By Ishtiaq Ahmed
The state tradition of South Asia that prevailed when Muslim armies entered the Indian subcontinent was the fiction that the ruler is the protector of all communities despite his personal affiliation with a particular religion or sect. Muslim rulers continued to subscribe to such praxis after defeating their opponents and consolidating their power.
Thus, in the early 8th century, when Muhammad bin Qasim led an Arab army into Sindh and defeated the local ruler Raja Dahir, he obtained a fatwa from Islamic scholars at Damascus, the capital of the Ummayads, who, by applying the rules of analogy to the notion of the ‘People of the Book’, declared even Hindus as believers in the same God. Muhammad bin Qasim was told that since the Hindus had agreed to pay the jizya, a protection tax, they were free to follow their religion.
In the 11th century, the Turco-Afghans began to launch successive waves of invasions on the subcontinent from the mountain passes in the north-west. By early 13th century, the important city of Delhi had fallen to the Muslims. The last Muslim dynasty to rule northern India was the fabled Mughul Empire (1526-1857).
The treatment of the Hindu majority varied from ruler to ruler. There were those who persecuted the Hindus. They destroyed temples and forcibly converted them to Islam, but by and large the local people were allowed to retain their religion if they paid the jizya. Many rulers recruited Hindus into the state services and in their armies as well.
One can say that first a territory was conquered, and then, after power had been consolidated, the Sufis would start preaching a tolerant version of Islam that made concessions to local culture and traditions. Conversions began to take place on an increasing level from sometime in the 16th and 17th centuries.
A new model of nation formation started when Mughul emperor Akbar (who ruled from 1556-1605) abolished the jizya in 1564, and even attempted to found a new syncretic religion called Din-i-Ilahi. His policy of enlisting Rajputs into the imperial army and placing Rajput princes in positions of command and himself marrying Rajput princesses perturbed the Muslim aristocracy. In terms of statecraft and nation-building it was a major innovation. Akbar was able to win over the local people on an unprecedented level.
His successors were less enterprising, although Shia influence at the court of his son, Jahangir (ruled 1605-1627), increased substantially. It perturbed the Sunni majority. It was in these circumstances that Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi (1564-1626), of the strictly Sharia-oriented Naqshbandia Sufi Order, initiated a campaign against the declining Islamic standards of the Mughuls. He also condemned the prevalent practices of many Sufis, which he alleged were borrowed from Hinduism.
Sirhindi’s warnings seemed to have finally been taken seriously by Akbar’s great-grandson, Aurangzeb (ruled 1658-1707). In 1679, he restored the jizya and enforced strict Islamic laws. As a result, rebellions and breakaway bids took place in different parts of the empire. Consequently, the Marhattas in the Deccan, Sikhs in Punjab and the Shia states of Bijapur and Golcanda in the south were attacked by Aurangzeb. Such engagements proved futile and the empire weakened rapidly after his death.
During the decline of the Mughul Empire, a famous theologian, Shah Waliullah (1702-63), began to campaign for an Islamic revival. However, the British emerged as victorious in the tussle for power and after they suppressed the Uprising of 1857, they changed policy and restored the traditional model of the ruler being the protector of all communities.
Down the centuries, new sects and movements emerged within the Muslim community, and during the British period some of them clashed with each other. These included followers of Wahabism, the Deobandis and Barelvis – all Sunnis, but seriously clashing on doctrines. Then there were Shias, too, and a new group, the Ahmadiyya community, was also founded in the Punjab by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who claimed to be prophet and the awaited Imam Mahdi of the Shias as well as Jesus Christ and Lord Khrishna. The Sunnis and Shias rejected such claims.
After the British left in 1947, and Pakistan came into being as a separate state for Indian Muslims, the tussle between those in favour of a tolerant, pluralist state and those wanting a dogmatic Sharia-based polity revived. While Jinnah favoured a secular-type of state, his immediate successors sought more of Islam in the constitution and legal system, though not fundamentalism.
In 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq captured power and started patronising the dogmatic Sharia-based polity. Such measures did not help consolidate the 96 percent Muslim majority into a compact nation; rather, the sectarian and sub-sectarian divisions accentuated and radicalised. It resulted in sectarian violence within the Muslim community and violence against the tiny Hindu and Christian populations, and the Ahmadis who were excluded from the category of Muslims as a result of a decision in 1974 taken by the Pakistan National Assembly.
Pakistan also became a hotbed of regional and international terrorism carried out by Al Qaeda-Taliban duo as well as India- and Kashmir-specific organisations such as Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. More importantly, the Taliban directed their wrath against the Pakistani state as well, and as a result thousands of Pakistanis – military and police personnel as well as ordinary people -- died or were injured.
It is now increasingly being realised that the enforced homogenisation that is taking place -- even if not directly by the state but militant groups whose activities the authorities are unable to control or unwilling to control -- is responsible for the destabilisation and undermining of the economy. It is a form of ethnic cleansing that can only be achieved by even more use of force. Internationally, Pakistan is isolated for not practising the rule of law.
Relations with India are still not normalised, though efforts are afoot from both sides to increase trade and take other positive measures to establish peace in the region. Even if Pakistan must, for identity reasons, retain a Muslim national character, it can devise a policy that represents the spirit of tolerance that Muhammad bin Qasim introduced and which Emperor Akbar so wisely and successfully continued.
(The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)