Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea by Faisal Devji, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2013, ISBN 978-0-674-07267-1, 268 pp. (Hardcover edition), $21.95.
Faisal Devji is a unique individual within the academic realm, and his work, epitomized by Muslim Zion, reflects his unique worldview. Devji is an example of the “cosmopolitan citizen,” who makes the entire world his own. Of Islamic and South Asian background, Devji was born and raised in Dar es Salaam, in what was formerly Tanganyika and is now part of the African nation of Tanzania. His undergraduate education is from the University of British Columbia in Canada, and his Ph.D. is from the University of Chicago in the United States. Although currently on the faculty of Saint Anthony’s College at the University of Oxford in the UK, he also teaches and works regularly in the United States. As you would expect from a truly cosmopolitan citizen, he speaks ten European, South Asian, and African languages.
Although not stated in his official bio data, I suspect that his family originated in the Indian state of Gujarat (Gujarati is one of his languages) and belong to the Ismaili sub sect of Shia Islam. This is indicated by his previous position as the head of Graduate Studies at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. Devji’s academic focus has been to wrestle with the elements of the Islamic identity in the 21st Century, when Islam has been forced to face adherents advocating stark extremism and violent jihad. Although Devji is often described as a historian, he is truly multi-disciplinary in his approach, attempting to integrate philosophy and the humanities into his examination of the many dilemmas facing modern Muslims.
For readers expecting a straight history book, Muslim Zion can prove vexing at first. This is because Devji is serious when it comes to incorporating philosophy into his multi-disciplinary approach. He refers to a wide range of philosophers and quotes them extensively. Philosophy is a challenging discipline and disciplined reading is required to appreciate Devji’s philosophical perspective.
The fascinating and often unfathomable story of Pakistan presents a quandary to present-day Islam and is particularly powerful to inhabitants of the South Asian subcontinent. The “partition” of British India into India and Pakistan is the most traumatic episode in the history of both countries. It cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. It uprooted millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs from their ancestral homes and neighborhoods and forced them to migrate to another country and to start over, having lost everything in the process. South Asians, in particular, constantly ask whether it was all worth it and what it achieved. Devji argues that historians have yet to conduct a methodical study of the Pakistan Ideology, how it originated, how it has been defined, and what it portends for the future of Pakistan.
In an attempt to answer these questions, Devji uses precise philosophical analysis, combined with historical data, and lots of biographic data concerning Pakistan’s founder Muhammad ali Jinnah and his circle. His original thesis addresses an issue that, due to its inherent sensitivity, always seems to lie unaddressed and just below the surface in Pakistan. Devji points out that Pakistan is one of only two states established to provide a homeland for religious minorities, the other being Israel. He finds many parallels between the Zionists and Pakistan’s founders. Pakistanis are reluctant to address this obvious similarity as they view Israel as the avowed enemy of Pakistan and Islam.
In both instances, the founders and theoreticians who pressed for new states specifically based on religious identity, were not themselves religious. Heavily influenced by British secular thought, these founders looked at their religion primarily as a political identity. In addition, they did not originate in the geographic regions that would come to constitute the new states and had no emotional attachment to them. They simply wanted “space” to conduct their radical experiments. The populations of the new states came from widely divergent backgrounds and shared only a religious identity. These religiously defined states refuted the standard narrative of nationalism based on shared ethnic identity, culture, and deep roots in a particular geographic region, leading to the creation of “unrooted” states that many continue to view as artificial creations.
This ideological basis of the state has particularly troubled Pakistan, which has been forced to address existential issues almost from the day of its declaration. Muhammad ali Jinnah was well aware that Pakistan would never be the homeland for all Muslims of the subcontinent. Geography and culture rendered this impossible. While millions of Muslims left India to become citizens of Pakistan (both East and West), they represented only a minority of the total Muslim population. The Indian migrants (the Mohajirs) left behind millions of Muslims in India.
Pakistan also had to confront its diverse and disparate nature. Divided between two “wings” separated by over a thousand miles of Indian space, and home to widely divergent ethnic groups with no common language or culture, Pakistan attempted to create an overarching Pakistani identity while discouraging the cultural and political aspirations of Pathans, Punjabis, Baluchis, Sindhis and Bengalis. Pakistan adopted Urdu, the language of the Mohajirs of the then “United Provinces” of India as the national language. Devji points out that Urdu was part of an all-embracing cultural package with deep roots in India and was for many Pakistanis totally unfamiliar. Its adoption caused particular resentment among the majority Punjabis, who continue to complain that their vibrant culture has been repressed and an alien cultural model imposed on them.
For the Bengalis of East Pakistan, language was a make or break issue. Bengali was an essential component of their identity and they eventually rose in defense of it. The break up of Pakistan and the metamorphosis of its East Wing into the independent state of Bangladesh, posed an existential threat to Pakistan. The two-nation theory propagated by Jinnah and the Muslim League leadership was based on the premise that all South Asian Muslims, regardless of regional identity, shared a common nationality. Similarly, the two-nation theory defined Hindus as a monolithic group despite their many inherent ethnic and regional divisions. If true, why did the Bengalis opt out of Pakistan?
Devji also addresses another basic issue that the two-nation theory did not resolve. Muhammad ali Jinnah was a non-practicing Muslim and did not envision Pakistan as an Islamic state. Heavily influenced by British political thinking, Jinnah saw Pakistan as a secular state that provided complete freedom of religion to all of its inhabitants, to include all of the many Islamic sects found in Pakistan, as well as non-Muslim Pakistanis.
Most Pakistanis did not share Jinnah’s secular worldview. They wanted Islam enshrined as the national religion and a principal component of the national identity. They were not content to live in a state defined merely as the “homeland” of South Asian Muslims. Jinnah never convinced Pakistanis to adopt his liberal views, leaving the door ajar. Devji argues that Muslim sectarians used this opening to impose their views on the Pakistani state. He traces this development to the decision by Pakistan to declare the heterodox Ahmadiya sect to be “non-Muslim.” Devji asserts that this move “opened the door to increasingly murderous attacks on all other ‘deviant’ groups there, especially the Shia, to say nothing about the oppression of those, like Hindus and Christians, who make no claim on Islam.”
While Devji presents these points in a cogent and scholarly fashion, I have read all of the arguments before. What makes a book like “Muslim Zion,” particularly valuable is its ability to present new ideas. Devji does not disappoint on this score. What I believe is the most valuable contribution of his research is the detailed exposition of the views of Muhammad ali Jinnah and his circle that I have not heard before. Using lengthy excerpts from Jinnah’s speeches, correspondence, and essays, Devji argues that Jinnah represented a particular intellectual stream that had little or no connection with the Muslims Jinnah purported to represent.
Devji argues that for Jinnah politics was all about abstract political arguments, and that his principal focus was on articulating political principals. When it came to addressing Muslims’ day-to-day concerns Jinnah often appeared to be a cipher. Devji asserts that this was because Jinnah did not admire South Asian Muslims. Jinnah’s roots were in the upper echelons of Bombay society, and he was very comfortable there. He had no ties to the regions that would become Pakistan. Jinnah was a cold and distant personality and a man with few friends. Ironically, he was most comfortable in the cosmopolitan society of Bombay, and very close to Hindus that shared his intellectual and class biases. Devji goes so far as to suggest that Jinnah held most South Asian Muslims in contempt as a hopelessly backward community.
This lack of basic empathy and identification with his community relegated Jinnah’s political activities to intellectual pursuits. He advocated for a Pakistan that was essentially an abstract concept. His Pakistan was a state that inhabited the imagination rather than a particular place. Pakistanis did not share Jinnah’s highly rarified and unique worldview.
Devji describes a Jinnah so detached from Indian Muslims that he easily accepted a state that left most of them living in servitude. Jinnah firmly believed that the Muslims remaining in India would be victimized by what he envisaged as an emergent “Hindustan.” (Jinnah refused to refer to the country as India, arguing that it was not the inheritor of the Indian state created by British imperialism, but rather represented nothing more than “Hindustan,” the country of the Hindus.) Despite this, he was willing to abandon these Muslims to their fate as second-class citizens in a Hindu state.
While never stating so explicitly, Devji argues that Pakistan failed to provide a homeland for the “Muslim nation” of South Asia. This is because this “nation” is an intellectual abstraction that does not exist on the ground in the Subcontinent. Instead, South Asian Muslims are a widely divergent group spread throughout the countries of the region, practicing many forms of Islam. Once Pakistanis rejected Jinnah’s abstract Islam that incorporated all Muslims, including Shias, Sunnis, and the many small sects to include Ismailis and Ahmadiyas, they became obsessed with creating an Islamic state restricted to “true” Muslims. The result has been a country torn apart by sectarian violence, as extremist Sunni Muslims try to define Pakistan as a state that is exclusive rather than inclusive. In this new Pakistan, orthodox Sunnis talk of a state purified of all other types of Islam.
In reality, Pakistan has become just another state on the world map of Islam. Devji argues, “instead of protecting Islam as an abstract idea, Pakistan has only nationalized it. Its true home remains with the Muslim minority of India.” This is because India, as a secular state, recognizes Muslims of all stripes.