Having grown up in the 1980s and having experienced the pains of adolescence in the Zia era, Nadeem Farooq Paracha’s articles and writings strike a chord with this reviewer. He tends to perfectly capture the stifling atmosphere of the time, as well as its divisive politics, social restrictions and senseless violence. As a social commentator and an aficionado of pop culture, Paracha has few rivals. Lately, his pursuits have been more academic and he has taken his cultural and socio-political commentary to the next level, publishing three books in as many years. His latest treatise, Muslim Modernism: The Case for Naya Pakistan, is perhaps the most ambitious.

Though a slim volume, Muslim Modernism covers a time span of over a century and debates some expansive ideas. The central thesis of the book is that Muslim “modernism”, or a progressive view of Islam, coupled with a political philosophy which encouraged Muslims to embrace modern skills and sensibilities, ultimately spawned the Pakistan Movement and played a key role in the creation of the country. Subsequently, as the new nation struggled through the first few years of its existence, institutional rivalries, tensions between secularists and religious political parties and repeated experiences with non-representative governments gave rise to what the author calls a more “myopic” view of Pakistani nationalism.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha’s latest book encapsulates the pivotal events that have shaped present Pakistani society and politics, but it should be read as a broad exposition and not an academic text

Paracha begins by setting the context, in a 20-page section that essentially summarises the key argument. He then proceeds to sketch a history of the origins of Muslim modernism, beginning with the icon of Muslim enlightenment in the late 19th century, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Paracha cites Sir Syed’s writings and activism in education as important elements that laid the foundation of Muslim modernism, which was expanded upon by other scholars such as Syed Ameer Ali and Chiragh Ali. Paracha then goes on to trace how these essentially social endeavours began to translate into political participation.

As the author points out, Sir Syed was expressly opposed to the participation of Muslims in politics and was wary of any attempt to overtly oppose the British Raj. However, his notions of Muslim progressivism and his role — through the establishment of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College (now Aligarh Muslim University) — in the emergence of a new Muslim elite who were adherents of the modernist philosophy, was vital to what eventually became the Pakistan Movement. Paracha also devotes considerable space to the philosophy of Allama Muhammad Iqbal, emphasising the poet’s faith in ijtihad or reasoning and ijma or consensus. For Paracha, Iqbal is a key figure in the Muslim modernist movement, notwithstanding the later use of his writings by politicians on opposite ends of the spectrum.

The central thesis of the book is that a progressive view of Islam, coupled with a political philosophy which encouraged Muslims to embrace modern skills and sensibilities, played a key role in the creation of the country.

Through a series of chapters whose titles trace a lifecycle of Muslim modernism — ‘Birth’, ‘Rise’, ‘Demise’, ‘Rebirth’ and so on — Paracha delineates the ongoing struggle between progressive forces and the religious right amongst Muslims in pre-Partition India, and then in Pakistan. He highlights key events in the timeline, from the well-documented opposition of the Jamaat-i-Islami to the Pakistan Movement in general and Mohammad Ali Jinnah in particular, to the disbelief of progressive forces on the introduction of the Objectives Resolution in 1949, and the complex politics behind the anti-Ahmadi riots in Punjab in 1953 — which brought down a government and also highlighted the role of the army in maintaining public order at all costs.

For Paracha, the apex of Muslim modernism occurred in the pre-1965 phase of the Ayub era, with the self-proclaimed Field Marshal actively deriding the clergy and even banning the Jamaat-i-Islami in 1964 (an action later overturned by the Supreme Court). But soon after the elections of January 1965, the tide began to turn, not least because of the regime’s short-sightedness in mocking the Jamaat’s support for a woman candidate (Fatima Jinnah) in the elections. By the time the elections of 1970 were held and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Islamic socialism and pan-Islamism gained ground, modernism was beginning to be diluted, only to be weakened further by the PPP regime’s appeasement of the religious right in the late 1970s. The long and draconian regime of Gen Ziaul Haq effectively put paid to any attempt to promote modernism as an Islamist philosophy. Although — as per Paracha — Gen Pervez Musharraf made an attempt to revive the idea, it remains a contested issue.

Paracha’s thesis certainly has merit and the book is an excellent encapsulation of the pivotal events in Pakistan’s history that have shaped the present state of polarisation in Pakistani society and politics. It should, however, be read as a broad exposition and not an academic text. One would imagine that historians may have issue with some assertions that are presented as obvious, but on examination, may not be so. For instance, Jinnah’s famous August 11 speech is quoted as an example of his belief in modernism and, to some extent, secularism, but Abul Ala Maududi’s criticism of it as contradictory (why would you campaign for a separate Muslim majority state and force millions to undergo the trauma of Partition only to create a secular state, which united India would have been anyway?) is dismissed without much analysis. Similarly, while Jinnah’s suspicion of the religious right and his personal belief system is presented as an example of his modernist nature, his unwillingness to clearly state his view on the role of religion in the new state is not expounded upon at all.

Most importantly, while Paracha does touch upon the influence of pan-Islamist movements such as Jamaluddin Afghani’s and later Bhutto’s staging of the Islamic Summit, he does not really make an attempt to explain how regional and international politics influenced modernist and conservative movements in Pakistan. The tensions between East and West Pakistan, which played a role in the attempts by the State to impose a singular, exclusionary Islamic identity, are also not explored. Having said that, the book is an enjoyable read and provides a comprehensive overview for those interested in gaining a broad understanding of how Pakistan’s apparent identity crisis came about. For this alone, this book is to be appreciated.

The reviewer is a research and policy analyst

Muslim Modernism: A Case for Naya Pakistan
By Nadeem Farooq Paracha
Vanguard, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9694026077

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 10th, 2019