Pan-Islamism and the nation-state

September 27, 2015

The dissonance of Deobandis with the nation-state of Pakistan

Pan-Islamism and the nation-state

While ruminating on the spectre of terrorism in the wake of Badaber incident in Peshawar, the central focus of discussion with a few students was the concept of nation-state and its dissonance with the political creed of the Pakistani religious right, particularly Deobandi groups.

Needless to say that most, if not all, militant groups unleashing terror on Pakistan and its citizens adhere to the Deobandi denomination.

A young graduate student drew our attention to an interesting aspect. He referred to the political issues that are hardly of immediate concern to the people of Pakistan. To the religious right, the locus of all major problems, from the existential threat to the country to our very internal crises, is outside Pakistan. Probably he meant the oft-cited slogans, "Kashmir is our life line" (Kashmir humari shah rag hai) or seeing the Hindu/Jewish conspiracy in everything wrong.

His line of reasoning suggested Jamaat-i-Islami as the focus of his attention, which is slightly different in its political orientation than the Deobandis. It should not however, blind us to the commonalities between the two groups and their respective ideologies.

The whole debate took a rather vociferous turn when the intellectual influence of pan-Islamism on the overall aims, objectives and ideology of these movements/organisations became a talking point.

With pan-Islamic ideology as these organisations’ inspiration, one must ask, whether their political creed is compatible with the idea of a nation-state such as Pakistan?

To put things in proper perspective, one has to resort to history. Particularly when it comes to modern religious perceptions in North India and Pakistan, the last quarter of the 19th century is extremely crucial because of the reformist responses of the indigenous religious communities. Chris Bayly argued that 1815 was the cut-off year when "a remarkable resurgence" took place.

While unravelling the aims, motives and inspiration behind these responses, pan-Islamism has scarcely been investigated. Seema Alvi’s recent work, Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire, has filled that gap to some extent. She considers, "British, Ottoman, and imperial networks encouraged the creation of a pan-Islamic global public sphere."

In the context of the 19th century, the North Indian Muslim elite (Ashra’af) developed empathy for the beleaguered Ottomans and the Muslims of the Middle East (an attitude imbued with contradictions, as both nursed antipathy for each other) with whom they had been connected relatively recently.

The Muslim cosmopolitanism, as Alvi asserts, which had also taken India into its fold, drew inspiration from the "Ottoman imperial vision as articulated in the global aspirations of Caliphs Abd-al Aziz (1861-1876) and Abd-al Hamid II (1876-1909)", who came to wield considerable influence on the Indian Muslim Ashra’af. Later he used that cosmopolitanism "as the bedrock of his pan-Islamism". Tanzimat, as it was called, was a system of political, constitutional and moral reforms introduced between 1839 and 1876 to modernise the Empire. These reforms were "in sync with contemporary ideas of science, reason, and rationality" and, along with the 19th century imperial interests and economic frames of reference, provided a context to that development.

As the Haj accounts of the 19th century reveal, Dutch and British travelling companies, like Thomas Cook from the 1830s onwards, played an important role, as their steamships that ran between the East Indies, India, and Ceylon and the ports of the Islamic holy land, brought large numbers of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina. Prior to this, because of the exorbitant cost, very few people could afford to undertake such a journey. The new railways, steamships, and electric telegraph helped Muslims of different cultures and nationalities to come close to each other -- thus making the forging of the Umma possible.

We can also invoke Benedict Anderson’s view here - that the rapidly developing techniques of printing and the proliferation of books and newspapers helped create new communities. What was true for the nation was equally true for religion in the more uniform pattern that it now came to assume.

Simultaneously, the centrality accorded to the text and particularly to Hadith in the Islamic epistemology went a long way to marginalise local versions of Islam and brought into prominence a scriptural version. Deobandi denomination epitomised the scriptural interpretation of Islam. Ulema like Imdadullah Muhajir Makki, Rahmatullah Kairanwi and later on Anwar Shah Kashmiri played a role in bringing local version(s) of Islam in line with the way it was practised and professed in Hijaz and Egypt.

In the 20th century, the war of Tripoli and, later, the First World War (1914-1918) helped crystalise the pan-Islamic episteme. The Khilafat Movement was the most avid expression of pan-Islamic sentiments.

Interestingly, both Jinnah and Iqbal not only stayed away from that movement but exhibited disdain towards it. That movement not only motivated Ulema to form Jamiat-ul-Ulama-i-Hind (1919) but it also provided a beginning to a new dispensation where religion was entwined with modern politics in a somewhat preposterous fashion.

The modernist tools of political expression, such as agitation, exclusion and protest, the most salient feature of Islamic politics, constitute a lasting legacy of the Khilafat Movement. Religious parties continued this style of engaging in politics in general even after Pakistan was founded. The anti-Ahmadi movement of 1953, its sequel in 1974, the Afghan jihad and anti-Pakistan terrorism (and formation of TTP) after the Lal Masjid incident in 2007 are clear instances of their political style. Afghan jihad gave an added fillip to their pan-Islamist designs.

An important question remains regarding this political vision, which is essentially pan-Islamic, hence antithetical to the very idea of a state. Therefore when Deobandis are launching attacks on state installations, they in fact are acting in accordance with their political ideology, one which transcends national frontiers or socio-cultural particularities.

Thus the dissonance of Deobandis with the nation-state of Pakistan is natural, unless the former start thinking differently. The likelihood of them doing this is extremely slim, to say the least. A retired senior Air Force officer was spot on in his assessment when he said that they are far more dangerous than Mukti Bahni.

Pan-Islamism and the nation-state