). This caused a hardening of views in them against modernity and change and the emergence of a dogmatic attitude.
To Syed, the Muslims of India stood still, unmoving, and, in fact, refusing to move because they believed a great conspiracy had been hatched against them. He suggested that the Muslims (of India) had lost political power because ‘they had lost their ability to rule.’
He castigated the ulema for forcing the Muslims to reject science (because it was ‘Western’); he warned that such a view towards the sciences will keep Muslims buried under the weight of superstition on the one hand, and dogma on the other.
When the ulema responded by accusing him of creating divisions in a community which they were trying to unite, he wrote that since he was a reformist, his job was not to unite but to jolt members of his community by questioning established (but corrosive) social, intellectual and political norms.
He asked the ulema: The Greeks learned from the Egyptians; the Muslims from the Greeks; the Europeans from the Muslims … so what calamity will befall the Muslims if they learned from the British?
But, of course, he was using an evolutionary model of history to understand how knowledge flows between civilizations; whereas to most of his orthodox critics, history was a set of traditions passed on by one Muslim scholar to another and disseminated among the masses by the ulema and the clerics.
Syed’s initial work was largely analytical and pedagogic. He did not have the kind of platform which his detractors had (i.e. the mosques and madrassas). But this did not seem to worry him. He believed that the changing reality (under the British) will impact the Muslims in such a manner that many of them would eventually come to understand his point of view.
He wanted them to overcome their cultural and theological inertias and embrace what was on offer: Modern education.
There was to be no meeting point between the ulema and him, simply because both where viewing the Muslim condition in India from different lenses.
However, Syed did try to meet them by dissecting their theological critiques of modernity. He wrote that a man’s spiritual and moral life cannot improve without the flourishing of his material life.
Writing in a journal which he launched in 1870, he reminded his critics that not only were Muslims once enthusiastic patrons of science (between the 9th and 13th centuries), but the Qu’ran too, urged its readers to ‘research the universe’ which was one of God’s greatest creations.
Explore: Syed Ahmad Khan’s journalism
To further his argument that Islam was inherently a progressive religion, and, in essence, timeless (in the sense that it was easily adaptable to ever-changing zeitgeists), Khan authored a meticulously researched and detailed commentary on the Qu’ran.
Tafslr Qu’ran was published in 1880 and for its time, was a rather original and even bold interpretation of Islam’s holiest book because it tried to construe the book’s contents in the light of the 19th century.
Khan insisted that decrees passed by ancient ulema were time-bound and could not be imposed in a much-changed scenario of what was taking place here and now. He wrote that the Muslims were in need of a ‘new theology of Islam’ which was rational and rejected all doctrinal notions that were in disagreement with common sense, reason and with the essence of the Qu’ran.
He wrote that the ‘codes of belief’ and spirituality were the main concerns of religion and that cultural habits (pertaining to eating, dressing, etc.) are mundane matters for which Islam provides only moral guidance because they change with time and place.
He believed that if faith is not practiced through reason and wisdom, it can never be followed with any real conviction.
He wrote that ancient scholars of Islam were not infallible. He insisted that the ulema were devising their world view and that of Islam by uncritically borrowing from the thoughts of ancient ulema.
This, to him, had made them dogmatic in their thinking and hostile towards even the most positive aspects of the changes taking shape around them.
Another modernist tendency which had been introduced among the Muslims of India in the 19th century was pan-Islamism. One of its earliest advocates was Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani — a bright young Afghan ideologist who arrived in India in 1855.
Afghani passionately supported the 1857 Mutiny and was exasperated when it failed. Unlike the orthodox ulema, Afghani did not see any good in turning inwards and radically rejecting the modernity associated with British rule.
He acknowledged the supremacy of ‘Western education’ but emphasised that Muslims should embrace it to improve their lot and then turn the tables against Western imperialism by overthrowing it and establishing a global Islamic caliphate.
Unlike the Muslim modernism pioneered by the likes of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Afghani, and, subsequently, pan-Islamism, viewed Western modernity (especially in the field of education), as an elixir to regenerate the Muslims — not as a way to help them excel and find a place within colonial settings, but to fully understand and then eradicate colonialism.
Sir Syed’s Muslim modernism, however, was largely interested in the intellectual, social and political fate of the Muslim community of India. So he thought that Afghani’s idea of radically confronting the British would produce the same demoralising results (for the Muslims) as did the failure of the 1857 Mutiny.
Afghani censured Sir Syed for harming the global Muslim cause by speaking only about India’s Muslims, as if they were separate from the Muslim communities elsewhere.
Afghani was vocal in his denunciations of the orthodox ulema who were rejecting modern education; however, quite like the ulema, Afghani too, saw the Muslims as a global community (ummah).
Pan-Islamism was thus inherently anti-nationalist.
Unlike later-day pan-Islamists, Afghani was rather progressive and modernistic in his thinking. More than seeing Islam as a theistic route to a political revolution, he, instead, saw it as a slogan to rally Muslims around the world against European imperialism.
The pan-Islamist thought which he pioneered valued the importance of reforming the Muslim mindset through modern intellectual means, and then using the reformed as a weapons against the political supremacy of Western colonialism. But in the next century, only the edifice of what he first conceived would remain in the evolving realms of pan-Islamism.
For example, 20th century pan-Islamist notions were not so much inspired by Afghani, as much as they were by how the Islamic orthodoxy began to perceive pan-Islamism i.e. as an ideology which attempts to erect a global caliphate, not through a faith strengthened by progressive reform, but by a largely mythical understanding of the faith’s bygone militaristic and moralistic splendour.
Also read: The untold story of Pakistan’s blasphemy law
Most probably Sir Syed opposed the idea of pan-Islamism because he understood that it was bound to evolve in this manner?
In 1879 one of Sir Syed’s staunchest supporters, the poet and intellectual, Altaf Hussain Hali, wrote a long poem which passionately forwarded Syed’s ideas of reform and modernity. But the most protuberant aspect of the poem was when Hali declared the Muslims of India as a separate cultural entity, distinct from other communities in India, especially compared to the Hindu majority.
But Hali explained that this distinction was not based on any hostility towards the non Muslims of the region; but on the notion (which Hali believed was a fact) that the Muslims of India were descendants of foreigners who came and settled here during Muslim rule.
By the late 19th century, many local Muslims had begun to claim foreign ancestry (Persian, Central Asian and Arabian) mainly because with the erosion of Muslim rule in India, Muslim empires still existed elsewhere in the Middle East. The claim of having foreign ancestry was also a way to express the separateness of India’s Muslims.
Another aspect in this context was the rise of the Urdu language among the Muslims. Though having (and claiming to have) Persian, Central Asian and Arabic ancestry was a proud attribute to flaunt; Urdu, which had been the language of ‘lower Muslims’ of (North) India, ascended and began to rapidly develop into a complex literary language.
The British didn’t have a problem with this. Because since Persian had been the language of the court during Muslim rule, its rollback symbolised the retreat of the memory and influence of Muslim rule in India.
In 1837, the British replaced Persian with Urdu (in the northern regions of India) as one of the officially recognised vernacular languages of India. But in the 1860s, Urdu became a symbol of Muslim separatism not through the efforts of the Muslims, but, ironically, due to the way some Hindus reacted to Urdu becoming an official language.
The resultant controversy triggered by Hindu reservations helped establish Urdu as an additional factor which separated the Muslims from the Hindus.
Syed Ahmad Khan had managed to attract the support and admiration of a growing number of young intellectuals, journalists, authors and poets. But he was the target of some vicious polemical attacks as well.
The conservative ulema were extremely harsh in their criticism and one of them even went on to accuse him of being an apostate. They blamed him for trying to tear the Muslims away from the unchangeable tenants of their religion, and for promoting ‘Angraziat’ (Western ethics and customs) among the believers.
Syed also received criticism from the supporters of Afghani’s pan-Islamism. Afghani himself admonished Khan for not only undermining the idea of global Muslim unity (by alluding to Muslim nationalism in the context of India’s Muslims only); but he also censured him for creating divisions between India’s Muslims and Hindus.
Afghani was of the view that Hindu-Muslim unity was vital in India to challenge British rule in the region.
Despite the attacks — which mostly came his way through statements, editorials and articles in the plethora of Urdu newspapers which began to come up after the proliferation of the printing press in India – it were his ideas which managed to dominate the most prominent dimensions of Muslim nationalism in India.
According to Ayesha Jalal, Sir Syed’s strategic and pragmatic alignment with the British helped his ideas to make vital in-roads in a more organised and freer manner.
His religious detractors remained stationed in their mosques and madrassahs. And though their criticism of his ideas was intense, it mostly appeared in rhetorical articles in newspapers.
Consequently, most of his religious opponents could not find a place in the school that he set up in Aligarh.
This school evolved into becoming a college and then an institution which began to produce a particular Muslim elite and urban bourgeoisie who would go on to dominate Muslim nationalist thought in India and decide what course it would take.
• Mubarak Ali: Pakistan in Search of Identity (Aakar Books, 2011)
• Not a camp language: Urdu’s origins (DAWN, July 5, 2015)
• Hans Dua: Pluricentric Languages (Walter de Gruyter, 1992)
• Tariq Rehman: From Hindi to Urdu (Oxford University Press, 2013)
• Simon Ross Valentine: Force and Fanaticism (Oxford University Press, 2014)
• Razia Aktar Banu: Islam in Bangladesh (BRILL, 1992)
• Entry on Shariatullah by Moinuddin Ahmad in National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh (2012)
• Edward Mortimer: Faith and Power (Random House, 1982)
• Qeyamuddin Ahmad: The Wahhabi Movement in India (South Asia Books, 1994) p.50
• Thomas R. Metcalf: The Aftermath of Revolt (Princeton, 1965)
• H. Hardy: Muslims of British India (Cambridge University Press)
• Edward Said: Orientalism (Penguin Books, 2006)
• Wilferd Smith: Modern Islam in India (1943)
• Sir Syed Ahmad Khan: Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (First published in 1859)
• Ayesha Jalal: Self and Sovereignty (Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2001)
• Tahir Abbas: Islamic Radicalism and Multicultural Politics (Taylor & Francis, 2011)
An earlier version of this article erroneously stated the word 'census' as 'consensus' and Tahzib-al-Akhlaq was mentioned as a 'literary' journal. The errors are regretted.
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