Pakistan: Origins, Identity and Future
By Pervez Hoodbhoy
Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy does not mince his words. As a writer — and as a speaker — he is blunt, but never monological. In fact, he seems to relish triggering debates. He also relishes any opportunity that comes his way to become part of debates, even those in which his points of view are being castigated. He’s always willing to throw down the gauntlet and plunge in.
Apart from being a social and political commentator, Hoodbhoy is also an established scientist. So, no matter how animated his writings or talks on history, politics and society are, he builds them like a scientist would construct a hypothesis. He then explores it with sound and informed arguments. He is an unabashed rationalist in a decaying, postmodernist milieu in which irrationalism continues to be romanticised as a virtue.
Pakistan: Origins, Identity and Future is only his third book. Nevertheless, it is just as refreshing as his ground-breaking debut, 1991’s Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality. That book was an astonishing study of how, in the 1980s, the legacy of rational thought and science in the Islamic world began being assaulted by a new breed of “Islamic scientists” who set out to derive electricity from djinns, measure the speed of heaven and other such absurdities. These ‘scientists’ were funded by rich Arab monarchs and by dictators in the Muslim world. The military regime of our very own Gen Ziaul Haq, too, funded seminars packed with nutjobs masquerading as ‘Islamic scientists’.
However, despite being a public intellectual, Dr Hoodbhoy remains a puzzle of sorts to many. Pakistani ‘leftists’ don’t quite know what to make of him, but then, Pakistani leftists don’t quite know what to make of themselves, let alone Hoodbhoy. The religious right detests him for being a vocal advocate of secularism, but it applauds his rather irreverent views on Pakistan’s ‘liberal’ founders. And the ‘moderates’ are often left bemused by this irreverence, even though they quite agree with his observations on Islamism and Islamists.
Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy’s new book is a blunt, bold, yet well-informed and well-intentioned study of the outcomes of Pakistan’s political, social and religious evolution
His latest book is a study of the outcomes of Pakistan’s political, social and religious evolution. It is typical Hoodbhoy: blunt, irreverent and bold, yet well-informed and well-intentioned. He draws from the works of some excellent historians to posit that, before the colonisation of the Subcontinent by the British, there were no ‘nations’ in undivided India. The nations began to take shape from the late 19th century and were created by the British on the basis of ethnicity and religion. This view is now well-established among most historians and has been challenging the myths that these ‘nations’ still use to rationalise their existence.
But it is Hoodbhoy’s detailed profiles of giants such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Mohammad Ali Jinnah that make for a fascinating read. There are a few surprises in this for those who are convinced that Hoodbhoy despises each one of them. Quite the contrary. He is especially sympathetic towards Sir Syed for being a rationalist, an educationist and a courageous scholar who took on the might of Islamic orthodoxy and the 19th century ulema to create a “rational” and empiricist Islamic theology. Hoodbhoy even comes to Sir Syed’s defence while discussing Syed’s overt pro-British disposition. To Hoodbhoy, Sir Syed was simply being a pragmatist.
However, whereas he is mostly kind to Syed, he tears into the poet-philosopher Iqbal, questioning whether Iqbal can even be referred to as a philosopher. Hoodbhoy calls Iqbal’s poetry “breath-taking”, but he is not all that amused by the meanings behind the content in Iqbal’s poetry and prose. Hoodbhoy sets out to demonstrate that Iqbal’s status of being an intellectual giant is grossly exaggerated. To Hoodbhoy, Iqbal was more of an Islamic ideologue, and a mercurial figure who ended up romanticising irrationalism.
One can question some of Hoodbhoy’s conclusions in this, but there is enough evidence to suggest that the state of Pakistan exhibited Iqbal as a rationalist during the first 20 years of the country. However, he was then transformed into becoming an Islamic ideologue of sorts by the same state. This is exactly what Iqbal has been in textbooks since the 1980s.
Hoodbhoy’s portrayal of Iqbal is bound to raise some eyebrows. But Iqbal needs to be rescued from the confines of the flattery that his work is often put in, even if this means critiquing him as Hoodbhoy has done. The myopic and sometimes entirely pretentious manner in which Iqbal’s ideas are interpreted in Pakistan, actually undermines the complexity found in his prose and poetry.
Hoodbhoy is also known for claiming that Pakistan’s founder, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was contradictory in his views. In his profile of Jinnah in the book, Hoodbhoy goes into great detail to explain why Jinnah sounded contradictory. To Hoodbhoy, Jinnah was steeped in the finest traditions of European liberalism and that — although Jinnah had committed himself to creating a separate Muslim-majority nation-state — he was least bothered by Islamic theology and rituals. This is why Islamist ideologues such as Abul Ala Maududi had continued to attack Jinnah.
According to Hoodbhoy, Jinnah believed that he was creating a modern Muslim-majority state and certainly not a theocracy, nor a “theodemocracy.” Hoodbhoy demonstrates that Jinnah was unaware of the differences of the meanings between the terms “Muslim-majority state”, “Islamic republic” and “Islamic state.” This is an interesting observation. Hoodbhoy reproduces statements by Pakistan’s founder in which he uses all three within a single speech, believing they carried the same meaning. The author then adds that, basically, Jinnah was always speaking of a modern Muslim-majority state.
Pakistan: Origins, Identity and Future has a lot more to engross, such as exploration of the country’s political evolution, the failure of the state’s modernisation projects and the ruin that the same state’s “Islamisation” project has brought. The language is not academic or scholarly as such and the book is written like a long Hoodbhoy column broken into various chapters.
This is good, because this allows the book to become that much assessable to the younger lot who have been constantly bombarded with half-truths and outright lies through textbooks and by propagandists, dictators, ideologues, populists and the electronic media. Pakistan: Origins, Identity and Future is a vital addition to Hoodbhoy’s iconoclastic contributions as a political and social commentator.
The reviewer is a research scholar, an author and a columnist for Dawn.
He tweets at @NadeemFParacha
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 28th, 2023