A compelling read

September 4, 2022

Hamdani’s biography of Jinnah stands out as an outstanding encapsulation of an extraordinary life

A compelling read


Like Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Yasser Latif Hamdani is a barrister. He also shares with the founder of Pakistan an association with Lincoln’s Inn. Jinnah: A Life is his third book and second on Jinnah, making him his prime subject of inquiry. Prior to reading this book, among all the biographies I rated Stanley Wolpert’s Jinnah of Pakistan as the most balanced and therefore the best account of Jinnah’s life and politics. After thirty years, Hamdani has compelled me to review my ranking of books on Jinnah with regard to the quality of scholarship. Along with Ayesha Jalal’s Sole Spokesman (which primarily is an academic piece of work underpinned by political theory), Hamdani’s biography of Jinnah stands out as an encapsulation of his protagonist’s fast-paced life punctuated with many twists and turns.

Despite having written the book under review in an appreciative mode, unlike several other Pakistani writers, the author doesn’t make it read like a hagiography. The narrative is provocative and carries some revelations. He depicts him as a leader with a secular vision, who had imbibed a great deal of influence from Edmund Burke, John Morley and Edwin Montagu. Hamdani contests the assertions of liberals as well as the writers and commentators hailing from the religious right. Some of them, like Orya Maqbool Jan, try to show Jinnah as a staunch Islamist. Contrariwise, many like Farzana Shaikh, Ayesha Siddiqa and Ishtiaq Ahmad, foreground contradictions in his politics. They think Jinnah changed his secular position on politics and statecraft to a religious one when Pakistan came into being. The author trenchantly refutes such a reading of his protagonist. He has no doubt about Jinnah’s credentials as a secular (progressive) Muslim leader who didn’t see any contradiction between Islam and Western democratic values. One tends to concur with the writer’s inference. I quote, “His opposition to the British colonial state had not been epistemologically anti-British in the sense Gandhi’s was; it was procedural.” The last two chapters bring sufficient clarity with respect to the way Jinnah envisaged Pakistan. Therefore, these chapters hold a great deal of significance.

Jinnah made the colonial government set aside more funds for education. That part of the book contains a lesson for current Pakistani leaders. Education figures nowhere on their list of priorities.

Among other revelations, the information on Jinnah’s familial antecedents linking his forbears with the Ismaili Nazari denomination has been dug out with assiduous diligence. Several of these concern his private life. While talking about the provocative aspects, Viceroy of India Lord Reading’s disquisition about young and pretty Ruttie Jinnah can be instantiated. From MC Chagla to Stanley Wolpert to Sheela Reddy, Ruttie has been described as a liberated soul thus talk of Bombay city for her beauty, style, and social charm. Hamdani too repeats that characterisation of Mrs Jinnah. Fatima Jinnah is usually portrayed as icy-cold exhibiting hardly any emotion. Ironically in such a standoff, Jinnah mostly sided with his sister to the consternation of Ruttie. Ruttie, too, stood her ground when the situation turned contentious. Sheela Reddy has mentioned in her Mr and Mrs Jinnah about the influence Ruttie wielded on Jinnah that brought a sartorial change in him. Casting any sort of influence on Jinnah called for extraordinary zeal and persistence.

It is one of the rare books that shines a light on Jinnah’s legislative career. Mostly his biographers consider it adequate to foreground Muslim Wakf Bill that he presented in the Legislative Council and pleaded for with considerable vehemence. But Hamdani has brought in other aspects of his legislative profile. In many of his speeches, education (particularly technical education) has been stressed. He made the colonial government set aside more funds for education. That part of the book contains a lesson for current Pakistani leaders. Education appears to figure nowhere on their list of priorities.

Hamdani quotes Faisal Devji to corroborate his point, “it had, in fact, to secularise Islam by making belief and practice entirely nominal.” Hamdani then qualifies Devji’s assertion which I quote to conclude this piece. “This use of Islam ontologically emptied at the risk of sounding repetitive was a new enlightened idea of Muslim politics which was secular, progressive and liberal.” That is the seminal idea that the reader takes away after reading the fascinating book.


A Life

Author: Yasser Latif Hamdani

Publisher: Lightstone Publishers

Pages: 396

Price: Rs 1,595

The writer is a professor in the   Faculty of Liberal Arts at the    Beaconhouse National    University, Lahore. He can be reached at tahir.kamran@bnu.edu.pk

A compelling read