5 must-read books for Pakistanis
We often hear the idea from progressive commentators that the Pakistani state and society provides a very toxic worldview under the guise of building a ‘unique’ national identity. Such ideas, we are told, are sustained by the combined effect of the educational system, the media and ‘popular’ discourse in general.
If one accepts that there is merit to this idea, can we begin to speak of some sort of antidote to the poison so administered? What would a reverse process look like?
Can we envision a process of intellectual, ethical and spiritual healing? And if a progressive political movement were to adopt this as one of its central goals, what sort of material would it encourage the urban public to look into?
In an effort to begin some sort of dialogue on that, I offer a list of five ‘must-read’ books in today’s Pakistan. Allow me to explain why these five came to mind.
With the first book, we attempt to establish just how deep the rabbit-hole of lies peddled by the rulers and the educational system goes.
Through the second book, we dig deeper: since ‘Islam’ is given as a vague justification for those lies mentioned above, it only makes sense to explore the many meanings of the concept of Islam and how it does not have to be limited to what we are (forcibly) taught. So we take a tour of how vast the field of Islamic knowledge and aesthetics is, how soft its borders are and how much of the human experience it can accommodate within itself.
We then arrive at the third book and try to learn from the example of a thinker who is firmly within the Islamic tradition – and at the same time, stands for progress, the unity of all peoples and the fight against injustice and backwardness. And this thinker was able to do this precisely because of his Islamic grounding, not in spite of it. So we consider another kind of Islam here from that which we have become used to. We speak of a truly revolutionary and fearless Islam – driven not by fears and insecurities but by an urgent need for social and political change.
With the fourth book, we explore further the revolutionary tradition within our society, under the guidance of an author who very firmly belongs to a secular Marxist outlook – while being indispensable to the cultural and literary heritage of South Asian Muslims.
In the fifth book, we sharply veer back to a place very close to all of us. We need not go very far, to great scholars and their work, to understand the sickness gripping our society and its public discourse. Instead, we can learn a lot from the experience and views of a certain brave and intelligent young person. This, unfortunately, is yet another voice of reason and progress which right-wing and fundamentalist ideologues have trampled over most ferociously.
1.) The Murder of History: A critique of history textbooks used in Pakistan (by K. K. Aziz)
Professor K. K. Aziz’s book is, quite obviously, the first to come to mind. I have always felt that he was doubly aware of the process by which our ruling elites manufactured a history for us. First, as a recognised historian himself, whose work was welcome at the finest institutions of the world. Second, as someone who saw first-hand this process of concocting the past during his stint as an advisor to the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto administration in the 1970s.
I think the best feature of Prof. Aziz’s book is the first one-third or so, a part titled “The Prescribed Myths” – where he puts textbook after textbook under the microscopic scrutiny of plain facts. He goes from the earliest levels of education to the higher ones, pointing out the glaring falsehoods, the gaping omissions and shameless distortions that have gone into shaping Pakistani minds.
He then, in the rest of the book, proceeds to take down the whole edifice of harmful mythology on which the ‘national’ imagination in Pakistan rests. By the end of it, one begins to wonder if it would be less harmful for the intellect to remain utterly uneducated about history in Pakistan – if this is what passes for “Pakistan Studies”.
Published at the height of General Zia-ul-Haq’s nightmarish surgery on Pakistani society, it did not make the Professor any friends in the then military regime. While it is relatively known amongst progressive circles in Pakistan, I consider it one of the greatest tragedies of our public discourse that the wider urban population remains utterly unaware of the existence of this work.
The first effect of reading this book on any individual should be one of anger and a sense of betrayal: that the state could actually oversee a process of misguiding an entire population so thoroughly. And that, too, all under the guise of teaching us more about the country in compulsory Pakistan Studies courses.
2.) What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (by Shahab Ahmed)
Ours is a society where 10,000 absurdities are foisted upon you because of phrases like “According to Islam…” And 100,000 barriers are erected in the way of good sense and progress through the argument that “This is not in Islam…”
In fact, it is a standard tactic used by supporters of conservative political Islam to derail a debate by asking the other side to provide “a reference from Islam”. This, then necessitates a debate as to precisely what Islam is – hence the title of Shahab Ahmed’s masterly study. Published, after the scholar’s death, the work seeks to study Islam as the lived reality of Muslims through the ages, rather than an abstract set of teachings or a lecture on what is the “correct” version of the faith and how to practice it.
According to Shahab Ahmed, “The greatest challenge to a coherent conceptualization of Islam has been posed by the sheer diversity of – that is, range of differences between – those societies, persons, ideas and practices that identify themselves with ‘Islam’”
Unfettered by the empty posturing of a lot of mainstream ulema, whose understanding of Islamic history and teachings is heavily coloured by the fact of being conservative ideologues, Shahab Ahmed’s work is an intellectual tour de force. He begins by confidently posing ‘Six Questions about Islam’ which, very gently, lay out some of the core issues of discussion within the Islamic tradition and its followers.
He proceeds, dealing with the relationship of Islamic thought to philosophy, the issues raised by the mystical strands of Islamic thought, the elements that go into making up the aesthetics of Muslim societies, the relationship between Islamic teachings and worldly law, the reading of Islamic holy texts and so on.
One very delightful aspect of his work is his familiarity and comfort with the literary, poetic and artistic heritage of Muslims, from Hafez to Ghalib.
3.) Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi: Halaat-e-Zindagi, Talimaat aur Siyasi Afkaar (by Prof. Muhammad Sarwar)
This is a most delightfully thought-provoking work, although it is relatively obscure even amongst progressives who would otherwise uphold much of Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi’s thought on political and social questions.
The reason I feel the need to recommend it so strongly is that it allows us to imagine what a different kind of Islam – even a political Islam – could have been, if it could be freed from the shackles imposed on it by states and conservative scholars in the Muslim world. Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi has always been, for me, perhaps the finest example of a Muslim thinker who faces the modern world with revolutionary confidence, while being all the while thoroughly grounded in Islamic thought. His fearlessness in the face of the British colonial state is matched by an intellectual fearlessness – which cannot fail to inspire the contemporary reader as much as it would have someone in the 1930s or 40s.
Prof. Sarwar’s book provides a thorough glimpse into the thought of Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi, as written down through conversations with him. With great humility, Prof. Sarwar describes his work as a hazy outline – dhundla khaka – of Maulana’s thought, but it is anything but. It represents a serious engagement with Maulana’s life and teachings. Prof. Sarwar was actually instructed to go meet the Maulana on the occasion of Hajj. Perhaps many people today in Pakistan are not aware of how important the occasion of Hajj was for revolutionaries of a Muslim background – it provided an opportunity to meet, discuss and broaden their horizons free from the clutches of the repressive British authorities in India and their censorship.
Prof. Sarwar engages with Maulana’s ideas on a variety of subjects – our history, the anti-colonial struggle against the British, democracy, secularism, coexistence and theology. And in all of these spheres, Maulana is found to be very much a part of the modern revolutionary tradition – in fact far ahead of his contemporaries whether they came from a religious or more secular background.
At one point, while praising the efforts of Mughal emperor Akbar to rise above petty religious and doctrinal differences, Prof. Sarwar offers a delightful look into how Maulana would have viewed the issue of religion and its role in public life. He writes:
“For as long as religion — mazhab — retains the spirit of revolution, any government formed on its basis remains the best government. […] But when religion becomes the collective creed —
deen — of one particular group or nation, and loses its enthusiasm and the revolutionary vigour to be able to transform itself and to transform the other, then at that point to give it all authority is actually equivalent to handing over power to the most backward/reactionary —
rujjat-pasand — section of the nation. And may God save every nation from the mischief —
shar — caused by the rule of backward elements.”
Let the reader gauge from this small sample how different Maulana’s Islam was from that which is today promoted by angry clerics with their sit-in protests and violent followers.
4.) Musa se Marx tak (by Sibte Hasan)
Admittedly, this is a seminal text amongst Pakistani progressives – especially those of a more left-wing persuasion. However, unfortunately, in a society where the likes of Qudratullah Shahab, Maulana Maududi or Naseem Hijazi shaped the minds of so many, I would argue that a wider knowledge of Sibte Hasan’s work would do no harm.
Far from trying to concoct a historical narrative out of the thin air, Sibte Hasan tries to find a different grounding for the story that he wants to tell. From the rebellious slaves led by Spartacus more than 2,000 years ago, to the insurrectionary workers of the Paris Commune in the 19th century, Sibte Hasan introduces the reader in very simple words to socialist thought and the Marxian reading of history.
Pakistan’s past and present is filled with the trampling of the poor and the marginalized classes in society. Politics has been simply a question of which interest group gets to further enrich itself and which must temporarily take a backseat. The state and the rulers have an instinctive suspicion of even the slightest popular discontent or demands for a fairer distribution of wealth and power. In fact, one could say that the Pakistani ruling elites respond with such hostility to workers, students, etc organizing themselves because there is no tradition or precedent of negotiating with peoples’ movements in the country – the standard response is one of ignoring them or using brute force. The use of mass violence against marginalized groups is something that Ayub, Yahya, Bhutto, Zia and today’s rulers all have in common.
In such a context, one cannot emphasize enough the importance of Sibte Hasan’s work. Pakistanis could definitely use better role-models than the ones they are currently given by state and society, and this book might help identify some!
5.) I am Malala (by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb)
Since we are already on the subject of role-models, there could be no greater misfortune for a people than shunning their own heroic figures. The very mention of Malala in urban Pakistan often produces a rabid, Pavlovian response from many people. Meanwhile in the rest of the world, Malala is celebrated and seen as a role-model.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan, her horrific experience, courageous fight and the lessons that she wishes to share have been lost in a storm of needless suspicion, violent cynicism and misplaced outrage.
In this book, to anyone who has heard Malala speak, one can see a great clarity, a wisdom far beyond her years and, of course, her distinctive brand of courage. She talks at length about her early life, about the upbringing that her father gave her and the horror of having her home overrun by the monstrous religious fanatics of the Taliban and their allies.
All the while, it becomes clear that Malala’s initial, simple stand for girls’ education has developed and blossomed into a fine grasp of the history of her Pakhtun people and of the region more generally. And in all of this, she comes out very firmly on the side of progress and democracy rather than the world which various rulers and fundamentalists want to create.
I must admit that I have still not understood precisely what makes conservative Pakistanis so angry at this brave young woman. Do they dispute the facts of her being shot, even after doctors from Pakistan and elsewhere had to confirm that the horror she experienced was very real? Or do they insist on saying “What about other Pakistani girls?” every time something bad happens to one girl? And what is the problem with her being celebrated across the world? Is it really a ‘conspiracy’ that the world sees more to celebrate in Malala than in the terrorists who attacked her?
Personally, I am forced to conclude that this special irritation for Malala is proof that the religious extremists and terrorists who have made war on state and society have their work cut out for them. Even though they have repeatedly claimed responsibility for so many outrageous acts of violence, the very people who they have tormented and threatened in urban Pakistan have other priorities. For them, their image problem in the world is caused by Malala, not by the Taliban.
In such circumstances, I have a simple request. Can we listen to the young woman for a few moments? As a start, could more of us have the patience to read her book and try to understand her story?
When we’ve done that, we can most definitely go back to listening to the right-wing media personalities who regret the fact that she survived.
Ziyad Faisal is a journalist and writer based in Lahore. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org