The icon indicates free access to the linked research on JSTOR.

Partha Chatterjee, in his 1996 lecture “Our Modernity,” argues that modernity isn’t a singular concept with universal applicability. Instead, it takes different forms depending on factors such as “geography, time, environment or social conditions.” This is especially true for post-colonial nations and nation-states where the histories of modernity and colonialism are closely intertwined, such as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, founded in 1947.

JSTOR Daily Membership AdJSTOR Daily Membership Ad

Divide, Rule, Religion

One of Pakistan’s many modernities emerged during the pre-Partition colonial British Raj (Rule) in India, in place from 1757 to 1947. It was a European and “universal” colonial ideology of modernity that promoted imperial practices such as capitalism, industrialization, representative democracy, and a culture of “rationality.” The British justified their rule by claiming that Indians needed to become “enlightened,” and this enlightenment would be delivered through the Divide and Rule Policy (D&R), which manipulated pre-existing divisions across religious, caste, and ethnic. In fact, as Richard Morrock explains, the British implemented D&R on a larger scale in India than in any other colony.

In the early to mid-1800s, Britain seized India from a predominantly Muslim Mughal Empire; until then Hindus and Muslims enjoyed a “Mughal synthesis”—a pre-colonial state of coexistence where both groups were equally accommodated under Islamic rule. Yet under British occupation, it was increasingly challenging for Muslims to maintain any social and political power as the colonizers considered the dynamics of the former Mughal synthesis as a threat to their control. Therefore, the Raj diluted Muslim influence and favored Hindus in education, government, markets, culture, and other avenues of social life. Broadly speaking, while Hindus experienced a change of masters from the Mughals to the British, Muslims in India experienced a wholesale diminishment of the political power that helped anchor their identity.

As the British pursued communal disunity, both Hindus and Muslims allowed themselves to fall for this imperialist’s game, a core feature of which was the replacement of Urdu/Persian with English as the official language, writes British and Commonwealth Studies scholar Belkacem Belmekki. This change upended historically embedded practices across bureaucracy, law, education, and literature—all rooted in the Mughal Empire. Muslims faced changes in institutional structures, such as the imposition of British legal procedures onto Islamic codes. Discrimination was so blatant, writes Belmekki, that a Persian newspaper from 1896 reported that the government was “publicly singl[ing] out the Mohammadens [Muslims] in its gazettes for exclusion from official posts,” fueling frustrations and leading to disastrous consequences for the Indian subcontinent. In retaliation, Muslims rejected Western education and culture, whereas Hindus (mostly urban elites) embraced it. The latter became the colonizers’ favored group, while Muslims were excluded from positions of power and relegated to menial roles as messengers, tea makers, ink-pot fillers, and the like.

As Belmekki and others describe, colonial policy is widely regarded as the original source of discontent for Muslims and the groundwork for the Islamic foundations of Pakistan. Colonial policy sowed seeds of separatism among South Asian Muslims not only frustrated by systemic discrimination but nostalgic for former Mughal glories. Before colonization, all strata of society, from the poorest to the richest Muslims, could identify with the Mughal Empire and gravitated toward strong education and cultural centers across India such as those in Lucknow and Awadh. However, the dissolution of the Mughal Empire meant losing a kingdom, language, culture, capital city, and sense of self. With D&R, India’s Muslims suffered in the name of progress and enlightenment, experiencing discrimination based on their British-perceived “Muslim-ness.” Ironically this marginalization in turn birthed a new unified sense of Muslim political identity.

Divide, U-turn, Rule

As Muslim grievances grew in colonial India, the Hindu community embraced Western education and culture on their own terms. Notable leaders, such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, led nineteenth-century social reform movements to reinvigorate Hinduism; these reforms had a “modernist” tendency, encouraging education, the English language, science, and Western philosophy. The British perceived these reforms as a direct threat to their own conception of modernity and in response, the British shifted their D&R policy, marking a decided “U-turn.” While they still exploited religious divisions to maintain control, now they openly favored Muslims, writes Belmekki, and took measures to counter-balance growing Hindu nationalism; the British established educational institutions like the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875 and granted Muslims separate electorates in the Indian Councils Act of 1909. As Om Prakash describes, they even supported the formation of the All-India Muslim League in 1906, which would later play a critical role in the Muslims’ separatist movement.

Map of the partition of India, 1947
Map of the partition of India, 1947 via Wikimedia Commons

Within this context, the notion of Muslim-ness emerged as a driving force in the creation of a new nation, marking another wave of modernity. Chatterjee’s observation that “it was the same logic of modernity which one day led us to the discovery that imperialism was illegitimate; independence was our desired goal” rings true. This discovery ultimately manifested in the idea of “Pakistan”—“the land of the Paks, the spiritually pure and clean,” explains the late journalist Karl E. Meyer. Pakistan’s birth was complex, with a handful of influential Indian Muslims serving as midwives; these included Mohammad Iqbal, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Choudhary Rahmat Ali, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the London-educated barrister who became the face of the Pakistan Movement during the first half of the twentieth century.

The Politics of Jinnah

Born into a middle-class Gujarati family, Jinnah is known for his pragmatism and secular views. He joined both the Indian National Congress in 1906 and the All-India Muslim League in 1913, where he advocated for Hindu-Muslim unity. However, his attempts to form a coalition through constitutional reform were consistently rejected by Congress leaders, and he ultimately left the party in 1920. After World War II, as the British prepared to leave the India, fears among Muslims of Hindu dominance grew, and Jinnah emerged as a strong advocate for a Muslim homeland.

Two events in particular influenced Jinnah’s political transformation. The Lucknow Pact of 1916 reflected his initial political stance of Hindu-Muslim cooperation. The pact, which Jinnah spearheaded, was an agreement between the National Congress and League for “equality of power,” writes R. J. Moore, with the aim to recognize separate religious identities, increase Muslim representation in the government, and protect Muslim cultural practices. This major step towards potential religious dualism was stymied by British and National Congress opposition. A core point of dispute was the Congress’s appeal to build a secular nation composed of different religions and ethnicities instead of dividing political parties by religion as the League had done. The pact’s failure pushed Jinnah to re-evaluate his thinking; he began to believe that a separate political identity for Muslims was necessary to protect their interests in a predominantly Hindu India. In fact, there was no longer any confusion as to the “possible fate of the Muslims” for him, marking the beginning of his journey towards advocating for self-determination.

The 1937 Indian provincial elections further solidified his position. Led by Jawaharlal Nehru, the National Congress won a majority of the seats, and formed governments in several states. In provinces where Muslims were in the minority, the Congress however refused to form a coalition with the League. Moore reports that, at the time, Nehru remarked that “the Congress and the Raj were the only two parties in India, [and] Jinnah [claimed]… the Muslim League as a third, a rightful ‘equal partner’ of the Congress.”

The Congress soon implemented discriminatory policies; it made Hindi the national language and banned the slaughter of cows. Taken together with the elections, these policies contributed to the growing sense of alienation among Muslims. They furthermore demonstrated to Jinnah that the National Congress would refuse to acknowledge religion as the political basis for a future nation-state. Amidst this political climate, the League won a significant number of seats in the Muslim-majority provinces, writes Sikandar Hayat, in part because of their campaign strategy to advocate for the protection of Muslim interests; the 1937 efforts turned out to be the first great attempt at mobilizing Muslim support. Coupled with Congress’s secular stance, this victory provided a powerful mandate for Jinnah’s demand for a separate homeland. Only that, he believed, could deliver protection of Muslim political and cultural rights.

With Jinnah at its helm, the push in India for an independent Muslim state gained momentum; despite his secular convictions, Jinnah saw that organizing on the basis of religion could serve as a unifying political force for all Muslims. He became the face of the Pakistan Movement.

The Islam of Jinnah

It was clear to Jinnah that Muslims needed to protect their rights in India albeit within the ideals of a secular state. However, as the largest minority, Muslims were widespread not only geographically but in the nature of their identities as well. They comprised diverse class, ethnic, linguistic, and regional groups that didn’t necessarily identify with each other notwithstanding their shared religious beliefs. For instance, Punjabi Muslims included Shaikhs, Arains, and Rajputs and identified with non-Muslim Sikhs because they shared the same spaces and cultural practices. Bengali Muslims didn’t identify with Punjabi Muslims due to language and cultural differences. More so, Punjabi and Muhajir classes were part of the elite, and did not represent the rest of Muslims in India. These groups came from Muslim minority provinces who didn’t suffer at the hands of the Congress as much as those from the Muslim majority regions. Overall, there was immense geographical and cultural diversity amongst Muslims who perceived Islam as cultural—based in syncretic Sufi traditions—rather than political.

This presented a conundrum for Jinnah and the League, as mobilizing such a range of cohorts into one coherent political voice was the only way to protect their rights and eventually form a new state. But how could they harness the concept of a shared Muslim identity to advocate for political rights?

Jinnah drew deliberately on Islamic symbolism and rhetoric to help Muslims see themselves bound together by faith. Amongst other strategies, he framed Islam as a religion under threat, one which required protection through an urgent fight against those who would suppress its followers. As Venkat Dhulipala explains, Jinnah also used specific Islamic terminology to form separatist narratives that linked Islam to nationhood. He quoted the Quran in speeches to highlight the importance of unity, justice, and tolerance, and invoked the “new Medina,” “Ummah” (the global community of Muslims), “Millat” (a distinct religious or national group), and “fortress of Islam” to draw parallels between a new nation and early Islamic history. This association elicited pride among Muslims, reminding them of their glorious past and encouraging migration for the sake of religious freedom to a homeland that would preserve “true” Islamic values, culture, and tradition.

This mobilization of Islamic identity ultimately led to the beginnings of the ambiguity behind the idea of Pakistan and its identity. Ayesha Jalal sees Jinnah’s religious invocations as a pragmatic strategy intended not to create a theocracy but as a political response to the concerns of Muslims in post-colonial India, where majoritarian and secular tendencies prevailed. While there is ongoing debate as to whether Jinnah merely insisted on a separate nation to pressure the British and Congress to secure Muslim rights in federal India, or whether he was committed to the creation of Pakistan, the key observations are that he was secular in his views; fought for religious unity most of his political career; transformed his political views towards a separate nation as a response to political discriminatory policies over the years; and used Islam as a political tool to mobilize a vastly diverse set of Muslims across India. The question then becomes: did converting Islam into a nationalist ideology to gather Muslims for a non-theocratic state end up creating long-lasting confusion over Pakistani national and cultural identity rather than unity?

The Inherent Ambiguity in Pakistan’s Identity

Muslims in Pakistan then and now are a composite of various regional, class, and ethnic cultures that cannot be defined as solely “Islamic” or “un-Islamic.” While Islam is an integral part of these cultures, it’s not their sole basis. The state’s ideology is based on tactical Islam strategically deployed by groups from the elite aristocratic Punjabi and Muhajir classes.

The leadership’s inability to provide a coherent ideological basis for the new state, faced with diverse and conflicting ethnic and class interests, led them to present Islam as a symbol of pseudo-unity. This further widened the divisions and ruptures in the polity of an already confused nation-to-be. The religious insufficiency became more apparent post-independence in events such as the secession of Bangladesh in 1971 where Muslims, who were in majority, were treated poorly by the Punjabi central government and denied their rights to co-exist as Muslim and Bengali. As a result, Pakistanis, pre- and post-Independence, have yet to agree on a broadly acceptable definition of Pakistani culture, with some emphasizing Muslim nationhood and Islam at the expense of regional and ethnic cultures and others assigning greater importance to geographical and historical factors, regarding religion as important but secondary.

Jinnah’s appeal to religion was always ambiguous, and this ambiguity played a significant role in the formation of Pakistan’s national and cultural identity. Since then, the challenge for Pakistan has been to develop a cohesive and inclusive national identity that celebrates its rich cultural diversity. Yet, the shadows of British-imported modernity to the Indian subcontinent are long, and the subsequent mix of Islam and politics that Jinnah employed has left a cloud of confusion on Pakistani national-cultural identity. Today, we can see the strategic role religion played in Pakistan’s creation; it was never the “traditional” or “primordial” aspect of nation-building it appeared to be. Rather, the use of religion was a product of contested forms of modernity which were so intertwined in the country’s independence seventy-five years ago, they are still having an impact today.

Support JSTOR Daily! Join our membership program on Patreon today.


JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers, and students. JSTOR Daily readers can access the original research behind our articles for free on JSTOR.

Current History, Vol. 116, No. 789, South Asia (April 2017), pp. 157–159
University of California Press
Science & Society, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Summer 1973), pp. 129–151
Guilford Press
India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 3/4, the Great Divide (WINTER 2008 SPRING 2009), pp. 22–29
India International Centre
Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 72, PART-I (2011), pp. 408–422
Indian History Congress
Oriente Moderno, NUOVA SERIE, Anno 94, Nr. 1 (2014), pp. 113–124
Istituto per l'Oriente C. A. Nallino
Comparative Education Review, Vol. 6, No. 2 (October 1962), pp. 152–159
The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Comparative and International Education Society
History of Religions, Vol. 46, No. 1 (August 2006), pp. 50–80
The University of Chicago Press
Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 64 (2003), pp. 1049–1065
Indian History Congress
World Policy Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring 2003), pp. 77–92
Duke University Press
Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 47, No. 10 (MARCH 10, 2012), pp. 65–69
Economic and Political Weekly
Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 17, No. 4 (1983), pp. 529–561
Cambridge University Press
The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 31, No. 3 (May 1972), pp. 561–587
Duke University Press
Journal of the Indian Law Institute, Vol. 19, No. 1 (January–March 1977), pp. 44–67
Indian Law Institute
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 68, No. 1 (2005), pp. 59–76
Cambridge University Press on behalf of School of Oriental and African Studies
Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 61, Part One: Millennium (2000–2001), pp. 780–795
Indian History Congress
Islamic Studies, Vol. 57, No. 1/2 (Spring–Summer 2018), pp. 45–102
Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad
India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 3/4, the Great Divide (WINTER 2008 SPRING 2009), pp. 2–21
India International Centre