Jinnah and the Muslims of British India – By R. Khan

Jinnah and the Muslims of British India – By R. Khan

In the last part of the book, Ahmed attempts to describe the state of existing South Asian countries Jinnah and the Muslims of British India
Book Review: Akbar S. Ahmed. Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity; The search for Saladdin. London: Routledge, 1997.


jinnah and gandhi

jinnah and gandhi


As India and Pakistan approached their 50th anniversaries and fell short of the millennial expectations of their founding fathers, much impetus was given for a series of books reevaluating the heroes of the recent past, both as a way to derive fresh visions for the future and to relate today’s problems to the ambiguities of this past. Enter the book here under review. The author, Akbar Ahmed, is a well-known civil servant-intellectual, Cambridge fellow, and thoughtful writer on Islam. He belongs to an eminent Pakistani Muslim family who, as followers of Jinnah, had earlier migrated from Delhi to Karachi following Partition. In addition to offering observations about the book, I would also like to provide- if readers will forgive me- some broader reflections from an amateur who has an interest in South Asian history.

The author is obviously an intelligent and passionate writer and begins with laudable intentions. He desires to ‘save’ Jinnah from the somber and mythologising projections by the Pakistani government and the negative and vilifying representations of him in India. By doing so, he hopes to show how Jinnah may offer an authentic model of Islamic leadership, and may be a modern-day Saladdin for the Muslim world and an alternative to the Western media’s portrayal of authentic Muslim leadership. In addition, Ahmed attempts to reinterpret Jinnah’s life and the historical circumstances- both medieval and modern- that molded the man and his political outlook to highlight his continued relevance to Pakistanis and to evoke conciliation among South Asians.

Unfortunately, what begins as a ‘Destiny of Pakistani Muslims’ ends up being something slightly disappointing. Though this is an accessible and comprehensive book, it is not as thoughtful as Ahmed’s other works. Made in the prelude to his movie about Jinnah, this book was obviously written in a rush and not subject to proper editing. At points the text can be objective, informative, and diplomatic, and at other times it is biased, distorting, and contradictory. In trying to produce an accessible study of Jinnah, the author ventures historical arguments one would not normally find in more academic treatments of the subject. The anthropological methodology that he employs is more a popular variety and he often simplifies a period in South Asian history that needs to be dealt with more sensitively, given the ongoing ramifications that this history is having on the region. In the end, the author sometimes succumbs to the mythologising tendencies he earlier abjures, and we never really get a systematic presentation of what Jinnah actually stood for.

In offering Jinnah as a model of Islamic leadership, the author raises a compelling issue which is not dealt with extensively in this book, namely the confrontation of tradition and modernity in Islam. This encounter has been central to Pakistan’s existence and to Islam more generally. At an intellectual level the debate, simplified, has to do with whether or not classical Islam is the best normative interpretation of the religion for present times. Western-educated jurists and the traditional ulema in Pakistan have been divided on this issue, specifically with regards to reform of shariat law. At the practical level, this has to do with the individual Muslim’s efforts to live out his or her religion in today’s circumstances, namely the challenge of maintaining one’s roots in a past which is governed by religion while actively participating in a present which is largely secular.

At the ideological level, Ahmed depicts Jinnah more or less as an Islamic liberal who operates at an ideological golden mean- a ‘believing’ modernist who stands away from the revivalism of the Jamaat-e-Islami but also away from the agnosticism of Salman Rushdie. Jinnah is quoted as having advocated a just and democratic Pakistani state which would alleviate the plight of the poor and protect the rights of minorities and women, while, all the time, operating according to Islamic principles. What this position spelt out in terms of political institutions or economic policies was never formulated- Jinnah did not live long enough to delineate these. Aside from secularist perspectives, the tension between Islamic liberalism versus revivalism in Pakistan is really embodied in the country’s poet-patriot Iqbal who, though a brilliant thinker, was unsure over where to cast his lot: in the end he supported both Jinnah and Maududi.

Ahmed’s personality profile of Jinnah is interesting and incomplete. Jinnah’s earlier secularism and cosmopolitanism, in the spirit of Badruddin Tyabji, stands in contrast to his later political outlook. An important contributing factor to the shift was Gandhi’s entrance onto the political scene. As a committed constitutionalist, Jinnah was not convinced of the efficacy of non-cooperation and thought it would lead to violence. In addition to being averse to mass politics, he also did not appreciate the religious tenor being introduced into the Congress. It must be noted, though, that non-cooperation as a strategy was not immediately accepted by everyone in the Congress, such as legislative stalwarts like Motilal Nehru; on the other side, the firebrand leader Tilak, also a Hindu scholar, thought the strategy’s spiritual underpinnings too mild. Congress had previously almost suffered a split between those members advocating a legislative approach versus those advocating more revolutionary tactics. Indeed, what Gandhi seemed to be offering was a middle-path between the constitutional politics of Gokhale and the agitational politics of Tilak.

The author also bravely introduces information on Jinnah’s wife Ruttie, his sister Fatima, and his daughter Dina- people in the Quaid’s life that most Pakistani biographies omit. This section does help reveal a more human side to Jinnah, and an intriguing suggestion is offered about the possible influence of Jinnah’s estrangement from Ruttie and her subsequent death upon his future political choices. Though it seems he was always in touch with her during their separation, the cause of the estrangement is not explained. We are told, as well, that he was always in close contact with his daughter Dina, despite their differences over her choice of husband. Information about his very supportive sister Fatima is also provided, yet we do not get real sense of her influence, positive or negative, on Jinnah.

It is true that Jinnah appears somewhat sinister throughout Attenborough’s film
Gandhi. In contrast, the other eminent Muslim of the time, Maulana Azad, is depicted as a quiet and dignified presence. This aspect of the movie offended Ahmed to the point where he felt compelled to produce a rebuttal through his own film about the Quaid. Like the film, this book is a sincere attempt to show us how remarkable a man Jinnah really was and how he possessed many admirable qualities. If, as George Orwell once wrote, Gandhi can be described as a politician who left behind a clean scent, Jinnah can also be described in this way. The author, however, has produced an all-encompassing defense of Jinnah, to the point where it appears as though the man could do no wrong. If men of great aptitude like Nehru and Azad could suffer from large egos, it is unlikely that Jinnah did not possess one as well. And if Nehru and Azad were irked by Jinnah’s rising status, no doubt Jinnah must have been irked by Gandhi’s entrance onto the Congress stage. Finally, as recorded by their respective associates, both Jinnah and Gandhi could act dictatorially towards their co-workers.

The second and largest part of the book delves more deeply into the religious and political history of India, medieval and modern, to set the cultural context for the Pakistan movement. Ahmed’s survey of the religious scene in India during the medieval period is more or less balanced. The history of Islam in the subcontinent is often characterized as being both syncretistic and antagonistic vis-à-vis the Hindu milieu. Though the idea of a totally syncretistic culture at the folk level prior to the British arrival is sometimes romanticized, it is important to know that religious identities were not as rigidly defined back then as they have come to be today; considerable cultural overlaps existed then and still do now, though the degree varies from class to class and region to region. Nevertheless, communalism seems to have always been part of the Indian ethos, and the colonial experience exacerbated this tendency by politicizing people’s religious identities and reifying people’s sense of separateness, even though in regions like rural Bengal one had trouble distinguishing between purely Muslim versus Hindu cultural traditions.

The author’s survey of Hindu and Muslim revivalist movements in the late 19th and early 20th century, however, is not very balanced. Ahmed has a better knowledge of Muslim revivalism than he does of the Hindu counterpart. Some aspects of Hindu revivalism were chauvinistic and obviously anti-Muslim; but some aspects of Muslim revivalism were also condescending to Hinduism and preoccupied with reviving lost Muslim power. The author’s contention that Bankim Chatterjee’s novel Anandamath was the propeller for today’s intimidating Hindu nationalism is a bit overstated and needs to be researched further. No doubt in the 1920s it was a very influential polemical novel, producing the song ‘Bande Mataram,’ and Chatterjee in his later years espoused a neo-conservative form of Hinduism. But if there are overtly anti-Muslim sentiments in the novel, these may have been partly related to the author’s ignorance of Indian Islam, as well as to the loyalism of educated Bengali Muslims having grated against his growing antipathy towards the British. As Ahmed also observes, Tagore was a great admirer of Chatterjee’s novels, but both writers actually became embroiled in a public debate over differing interpretations of Hinduism and over Tagore’s criticism of the increasingly sermon-like qualities to Chatterjee’s novels.

As Gandhi entered the Congress stage and turned it into a mass party, it can be conceded that the party ended up being predominantly made up of Hindus, which explains why some Pakistani history books refer to the party as the ‘Hindu Congress. After the collapse of the Khilafat Movement, the party’s aspirations to be a truly composite organization were fulfilled more at the upper echelons than the lower. As Nehru would later admit, some Hindu members were also communalists wearing masks of composite nationalism. Though Ahmed sometimes depicts all Hindus then as having been communalists, he does point out that Jinnah was mainly reacting to the communal members among them; Jinnah probably could not help so given the Congress’s attentions to the Mahasabha during the debates over the Nehru report. Unfortunately, though, this threatening segment of Hindus was projected to the Muslims by more zealous members of the League as being representative of all Hindus. And while the Muslim League ended up becoming a legitimate competitor to the Congress Party, the League also contained more extremist elements which made some observers view that party as being the Muslim counterpart to the Hindu Mahasabha. In the end, neither Congress nor the League did a good job of differentiating between mere expressions of religious identity by their members versus obvious expressions of chauvinism; and the Congress was not sufficiently aware of how even benign Hindu expressions could easily alienate certain Muslims, though the party would always contain dedicated Muslim members and, through Azad, maintain links with the various nationalist Muslim organizations.

The Iqbal-Jinnah handoff covered in the book is important and should have been explored more deeply. Most people view this passing of the torch as having been political: Iqbal required Jinnah to lay the political groundwork to achieve the former’s religious vision. It is good to know that this passing also had a spiritual component to it; but Ahmed does not make it clear the degree to which Jinnah was actually influenced by Iqbal’s religious ideas, save for an odd quote where the Quaid asserts that he was in complete agreement. Ahmed asserts that both men were one with each other on spiritual matters, but this can’t be determined simply because some of Iqbal’s letters to Jinnah had religious references in them; and we are not told about Jinnah’s letters to Iqbal. In addition, the degree to which Iqbal envisioned Pakistan as the completely sovereign national state that it ended up becoming is still a subject of debate between Indian and Pakistani admirers of the poet. However, it is obvious that both men shared the same answer to the following question: is it in the interest of the Muslims of British India to be a majority in a pluralist Pakistan state or a minority in a pluralist Indian state? Though Muslims like Azad and his followers had an opposite answer, all Muslims were debating over the same question. And this question dealt not only with issues of political and economic survival, but specifically over whether it was possible for the individual Muslim to realize an Islamic way of life- the ‘good life’ as defined by the Quran and the Sunnah- in a polity dominated by non-Muslims.

Though Ahmed sincerely wishes for Pakistanis to recognize Mahatma Gandhi as a great man, his depiction of him is unfair and the overall impression is mainly negative. Gandhi is portrayed as a someone who wanted to Hinduise Muslims or impose Hinduism upon them. His mixture of religion and politics obviously presented dangers (as would Azad’s), but, in the end, it was probably the only way to arouse the masses given their rootedness in religion; they could not be aroused by constitutional exercises, and their lack of political consciousness would have created better grounds for an autocracy than a democracy. On the other hand, even if Gandhi’s Hinduism was inclusive, the ‘hinduness’ of his nationalism may have alienated many Muslims or at least prevented many from totally identifying with him, particularly because of programs like the anti cow-killing movement and because his religious universalism with not consonant with the Islamic view of religious universalism. His ideas on Hindu nationalism, like Vivekananda’s, also ended up being misappropriated by more conservative interests. Again, though, the responses to him by Muslims probably varied. Gandhi may not have been too familiar with Indian Muslim history, but he did develop a love for the Quran and, like Tagore, come from a somewhat syncretistic religious background. Most likely he felt that Muslims needed come to terms with the dominant religious ethos of India, which was Hindu, while they lived out their Islamic religion. That many were unprepared to do so is testified by the creation of Pakistan.

As the book moves closer to the creation of Pakistan, the author states how the idea of Pakistan meant everything for everybody. The author admits that Jinnah’s vagueness on what statehood constituted, while allowing for a broad base of support to be garnered, contributed the political conflicts that later plagued that national state. This vagueness, in hindsight, seems a bit disturbing; while Jinnah was a man of integrity, the lack of definition he accorded to Pakistan suggests that his political strivings had more to do with ‘saving’ the Muslims of India in a political sense than in a moral or religious sense. Related to this broader definition of Pakistan is the question of Jinnah’s religious sincerity, to which the political historian Farzana Shaikh has offered the following intriguing thesis. Regardless whether Jinnah was really a religious man or not, or whether he was manipulating religious symbols or not, he may have been both informed and bound by certain Islamic assumptions about politics. To have departed from these assumptions would have undermined the legitimacy of his claim of being leader of all the Muslims. Indeed, he may not only have been questioning the Congress Party’s ability to protect Muslim interests but also its ability to fulfill certain Islamic notions about political representation and consensus.

Another issue is the degree to which the Pakistan movement can be described as a movement comparable to the Indian Independence movement. Jinnah wanted the League to become a mass party and not a vehicle to protect the interest of land owners, but we are not given a sense of how broad or active the Muslim League’s base of support was. Ahmed portrays Jinnah as the leader of the Muslims and highlights how in 1940s his party scored decisive electoral victories; yet enfranchisement for this vote may have been limited to certain classes of Muslims. Neither does it seem that specific social reforms among the Muslim masses were encouraged as part of the movement, in the same way Gandhi attempted among the Hindu masses. And though we are offered pictures of large gatherings, it seems unlikely that supporters gathered en masse to face lathi charges or to risk imprisonment. These points are not made to depict the Pakistan movement as poor cousin to the Freedom Movement, the former remarkably gained strength in less than a decade; however, they do highlight how the Pakistan movement, as described in this book, was articulated more as a liberation movement from Congress and the Hindus than from the British, and how political representation more than social uplift was viewed as a key step in that project.

Probably the most controversial part of the book, which also receives an undue amount of attention, is the author’s thesis that Nehru, and the Earl and Edwina Mountbatten ‘conspired’ against Jinnah to thwart his attempts at creating Pakistan, and, as a last attempt, forced him to accept a ‘moth-eaten’ version. An added dimension is an affair between Nehru and Edwina which, according to Ahmed, had a paramount impact on South Asian politics. This argument is interesting, but mostly speculative and unprofessional. No doubt Nehru and Edwina were emotionally involved with each other and it is obvious that Jinnah and Nehru were rivals, but these factors can only take us so far. It wasn’t a question of Jinnah having to wrestle Pakistan from Mountbatten and Nehru; the Congress leaders were initially not willing to accept a truncated India either; and it seems Jinnah became irreversibly resolved to a fully sovereign state only after a certain point in his negotiations. As well, this was not a proposed peaceful break-up between two relatively homogeneous nations, like Czech and Slovak. On the other hand, Nehru’s earlier objection to the Cabinet Mission plan seems naive in today’s light; that what was an age when centralized planning was viewed as a panacea for many problems. Hence, Jinnah’s call for a Direct Action Day, a big mistake at the time, was understandably a result of frustration. In India, theories keep revolving over who was ‘responsible” for Partition- sometimes Patel is blamed, sometimes Nehru, sometimes Azad, sometimes Jinnah, and sometimes Gandhi, or different groupings of these men acting in partnership.

What is remarkable, though, is that Jinnah managed to get what he got, however truncated, given the intellectual forces lined up against him. This part of the book also helps to counter the view that Jinnah was fanatical in his pursuit of Pakistan; he was single-minded but also composed. And if Partition had to be, one can definitely blame Mountbatten for having left the region so hastily without allowing the fact of Partition to settle in more gradually. As in other places in the book, though, the Partition aftermath is draw in broad but uneven strokes. One gets a picture of the atrocities to Muslims on the Indian side, which sparked retaliation against Hindus, but we don’t get a sense of the conflicts on the Pakistan side between Hindus and Muslims there, however less in number there may have been. Nehru had once said that if he could have foreshadowed the extent of the violence, he would have avoided Partition at all cost. It would be interesting to know if Jinnah would have been so resolved if he too had known, committed as he was to Pakistan after its creation.

In the last part of the book, Ahmed attempts to describe the state of existing South Asian countries in light of Jinnah’s vision and tries to assess whether this vision is still relevant. Ahmed is surprisingly tough on modern Pakistan, such as in his descriptions of Karachi and the ethnic and religious violence there, but his descriptions of the scene are also somewhat journalistic. In his famous inaugural speech, Jinnah had seemingly made a turn-around, relinquishing his previous commitment to the two-nations theory and falling back on his earlier sentiments of secular nationalism. This speech has long been a source of debate in Pakistan. The Islamic modernist scholar Fazlur Rahman, for instance, did not view the speech as having been incompatible with the initial Islamic impetus for the state. If Jinnah did not want a theocratic state, it would have been interesting to see how he would have dealt with those individuals who envisioned it originally as being one. And if he desired to protect religious minorities, the lingering issue then remains over the degree to which Pakistani Muslims can acknowledge the non-Islamic parts of their South Asian heritage. The author also asserts that Pakistan was not given a proper chance at the outset, and it began with several disadvantages that India did not possess. This is true, but it must also be remembered how Muslims in India, particularly in the North, were devastated by Partition and did not start on the right foot in an independent India either.

Nevertheless, Ahmed does show us how Jinnah was obviously a man of immense leadership abilities; his and Liaqalat’s untimely deaths left a vacuum in Pakistan that was never filled. Ahmed rejects the notion that the Quaid required Pakistan in order to fulfill his personality- such an interpretation would make him seem totally ego-centric. No doubt there were other overriding factors in Pakistan’s creation, but in some measure Pakistan’s existence did allow for this fulfillment. One can endlessly debate over whether the direction of his leadership was right or wrong, but Jinnah was a man with a particular vision and possessing prodigious abilities that could not be tapped if he was placed in a position of peripheral leadership. It is ironic, though, that the Quaid-e-Azam ended up achieving a status that Maulana Azad earlier in his career had sought, namely that of a supreme leader. Azad, who possessed a thorough Islamic training, moved from an originally pan-Islamist stance, to which Jinnah at that time had been opposed and that marginalised him, to a secular nationalism informed by personal religious sensibilities. Jinnah may have rejected his followers’ attempts to confer upon him the title of Maulana, and he obviously did not have the religious training to justify it; but his leadership ended up possessing a religious hubris that caught the imagination of many Muslims, and marginalised Azad who was unable to project himself that way.

Akbar Ahmed’s assessment of the Indian scene, specifically with regard to the rise of Hindu nationalism, is a bit simplistic. Though Ahmed admits that the rise of Hindu nationalism and the BJP is due to the confluence of forces, he gives the impression that there is an organized holocaust of Muslims being carried out by all Hindus. Rather, a specific segment of Hindus seem to be at the root of the violence; Muslims, as well, do not seem be doing much to ‘win-over’ the wider Hindu public. Hindu nationalism and the Hindutva threat are obviously real, but the incapacity of Indian Muslims to fully participate in the national life also reflects a much larger problem in Islam. It is true, though, that in the national political and cultural discourse today, Muslims in India tend to be side-lined. Perhaps this why Muslims in Pakistan sometimes view the fate of their Indian brethren as eventually becoming Hinduised versions of their former selves. This is one side. The other side is that the most creative Islamic thought may yet come out of India owing to the unique circumstances in which Muslims there function.

As one way to alleviate the conflict between countries and within them, Ahmed proposes the cultivation of South Asian nationalism in the region, which, according to him, Jinnah had wanted to encourage. This is easier said than done. In Pakistan’s case, it not only has to manage competing ethnic sub-nationalisms (which is also a problem in India) and competing visions of Islam, but it also has to grapple with the dualism of South Asian versus Islamic identity. Pakistan may share close cultural kinship with India, but its religious solidarity is also strong with the Muslim Middle-East. Ahmed’s suggestion is ironic, given that Pakistan’s creation was premised upon the assertion that religious solidarities were stronger than cultural ones, and that identification with the word-wide community of Muslims was incompatible with identification to an ‘imagined’ composite Indian nation.


R. Khan did his Ph.D. student in Public Policy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.


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