Smokers’ Corner: Cherry-picking Iqbal, splitting Jinnah: the Pakistani nationalist conundrum

This was one of the most daunting questions facing the founders of Pakistan: how was Muslim nationalism, which had given birth to a separate country, to be transformed into a more focused idea encompassing this country’s identity?

Muslim nationalism in India had become a multi-dimensional entity. The one emerging from the writings of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had explained the Muslims of the region as a separate cultural community which had been shaped by 500-year-old Muslim political supremacy in India. To him this community was to enter the future as an enlightened entity, regenerated through modern education and a rational reinterpretation of its faith.

Khan’s ideas in this context played a leading role in the formation of Muslim modernism in India and which, in turn, inspired the creation of the All India Muslim League (AIML). This modernism was further evolved by the likes of Muhammad Iqbal who tried to fuse it with the currents emerging from the other dimension of Muslim nationalism in the region.

This other dimension was one which understood the Muslims of India as being part of the larger global Muslim community (ummah). According to this version, Muslims (India’s largest minority group) would be able to thrive more as a polity in a united India. That’s why this version opposed the creation of a separate Muslim-majority state. The opponents of such a state warned that such a state would disperse the Muslims of the region.

Iqbal tried to reconcile the modernism of Jinnah’s vision of Muslim nationalism with the pan-Islamism of its more conservative strand. Now Pakistanis have undone his work

The Muslim opponents of this state also had pan-Islamist tendencies. So, rather ironically, the more intransigent and ‘fundamentalist’ components of India’s Muslim nationalism were propagating a united India, whereas this nationalism’s more modernist components were demanding a separate Muslim-majority country.

Iqbal rather creatively attempted to resolve this by trying to reconcile the modernity of one dimension with the radical conservatism of the other.

Iqbal’s merger of the two opposing strands of Muslim nationalism was first worked into a political narrative by the AIML — especially when the party had started to become more populist in tone and action. For example, on the one hand, the party banked heavily on Iqbal’s pleas to ‘modernise faith’, but at the same time drew inspiration from the more traditionalist strands of Iqbal’s reconciliation when it had to attract the votes of the masses in the more rural areas.

During the all-important election of 1946, the AIML in Punjab’s urban areas explained the creation of Pakistan as the formation of a modern Muslim-majority country where the Muslims will be able to rapidly advance culturally, politically and economically and so would the other minorities of India, even those Hindu segments who were being repressed by the dominant castes.

In the rural areas of the same province, however, the League turned towards the pro-League ulema who took the rightward route in Iqbal’s reconciliation and explained Pakistan as an Islamic entity.

The modernist and radical conservative currents in the two versions of Muslim nationalism in India, reconciled by Iqbal to become a merged narrative, had emerged with force during the League’s election campaign in the Punjab. But soon after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, this fusion would not be taken as a whole, but would be split between the modernists and the conservatives with both claiming to be expressing Iqbal’s vision.

In 1946, while talking to British journalist, Doon Campbell, Jinnah stated that Pakistan was not to be a theocracy but a modern, democratic state. At the same time, a slogan, ‘What does Pakistan mean? It means, there is no God but God,’ was ringing in some towns of the Punjab.

According to Tahir Wasti in his 2009 book The Application of Islamic Criminal Law this slogan was coined in 1945 by a minor poet, Malik Ghulam Nabi, in Sialkot. But whereas Jinnah and most of the League’s leadership had admired Iqbal’s attempt to reconcile political and social modernity through reinterpretations of the scriptures, men such as Ghulam Nabi and the pro-League ulema had responded more to that side of Iqbal’s writings that had celebrated Islam as a rallying impulse that needed to be expressed passionately.

Furthermore, even those clerics and ulema who were against the AIML’s idea of creating a separate country but who eventually migrated to this country, began to point at Iqbal when they began to demand the ‘Islamisation’ of Pakistan.

Jinnah was not an ideologue. He was a sharp politician and an articulate lawyer. Though there is now enough evidence to suggest that he was envisioning Pakistan as a modern Muslim-majority country where the culture would be Muslim, but the state was to remain detached from the matters of the faith, he was also conscious of the thin line which separated the idea of a modern Muslim-majority state from that of an emerging theocracy – especially in a region where a Muslim minority had suddenly become a ruling majority.

Writing in the Frontier Post in 1991, author Ahmad Bashir wrote that during a Muslim League convention in Karachi in 1947, a man in the audience suddenly got up and interrupted Jinnah’s address, shouting Ghulam Nabi’s slogan. Jinnah immediately shot back: “Sit down. Neither I, nor my working committee, nor the council of the Muslim League has ever passed such a resolution where I had committed this to the people of Pakistan. You might have done so to catch a few votes.”

Jinnah passed away in 1948, just a year after the birth of Pakistan. He did not leave behind a systematically conceived ideological model of what Pakistan was to be. There were just his speeches and interviews, but which he had delivered and given as a politician and a rather pragmatic one to boot. His political disposition was that of a level-headed and dispassionate parliamentarian and constitutionalist who had begun to appreciate Muslim nationalism as a progressive idea to mobilise and carry the Indian Muslim community into the modern age and towards political sovereignty.

But even though hugely admired by the new country’s citizens and intelligentsia, Jinnah’s speeches did not seem to figure much when the state of Pakistan first began to formulate the whole idea of Pakistani nationalism. Instead, both the modernists as well as the traditionalists cherry-picked their way across Iqbal’s writings. So much so that even when Jinnah did begin to get more space in the whole nationalist debate, he had been turned into an ideologue, split between the modernists and the conservatives. There was no Iqbal any more to reconcile the two.