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The Scholar, The Sufi, And The Fanatic

By Nadeem F. Paracha

Dec 31st, 2009


Roughly speaking, the political and social aspects of Islam in Pakistan can be seen as existing in and emerging from three distinct sets and clusters of thought. These clusters represent the three variations of political and social Islam that have evolved in this country: modern, popular and conservative.

The modern aspect of Islamic thought in Pakistan has its roots in the ‘Aligarh Movement’ – a nineteenth century effort launched by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

His analysis convinced him that the Muslims of India had failed to come to grips with the new zeitgeist emerging from the rise of western colonialism – a power driven by breakthroughs in modern scientific thought and economics, and pragmatic politics based on rational and dispassionate self-interest, all of which stemmed from the many doctrines and socio-political upheavals witnessed in the West during the ‘Age of Reason/Enlightenment.’

Ahmed strived to reinterpret the teachings of Islam so they could be brought in harmony with modern science and philosophy, helping the educated Muslims to continue holding on to their religion but through a rational and enlightened view of life.

Though accused of heresy by conservative Islamic scholars, Ahmed managed to lay the foundations of a modern college in Aligarh in an attempt to draw young Muslims away from the traditional madrassahs towards a place of learning where religious studies would be supplemented by the teaching of modern ‘secular subjects.’

The Aligarh College, that later became a university, soon spawned what came to be known as the ‘Aligarh generation’ – groups of young educated Muslims who would go on to lay the initial foundations of the Pakistan Movement and also become the intellectual engines behind the movement’s central ideological thrust.

Though the Aligarh generation was trained in western law, politics and science, it also held dear Ahmad’s notion that the Muslims of India were a separate cultural community; a thought that was molded into the Two Nation Theory by the All India Muslim League. Much has been contemplated about Jinnah’s ideological orientation, but it is rather clear that the new country was founded on an understanding of Islam that was steeped in Ahmed’s modern Islamic tradition.

The Aligarh tradition that was carried into the corridors of the state and governance of Pakistan pointed towards the new country as being a modern Muslim majority republic, as opposed to a theocratic Islamic State. In fact, the Pakistani state and governments between 1947 and 1977 used (in varying degrees) the above rationale to keep at bay the religious parties’ demand for a theocratic state. But it is also true that the modern Aligarh Muslim mindset was largely an urban phenomenon, associated with the urban middle-class elite of the Punjab and Karachi.

The majority of Muslims in what became Pakistan remained ensconced in the region’s popular variations of Islam. The so-called Barelvi Islam that became the mainstay belief of a majority of Muslims in the subcontinent (from the nineteenth century onwards), was, as a movement, the reassuring enshrinement of the traditional hybrid-Sufism that prevailed among the Muslims due to the long periods of interaction between Sufi Islam and Hinduism.

This hybrid-Sufism, or Barlevi Islam, became the folk religion of the rural peasants, the urban proletariat and the semi-urban petty-bourgeoisie of the country. It incorporated the anti-clergy elements of Sufism, the jurisprudence doctrines of the more flexible Sunni Hanafi fiqh and, as had been the traditional practice of popular folk Islam of the region, fused these with the concept of overt religious reverence of divine concepts and people, and the accommodating forms of worship found in various shades of Hinduism.

The result was an Indian/Pakistani Muslim polity repulsed by the dogma of puritanical strains of the religion, open to the idea of modern reinterpretation of Islamic law, permissive in its sociology, and largely non-political in essence. At the same time, Barlevi Islam is criticised for being willingly embroiled in superstition and doctrinal ‘innovations.’

Though being populist and agrarian in its world view, Barlevi Islam did not negatively react to Ahmed’s modern Islamic reform. What’s more, it was the constant failure of the political exponents of puritanical Islamic thought to penetrate the thick veneer of Barlevi Islam surrounding the rural and urban masses of Pakistan that in turn facilitated the moderate Aligarh Muslim thought and tradition within the Pakistani state to continue deflecting theocratic maneuvers in the country’s overall political polity.

As various forms of Ahmed’s  modern and rational Islamic notions continued to dictate the Pakistani state’s (albeit anti-pluralistic) politics, the masses-oriented make-up of Barlevi Islam became the chosen venue of populist politics in Pakistan.

The left-leaning Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) became the first Pakistani political party to set the tone of its manifesto and rhetoric according to the populist imagery of Barlevi Islam, in the process managing to attract the urban working classes and the rural peasantry towards its socialist program. Consequently, not only did the PPP chairman, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, became one of the first major Pakistani political figures to start being seen indulging in rituals associated with Barlevi Islam (such as visiting Sufi shrines), PPP rallies themselves started radiating an aura of the colourful and musical activity found outside many Sufi shrines of the region (such as the dhamal).

The 1970s in Pakistan thus became an era of populist extroversion. With Barlevi Islam adopted as a populist political expression by the ruling PPP. This saw a further hybridisation of Barlevi Islam. This form of expression eventually became the cultural and religious connect between the country’s secular political parties, the working classes and the peasants.

However, as the popular variation of Islam in Pakistan peaked in the 1970s, the modern variation (tied to the Aligarh thought) started to erode. Though the popular variation remained very much the focus of the populist Z A. Bhutto regime, things started to change at state level when after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle, a move was seen afoot in the army towards conservative (and elitist) variations of Islam, especially those advocated by renowned Islamic scholar and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) chief, Abul Ala Maududi.

The JI was an early advocate of what became to be known as Political Islam – a modern political theory that forwards the ‘historical’ and theological arguments for an evolutionary instatement of an Islamic state (or a modern-day caliphate) run on the dictates of the Shariah as an alternative to the capitalist-democratic system and socialism/communism.

Political Islam first emerged as an opponent of secular/socialist Muslim nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s. After Egypt, Syria and Jordan’s defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967, secular Muslim nationalism started to give way to Political Islam.

Since the theological aspects of Political Islam were opposed to the more populist strains of the faith (such as Barlevi Islam), the JI in Pakistan was eventually successful in converting the urban middle-classes to its cause after these classes stopped resonating with the modern reformist variations of Islam in Pakistan. Thus, the urban bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie became the main players against the populist Bhutto regime during the 1976 PNA movement (led by the JI).

But it wasn’t until the arrival of the Ziaul Haq dictatorship and the anti-Soviet ‘Afghan Jihad’ that Political Islam managed to find state approval. Furthermore, as both the US and Saudi Arabia pumped in billions of dollars of aid so that Zia could construct an effective jihad against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, the more aggressive and puritanical strains of Islam (such as the Deobandi and Wahahbi) too began finding official sanction.

Conscious of the hold Barlevi Islam had in Pakistan, the Zia regime also attempted to penetrate and regulate Sindh and Punjab’s shrine culture, trying to align Barlevi thought with the clergy and jihad-heavy strains of conservative Islam that he was advocating.

The results were devastating. The corruption emerging from the large amounts of financial aid and state patronage Political Islam was able to enjoy in Pakistan during the Afghan jihad, steadily clipped away the intellectual aspects of the theory, and by 1989 (at the end of the Afghan war), Political Islam had become an empty shell in the hands of various Pakistani intelligence agencies who then filled this shell up with what would eventually surface as sheer fanaticism in the shape of sectarian organisations and phenomenon like the Taliban.

This fanaticism is now not only the militant mainstay of anti-intellectual and fanatic Islamist organisations, but, as a rude social discourse, it is being attracting a large number of the urban middle-classes as well who now seem completely detached from their early moorings towards the modern variations of Islam, and as well as from the faith’s more populist base.

Political Islam suffered from its overindulgence in an unpopular and puritanical theological feast that came attached with the patronage it got from conservative Muslim monarchies and dictatorships. By the early 1990s, it was as good as dead due to the many failures it faced to transform Muslim countries into living Islamic states.

However, it regenerated itself as a far more brutal, literalist and anti-intellectual fascist battle cry (in the shape of ‘Islamism’), which has not only been able to find support among the most desperate sections of the Pakistani society, but, unfortunately, also in the seemingly intellectually bankrupt edifice of urban middle-class Pakistan.

nadeem_80x80 Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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