Pakistan and the languages of Islam

Pakistan and the languages of Islam


Farzana Shaikh

date de sortie



Sciences politiques


It is often assumed that the struggle to imagine the state of Pakistan since its creation in 1947 centers on the confrontation between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’, each side seeking a monopoly over the ‘correct’ expression of Islam in Pakistan. Locked in mortal combat, these rival forces are judged to speak on behalf of those who imagined (and still do) Pakistan as a secular Muslim homeland and those who dreamed (and still do) of Pakistan as a model Islamic state. Today they are cast as the ideological heirs, respectively, of Pakistan’s founding ‘father’, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) and the country’s most renowned Islamist leader, Maulana Abu’l Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979), whom some regard as Pakistan’s ‘god-father’.1


Yet, as I have tried to show in my recent work,2 the battle lines between these two sides is in fact more blurred than is generally acknowledged. I would argue there was, and is, much interplay between these apparently conflicting visions – an interplay that accounts very largely for what I would describe as the uncertain imagining of Pakistan. At its heart lies the nebulous and deeply contested association between the state and the many languages of Islam, which have deepened the country’s chronic ideological confusion and led to damaging and dangerous consequences.


Together they have eroded the foundations of a plural society, pre-empted a stable constitutional settlement and blighted efforts to secure good governance. More ominously still, this ideological confusion has driven nuclear-armed Pakistan to pursue foreign policies that, though widely judged to pose a threat to its survival and to the security of the international community, have in fact served to compensate for the country’s poorly developed sense of national self.

This uncertain imagining of Pakistan’s national self is rooted in the country’s history. The ambiguous but ample role afforded to Islam in the creation of the state ensured that the discourses of Islam would not only mould the constitutional complexion of the new state, but also determine the priorities of public policy. The tone was set by such men as the poet and ideologue, Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), who is today widely credited in the corpus of Pakistan’s official historiography as among the first to imagine a separate Indian Muslim homeland – although he himself made no reference to Pakistan nor lived long enough to witness its creation.3 Much is made of Iqbal’s bold decision in 1930 to spell out the desirability of seeking what he called the ‘centralisation’ of Indian Muslims in a ‘specified territory’.4 Yet, it is the case that Iqbal justified his vision not on grounds that Indian Muslims were a nation – he was in fact deeply hostile to the idea of nationalism5 – but because, he claimed, ‘the life of Islam’ depended on it.6 The object of Muslim power in India, he believed, was quite simply the protection of Islam ‘as a cultural force’.7 At the same time, with the kind of rhetorical flourish he had come to make his own, Iqbal also laid bare its political import. In his famous 1930 address to the All India Muslim League – the organization responsible for securing Pakistan – he turned to his Muslim interlocutors with the question: ‘Would you like Islam, as a moral and political ideal, meeting the same fate in the world of Islam as Christianity has already met in Europe? Is it possible to retain Islam as an ethical ideal and to reject it as a polity in favour of national polities in which religious attitude is not permitted to play any part?’8 What Iqbal was suggesting here it would seem is that, in his advocacy of a separate Muslim state on cultural grounds (whether inside or outside of an Indian federation), he reserved the right to call on the power equation of the Prophet Muhammad’s Islamic mission to salvage its future.


But in doing so, Iqbal also set in motion a debate – as yet unresolved – about the precise relationship between a separate Muslim state in India and the defence of Islam. And indeed the Pakistan objective of the Muslim League would come to rest, somewhat controversially, as much on Jinnah’s claim to be the sole spokesman of an Indian Muslim ‘nation’ as his party’s contention that it represented the sole voice of Islam in India. Such exclusivist claims are, of course, by no means uncommon to nationalist movements, which rarely show a tolerance for alternative views of their cause. But when tied to the terms of Islam with their pronounced universalist bias, they posed fundamental questions about Islam’s capacity to survive without national frontiers – questions that lay (and still do) at the heart of the contestation over Pakistan.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the vision of a physically demarcated safe haven for Islam in India exercised a powerful influence on Iqbal. But did this mean that Iqbal was laying the groundwork for an Islamic state of the kind that would come later to be most strongly associated with his famous protégé, Maulana Maududi, founder of Pakistan’s premier Islamist organization, the Jamaat-i-Islami?9


Some would argue that the jury is still out but I believe that Iqbal was, in fact, deeply ambivalent on this question. In his well known presidential address to the Muslim League in 1930 where he made a strong case for Muslim self-determination, Iqbal moved to dispel any ‘fear that the creation of autonomous Muslim states will mean the introduction of a kind of religious rule in such States’.10 By 1937 however he had come to accept that ‘the enforcement and development of the Shariat of Islam’ was inseparable from the demand for ‘a free Muslim state or states’.11 Eventually his creative genius would help marshal both ideas – the secular urge to realise Muslim self-determination and the sacred responsibility to defend Islam – as seamless components of a single demand for a Muslim homeland in India. Iqbal would not of course have acknowledged any tension between these apparently distinct imperatives. For Islam, he famously declared, was utterly non-dualistic: ‘all that is secular is therefore sacred’.12

But it was Mawdudi who lent this claim real political substance and who most explicitly forged a connection between the quest for a Muslim safe haven in India and the goal of an Islamic state. During a decade-long association with Iqbal in the 1930s, Mawdudi worked tirelessly to facilitate the creation of an Islamic enclave in India. However, relations between the two soon soured over Iqbal’s support for Jinnah and over Mawdudi’s increasingly antagonistic stance towards the Muslim League, which he denounced as an ignorant ‘party of pagans’ (jamaat i jahiliya).13 Nevertheless, Iqbal’s ideas left a lasting imprint on Mawdudi’s thinking. Indeed, Mawdudi’s competing vision of Pakistan, which he projected in opposition to Jinnah’s blueprint, was clearly modelled on Iqbal’s vision of a safe haven for Islam in India.

Like his mentor, Mawdudi was ambivalent about nationalism preferring to frame the quest for Muslim self-determination not so much in terms of national aspiration but in the language of power, which he regarded as a necessary condition for the survival of Islam. So while he was not averse to using the idea of the ‘two-nation theory’ – which assumed that Hindus and Muslims were two nations – to underscore the religious difference between the two communities, his vision is probably better read as a ‘binary view of the world as sacred and profane’.14 For much like Iqbal, Mawdudi’s overriding concern was to secure a sacred abode for Muslims (dar ul Islam) that would be distinct from zones divested of Islamic law (dar ul harb) that he associated with the Indian nationalist project. At the same time, Mawdudi was clearly sensitive to the implications of any plan entailing the physical division of the subcontinent for the professed unity of the Muslim community. So while like Iqbal he was careful to explain that his quest for a safe haven ‘means only a Muslim cultural home and not a Muslim state’, he also left open the possibility that a claim for Muslim cultural autonomy could end in a demand for political secession on the grounds that ‘if God wills it, the two may become one’.15

Some of his supporters have claimed that it was precisely Mawdudi’s insight into such Divine injunctions that led him, despite his ambivalence about nationalism and his profound hostility to Jinnah, eventually to support the creation of a separate Muslim state. I would argue however that, like Iqbal, Mawdudi’s objective was never to engage with the rhetoric of Muslim nationhood, much less with the logic of national frontiers. Rather his aim was to establish a state governed by the laws of Islam in a physical space designated as Muslim territory. In other words for Mawdudi, as for Iqbal, the merits of an independent Muslim state had little or nothing to do with affirming the authenticity of a Muslim nation. What made an independent Muslim state imperative was the need to restore to Muslims the privilege of power both believed was a divinely sanctioned prerogative and an indispensable condition for the protection of Islam.


For Muhammad Ali Jinnah, ever the pragmatic politician, these a priori positions were far more difficult to sustain. Initially he had even been reluctant to support Iqbal’s territorial scheme outlined in 1930, fearing it would divide Indian Muslims and fuel civil war.


Jinnah also recognized the problem of accommodating within a separate Muslim state hundreds of thousands of Muslims who might be forced or choose to migrate from Indian provinces where they were in a minority. This may account for the lack of any conclusive evidence to suggest that Jinnah, at this or any other stage, was at all inclined to back the mass migration of Indian Muslims to a putative Muslim ‘homeland’. On the contrary, despite his vow to create a nation-state for the Muslims of India Jinnah ended up advising Muslims (and members of other religious communities) in the weeks following the Partition of India to remain in their respective homelands. Indeed, he strongly favoured the presence of substantial numbers of Muslim and non-Muslim minorities in each of the successor states of India and Pakistan believing they would serve as ‘hostages’ to ensure good behaviour on the part of the majority in the host country.16


However, these uncertainties on the part of Jinnah about the meaning of Pakistan as a designated ‘Muslim homeland’ and its relation to the idea of Pakistan as a national territory were to contribute significantly to Pakistan’s anguished history and deepen doubts about the basis of this religiously defined nation. Yet, the idea of a Muslim homeland clearly exercised (as it still does) a powerful appeal for generations of Pakistanis for whom the nation-state of Pakistan was intended to serve as a modern restatement of the Prophetic migration – complete with the sacrifices and sufferings endured by a beleaguered community that many believe was forced to abandon hearth and home.17

But it was Jinnah’s ambivalence about the relationship between Islam and politics that was to leave the most lasting and damaging legacy on Pakistan. While he was forced to recognise, as he did on the eve of Pakistan’s independence in August 1947, the destructive force of religious rhetoric in justifying his demand for a separate Muslim state,18 and while he was by most accounts a reluctant convert to the idea of a ‘Muslim Pakistan’, Jinnah also did more than most to tighten the bond between religion and nationalism that laid the foundations of the country over which he presided as its first Governor-General. Indeed, at least one respected scholar has gone so far as to claim that ‘it was Jinnah who showed Mawdudi the political potential of religion’ and that it was precisely Jinnah’s successful use of religious symbols in the development of the Pakistan movement that strengthened the idea that Islam was the source of all power and legitimacy – a notion that in time would embolden the advocates of an Islamic state.19 It would appear therefore that Jinnah was no less culpable than the political and military leaders of Pakistan who succeeded him in bowing to the temptation of mobilising the language of Islam to generate power – power which lay for the most part beyond the reach of mass democratic politics and about which Jinnah was also ambivalent.

It is no wonder then that, after Jinnah’s death in 1948 within months of Pakistan’s independence, many of the country’s elites were uncertain about or hostile to his understanding of the role of Islam in defining the country’s constitutional foundations. It took lawmakers almost a decade to reach agreement in 1956 on the country’s first constitution and its laborious ratification still stands as testimony to the fierce controversy over the issue of an Islamic constitution for Pakistan – one that the final document failed to resolve.20 And there were good reasons for this. For what divided opinion at the time was not whether an Islamic constitution was justified for a country that was still home to a significant non-Muslim minority (almost 14% of the total population), but what the terms of such an Islamic constitution would imply.

In other words, notwithstanding the divisions between so-called ‘secularists’ and ‘Islamists’ (and these were unquestionably real at times), the overriding conflict centred not on the case for and against Pakistan as a secular state, but on differences over the terms of ‘Islam’ that would govern the new state. In doing so, all relied on the language of ‘Islam’ – a language fraught with a palpable lack of consensus. For while Jinnah’s worldly successors, plagued by uncertainty over the public role of religion, acknowledged Islam as a fundamental component of the country’s identity, religious parties pressed for Islam to be embodied in an Islamic state – although they too were notoriously vague about what that entailed.


These contestations had historical precedents, whose legacies rumble on in Pakistan. Of these many contestations, two parallel narratives of ‘Islamic universalism’ that occupied earlier generations of South Asian Muslims have resonated in the life of the modern state. The first of these ‘universal’ narratives entailed what might be described as ‘a-one-and-only-one-way’ to Islam – a view favoured by the 18th century Indo-Muslim theologian, Shah Waliullah (1703-1762); the second appealed to the ‘universal’ as testimony of Islam’s universal appreciation of pluralism – a stance most vigorously pursued in the 20th century by the Indian Muslim religious thinker and politician, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958).21


Both narratives have found expression in Pakistan though not always to an equal degree. The first, positioning the ‘universal’ against ‘difference’, is common and quickly found a voice among Muslim revivalists associated with Mawdudi’s Jamaat-i-Islami. The second, placing both ‘universalism’ (that is recognition of our common humanity) and ‘difference’ in the same conceptual space has been much rarer and the source of much uncertainty. It lies at the heart of struggles around the multiple identities (ethnic, sectarian, religious) marking Pakistanis today and which are deemed to await resolution through their incorporation into some version of the ‘universal’ Pakistani.


But the political repercussions of this uncertainty have been immense – not least for the trajectory of a broadly secular discourse in Pakistan. For while the country has remained in the grip of a seemingly endless cycle of military and civilian administrations, each pursing a distinct agenda, all have done so by struggling to articulate a monopoly over the expression of Islam. Again historical antecedents played their part. Jinnah’s claim to be the ‘sole spokesman’ for Muslims, and indeed to be the sole voice of political Islam in India, was challenged by Maulana Mawdudi’s authoritarian reading of a ‘holy community of Islam’. Later General Ayub Khan, who held power from 1958 to 1968, competed with the Jamaat-i-Islami’s version of ‘revivalist’ Jamaat-i-Islami to establish a monopoly for the discourse of ‘modernist’ Islam.22 In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Awami League’s espousal of a broadly syncretistic ‘Bengali Islam’, informed by local Hindu practices, stood in stark opposition to the authority of ‘Pakistani Islam’ shaped by the communal discourse of Hindu-Muslim conflict that was favoured by the military-dominated elite in the country’s western wing.23


This contestation over Islam, and indeed over the putative Islamic identity of the state, deepened with the break-up of Pakistan in 1971. For much of the following decade Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the first democratically elected prime minister of a truncated Pakistan, championed a version of what is sometimes described as ‘folk’ Islam. It relied on the collaboration of an assortment of mainly Sindhi holy men (pirs), to break the hold of so-called ‘scripturalist’ Islam favoured by the Jamaat-i-Islami and vast swathes of the clerical classes (ulama), but also by sections of Pakistan’s modernist elite.24


Later Pakistan’s military ruler General Zia ul Haq, who held power from 1977 to 1988, pushed for a rigorously ‘legalist’ interpretation of Islam, whose strong punitive bias was intended to weaken both ‘popular’, mainly rural, expressions of Islam as well as the ‘modernist’ readings favoured by the country’s governing urban elite.25 In time it would strengthen the hold of an ulama-inspired ‘shariatized’ Islam,26 which by late 1990s was set openly (and violently) not only to challenge Pakistan’s new military ruler, General Parvez Musharraf and his Islam of ‘enlightened moderation’,27 but the very legitimacy of Pakistan as a nation-state.


While the formative weaknesses of the Pakistani state and its identity contributed immeasurably to the spread of this narrative of ‘shariatization’, it has gained added traction under the aegis of Pakistan’s most powerful state institution – the military. But its repeated intervention in national politics has compelled the military, much like its political counterparts, to manage conflicting discourses of Islam and their relation to the state. Today these discourses have become more sharply polarised and, arguably, more symptomatic of the contradictions that still haunt Pakistan. Two conflicting and rival narratives now vie for space. The first with which the military has been more commonly associated (and which is widely shared by the country’s political elite), might be described as a Muslim ‘communal’ narrative; it is rooted in a Muslim separatist discourse of power that emphasises Pakistan’s identity in opposition to India.28 The second reflects a narrative grounded in a radical reading of Islam that is more closely modelled on ‘Islamist’ lines; it seeks to project Pakistan as the focus of a utopian Islamic vision underpinned by military expansion and predicated on holy war (jihad).29


Since the late 1980s, Pakistan’s dominant military establishment has sought to reconcile these opposing discourses by relying on religious parties, both mainstream and militant. Yet the terms of this alliance have, for the most part, been inherently unstable. For while the apparently secular-minded military looked to Islam to strengthen the Muslim ‘communal’ discourse and keep alive opposition to India – the mainstay of its power – its openly jihadist protégés invoked Islam primarily to strengthen the putative Islamic character of the state. Events after 9/11 triggered a dramatic and fundamental shift in the equation, forcing the military to consider a re-orientation away from opposition to India in favour of a more aggressive posture towards so-called ‘militant Islam’. But this re-orientation also risked weakening the Muslim ‘communal’ discourse upon which the military had long depended to secure its political fortunes and to serve as a powerful counter-narrative to stem the ‘Islamist’ tide that sought to impose a more sharply defined confessional identity on Pakistan. Bereft of this ‘communal’ counter-narrative aft er 9/11 the military has been forced to craft a fresh narrative resting on the claim to speak the language of a more authentic Islam.

Among the first to enunciate the principles of this new narrative was General Parvez Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999 and ruled the country until 2008. Hailed by the international community after 9/11 as an advocate of ‘moderate’ Islam, Musharraf set out to to promote his own version of Islam in the guise of ‘enlightened moderation’. However, questions still abound about its precise relation to the terms of Islam. Musharraf himself was uncertain, claiming sometimes that it aimed to promote the ‘true picture of Islam’ while maintaining on other occasions that ‘it had nothing to do with Islam and its teachings [but] more to do with Muslims and their emancipation’.30 Nevertheless, ‘enlightened moderation’ soon emerged as the official counter-narrative against the ‘degraded’ Islam the military associated with some (though by no means all) of its Islamist foes.


Since then the idea of ‘enlightened moderation’ has suffered something of an eclipse although the broad thrust of its claim – pitting ‘right’ against ‘wrong’ Islam – still persists. Marking Pakistan’s Independence Day celebrations on 14 August 2012, the current head of the army, General Ashfaque Kiyani, appealed to all Pakistanis to ‘own’ the war against extremism and declared ‘we are right in fighting it’ insofar as it was ‘consistent with Islam’ and insofar as ‘Pakistan was created in the name of Islam’.31 Kiyani’s choice of words and his decision to focus attention on what ‘the enemy’ represented, rather than who it was, did not go unnoticed. But much of that interest stemmed mainly in deconstructing the ‘hidden’ codes of his message, which were seen to confirm the military’s damaging security policy that implicitly drew a distinction between the ‘bad’ Taliban fighting the Pakistani state and the ‘good’ Taliban serving as proxies for their military masters in pursuit of Pakistan’s regional ambitions against India.32 Be that as it may, what is significant about this perspective is the suggestion that what was at stake was not so much naming and shaming of ‘the enemy’ as defending the ‘correct’ interpretation of Islam.


But these repeated attempts by the state to gain a monopoly over the expression of Islam have failed to ease the chronic lack of consensus over the terms of Islam or blunt the challenge posed by the discourse of Islamist militants. Indeed, the continuing ambivalence over the state’s precise relation to Islam – reflected in extravagant claims ensuring a public role for Islam even while refusing to accept its implications – has given license to Islamist militants. They now seek ever more insistently and violently to hold the state up to its professed Islamic standards.

In recent years this ambivalence has come to rest in the state appropriation of Sufi Islam.33 Vigorously promoted as an antidote against versions of ‘extremist’ Islam associated with militant Islamist groups that are judged to be foreign to Pakistan, Sufism is now hailed as the most ‘natural’ and ‘indigenous’ language of Islam in Pakistan. In June 2009 the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, which was returned to power in 2008 as head of a governing coalition, moved to give shape to this latest entrant by announcing plans to establish a new seven-member Sufi Advisory Council presided over by a leading cleric and representative of Barelvi Islam,34 which is followed by a majority of Muslims in Pakistan. Known for its strong endorsement of inter-cessionary ritual practices associated with popular Sufism in Pakistan, Barelvi Islam has come to serve as the vehicle of choice to ‘combat extremism and fanaticism.’35 Although this latest venture has also met with some scepticism, its prospects have been enhanced by a noticeable shift in public opinion that points to a deepening interest in the potential of Sufi Islam to act as a counter-narrative to challenge the more extreme versions of Islam that currently hold sway over many parts of Pakistan.


However, the empowerment of Sufism both as an expression of Islamic mysticism and a tradition anchored in local society and politics is potentially fraught with tension owing to the much-vaunted ‘modernist’ credentials of the Pakistani state, which rendered it instinctively hostile to Sufism.36 This is not to say that the state has not in the past made its compromises with the purveyors of so-called ‘popular Sufism’ – namely holy men or pirs, who their followers regard as blessed with supernatural powers to intercede with God on their behalf.

In truth there appeared to be little alternative. For the task of delegitimizing these intermediary structures of power proved a daunting challenge even for Jinnah. In vast swaths of rural Punjab and Sind, where pirs and their descendants (sajjada nishin) exercised great influence over the local population, Jinnah was forced to recognise their power and seek their support.37 The control of Sufi pirs was no less formidable in the North West Frontier Province (present day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), where Jinnah relied on their support to mobilize popular opinion in favour of Pakistan. But here, as in Punjab and Sind, the co-operation of local pirs came only in exchange for assurances that Jinnah and the managers of the new state of Pakistan would guarantee to protect their social and economic interests.38 Although left with no choice but to accede to these demands, Jinnah did so equivocally and in the uncomfortable knowledge that local loyalties resting on saintly power gravely compromised his vision of Muslim nationalism.


These unresolved tensions between the traditions of local Sufi Islam and the universal symbols of Islam appropriated by Jinnah in defence of Muslim nationalism persisted after the independence of Pakistan in 1947. But they also provided fresh opportunities for Pakistan’s post-colonial leadership to resort to new strategies aimed at deploying Sufi pirs in the service of the modern state. They did so mainly by harnessing the language of Sufi Islam against the language of established Islam favoured by the ulama, who challenged the right of Pakistan’s modernist elite to define the country’s Islamic identity.

The trend was set by Pakistan’s first military ruler, General Ayub Khan (1958–1969), who mobilized local Sufi pirs to neutralize his critics among the ulama-dominated religious opposition. Faced with their routine denunciation of his policies as un-Islamic, he sought the backing of rural pirs to promote an alternative interpretation of Islam based on a reformed and modernized Sufi Islam to shore up the fragile legitimacy of his regime.39 But in doing so, Ayub also widened the arena for competing versions of Islam, which in time would accentuate the chronic uncertainties over Pakistan’s identity in relation to Islam.

However, it was Pakistan’s first democratically elected leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who became prime minister in 1973, who did most to tighten the bonds between the state and popular Sufi Islam. Bhutto’s populist style put him more closely in touch with the values of rural Pakistan, and especially of his native Sind, where he drew heavily on an egalitarian culture associated with the iconic Sufi saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, which he used to project his own modern vision of Pakistan grounded in the rhetoric of ‘Islamic socialism’.40 Ultimately, however, for Bhutto as for Ayub, the value of local Sufi Islam lay in its power to serve as a prop against the Islam peddled by his religious opponents. But it is also worth noting that among Bhutto’s fiercest critics were sections of Pakistan’s dominant urban elite, whose version of modernist Islam sat uneasily with his championing of rural Sufi ‘folk’ Islam, which was judged to be an affront to the modern religious mentality Pakistan had been created to embody.


Their concerns received a sympathetic hearing from General Zia ul Haq, who ousted Bhutto in a military coup before presiding over his execution. Strongly influenced by the Muslim reformist tradition associated with the eponymous seminary founded in Deoband, India, in 1867, he favoured a strictly doctrinaire approach to Islam, which strengthened the hold of the ulama, but also of a Sunni bourgeoisie that claimed to speak on behalf of the common man against corrupt bastions of rural power—namely Sufi pirs and landed magnates—who were often symbiotically related.41 But Zia, like his predecessors, was no less tempted to mould Sufism to fit the ends of his program of Islamization. Although he tended to rely more on the ‘language of the ulama’ than on ‘the symbolism of the sufi’ to drive home his message, 42 Zia sought to effect a subtle ideological shift that aimed to minimize the gap between Muslim saint and Islamic scholar, thus easing the tension between the worship of saints and obedience to the sharia (Islamic law). By doing so, Zia may have paid his dues to the ‘modernist’ state.


The democratic interregnum of the 1990s, dominated by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, revived the state’s pronounced engagement with local Sufism. As before, it was aimed at pre-empting moves by the ulama and religious parties to challenge the politicians’ right to interpret ‘true’ Islam. But unlike their predecessors, Bhutto and Sharif confronted a more complex political landscape. The expansion of Deobandi reformism encouraged by Zia had not only strengthened ulama parties but also empowered a network of violent, Sunni sectarian, religio-political groups inspired by Wahhabi or Arabian Islam. They now represented as much of a threat to the governing classes as to the pillars of the formal religious establishment. These new circumstances presented fresh dilemmas to a leadership accustomed to shoring up its position vis-à-vis the ulama and Islamist parties like the Jama‘at-e Islami. Thus, even while both Bhutto and Sharif sought, much as in the past, to appropriate Sufi Islam as a political resource, both had to consider new alignments in a context where the contestation over the terms of Islam in Pakistan had become more acute and where Sufi Islam itself was drawn ever deeper into the arena of these competing interpretations.


Bhutto appeared to be better placed than Sharif to withstand the test of these new challenges. With strong roots in rural Sind and across Punjab—both bastions of Sufi Islam—she deftly combined the secular politics of her Pakistan People’s Party with an enthusiasm for Sufism.43 Drawing on Jinnah’s secular vision, Bhutto projected Pakistan as a modern, progressive society where Muslims and non-Muslims enjoyed equal rights. Popular Sufism in Pakistan, with its inclusive culture of tolerance and its appeal across caste, class, and religion, served as a powerful motif to enhance this picture of a democratic Pakistan.


The political landscape that confronted Sharif was arguably more complex than that negotiated by Bhutto. Sunni sectarian discourse had intensified, and the spread of Saudi-inspired Wahhabi Islam had grown more pronounced. Both encouraged the promotion of markedly austere versions of Sunni Islam, which now sought expression in forms of religio-political activism that came to be associated mainly with Sunni militant groups. These groups proliferated in the 1990s and had a strong presence in urban, especially southern, Punjab, where they drew on solid constituencies bound together by common business interests, kinship ties, and, often, a shared experience of working in the Middle East. But the sharpening of these sectarian identities also deepened the awareness of sectarian differences—differences that hinged very largely on questions of setting the standards of ‘true’ Islam. They helped galvanize a fresh campaign against the scourge of ‘ignorant’ Islam that was judged to hold sway in Sufi shrines and sanctuaries (khanaqah).These circumstances placed significant constraints on Sharif’s engagement with popular Sufism.


Conscious of the hostility among his predominantly urban and largely Sunni supporters to the influence of local pirs (who were, more often than not, rural magnates and Shia), Sharif moved instead to strengthen his Muslim reformist credentials by articulating a version of Islam centred on the language of piety. Influenced by the reformist Sufism associated with the popular proselytising movement, the Tablighi Jama’at,44 it served as a perfect substitute for the suspect spirituality commonly equated in Pakistan with the ‘degraded’ Islam of popular Sufism.


In recent years the language of piety has also found its way into the discourse of some Sufi masters in Pakistan engaged in re-casting the language of Sufism along arguably Islamist lines – a trend recently described as ‘sufislamism’.45 One of the most prominent exponents of this neo-Sufi discourse is the Pakistani religious scholar, Muhammad Tahir ul Qadri (b. 1951). A key figure in the firmament of Barelvi Islam and a strong defender of Sufi saints,46 Qadri has attracted attention in the West for his outspoken condemnation of the violent rhetoric espoused by al-Qaida and the Taliban and recently hit headlines abroad for mounting a campaign aimed at forcing the resignation of Pakistan’s government ahead of planned elections scheduled for mid 2013.


Through his organization, Minhaj ul Quran, which claims to have more than 100 branches worldwide and a massive following at home, Qadri has sought to construct a narrative informed by Sufi devotionalism. It is predicated on the unequivocal rejection of violence by Muslim militants such as the Pakistani Taliban, who claim to act in the name of Islam.47 At the same time it must be said that Qadri has been more forgiving about individual acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims against blasphemers they accuse of bringing the name of the Prophet into disrepute.


But what is really significant about Qadri’s message is not so much the power of its theological nuances. Rather, its value lies in the possibilities it offers to an internationally sanctioned discourse to draw on a counter-narrative within Islam that categorically rejects terrorism and to a fragile civilian government in Pakistan, whose Islamic credentials have been sorely tested by its involvement in a war widely perceived to be a war against Islam. By drawing upon Sufism (albeit as interpreted by his own Barelvi school of Sunni Islam), Qadri has employed a discourse that can plausibly be projected as both intrinsic to Islam and indigenous to Pakistan. This would explain why, notwithstanding his recent expressions of defiance against the current political dispensation, the implications of Qadri’s neo-Sufi discourse are unlikely be lost on the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. For it has struggled to justify its controversial alliance with the United States by attempting to project its government as a standard bearer against so-called ‘anti-Islamic forces’ represented by al-Qaida and the Taliban.


A key part of this exercise has been the PPP’s appropriation of Sufism as not only the real face of Islam but the defining feature of Pakistan. The PPP believes it is well placed to make these claims. For in comparison to other political parties in Pakistan, it has historically been far less ambiguous about the place of popular Sufism in Pakistan. There are good reasons for this: the PPP is strongly rooted in rural Sind and rural southern Punjab,48 where a popular culture centred on Sufi shrines is deeply entrenched and where the local population remains powerfully attached to an ethos that, almost in defiance of the ‘modernist’ thinking favoured by a heavy handed post-colonial dispensation, has been wary of the excessive rationalization of Islam. It may also not be insignificant that many senior posts within the PPP have been occupied by the descendants of prominent Sufi pirs, who act as the guardians of holy shrines dotted across much of Sind and Punjab.

But the deeply contested nature of Sufism poses immense challenges to the current managers of the state in Pakistan as well as their allies abroad. From the reformist concerns of mainstream Barelvi Sufism to the mystic reflections of the ubiquitous qalandars (vagabonds), who haunt the shrines of long-dead Sufi saints; from the peace-loving devotees of the Punjab’s most revered saint, Ali Hujweri Data Ganj Bakhsh to the saintly Hur warriors of Sind, who swear allegiance to the Pir Pagaro – Sufism, like Islam, speaks in a multitude of languages and finds many expressions in Pakistan.


Given the damage inflicted on Pakistan by the politicization of Islam at the behest of successive regimes, the latest attempts to empower Sufism could prove therefore to be the state’s most dangerous gamble yet, deepening the faith wars that threaten to polarize an already deeply divided society. These divisions may well intensify the country’s ideological confusion and further accentuate the struggle between rival conceptions of Pakistan that set the country’s claim to be a homeland for Muslims against its putative obligations to serve as a guarantor of Islam.



1. M. J. Akbar, Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2011), p. xv.

2. Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan (London & New York: Hurst & Columbia University Press, 2009).

3. Tahir Kamran, ‘Problematising Iqbal as a State Ideologue’ in Gita Dharampal-Frick, Ali Usman Qasmi & Katia Rostetter, eds., Revisioning Iqbal as a poet & Muslim Political Thinker (Heidelberg: Draupadi Verlag, 2010), pp. 119-133.

4.  Iqbal’s presidential address to the All India Muslim League on 29 December 1930 in Sharifuddin Pirzada (ed.), Foundations of Pakistan: Documents of the All India Muslim League, 1906-47, II (Karachi: National Publishing House, 1970), pp. 159.

5.  Muhammad Iqbal, ‘Statement on Islam and nationalism in reply to a statement by Maulana Husain Ahmad, published in Ehsan, 9 March 1938’, in A.R. Tariq (ed.), Speeches and Statements of Iqbal (Lahore: Shaikh Ghulam Ali, 1973), pp. 230.

6.  Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., pp. 157.

9.  For a finely grained analysis of Mawdudi’s vision of Pakistan as an Islamic state see, Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: the Jamaat-i-Islami of Pakistan (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994).

10.  Iqbal’s presidential address to the All India Muslim League on 29 December 1930, in Pirzada (ed.), Foundations of Pakistan, pp. 160.

11. Iqbal’s letter to Jinnah, 28 May 1937, in Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada (ed.), Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah’s Correspondence (Karachi: Guild Publishing House, 1966), p. 159.

12.  Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Lahore: Sang-i-Meel Publications, 1996), p. 135.

 13. Nasr, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution, p. 20.

 14. Ibid., p. 109.

 15; Ibid., p. 110.

16.  For an extended discussion of the implications of Jinnah’s position and the predicament that faced Muslims in Indian provinces, where they were a minority, following the creation of Pakistan see, Zamindar, Vazira-Fazila Yacoobali, The long Partition and the making of modern South Asia: refugees, boundaries, histories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

17.  For a discussion of the relationship between theologically informed images of Muslim sacrifice and the idea of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland see, Tahir Naqvi, ‘Migration, Sacrifice and the Crisis of Muslim Nationalism’, Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3, September 2012, pp. 1-17.

18.  See Jinnah’s presidential address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, August 11, 1947 in Jamil-ud-din Ahmad (ed.), Speeches and Statements of Mr Jinnah, Vol. II (Lahore: Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf, 1964), p. 404.

19. Nasr, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution, p. 106.

20.  Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, pp. 83-88.

21.  For an introduction to these two seminal thinkers and their different responses to the loss of Muslim power in India see T.N. Madan, Modern Myths, Locked Minds: Secularism and Fundamentalism in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 128-130, 157-175.

22. Barbara Metcalf, ‘Islamic Arguments in Contemporary Pakistan’ in Barbara Metcalf, Islamic Contestations: Essays on Muslims in India and Pakistan (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 236-264.

23. Saadia Toor, The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan (London: Pluto Press, 2011), pp. 26-31.

24. Oskar Verkaaik, Migrants and militants: Fun and Urban Violence in Pakistan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 35-39.

25. Ian Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 270-286.

26. Farzana Shaikh, ‘From Islamisation to Shariatisation: cultural transnationalism in Pakistan’ in Radhika Desai, ed., Developmental and cultural nationalisms (London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 593-610.

27. Gilles Boquerat and Nazir Hussain, ‘Enlightened Moderation: Anatomy of a Failed Strategy’ in Ravi Kalia (ed.), From the Rhetoric of Democracy to the Rise of Militancy (Delhi: Routledge, 2011), pp. 177-190 and Sadaf Aziz, ‘Making a Sovereign State: Javed Ghamidi and ‘Enlightened Moderation’, Modern Asian Studies, 45, 3 (2011), pp. 597-629.

28. S.V.R. Nasr, ‘National Identities and the India-Pakistan conflict’ in T.V. Paul (ed.), The India Pakistan Conflict: An Enduring Rivalry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 178-201.

 29. Barbara Metcalf, ‘The case of Pakistan’ in Metcalf, Islamic Contestations, pp. 217-235.

 30. Boquerat and Hussain, ‘Enlightened Moderation’ pp. 181.

31. For the full text of General Kiyani’s speech see, Inter-Services Public Relations, Press Release, 14 August 2012,

32. Editorial, ‘Kayani’s Remarks’, Dawn, 15 August 2012,

33. Farzana Shaikh, ‘Will Sufi Islam save Pakistan?’ in Shahzad Bashir and Robert Crews (eds.), Under the Drones: Modern Lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 174-191.

34. Usha Sanyal, Devotional Islam and politics in British India: Ahmed Riza Khan Barelwi and his movement, 1870-1920 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996).

35. ‘Government to Set Up Sufi Advisory Council,’ Dawn, June 7, 2009,

 36. Katherine Pratt Ewing, ‘The politics of Sufism: Re-Defining the Saints of Pakistan’, Journal of Asian Studies, vol. xlii, no. 2, February 1983, pp. 251-268.

37. See David Gilmartin, Empire and Islam: Punjab and the Making of Pakistan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) and Sarah Ansari, Sufi Saints and State Power: The Pirs of Sind, 1843–1947 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

38. Sana Haroon, Frontier of Faith: Islam in the Indo-Afghan Borderland (London: Hurst, 2007).

39. Ian Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History (London: Hurst, 2005), p.160.

40. Verkaaik, Migrants and Militants, pp. 36.

41. Qasim Zaman, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 125-133.

42. Ansari, Sufi Saints and State Power, p.151.

43. In August 2003, while in exile abroad, Bhutto became a member of Minhaj ul Quran, the reformed Sufi religious network founded by Shaikh Tahir ul Qadri,

44. Mumtaz Ahmad, ‘Tablighi Jamaat,’ in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, vol. 4 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 168.

45. Alix Philippon, La politique du pir. Du soufisme au soufislamism: Recomposition, modernisation et mobilisation des ‘confreries’ au Pakistan. Ph.D. thesis, University of Aix-Marseilles, 2009.

46. Alix Philippon, Soufisme et politique au Pakistan: le movement barelwi a l’heure de ‘guerre contre le terrorism’ (Paris: Karthala, 2011), pp. 79-83; 230-255.

47. ‘Terrorism and Suicide Attacks,’ video press conference of Dr. Tahir ul Qadri, Minhaj ul Quran, December 5, 2009,

48. Philip Jones, The Pakistan People’s Party: Rise to Power (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2003).



Sciences politiques
01/10/2012 - 13/06/2013