On a beaten track
On January 17, an article written by PM Imran Khan appeared in some English and Urdu dailies. In it, the Pakistani prime minister shared his thoughts on ‘Riyasat-e-Madinah,’ or the first ‘Islamic state’ that came into being in early 7th-century Arabia. PM Khan wrote that Pakistan will need to adopt the moral and spiritual tenor of that state if the country was to thrive.
Even before he came to power in 2018, Khan had been promising to turn Pakistan into a modern-day Riyasat-e-Madinah. He first began to formulate this as a political message in 2011. However, this idea is not a new one. It has been posited previously as well by some politicians, and especially, by certain Islamist ideologues. Neither is there any newness in the process used by Khan to arrive at this idea. Khan took the same route as ZA Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) took decades ago. In 1967, when the PPP was formed, its ‘foundation documents’ — authored by Bhutto and the Marxist intellectual J.A. Rahim — described the party as a socialist entity. To neutralise the expected criticism from Islamist groups, the documents declared that democracy was the party’s policy, socialism was its economy, and Islam was its faith.
The documents then added that by “socialism” the party meant the kind of democratic-socialism practiced in Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland; and through which these countries had constructed robust welfare states. But this did not impress Islamist outfits, especially the Jamat-i-Islami (JI). It declared the PPP as a party of ‘atheists.’ In 1969, JI’s chief Abul Ala Maududi, authored a fatwa declaring socialism as an atheistic idea. The next year, when the PPP drafted its first ever manifesto, the party explained that its aim to strive for democracy, a “classless society,” economic equality and social justice “flows from the the political and economic ethics of Islam.”
After coming to power in December 1971, the PPP began using the term “Musawat-e-Muhammadi” (social and economic equality preached and practiced by Islam’s holy Prophet [PBUH]). In 1973, a prominent member of the PPP, Sheikh Ahmed Rashid, declared that the economic system that Islam advocated and the one that was implemented in the earliest state of Islam was socialist. When a parliament member belonging to an Islamist party demanded that Islamic rituals be made compulsory by law “because Pakistan was made in the name of Islam,” Rashid responded by saying that the country was not made to implement rituals, but to adopt an “Islamic economy” which was “inherently socialist.”
Now let us see just how close all this is to the route that PM Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) took in formulating their concept of Riyasat-i-Madinah. In 2011, PTI and Khan suddenly rose to prominence as a party of urban middle-classes and the youth. In his speeches between 2011 and 2015, Khan was quite vocal in his appreciation of the Scandinavian welfare states. But, often, this appreciation was immediately followed by Khan declaring that the non-Muslim Scandinavians had uncannily followed Islamic ideals of social justice and economic equality better than the Muslims had (or do). Of course, he did not mention that Scandinavian countries are some of the most secular nation-states in the world, and that a strong secular-humanist disposition of their polities and politics played a major role in the construction of the welfare states that Khan was in such awe of.
With the Seerat Conference, Bhutto set out to exhibit his Islamic credentials and, perhaps, to also demonstrate that his regime may be struggling to fix the economy, but, at least, it was being headed by a ‘true believer.’ But this didn’t save him from being toppled in a military coup
As the 2018 elections drew near, Khan began to explain the concept of the European welfare state as a modern-day reflection of the 7th-century state that was formed in the city of Madinah. This notion was close to Bhutto’s Musawat-e-Muhamadi. But Bhutto and his PPP had claimed that the Islamic state in Madinah had a socialist economy, and that this alone should be adopted by Pakistan, because it was still relevant in the 20th century. This position had given the PPP enough space to remain secular in most other areas. But to Khan, if the Scandinavian model of the welfare state is adopted, and then supplemented by Islam’s moral, spiritual and political ethos in all fields and areas, this would result in the modern-day re-enactment of a 7th-century ‘Islamic state.’ Khan’s idea in this this context is thus more theocratic in nature.
Khan’s concept seemed to be emerging from how Pakistan was imagined by some pro-Jinnah ulema during the 1946 elections in British India. To Mr. Jinnah’s party, the All India Muslim League (AIML), the culture of Indian Muslims largely mirrored the culture of Muslims outside South Asia, particularly in Arabia and even Persia. But the politics and economics of India’s Muslim were grounded in India and/or in the territory that they had settled in 500 years ago. Therefore, the Muslim-majority state that the League was looking to create was to be established in this territory. The League’s Muslim nationalism was thus territorial. It was not to be a universal caliphate or a theocracy with imperial and expansionist aims. It was to be a sovereign political enclave in South Asia where the Muslim minority of India would become a majority, thus benefiting from the economic advantages of majoritarianism.
However, whereas this narrative – more or less – worked in attracting the votes of the Muslims of Bengal and Sindh during the 1946 polls, the League found itself struggling in Punjab, which was a bastion of the multicultural Union Party. The Congress, too, was strong here. Various radical Islamist groups were also headquartered in Punjab. They had rejected the League’s call for a separate country. They believed that it would turn the remaining Muslims in India into an even more vulnerable minority. The Islamists viewed the League as a secular outfit with westernised notions of nationalism and an impious leadership.
This is when some ulema switched sides and decided to support the League in Punjab. This is also when overt Islamist rhetoric was, for the first time, used by the League through these ulema, mainly in Punjab’s rural areas. The ulema began to portray Jinnah as a ‘holy figure,’ even though very few rural Punjabis had actually seen him. The well-known Islamic scholar Shabbir Ahmed Usmani, who left the anti-Jinnah Jamiat Ulema Islam Hind (JUIH) to support the League, began to explain the yet-to-be-born Pakistan as a “naya Madinah,” or new Madinah.
By this, Usmani meant the creation of a state that would be based on the model of the 7th century state in Madina. But, much to the disappointed of the pro-League ulema, the model adopted by Pakistan was largely secular and the Islam that the state espoused was carved from the ideas of ‘Muslim modernists’ such as the reformer Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (d.1898) and the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (d.1938), who urged Muslims to look forward with the aid of an evolved and rational understanding of Islam, instead of looking backwards to a romanticised past.
Dreaming of Madinah
Khan often spoke about Riyasat-i-Madinah before he became PM. But the frequency of him doing so has increased in the last year and a half – or when his government began to truly unravel. Today, it is in deep crises and expected to either be eased out by the Parliament, or knocked out in a ruder manner before it completes its term in 2023. The economy is in shambles, inflation and unemployment rates are climbing, and so are tensions between the government and its erstwhile patrons, the military establishment.
Amidst the growing crises, Khan has spoken more about morality, ‘westernisation,’ and Islamophobia than on how his government is planning to address the mounting economic problems that the country is facing, and the consequential political quagmire that his government has plunged into. Yet, he still somehow found a reason – or for that matter, the audacity – to lecture the polity on the moral and spiritual principles of Riyasat-i-Madinah, or the kind of morally upright and pious state and society that he is dreaming of constructing. One wonders if he is planning to do this with the large IMF loans that his government has had to acquire to keep the country from going bankrupt?
Khan’s article on Riyasat-i-Madinah was censured by the opposition parties. They saw it as a political ploy by him to distract the people from the failures of his government. There is evidence that a PR company hired by Khan has been advising him to raise the frequency of his Islamic rhetoric. The purpose behind this could be what the opposition is claiming. It might also be about something personal. But for men such as Khan, the personal often becomes the political.
According to political scientist David O’Connell, it is crisis, not political convenience, that more often brings out religion in politicians. In his book God Wills It, O’Connell argues that when public opinion of political leaders begins to dwindle, or when a head of state or government is threatened, that is when one sees religious rhetoric appear.
In 1976, when the Bhutto regime was struggling to address economic problems caused by an international oil crisis that had pushed up inflation, and due to the regime’s own mismanagement of important economic sectors that it had nationalised, Bhutto decided to organise a grand ‘Seerat Conference’ in Karachi. The conference was organised to discuss and highlight the life and deeds of Islam’s Prophet (PBUH) and how these could be adopted to regenerate the lost glory of the Islamic civilisation. Khan did exactly the same, late last year.
Bhutto’s intended audience in this respect was the Islamists who he had uncannily emboldened by agreeing to their demand of constitutionally ousting the Ahmadiyya community from the fold of Islam. He believed that this would neutralise the threat that the Islamists were posing to his ‘socialist’ government. The demand had risen when the Islamist groups in the Parliament had asked the government to provide the constitution with the provision to define what or who was a Muslim. In 1973, the government had refused to add any such provision in the constitution. But the very next year in 1974, when a clash between a group of Ahmadiyya youth and cadres of the student-wing of JI caused outrage amongst Islamist parties, they tabled a bill in the National Assembly which sought to constitutionally declare the Ahmadiyya as a non-Muslim community.
Bhutto threatened to unleash the military against anti-Ahmadiyya agitators who had besieged various cities of Punjab. According to Rafi Raza, who, at the time, was a special assistant to the prime minister, Bhutto insisted that the Parliament was no place to discuss theological matters. In his book ZA Bhutto and Pakistan, Raza wrote that the Islamist parties retorted by reminding the PM that in 1973 the constitution had declared Pakistan an ‘Islamic republic’ – and therefore, parliamentarians in an Islamic republic had every right to discuss religious matters.
After much violence in Punjab and commotion in the National Assembly, Bhutto capitulated and allowed the bill to be passed. This also meant that parliamentarians now had the constitutional prerogative to define who was or wasn’t a Muslim. This would eventually lead to the 1985 amendments in Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution, proclaiming that only ‘pious’ Muslims can be members of the Parliament and heads of state and government. The man who had initiated this, the dictator Zia-ul-Haq, had already declared himself ‘Sadiq and Amin’ (honest and faithful).
In 1976, Bhutto’s Islamist opponents were deriding him as a ‘bad Muslim,’ because he had ‘loose morals,’ was an ‘alcoholic,’ and that his government was as bad at fixing the economy as it was in curbing the “rising trend of obscenity and immorality in the society.” So, with the Seerat Conference, Bhutto set out to exhibit his Islamic credentials and, perhaps, to also demonstrate that his regime may be struggling to fix the economy, but, at least, it was being headed by a ‘true believer.’ But this didn’t save him from being toppled in a military coup that was triggered by his opponents who, in 1977, had poured out to agitate and demand a government based on Shariah laws.
Khan is on a similar path. He had been ‘reforming’ himself ever since he retired in 1992 as a cricketing star, a darling of tabloid press, and a ‘playboy.’ From a lifestyle liberal who had spent much of his time stationed in the UK, playing cricket and hobnobbing with European and American socialites, he gradually began to refigure his image. After retirement from cricket at age 40, he was mostly seen with prominent military men such as General Hamid Gul, who had once been extremely close to the dictator Zia-ul-Haq.
Faith, or at least their faith, gives Islamists a built-in political advantage. It is this advantage that the non-Islamist politicians want to usurp. They frequently find themselves pressed to continue positioning themselves as equally pious champions of Islam. Khan is doing exactly that. Bhutto did so in the second half of his rule, and Nawaz during his second stint as PM
Khan also began to have one-on-one meetings with certain ulema and Islamic evangelical groups. Khan’s aim was to bury his colourful past and re-emerge as an incorruptible born-again Muslim. But his past was not that easy to get rid of. It kept being brought up by the tabloids and also by Nawaz Sharif’s centre-right PML-N, which began to see him as a threat because Khan was trying to appeal to Sharif’s constituency. Sharif was a conservative and a protégé of Zia. In 1998, his second regime was struggling to fix an economy that had begun to spiral down after Pakistan conducted its first nuclear tests. This triggered economic sanctions against Pakistan, imposed by its major donors and trading partners, the US and European countries.
The crisis saw Nawaz formulate his own ‘Islamic’ shenanigans. His crusades against obscenity were coupled by his desire to be declared ‘the commander of the faithful’ (amir-ul-mominin). Instead, he was brought down by a coup in 1999. Unlike the coup against the Bhutto regime which was planed by a reactionary general, the one against Nawaz (by General Musharraf) was apparently staged to fix the economy and roll back the influence that the Islamists had enjoyed, especially during the Zia and Nawaz regimes.
Khan’s party initially supported the coup against Nawaz. But it pulled back its support when the PTI was routed in the 2002 elections. Khan began criticising Musharraf as an “American stooge” and “fake liberal.” Musharraf responded by claiming that Khan had asked him that he be made the prime minister. Musharraf then added that Khan’s ideas were “like those of a mullah.” One wonders whether this statement had annoyed Khan or delighted him. Because remember, he was trying his best to bury his glitzy past and convince everyone that he was now a pious gentleman who wanted to employ ‘true Islamic principles’ in the country’s politics and polity.
Finding his place in a constitutional theocracy
But weren’t many of these ‘principles’ already made part of the country’s constitution and penal code by the likes of ZA Bhutto, Zia and Nawaz?
From 1974 onwards, Pakistan started to become what the Canadian political scientist Ran Hirschl described as a “constitutional theocracy.” The phrase was initially coined by the French political scientist Oliver Roy for Iran’s post-revolution constitution. Hirschl expanded it in a 2010 book in which he studied the increasing Islamisation of constitutions in certain Muslim countries, and the problems these constitutions were facing in coming to terms with various contemporary political, legislative and social challenges.
Driven by a demand to simplify modern-day complexities, the leaderships, instead of trying to figure out new ways forward, have begun to look backwards, promising to bring forth a past that was apparently better and less complicated. But the recollection of such pasts is often not very accurate, because it involves a nostalgia which is referred to as ‘Anemoia’, or a nostalgia for a time one has never known
Constitutional theocracies empower the Islamists even if they are a minority in the Parliament. This is quite apparent in Pakistan. According to Syed Adnan Hussain, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Saint Mary’s University, even though most Islamists scoff at democracy, there were also some prominent Islamist ideologues who posited that constitutions, judicial review, legal codes and a form of democratic election could be integrated into an Islamic state. Abul Ala Maududi and Maulana Taqi Usmani were two such ideologues. They agreed to use whatever means were available to turn Pakistan into an Islamic state. And these included democratic institutions, processes and the constitution.
Involvement of the ulema in drafting the 1956 constitution was nominal, even though the constitution did declare the country an Islamic republic. Their contribution in drafting the 1962 constitution was extremely minimal. And even though, there were just 18 members of various Islamist parties in the National Assembly which came into being after 1971, their input increased during the drafting of the 1973 constitution. Their influence continued to grow. By 1991, the constitution had been greatly Islamised.
Therefore, even the more electorally strong non-Islamist parties have had to add various Islamist ideas in their armoury because as the American author Shadi Hamid wrote: “Private religious devotion (to Islamists) is inseparable from political action. Islam is to be applied in daily life, including in the public realm. And to fail to do so is to shirk one’s obligations towards God. Faith, or at least their faith, gives (the Islamists) a built-in political advantage.” It is this advantage that the non-Islamist politicians want to usurp. They frequently find themselves pressed to continue positioning themselves as equally pious champions of Islam. Khan is doing exactly that. Bhutto did so in the second half of his rule, and Nawaz during his second stint as PM. But, of course, this does not come naturally to non-Islamists. And the Islamists are never convinced. In fact, they see it as a way by non-Islamists to neutralise the political influence of the Islamists. Yet, in times of crisis, many non-Islamist heads of government in the country have curiously leaned towards religion, believing that by adopting an ‘Islamic’ demeanour, they would be able to pacify public anger towards their failing regimes.
This can be a desperate and last-ditch ploy to survive a fall. But on occasion, it can also be about a personal existentialist crisis – which makes it even worse. I believe Khan is a case in point. Indeed, there is an element of political amorality in his increasingly fervent moral rhetoric and religious exhibitionism. According to the British journalist and documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, as the world continues to become more complicated than ever, political leaders are increasingly struggling to comprehend today’s complexities and, thus, failing to formulate and provide a coherent vision of the future. They are attempting to define the complexity of today’s realities in an overtly simple manner.
Driven by a demand to simplify modern-day complexities, the leaderships, instead of trying to figure out new ways forward, have begun to look backwards, promising to bring forth a past that was apparently better and less complicated. But the recollection of such pasts is often not very accurate, because it involves a nostalgia which is referred to as ‘Anemoia’, or a nostalgia for a time one has never known. A past that is not a lived experience. A past that is largely imagined.
Khan likes to talk about the 7th-century state in Madinah. But as the anthropologist Irfan Ahmad and the historian Patricia Crone have demonstrated, there was no clear concept of a state anywhere in pre-modern times, east or west. The idea of the state as we know it today, began to emerge after the 17th century and matured from the 19th century onwards. It is a European concept. What is more, according to Ahmad, the idea of an Islamic state is a 20th century construct. It is derived from an imagined memory. Pre-modern states were vastly different than what they became from the 19th century onwards. States in pre-modern times had extremely limited capacity or resources to regulate every aspect of life.
They were impersonal and mostly erected to collect taxes from the subjects so that landed elites and monarchs could sustain standing armies, mount their wars, and retain power. A majority of the subjects were left to their own devices, as long as they did not rebel. Conquered areas were mostly put in the hands of local leaders on the condition that they would remain loyal to the conquers. Ancient states in Muslim regions and in the regions that the Muslims conquered were no different. But 20th-century Islamic ideologues began to speak of creating Islamic states. According to Ahmad, the idea of an Islamic state was the result of how the concept of the modern state had begun to fascinate ideologues and politicians in India.
The Congress began to talk about an Indian state, the League began to work towards a Muslim-majority state, the socialists towards a socialist state, and Islamists like Maududi began musing about an Islamic state. Shabir Usmani and Maududi projected the idea and reality of an all-encompassing modern state as a way to explain the functions of the 7th-century Madinah state, as if it had functioned like a modern state, regulating the lives of its subjects with coded laws, interventions, constitutions and through other established state institutions. This was not the case. What is more, there was little or no scholarship in the premodern Muslim world on political ideas or philosophy. These would only begin to appear in the 14th century in the works of Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun.
PM Khan is thus dealing in anemoia. He, like 20th-century critics of modernity, is raging against its supposedly cold and mechanical disposition. But instead of offering something new, he is investing more effort in trying to revive romanticised pasts which did not exist in the shape that they are often remembered as. Khan’s failure and incompetence to address the mounting problems of the here and the now, and his insistence on creating a theocratic potpourri of schemes already exhausted by Islamist ideologues – and by heads of state and government such as Bhutto, Zia and Nawaz – may as well be the last nail in the coffin of a much-exploited idea that is almost entirely based on a politically motivated and largely imagined memory.