The Conflicted Self: The Existential Battle Between Being Muslim And Islamic In Pakistan

The Conflicted Self: The Existential Battle Between Being Muslim And Islamic In Pakistan
Early political and social ethos of Muslim rule in South Asia

Over 95 percent of Pakistanis identify themselves as Muslim. They have been an overwhelming majority here since Pakistan’s inception on August 14, 1947. Pakistan was carved out of India as a separate country. Till 1947, India had been under British colonial rule for almost a hundred years. When the British departed, they decided to split India into three parts. Regions with a Muslim majority (but noteworthy Hindu minorities) became Pakistan, and the Hindu-majority areas (with significant Muslim minorities) became the Republic of India.

The Muslim-majority province of East Bengal became a part of Pakistan as well and came to be referred to as East Pakistan. Like the rest of Pakistan, then known as West Pakistan, East Pakistan too had a Muslim majority, but it also had an ethnic Bengali population. West Pakistan, on the other hand, was a more ethnically diverse region. Its most prominent ethnic groups included Punjabis, Sindhis, Pashtuns and Baloch. It also consisted of thousands of Urdu, Punjabi and Guajarati speaking Muslim migrants who had poured in from areas that had become part of post-colonial India. The East Pakistan region was over 2000 km removed from West Pakistan. The vast territory that became the Republic of India lay between the two wings.

Hindus were an almost outright majority in India till the first Muslim incursions into the region in the 8th century CE. But these invasions were restricted to what is today the Sindh province of Pakistan. They were led by the armies of the Arab Umayyad Empire which was also Islam’s first major dynasty after the religion burst out of Arabia in the 7th century CE. The Muslim minority of India grew significantly during the long Muslim rule in the region from the early 13th till the mid-19th centuries. Nevertheless, Hinduism remained the region’s dominant creed in terms of numbers. Other ancient religions of the region, such as Buddhism and Jainism, also continued to exist but the number of their adherents progressively declined. India’s religious diversity was further bolstered by the emergence of Sikhism in the late 15th century and the gradual arrival of Christianity from the 16th century onwards.

Most Muslim rulers who reigned over India did not overtly impose Islamic laws or initiate any large-scale projects to convert India’s Hindus to Islam. Almost all the major Muslim dynasties that governed India during this period had Central Asian, Persian and Turkic ancestries. But they progressively became so ‘Indianised’ in their ways and customs that the Persian migrants (from Iran) employed in the courts of the Mughal Empire in India (1526-1857 CE) used to secretly mock their distant Central Asian and Persian cousins for being fake Persians. Persian remained the royal language of the court. But from the time of the third Mughal king, Akbar, Indian languages such as Hindi and Urdu (which were considered the common man’s languages) were being regularly spoken by nobles and ministers as well. Violence between Hindus and Muslims was rare.

But India was not quite a diverse religious utopia. The Hindus continued to be treated as second-class citizens and there were incidents in which Muslim kings demolished Hindu places of worship. However, the latter was not always an act of faith. It was mostly done to punish the inhabitants of a town or a village who had risen in revolt. Interestingly, even when certain Muslim marauders, such as the 11th century Afghan warrior Mahmud of Ghazni, repeatedly invaded India and destroyed Hindu temples, they mostly did so to rob them of their jewels and gold. More strikingly, Ghazni’s armies included Hindus recruited from India.

But some Muslim rulers did attempt to impose stringent laws and policies in the name of Islam, most prominently the last major Mughal king, Aurungzeb (1658-1707 CE). Many of his religious policies sowed the seeds of future ‘communal violence’ between the Hindus and the Muslims of India. In fact, his actions in this context also dialed up tensions between the Sunni and Shia Muslim sects because he tried to root out, what he believed were, Shia customs that the Mughals (who were Sunni Muslims) had adopted.

Aurangzeb’s rule was long but it was marred by some major revolts by the Sikhs and the Hindu Rajput and Maratha castes; so much so that soon after his death, the once powerful Mughal Empire began to weaken and crumble until it was completely overrun and abolished by the British in 1857 CE. Till Aurangzeb, Muslim rule in India was just that: Muslim. It was never ‘Islamic’ as such. Though largely tilted in favour of the Muslims of India, and employing Islamic scholars (ulema) as religious advisors, this rule’s disposition towards Islam was, in fact, influenced by the more esoteric strands of Islam, such as Sufism, and by sheer pragmatism. Sufi saints were patronised more by Muslim rulers of India, much to the cringing of the ulema who regarded Sufism (the kind that had emerged in India) to be tainted by alien religious influences. Islam in India may have initially arrived on horsebacks and sword-wielding armies, but it were the Sufi saints who were its main instruments and mediums; men who lived among the masses and preached to the people of all faiths in India a strand of Islam that was more populist and vernacular in nature as opposed to the more doctrinal and exclusive strands preferred by the ulema.

Mughal King Akbar paying his respects to Sufi saint Moinuddin Chisti.

There is enough evidence for one to argue that the Muslim rule in India began to dither and erode once its political and social complexion began to transform from being Muslim to ‘Islamic.’ Being Muslim in this context meant being pragmatic, inclusive and keeping the ulema from overtly influencing religious policies. Muslim rule in India was at par with the time’s greatest empires. The Mughals were presiding over a vast land with its massive population of diverse ethnic and religious groups and its rather exasperating cycles of opulence and deprivations. This baffled and fascinated many travellers who arrived here, especially during the Mughal era. The Mughals managed to hold enormous swaths of land populated by millions of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs (of various ethnicities and castes) by keeping the more doctrinal strands of Islam as well as Hinduism and Sikhism confined to their respective places of worship.

On the streets, the rulers only allowed the inclusive strands of the same faiths to cross-breed and take a more universal shape (in the context of India). This is one reason why the Mughals overtly patronised Sufi saints. The saints became these rulers’ face of Islam which they exhibited to India’s Hindus and Muslims alike. The idea of a more inclusive, flexible and populist Islam eschewed the rigid doctrinal biases of all faiths in India and helped the rulers keep religion-based revolts driven by the more stringent strands of these faiths at bay.

The Mughal King Akbar (1556-1605 CE) is a prime example. His attempt to expand the appeal of the Mughal Muslim ethos was more than subtle. In 1582 CE he tried to formulate a syncretic idea of a universal set of beliefs by fusing together ‘the best elements’ from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Christianity. After Akbar’s death, some Islamic scholars began claiming that Akbar had blasphemed by trying to create his own religious cult. This accusation had initially emerged from an Islamic scholar active in Akbar’s court. His name was Ahmad Sirhindi. Sirhindi had been side-lined by Akbar during his (Sirhindi’s) intellectual and theological tussles with the emperor’s grand vizier, Abu Fazal, who had defended and promoted Akbar’s idea of formulating a more inclusive and universal Muslim ethos. Even though to this day some Islamic scholars and historians claim that this was an attempt to create a whole new religion, it was not.

Akbar in discussion with people from different faiths.

After Akbar’s demise, Sirhandi claimed that Akbar had tried to create a new religion called Din-e-Illahi (Religion of God). The truth is, this term only appeared after Akbar’s death. Akbar never called it that. The term was created by Abdul Fazal after Akbar had passed away. As one of Pakistan’s leading historians Dr Mubarak Ali puts it, the act of trying to formulate an all-inclusive Muslim ethos by Akbar was an extension of the king’s policy of co-opting the Hindus into the wider universe of Mughal India, and expand his appeal across the large Hindu population of the country. It was an act of sheer political pragmatism by a Muslim king ruling over a Hindu majority. Akbar never called it Din-e-Illahi, nor explained it as a religion. The confusion about exactly what it constituted was largely proliferated by the faulty translations of Abu Fazal’s writings by the British in the 19th century.  Interestingly, many conservative Pakistani historians and Islamic scholars have often used the so-called Din-e-Ilahi episode as an example of how, if too much ‘liberalism’ and open-mindedness is allowed in religious debates, secularism would overpower Islam. Of course, the term secularism was not even invented in the 16th century.

A number of economic, political and social reasons were behind the rise and eventual fall of Muslim rule in India. But one won’t be exaggerating by suggesting that Aurangzeb’s departure from the policies of the previous Mughals played a role in not only slowly strangulating Muslim rule in India from within, but also in creating religious and sectarian schisms that still haunt the region. His policies of reviving the jaziya (a religious tax imposed on non-Muslims), the removal of hundreds of Hindus from government posts, using various tactics to encourage the conversion of Hindus to Islam, and exhibiting an obvious bias against Shia Muslims, steadily dismantled the carefully constructed edifice of the pragmatic Mughal Muslim ethos. This triggered violent revolts by the Sikhs and the Hindu Marathas, and brought the doctrinal tensions between India’s Sunni and Shia Muslims out in the open. All of this contributed to the gradual disintegration of the Mughal Empire and the Muslim rule in India after Aurangzeb’s death.

South Asia is not a homogenous region. In fact, even today, both India and Pakistan, despite their respective Hindu and Muslim majorities, are segmented by a number of varied ethnic groups, faiths, religious sects, sub-sects and languages. The Muslim rulers of India understood this. There are still numerous theories attempting to answer just why Aurangzeb would so radically depart from the tested policies of the previous Mughals. It seems that Aurangzeb’s active proclivity towards Islam was more of a reaction. In his bid to come to power and replace his ailing father, Shah Jehan, Aurangzeb’s chief opponent in this regard was his elder brother, Dara Shikoh. Dara was deeply impressed by the policies and spiritual disposition of his great-grandfather, Akbar. More of a scholar than a warrior, Dara studied Muslim and Hindu scriptures and was also an ardent follower of Sufi Islam which had been the prominent religious conviction of the Mughals till then. Sufism was also the main folk-religion of the common Muslims of India. Dara had managed to gather support and popularity from the common Muslims and Hindus in and around the seat of power in Delhi. So when he was defeated by Aurangzeb, and then captured, he was immediately executed. A group of clerics and ulema, who had risen in prominence by siding with Aurangzeb, declared Dara to be an apostate. Aurangzeb reversed the policy of keeping the faith of the ulema within the confines of the Mughal courts and the mosques. This stalled the flowering of a more inclusive, fluid and populist strand of Islam in the streets thronged by Hindus and Muslims and various other faiths. Instead he decided to go the other way.

Up until Aurangzeb, the Mughals hardly ever faced any serious revolts that were squarely inspired by opposing religions. There was a Sikh revolt against the fourth Mughal king, Jahangir, but it was less intense compared to the way the Sikhs rose up against Aurangzeb. Both Akbar and Jahangir faced severe criticism from certain ulema, though. But whereas Akbar had quietly side-lined Sirhandi, Jahangir threw him in a prison. Sirhandi had tried to get close to Jahangir after Akbar’s death and applauded him when Jahangir crushed a Sikh uprising. However, he soon had a falling out with Jahangir as well. Jahangir accused Sirhandi of ‘spreading a net of hypocrisy and deceit’.


During much of the Muslim rule in India, the ulema had only been allowed to play a nominal role in the workings of the state. But as Muslim rule receded, the ulema took upon themselves the right to air the ambitions and fears of the community of local Muslims. The ulema insisted on explaining the decline of the Mughal Empire as a symptom of the deterioration of ‘true Islam’ due to the inclusive policies of the Mughals which, according to the ulema, strengthened the Hindus and the Sikhs. They also bemoaned the extended patronage given to Sufi saints. This, they argued, encouraged ‘alien ideas’ to seep into the beliefs and rituals of the region’s Muslims, thus weakening them as a community.

As the British began to spread their tentacles across India, they faced two major uprisings which were inspired by the aforementioned line of thinking. In the early 19th century, Haji Shariatullah and Syed Ahmad Barelvi led separate uprisings that not only aimed at ousting the British East India Company but were equally motivated to curb the emergence of the Sikhs as a political force, and the political resurgence of the Hindus. Both men were also on a mission to replace the prevailing Muslim ethos constructed by the Mughals and the region’s ‘folk Islam’ with a more puritanical strand of the faith. Both the movements were crushed by the British, even though it was the Sikhs who downed Barelvi. But Barelvi had also faced resistance from the Muslim Pashtun tribes in what today is the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. These tribes, which had initially supported Barelvi, accused him of trying to dismantle and undermine ancient Pashtun traditions and customs under the guise of imposing Sharia laws.

The British East India Company had hired a large number of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in its army. In 1857 CE, sections of Hindus and Muslims triggered a vicious rebellion in the Company’s army when the company refused to remove a new consignment of cartages that the soldiers were required to bite off before usage. The Hindus and the Muslims believed that the cartridges were laced with grease made from cow and pig fat. Cows are considered to be a sacred animal by the Hindus, whereas pig meat is forbidden to the Muslims. The mutiny quickly spread and caused the demise of hundreds of Indian and British men, women and children. The uprising was finally, and rather brutally, crushed by the new batches of British soldiers arriving from England. The Company was dissolved and the last remnants of Mughal rule were abolished. India was brought under the direct rule of the powerful British monarchy.

The crisis of Muslim Nationalism in Pakistan

The roots of Muslim and Hindu nationalism in the region largely lie in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion’s failure. By the 1940s there existed three distinct tendencies within Muslim nationalism. The first one was about the creation of a distinct Muslim polity in India empowered by modernity and an enterprising disposition aspiring to free the Muslim minority of India from the ‘economic and political hegemony of the Hindu majority.’ The second tendency wanted to couple an empowered Muslim polity with the Indian nationalism being espoused by the secular, but Hindu-majority, Indian National Congress. The third tendency had a more theocratic outlook; it wanted to construct a Muslim nation directly navigated by Sharia laws. This tendency had two factions. The larger faction wanted to work towards creating such a nation within India. The other faction emerged in 1946 and sided with Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s ‘modernist’ Muslim outfit, the All India Muslim League (AIML), in the hope that the separate Muslim-majority country (Pakistan) which the AIML was working to carve out would become an ‘Islamic state.’

From 1947 till the mid-1970s, this latter faction was sidelined and marginalised in Pakistan by the modernist Muslim project. However, after the acrimonious departure of East Pakistan in 1971, the modernist project began to erode and was gradually replaced by a new ideological project that was close to the idea of Muslim nationalism of the third, more theocratic, tendency. This created an opening for the once marginalised line of thinking to enter the country’s evolving ideological cannon. By the 1980s, it had managed to completely overpower the modernist tendency. But today, the theocratic project too is in crisis. Whereas the modernist tendency was criticised for being burdened by ‘colonial baggage’ and for causing the violent 1971 parting of East Pakistan, the theocratic tendency of Muslim nationalism that replaced it is increasingly being indicted for creating a myopic, isolationist and bigoted polity and state.

Mr. Jinnah with sister Fatima and daughter Dina.

The post-1970s state and society in Pakistan have politically, socially and even constitutionally entrapped themselves to become hapless victims of this tendency’s many devices. This has made the state and the society vulnerable to constantly become hostages of exactly the line of thinking which had initially opposed Jinnah and his party’s ‘modernist’ ideas of Islam and Pakistan. The manner in which extremist violence raged across the country between 2003 and 2014, climaxing with the tragic killing of over 140 children of a school in Peshawar in December 2014, the defeatist slumber that the country’s government, state and society had fallen into was suddenly broken.

The question now being asked is that if the modernist line of thinking was ‘elitist’ and did not resonate with the masses, and that the more theocratic tendency of Muslim/Pakistani nationalism has produced stark religious and sectarian schisms and violence and various incidents of outright bigotry, what was one to become now as a Pakistani in a country moulded as a polity different from the ‘Hindu-majority’ of India? After the tragic terrorist attack on the school in Peshawar in December 2014, the state and government of Pakistan listed down numerous to-do’s to rheostat the spread of religious extremism in society. In January, 2015 this list was made a prominent part of a National Action Plan (NAP). Much was done to militarily neutralise the more belligerent and militant expressions of religious extremism, but the government, the state, lawmakers and reformers have often hit a brick-wall in trying to reverse various non-militant manifestations of the same extreme mind-set.

Many aspects of Pakistan’s modernist project did not make it to the two constitutions that were authored when this project was enjoying direct state patronage. These were the 1956 and 1962 constitutions which only had some watered-down facets of this line of thinking in them, because much of the policies shaped by the modernist tendency of Muslim/Pakistani nationalism were carried forward through non-parliamentary means, either through special judicial rulings or through special ordinances authored by a military regime (Ayub Khan). Once this regime fell, the modernist tendency fell away as well because it was not made a direct part of laws or constitutions authored by a properly elected national assembly.

When the modernist tendency began to recede, a populist socialist government tried to find an equilibrium in the 1973 constitution between the ascending theocratic tendency and this government’s own (more left-leaning and populist) take on modernist Islam. Initially, this constitution looked to be a balanced document searching to draw out a civic-nationalism through a new modernist-theocratic-fusion. But within a year, regressive amendments to the constitution began to be introduced as the polity and the government shifted more to the right due to various internal and external reasons.

The reason why the theocratic tendency of Muslim nationalism lasted longer than the modernist one is because many aspects of the theocratic tendency continued to find their way into the constitution, so much so that, by the late 1980s, the 1973 constitution had almost entirely lost its civic-nationalist dimension. This dimension was subdued by law after law and clause after clause of a state that had become a vague theocracy pretending to be a democracy. And herein lays the problem: indeed, physical barriers (such as armed extremist groups) as stallers of reform are there, but even when most of them are neutralised (as they were between 2014 and 2017) the suggested or even legislated reforms can very easily be challenged in the courts in the light of what is stated in the constitution as it stands today.

Where does Pakistan go from here? The country is in a flux where the state, government, judiciary, intelligentsia and polity are looking at each other for answers. The answers are emerging, but are constantly being challenged in the courts and in the parliament, and sometimes on the streets, by segments whose economic and political fortunes depend on the theocratic tendency of Muslim/Pakistani nationalism. These political and economic fortunes need to be uprooted from the theocratic tendency and planted into a more pragmatic outcome. The state and polity need to become more Muslim than ‘Islamic.’ Because being Muslim can attract a wider consensus among a diverse polity of different sects, sub-sects and ethnic groups, whereas being Islamic not only turns faith into an amoral political tool but also enhance the fissures between various sectarian and sub-sectarian variants.

A fanatical mob attacks a Christian locality.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.