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Intellectual Discourse In Pakistan:
An Indian Visitor's Perspective

By Yoginder Sikand

28 August, 2006

Last week, unidentified gunmen shot at and critically injured Manzoorul Hassan, editor of the Urdu magazine Ishraq in Lahore. Ishraq is published by the Lahore-based Al-Mawrid Institute, brainchild of one of Pakistan's few somewhat liberal Islamic scholars, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi. It is suspected, although this has not been confirmed, that the attack may have been planned by rival Islamic clerics or by an Islamist group angered by Ghamidi's moderate stance, particularly by his support for modifications in the draconian Hudud laws in place in Pakistan that harshly discriminate against women and which people like Ghamidi feel are not really 'Islamic'.

Earlier this year, while on a visit to Lahore, I had the chance of meeting Ghamidi and speaking at his Institute. I was quite unimpressed, I must confess. The Institute's large Moroccan-style building is fancy and opulent but the work it is engaged in, as explained to me by its staff, seems hardly novel or path-breaking: producing commentaries on the Quran and translations of the Hadith, traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, and developing alternate perspectives on a limited range of issues of juridical import, such as on the debate on whether or not Muslims can eat animals slaughtered by non-Muslims or whether swimming is 'un-Islamic' and so on. In short, the Institute represents something of a 'liberal' Islam in tune with the demands and aspirations of a section of the Pakistani lower- middle classes. Steering away from fundamental questions vital to the masses, such as those of widespread poverty, Pakistan's deep-rooted feudal system, the nexus between Pakistani bureaucratic, military and political elites and their Western overlords and so on, and focussing, instead, on intricate theological debates and juridical niceties, the Institute and its work seemed to me, when set against the harsh, brutal life which is the fate of most Pakistanis, hardly socially relevant.

Yet it is probably seen, as the attack on Manzoorul Hasan shows, as enough of a challenge to certain rival religious outfits in Pakistan, who find the limited reformulations of Islamic jurisprudence offered by the Al-Mawrid Institute a sufficient threat to their authority. Sources in departments concerned specifically with sectarian crimes in Lahore have disclosed that Ghamidi had been receiving threats from various quarters for the past year. It is possible that these threats were issued by certain conservative or militant religious groups. Actively encouraged by the Americans in the course of the Afghan war, the Pakistani establishment backed many such groups to serve its purposes in Afghanistan and Kashmir and to stifle democratic dissent at home. And now, as suggested by the attack on Manzoorul Hasan, which might be the latest of a series of bloody attacks on dissenting scholars by activists associated with certain militant religious groups in Pakistan, these forces have gone quite out of hand. Pakistan's reversal on the Taliban and its shameless capitulation before American dictates have only given further legitimacy to such groups, who probably see moderate voices, such as those represented by the Al-Mawrid Institute, as playing into the hands of what are routinely described in radical Islamist discourse as 'enemies of Islam'. The space for publicly articulated progressive thought and even for liberal and moderate perspectives on Islam, already restricted in Pakistan, appears to be only further narrowing.


On the bus from Delhi to Lahore early this year, I chatted with an elderly Muslim man from Delhi who was travelling to Pakistan to visit his relatives. He identified himself as a socialist. 'I don't want to go to Lahore but my wife insists I should', he said to me frankly. 'I get so bored there. I can hardly find any like-minded people to talk to', he went on. 'You'll soon discover', he warned me, 'that the level of intellectual discourse is so limited in Pakistan. Quite awful actually'.

I thought the man was exaggerating, but I was soon to discover that he was not entirely wrong.

In my interactions with a wide cross-section of people in various places that I visited in Pakistan during my one-month visit I was shocked at the pathetic state of intellectual discourse that seemed to pervade the country, which I often unconsciously contrasted with the situation in India. There are, I discovered, less than half a dozen good bookshops in the whole of Lahore, once considered to be the intellectual capital of India, that stock books in English. The vast majority of these books are, curiously enough, published in India, a few in the West and the rest, a very small proportion, are local Pakistani publications. Books on Pakistani society, based on empirical realities, are almost impossible to find, although the number of titles on the so-called 'two-nation theory' and the history of the Muslim League, as well as on elite politics in Pakistan, run into the hundreds. So do books on Jinnah and Iqbal, the two major ideological heroes of Pakistan, after whom a vast number of public institutions throughout the country are named. As a Lahori friend of mine quipped, 'The intellectual scene in Pakistan is so bad that our rulers think we have almost no one else to name our institutions after'.

Even on Islam and Kashmir, two issues that are central to the way in which the Pakistani state has sought to construct the notion of Pakistani national identity, I discovered hardly any decent literature in English in the numerous bookshops that I visited. Many of the few English books on Islam I came across were actually published in India. A few others were by Western writers, while the rest, not more than three dozen titles, many of these being were poorly-researched and ideologically-driven propaganda tracts of the Pakistani Jamaat i Islami and its associated publishing houses. Likewise, on Kashmir. In Lahore's biggest bookshop that also stocks English books I came across an entire shelf of books on Kashmir, but almost all of them were written by Indian scholars, published in India and probably represented the Indian position on the disputed territory.

Many of the relatively few English books on sale in Lahore's bookshops are textbooks, and several of these, particularly those on the hard sciences, are published in India. The school texts that I glanced through are carefully tailored to reproduce what is officially called the 'Ideology of Pakistan', with Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies being compulsory subjects in the school curriculum. The Islamic Studies texts present Islam as the only true religion. Islam is described in terms of beliefs and practices in line with Sunni Islam, and this is obviously resented by the country's sizeable Shia minority. The books represent a monolithic, extremely literalist and conservative understanding of Islam as upheld by the Sunni ulama. They are completely silent on alternate expressions of the faith, such as those offered by dissenting sects as well as certain Sufis known for their humanism and their critique of the soulless ritualism and narrow communalism that they associated with the dominant ulama and ruling Muslim political elites of their times. The reality of lived Islam, as distinct from the scripturalist Islam of the ulama of the madrasas, is, likewise, completely glossed over. The Pakistan Studies texts reflect the same approach to Islam, and are specifically geared to drilling into the minds of students the 'two-nation' theory, the argument of Hindus and Muslims being two monolithic and mutually opposed communities that can never peacefully co-exist, this being the very rationale for the creation of Pakistan as a separate state for the Muslims of undivided India. Not surprisingly, some of these texts describe Hindus in negative terms, as being allegedly hostile, as an entire community, to Muslims and Islam. No mention is made therein of ethnic differences and imbalances and class divisions in Pakistan, the aim clearly being to propagate and reinforce the notion of a singular, monolithic Pakistani Muslim identity, one that fits in entirely well with the demands of the state and the ruling classes. No opportunity is missed to reinforce the 'two-nation' theory by the state wherever it can, and this not just through the education system. The gigantic, rocket-like Minar-e Pakistan that stands outside the precincts of the Royal Fort in Lahore has plaques on every side insisting on the veracity of the theory. An entire gallery in the Lahore museum is dedicated to this very theme, with dozens of pictures titled 'Hindu and Sikh atrocities on Muslims' in the 1947 Partition violence being prominently displayed to convince viewers of the claim to truth of the theory. Challenging the 'two-nation' theory in public in Pakistan can often invite official wrath as well as the ire of the mullahs. No wonder, then, that I found almost no published critique of it in Lahore's bookshops, although in private conversations many Pakistani friends insisted that the theory was a bogus myth.


The Urdu publishing scene in Pakistan is somewhat different, although I found it almost as uninspiring as its English counterpart. Lahore's famed Urdu Bazaar, located in a chaotic, run-down part of the old town, consists of several narrow lanes lined with filth-clogged drains, almost impossible to wade through. I made it a point to spend two entire days in the bazaar and to visit every of the dozens of small bookshops that it boasts of. On the lookout for literature on lived social realities in Pakistan, I was sorely disappointed. The vast majority of the titles on display were about Islamic rituals and theology, hagiographic accounts of the Prophet, early Muslim warriors, saints, rulers and ulama, treatises on the ideological founders of Pakistan and on the 'two-nation' theory, tomes on the history of the Muslim League and the alleged perfidy of the Hindus, accounts of Pakistani rulers by their supporters and critics, besides hundreds of texts containing gems of Urdu literature. Although important as sources of Pakistani history and national identity, they had little to reveal about the actual social realities of Pakistan today that I was keen on knowing more about, a telling reminder, once again, of the poverty of intellectual discourse in the country.

As a student of Islamic history, I was particularly interested in procuring books by socially-engaged Pakistani scholars articulating progressive positions on various issues through engaging creatively with the Islamic scholarly tradition. However, wading through the books on display in the shops in the Urdu Bazaar, I that found few such texts are actually available.
This starkly suggested to me that there appears to be no counterpart in Pakistan to the numerous Indian Islamic scholars that have sought to creatively engage with the Islamic intellectual tradition and the myriad challenges posed by the pressures and demands of contemporary life. There is simply no Pakistani equivalent of the Indian Islamic scholars Asghar Ali Engineer and Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (incidentally, both of whose books are widely read and published in Pakistan), a sad commentary on the state of Islamic intellectual discourse in a country that was created ostensibly in the name of Islam and in order to protect Muslims from 'upper' caste Hindu domination. The only noted socially-engaged Islamic public intellectual that Pakistan has produced, the scholar Fazlur Rahman, was forced to flee Pakistan in the 1960s and seek refuge in Canada because of the vociferous opposition that he faced from the Jamaat-i Islami and various ulama groups for his progressive utterances.

The task of offering socially progressive responses from within the broadly defined Islamic tradition to the challenges of modernity and to the lived realities of widespread poverty and exploitation has hardly begun in Pakistan. Hence, today certain radical Islamist as well as conservative ulama groups and their propagandists are able to powerfully assert their claims to speak for Islam quite unchallenged, offering responses that are, overall, decidedly distasteful: fanning sectarian rivalries, promoting hatred against the country's religious minorities, condemning moves to promote gender and economic justice and redress ethnic imbalances, pronouncing communism and leftists as 'enemies of Islam' and as allegedly conspiring to divide Muslims, and lambasting the West and India as the very epitome of evil. Some of the publishing houses in the Urdu Bazaar are run precisely by such groups, and their magazines, I was told, have hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

'We urgently need a combination of Marx and Muhammad today', said a friend, a well-known leftist activist, who accompanied me to the Urdu Bazaar and who was pained at my disappointment with the market that had failed to yield up the treasures I had been dreaming of procuring. 'Because religion is so deeply-rooted in people's lives', he continued, 'we cannot ignore it. We need to articulate socially progressive interpretations of religion in order to make appeal to people and to prevent radical Islamists and conservative ulama as well as the state from monopolising the terrain of Islamic discourse'. 'But, as you can see from the books sold in this market', he added, 'the Pakistani Left has almost completely ignored this vital task'.


The warning of the elderly Muslim man from Delhi whom I had met in the bus to Lahore swirled in my mind almost each time I entered a bookshop or research institute or even in meetings with NGO activists during my stay in Pakistan, in all the several places I visited. Punjab University in Lahore, the largest university in the country, I discovered, does not possess a single bookshop, and the only students organisation that is legally allowed to function on campus, or so I was told, is the Islami Jamiat-i Tulaba, the students' wing of the Jamaat-i Islami. The day I visited the university, one day after the anniversary of the fall of East Pakistan to the Indian Army and the Mukti Bahini, the campus was splattered with posters put up by the Jamiat denouncing what it termed as 'Indian Imperialism'. I saw a few other posters pasted on notice boards in the university, but most of these were about forthcoming religious events. I could not help contrast this to what I had been reared on in the five years that I spent at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where almost every day we were treated to a talk or a seminar by intellectuals, politicians, journalists and social activists on a whole range of pressing social issues, almost none of these being on theological niceties.

Notable exceptions apart, my limited conversations with students and teachers in Punjab University proved to be hardly inspiring. A friend suggested that I speak to the students of the Sociology department on some aspect of Indian society, but the head of the department was clearly reluctant. 'Speak on the importance of studying Sociology instead', he suggested, and, of course, I politely declined. It appeared that an unwritten rule was in force in the university to prevent any dissenting views being expressed that might challenge the official line of the state from intruding. All over the university were boards painted with quotations from the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet, stressing the importance of knowledge as well as, at the same time, pious behaviour, this probably being also envisaged as a means to ensure obedience to the authorities. The Vice-Chancellor of the University, I was told, was a retired senior Army officer. He was not unique, however, with the heads of numerous other universities and other public institutions in Pakistan being from identical backgrounds, probably yet another means to enforce conformity, stifle opposition to the state and to stamp out views that might challenge the position that the state wanted to enforce. And to make matters worse, I was told, the Government had now started encouraging the setting up of fancy private universities that catered only to the elites, charged hefty fees and paid their teaching staff fat salaries. It had also begun attracting non-resident Pakistanis teaching in universities abroad to come back home to teach, offering them a salary of well over a lakh a month, or so I was given to understand. Charges of nepotism racking this new scheme were rife and the purpose of it was widely questioned. 'Such people will obviously have no commitment to the poor, the vast majority of Pakistanis', a friend of mine pointed out.

'Socially engaged social scientists are almost extinct in Pakistan', lamented a leftist friend I met in Hyderabad, Sindh, who works with landless labouers, helping to rescue them from the clutches of the landlords and their private armies. 'Such scholars', he argued, 'are bound to be critical of the state, the ruling establishment and the system of exploitation and that's why we have so few of them. The state will simply not let them thrive'. With Pakistan having been ruled by military dictators for decades, he went on, the space for intellectual dissent by such intellectuals was bound to be extremely narrow. This was entirely how Pakistan's rulers and their American patrons appear to want things to remain. Matters, he explained, were made worse by the fact in Pakistan, in contrast to India, the middle class, sections of which could be expected to take up progressive causes, is miniscule, with the vast majority of Pakistanis being poor and bereft of decent education. This makes the market for decent social science literature and research and other forms of intellectual production extremely limited, striking evidence of which is the fact that a single copy of an English language Pakistani newspaper costs an astronomical fifteen rupees. Less than a dozen doctorates in the social sciences are awarded every year by all Pakistani universities combined, and most of the few noted Pakistani social scientists that do exist have shifted to the West, in search of greener pastures and the academic freedom that their own country lacks.

The pathetic state of intellectual discourse in Pakistan has much to do with the country's political economy. Pakistan has the dubious distinction of being among the countries that spend the least per capita on education. The Pakistani public education system is said to be in a state of complete shambles, even worse than in India, if that can be imagined. As in India, mass education of an emancipatory sort, is seen as a potent challenge to ruling authorities. In Larkana district in Sindh, I was informed by an officer in the local education department when I visited the area, half of the government schools do not function because the landlords are afraid that education might help provoke pathetically poor peasants and labourers to protest and revolt. A similar situation is said to prevail in several other parts of the country. And to add to that unenviable situation, Pakistani dominant elites, like their Indian counterparts, are least interested in socially progressive causes, in issues related to the lived realities of the masses and in any sort of sensible intellectual discourse and output, using religion and nationalism as a powerful weapon to stamp out any dissent, a task in which they are assisted by the literally hundreds of Islamist and ulama groups that now flourish in the country thanks to official patronage.

The 'mainstream' NGO scene in Pakistan is no less depressing in terms of the possibilities it offers for socially relevant intellectual discourse, but then the situation in India is hardly different. While I was in Lahore, preparations were underway to organise the first ever Pakistan Social Forum, as a precursor of the World Social Forum to be held a few months later in Karachi. My host in Lahore, a committed leftist activist, took me to a meeting called by the organisers of the Forum. It so turned out that the man in charge of the event failed to turn up without informing the group, this being the third time he had done precisely that. And so the few people present in the hall remained busy gossiping among themselves, the main topic being the politics of NGO-ism in Pakistan. In the small group of leftist activists that had separated themselves from the NGO-walas, a consensus seemed to prevail that foreign-funded NGOs, notable exceptions apart, were functioning as agents of imperialism and of the Pakistani state and that they were designed to quash radical challenges to the system of exploitation. 'Heavily funded by Western donor agencies, they pay their staff hefty salaries, make them used to flying in and out of conferences and put them up in fancy hotels', said a young man who writes for a communist paper published from Lahore. 'In this way, socially engaged intellectual critique of the system is blunted and peoples' movements are depoliticized', he explained. Pakistani NGOs funded by Islamic charities in the Gulf were no better, he said. 'They just build mosques and madrasas. Many of them promote sectarian hatred and propagate the most reactionary understandings of Islam that are foreign to most Pakistanis'.


It is not that the old Muslim man from Delhi was completely correct about the poverty of socially-engaged and progressive intellectual discourse in Pakistan, although I must say he was not far off the mark. During my visit to Pakistan, that took me to several towns and a few villages in Punjab and Sindh, I met with numerous people struggling to articulate progressive visions and activism on a range of issues, such as gender relations, the rights of workers, peasants and religious minorities, Western imperialism and Pakistani ruling class politics, India-Pakistan relations and so on. On my very first evening in Lahore I was amazed by the boldness of a play staged by the Ajokha theatre group that I attended about the life of Bulleh Shah, an immensely popular iconoclastic Punjabi Sufi and folk hero, who mocked the mullahs and Brahmins alike and dared to defy the authority of the rulers of his times. Also in Lahore, I met with activists of a leftist group actively engaged in a struggle against brick-kiln owners and landlords in southern Punjab and against the Kalabagh and, which threatens to convert Sindh into a vast desert. In Tando Allah Yar, Sindh, I met Khurshid Kaimkhani and Aslam Khwaja, both of whom are working with the hapless Dalits of the province, the wretched of the earth, many of whom live in a situation of bonded labour. And in Moenjodaro, of all places, I encountered an activist who has translated numerous communist texts into the Sindhi language. I could multiply the number of such instances, but, as across the border in India, such brave souls remain on the fringes, marginal to the shaping of 'mainstream' discourses in Pakistan.


'What both India and Pakistan desperately need', a Lahori friend told me while talking about the state of intellectual discourse in our part of the world, 'are organically rooted public intellectuals that articulate the lived realities and concerns of the masses. Only then can the radical transformations that we desire ever come about'. 'But', he somberly added, 'given the pathetic state of intellectual discourse in Pakistan, that will probably take decades to happen'.

I told him that he was probably right about Pakistan, but, I quickly added, the same was true for India as well.









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