What are the consequences of creating a nation on nothing but an idea? An idea bereft of territorial kinship, links to blood, soil and history.

Faisal Devji’s Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea, explores this question by tracing the complex and disparate beliefs that culminated in Pakistan.

Formed within less than a decade of being conceptualized, the story of Pakistan’s creation is one that had no precedent and has only one parallel.

The book’s title is illustrative of Pakistan’s resemblance to the only other nation formed on the notion of rejecting old land, for new: Israel, a homeland for Jews. Zion is described in the book as a political form to “create a new kind of geography" which rejects “common histories and geographies" with its neighbours, for a new homeland. And the contrast is more than skin deep: both nations are engulfed by an identity crisis that has its origins in religious ideas. In Israel, religious divisions threaten society; in Pakistan, the crisis of extremist ideology now threatens the state. Devji’s book is a good starting point to understand how India’s twin came to such a pass.

Negation and nationalism

By the early 20th century, when the British introduced limited franchise for Indians, the problem of numbers became apparent for Muslims. Being a “minority" in a Hindu “majority" land became worrying. The earliest leaders of the Muslim League realized that being restricted to the identity of a religious “minority" would greatly weaken their ability to play a meaningful role in politics. Muslim nationalism now came to be imagined in a global context, so as to render the notion of Indian Muslims as a “minority" meaningless.

The Aga Khan, like Syed Ahmed Khan before him, propagated the idea of pan Islamism, with Indian Muslims playing an international role for the Muslim cause post-World War I. He envisioned a South Asiatic Federation which would be an agglomeration of nations from “Aden to Mesopotamia….and from Tibet to Singapore", and India as its “pivot and centre".

Juxtaposed with this internationalization of Muslim nationalism were the views of poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal who rejected the very idea of “national belonging". He saw the desire for a homeland as idolatrous and wanted Muslims to steer away from coveting objects (even the nation-state) and work towards self-determination.


The creator of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, came to the historical stage at an interesting time. He took forward this programme of “de-territorialized nationalism" to its culmination. Under his guidance, Pakistan did become a nation-state but one which was based on the rejection of territory, demography and geography.

But once you eliminate these rudiments, what is left? Religion? What started out as a bid to seek representation for Muslims at the national level ended with partition. It is an interesting, counterfactual, question to ask if Jinnah could have changed the ideological basis behind the demand for his nation. What would have happened if Pakistan, to paraphrase Salman Rushdie, had been “sufficiently imagined" along territorial lines? Could Jinnah have changed this? Or was he a prisoner to the ideas he inherited?

An Islamic state?

Since then Pakistan has toyed with a number of ideas that spring from this, so to speak, lack of territorial imagination. To give one prominent example, Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e Islami, was opposed to any sovereign authority which was not God. He thought any individual given the power to rule over others would be vulnerable to corruption. In his book Tafhimat, Maududi says: “There is no place for any dictator in Islam". These are the words of the founder of the subcontinent’s first “fundamentalist" organization. Such a vision ignored the possibility and perils of a religious dictator replacing a political one in an Islamic state.

Pakistan has proved to be fertile soil for such ideas, ideas that now threaten it. To see the lack of equilibrium between its institutions as a product of the army’s dominance, is to misunderstand the deep role of its foundational ideas in its present crisis.

It is an article of faith among Pakistani patriots and scholars that India, and the last British viceroy Lord Mountbatten, cheated and gave what Jinnah described as a “moth eaten" piece of territory. Devji’s book sketches a more complex trajectory than such simple beliefs.

Muslim Zion exposes the reader to ideals and realities that competed in the formation Pakistan. It is a cerebral insight into how there was never a clear notion of “what Pakistan should be" and, therefore, it is not surprising “what it has become".

Gayatri Chandrasekaran is a copy editor at Mint.