Basis of Muslim Nationalism in South Asia

Syed Islam Shah


The concept of nation is a modern phenomenon which came into use in the second half of the 19th century. The word nation was used to assert the right of various subject groups to independent political existence. That is why, nationalism or nationalist movements are considered “Ideological movements based on shared meanings of common descent, real or imaginary, that elites within the appropriate group formulate in order to mobilize political support for a variety of objectives, ranging from autonomy to secession and statehood”1 The most important factor in the formation of a nation is unity. It may be imposed by a conqueror or by deliberate desire on the part of the constituent units, or it may result from general sentiment of the people. If race, language and territory are common, the bonds of unity grow painlessly and even voluntarily.

There is no such nationalism is Islam. The man-made nationalism is formulated by identity and differences based on language, ethnicity, culture, race or colour. The purpose of this nationalism is to impose unity over diversity. Islam on the other hand does not believe in such differences. It does not stand for a limited or an artificial unity. Islam affirms the principle of unity in diversity, a unity based on a common ideal, an agreed criterion for moral excellence, equality and justice and creates a “social organization that admits variety within the frame work of a common fraternity.”2

Race by itself, does not provide a strong bond and there are practically no pure races left in the world any more. Language “invites union, without, however, compelling it”,3 and thus has a motivating force in bringing people together, but by itself it does not create nations. Territory enables people to interact upon each other and if communications are good, due to proximity, deal with each other. More than any other factor, religion has a great hold on the loyalties of people and their sense of identification. Allama Muhammad Iqbal envisioned that religion is a power of utmost importance in the life of individual as well as state. He said: In order to make it possible for Muslim India to solve the problems, it is necessary to redistribute the country and to provide one or more Muslim States with absolute majorities.”4

Renan has repeatedly emphasized that while all these may help, the basic factor that binds people into nationality and makes them a nation, is their will. He says that “There exists in man, a something which is above language (and for that matter also above race and territory) and that is his will. Man is everything in the formation of this sacred thing that we call a people. A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.”5 The soul, the spiritual element is made of two things, one is in the past and the other in the present and the future. “The one is the possession in common of a rich heritage of memories; and the other is actual agreement, the desire to live together, and the will to continue to make the most of the joint heritage.”6 “According to Renan, ‘Man is enslaved neither by his race, nor by his religion but a moral consciousness which is called a nation.”7

In South Asia, had Hindus and Muslims a common religion and had they forgotten their history, a common nation might have emerged. But Hinduism and Islam are each other’s antithesis and their past has become a part of their religious traditions. Thus for them, to forget their past is to discard their religion. This has been impossible. Kingsley Davis writes: “It will be impossible to find two religions more contradictory than Hinduism and Islam. Islam emphasizes unity of God, of the revealed book; Hinduism multiplicity of gods, of scriptures. The dogma of Islam is relatively uniform; Hinduism has no form and no uniform dogma. Islam is aggressive and proselytizing; Hinduism passive and absorptive. Muslims are beef-eaters; Hindus revere cows. Music is obnoxious to the orthodox Muslims, it is a part of Hindu religious ritual. They have different calendars and different festivals.”8

The unity of Muslims and Hindus could be achieved if the teaching of Kabir or “Din-i-Ilahi” of Akbar had seized the imagination of the masses. Experience, however, shows that the various caste units and religious units in South Asia have shown no inclination to sink their respective individualities in a large whole (nation). Each group is intensely jealous of its collective existence. “The formation of the kind of moral consciousness which constitutes the essence of a nation in Renan’s sense, “demands a price which the peoples of India are not prepared to pay.”9

The basic feature and the foundation of Muslim nationalism in South Asia has been the preservation of the distinct and also separate identity of Muslim as a group. This group loyalty focused itself both on the Muslims of India and the Muslims of the world but always in contradistinction to the non-Muslims in India, particularly the Hindus.

The history of Muslims and Islam in South Asia is reflective of Muslim separateness from non-Muslims even when the ruled the region. In later times, this separation was sustained by the fear of Hindu domination on one side and by their desire for an Islamic way of life on the other. These feelings were further strengthened by the hostile attitude of the British government towards Muslims. The Hindus took full benefit of this situation to the disgust of the Muslims. The reason was that the Muslim past was exclusively Muslim, unshared by Hindus, for whom it had been a period of national humiliation. For the Hindu, India was Hinduism and the highest patriotism was the love of Mother India. A Muslim was an Indian and at the same time a member of the universal brotherhood of Islam. Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar reflected this genuine Muslim feeling when he declared: “I belong to two circles of equal size but which are not co-centric. One is India and the other is Muslim World…..”10 Consequently a Muslim intellectual was never able to strike his roots into his native soil. He was an “Intellectual exotic” who “felt that he was in India but not of it.”11
To a Muslim, the criteria of his separate nationhood was fully justified. The Hindus regarded the Indianness of the Muslim with suspicion on the one side, and did not accept the Muslim claim to separate nationhood on the other. Lala Lajpat Rai, Congress President in 1907 and 1920, in a letter to C.R. Das, wrote about the impossibility of Hindu-Muslim unity and of democratic government in India because, as he found, “Islam was a bar to the Muslim’s co-operation with other Indian communities since they were always looking beyond India for protection and political solace. Hindus could well manage the 70 million Muslims in India, but if these sought the help of the armed hosts of Afghanistan, Central Asia, Arabia, Mesopotamia and Turkey, that will be irresistible for the Hindus of India.”12 According to Hindu argument, the extra – territorial orientation and connections of Indian Muslims made them dangerous to the security of India. Whether Muslims were given a separate state of their own or given equality in decision – making at the Central level, Hindu India would remain exposed. Hindu India could be protected only if the extra-territorial orientation and loyalty of the Indian Muslims were merged in the Indian nation.

Throughout the forties, the Congress denied that there could be more than one nation in India. The Hindu Mahasabha recognized that there were two nations, Hindus and Muslims in India. In essence, both parties represented the Hindu point of view, the Mahasabha openly and without mincing words, the Congress under the cloak of secular nationalism.

There is a fundamental difference between the Hindu view and Muslims view of nationality, territory and community. Thus while the Muslim talked of his community, his nationality and his determination to achieve a nationhood on the basis of people i.e. Muslims, the Hindu was more concerned with the sacred soil of India and vivisection of Mother India.

Islam is basically, a people-oriented religion and any territory where the Muslim community (Umma) can live according to religious injunctions becomes Dar-ul-Islam. Islam gives first consideration to the ‘Muslimness’ of a person, rather than his country, as Islam recognizes no bar of colour, birth or race. The moment a person becomes a Muslim he joins the community of the faithful.

Hindu Mahasabha, even when recognizing Muslims to be a separate nation, did not agree to their right and claim to a separate homeland on the Indian territory. “They could migrate if they so wished.”13

The Hindus argued that in India, there was no Muslim nation but Muslims who were Panjabis, Bengalis and Madrasis etc. Culturally, a Panjabi Muslim had more in common (language, dress, geography etc.) with a Panjabi Hindu than with a Bengali Muslim. And if Islam was the only binding characteristic, why could not the Muslims claim one nation from Morocco to Afghanistan?

The Muslims, on their side, kept insisting that ties of being a community were based on the past glories which a Panjabi Musalman shared with a Bengali, Madrasi or even with an Afghani or Iranian Musalman, but not with a Panjabi Hindu or Sikh. The glory of the heroes, the pride of victories against the infidels and the will and desire to share a common and grand future provided solid basis to the Muslim nationalism in India.
The Jews of Europe had lived for several centuries under different rulers in different countries, governed by different laws, speaking different languages, having different customs, eating different foods, yet they retained their sense of oneness to assemble in the promised land and to form one body politic. The moment that hope came within the realm of the possible, the scattered Jews of Europe became a nationality; and on acquiring territory, they became a nation. What kept the Jew’s mentally united for 2,000 years, was the feeling of oneness with other Jews and the will to share the past as well as to build a shared future. The feeling of oneness among the Indian Muslims was of a similar kind, though not based on common persecution like Jews, but on past glories which a Panjabi Musalman shared with a Bengali Musalman, but not with a Panjabi Hindu or Sikh.
Thus there are different aspects and stages in the process of evolution of nationalism. The first stage enumerates three feelings (oneness, love for fellow-nationals and hostility to other groups) which makes the first and the most pre-eminent i.e. emotional basis of nationalism. This certainly does not mean that every Pakistani loves or likes every other Pakistani; but it does mean that in a foreign country, a Pakistani will tend to get together and on personal level, will love his fellow national. Before 1947, the Muslims of India, who considered themselves as a nation, regarded the Hindus and the Sikhs as alien to their culture and values. This attitude was proportionate to the threat the Muslims felt to their existence in India.
In the second stage, such factors as territory, sovereignty and social ideas form the political and social apparatus of a nation. In India, the Muslims claimed the Muslim majority provinces as their homeland.

Sovereignty or politically speaking, independence, is usually the final goal of a nation. Muslim nationalism also passed through three phases and resulted in the creation of an independent state.14 But the newly created state was distinctly different from the other nation states which won independence in the second half of the 20th century. Elaborating, Liaquat Ali Khan said:

“That all authority must be subservient to God. It is quite true that this is in direct contradiction to the Machiavellian ideas regarding a polity where spiritual and ethical values should play no part in the governance of the people…..But we, the people of Pakistan have the courage to believe firmly that all authority (sovereignty) should be exercised in accordance with the standards laid down by Islam so that it may not be misused. All authority is a sacred trust, entrusted to us by God for the purpose of being exercised in the service of man, so that it does not become an agency of tyranny or selfishness.”15

It was rooted in the national character or psyche of the Muslims of the subcontinent to think that they had a mind different from that of Hindus. The feeling of being different, and not sharing the vital things of life, directed the political opinions of both Hindus and Muslims. When this feeling became more intense among the community that Muslims came to believe that they had a psyche which was not the same as that of Hindus. The Muslim nationalism or at least the spirit of it was born. When time and assimilation confirmed this belief, it became a faith; and faith is the main basis of nationalism.

The Muslims looked upon themselves as Muslims and not as anything else. The Hindus were Hindus or non-Muslims but not anything else.
Though continuous attempts were made for the creation of a national society both by the Hindus and the Muslims, and all of them cannot be dismissed as meaningless gestures, but it is a fact that the result was far from success.

The British devised various political systems and administrative tools and instruments such as local self-government institutions, separate electorates, reservation of seats for minorities, weightages, safeguards, federalism, dyarchy and provincial autonomy in order to achieve Indian unity or at least to lay its foundations. Nevertheless all these efforts failed due to deep rooted separatist tendencies that existed between the Hindus and the Muslims. When two groups think that they do not belong to each other it is impossible to make them one nation.
The feeling of separate Muslim nationalism received an impetus from Hindus opposition to it. Nationalism thrives on opposition. The more it is crushed, the more vigorous its rebirth. It is stronger when it is holding the enemy at bay. This is precisely what happened in the subcontinent. The higher the tempo of Hindu criticism, the greater the determination of Muslim to achieve their goal. The Muslim enthusiasm for an independent state of Pakistan was in direct proportion to Hindu condemnation. Thus the persistent publicity of Muslim nationalism by the dominant Hindu nationalism made the parting of the ways inevitable.



  1. Tahir Amin, Ethno – Nationalist Movement of Pakistan, Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad, 1988, p.2.
  2. Ibid., pp.8-9.
  3. E. Renan, “What is Nation” (1882) Quoted in W. Ebenstein ed. Modern Political Thought, Rinehart, New York, 1958, p. 656.
  4. Letters of Iqbal to Jinnah March 20, 1937, Lahore, 1956, p. 19.
  5. Ebenstein op. cit., p. 650.
  6. Ibid., pp. 656-60.
  7. Dr. Allama Muhammad Iqbal, The Pakistan Idea, Pakistan Studies Department, University of Islamabad, Lahore pp. 4,6.
  8. Kingsley Davis, The Population of India and Pakistan, Princeton University Press, 1951, p. 195.
  9. Dr. Allama Muhammad iqbal, op. cit., p. 5.
  10. Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar speaking at the Indian Round Table Conference, London, November 12, 1930 – January 19, 1931, Proceeding published by His Majesty’s Stationary Office p. 96.
  11. Sir Jadu Nath Sarkar, A Short History of Aurangzeb. M.E. Sarkar, Calcutta, 3rd ed. 1962. p. 445.
  12. Jamil-ud-Din Ahmad, Speeches and Writings of Mr. Jinnah, vol.i, 6th ed., Lahore, 1960, p. 157.
  13. Even the 1967 election of the Mohasabha mentions, as one of the party’s objectives, the liberation of Indian territory presently occupied by China and Pakistan, see especially para 5.
  14. Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada, ed. Foundations of Pakistan, vol. ii, Karachi 1970, p. 513.
  15. Speech delivered by Liaqat Ali Khan in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on March 7, 1949, quoted by Prof. Saeeduddin Ahmad Dar in “Ideology of Pakistan, Islamabad, 1992, p. 91.