Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea

Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea

by Faisal Devji

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Pakistan, founded less than a decade after a homeland for India’s Muslims was proposed, is both the embodiment of national ambitions fulfilled and, in the eyes of many observers, a failed state. Muslim Zion cuts to the core of the geopolitical paradoxes entangling Pakistan to argue that India’s rival has never been a nation-state in the

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Pakistan, founded less than a decade after a homeland for India’s Muslims was proposed, is both the embodiment of national ambitions fulfilled and, in the eyes of many observers, a failed state. Muslim Zion cuts to the core of the geopolitical paradoxes entangling Pakistan to argue that India’s rival has never been a nation-state in the conventional sense. Pakistan is instead a distinct type of political geography, ungrounded in the historic connections of lands and peoples, whose context is provided by the settler states of the New World but whose closest ideological parallel is the state of Israel.

A year before the 1948 establishment of Israel, Pakistan was founded on a philosophy that accords with Zionism in surprising ways. Faisal Devji understands Zion as a political form rather than a holy land, one that rejects hereditary linkages between ethnicity and soil in favor of membership based on nothing but an idea of belonging. Like Israel, Pakistan came into being through the migration of a minority population, inhabiting a vast subcontinent, who abandoned old lands in which they feared persecution to settle in a new homeland. Just as Israel is the world’s sole Jewish state, Pakistan is the only country to be established in the name of Islam.

Revealing how Pakistan’s troubled present continues to be shaped by its past, Muslim Zion is a penetrating critique of what comes of founding a country on an unresolved desire both to join and reject the world of modern nation-states.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Pakistan and Israel were built on strikingly similar foundations, notes Devji, a scholar of Islamic political theory. Devji utilizes the comparison with Zionism to discuss arguments that “have emerged as the most important and productive ones in the history of Muslim nationalism,” though the “still unfixed boundaries of Pakistan and Israel indicate not only a disdain for the traditional model of a nation state, but also a geographical indifference.” Pakistan, the author explains, owes its existence more to the Muslim merchant class of southern India than to the Muslim royalty in the north, and Urdu, the national language, is not the native tongue of its indigenous people. Likewise, both countries are characterized by a largely secular, pluralistic leadership rooted in a shared religious milieu, coexisting uneasily today with growing clericalism and extremism. A trenchant analysis for South Asian studies scholars, the book presents a wholly different and more nuanced view of Islamic politics than most recent titles. The book also embeds the debate over partition within the broader framework of Indian nationalism. Devji writes that independence for Pakistan was “informed by the desire to remove the problem that Muslims in India, like Jews in Europe, posed to national movements in either place, as much as it was dedicated to winning new states for these minority populations.” (Sept.)
Aamir R. Mufti
Despite their vast differences, Pakistan and Israel share this strange coincidence of birth: they were both created to resolve the problematic status of minorities defined partly by religion. Scholars in a number of fields have begun to explore facets of this strange parallelism. Faisal Devji has brought the historian's traditional skills to the task, focusing on the Muslim League's demand from the 1930s for a separate homeland for the Muslims of India. Muslim Zion tells a gripping story and will make an important contribution to this ongoing scholarly discussion.
Dipesh Chakrabarty
Devji is arguably the most brilliant scholar of his generation writing today on South Asian history and global Islam. His explorations of the tensions inherent in the idea of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland, and the fascinating parallels he draws with Zionist and settler-colonial pasts, provide a new point of departure for the study of both Muslim and Dalit politics in British India. His reflections on the failure of the category 'minority' in decolonizing times will help us rethink the very idea of the political in the twentieth century. A thoughtful and courageous book.
Anatol Lieven
Faisal Devji's brilliantly written, deeply felt book is an important contribution to the study of the tortured relationship between different ideas of Pakistan and of Islam.
Mint - Gayatri Chandrasekaran
Muslim Zion exposes the reader to ideals and realities that competed in the formation of 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.'
Two Circles - Danish Khan
Faisal Devji's Muslim a refreshing addition to the study of politics of Muslim League and Jinnah's personality as it traces the creation of Pakistan...Muslim Zion brings forth the collaborative and competitive politics of Ambedkar and Jinnah, a much ignored aspect. The book thus effectively traces the creation of Pakistan by mapping Islam, Muslim, and minorityism packed with some fresh and original perspectives on Sir Syed Ahmed, Allama Iqbal, and Syed Ameer Ali among others. Muslim Zion will also be of interest to those seeking to have some understanding of the Shia sub-sects. Devji suggests that the interest of prominent Shias in the politics of Muslim League had got to do with the fact that they wanted to protect themselves from both the Hindu as well as the Sunni majority... Even as the book explores on the idea of Pakistan, the amazing parallels between a Muslim homeland and Jewish settlement seamlessly runs through the narrative making it eminently readable. Muslim Zion is a provocative and fascinating piece of scholarship with some very complex and tight observations and arguments.
New Republic - Sunil Khilnani
A remarkable book…Devji has persuasively interpreted Jinnah’s view of Pakistan as an anti-territorial, universalistic conception of the nation. Summoning Pakistan into existence was an act of pure will that required the rejection of history, soil, and culture--all the usual grounds on which to claim nationhood, and which for Jinnah subverted the unity he claimed for India’s Muslims.
Business Standard - Talmiz Ahmad
Devji provides a unique insight into the underpinnings of the idea of Pakistan. [He] sees a parallel between the Zionist movement for Israel and the Muslim nationalist movement for Pakistan…Devji provides an excellent narrative of the course of Muslim politics, its interactions with other Indian movements, and the commitment to a separate political entity--Pakistan. This is familiar territory, but it is presented with an entirely new perspective--the author refers to contemporary literature, poetry, and political speeches and writings…Devji’s erudite, balanced and lucid work, embellished with pithy insights and interesting sources, is a stern warning about the hazards of basing nationhood on religious identity.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Hannah Harris Green
Devji offers a detailed analysis of the various political and ideological forces that were at play in the buildup to Pakistan’s creation. Devji’s larger project seems to be to mitigate the tendency to look at historical phenomena from the 20th and 21st centuries isolated from their global context…He notes that Jinnah ‘seems to have possessed more books on the problems of European Jewry than on any Muslim people or country.’ Devji also believes that the formation of Pakistan set a precedent that made Israel possible.
Christophe Jaffrelot
A fascinating, thoughtful, and provocative work, Muslim Zion explores the paradoxical dimensions of Pakistan by focusing on the period when this country was imagined, but yet unrealized.
Noah Feldman
No one but Faisal Devji could have given us Muslim Zion, which offers a brilliant, counterintuitive meditation on the analogy between ideologies of Zionism and Pakistani/Muslim nationalism, and at the same time a nuanced historical exploration of the idea of Pakistan. Intellectual history as a page-turner.

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Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.20(d)

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From Chapter One: Another Country

In the imperial and international context where they belong, the Jewish State and Islamic Republic represent a profound distrust of nationalism, and an attempt to create new forms of political belonging. Unlike the confessional states of post-Reformation Europe, then, or its post-war Christian Democracies, religion in both the Islamic Republic and Jewish State does not merely serve to qualify the national life of its citizens. Instead it defines nationality outside the state, with all the world’s Jews, and all the subcontinent’s Muslims capable of becoming its citizens, which is perhaps why the states meant to be their homelands can be imagined in such disparate and shifting ways. From an Eretz Israel that includes large chunks of Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, to a Pakistan that would add to its territory not simply the whole of Kashmir, but also bits of the Indian provinces of Punjab, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, these countries never have possessed a stable form even in their own imaginaries. Chaudhry Rahmat Ali, for instance, the Cambridge undergraduate who came up with idea and name of Pakistan in the early 1930s, envisioned a country or set of countries distributed all over the map of India, in what can only be called a counter-nationalist vision, one entirely lacking territorial integrity, that survives today in the ideology of Pakistan’s pre-eminent militant group, the Lashkar-e Tayyiba. What is more both Muslim and Jewish states survive with the rhetorical fear of being divided or altogether extinguished by their enemies. Yet when the time comes for either to abandon a portion of its territory, it does so without any apparent crisis of nationality. This is true whether we look at Israel’s attempts to trade land for peace, of which the return to Egypt of the Sinai was the most spectacular example, or to Pakistan’s loss of more than half its population and nearly as much of its territory with the independence of Bangladesh in 1971.

All of this suggests that as the principle of Pakistani and Israeli nationality, religion stands distinct from the territory its followers covet, which had in any case always been seen as an accidental homeland for them. Even if it was a purely rhetorical exercise, the fact that the early Zionists had to run through a list of options that included Uganda and Argentina as potential Jewish homelands is highly instructive in this regard. Theodore Herzl was clear about this in his book The Jewish State, arguably the founding text of Zionism:

It is true that the Jewish State is conceived as a peculiarly modern structure on unspecified territory. But a state is formed, not by pieces of land, but rather by a number of men united under sovereign rule. The people is the personal, land the impersonal groundwork of a State, and the personal basis is the more important of the two.

The same might be said for Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s demands at various times for bits of territory that included the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as maritime links between East and West Pakistan, or for a corridor across the north of India as a territorial link between them, both justified largely for reasons of bureaucratic convenience. Indeed his main justification for the territory he wanted (but did not get) was not the Muslim character of its population but that it alone would make for an administratively “viable” state, which curiously the Qaid-e-Azam or Great Leader of his people thought a state with two separated wings would do. But then viability was only a bureaucratic way of lending some reality to a country conceived of as an abstract idea, which accounts for Jinnah’s famous statement that Pakistan would have to be conceded, whatever shape it took, even if it was to be the size of his handkerchief. Indeed the Qaid routinely imagined Pakistan as a piece of cloth rather than of land, as his equally famous statement about having inherited a “moth eaten” country illustrates. But then it was not so much a given territory as the principle of territoriality that gave such states their meaning. And so rather than seeing these national forms, if such they can be called, as imperfect or incomplete versions of some standard set in the nineteenth century, it might make more sense to place them in their own times.

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Meet the Author

Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Fellow of St Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.

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