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Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Photo: Radio Pakistan / DW)
Image: Radio Pakistan

Secular or theocratic?

Shamil Shams
December 26, 2013

Did Pakistan's founder Jinnah want to create an Islamic or a secular state? The question divides Pakistanis even after 66 years of their country's independence. Some say Jinnah was not very clear about it himself.


Pakistan was probably never as divided as it is today between Islamists and liberals. What kind of state should Pakistan be? Should it be secular or Islamic? Did its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah - whose 137th birthday was on December 25 - want to establish an Islamic state or a majority-Muslim country where religious minorities and non-believers also enjoyed equal rights? It seems that even after 66 years of their independence from the British colonial rule, Pakistanis are still unclear about how their country should be.

Even many people who do not want Taliban-style Islamist rule in their country, want to see their state ruled by Islamic laws to some extent. These people oppose secularism and the Western way of life in Pakistan and make up the majority of Pakistanis. They claim that Jinnah and his All-India Muslim League party envisioned a purely theocratic state, a separate country for Indian Muslims governed by shariah law. For six decades, Pakistan's rulers have been endorsing and propagating this narrative in one form or another.

Pakistani Christians carry crosses during a protest against an Islamic cleric who had accused a Christian girl Rimsha of blasphmy, in Hyderabad, Pakistan, 02 September 2012 (Photo: EPA/NADEEM KHAWER)
Christians in Pakistan live under constant fear of persecution by the state and majority Sunni MuslimsImage: picture alliance / dpa

Liberal Pakistanis believe the idea that Pakistan should be a theocratic state is dangerous and has been responsible for the rise of umpteen militant Islamist movements in the country. They say that Jinnah was a whisky-swigging, Western-educated liberal and had no desire to create an intolerant Islamic state. Progressive - mostly urbanite and educated - Pakistanis see their space further shrinking in the country, and the rise of Islamism in the country worries them tremendously.

The world, too, is keeping a close eye on the instability of nuclear-armed Pakistan. If the state were to fall in the extremists' hands, it could result in a regional catastrophe beyond anyone's control, say experts.

The debate whether Pakistan should be a modern secular state or an Islamic one has thus gained more significance in the past few years. More so, what kind of state did Jinnah envision, as both Islamist and secular Pakistanis continue to quote Jinnah's speeches and writings in support of their views.


S. Nomanul Haq, a professor of humanities and a scholar of Islamic history and philosophy in Karachi, believes Jinnah himself was not very clear on the issue.

"I think that there is a degree of ambiguity in this matter. There is no clarity on this issue, as there are some statements by Jinnah in which he was very clear about the kind of state he had envisioned, whereas some are not so clear," Haq said, adding that the arguments of liberals that Jinnah's vision of Pakistan was secular were not very strong.

"Soon after the partition of India, Jinnah asked the legislators to devise an Islamic banking system. How would you interpret that?" asked Haq. The expert said that there had to be some distinguishing characteristics of the newly-formed Pakistani state from secular India. "Jinnah thought that religion could determine that distinguishing factor."

Haq says that Jinnah's personal life was very secular, however, it is unclear whether his personal attitudes had an impact on his politics. "People sometimes bring the argument that Jinnah spoke a lot about the minority rights, but speaking about minorities doesn't mean that he wanted a secular state."

But Sartaj Khan, a left-leaning political activist in Karachi, is quite unequivocal about Jinnah: "Jinnah's politics were secular. He represented the Muslim ethnic groups, not religion."

Amer Ishaq Soharwardi, a journalist in Karachi, says that Jinnah definitely did not want a country that Pakistan has become over time.

"It is difficult to say whether he wanted Pakistan to be theocratic or secular. What we can say with certainty is that Jinnah desired a welfare state," Soharwardi said. "He did not want any group of a certain faith to dominate others."

Supporters of Pakistan's outlawed Islamic hard line group, Jamaat ud Dawa (JD) shout anti-US slogans during a protest in Lahore against drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas in Lahore on July 5, 2013 (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
Anti-West sentiment runs high in PakistanImage: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Shiite activist Syed Ali Mujtaba Zaidi agrees: "I am sure that Jinnah never wanted a state where citizens were murdered in the name of Islam and where religious minorities were persecuted."

Religious identity

Irrespective of what Jinnah wanted, over the past ten years, the South Asian country has turned into a breeding ground of extremist Islamists, and an anti-secular and anti-West extremist Islamic doctrine has dominated public discourse and politics.

In this scenario, quite a few Pakistanis are now questioning the ideological basis of the partition of India and Jinnah' s politics.

Islamabad-based filmmaker and social activist Wajahat Malik goes to the extent of calling the partition of India "one of the biggest blunders of the 20th century."

"What benefits have the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent reaped from the partition of India except that they are now scattered in three different countries [India, Pakistan and Bangladesh], and are subjected to sectarian and communal violence?" said Malik in an interview with DW.

Mavra Bari, an Islamabad-based journalist, thinks that any country founded on the basis of religion is bound to have problems.

Mahatma Gandhi, right, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, advocate for a separate Muslim state, pose at the steps of Jinnah's home where the two met to discuss the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Bombay, India, on Sept. 9, 1944 (Photo: ddp images/AP)
Did Jinnah want peaceful ties with neighboring India?Image: AP

"I am a Pakistani, but it does not necessarily mean that I am a Muslim. Similarly, just because someone is Muslim does not mean they are more patriotic than non-Muslim Pakistanis," Bari told DW. "Religious ideology has adversely affected Pakistani citizens, particularly the minority communities," she added, saying that the premise of the partition was faulty.

But the journalist Soharwardi is of the view that Pakistan should address more pertinent issues rather than wasting time on discussing the partition and what the country's founder wanted. He says that Pakistan is facing many crises and there is a dire need to focus on education, economy and nation-building. Others believe that the country cannot move forward without revising the entire ideological framework, and that is where it becomes crucial to revisit Jinnah, too.

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