Pakistan’s quest for identity: contesting Islam

Mural in Karachi. Pakistan multiple identities cannot be reduced to religious fanaticism. Wasif Malik/Flickr, CC BY-ND

“A young Pashtun who won’t keep quiet”. This is how Times of India has recently described a 26-year-old man from a Pashtun tribe, commonly found in north-western Pakistan. Manzoor Pashteen has been active in denouncing the Pakistan army’s exactions during the Afghanistan war and its role in the reported disappearance of thousands of people from Pashtun clans. Over the weekend, millions rallied in Lahore, defying the authorities and the army, which they accused of collusion with Islamic extremist groups.

Why is Manzoor Pashteen’s voice echoed by so many others in Pakistan today? Perhaps because the country has often been misunderstood to be exclusively built upon a national Islamic identity, ignoring the multiculturality and divisive role of Islam in the definition of its national identity.

A video released in March 2018 showing a cheering crowd for the “rock star” activist Pashtun.

The first self-conscious Muslim state

Pakistan emerged in August 1947 as the first self-consciously created Muslim state (and along with Israel as one of only two cases of religious nationalism in modern times).

However, while Islam is clearly recognised in the Constitution of Pakistan as the state religion, its role in national life is still deeply contested – and is likely to remain so into the 21st century. The explanation is rooted in Pakistan’s history, much of which has been fraught with uncertainty over the salience of Islam in the definition of Pakistan.

At its heart lies the question of (a) whether Pakistan was intended to secure a Muslim homeland free from the domination of a Hindu majority in independent India or (b) whether it expressed a desire for a state informed by Islamic law, where Parliament and the people would be subject to Divine injunctions mediated by a clerical elite.

Speech of Muhammed Ali Jinnah about the making of Pakistan, 1946.

Instrumentalising the language of Islam as a means of promoting a particular political agenda has been a habit among Pakistan’s self-professed secular parties such as the Pakistan People’s Party(led over the years by various members of the Bhutto family), and to a lesser extent, the Muttahida (formerly Mohajir) Qaumi Movement. This trend has deepened the confusion among citizens and further muddied the waters between these competing visions.

With no visible consensus over the terms of “Islam” – whether as faith, culture or ideology – the resolution of Pakistan’s identity and its putative relation to Islam, remains elusive.

Minorities within the majority

At first glance, Pakistan with its remarkably homogeneous population of Muslims, who make up almost 97% of its population, would appear to be well insulated against discord over Islam’s relation to the state. Yet the sectarian divide between the country’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population and its Shia minority, which has grown more acute with time, suggests otherwise.


Read more: What is the Shia-Sunni divide?


The trend was set in the 1980s when Shias, who represent an estimated 25% of Pakistan’s total population (and are second in number only to their counterparts in Iran), grew fearful of a state they suspected was engaged in a process of “Sunnification” masquerading as Islamisation. It involved both the promotion of a distinct sectarian identity among Pakistan’s Sunni majority as well as the pursuit of policies based on a Sunni interpretation of Islamic law.

Since then mounting attacks against Shias by Sunni militant groups dedicated to the idea of Pakistan as a Sunni state in which Shias would be designated as a non-Muslim minority, have compounded fears that it is only a matter of time before Shias are relegated to the status of second-class citizens in Pakistan.

These concerns are not without some foundation. In 1974, a constitutional amendment, which remains in force, stripped members of the Ahmadi religious minority of their status as Muslims, reducing at a stroke their rights as full citizens.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (13 February 1835 – 26 May 1908), a religious figure from India, and the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement (circa 1897). Makhzan-e-Tasaweer/Wikimedia

The measure has left the Ahmadis vulnerable to physical attacks by other Muslims – both Sunnis and Shias. Yet Ahmadis regard themselves as Muslims and continue to subscribe to Islam. But they identify neither as Shias nor Sunnis.

They belong to a messianic sect that emerged in mid-19th-century colonial Punjab under the leadership of a local religious reformer, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed. His status as a prophet/messiah among his followers accounts today for the charge of heterodoxy levelled against the Ahmadis (who contest such claims) and to discriminatory actionby the state.

Precarious minorities

With the terms of Islam violently in question, the status of Pakistan’s other religious and regional minorities has also grown ever more precarious. The small Christian and Hindu minorities, concentrated in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh, have witnessed a steady erosion of their rights amid the debate over the role of Islam and its capacity to ensure equal citizenship.


Read more: Breathing without living: the plight of Christians in Pakistan


Controversy over Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, which aim to protect the sanctity and reputation of the Prophet Muhammad, has accentuated these concerns by targeting non-Muslim minorities for reported breaches of the law and fuelling doubts about Pakistan’s standing as a nation-state equipped for the 21st century.

Pressures arising from these contestations are more acutely felt by regional minorities who also suffer from conditions common to other religious minorities in Pakistan.

A case in point concerns the Shia Hazara people of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. They have long been the object of a campaign of ethnic cleansing and religious persecution orchestrated by Sunni militant groups seeking to promote an anti-Shia sectarian agenda by tapping into perceptions of the Hazara as Iranian proxies intent on destabilising Pakistan.

A family tearing itself apart

But the struggle over Islam and its place in the definition of Pakistan’s national identity extends well beyond the sectarian schism between Sunnis and Shias.

No less profound are doctrinal differences within the Sunni majority, where competing conceptions of Islam and their relation to the state have led to deep splits between followers of the Barelvi sect and their Sunni counterparts among adherents of the Deobandi movement.

The former, who predominate among Sunnis in Pakistan, enjoy a strong presence across vast swathes of the country, especially in rural areas, where they are closely tied to local Sufi shrines. Yet their influence in shaping the contours of the Pakistani state has been relatively modest in comparison to their rivals among Sunni Deobandis.

Followers of the two groups are separated by sharp differences, which centre mainly on the role of intercession in religious practice with Barelvis placing special emphasis on the role of spiritual mediators and personal devotion to the Prophet Muhammad against the Deobandi preference for individual responsibility and correct religious practice in line with the sharia.

With the onset of the 21st century, however, Barelvi groups have adopted a more muscular style of politics aimed at forcing the state to impose increasingly rigid definitions of “the Muslim” with the object of sharpening Pakistan’s Islamic profile.

The most recent illustration of this trend surfaced in late 2017, when Barelvi hardliners forced the resignation of the law minister on grounds of blasphemy, claiming that he had sought to dilute the profession of faith enjoined on Muslims by amending the wording of a new electoral law that would have required political candidates to “declare” their belief in the finality of the Prophet Muhammad rather than to “swear an oath” affirming it.

Inside blasphemy law of Pakistan, Al Jazeera, 2011.

While the political stock of the Barelvis is yet to be consolidated, the standing of the Deobandis is well established. Their influence rose exponentially in the 1980s when Deobandi organizations were singled out for state patronage in recognition of their role in extending Pakistan’s policy of jihad in Afghanistan and their willingness to serve as armed proxies of the state against Indian forces in Kashmir.

This favoured position enabled Deobandi parties to emerge as formidable players on Pakistan’s political landscape, where they have scored notable successes in promoting their brand of conservative Islam as the defining ideology of the state.

Who takes control?

However, the political sway of Barelvis and Deobandis has been steadily challenged by other Sunni groups. They include followers of the Salafi sect – known locally as the Ahl-i-Hadis – who, while representing a tiny minority among Sunnis in Pakistan, also seek to bring the state in line with their strict and literal reading of Islam.

In doing so they have staged violent attacks against local Sufi shrines whose practices they denounce as un-Islamic.

Shrine of the famous Sufi Saint Hazrat Baha-ud-din Zakariya in Multan, Pakistan, who died in 1257 AD. It features the earliest example of blue tilework in the subcontinent. Wasif Malik/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

But the influence of Ahl-i-Hadis groups cannot be understood without reference to Pakistan’s exceptionally close ties to Salafi-dominated Saudi Arabia which has led to a cultural transformation that has eroded more diverse expressions of Islam in Pakistan and resulted in what is described as the “Saudisation of Pakistan”.

At least as important is the proximity of Pakistan’s leading Ahl-i-Hadis organization, Lashkar-i-Tayyaba (which currently operates in the guise of Jamaat-ud-Dawa), to the country’s military establishment. Lakshkar-i-Tayyaba became world famous for conducting the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. And, in opposition to a “Hindu India”, it promotes Pakistan’s Islamic identity.

New lines of division

These discursive fractures have significantly widened the differences over Islam’s putative relation to Pakistan’s national identity. Although the cataclysmic events of 9/11 led Pakistan to briefly temper appeals to a monolithic interpretation of Islam as the basis of the country’s identity, this short-lived experiment did little to address fundamental contradictions embedded in the issue.

In the 2007 movie Khuda Kay Liye, a Maulana (Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah) delivers a speech about the misuse of Islam that went viral.

Indeed, the 21st century has spawned new lines of division over Pakistan’s identity informed by the complex narratives of global Islam. Foremost among these is the constructed opposition between so-called “extremist” Islam, which Pakistan seeks to project as alien to its identity, and an internationally sanctioned discourse of “moderate” Islam to which Pakistan hopes to tie its national mast.

Whether these latest attempts to re-define Pakistan’s identity as the exemplar of “moderate” Islam can heal the county’s fractures over Islam or ease the present violent struggle between competing ideas of Pakistan, are yet to be established.

Until then the chronic uncertainties arising from Pakistan’s vexed relation to Islam will continue to exact their heavy toll on the country and its people.


This piece is a modified version of an article published in Fellows n°38, “Islam and identity in 21st-century Pakistan”. The French Network of Institutes for Advanced Study (RFIEA) has hosted more than 500 researchers from around the world since 2007.

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