A saga of anti-heroes

Syed Ahmed Khan and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani: distinct visions for South Asian Muslims from the 19th century

A saga of anti-heroes
What does it mean to be Pakistani? Whose idea was it to demand Pakistan? Was the country carved out on a religious basis? If so, whose understanding of religion? If not for religion, then what was its raison d’etre and what role should religion play in the country? As Pakistan is locked in an existential battle with violent religious extremists and India turns increasingly towards a virulent form of Hindu nationalism - both in a world where anxieties over identity are increasingly taking centre stage - such fundamental questions are more burningly relevant than ever. And Nadeem Farooq Paracha, in his new book The Pakistan Anti-Hero, sets out to grapple with precisely these.

His previous book End of the Past had the feel, at times, of a personal odyssey of sorts. Now, with The Pakistan Anti-Hero, NFP appears to delve confidently into the upheavals, dreams and anxieties of the 19th and 20th century to hammer out a history of Pakistani nationalism: “told through the lives of iconoclasts”, as the book cover promises.
For NFP, two main contenders for the soul of Pakistani nationalism have been competing since at least the mid-19th century

Iconoclasts are, in any case, a fine choice as a lens through which to view the history of Pakistani nationalism. After all, there is something quite iconoclastic about the country as it was created. The very emergence of the Pakistan Movement and Pakistan as a country flew in the face of geographical and ethno-linguistic conceptions of nationhood - in an era when they were predominant. Pakistan was indeed an iconoclastic polity. So how did the demand for it come to be, and which Muslim voices pushed this demand?

For NFP, the two main contenders for the soul of Pakistani nationalism have been competing in their contemporary form - more or less - since at least the mid-19th century. One contending strand appears to have been, broadly speaking, a modernist trend led by the emerging Muslim bourgeoisie backed by the traditional landed elite. The other strand would appear to be more pan-Islamist and revivalist in its focus, dominated by clerics and religious ideologues. NFP examines the development of both strands, and he appears very conscious of the complex interaction between them, as well as the fact that they are both very much rooted in the history and experience of the South Asian Muslim. He is also acutely aware that both strands developed as a response and a form of interaction with the challenge of modernity brought by the British colonial era. As such, both were also highly conscious of the experiences of Muslims in other parts of the Islamic world, from the Ottoman heartland to the Arabian Peninsula.

Publishers: Vanguard Books
Publication Year: 2017
370 pages
ISBN: 9789694026053
Price: $14.24 / Rs1,495.00

Overall, NFP’s treatment of these two strands is both informed and nuanced. Above all, his study does not just claim to be ‘empathetic’. It actually is. And this is most instructive for us all. It shows that it is possible for us all to look beyond our ideological bunkers - crucial though they may be - to engage with the past of the north Indian Muslim with an open mind and a generous heart, especially towards those that one disagrees with. After all, which reader is not familiar with NFP’s political convictions and worldview, unapologetically set forth in his newspaper columns over the years? And yet here he is, listening intently to a host of voices - be it Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Syed Ahmed Khan, Muhammad Iqbal, Daniyal Latifi, Hassan Nasir or Abu’l Ala Maududi and many others - all in a sincere effort to discover who and what shaped Pakistani nationalism as it emerged. He is even willing to hear out Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who led himself and many followers to a ghastly end at the 2007 siege of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque).

We come across, of course, the more well-known figures of this saga. There is Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and his struggle to convince the north Indian Muslims to move beyond empire lost and find for themselves a new place in the constellation of modernity and colonial administration. Further on, there is a whole chapter devoted to understanding the thought of Muhammad Iqbal, and it is aptly labeled “The Muslim Ubermensch” - for a more suitable description of the Iqbalian project would be hard to come by.

It would be interesting to juxtapose NFP’s approach towards Pakistani nationalism with that of another well-known contemporary writer on the subject - veteran lawyer and PPP politician Aitzaz Ahsan. Quite boldly, Ahsan looks for a primordial Pakistan beyond Muslim communalism and traces it back to the Indus Valley civilisation and a perceived distinctness (almost a sort of border) between the Indus basin and the plains of India proper.NFP, though, seems to take a rather different approach. He appears to acknowledge that the idea of Pakistan is based on perceptions that arose among South Asian Muslims in the 19th and 20th centuries. So, rather than seeking purely geographical or primordial roots for Pakistan, NFP appears comfortable with a notional origin of Pakistaniat, rooted very much in modernity and how South Asian Muslims responded to it.

At this point it might be useful also to make a brief reference to the ideas of historian Faisal Devji, who in his 2013 work Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea places the emergence of the Pakistan Movement in a very interesting context. For Devji, the people who founded and shaped Pakistan had a very distinct imagination of the country, rooted in a political geography with both settler-colonial and utopian themes, rather than any natural geography. Such an imagination of the Pakistani polity opens up both promise and peril. The promise lies in the possibility of transcending the narrow limits of ethno-linguistic nationalism and the utopian opportunities that this provides. The peril lies in the consequences of such a utopian project being hijacked by religious ideologues who are freed from any fidelity to natural geography and lived history. NFP would be amongst the first to be aware of this very real peril in Pakistan, belonging to a generation that has seen the process of hijacking, year by year. And so he discusses the work of eminent Pakistani scholar Eqbal Ahmed at some length in The Pakistan Anti-Hero - another figure who was very conscious of the unfortunate trajectory taken by Pakistani state and society.

But ultimately, what emerges from NFP’s analyses and anecdotes is the overarching theme that Pakistani nationalism - and Pakistani identity itself - is very much a work in progress, blown in a thousand different directions by the Pakistani anti-heroes that he writes about. He brings, to a mainstream audience, stories of people that they would otherwise not have known about. There is Ghazi Mehmood of the Ahl-e-Quran movement. There is Dr. Fazal-ur-Rehman Malik - the “Mut’azilite in a suit” from the Ayub Khan era, as NFP describes him. General Rani emerges in all her power and colour. There is a host of cricketers, tennis stars and TV personalities. There are the rebel poetesses such as the great Fehmida Riaz. And there is a delightful discussion around Aziz Mian, who he calls the ‘Nietzschean Qawaal’. The quixotic guerillas of the Al-Zulfiqar group come alive in NFP’s pages (as they did in his columns), in their hastily-conceived and ill-fated declaration of armed struggle against the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. There is even a fascinating fakir from Karachi called Khassu!

The tales of all these people and so many more are woven together by NFP in a way that only he can achieve, peppered with choice anecdotes from his own experiences and those of his many fascinating friends and acquaintances. As the narrative reaches its climax, NFP witnesses Pakistani nationalism ‘transmuting’ from Muslim to ‘Islamic’, to paraphrase his own terms.

True to his leftist roots, NFP is just as comfortable teasing out the finer points of Hamza Alavi and Mao Zedong as he is in regaling the reader with tales of obscure Pakistanis trying to make sense of the uncertainty and flux around themselves.

One imagines his latest work to be a call of sorts: to take up the banner of a confident Muslim modernism and republicanism, and fearlessly champion it in the face of the hybrid of pan-Islamism and obscurantism that become official under General Zia-ul-Haq.

NFP’s latest book would be an indispensable guide for the uninitiated reader, in a country where debates around nationalism are dominated by sheer lunacy. But for the aspiring scholar too, his work would provide a refreshing starting-point, laying the grounds for a systematic study of the patchwork that is modern South Asian Muslim nationalism.

Ziyad Faisal may be reached at ziyadfaisal@gmail.com