Articles by Vision21, Iqbal Series
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Pakistan: A Failure of Intellectuals

Azhar Aslam

Every Identity has a history and so does that of Pakistan. It is short but tumultuous, although some say it was born with the conversion or settlement of the first Muslim in India. In truly modern sense though India was only itself born, when British firmly established their rule from Afghanistan to Burma, by 1890s. In the process of doing this however, they sowed the seed of national consciousness in the minds of Indians. British influence moulded Indian nationalism by omissions and commissions. However it inevitably also laid the seed of communalism, as different regions and nationalities in the sub continental melting pot, woke up to the British rule and demanded their rights.

Without going into the details, Muslim consciousness evolved from being Pathans, Mughals, Punjabis, Sheikhs, Bengalis etc ( term quam was used for all these), to a Muslim nation living in Hindustan. The two main definitions that competed for the attention and eventual adoption by Muslims were those of Azad and Deobandis on one hand and Sir Syed and Iqbal on the other. Azad and Deobandis believed that Muslims were not a minority in India and should stop seeing themselves as one. Muslims they argued were rather a part of a universal ummah, so where they lived did not matter much. Iqbal, like Sir Syed took a more practical line and they both wanted to firm up the place of Indian Muslims in the political setup of India while it was still within British Empire and after British had left.

It has been argued, however that even within this line of thinking Sir Syed’s understanding of community and his attention was focused on largely Urdu Speaking Muslims in and around Central and northern India. Muslims of northwest and northeast India were peripheral to his concerns. In contrast Iqbal showed a genuine grasp of geography on politics and proposed geographically defined and limited states in the Northwest and Northeast. However the difference between these two could simply be down to the fact that Iqbal’s ideas were being proposed nearly 50 years after the time of Sir Syed, during which Muslims of India has experienced much. In any event this discussion is lea relevant here. What is important is that eventually it were these evolved ideas of Iqbal, in the line of Aligarh movement which took hold of Muslims imagination and belief and won the ground from Azad and Deobandis. Congress and Hindu’s obstinate and communal attitudes provided much needed help in engraving the ideas espoused by Iqbal, deeper onto Muslims consciousness.

In espousing these ideas, Iqbal had specifically argued that he was not following European ‘nationalism’ ideas (which he opposed because according to him it contained the germs of atheistic materialism which he saw as the greatest danger to humanity); but rather was taking a practical approach in that ‘the survival of Islam in India depended upon its centralization in a specified area’. But it was not only the survival he was concerned about. Being a much wiser and prescient man that he was, Humanity and Universalism were his concern. ‘ if you want to make it ( universalism) an effective ideal and work it out in social life, you must start……….with a society… with a well defined creed and a well defined outline but ever enlarging… such a society.. is Islam’. (Letter to Nicholson). At the same time he distanced himself from Shariah inspired version of community that relied on ulema as well as Sufism. In fact in a letter to Nawab of Bahawalpur in 1938, he described Ulema and their attitudes as a threat to the Muslims of India.

Looking back now at his approach, three quarters of a century later, Iqbal essentially performed an Ijtihaad, in that he defined the limited political shape of Indian Muslims while aspiring for Universal values and ethos. He thereby made Islam’s universal values expressible in a form compatible with the modern idea of state. In other words he applied Islam in a new ‘time and space’. This was essentially without precedence in the Muslim history.

Iqbal believed that Islam constructed nationality out of a purely abstract idea, a common spiritual aspiration. The sense of solidarity among Muslims was due to a certain view of the world and a commitment to sacrifice ones’ life for this ideal. For Iqbal the territorial borders were essentially temporary devices destined over time to wither away by enlarging into a commonwealth of Muslims (first and then of whole world into a global Ummah of Humanity). For Iqbal religion was neither national, nor racial nor personal but purely human. Similar ideas in Christianity has been described a ‘agape’. We have called it Allah’s Paradigm at another place..

Jinnah gave these ideas and ideals practical shape, by appealing to Islamic universalism. He believed ardently in an indivisible Pakistani nationhood that was based on an absolute conviction in intrinsic excellence of the Islamic principles. Jinnah responding to Mountbatten had said: ‘The tolerance and goodwill that the Emperor Akbar showed to all the non-Muslims is not of recent origin. It dates back to thirteen centuries ago when our Prophet not only by words but by deeds treated the Jews and Christians after he had conquered them with the utmost tolerance and regard and respect for their faith and beliefs’. According to Dr Safdar Mehmood, Jinnah mentioned Islam as basis of Pakistan 101 times before partition and 14 times after partition. But the same Jinnah by articulating that religion had nothing to do with the affairs of the state, and that there were no concepts of theocracy in islam, was making it absolutely clear what his understanding of Islam was and was giving a voice to Iqbal’s ideals.


Jinnah and Iqbal clearly both saw an Islam that was free from the bounds of theocracy and tradition, influence of Arabian Islamic Imperialism and thus compatible with modernity and change. According to Iqbal Islam was not a religion in the ancient sense of the word. It is an attitude.. a protest… it is discovery of man’. In the state created in this image, it was indispensable that Islamic codes of public morality based on equality, justice, fair play, tolerance, and pluralism are implemented. Iqbal considered that acceptance of social democracy was a return to the original purity of Islam. Jinnah’s Islamic state stood for religious and cultural pluralism and peaceful coexistence. We have discussed these ideas at length in Quaid’s Islam.

Hence, formation of Pakistan was a joint venture and a shared dream of the political leaders and Muslim intellectuals of pre-partition India, led by Jinnah. This is not to say that there was uniformity or unanimity in every single idea or action. But there was certainly an undeniable singularity of purpose, intent and action, the like of which has been seldom seen in human history.

The idea of Pakistan was also a source of inspiration for Muslims intellectuals all over the world who were attracted to the potential of Muslim led state and Islamic renaissance. At the time of Pakistan’s independence, much of Muslim lands were still under colonial rule. Those who were independent in Arabia and Iran were under direct influence or control of the western powers. Turkey was the only other truly independent Muslim nation, but one who had denied its Muslim character and instead opted for a western based nationalism. Under these circumstances Pakistan was a beacon of hope for those Muslim intellectuals, who saw in its creation, the seed of Islamic renaissance and freedom of Muslims from the clutches of Ulema and Sufis.

This idealism took a severe knock however in the ensuing decade. Taken up by politicians, military dictators, ulema, nationalists and intellectuals of every following generation, Pakistan’ s identity as a Muslim State still continues to be marred by controversies and disagreements on the very basics of this idea. Every generation of leaders has tried and tested their own versions of Muslim state and have failed miserably. The upshot has been a failed state and an entire generation with confused identities.

So why has Pakistan failed to build the dream? We believe this is mainly, because we have lacked the intellectuals with this clear vision to provide underpinnings for materialization of this dream. A few with the vision have displayed the lack of the courage to stand up for it or took a social route for reform instead of political one and in this process have become voices in wilderness. Some such as Fazal ur rehman, suffered from the inaptitude of the politician and rulers who instead of aspiring to protect the ideals, simply took the easy route of succumbing to the political expediencies to protect their short-lived rules. Majority have simply been complicit with the rulers and served their interests.

While Mauduadi setup a political framework, for his flawed vision of an Islamic state, and every conservative traditionalists has political presence in Pakistan, people like Ghulam Pervaiz, Amin Islahi and Fazal Rehman stayed within academic bounds and social parameters with no political voices. In the present day people like Ghamidi, Riffat Hassan, Hoodbhoy etc continue on this course. Pakistan more than being the failure of politicians, military or bureaucracy has been the failure of intellectuals closely followed by judiciary. Had one honourable Justice stood up to the usurpers, history would have been very different.

With formation of Pakistan in 1947 followed by immediate death of Jinnah in 1948, leaders of the newborn state found themselves at a crossroads. The country needed a constitution and that too an Islamic one. It has been argued that this was due to lack of local roots for the political leaders of the league. The needed ‘ Islamic legitimation’. However this argument appears spurious since had anyone at that stage tried to proclaim anything other than Islam, he would have been charged with hypocrisy at the least. Objectives resolution is considered by many as a victory for the Ulemas and Jamaatis. However some Like Mian Iftkihar voted against it as they considered it against the progressive and democratic dimensions of Islam. Even those who supported this were more inclined towards affirmation of Islamic ethos and social concerns rather than interested in particular legal injunctions.

Farzana Shaikh has called this a legacy of 19th century Indo-Muslim apologists. Historical objectivity however forces one to conclude that this was nothing but the real framework of understanding of Islam for League leaders, neither an apologetic attitude (which is frankly unconceivable in the presence of euphoria of victory of independence and creation of new state; rather such euphoria actually leads to firm faith in truth of one’s’ ideas and beliefs), nor a hypocritical accommodation, for which league leaders had little need in the first few years. Farzana Shaikh’s analysis casting aspersions on these individual’s motives is nothing more than a crude attempt from her own perspective rooted in probably her own weak personal identity.

The utopian discourses propagated during Pakistan Movement had to be now given a definite political form. While Islam was still recognized as the most essential coordinate for Pakistani identity, it was discord on the nature of Islam that eventually revealed the extent of disarray among Muslim leadership and intellectuals. From then on began the ambivalent relationship of Islam and state. The future of Pakistan, from then onwards, would see Islam reduced to a mere device in hands of politicians, so-called nationalists, ulema and intellectuals for furthering their personal agendas.


Hence the early years of Pakistan saw the failure of intellectuals in the foremost task at hand; development of a nation around defined Islamic ideals. While Deobandis, jamaatis, Ulemas and Pirs built on the readily available interpretation of Islam which suited their purposes and served their narrow interests, the legacy of Iqbal and Jinnah was not developed and nourished the way it should have been.

The fact that it took us nine years (India three) to formulate a constitution goes to show the level of ambiguity that was faced by the then leaders and intellectuals. This long period of uncertain ideals created an identity gulf that would continue to haunt our generations for years to come. More so, it opened up the arena for the very players that Jinnah had tried so hard to keep away from our state affairs.

So strong was the influence of Islamic rhetoric in the political language that by 1970’s Islam and state, developed a direct liaison under the Islamic socialism of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The only imprint of Islam on laws and functioning of Pakistani state till now had been limited to the commitment of upholding the Shariah and the title “Islamic Republic” (1956 constitution). However, Bhutto changed all this that. His regime engaged Islam and politics soon after the fall of Dhaka by making Islam the central element of all foreign policy, law making decisions and social and economic issues facing the country. But he too neglected the most fundamental of the requirements. Intellectual basis was neither encouraged nor supported.

Yet Islam still remained an open and forward looking faith for the citizens of the state during Bhutto’s era. It was Zia-ul-Haq who brought a backward looking Islam into the social sphere through advocating his ambition of founding complete Nizam-e-Mustafa. Zia’s Islamisation, solely intended for the consolidation of his own personal power, caused turmoil and created lasting fissures in the social, economic, legal and political structures of the country and society with far reaching destructive consequences. The country has since experienced sectarianism and disproportionately increased influence of theocracy. These eleven years of Ziaism finally put an end to Quaid’s Islam and established a state based on imperialistic and antiquated religious ideas of Ulema. Not as much by the force of argument but through the brute force of raw power and crude and unsophisticated tactics.

Paradoxically, however, it was under “Enlightened Moderation” of Musharraf’s military regime that Islam in Pakistan would experience the worst blow. Musharraf’s idea of enlightened moderation should have provided progressive and free thinking intellectuals, the freedom to develop their Islamic ideas in context of Pakistani nationhood and with respect to modern times. However, it did exactly the opposite. Enlightened Moderation degenerated into a political farce. An intellectual orphan, whose sole purpose of existence, like Zia’s Islam, became to consolidate the power for Musharraf, it became an historical irony of the highest order. Two military leaders at either end of the democratic chaos enhanced and extended their rule by exploiting two contrasting interpretations of Islam. The irony is put into even sharper focus if one considers the nature of the armed forces that both military commanders commanded at the time. In Zia’s time it was still by and large a less religiously minded army which stood by his shenanigans. Paradoxically Musharraff commanded, which are generally considered a much more religiously zealous armed forces , who stood by his ‘ enlightened moderation’. This phenomenon in itself deserves to be studied, as the implication is either a highly disciplined force, two decades across the time, in complete obedience of its commander or a force whose loyalty has been bought over by its commander, both in 1980s and 2000s.

Hence, Musharraf’s Islam, a graceless mish mash of western and distorted Islamic ideals, coupled with the space provided to the obscurantist and rigid ideas championed by ulema, delivered a final blow to the ideals Of Iqbal and Jinnah and by default further dented the already misshapen national identity of Pakistan. This further division of nation has provided the vacuous spaces into which terrorists roam freely now. Regrettably, today’s generation of Pakistanis find it difficult to identify hardly with any of the available labels that define Pakistan. As a result, our nation finds itself stumblingly blindly into a much an identity abyss.

So has the dream gone sour forever? Can a nation divided against itself, withstand the pressures of an ever changing world of global politics and religion? Most importantly, are we going to let it be? We have gone against everything Jinnah stood for. Iqbal and Jinnah’s Pakistan, A Muslim State, was modern yet not western. It was Islamic yet not fundamentalist. They envisioned Islam in its true spirit; open to change and ever-evolving. The day we can understand and develop such an Islam we will find our identity too.

We hear about the extremists / extremism taking over Pakistan day and night. The only reason any extremist may take over Pakistan or there may be danger of a disintegration of the dream that Pakistan is, is because, the rest of us sit silently and have let loose the likes of zardaris, sharifs, fazul rehmans, Gilanis etc to run our affairs. Our politicians are witless and vision less. They cannot see beyond their noses (assuming they have any).

There is no intellectual framework that can provide bulwark against the tyranny of both Taliban Islam and failed Westminster style parliamentary system which is not very conducive to democracy in its structure and provides an easy conduit for dictatorship in a country that has powerless masses, broken institutions and is without robust and transparent systems of accountability and governance.


The call of the time is for the Pakistani and Muslim intellectuals to wrest back their ‘virasat of jamhorriyaat’ and stand up for their ideals of Equality, Justice and Liberty; not only for Muslims but for all humans.

This entry was posted in: Articles by Vision21, Iqbal Series


Vision 21 is Pakistan based non-profit, non- party Socio-Political organisation. We work through research and advocacy for developing and improving Human Capital, by focusing on Poverty and Misery Alleviation, Rights Awareness, Human Dignity, Women empowerment and Justice as a right and obligation. We act to promote and actively seek Human well-being and happiness by working side by side with the deprived and have-nots.

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