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Updated April 01, 2018


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s first address to Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947 still attracts some rather loud and instant reactions. In it he had explained Pakistan as a multicultural entity where faith would be a personal matter of its citizens, and that the state will have nothing to do with it. It is now also known that some members of Jinnah’s own party, the Muslim League, tried to release a much watered-down version of the speech to the press but the attempt was thwarted by the then editor of Dawn, Altaf Husain. Khaled Ahmed, in his 2001 book Pakistan Behind the Ideological Mask, has covered the incident in some detail, writing that Husain threatened to inform Jinnah of the move if the full text of the speech was not allowed to be published.

The speech perturbed a majority of ulema and leaders of some religious parties. For example, writing in the journal Tafheem-ul-Quran, the prolific Islamic scholar and founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), Abul Ala Maududi, bemoaned that the founders of Pakistan were confused and contradictory when talking about Islam through a secular lens.

It is equally important to note that this wasn’t the first time the ulema had censured Jinnah and his men. Throughout the Pakistan Movement (1940-46) a majority of ulema and various religious outfits had warned that a group of secular and “nominal Muslims” were out to create a Muslim country which would be a demographic and political disaster for India’s significant Muslim minority.

The controversy still persists whether Quaid-i-Azam wanted a secular or Islamic state

Jinnah’s speech made its way into some school textbooks in the 1960s during the “modernist” Ayub Khan regime (1958-69), and parts of it were also published in Pakistan Studies books — a subject that was made compulsory during the Z.A. Bhutto regime (1971-77). The speech, however, completely vanished from textbooks during Gen Zia’s dictatorship (1977-88). It was only recently reintroduced in textbooks in the province of Sindh by the provincial government of the Pakistan Peoples Party.

In the 1980s when the speech disappeared from textbooks and state-owned media, its words were rekindled by those opposed to Gen Zia’s idea of Islam and his regime’s so-called “Islamisation” process. In the next two and a half decades this speech was constantly used as a weapon by the liberals, progressives and some moderates who wanted to reverse the many constitutional amendments and ordinances which, they believe, had turned Jinnah’s idea of a modern and progressive Muslim majority country on its head. They also feared that these laws were pushing the state, government and polity of the country towards becoming a remote and alienating theocracy.

Religious parties and their supporters were quick to respond. They saw Pakistan’s emergence as an Islamic republic which was to evolve into becoming an ‘Islamic state.’ In 1949, a year after Jinnah’s death, when the Constituent Assembly authored a resolution in which it stated that the country’s constitution was to be Islamic, Maududi welcomed the move — even though the resolution did not trigger any major Islamic laws or rules. But many ulema, including Maududi, were not so enthusiastic about the same resolution’s insistence on providing equal citizenship to minority groups. They believed that in an Islamic state the Muslims alone should dominate. They asked, isn’t this why Jinnah created a separate Muslim country?

This question is still asked by those who (rather annoyingly) respond to quotes from Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech. What’s even more interesting is how the same question is also asked by many Indians when told that Jinnah desired a progressive country. The thing is, both responders quickly assume that the debate in this context is about a secular Pakistan and a theocratic one. In fact, this is sometimes also assumed by those who quote this speech. So what is the debate really about, if not this?

This question is not so complex to answer, as such. The central debate in this context in Pakistan has largely been about two competing tendencies of Muslim nationalism in South Asia — one claiming to be modernist and the other theocratic. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan pioneered the whole idea of Muslim Modernism in the 19th century. But right from the time when Muhammad Iqbal further evolved it, to Jinnah who mobilised it into becoming a populist movement for a separate country, Pakistan was to become a project of Muslim Modernism.

In theory, Muslim Modernism called for a rational and contemporary interpretation of Islam’s sacred texts, the adoption of a scientific mindset, and the pragmatic absorption of social modernity, because the modernists believed Islam to be a flexible and an inherently progressive and democratic faith. Since it was the modernists who led the movement for the creation of Pakistan, they desired a country where the Muslim Modernist project could be fully constructed without impediments, such as from ‘hegemonic Hindu majoritarianism.’

That’s why even though two of the country’s main founders, Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan, continued to insist that Pakistan was not to become a theocracy, they often explained their idea of a progressive and liberal country not in secular terms, but through largely Islamic symbolism and lingo. This is the reason why there are also quotes of both leaders speaking about an Islamic republic and even the sharia. But these notions are explained in a modernist manner as being flexible and able to complement modern-day needs (without resorting to a theocratic rule).

Ayub Khan followed the modernist lead to explain Pakistan as a “modern Muslim country” and repeated Liaquat Ali Khan’s 1949 assurance that “there is no room for a priest-ridden society in Islam.” Z.A. Bhutto, in his early years as president and then prime minister, attempted the same with his ‘Islamic socialism.’ Historian and academic Ali Usman Qasmi in his book Muslims Against Muslim League quotes an article from the October 1949 issue of Tafheem-ul-Quran which claims that “the founders (of Pakistan) had planned to form a secular state.” This is exactly how the opponents of Muslim Modernism saw this idea. They derided it as “secular” so it could be discredited.

Thus, it was the theocratic tendency of Muslim nationalism which turned the debate into a secularism versus Islam conflict when, quite clearly, it was (and still is) a tussle between a modernist version of the faith and what the modernists believed was a “retrogressive”, anti-rational and myopic version that was/is attempting to create a totalitarian state. Or, as the 1954 Munir-Kayani report explained, was “an attempt to create an Islamic leviathan.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 1st, 2018