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Islam and the middle class

An insightful and interesting treatise that focuses on the middle class structure, its increasing religious identity, and divisions between the traditional and the new middle classes

Islam and the middle class

Pakistan’s growing middle class and its increasing identification with religion is a topic which is attracting attention of anthropologists as well as academics belonging to other disciplines. In 2009, Iranian-American academic and Pakistan expert Vali Nasr, in his book Forces of Fortune which included a chapter on Pakistan also, chronicled the rise of the new Muslim middle class in the Muslim world and what it meant for the world. Combining piety and capitalism, a new business-minded, globally-connected and religious middle class in the Muslim world, Nasr provocatively opined, could be the bulwark against Islamic extremism and thus a natural ally for the Western governments.

In 2014, Sanaa Riaz, a Pakistani-American anthropologist in her first book titled New Islamic Schools: Tradition, Modernity, and Class in Urban Pakistan, explored the growing trend and popularity of Islamic schools among middle class and upper middle class families in Karachi.

Recently, Dr Ammara Maqsood, a lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester, has written a pioneering and perceptive debut book on Pakistan’s middle class. Titled The New Pakistani Middle Class (Harvard University Press 2017), Ammara’s insightful and interesting treatise focuses on the middle class structure, increasing religious identity of an upwardly mobile new middle class, and divisions between the traditional and the new middle classes of Lahore.

Although her ethnographic research is confined to Lahore’s Quran schools and religious study circles and focuses on increasing consumerism of this city’s rising religious middle class, her observations are extended to middle class in other urban areas of the country as well as comparisons made with urban Muslim middle class in countries such as India, Turkey, Iran etc.

Based on anthropological approach, the book does not give estimates of the middle class or deal with socio-economic or socio-political impact. PIDE, an economic research institute in Islamabad, estimated middle class at 35 per cent of the population in a 2011 study. Former governor State Bank of Pakistan, Dr Ishrat Husain, in his recently published book, put the proportion at 42 per cent. In the last two decades, this burgeoning middle class has expanded due to economic factors such as cheap credit, immigrant remittances, foreign aid and market-oriented economic reforms.

Before partition, the middle class consisted of Indian officials, bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers and teachers who were linked to the colonial state. After 1947, these families in Lahore employed in the colonial state’s government service played the role of the modernisers, with help from urban professionals who had moved from India and educated families from smaller towns in Punjab.

In contrast to the old and established middle class families, a new middle class, with its visible religiosity, has emerged in Lahore. Religious, socially conservative, and educated mostly at state schools, many members of the new middle class are second-generation migrants from small-towns and rural areas in Punjab.

In Lahore, this traditional middle class of the first three decades after independence is now the old or established middle class. Their children do not work for the state but occupy middle or top management jobs in the private sector. This old middle class has nostalgia for Ayub Khan’s period in the 1960s which is remembered as heyday of Pakistan’s cultural and social liberalism — although a number of them, ironically, took part in the 1968 political protests against Ayub Khan leading to the overthrow of the modernising dictator.

Liberal and secular in its outlook, this elite old middle class, inter-related to a certain extent through genealogical ties also, tries to showcase a modern image of Pakistan to the external world by participating in and hosting events such as literary festivals, musical and ghazal evenings, and fashion-shows.

In contrast to the old and established middle class families, a new middle class, with its visible religiosity, has emerged in Lahore since General Zia-ul Haq’s rule in the 1980s and is viewed by the established middle class as his legacy. Religious, socially conservative, and educated mostly at state schools, many members of the new middle class are second-generation migrants from small-towns and rural areas in Punjab.

Familiar with the Islamic parties’ discourse and also sympathetic to their rhetoric about social justice, most members of the new middle class are not card-carrying members of Islamist parties but extend to them transient, issue-based support which may not necessarily translate into votes for religious parties in most cases.

Like the new middle class in the Muslim world, the Pakistani counterpart also strongly believes that the key to solving their country’s problems lies in becoming better Muslims and instilling Islamic values. They also share their passion for rising consumerism, buying latest mobile phones and electronic gadgets during frequent trips to mega-stores, markets and Western-style malls.

This cohort is brand-conscious and buys from western outlets whether it is imported diapers, designer clothes, or fast-food snacks. A number of visitors, however, are just window-shoppers who identify items at the malls but buy similar stuff from cheaper bazaars or wholesale markets offering deals for such items

Government service is still sought after as a status-symbol but since its meagre income cannot sustain this consumption oriented life-style, a number of new middle-class families beef up their income through investment in real estate. Foreign remittances sent by family members abroad, mostly semi-skilled labour in the Gulf but also Britain or North America, have helped some families to enter this stratum of new middle class in the last few decades.

Ammara contends that although visible religiosity of the new middle class is often identified as the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia, it is “not Wahhabi Islam but the globalised Islam practiced by Muslims in the West that better explains contemporary religious trends”. She further argues that many members of the new middle class have incorporated Muslim practices in their own lives, after becoming familiarised through relatives abroad or returning migrants.

Examples of Quran schools and religious study circles, with emphasis on Quran’s translation and commentary, are cited as they were introduced in Lahore in the early 2000s by returnees from the United States. Moreover, many new middle class women, instead of wearing the traditional chador or dupatta, have switched to head scarves and cloaks (known as Abaya) similar to those worn by relatives in the West, Saudi Arabia or the Gulf.

Book review

Women wearing headscarves are making a statement that they are veiling by choice, derived from their knowledge and understanding, and not due to a presumed dated family custom. The new middle class, according to the author, desires more to display their modern Muslim identity, in line with their newly achieved economic progress, than their yearning to be close to Saudi Arabia.

A key motif of the book is that the new middle class has been denied the status of modernity in the local hierarchy by the old middle class, but these groups look for it through their familiarity with a globalised Muslim community. Just as the old class emphasises its modern status through a narrative used to explain Pakistan to the outside world, the new middle class is using its religiosity and connectivity to the globalised Muslim community in the West to assert its modernity.

Her arguments and explanations given above are correct to a large extent but she misses an important point about the conflation of Wahhabi Islam with globalised Islam which is that the pre-dominant funding of mosques in the Islamic world and the West is by Saudi Arabia. These mosques and religious centres, globally, aggressively propagate and promote Wahhabi Islam.

Apart from Pakistan and Afghanistan where Wahhabi Islam gained prominence during Afghan Jihad through madrassas, increasing footprint of Wahhabi Islam propagated through Saudi-financed mosques in places such as south India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and even Kosovo has been subject of many press articles in the last decade.

Although Barelvi institutions and mosques funded by organisations such as Allama Tahirul Qadri’s Minhaj ul Quran have their presence in North America, Britain or Europe, these mosques or religious centres are far outnumbered by Wahhabi or Deobandi (of South Asian origin but close to Wahhabi Islam as opposed to mainstream Barelvi Sunni Islam of South Asia) mosques and religious centres. Recently released data for 2017 shows that in Britain, where Muslims from South Asia are the pre-dominant majority, there are 797 Deobandi mosques in contrast to 459 Barelvi mosques.

The most interesting section of the book deals with Quran schools and religious study circles, using the case-study of Al-Huda in Lahore and giving a good profile of its founder Dr Farhat Hashmi, a Glasgow University educated female preacher who is now settled in Canada. Ammara observes that Quran schools and religious study circles (known as Dars classes) focus on application of religious teachings to everyday issues and culture practices instead of fiqh related matters such as divorce, inheritance or marriage.

She argues that preachers like Hashmi do not follow any particular fiqh (which is also a Salafi practice) or those who do follow a certain fiqh are not sectarian and do not convert followers to their particular fiqh. The important point, she is missing, is that both Deobandi and Barelvis follow Hanafi fiqh so the issue of conversion does not arise in fiqh-related matters.

However, on everyday issues or cultural practices these Deobandi schools are closer to Wahhabi fiqh and thus popularise that viewpoint as seen explicitly in a case she describes of a woman who, after her father in law’s death, was torn between two choices: to host chehlum (Barelvi practice followed by her husband family) or not to host chehlum (Deobandi practice as taught at Dars class).

Politically, the new middle-class is likely to vote for urban-based political parties. The new middle class is nationalistic and, like all middle-classes, is pro-Army. Army officer cadre these days is now drawn mostly from this new middle class instead of old middle class as was the norm during pre-Zia years. Ironically, across the border, a new nationalist middle class in democratic India which believes in an intolerant Hindutva, totally unconnected with globalised Islam phonemonen, has appeared on the scene in the last two decades.

Political theory associates sizeable or large middle class with habits of self-restraint and compromise such as are generated by trade. In South Asian context, if and when a sizeable and expanding middle class, in both India and Pakistan, will spearhead the campaign for peace still remains to be seen.

The New Pakistani Middle Class
Author: Ammara Maqsood
Publisher: Harvard University Press (2017) Hardback
Pages: 208
Price: $35.15

Ammar Ali Qureshi

Ammar Ali Qureshi
The reviewer is an independent researcher based in Islamabad. He can be reached at ammar_ali@yahoo.com and tweets @AmmarAliQureshi

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