Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD
An important element in the emergence of Pakistan was the confluence of traditional and reformist Islam. Modernist elements were largely absent. The one person, who alone could have provided a modernist thrust, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, passed away soon after partition. Pakistan was launched into the post WWII world with the tensions between tradition, reform and modernism pulling it in different directions. These tensions continue to exist within a largely tribal, feudal structure in parts of Pakistan and explain many of the difficulties facing it today.
It is useful to define our terminology at the outset. Traditional Islam has different meanings in different parts of the Islamic world. In the context of the subcontinent, it is the spiritual Islam that was introduced by the Awliya and the Sufi Shaikhs. It has a heavy content of Persian and Central Asian cultural influences. This is the Islam of Khwaja Moeenuddin Chishti of Ajmer, Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi of the Punjab and Shaikh Abdul Qader Jeelani of Baghdad. Reform, in the context of the subcontinent has two branches. The first one aims to remove the accretion of medieval practices in Sufism and emphasizes the Sunnah of the Prophet. The reformist Sufi tareeqas belong to this category. There is a second, concomitant reform movement that repudiates tasawwuf altogether and aims to bring Muslim practices in line with what is transmitted through Hadith and the kitabi schools. The Wahhabi and Nadwa schools belong to this category. By contrast, modern Islam has its vision on the future. It sees Islam as a continual spiritual renewal in an expanding universe. It considers history to be an unceasing struggle of man within the bounds established by divine command. It seeks a dynamic presence in a shrinking globe that is guided by science, technology and increasing interactions across civilizational interfaces. A genuine modern Islam, embracing both spirituality and technology, is yet to emerge.
Islam in Pakistan is a product of Sufism, as it is in much of the subcontinent. Pakistan became a possibility when traditional Sufi Islam in the Punjab shifted its allegiance from an inclusive, traditional, rural based political system to the promise of an exclusive, reformist, urban political system. The internal tensions that continue to tear at the Pakistan body politic are a result of the interactions between tradition, reform and modernism. In this series of articles, I will briefly survey how the influence of traditional Sufi Islam in the Punjab was pivotal in the critical events leading to partition.
Geography defines history. Pakistan is separated from Afghanistan by more than 1500 miles of a sinuous border running through hilly, picturesque terrain. The Khyber Pass has been the historic route for the influx of traders, scholars and conquerors from Central Asia and the Middle East into the Indo-Gangetic plains. The Aryans in ancient times, Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, Chengiz Khan in the 13th century CE, and the Moguls in the 16th century CE took this route to India.
To the south the desolate Makran desert straddles Baluchistan on the Pakistan-Iran border. It extends deep into the province of Sindh and yields unwillingly to the delta of the great Indus River. It was this desert that Alexander attempted to cross on his way back from India in 334 BC. Many a Greek soldier died from thirst and disease. The unmerciful desert did not spare the life of Alexander who fell ill and died near Babylon in 334 CE.
To the north, the Silk Road to China winds through the mountains in Gilgit. Ancient caravans plied this perilous route carrying silk and pottery from China and returning with ivory, spices, gold and Buddhist manuscripts from India. The road, expanded and widened in modern times, serves as a vital link between Pakistan and China.
Modern Pakistan sits astride the intersection of three axes. The first one connects the Indian subcontinent with Iran and the Middle East. The second one connects India with Central Asia. The third connects India with China. Thus Pakistan lies at the confluence of three civilizations: the Vedic Hindu civilization of India, the Islamic Persian civilization of Iran and Central Asia, and the Buddhist-Islamic civilization of western China. The discovery of oil in the 20th century also puts it on the major oil pipeline routes leading from the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea.
Summarily, a geographic definition of Pakistan is that it is the interface between Islamic Persia, Buddhist western China and Vedic India. Geographically, the area west of the IndusRiver is a continuation of the Central Asia plateau on which Iran, Afghanistan and the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan are located. The Indus and its five tributaries, Jhelum, Chenab, Sutlej, Ravi and Beas irrigate the fertile plains of Punjab. The Kabul River brings in the waters from melting snows in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan. To the south, the Makran desert from Iran stretches into Baluchistan and Sindh and is interrupted only by the delta of the great Indus River.
Topographically, Sindh forms a part of the deserts surrounding the Persian Gulf region. The NW frontier is an extension of the hills of Afghanistan, and the Punjab is the beginning of the great Indian plains. The history of Pakistan reflects this strategic location.
In the 8th century, as the Arab Empire extended westward into Spain and eastward into western China, the province of Sindh came into the Islamic orbit through an accident of history By the year 700 CE Baluchistan was a part of the Umayyad Empire and Sindh was a border state between India and the Arab Empire. The littoral people of the Gulf carried on a brisk trade in spices, ivory and perfumes. Security on the high seas was poor and the treasures aboard the ships were a frequent target of pirates. Legend has it that it was one of these acts of piracy that brought the Arab armies to India. In the year 707 a merchant ship belonging to an Iraqi merchant was attacked by Indian pirates. The crew and the passengers aboard the ship were carried off to Sindh where they were imprisoned by the Raja of Daibul. Iraq was a province of the Omayyad Empire and the governor of the province Hajjaj bin Yusuf wrote to the Raja asking him to free the prisoners. The Raja refused.
The irate Hajjaj sent a continent of troops under Ubaidulla bin Binham to free the prisoners. Ubaidulla was defeated and killed by forces of the Raja. Hajjaj was determined that an act of piracy against a ship belonging to the Umayyad realm should not go unpunished. The exotic land of Sindh with its fabled wealth was an added attraction for the Arabs. Hajjaj assembled a seasoned cavalry of 7000 horsemen and dispatched it under the command of Mohammed bin Qasim. For military triumph and political consolidation, the offensive weapons must be stronger than the defensive weapons. The Arabs had acquired the technology for siege engines from China and had improved upon them, mounting them on wheels, and stabilizing the launch platform. One such assault engine, the minjanique, could hurl a two hundred pound stone over a distance of three hundred yards. In addition, the rapid enveloping movements of the Arab cavalry was more than a match for the more static Indian defenses which relied heavily on elephant mounted armor and infantry. The combination of technology and tactics provided the Arabs a decisive military advantage over their adversaries.
At age of 17, Mohammed bin Qasim was one of the ablest generals in the Umayyad armies. Paying attention to details, he ordered the cavalry to move by land and shipped heavy assault engines by sea. Starting his campaigns near the modern city of Karachi, he moved rapidly to capture Panjore and Armabel and advanced towards Debal. The Raja of Debal closed the gates of the city and locked himself inside his fortress. A long siege ensued. The assault engines hammered the city walls day in and day out taking them down brick by brick. Finally, the mighty fortress walls collapsed, the city fell, the Raja fled and the Arab prisoners were released.
From Debal, Mohammed bin Qasim advanced north, and in a series of campaigns captured Sistan, Bahraj, Cutch, Arore, Karej and Jiore. The Raja of Sindh fell at the battle of Jiore. Baluchistan and Sindh were added to the Umayyad Empire. The Arab armies moved up the Indus River. In 713, Multan fell, opening up the vast Punjab plains to the invading armies. Mohammed bin Qasim added portions of southern Punjab to his conquests and crossed the Indus to its eastern banks. But just as he was preparing for a decisive showdown with the rajas of eastern Punjab, the political situation in Iraq changed and Mohammed bin Qasim was called back to Basra. Following a pattern they had established in Iran and Egypt, the conquering Arabs set up military cantonments in Debal and Multan but made no attempts to convert the local population as long as they paid the taxes and accepted the protection of the Umayyad governor.
In the year 717, Omar bin Abdel Azeez became the Caliph in Baghdad. Unlike his predecessors, he was a pious man with a noble vision. He gave up the lavish, profligate ways of the Umayyads, adopted an ascetic lifestyle, abolished unfair taxation on Iran, Egypt and Sindh, engaged the dissidents in dialogue, and treated the population of his vast realm with equity and justice. Attracted by his piety and fairness, many of the Zoroastrians in Persia, Coptic Christians in Egypt, Buddhists in Central Asia and Hindus in Sindh accepted Islam. Historically, this was the first wave of conversion in the Islamic world after the death of the Prophet. However, court intrigue in the palaces of Baghdad intervened once again. Omar bin Abdel Azeez was poisoned in 719 and the far reaching reforms initiated by him came to a halt. So did the process of conversion.
The Abbasids took over from the Umayyads in 751 CE, founded the city of Baghdad, encouraged learning and shifted their focus from conquest to trade. Arab and Persian merchants established colonies all along the rim of the Indian Ocean including Hermuz in Persia, Aden, Yemen, Dar es Salam in Tanzania, Cochinin India, Debal in Sindh, Multan in Punjab, Malacca in Malaysia and Canton in China. Arabic became the lingua franca of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. The traders mingled and intermarried with the local populations. Impressed by their piety, integrity, fairness and egalitarian discipline, many entered the fold of Islam. Conversion was especially brisk along the Malabar Coast of India.
It was with the advent of Fatimid rule in Egypt in the 10th century that conversion picked up in what is today Pakistan. I have in my books on Islam in Global History explained in some detail the religious, political and military events in North Africa and the Middle East surrounding the emergence of the Fatimids. The Fatimids are also called Ismailis. They follow six Imams as opposed to the Ithna Asharis who follow twelve Imams. Today, they constitute a small but influential section of the Islamic community based primarily in Bombay, Karachi, East Africa and Southern Egypt. The Agha Khan is the titular head of the Ismaili community.
In the year 969, the Fatimid Sultan Muiz captured Egypt. This event was a turning point in Islamic history. Using Egypt as their base, the Fatimids branched out, capturing Mecca, Madina and Jerusalem. For a hundred years thereafter the khutba in Mecca and Madina was read in the name of Fatimid princes whose sway extended from the Atlantic coast in Morocco to the Euphrates River in Iraq. The Sunni Abbasids were cornered into a small area around Baghdad.
Muiz (d 975) was a visionary monarch and an able administrator. He established schools, built canals, encouraged agriculture, fostered trade, reduced taxes on the peasants and supported the ulema. It was he who founded the city of Cairo and established the university at Al Azhar (969 CE). His empire sat astride the trade routes between Asia and Europe and benefited from the east-west trade. Egypt prospered and the people loved him.
With the strategic province of Egypt under their control, the Fatimids attempted to establish a universal Islamic Empire directed by the Fatimid Imams. For over a hundred years, from the conquest of Egypt in 969 to the year 1057 when the Buyids were driven out of Baghdad by the Seljuk Turks, the Fatimid writ reigned supreme over much of the Islamic world. The vast majority of their subjects were orthodox Sunni Muslims. To realize their vision of a global empire, the Fatimids embarked on a conversion program directed at the Sunnis as well as the Ithna Ashari (twelver) Shias. The university at Al Azhar was turned into a vast propaganda center wherein daees were trained and sent to the far flung corners of the Muslim world. In addition, in the year 1002, a formal dawa center, the Darul Hikmah, was established in Cairo.
Some of the Fatimid daees arrived in Multan and Sindh where they met with a degree of success. By the time Mahmud Ghaznavi appeared in the Punjab (1001CE), the Fatimids had converted the Emir of Multan and the Fatimid presence was well established there. Mahmud fought and defeated Dawud and brought his emirate back into the fold of Sunni Islam (1004 CE). The population which had opted for Fatimid Shi’ism reverted to Sunni schools of fiqh.
The influx of Fatimid daees marked the first organized attempt at mass conversion in Sindh and Multan. A large number of the early Sufi Shaikhs were among these daees. The names of Pir Sadruddin, Pir Kabiruddin and Pir Yusufuddin are well known in Pakistan. The influx of Sufi Shaikhs continued during the Ghaznavid period. Among the most successful of these Sufis were Shaikh Ismail and Data Ganj Baksh (d 1079). These stalwarts were the earliest missionaries in Western Punjab and their spirituality convinced multitudes of Hindus to accept Islam.
The ideological challenge from the Fatimids elicited a response from the Sunnis. Nizam ul Mulk (d 1091), the grand vizier of the Abbasids, established the Nizamiya college in Baghdad (1090). The College, in addition to a great center of learning, became a propaganda center for Sunni Islam. In this respect, it was a mirror image of Al Azhar, which was a center of Fatimid learning and propaganda. Local governors in the Sunni provinces followed the example of the grand vizier and established higher institutions of learning in cities as far away as Nishapur and Samarkand.
It was in the Nizamiya College Baghdad that Al Gazzali, the most celebrated dialectician in Sunni Islam, taught as a Professor. By the time Gazzali made his entrance on the stage of world history, classical Islamic civilization was past its zenith. Along the road, it had experimented with and abandoned the Mu’tazalite rational approach and had instead adopted and cultivated the empirical sciences. Now it was turning inwards to discover its own soul. Tasawwuf, the inner dimension of Islam, offered new vistas for a civilization that had grown weary of the exoteric sciences. Renowned empiricists such as Ibn Sina (d 1035) had come to accept tasawwuf as a legitimate discipline for the acquisition of knowledge. Al Gazzali, who experienced this skepticism in his personal life, gave up the teaching of exoteric sciences and embarked on a spiritual quest which opened up for him the vast realm of the spirit.
Al Gazzali took on the dual challenge of accommodating tasawwuf within orthodox Sunni Islam and refuting the esoteric doctrines of the Fatimids. He succeeded on both counts through the sheer power of his pen. Tasawwuf thrived. The Fatimid intellectual challenge was contained, and Sunni Islam went on to radiate its spirituality to India, Indonesia, Europe and Africa.
The work of Al Gazzali laid the foundation for the golden age of tasawwuf. The centuries immediately following Al Gazzali (d 1111) witnessed the establishment of Sufi tareeqas which were instrumental in the spread of Islam beyond the Arab-Persian world. The first and foremost of these tareeqas was that of Shaikh Abdel Qader Jeelani (d 1186) of Baghdad. Considered by some to be the greatest of sages, Shaikh Abdel Qader Jeelani is referred to as Ghouse ul Azam (the great helper-for those who seek spiritual help). So powerful was his radiance, and so sublime his message, that thousands flocked to hear him, and the mureeds who learned from him themselves became well known sages. The conservative theologian Ibn Taymiya of Damascus (d 1328), considered by some to be the greatest exponent of Salafi Islam, referred to Shaikh Abdel Qader Jeelani as his own Shaikh.
Tasawwuf served as the life raft for Muslims during the Mongol devastations of the 13th century (1219-1301). The Mongols destroyed the exoteric, empirical Islam that had flourished during its classical age (753-1258). Faced with the prospects of total annihilation, the Islamic world turned to their innate spirituality. This period produced a galaxy of Sufi Shaikhs, the most celebrated among them were Mevlana Rumi of Konya (d 1273), Shaikh Shadhuli of Cairo (d 1258), Shaikh Ibn al Arabi of the Maghreb (d 1240), Khwaja Moeenuddin Chishti of India (d 1236) and Shah Bahauddin Naqshband of Samarqand (d 1389). Seeking nothing but the pleasure of God and their fulfillment in the service of man, these stalwarts succeeded not only in rescuing Islam from annihilation but in converting the conquerors themselves. The conversion of Gazan (1301), the Mongol overlord of Persia, cemented the sway of Islam over Persia and central Asia. History unfolded, revealing in its wake the Mogul, Safavid ad Ottoman empires.
A tareeqa is a brotherhood following a rigorous process prescribed by a Shaikh for tazkiya (purification) of the nafs (soul) so that it becomes worthy of receiving the spirituality passed on through an unending chain of transmission (silsilah) from the Prophet. All of the tareeqas trace their silsilah through Ali (r) except the Naqshbandi which traces its chain of transmission through Abu Bakr (r).
The Shaikhs established zawiyas in the far flung corners of the Islamic world. A zawiya was a mosque-madrassah complex and a meeting place for the brotherhood wherein the students mastered the methodology of tazkiya under the direction of a Shaikh. It was also a place for the public to gain an audience with the Shaikh and benefit from his wisdom and his Baraka (beneficence). The visitors, touched by the spirituality of the Shaikh renewed their faith. Many accepted Islam. These zawiyas were so widespread throughout the Islamic world that we may refer to the culture that sprang up in the post-Mongol period (1300-1700 CE) as the Zawiya culture.
The Qalandariya tareeqa was one of the first to enter the subcontinent but its influence was confined to Multan and its surroundings. Syed Mohammed Ghouse of Sind introduced the Qadariya silsilah into Pakistan (1482). One of the most important Qadariya Shaikhs was Mian Pir who passed away in Lahore in 1635. Mian Pir was a teacher to Dara Shikoah, the eldest son of Shah Jehan and is widely credited with bringing Islam to Northern Punjab and Kashmir.
It was the Chishtiya tareeqa that was most influential in India and Pakistan. The fountainhead of that tareeqa, Khwaja Moeenuddin Chishti was born in Sijistan, Persia in the year 1139. Orphaned at the age of 12, he received his early education in Samarqand. After becoming a hafiz e Quran and mastering the disciplines of kalam, hadith and fiqh, he moved to Neshapur where he was trained by Khwaja Uthman Chishti. After obtaining his ijazah from the Shaikh, he visited Baghdad and met the towering Sufi personages of the age, including Shaikh Abdel Qader Jeelani. From Baghdad, Khwaja Moeenuddin traveled to Multan and then to Lahore.
The vast Indian subcontinent was dominated by Rajput kings. Delhi and Ajmer were ruled by Prithvi Raj Chauhan, a dashing, colorful prince who had earned the enmity of Raja Jai Chand of Kanauj by eloping with his daughter. Khwaja Moeenuddin migrated from Lahore to Ajmer in the year 1191 and established a zawiya. His initial reception was hostile and the Khwaja faced many hardships. However, the political situation changed the following year when Mohammed Ghori of Kabul, backed by Raja Jai Chand of Kanauj, defeated Prithvi Raj at the battle of Tarain (1192). The establishment of the Delhi sultanate removed the impediments to the movement of Sufi mystics. Khwaja Moeenuddin trained and sent his disciples to Delhi, Lahore and other cities in northern India. Thousands embraced Islam through his radiance. Millions came into the fold of Islam through the work of his disciples.
Khwaja Moeenuddin Chishti passed away in 1236 and the mantle of leadership of the Chishtiya order passed on to Khwaja Qutbuddin. Upon the death of Khwaja Qutbuddin, Khwaja Fareed Ganj (d 1257) succeeded him as the Chishtiya Shaikh. Khawaja Fareed moved to Western Punjab and established a Zawiya at Pakpattan. If there is one person to whome is due the introduced of Islam in Pakistan it is Baba Fareed. His piety, sincerity and spirituality acted as a magnet to the Hindus of the Punjab and they embraced Islam in droves. Both the Sabiriya and Nizamiya tareeqas trace their origin to Baba Fareed. He trained and sent a large number of Shaikhs to the far corners of the subcontinent. Notable among those were Shaikh Jamal of Hanswi, Imamul Haq of Sialkot, Mawzum Alauddin Sabir of Saharanpur, Shaikh Muntaqaddin of Deccan and Nizamuddin Awliya of Delhi.
Professor M. Mujeeb has compiled a list of Shaikhs and Pirs in the Pakistan region. The more notable ones listed by him include Shaikh Masud Ganj Shakar of Pak Pattan (d 1266), Syed Jalaluddin Bukhari of Bhawalpur (d 1294), Shaikh Dawud and Shaikh Ismail of Lahore, Shaikh Ruknuddin Rukne Alam of Multan, Shaikh Jehan Gusht of Uch, Pir Jalaluddin of Baluchistan, Mir Syed Hasan Samnani of Kashmir, Shaikh Ishaq of Pak Pattan, Baba Mullah Taher of Ziarat, Pir Hunglaj of Makran, Pir Shori of Bugti, Shah Bilawal of Lasbela, Pir Omar in Khuzdar, Shaikh Chatan Shah of Kalat, Pir Baba of Swat, Shaikh Kaka Sahib of Nowshera, Hazrat Abdullah Shah of Karachi and Hazrat Shah Inayat of Sindh.
Tasawwuf lit the lamp of faith in the subcontinent. It illuminated the landscape, provided guidance to millions, inspired kings and mendicants alike. Islam took roots and became one of the two major faiths in this vast and diverse land. In the Pakistan region, conversion was augmented by the influx of people from Iran and Central Asia. Soldiers from successive invasions settled in the land between Delhi and Peshawar creating a rich mixture of Indian, Afghan, Persian, Turcoman and Central Asian races.
The light of tasawwuf faded with time. Spirituality and ethics gave way to selfishness and greed. The decay is noticeable in the latter half of the 17th century in Mogul India as well as in Safavid Persia and the Ottoman Empire. In a poignant letter to his son Azam written in the year 1704, Emperor Aurangzeb captures the moral bankruptcy of the times:
“My son, my soul, life of my life…..Hameeduddin is a cheat…..Siadat Khan and Muhammed Amin Khan in the advanced guard are contemptible…..Kulich Khan is worthless…..Sarbarah Khan, the Kotwal, is a thief and a pickpocket…..Arshi Khan gets drunk and smells of liquor….Akbar is a vagabond in the desert of infamy…..Kam Baksh is perverse. I myself am forlorn and destitute and misery is my lot.”
Social decay led to political disintegration. A resurgent Europe, riding high on waves of new ideas and technological prowess, moved in to supplant the Islamic world. The expanding social and political rot was reflected in the Sufi world as well. Where great Sufi Shaikhs once radiated their light to an entire subcontinent, there sprang a class of hereditary tomb keepers, the sajjada nishins. Tasawwuf, whose purpose was tazkiya (cleansing) of the self and a longing for divine presence, became synonymous with visits to shrines which became cash machines for sajjada nishins offering cures for incurable diseases with wafts of peacock feather broomsticks.
Reform movements arose to arrest the social disintegration. One of the earliest was that of Shah Waliullah of Delhi (d 1762). Born in 1703, Shah Waliullah was witness to the disintegration of the Mogul empire. India was invaded by Nadir Shah (1739) and Ahmed Shah Abdali (1761). The Marathas rose up in Central India displacing Mogul power. Shah Waliullah sought to arrest the political implosion of India through social reforms. He was a scholar (alim) of the first rank as well as a practitioner of the Qadariya tareeqa and was unique among the reformers of the 18th century in emphasizing both the esoteric and exoteric dimensions of Islam in his writings.
In the 19th century, as Punjab first came under Sikh domination and then under the sway of the British, attempts were made to reform Sufi practices. The effort was led by the Chishtiya tareeqa which was most widely practiced in the subcontinent. The thrust of these reforms was to bring Islam back into its traditional spiritual mold based on the Sunnah of the Prophet. This was the goal of Ahl e Sunnah wal Jamaat. This Jamaat was most active in the rural areas as it was here that Sufism and the sajjada nishins held their sway.
There was at the same time an urban based movement to reform Islam. This movement, spearheaded by the ulema, looked upon Sufism with suspicion and held it responsible for the internal decay within the Muslim body politic. The urban based ulema emphasized strict adherence to the exoteric aspects of the Shariah and its injunctions, and they sought support for their positions in the ahadith of the Prophet. Their intellectual approach and their arguments, however, had little impact on the rural folks who stayed bound by their loyalties to the local sajjada nishins.
A decayed Sufism existed side by side with a feudal structure that had grown around hereditary landlords. The Mogul rulers, and the nawabs who followed them, had granted deeds to large tracts of unsettled lands to their favorite courtiers, generals and soldiers. These titles (jagirs) were passed on from father to son, and in time the hereditary owners of these deeds became powerful landlords whose sway extended not only over their lands but also their tenants. Some of the zawiyas had also received land grants from the emperors and the nawabs so that the sajjada nishins were at once owners of the supernal talisman and temporal fiefdoms. The steady influx of cash from offerings of devotees added to their wealth. Economic power translates into political power. There grew up in Punjab and Sindh a two-tiered social structure wherein the sajjada nishins and the powerful landlords occupied the privileged the privileged upper echelons of society while the masses tilled the land and toiled in their sweat.
The British, who replaced the great Moguls in the 19th century recognized the benefits of keeping the sajjada nishins and the landlords in a power structure that would safeguard their imperial interests. Their policies in the Pakistan region reflected these imperial interests. The Land Alienation Act of 1900 conferred on the sajjada nishins the same privileges as those for the landlords. Since land was a primary criterion for social status, many of the honorary government appointments such as the local judges went to the landlords and the sajjada nishins. The British thus successfully created a two tiered political support structure for the Raj, the first by the maharajas and the nawabs, and the second by the landlords and the hereditary sajjada nishins. It ensured that political power in the Punjab stayed in the rural areas away from the growing political awakening in the cities and the increasing demands for self-rule.
A confluence of money, politics and religion is inimical to the spiritual development of humankind. It creates a triad of power structure which corrupts all three. To be true to its divine mission, religion must remain above wealth and politics. Else, it forfeits its spirituality and succumbs to the downward pull of profane worldliness.
The coalition of landlords and rural shrine-based interests formed the basis of support for the Unionist party which was organized by Fazl Hussain and Chotu Ram in 1923. By focusing on land reforms and emphasizing traditional culture, the Unionists created a regional Punjabi party transcending the communalism that was sweeping much of northern India. Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus alike gave their allegiance to the party and it governed the key province of Punjab for over two decades. The political and social stability of the province served British interests well. A large proportion of the Indian Army that fought in the Second World War was recruited in the Punjab. Service in the army provided another binding element for Punjabis of all faiths supplanting communal and India-centrist elements.
The Unionist Party swept the provincial elections in the Punjab in 1936-37. The Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League, with their centrist all-India agendas, were both miserable failures in that election. Even Allama Iqbal and a few candidates fielded by him were defeated. Traditional Islam, in cooperation with traditional Sikh and Hindu elements, emerged victorious. Sikandar Hayat, as the head of the Unionist party governed the province until his death in 1943.
This coalition of traditional Muslim, Sikh and Hindu elements endured until after World War II. A student of history may argue that if this coalition had survived and continued to occupy the central space in the politics of the Punjab, partition would probably not have happened. How did this coalition fall apart?
Arrayed against the traditional agenda of the Unionist party were the national agendas of the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League. These centrist agendas meant different things to the two parties. The Congress party, dominated by Hindu elements from Northern India had the luxury of framing its agenda in all-India nationalist terms because the triumph of this agenda would in effect mean a Hindu dominated central government. The Congress party saw the Muslims as a minority. Jinnah, deeply suspicious of Congress rule and distrustful of a dominant Hindu majority, would not accept this position. His own disillusionment with the Congress had led him to believe that the Muslims could not trust a Hindu majority for safeguarding their interests. He was convinced that a dialogue between the Hindus and the Muslims must be a dialogue between equals and not a dialogue between a majority and a minority. He championed the two nation theory, articulated first by Hindu nationalists, in which the Hindus and the Muslims each occupied their own political and social space. Were the Muslims a minority or a nation, that was the question dividing the Congress and the League.
Neither the Congress nor the Muslim League position was without inherent contradictions. By insisting on a strong central government that would by default be dominated by Hindus, the Congress party failed to accommodate the anxieties of the Muslim-majority areas. The Muslims were a majority in large portions of the northwest and the northeast. But they were a small minority in central and southern India. On the other hand, the position of the Muslim League had its own contradictions. While it might have made sense for the League to speak of the northwestern and northeastern regions as separate “nations” with Muslim majorities, the idea of an all-India Muslim “nation” glossed over the presence of millions of Muslims in the Indian hinterland who would remain in India, partition or no partition. Some historians have argued that the objective of Mohammed Ali Jinnah was not partition but autonomous Muslim majority regions in the northwest and the northeast that were free to govern themselves within a federated India. In support of this argument they offer as evidence Jinnah’s acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan (1946) which envisaged three autonomous regions in a federated India. Two of these, in the northwest and the northeast would have Muslim majorities. It was Jawaharlal Nehru who torpedoes this plan. When the chips were down, Jinnah was for a united India with a weak center while Nehru accepted a partitioned India with a strong center. These positions were a reflection of the philosophical makeup of the two men, each a giant in his own right, and each pivotal in shaping the destiny of the subcontinent. I will elaborate in a separate series how these conflicting philosophies played themselves out in the turbulent years immediately after the World War II, leading to the holocaust that accompanied partition.
The demise of the Unionist Party and the shift in allegiance of the sajjada nishins of the Punjab were not an accident of history. They were a result of the deliberate and determined policies of the Muslim League. Jinnah knew that there would be no Pakistan without the Punjab. But he had a tactical hurdle before him. The Punjab was ruled by the Unionist party which was inclusive and had largely stayed out of the communal frenzy in northern India. The challenge before him was to break Punjab loose from the Unionist party and bring the Muslims of Punjab within an all-India Muslim framework.
The Congress party claimed to represent all sections of India’s population including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Parsees. Indeed, during much of the period for the agitation of Pakistan, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, a scholarly Muslim, was the President of the Congress party (1940-45). The inclusive, all-India posture of the Congress party was a threat to Jinnah’s position that the Muslim League alone represented the interests of all the Muslims of India. This position may at first seem obdurate. On closer examination, it was directed less at the Congress than at the Unionist party of the Punjab. As long as the Unionist party represented the interests of the Muslims of the Punjab, the Muslim League could not negotiate with the British and the Congress as the sole representative of all the Muslims of India. Indeed, the Unionist party was a threat to the very basis of the two nation theory.
Jinnah proceeded to demolish the Unionist party in a two step process. The first step was the abrogation of the Jinnah-Sikandar Pact that Jinnah had signed with the Unionist party in 1942. Sikandar Hayat was the Unionist Chief Minister of Punjab and was enormously popular in the rural areas of that vast province. The Jinnah-Sikandar Pact was a tactical stand – down agreement that enabled the League to consolidate its position in the rural areas even while it professed its partnership with the Unionists. When Sikandar Hayat died in 1944, Jinnah made his move and abrogated the Pact. Without the strong leadership of Sikandar, the Unionists came apart at the seams. There were many defections. Some were co-opted by the League, some went over to the Congress, yet others to the Sikh Akali Dal.
The Second World War was rapidly coming to an end and the British, exhausted from the War, wanted to divest themselves of the Indian Empire which was bursting at the seams with nationalist fervor. They called the Simla Conference of 1945 whose declared intent was to reconcile the positions of the Congress and the League so that an Advisory Committee could be formed to advise the British viceroy on all matters affecting the governance of the subcontinent. At the Conference, Jinnah took a hard stand that only the League, as the sole representative of all the Muslims of India, could nominate Muslim delegates to the Advisory Committee. Jinnah understood very well that the Congress could not accept this demand. It would have meant that the Congress could not even nominate a stalwart like Maulana Azad to the Advisory Committee. The Simla Conference collapsed.
The failure of the Simla Conference was a triumph for Jinnah’s strategy. It demonstrated to the Unionists that in the political end game between the British, the Congress and the League, only the All-India Muslim League would be accepted as the spokesman for India’s Muslims. But it also hardened the position of Congress leadership and killed any hope of Congress-League rapprochement and a united India.
The repercussions in the Punjab were rapid. The landlords and the sajjada nishins realized that if they wanted to safeguard their privileged positions in the emerging political order, they had to get on board with the League. The sajjada nishins abandoned the Unionists and formed a de facto alliance with the Muslim League. This was a key turning point in the struggle for Pakistan.
Defections from the Unionist party came rapidly. Notable among those who switched over to the League were Pir Syed Ahmed Shah of Hazrat Shah Nur Jamal, Pir Jamaat Ali Shah, Pir Fazal Shah, Pir Hussain Shah, and the Pirs of Musa Pak Shaheed, Jalalpur, Rajca and Golra. The pirs injected a religious fervor into the political campaign of 1946 which had not been there in previous elections. Their tilt was decisive in the elections of 1946. Only a small minority of sajjada nishins, such as Pir Bahaul Haque, stayed with the secular agenda of the Unionist party.
Arrayed against the League were the urban based reformist ulema as well as the Ahrar party, the Ahl e Hadith and the Jamiat e ulema e Hind. These reformist ulema visualized the future of Muslim India not in an independent state but in a society based on the Shariah with themselves as the priestly class that interpreted the Shariah for the masses. However, the intellectual approach of the reformist ulema made no impact on the rural masses who stood by their allegiance to the hereditary pirs and voted in droves for the League and its agenda.
The Pakistan movement was also helped by the hereditary landlords. These entrenched interests sensed that their privileged position would be at risk if they did not join up with an emerging Pakistan dominated by the League. Examples of the landlord families who supported the League were the Hayat, Noon and Daulatana families. Some of these families were interconnected through an extensive network of tribal brotherhood called biraderees.The landlords and the tribal leaders controlled the votes of their tenants and brotherhoods just as the sajjada nishins controlled the votes of their murids through the fatwas. The Salafi reformist ulema opposed to the idea of Pakistan were unsuccessful against the solid social structure of the sajjada nishins and the landlords.
The dislocations caused by the Second World War were an added element in the extraordinary events leading to partition. As the war dragged on into 1945, there was a scarcity of food grains in the Punjab. Black marketers, sensing an opportunity to make a killing, hoarded the scarce supply of wheat driving up prices and causing immense hardship to the poor rural peasantry. Riots erupted in several areas. The League and its supporters blamed the policies of the Unionist government who they said was pandering to the profiteers, many of whom were Sikh and Hindu. As the war ended and the large Indian army was demobilized, over a million soldiers returned to the Punjab only to find that there were no jobs for them and inflationary prices made even the basic food items beyond their reach. They voted against the Unionist party.
The election of 1946 was a triumph for the reformist pirs and the landlords. It was a defeat for the reformist molvis and the ulema. Traditional Islam operating in a medieval agrarian structure dominated by powerful landlords won over reformist Salafi Islam advocated by the molvis and the ulema.
It was only after partition and the establishment of Pakistan that the reformist ulema and molvis flocked to the new state and hijacked the emerging political agenda. Witness, for instance, the turnabout in the position of Maulana Maududi. He had opposed the idea of Pakistan all his life but soon after partition moved to Pakistan at the head of the Jamaat e Islamic that called for the establishment of an “Islamic state”. This was a far cry from Jinnah’s concept of a modern, secular Muslim majority state wherein Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs would live as equal citizens. The injection of a Salafi reformist agenda into a traditional rural social structure led by the sajjada nishins and dominated by powerful landlords introduced multiple tensions that continue to rock the body politic of Pakistan to this day.
Was Pakistan an “Islamic State” or a “Republic” whose population had a Muslim majority? Jinnah apparently had a vision of the latter while the revised agenda of the Salafi ulema supported the former. These tensions have not been resolved. Torn by these tensions, hesitant to define its destiny, faced with unending confrontations with India, Pakistan turned to the only organized body capable of providing it with a degree of stability, namely the army. But this stability has come at the price of scuttled democracy. The people of Pakistan continue to struggle with the tensions inherent in the contradictions between a rural traditionalist Sufi Islam of the sajjada nishins, a reformist Sufi Islam of some of the pirs, an urban Salafi Islam led by Jamaat e Islami, and a modernist Islam envisioned by its founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah, all of these in a political structure dominated by the army and the hereditary landlords. The tensions will persist until Pakistan defines its own soul.