Mad in the middle- By Nadeem F. Paracha


Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan

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

The modern aspect of Islamic thought in Pakistan has its roots in the Aligarh Movement — the 19-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.

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 scholars of the time, Ahmed managed to lay the foundations of a modern college in Aligarh in an attempt to draw young Muslims away from traditional madressahs.

The Aligarh College 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. However, a majority of Muslims, in what became Pakistan, remained entrenched in the region’s popular variations of Islam.

This was the so-called Barelvi Islam that became the mainstay belief of a majority of Muslims in the subcontinent. As a movement, it was the reassuring enshrinement of the traditional beliefs and rituals that prevailed among Muslims due to the long periods of interaction between Sufism and other religions of undivided India.

Barelvi Islam became the folk religion of the rural peasants, the urban proletariat and the semi-urban, petty-bourgeoisie. It incorporated the anti-clergy elements of Sufism, and fused these with the concept of overt religious reverence of divine concepts and people, and highly accommodating forms of worship that were criticised by puritans as being undesirably ‘innovative.’

The result was a Muslim society that was repulsed by the dogma of puritanical strains; some were open to the idea of modern reinterpretation of Islamic law. This strain was generally permissive in its sociology and non-political in essence. However, as the popular variation of Islam in Pakistan peaked in the 1970s, the modern variation (tied to the Aligarh thought) started to erode (even though both were quite compatible).


Things started changing at the state level when, after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle, a move was seen afoot in the army towards conservative variations of Islam, especially those advocated by the scholar and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) chief, Abul Ala Maududi. The JI was an early advocate of what came to be known as ‘political’ Islam — a modern, political theory that set forward historical and theological arguments for an evolutionary reinstatement of Islamic state (or a modern-day caliphate), run on the dictates of Sharia.

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 millions of dollars in aid so that Zia could construct an effective jihad against the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan, the more puritanical strains of Islam (such as the Deobandi and Wahabi) too began finding official sanction.

Conscious of the hold Barelvi Islam had in Pakistan, the Zia regime also attempted to penetrate and regulate Sindh’s and Punjab’s popular shrine culture, trying to align Barelvi thought with the clergy and jihad-oriented strains of the faith that he was advocating. The results were devastating.

The corruption emerging from the large amounts of financial aid and state patronage that politically-motivated and puritanical versions of the faith were able to enjoy in Pakistan during the ‘Afghan jihad’ not only helped the puritanical thought overwhelm the lingering strains of ‘modernist Islam’ in society, large sections of the moderate populist version of the religion too went through mutation. Today this phenomenon is not only the militant mainstay of various Islamist organisations (such as the Taliban), but also a rude social discourse.

It has been attracting a large number of the urban middle-class as well, most of who now seem completely divorced from their early moorings toward modern variations of the faith. Also tainted by this discourse were sections of the moderate populist strains of the religion that have eventually grown their own intransigent and highly militant tentacles. For example, for every Wahabi/Deobandi-backed Sipah-i-Sahaba there is now a Barelvi-backed Sunni Tehreek or a Shia-backed Sipah-i-Muhammad.

After the end of the Afghan war, both the puritanical and populist versions of the faith have regenerated themselves as a lot more reactionary, emitting deluded and anti-intellectual, fascist battle cries. These have not only found support among the most desperate sections of society, but, unfortunately, also among the now intellectually bankrupt urban middle-class of Pakistan.

Source: Dawn