Explaining the Rise of Islam in Pakistan

This is the third paper from Dr. Spooner’s class, NELC281: Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.


Given that Pakistan was established as a secular homeland for South Asian Muslims, how and why have Islamic religious thought and practice emerged as dominant political factors?


It is important to consider that Pakistan’s foundation is rooted in the sense of “what it is not,” just as much as in “what it is.”  Jinnah and the rest of the politically powerful Muslim separatists within present-day India were motivated more than anything by a fear of being Muslim minorities within a state perpetually ruled by Hindus.  Burki writes that, “the objective was to find a way to overcome what was perceived as the Hindu majority’s reluctance to grant the Muslims their due share in government and economy.”[1]  However, as Alavi strenuously points out, the movement to create Pakistan was not an effort to create an Islamic state.[2]  In fact, examples abound of Muslim religious leaders and groups opposing partition and then disintegrating after 1947.[3]  And when it comes to the average citizen, only about 50% of Muslims living in India made the journey to migrate to the newly created Pakistan.  Yet another step which moves Pakistan away from being founded as an Islamic state is the fact that the initial group of bureaucrats and administrative leaders – mujahirs – were not religious leaders or even staunch advocates of partition.  Rather, they were essentially imported from India to create a governmental infrastructure, and constantly measured themselves against India.[4]  As such, Jinnah ultimately founded Pakistan in a secular tradition.[5]

Islamization’s beginnings

So where did the idea of defining Pakistan by Islam come from?  The initial answer lies with the Muslims living in the northwest of British India – areas such as Balochistan, Punjab, and Sindh.  If this land was to host the capital and future infrastructure of the newly proclaimed state of Pakistan, then the support of these Muslims was of course crucial to the movement’s success.  On the ground here, motivations for secession were indeed religiously motivated.[6]  For the other separatists like Jinnah with the political desire for partition, using religion to win the approval of the northwestern Muslims became paramount.  Burki writes that, “it was only after the idea for Pakistan came to be articulated in religious terms that the Pakistan movement gained the support of the people of Punjab, Sindh, and the Northwest Frontier Province.”[7]  Once the support of these religiously motivated Muslims produced the state of Pakistan, the more secularly-inclined leaders of the movement re-emphasized democracy and the will of the people over religious rule.  This broken promise set in motion a cycle of appealing to religious rhetoric for political expediency.

A Cycle Continues

Pakistan had a problem right at the start of creating a national identity.  Not only were those Indians who migrated to Pakistan motivated for different reasons; there still remained a whole swath of populations (divided along ethnic and linguistic lines) living in the area suddenly called Pakistan: these included the Panjabis, the Sindhis, the Pashtuns, and the Baloch in the East, as well as the Banglis in the West.  These native populations had no desire to lose local autonomy to a new national government, much less one that was run by foreign mujahirs from India!  So clearly, the problem of fostering and sustaining a national identity was a real one of Pakistan.

Indeed, once Pakistan was established and the Punjabis became the new majority, these groups began to call for increased participation and representation.  Muslims who had previously feared political marginalization in India now found themselves in precisely that situation under the ruling Punjabis.[8]  Struggling to gain legitimacy and keep an ethnically fragmented country together, Pakistan’s leaders began to use Islam as a unifying force.  Initially used as a banner against foreign interference,[9] Islam soon became a tool for Pakistan’s leaders – bureaucrats, military leaders, politicians, etc. – with which to gain “legitimization in the eyes of the masses.”[10]  Alavi explains that:

As soon as the regional protest against Punjabi rule began to get under way, the ideological tune changed.  Suddenly Islam and the notion of Islamic brotherhood became the order of the day.  It was unpatriotic on the part of Bangalis, Sindhis, Pathans, and Baluch to make demands in terms of their regional ethnic identities because all Pakistanis were prothers in Islam.[11] 

This problem reached a climax when Bangladesh fought and won its independence in 1971.  The eastern province felt under-represented (due in no small part to the geographical distance between themselves and the capital) and ultimately different enough to assert their right to self-determination.  This left Pakistan – the homeland for South Asian Muslims – in flux.  Pakistan hadn’t merely lost territory; it had lost a good part of its raison d’être as well.[12]  What held the state together at this point was simply that they had had enough time to develop as a group of people under one flag to be different enough from any of the other states surrounding Pakistan (note, once again, Pakistan being defined as “what it is not”).

Into this tradition next fell General Zia, who took control of the government through a military coup in 1977.[13]  Zia embarked on a platform of institutionalizing Islam into the country’s legal code.  This was a closer step to actual Islamization, a step which Zia was forced to take in the face of a “cynical public who had heard it all before.”[14]  And while the Zia regime never gained the legitimacy is sought, it perpetuated a cycle of catering to the religious connection of all Pakistanis, regardless of ethnicity, and of one-upping the broken promises of previous leaders.  This left Pakistan with the raised hopes of “some naïve ideologists and Islamic fundamentalists”[15]  Later leaders such as Sharif and Tarar continued the trend, pushing more Islamist policies onto Pakistan.[16]  So while Pakistan was established as a secular homeland, it turned to Islam in searching for national identity.  What was first politically expedient then fostered a stronger political base with real expectations for Islamization, a cycle which continues to this day.

[1] Shahid Javed Burki, Pakistan: Fifty years of Nationhood. Westview Press (Boulder, CO: 1999), pg 218.

[2] Hamza Alavi, State and Ideology in the Middle East and Pakistan. (London: 1988), pg 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Brain Spooner, Lecture, University of Pennsylvania, March 26, 2012.

[5] Alavi, State and Ideology, pg 20.

[6] Burki, Pakistan, pg. 219.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Alavi, State and Ideology, pg 20.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Alavi, State and Ideology, pg. 1-2.

[11] Alavi, State and Ideology, pg 21.

[12] Spooner, Lecture, March 26 2012.

[13] Spooner, Lecture, March 26 2012.

[14] Alavi, State and Ideology, pg 21.

[15] Ibid., pg 22.

[16] Burki, Pakistan, pg 221.