On May 5 this year, Prime Minister Imran Khan broke ground for Al-Qadir University of Sufism, Science and Technology in Sohawa. Speaking at the event, PM Khan said that the university will ‘link science and spirituality.’ He added that spirituality was a ‘super science’ requiring research. He said that the university will impart knowledge about Sufism and also modern technology. PM Khan then explained that this linking of spirituality (ruhaaniyat) and science will help the youth understand the whole concept of ‘the state of Madina’ — an idea of a perfect ‘Islamic welfare state’ that is being touted by the current PTI regime. To PM Khan this idea is directly linked to the original ‘ideology of Pakistan.’
This will not be the first such university in Pakistan. The PPP government (2008-2013) established the University of Sufism and Modern Sciences in Bhit Shah town, home to the shrine of the 18th-century Sufi saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. Now a full-fledged campus, its stated vision is to ‘impart modern scientific knowledge and the education of Sufi saints which focuses on tolerance, harmony and brotherhood.’ The idea of this university was born from the concern that, over the decades, some rigid and even violent strands of the Muslim faith had permeated society and its education system. These needed to be neutralised by the study and proliferation of the faith’s more esoteric strands, such as Sufism, coupled with the modern sciences.
Even though such endeavours can be appreciated, I believe PM Khan wasn’t very lucid in his own mind about the core purpose of Al-Qadir University. He said he had been planning to build such a university for over 23 years, yet he sounded rather woolly about what it was that he wanted to achieve. In contrast to this, the university in Bhit Shah is clear about what it wants to achieve i.e. to encourage empirical thinking through the teaching of the modern sciences and ethics and values derived from the works and examples of famous Sufi saints.
PM Imran Khan should avoid projecting his own confusion on to his many impressionable and already confused young followers
However, being a populist, PM Khan ended up muddling his own vision by unnecessarily politicising the whole idea of imparting modern knowledge from the platform of Sufism. First of all, one just can’t see how Sufism is in any way linked to his spiel about the ‘state of Madina’ or the so-called ‘ideology of Pakistan.’ The ‘state of Madina’ slogan — and it is nothing more than that — is derived from the musings of some particular segments of India’s Muslim community who supported the Pakistan Movement. But these segments were not present in the leadership circles of Mr Jinnah’s All India Muslim League (AIML) and nor were they part of the region’s Muslim working and peasant classes.
Instead, these segments were largely made up of middle-class activists, madressah students and teachers, imams of mosques and certain Muslim journalists and newspapers of northern India. Understanding the idea of Pakistan as a 20th-century reinvention of Islam’s first socio-political set-up in Madina was not on the minds of the country’s founders. As demonstrated by Dr Markus Daechsel in his brilliant study of India’s urban middle class milieu in the first half of the 20th century, rhetorical proclamations about creating an Islamic utopia mostly originated from activist segments among urban middle-class Muslims. But the fact is, these were largely ignored by the AIML’s top leadership and intellectuals.
For example, in the 1930s, two young Islamic scholars, Abdus Sattar and Ibrahim Chishti, published a pamphlet called ‘Scheme.’ The pamphlet put forward the idea of a ‘Khuda Mard’ (or a Muslim Übermensch) who would defeat the forces of all other faiths and create an Islamic utopia. Then there were Urdu newspapers, such as Inqilaab which kept harping on about the importance of creating a Muslim country which would re-enact the seventh century ‘Riyasat-i-Madina.’ These are but just two examples. Daechsel has furnished many more. But none were taken very seriously by the AIML. Instead, AIML’s top cadres were steeped in the ideas and works of thinkers such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Ameer Ali, Chiragh Ali and Allama Iqbal, who had worked to construct a ‘modernist’ strand of Islam which would navigate the faith’s future through science, reason and social and economic modernity.
PM Khan and his party seem to have adopted the Riyasat-i-Madina idea from the works and slogans of the milieu which Daechsel investigated in his book. More so, the conceptual (as opposed to empirical) notion of the ‘state of Madina’ was revitalised by an Indian intellectual and author Venkat Dhulipala in his 2015 tome Creating a New Medina. Interestingly, the book became popular in Pakistan among various conservative outfits opposed to the ‘modernist’ version of Pakistan’s creation. American historian Gail Minault points out that Dhulipala’s book — which tries to justify the theological narrative behind Pakistan’s creation — ‘is not history from above or below but rather the middle.’ It largely ignores the ideas of the AIML’s top tier leadership and those associated with the Muslim masses. Instead, Dhulipala uses the ravings of the mentioned middle-class segments as his main source material. These segments were largely blocked out by AIML.
Riyasat-i-Madina has nothing to do with the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ either. Firstly, as historians such as Ayesha Jalal and Dr Mubarak Ali have demonstrated, the expression ‘ideology of Pakistan’ or the term ‘Pakistan ideology’ did not come into being till the early 1960s — more than a decade after Pakistan’s creation. The founders used no such term. And even from when it was first coined by the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69) till the mid-1970s, this ‘ideology’ was driven by the whole idea of ‘Muslim Modernism’ initiated by Sir Syed and evolved by Iqbal. It became rigid and myopic after 1979 and eventually stagnant — even destructive.
PM Khan should avoid projecting his own confusion in this context on to his many impressionable young followers, who are already confused by the various experiments conducted by the state in the name of ideology. It should also be known that there is not one, but at least three strands of Sufism operating in Pakistan. As Katherine Ewing (in Arguing Sainthood) and Alix Philippon (in State and Nation Building in Pakistan) have shown, there is one version of Sufism which was created by the state and exhibits Sufi saints as tolerant and passionate, but law abiding men. Then there is a version created by the country’s pop culture which is basically an artistic variation of the state’s version. And then there is one held by radical Barelvi leaders who reject the state version of Sufism and bring it in line with their own not very tolerant and law-abiding version.
Let science and faith be independent from each other. They do not need to interact nor clash. A fusion of both in a country like Pakistan will eventually see faith overwhelm science and become increasingly political and dogmatic. This is neither beneficial for faith nor to science.
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 12th, 2019