Religious extremism in Pakistan (Part II)

To understand the phenomenon of extremism in Pakistan, it is pertinent to trace its roots before Pakistan was born – in fact, way before the ‘idea’ of Pakistan was born! The seeds of Muslim fundamentalism were sown at a much earlier time in the Indian Subcontinent. The Subcontinent has been invaded by Muslims on numerous occasions throughout its history, resulting in Muslim rule for many centuries despite it being a Hindu-majority region. Though most of the Muslim rulers, like Akbar the Great, were tolerant of other religions and easily assimilated into the existing social system, there were some fundamentalist rulers who were completely ruthless when it came to non-Muslims.

Mahmud of Ghazni was a diehard Muslim ruler who is loathed by the Hindus. He is said to have invaded India no less than 17 times between 1000 and 1025 AD and was known for destroying Hindu temples and breaking Hindu idols. Ghazni is most despised by Hindus for the destruction of the Shiva temple at Somnath. He not only targeted the Hindus, but even those Muslims he considered ‘heretic’ such as the Ismaili-Fatimids (a branch of Shia’ism). Sher Shah Suri, known for building highways, too spent quite a lot of money on construction of madrassas and pampering clerics. This helped the cause of orthodox Islam in the Subcontinent. The Mughal Empire adopted a more tolerant attitude towards non-Muslims, with Akbar being one of the most moderate of the Mughal rulers. In a bid for peaceful co-existence, Akbar’s introduction of his own doctrine to amalgamate Islam, Hinduism and other faiths of the Subcontinent raised many an eyebrow of the Muslim fundamentalists. It was Sheikh Ahmad of Sarhind – commonly known as Mujaddid Alf Sani (the reformer of the second millennium) – who took it upon himself to counter this ‘threat’ to Islam by preaching a more rigid form of Islam. He largely contributed to the change in the Mughal Empire’s religious/political policies, which led from Akbar’s heterodoxy to Aurangzeb’s ferocious orthodoxy.

Aurangzeb was one of the most extremist of Mughal rulers. Being an extremist Sunni, he also targeted the Shia population of the Subcontinent. He outlawed Hindu fairs and prohibited construction of Hindu temples as well as the repair of old ones, and issued many other such religiously inclined edicts. Forced conversions were also a black mark on his rule. “The historian John F. Richards opines, quite candidly, that ‘Aurangzeb’s ultimate aim was conversion of non-Muslims to Islam. Whenever possible the emperor gave out robes of honour, cash gifts, and promotions to converts. It quickly became known that conversion was a sure way to the emperor’s favour’” ( It was his harsh treatment of Hindus and the reversal of his predecessors’ policy of co-existence that led to the disintegration of the Mughal Empire. When the Mughal Empire weakened, non-Muslims such as the Jats, the Marathas and the Sikhs began to rise in power. The Muslim community began to feel threatened by these developments and called for the revival of ‘true’ Islam.

Shah Waliullah, considered to be another reformer of Islam, wanted to purify the teachings of Islam and his worldview “later helped shape the Islamic college at Deoband and influence Muslims of all opinions,” (Akbar Ahmed: Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society, London: Routledge, 2002). In a bid for the resurgence of Muslim political supremacy, Shah Waliullah invited the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1760 to get rid of the Marathas. He had thought that Abdali would be an Islamic mujahid, but Abdali turned out to be a plunderer who killed both Hindus and Muslims in the areas that he captured. This turned out to be a setback for the Islamic revivalist movement. The movement was reignited in the early 19th century by Shah Walliullah’s son, Shah Abdul Aziz who issued a fatwa declaring India a Dar-ul-harb (the abode of war) due to the British expansion.

In an attempt to counter the gathering strength of the British, the new Islamic revivalists led by Shah Ismail (Shah Walliullah’s grandson) and his associate Sayyed Ahmed Shaheed of Rae Bareilly travelled to the borderlands of Afghanistan to set up a proto-state where Shariah would be imposed. The Pathans in Afghanistan were not in favour of this state and frequently clashed with this jihadist group. Sayyed Ahmed also launched a jihad against the Sikhs, citing the reason that they were discriminating against the Muslims in Punjab. The Pathans sided with the Sikhs and in an armed conflict in Balakot, Shah Ismail and Sayyed Ahmed were killed in 1831. Despite the death of these two leaders, many of their followers pursued the jihadi path, but were later crushed in the 1857 war.

The War of Independence in 1857 was largely a response to religious discrimination by the British, as the soldiers were asked to use cartridges covered with pig and cow fat. The rebellion was mainly centred in northern and central areas of India. According to acclaimed writer and historian William Dalrymple, apart from the secular Hindus and Muslims, there is evidence of Islamic fundamentalists who fought during this war. In an interview to the BBC, Darlymple says, “...there are clear and specific references among the Mutiny Papers to a regiment of jihadis arriving in Delhi from Gwalior who are described as ‘suicide ghazis’ who had vowed never to eat again and to fight until they met death at the hands of the kafirs (infidels)...there were those who believed they were following the Quranic injunction to turn the Dar-ul-harb, the abode of war, back into what they believed should again be the Dar-ul-Islam, the abode of Islam.”

The war brought about the end of the British East India Company’s rule in India, and led to direct rule by the British government. The Indians lost the war. The 1857 war forged unity between Hindus and Muslims for the sake of a common cause. The British felt threatened by the Hindu-Muslim unity and embarked on a policy of fomenting religious hatred between them. This divide culminated in sowing the seeds of partition on the basis of religion. Led by the proponents of Muslim resurgence on the strength of education and pragmatism, such as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the Pakistan Movement initially started as a struggle to gain rights for the Muslims as a minority within the Indian Union. Later owing to a host of factors, including Congress’s failure to accommodate Muslim aspirations, it acquired religious overtones and idiom.


Kaushik said…
Hi Mehmal. I was directed to your blog by our friend Aniket.
It's an interesting geneology you draw here of extremism in Pakistan. I was also struck by the fact that the intolerance of some of the Muslim rulers, you talk of here, was not just religious, it was also sectarian. I, for one, did not know that Mahmud of Ghazni persecuted the Fatimids.
Having said that, I am not sure how much of the blame lies at the doors of the mediaeval rulers you talk of. Religious persecution had been a part of subcontinental polity before Muslim rule. So there are cases of Shavites persecuting Buddhists and Buddhist hatred towards Vaishnavites, and so on. The religion-polity relation during pre-modern times makes for interesting reading. Religion remained intertwined with the state, even while rulers tried to assert themselves vis-a-vis the priesthood/clergy. My reading is that this state-of-affairs continued during Muslim rule.
The state never seperated itself from religion in pre-modern times in spite of protestations of numerous rulers. Enlightened despots like Ashoka, Harsha or Akbar would respect and more importantly weave in doctrines of various religions into statecraft on one hand. While there was the constricting intolerance of zealots like Mahmud of Ghazni or Aurangzeb on the other.
Syncretism did suffer during Aurangzeb's long rule. And a lot of the wonds are sore even today.
But why are they sore? I think we need to look into colonial and post-colonial times for answers. The colonial state created spaces for religious identities in modern polity, even institutionalised them. But it did so in a way that was qualitatively different from its pre-colonial predeccessor. The development of communication helped consolidate identities, which could have at best, been fragmented during pre-colonial times.
That was perhaps an incidental consequence of colonial rule. Much more direct and complicit in the rise of extremism were colonial policies like communal representation in legislatures, communnal census etc. And even more complicit were political movements which used the communal spaces created by the colonial state to spawn extremism.
History or historical constructs provided heady material in extremist contests. Hindu groups clamoured about the destruction of temples by Aurangzeb and Mahmud of Ghazni. Nothing wrong, had they even paid lip service to the destruction of places of worship in pre-Islamic times. Muslim groups similarly were vociferous about Hindu tyranny. Sores festered.
Oops, I am sorry this has turned out horrifically long
mehmal said…
Hi Kaushik, you've made some really good points, thank you :=)

I am aware (though not in as much detail as you seem to be) of the history of religious persecution among religions other than Islam in the Subcontinent. But the reason I am focusing more on Islam is because my series is related to Pakistan.

In my next article, I will start with the colonial period, but I could not do that without mentioning the history of the Muslim rulers and also the start of the Deoband madrassas.

This series is also an attempt to understand why religious extremism has penetrated Pakistani society so deeply. I am not an expert on the subject, but I am trying to understand the phenomenon myself and in turn trying to impart that understanding to my readers. I know that I'll make some mistakes in the process and some people won't agree with my analysis, but I'd still like to explore the subject as it is very crucial for today's world, especially today's Pakistan.

And hey don't worry about your 'long' comment because it was very helpful. Thank you :D

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