Book Review: “Muslim Modernism – A Case For A Naya [New] Pakistan” by Nadeem Farooq Paracha

7th August 2019

I recommend this concise and readable book, “Muslim Modernism – A Case for a Naya (New) Pakistan” by the leading Karachi-based Pakistani journalist, Nadeem Farooq Paracha, for those interested in the field, as it highlights key issues for debate. Paracha’s main points are that the Islam/state relationship was understood by different Pakistani political leaders, roughly as follows:

(i) 1900-1950s: “Muslim Modernism” – Iqbal and Jinnah; continued by General Ayyub Khan and others. “Muslim Modernism” is a 19th-century idea, whose evolution I also traced, discussing similar concepts in my essay, From Dhimmitude to Democracy (Quilliam, 2016). In a nutshell, “Muslim Modernism” could be described as embracing all the positive aspects of modernity, including beneficial science and technology, democracy and national self-determination, whilst remaining faithful to the positive principles and practices of Islam.

For illustration, both Paracha and I feature this famous quote from Jinnah, founding father of Pakistan, at the inception of the state in 1947: 

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State … We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State … Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

(ii) 1960s-70s: “Islamic socialism” – Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, father of Benazir. The cleric Mawdudi, founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, critiqued this idea by saying that Islam was inherently committed to social justice, so that the “socialism” part was redundant.  However, many islamist leaders were inconsistent, not applying the same critique to terms such as “Islamic democracy,” that they used themselves. Their defence was that Bhutto’s “socialism” was a cover for godless, atheist communism, and therefore could not be Islamised.  The “Islamic socialists” argued that “Muslim communism,” rooted in some of the strictly-egalitarian, social and economic teachings of the Prophet, was important, as discussed in this 2016 New York Times article. (I have a 90-year-old relative in Karachi, who is basically a “Wahhabi communist,” and committed to strict egalitarianism in religion, society, economics and politics.)

(iii) 1980s-90s: Islamism – General Zia-ul-Haq, influenced by Mawdudi, Dr Israr Ahmad and others. This was a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that especially emphasised its political aspects: Zia justified his support of the Afghan military jihad against the Soviet invasion on its basis.  Zia’s Islamisation policies also included educational aspects, such as the Pakistan Hijra Council’s translations into English of medieval Islamic texts about mathematics, science and technology.  Zia’s cultural “Islamisation” led to many restrictions on the once-thriving Pakistani arts scene.

(iv) 1990s-2000s: “Enlightened moderation” – General Pervez Musharraf, who attempted to reverse some of Zia’s influence but was largely pre-occupied by the US-led “War on Terror”, in which Pakistan has been a willing and unwilling ally, after 9/11.  Just as the medic-turned-preacher, Dr Israr Ahmad, had arguably been one of Zia’s most influential clerics, Musharraf brought in Javed Ghamidi, a traditional scholar with a strong rationalist outlook who was forced into self-imposed exile since 2010, firstly in Malaysia and now in the USA, by security threats from Taliban-style militias in Pakistan.

(v) 2000s-10s: a return to “Muslim Modernism” – General Raheel Sharif and possibly Imran Khan.  It may be that the current rulers of Pakistan are once again trying to recapture the spirit of Jinnah, according to Paracha.  However, since the book was written, General Sharif has resigned as Pakistan’s military leader to head up the Saudi-led international Muslim military effort against ISIL. 

Imran Khan, being a powerful blend of Eastern and Western influences, much like Iqbal, Jinnah and Benazir before him, and having fathered two children with the English socialite and activist Jemima Khan (née Goldsmith) is a complex leader placed in an extraordinarily-complex situation as current PM of Pakistan. (Just a few years ago in 2016, Imran Khan helped Jemima’s brother Zac Goldsmith’s campaign as Mayor of London candidate against the eventual winner, Sadiq Khan, also of Pakistani origin. These examples illustrate Pakistani influence around the world, e.g. via the million-strong Britons of Pakistani origin.)

Small details often mask huge controversies.  For example, the word “Islamic” in the official name, “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” was dropped for some years, but later restored after a tense debate about the implications of these terms for religion/state relationships.  

For another example, despite his otherwise-brilliant analysis, Paracha makes a basic error when he refers to zakat (an alms-tax regarded as one of the five, basic pillars of Islam) as a “voluntary” tax.  This is perhaps on the opposite extreme to the fundamentalist position espoused by the influential Muslim jurist Qaradawi, who describes zakat, in his Fiqh al-Zakat or Jurisprudence of Zakat, as a unique, divinely-revealed system that is perfect in every way, as though the Bible and other scriptures have nothing similar and as though Muslim jurists have never differed about the voluminous details of zakat. The simple truth is that, similarly to other basic practices in Islam and other religions, zakat has individual as well as communal and political aspects, some voluntary and others enforceable by political authority, all of which have been hotly debated and disputed by jurists and politicians throughout the history of Islam, and these aspects and differences should be acknowledged.  The clearest example of this is the first Caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr’s war on the newly-Islamised Arabian tribes who refused to continue paying the zakat for political and economic reasons after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

The relationship(s) between Islam and the modern nation-state is one of the key issues of our time. There are about 50 Muslim-majority states in the world, each grappling with these issues in different ways. Pakistan’s experience in this regard is instructive in many ways, and on various levels.  Paracha’s brief and accessible book is a good start for interested readers, and his basic thesis, that Pakistan (and presumably, other Islamic republics and Muslim-majority countries) must adopt an appropriate form of “Muslim Modernism”, deserves to be taken seriously.