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The question of the ‘Islamic state’

Jinnah and Liaquat’s assumption that only theocracies were to be avoided rested on a very narrow understanding of how law and society worked. Though their pronouncements saved Pakistan from a theocracy, it helped little to define what the term ‘Islamic state’ then meant

The question of the ‘Islamic state’

Since its creation, the issue of the ‘Islamic state’ has been debated in Pakistan. What exactly did/does it mean in 1947, to Jinnah — the founder of the country — and to others, how was it interpreted by Jinnah and then later Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, and what did it mean practically for the newly established country of Pakistan. These questions have been hotly debated in the country since its inception and still remain a topic of concern.

In the run up to the creation of Pakistan neither Jinnah nor the Muslim League verbalised what the term ‘Islamic state’ meant. Jinnah continuously kept referring to Pakistan being built along Islamic lines, but in his few pronouncements, it is clear that he was thinking of a very modern, and dare I say, modernist, interpretation of Islam. For example, in his conversation with Mr. Weldon James of the Collier’s Weekly, he noted: “The position of women is already equal in law to that of men. It may be expected that their participation in civic affairs and in the professions will increase, and that the institution of purdah, which is the result of tradition and not of the teachings of the Qur’an, will gradually disappear. In the old, old days it was a good idea, since in the autocratic past a king of a chieftain might take to himself any beautiful woman he saw, and a man was wise indeed to keep his women under cover. Custom throughout the world tends to outlive the reason for its origin, and this one is no exception. In the modern state such a precaution is not necessary, and it is already on the way out.”

From the above it is very clear that Jinnah was making his own interpretation of Islam. By dismissing the purdah — still an integral part of Muslim life in South Asia, as mere custom and having run out its utility, he was deciding for himself — in a very modern way — what the injunctions of Islam were. However, such clear indications by Jinnah of what he considered Islamic and what he did not, were few and far in between.

In his public pronouncements, Jinnah kept talking of Islam and Islamic principles as the basis for the future constitution of Pakistan, and even went as far as to say that Sharia would be enforced. In his address to the Karachi Bar Association on the occasion of the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in January 1948, Jinnah had said that “….he could not understand a section of the people who deliberately wanted to create mischief and made propaganda that the Constitution of Pakistan would not be made on the basis of the Shari’at.” However, even here his understanding of Sharia was different than what some might think as the traditional description.

In the same speech he was reported to have gone on to say, “Islam and its idealism have taught democracy. Islam has taught equality, justice and fair play to everybody. What reason is there to fear democracy, equality, freedom on the highest standard of integrity and on the basis of fair play and justice for everybody…Let us make it the future constitution of Pakistan. We shall make it and we will show it to the world.” Clearly he was referring to concepts beyond what people thought was Islamic at that time.

In his public pronouncements, Jinnah kept talking of Islam and Islamic principles as the basis for the future constitution of Pakistan, and even went as far as to say that Sharia would be enforced.

In his later speeches too, Jinnah spoke of Islam and the ‘Islamic way’ in broad strokes, which kept open a wide window for all kinds of interpretation. For example, at the Sibi Darbar in February 1948 while outlining the proposed changes in governance in the province of Balochistan as the constitution was bring framed, he stated: “…I have one underlying principle in mind, the principle of Muslim democracy. It is my belief that our salvation lies in following the golden rules of conduct set for us by our great law-giver, the Prophet of Islam [PBUH]. Let us lay the foundation of our democracy on the basis of truly Islamic ideals and principles.”

However, Jinnah also noted that Pakistan would not be a theocratic state. In his broadcast to the American people in February 1948, Jinnah noted: “Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state, that is, rule of or by priests with divine mission. We have many non-Muslims such as Hindus, Christians and Parsis. But they are all Pakistanis and equal citizens with equal rights and privileges and every right to play their part in the affairs of Pakistan national state.”

But shortly after his American broadcast, in his message to the Australian people he underscored the Islamic nature of the polity while still repeating the non-theocratic nature of the country mentioned above. Jinnah said: “The great majority of us are Muslims. We follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). We are members of the brotherhood of Islam in which all are equal in rights, dignity and self-respect. Consequently, we have a very deep sense of unity.”

Jinnah again mentioned that his principles are rooted in Islam when in public reception in Chittagong, East Bengal, in March 1948, he noted: ‘You are only voicing my sentiments and the sentiments of millions of Musalmans when you say that Pakistan should be based on the sure foundations of social justice and Islamic socialism (not other isms) which emphasises equality and brotherhood of man.”

Echoing Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, while introducing the Objectives Resolution on March 7, 1949 stated that this was a moment second only to the independence of the country, because “by achieving independence we only won an opportunity of building up a country and its polity in accordance with our ideals.” Liaquat was clear why Pakistan was made; it was made “because the Muslims of this sub-Continent wanted to build up their lives in accordance with the teachings and traditions of Islam, because they wanted to demonstrate to the world that Islam provides a panacea to the many diseases which have crept into the life of humanity today.”

Liaquat further makes it clear that there would be no separation of religion and the state in Pakistan, in fact, he blamed the ills of the world squarely on this separation. He continued: “We, as Pakistanis, are not ashamed of the fact that we are overwhelmingly Muslims and we believe that it is by adhering to our faith and ideals that we can make a genuine contribution to the welfare of the world…It is quite true that this is in direct contradiction to the Machiavellian ideas regarding a polity where spiritual and ethical values should play no part in the governance of the people…But we, the people of Pakistan, have the courage to believe firmly that all authority should be exercised in accordance with the standards laid down by Islam so that it may not be misused.”

Here too Liaquat emphasises that Pakistan will not become a theocracy. He states that while theocracy means God’s government, and that in a literal sense the whole world is theocratic, since Islam does not have any ordained clergy “the question of theocracy simply does not arise in Islam.” He further explains: “If there are any who still use the word theocracy in the same breath as the polity of Pakistan, they are either labouring under a grave misapprehension, or indulging in mischievous propaganda.”

From the above it seems that both Jinnah and Liaquat envisioned the world as either a ‘theocracy’ or a ‘democracy’. In their definition, theocracy meant the rule of priests and since Islam did not have priests [certain sections of Sunni Islam at best], there was no fear of theocracy. This purports as if religious laws can only be enforced by clerics, and non-clerics will never take a country in a decidedly religious direction. This formulation they borrow from the West where in the medieval and early modern world there were territories ruled over by the Pope and Bishops. However, as historical experience had shown these European ‘theocracies’ were at times more liberal than the other states in Europe, which were under a secular prince but were in reality more draconian and oppressive towards members of a religion the ruler did not approve of.

Jinnah and Liaquat’s assumption that only theocracies were to be avoided rested on a very narrow understanding of how law and society worked [odd since they were both distinguished lawyers!]. Hence while their pronouncements saved Pakistan from a theocracy, it helped little to define what the term ‘Islamic state’ then meant. How the concept of ‘secular democracy’ was to work with religious inspiration was something both Jinnah and Liaquat did not explain and took for granted, thinking that they will not conflict. This confusion we are still trying to clear.

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.

One comment

  • Jinnah and Liaquat were politicians who said different things to different audiences as the occasion suited. What they really meant or envisaged died with them. The politicians that followed the, including the Generals who were really politicians, twisted the constitution and the law to suit their circumstances and benefit themselves wherever they could. All these past sayings or doings are really water under the bridge. The minorities have been voting with their feet against Pakistan for several decades. Now, even the majority wants to run away if they could. The reality of Pakistan is that it is an agrarian state with the 6th largest military in the world. It is also a nuclear state that cannot pay its bills.

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