Some months back I was asked to open a photographic exhibition at the Shakir Ali Museum in Lahore. In my brief address I referred to the rich Southasian culture of which Pakistan is a part. A gentleman from the audience took exception to my remarks and later wrote to me to the effect that I had disclaimed the two-nation theory, and that the Pakistani Islamic culture was distinct from the Indian Hindu culture. For many months I have pondered the question. So important is the issue, a public answer might just be in order.
Let me at the outset declare that no one can question my Pakistani credentials, nor those of my family, which included stalwarts of the Pakistan Movement. On the issue of Pakistan’s culture being purely Islamic, I cannot hazard a definition of what constitutes ‘culture’. The overwhelming view now is that ethnicity and culture are what nations and societies use to define themselves. As an individual I am extremely proud of being a Pakistani and a Muslim.
Talk to a Sindhi, Baloch or a Pakhtoon and one will get an idea of our situation. Unlike the Punjabi, none is prepared to sacrifice his mother tongue or his subculture and history. Only the Punjabi middle-class and intelligentsia arc too ashamed to talk to their children in Punjabi, which is perhaps among the oldest Southasian languages, rich in poetry and literature. Only in Punjab is Urdu is seen as a replacement of Bulleh Shah’s Punjabi. The ‘ideology of Pakistan’ is too insecure to tolerate a language other than Urdu. This is not to say Urdu is not ours. It is and will remain the national language. There is no threat to Urdu from any regional language. Why is then Punjabi seen as a threat to Urdu?
My other problem is, how can religion alone explain our nationhood? If this were so, what of the 160 million Muslims of India? According to the two-nation theory, Indian Muslims would really be overseas Pakistanis stranded in India. Then there is the issue of Bangladesh. Previously, as a majority they rejected Urdu as their national language, but did not ask that Bengali, the language of the majority of the then Pakistan, be made the official lingua franca. If Urdu is the only symbol of the two-nation theory and a symbol of ‘Pakistaniat’, then by definition the architects of Pakistan negated the democratic basis of its genesis, i.e. a minority will dictate to the majority. Also, how do we explain the culture of Muslim Bengal in terms of the ideology of Pakistan, if the latter is to be defined in terms of the Urdu language and Islam only?
Drawing the lime
The intellectual problem arises in defining culture as a medium of religion only. In the Muslim world there are distinct historical and civilisational entities. It is true that practice of the tenets of Islam has much in common in all Muslim lands. In the spiritual sense there is an identity amongst Muslims all over the world. But in the temporal sense there is no one unifying identity. Each Muslim society defines its own paradigms of culture and civilization. Muslim societies of the Nile, Mesopotamia, the Indus and Oxus have pre- and post-Islamic civilizations. Their people are proud of their ancient and their recent past. They see no contradiction in claiming the past as their own.
We are Muslims of Southasia who evolved a culture of our own different from the Muslims of other parts of the world. Most of us were Hindus, but were converted to Islam by Sufi saints over the last thousand years. Over 10 centuries, those of us who came from foreign lands gave much to Southasia. A huge diffusion took place in languages, literature, music, food, poetry, architecture, paintings, etc. and we became Southasians. We should not be in denial of this reality, which cannot be wished away. Who can deny that the style of Taj Mahal’s central structure minus minarets and domes is Rajput? Who can deny Ameer Khusro’s contribution to music. How long can we sustain the fiction that we are not Southasian? All attempts to Persianise, Arabise or Islamise Pakistan have been unmitigated disasters leading to confusion, intolerance, denial of democratic and human rights, and, finally, terrorism.
There is a Southasian culture in the sense that there is a European culture. Germans, French, English, Italian and Spanish are all proud of their European culture and civilization. This does not take away from their individual identities, which caused so much historical discord. Why can’t we conceive of a Southasian culture as a macrocosm and our own as a microcosm? This is a shared Subcontinent of races, languages and religions. In diversity and inclusion lies its identity. Southasia is several times larger geographically than the continent of Europe, and many times more complex demographically. There is vast diversity of language, race, ethnicity, nation and religion, yet there is a Southasian underpinning to it all – a commonality that it would be foolish to deny. It is time we in Pakistan accepted this as a confident nation, rather than argue that it has served us poorly. Our pride in our country and Islam cannot be so fragile that it is in any danger. An acceptance of this reality will remove the intellectual cobwebs in our mind, and remove the identity crises of Pakistan.
Owning the India civilisation
We must seek our identity in our land, in our deep roots which go back to the ancient Indus Valley civilization. To this day, our farmers use the same utensils, implements and bullock carts as those used in Mehrgarh, Harappa and Moenjodaro. Like millions of other children, as a child I too played with terracotta toys that hark back to ancient times. If Egyptian Muslims can be proud of their pharoanic past, Iraqis of their Mesopotamian and Babylonian history, and Iranians of the Fars, why can’t we Pakistani Muslims take pride in the Indus Civilization?
Our history did not start with Mohammad Bin Qasim. I know of no other state or country that disclaims its own history and civilization. The whole ethos that the so-called intellectuals of Pakistani conservatism have evolved is based on the foreignness of Pakistan. The ideological history is based on conquerors and marauders, and not the gentle people of Harappa, Moenjodaro, Gandhar or Hindujah. It is true Arian Khushans, Arabs, Turko-Afghans and Persians migrated to this land, some in peace and some in war. All were assimilated in this region. None were ashamed of their new identity. They all made this land their home. None went back to Baghdad or Basra, none returned to Balkh or Bokhara.
Islam spread with the advent of conquerors; not by the sword but by the great saints who came and stayed. They preached love and tolerance. They preached inclusion. They condemned no faith, no religion. They saw truth and beauty in every religion. Through love, through spirituality, they converted millions of Indians to Islam. That is what Pakistan is all about; proud of its ancient history, proud of its diversity, proud of its gallant people and proud of its religion of the Sufi saints and their sublime poetry.
Let us wind up the identity debate and play our destined role as a proud Muslim state of Southasia. History beckons us to be a bridge between Central Asia and Southasia, between Southasia and the Middle East, and to be a moderator between Islam and the other great religions. Let us not circumscribe ourselves to some arcane and untenable definition of our statehood that belittles our ancient culture and civilisation. I do not propose to challenge the wisdom of our founding fathers, but only to re-define our identity in a historically realistic paradigm free of romanticism and arcane intellectualism based on faulty assumptions.