Understanding Pakistan’s History

By Hannah Harris GreenDecember 2, 2013

Muslim Zion by Faisal Devji

FAIZ AHMAD FAIZ, a Marxist poet from a Muslim background, combined the language of Communism and Islamic religious imagery when he wrote about his new country, Pakistan. He likened corrupt leaders’ idolatry of wealth to the sinful idolatry in the Qur’an. His “Hum Dekhenge” became a popular rallying cry for resistance to the Zia regime. It was a ghazal, a traditional love song, and used Koranic images of the Day of Judgement to urge the people to rise up against “mountains of injustice.” His poetry was an example of the variety of forces that shaped notions of nationalism in Pakistan.

Pakistan found its place on the map at a time when the meaning of the nation-state was in flux. The world’s most powerful empires were falling — toppling in dramatic cascades or dismantling slowly from within. In the wake of these falls, power in some of the world’s younger nations was shifting in sudden and sometimes frightening ways. All these shifts opened up space for revolutionary new ideas about the possibilities of nationhood. More than ever, ideologies rather than territory and shared history were rallying cries for the leaders of future nations.

It was in this context that the British were preparing to leave India. As the subcontinent readied itself for independence, Muslim leaders worried that their community would be vulnerable in a Hindu-dominated state. They wanted protections written into the constitution, into the structure of the nation. The most important Indian Muslim thinkers of the day posited a variety of ideas for nations that would protect South Asian Muslims from Hindu domination, many of which would influence the two-nation theory that ultimately led to the division of India and Pakistan in 1947. Radical shifts in the international landscapes of power allowed these leaders to think imaginatively about the future. The Bombay-based Aga Khan, head of the Shia Ismaili sect of Islam, proposed a South Asiatic Federation that would be so pluralistic that minority status would become irrelevant. In this imagined state, provinces would be reorganized according to language and religion, an idea that would influence the redistribution of different religious groups along Pakistan’s newly drawn borders. But it was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the All-India Muslim League, who would finally negotiate Pakistan into existence.

In his most recent work, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea, Faisal Devji offers a detailed analysis of the various political and ideological forces that were at play in the buildup to Pakistan’s creation. Devji’s larger project seems to be to mitigate the tendency to look at historical phenomena from the 20th and 21st centuries isolated from their global context. In The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence (2012), he presented an alternative biography of the Mahatma, partly by rejecting the notion that this London-educated man was purely influenced by Indian thinkers and had purely Indian goals. In Landscapes of the Jihad (2005), Devji suggested that al-Qaeda and bin Laden took their cues from global media trends much more than they did from any tribal Islamic tradition.

Muslim Zion is perhaps more expansive than either of these works, as it deals not with one specific movement or figure but the confluence of movements and figures that led to the formation of a nation. Devji prioritizes the trajectory of ideas over all other historical forces. Ideologies of communism and Zionism (which Devji uses in a somewhat idiosyncratic way) were important in the middle of the 20th century, Devji argues, because they made it possible for nation-states to define themselves based on ideas rather than territorial or hereditary attachments. Both were significant catalysts in Pakistan’s foundation. Israel is Pakistan’s closest twin in this type of national movement, as both nations were conceived as homelands for people who didn’t necessarily have any familial connection to the territory, and both used religion as the common ground that would define their citizenry. The connection between the two ideologies, Devji suggests, was not a coincidence. He notes that Jinnah “seems to have possessed more books on the problems of European Jewry than on any Muslim people or country.” Devji also believes that the formation of Pakistan set a precedent that made Israel possible.

Fear of minority status, more than piety, motivated both Pakistan’s and Israel’s proponents. The Holocaust had illuminated the depth of minority vulnerability, and Devji argues that Jews had thus come to represent minority status on an international level. Spiritual leaders in South Asia like Gandhi and Muhammad Iqbal, a highly influential Muslim poet and philosopher, were comparing South Asian minorities like Muslims and Dalits (formerly called untouchables) to Jews. Gandhi met with the future founders of Pakistan and Israel, and used similar language when discussing the difficulties that minorities would have in these prospective countries. Both he and Iqbal directly used Jews rhetorically in describing the difficulties that minorities faced in South Asia. Communism, which Devji also connects to the Pakistani nationalist movement, was highly influential in and around India near the end of the British era. Like Zionism, communism’s goal was to form a nation where ideology would transcend territory. Imperialism was a geographical model for leaders like Jinnah, who could see potential polities in disjointed pieces of territory. According to Devji, the fragmented maps of empire set a precedent for Israel and Pakistan’s geographical eccentricity.

Along with his political and geographical analyses of Pakistani nationalism, Zionism, imperialism, and communism, Devji engages in some speculative and freewheeling commentary. For instance, he discusses Voltaire’s 1736 play Le fanatisme ou Mahomet le Prophete, (Fanaticism or Muhammad the Prophet), and compares the figure of Mahomet to Pakistan’s founder, Jinnah. In Voltaire’s play, Mahomet is not a believer, but unites a community of believers around the idea of Islam because he believes that this is better than having them fight among themselves. Throughout his book, Devji points out Jinnah’s questionable adherence to Islam and the Muslim community, noting that he “had very few Muslim friends” and that he “represented Muslims as a lawyer does his clients.” In his commentary on Mahomet, Devji implies that in founding Pakistan, Jinnah was experimenting with the play’s central query: is it possible to fool people for their own good?


Muslim Zion illuminates what led to Pakistan’s formation but little about its current reality. The conversations that inform most of Devji’s analysis of the idea of Pakistan come from a time when there was not, as yet, such thing as a Pakistani. Shahan Mufti’s debut book, The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War, is very much about that reality. It is part memoir, part journalistic account, and part history book. While Devji’s analysis in Muslim Zion is ethereal, given that it deals with a time when Pakistan was still an idea, The Faithful Scribe remains closer to ground reality, but Mufti necessarily deals with the ideas of nationalism that Devji describes.

Mufti considers himself “100 percent American and 100 percent Pakistani.” He is a US citizen, an American of Pakistani decent, and he has worked and studied for long periods in both countries, giving him a thorough familiarity with conventional attitudes in both nations. His analysis is personal and American enough to be accessible to American readers — it is a book for people who read the news, but who have not read about Pakistan in depth. In the introduction, Mufti imagines meeting his ideal reader at a party. The reader would notice that Mufti’s speech was slightly atypical for an American, and would ask where he was from. Later, after a few drinks, the reader would ask why Pakistan “is such a mess.” “Whatever specific details you can recall are probably more or less accurate,” Mufti would say, but “the place that you picture in your mind [...] looks like a caricature, a dark parody.”

The explanation that Mufti offers for Pakistan’s situation is simple but satisfying. Pakistan was an experiment, the goal of which was to create “an example of a state that could bridge civilizations, a place that could feel 100 percent Islamic and 100 percent Western.” Various factors — Pakistan’s complex geography, corrupt leadership, and foreign intervention — caused this experiment to malfunction. In assessing America’s role in all this, Mufti is more matter of fact than he is accusatory. “To blame America would be a lazy explanation for the deep problems of a complex country,” he writes. Sure, the American government pumped Pakistan’s tribal areas with weapons and religious fervor in order to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and now the same American government is punishing Pakistan for housing the religious militants that it had a large role in creating. These facts, though they are not well enough known in the United States, stand on their own.

For Mufti, the idea of Pakistani nationalism begins in his mother’s mind, in 1965. She was 16, her name was Saadia, and she was listening to President Ayub Khan address his people on the radio. The second war between India and Pakistan had just broken out. President Ayub called to his people to step forward for their country, and Saadia listened. Later, as a teacher, she would tell auditoriums full of people that the president’s speech had “taught her the meaning of belonging to a nation.” She went out into the streets and knocked on doors, asking for food for the soldiers. She convinced medics to let her give blood for wounded soldiers, even though she was technically too young.

Interestingly, Mufti lingers on the issue of blood frequently when he is discussing the meaning of nationality. Devji does, too, but only to refute the idea that there is any connection between blood and Pakistani nationhood. But Mufti considers Pakistani nationalism, and even Islam, to be an issue of blood. Even though many of the Muslims who immigrated to Pakistan after partition came from families that had never lived in Pakistani territory, and even though many Pakistani Muslims have Hindu convert ancestors, including Mufti’s father, who descended from Rajput warriors. Devji sees such factors as defying the connection between the Pakistani nation and bloodlines, but Mufti does not.

Mufti realized the strength of his blood connection to Pakistan while he was in India doing research on a Fulbright grant. While rock climbing, he sustained a terrible injury and required a blood transfusion. “I must be honest with you,” he writes,

For a brief second, this thought did cross my mind: Is this the blood of a Hindu? Or is this a Muslim’s blood? I know, I know, you must find this thought repulsive. You must believe me when I say that I do too. I know it does not matter whose blood got injected into my body. I should have felt nothing but deep gratitude to the human who had donated blood for me. But you must also understand that this wasn’t a rational thought triggered by concerns of bloodlines or race or religion. No, this was rooted in something completely separate, something much more powerful and primordial than any of that. This was a matter of a nation.

Mufti seems to understand that the idea of a national bloodline is as illogical and irrational as it is powerful. How can a nation that is less than a century old invoke a primordial feeling? And given his ancestry, Mufti likely does share bloodlines with some Indian Hindus. But he identifies strongly with his nation, and he cannot extract his nation from Islam. The emotion may not be logical, but it cannot be denied either. This is how nationalism functions, of course, not only in Pakistan, but also around the world. No nation exists in isolation, and yet nationalism requires that citizens find their nation’s exceptionalism above all other factors.

This way of thinking is not unique, and neither are the problems that it causes. Later in the book, Mufti concludes that Pakistan’s two defining elements — liberal democracy and Islam — are clashing with one another. He goes on a personal and journalistic journey to determine whether Islam can be extracted from Pakistan and concludes that, “Islam was what tied people’s guts and blood to the land.” This sentiment may be very real for a lot of people, but excludes those minorities in Pakistan who are not Muslim but nevertheless tied to their land. Devji relates this issue to Israel and Pakistan, writing, “Only religious minorities in Pakistan and Israel, after all, can claim nationality on the basis of blood and soil alone, something that both denationalizes their majority populations further, and stands as a permanent challenge to them.”

This is not the only issue in the book that Mufti simplifies; he offers a number of conventional glosses that obscure Pakistani history. For example, he identifies the origins of Pakistani nationalism with two Muslim institutions established under the British rule of India: the traditionalist Darul Uloom in Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, and the heavily British influenced Aligarh Muslim University in the Punjab. Mufti equates the latter with the push towards Western liberalism in Pakistan, and the former with the more conservative Islamic influences. “The institutions at Aligarh and Deoband formed in the aftermath of the colonial encounter became the double helix of Pakistan’s DNA,” he writes. “Pakistan, after all, was the experiment, the practical test of grand hypotheses, a laboratory for ideas that had been mulled over and aged for centuries.” Devji, on the other hand, points out that Pakistani nationalism had many influences outside of South Asia, and that North Indian Muslim politics under the British empire were motivated by forces besides a drive toward conservatism or assimilation.

When he describes the buildup to partition, Mufti writes simply that:

They were two conflicting conceptions of the subcontinent: the congress’s idea implied one single state; the league’s vision necessitated more than one. In the end the two-nation theory presented by the leaders of the Muslim league won out.

While this statement is not untrue, it ignores the many compromises and influences that resulted in the two-nation theory. Likewise, Mufti’s assertion that “in the end, nations belong only to those few who can muster the most compelling story and then tell it tenaciously” leaves out the question of numbers and political capital.

As a work of history, Mufti’s book is imperfect. What it does provide is an individual’s concept of his own very complicated nation and of himself within it. Devji’s work, on the other hand, details the conceptual forces that go into nation-building without explaining how a citizenry comes to internalize those forces. Read together, Muslim Zion and The Faithful Scribe provide a window into the complexity of Pakistan and the meaning of nationhood.


Hannah Harris Green’s most recent piece for LARB was on books about other homelands: Chicago and San Francisco.

LARB Contributor

Hannah Harris Green is the 2014-2015 recipient of the Alistair Cooke Fulbright Award in Journalism. She received her BA from Northwestern in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and has studied Urdu intensively in India. Words in VICE, The Guardian, The Nation and on twitter: @write_noise.


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