Islam in Pakistan

A History

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Muhammad Qasim Zaman
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , May
     432 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Muhammad Qasim Zaman’s Islam in Pakistan: A History presents a compelling description of the intricate, and at times anxious, career of Islam in Pakistan. This book is neither a history of Pakistan per se nor an account of lived Islam in that country. Zaman’s is rather a rigorous analysis of the ways in which Muslim intellectuals have interpreted Islam and what their contestations reveal about the relationship between religion, state, and society in Pakistan. The monograph is thoroughly grounded in a range of printed texts, journalistic sources, and governmental archives. 

Islam in Pakistan builds on Zaman’s earlier work, which has aided students of religion in making sense of modern Islam’s contested and varied intellectual terrain. Readers familiar with Zaman’s scholarship will recognize the same typology of intellectual actors in the present work: traditionalists (who claim to represent “orthodoxy”), Islamists (who insist that Muslim-majority political entities must enforce divine sovereignty), and modernists (who more or less reduce Islam to privatized religiosity consisting of ethical norms). 

Islam in Pakistan commences with an introduction, which is followed by a chapter on the formation of Islamic identities in colonial India (chap. 1). The historical background provided in the first chapter is significant because the “doctrinal orientations that now dominate Sunni Islam in South Asia all took their distinctive shape only during colonial rule in the late nineteenth century” (14). The next three chapters examine modernism and its ethical commitments (chap. 2), Sunni traditionalism (chap. 3), and Islamism vis-à-vis the concept of God’s sovereignty (chap. 4). The book’s last three chapters discuss “religious minorities” (the Ahmadis and the Shi‘as), the contested terrain of Sufism (chap. 6), and the proliferation of religious violence in Pakistan (chap. 7). The epilogue masterfully draws together insights from earlier chapters, but also presents a new illustration, to drive home the book’s main points. 

Zaman avoids reductive approaches to modern Muslim thought and eschews caricatured views of its various actors. After reading Zaman, it becomes quite difficult to maintain, for instance, that modern Muslim traditionalists (‘ulama), as a whole, disparage modernist values or that they categorically oppose engagement with European knowledge traditions. Zaman paints a complex picture of the social landscape of Islam in Pakistan: religious authority is enmeshed in networks of piety and patronage; religious discourses are elaborated and debated in diverse ideological as well as institutional settings; Muslim intellectuals adapt to changing circumstances even as they adhere to certain fundamental moral and metaphysical principles. Zaman’s methodology, nonetheless, runs into limitations, not the least of which is its reification of certain social logics, such as the minority-majority binary, and sociological categories, such as “popular religion.” These logics and categories carry heavy political baggage and are in dire need of critical scrutiny. 

The religious orientation that occupies center stage in Islam in Pakistan is Islamic modernism, which Zaman defines as “a complex of religious, intellectual, and political initiatives aimed at adapting Islam—its beliefs, practices, laws, and institutions—to the challenges of life in the modern world” (3). Zaman’s decision to tell the history of Islam in Pakistan through the vantage of Muslim modernism is not random; rather, it is the modernists whose vision of Islam undergirds the very idea of Pakistan and “the Pakistani governing elite retain their modernist impulses” (277). Even when the state accepts the demands put forth by traditionalists and Islamists, it often explains these concessions by recourse to a modernist understanding of Islam. 

As a religious orientation, however, modernism has been on the decline in Pakistan. Zaman accounts for this trajectory in multiple ways. First, modernist intellectuals have often collaborated with authoritarian regimes throughout Pakistan’s history (93). At the same time, the Islamization of the Zia regime (1977-1988) also took a toll on modernists’ efforts and efficacy in Pakistani society. Thus, the “authoritarianism” of the state has often “tended to narrow the space in which modernist intellectuals may have been able to articulate their views” (93). Third, “the modernists have often been less than eager to reassure those skeptical of their intentions” and they have continued to rely on caricaturized views of their opponents (93). 

While modernism has experienced setbacks, traditionalism (Sunni as well as Shi‘i) and Islamism have become more powerful. Let us briefly consider two intellectuals as illustrations of this point. First, the Karachi-based traditionalist Mufti Taqi ‘Usmani. He teaches scriptural texts to seminary students, counsels aspiring Sufis, advises the government on a range of issues, and serves as the chairman of several international institutions of Islamic banking. His example illuminates how many traditionalists appeal to “Western-educated and upwardly mobile people” and accommodate “modern forms of knowledge” not to buttress modernism but traditionalism (133). Such traditionalists are therefore able to maintain the aura of authenticity while also translating their perspectives to audiences with modernist leanings. Second, the Lahore-based Qur’an commentator Abu’l A‘la Mawdudi (d. 1979). He was perhaps the last century’s most well-noted Islamist ideologue. It is his conceptualization of divine sovereignty that underlies much of contemporary global Islamist discourse. Zaman locates Mawdudi’s idea of sovereignty in multiple colonial contexts, including that of Islamic modernism, and thereby shows how Mawdudi departed from medieval Islamic exegeses. Yet, no Muslim intellectual has dismissed divine sovereignty writ large in modern South Asia. Mawdudi grounded his vision and activism in a concept, an idea tailored to displace secular authority, that has purchase even among his religious rivals.

While traditionalists and Islamists have gained ground, Muslim modernists have not done much to understand the perspectives of their competitors. As Zaman says in the epilogue: “among the blind spots most damaging to the modernists’ own cause has been their unwillingness to see much nuance or internal differentiation among their conservative rivals. The need to recognize such nuance and to build on it is not a matter of intellectual generosity; it is pragmatic politics” (277).

Zaman’s excellent study will remain indispensable to any student who seeks to understand Islam in Pakistan, while the methodologies, themes, and archives to which it does not attend invite scholars to build on this insightful monograph.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ali Altaf Mian is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Seattle University.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Muhammad Qasim Zaman is the Robert H. Niehaus '77 Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Religion at Princeton University. His books include The Ulamain Contemporary Islam (Princeton) and Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age.


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