Religious standing

How close is Pakistan to being a modern Muslim state?

Religious standing

With regard to political dispensations, Pakistan’s history can be divided into two kinds of periods: one, with civilian governments and provision of fundamental rights with some lacunae and transgressions; the other, with martial law regimes and suspended constitutions and hence, suspended fundamental rights. Democratically speaking, the worst has taken place during dictatorial regimes presided over by military leaderships. Resultantly, expression of dissent has waned. People no longer take to the streets in large numbers to protest against their miseries or a breach of their fundamental rights.

The operational aspect of the enforcement of fundamental rights has been the weak side throughout our history. With the passage of time, the perceived impunity of the violators has increased. This has created a sorry state of affairs with regard to the country’s international rankings on the protection of individual freedoms and fundamental rights.

Some social studies texts reify in the minds of the learners attitudes that tend to make the country a religious majoritarian state with hostile attitudes towards the minorities. As a result, some people tend to believe that Pakistan is meant only for Muslims. For decades, school curricula have excluded non-Muslims from the conception of national identity. For instance, Hindu contributions to the War of Independence in 1857-8 and Hindu heroes do not find mention in our textbooks. Some books portray Hindus in pejorative terms.

When Pakistan was created, its early leaders professed it to be a modern Muslim state in which citizenship would not be subject to religious or sectarian considerations. Muhammad Ali Jinnah included a Hindu and an Ahmadi leader in the country’s first cabinet. His famous August 11 speech and the Objectives Resolution promised equality of rights to all religious denominations. However, despite the fact that Article 20 of the constitution guarantees “freedom to profess religion and to manage religious institutions in the country”, and Article 21 ensures “safeguard as to educational institutes in respect of religion,” things have changed for the worse in recent decades.

This is partly due to decades of radicalisation of the society; books that impart hatred and intolerance towards religious minorities; a faulty judicial system which fails to hold violators accountable; the lack of will in security agencies to protect minorities; and a mushroom growth of poorly regulated madrassahs. The nearly 30,000 madrassahs educate around 2.5 million students per cycle. Their teachings include narrow indoctrination, which claims monopoly over truth and ostracism of the other. The establishment has been accused of using sectarian hatred for its own designs.

Despite the fact that Article 20 of the constitution safeguards “freedom to profess religion and to manage religious institutions in the country”, and Article 21 ensures “safeguard as to educational institutes in respect of religion,” things have changed for the worse in recent decades.

Ali Usman Qasmi’s insightful treatise The Ahmadis and the Politics of Exclusion in Pakistan (2014) analyses the report of a judicial inquiry commission headed by Justice Mohammad Munir and Justice MR Kayani. The inquiry report was concluded in 1954. The commission had interviewed many leading clerics and concluded that although all of them wanted an Islamic state their vision of an Islamic state differed sharply. Also, all of them showed contempt towards non-Muslims and some of them branded other sects, with whom they had doctrinal differences, as non-Muslims.

An important finding of the report was that according to most of the scholars, the position of non-Muslims in an Islamic state was that of dhimmis and not full citizens. Further, they could have no say in the making of the law, no right to administer the law and no right to hold public office.

It was in this background and that it was first conceded that a non-Muslim could not be the head of the state. Later, it was further conceded that a non-Muslim could not be a head of government. Such insecurity in a country of overwhelming Muslim majority (nearly 98 percent) is incomprehensible.

Religious minorities in Pakistan, including the Hindus and Christians, have suffered from persecution. They have also reported instances of forced conversion and forced marriages. Recent (August 2023) mob attacks on Christian churches and houses in Jaranwala, in the heart of the Punjab, following allegations of blasphemy against some individuals should be an eye-opener. 

The writer has a PhD in history from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He heads the History Department at University of Sargodha. He has worked as a research fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London. He can be reached at His X handle: @AbrarZahoor1 

Religious standing