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11. Islamic Revivalism in the Political Process

Throughout its history in Pakistan, the Jama‘at-i Islami added to the national political discourse concerns for Islamic ideals, but the party’s success in the intellectual and ideological domains found no reflection in politics. It has influenced politics but has failed to control them. The Jama‘at proved capable of forming sociopolitical alliances predicated upon an Islamic political program but not of entering into the fundamental political debates in the country, and hence it found no means to secure power for the party.

In the short run at least, success in Islamic revivalism can be directly correlated with the way the state reacts to it. The Iranian revolution owed its success to the inability or unwillingness of the Shah to respond effectively to Ayatollah Khumayni’s challenge. Alternatively, the Syrian and Algerian examples prove that decisive state action can check revivalism’s bid to control power. In Pakistan on some occasions the government sought to contend with Islamic revivalism by eliminating the Jama‘at, as was the case during Liaqat ‘Ali Khan’s and the early period of Ayub Khan’s rule, and then by challenging its religious position, a tactic that failed and emboldened Islamic revivalism. In 1958 and 1977 the party’s drive for power was checked by decisive state action, and after 1977 the state sought to control Islamic revivalism by involving it in the political process more directly. As the Jama‘at’s politics since the advent of the Zia regime indicate, there are limitations to this strategy for keeping Islamic revivalism in check.

Wherever Islamic revivalism has been successful, it has taken the political process unawares, capitalizing on a moment of enthusiasm to translate general sociopolitical discontent into a mass movement. As the Jama‘at’s case proves, protracted involvement in the political process, while it elicits certain concessions in the form of new laws and restrictions from the society, also creates barriers to the growth of revivalism and immunizes the political process to its challenge. It requires replacing a purely ideological orientation with an accommodation of pragmatic politics. This leads to compromise, and that transforms revivalist movements into political institutions tied to the system. Ultimately, democracy serves as the best check to the growth of revivalism. For democracy diversifies the scope of political debate and provides for exactly the kind of protracted involvement in the political process which is likely to constrict Islamic activism. Since 1989, for instance, the Jami‘at-i Ulama-i Islam and the Jami‘at-i Ulama-i Pakistan, the two dominant ulama parties of Pakistan, have both split into factions over policy.

Democracy involves education to which revivalism cannot remain immune. In this regard revivalism’s approach to and problems with democracy are not so very different from those which led to the evolution of Eurocommunism. New imperatives require fundamental changes, which lead to the adoption of new values. Since 1947, for instance, the Jama‘at has become increasingly committed to democracy and the constitutional process—manifesting the party’s modernization of Islamic thought. Although the party has not been thoroughly acculturated into a democratic mind-set, its commitment to democracy should not be dismissed. It emerged in the Jama‘at’s thinking, first as a political ploy, but increasingly as the mark of a new orientation. In a country which has spent twenty-five of its forty-six years of independence under military rule, and another five under the heavy hand of an autocratic civilian ruler, the fate of an oppositional expression of Islam, which had already passed on the option of revolution, would inevitably be intertwined with that of democracy. It was this process which made Islam the bulwark of two national democratic movements, in the 1960s and again in the 1970s. Political exigency therefore plays an important role in determining Islam’s attitude toward democracy, a fact which is of great importance to understanding the process of democratization in societies where religion remains a dominant force.[1] In the process, democracy transforms revivalist ideology and its plan of action. The often-asked question “What are the dangers of revivalism to democracy?” should be turned on its head: we should ask, “What are the dangers of democracy to revivalism?”

The Jama‘at politicized Islam in Pakistan, but failed to reap any benefits from it. The size of the religious vote has increased markedly since 1947, but not the Jama‘at’s share of it. The Jama‘at proved the efficacy of Islam as a political force, but it had no means to prevent others from exploiting religion for political gain. This is the second danger of democracy to revivalism. Democracy engenders a diversification of Muslim political expression, lures the spectrum of Islamic groups into the political arena, and strips revivalism of the means to manipulate the religious vote and to exercise effective political control over the Islamic vote bank. Instructive in this regard is the Jami‘at-i Ulama-i Islam and Jami‘at-i Ulama-i Pakistan’s rivalry with the Jama‘at in the elections of 1970. In those elections the Jama‘at had launched an extensive electoral campaign to challenge the People’s Party in West Pakistan and the Awami League in East Pakistan. The Jama‘at had expected that its campaign would glorify Islam to undermine the left and the ethnic forces. It had not anticipated that its efforts would mobilize other religious forces and invite them into the elections, all at the Jama‘at’s expense.

The Jama‘at was initially conceived of as a “holy community,” in which high standards and ideological commitment limited membership; it was a vanguard party, an “organizational weapon.” This allowed the party to project power far beyond its numbers and kept it alive through adversity. While it was by no means unique in propagating a revivalist agenda in South Asia, no other revivalist movement has matched its staying power or political influence. Other self-styled Islamic parties, which either like the Jama‘at emerged during the interwar period in India, the Khaksar or the Ahrar being the most notable, or those that made their debut later in Pakistan, such as the Nizam-i Islam or Tulu‘-i Islam (Dawn Of Islam), although they also addressed the same concerns as the Jama‘at and appealed to the same political constituency, were eventually overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of Pakistani politics and merged into larger parties. In fact, the Jama‘at is perhaps the only Islamic religiopolitical organization in South Asia which has continued effectively beyond the life span of its founder.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the Jama‘at’s organization is not designed to run the political program to which the party has committed itself. The notion of a “holy community” is ill suited for operating as a party. Similarly, the party’s ideology is at odds with its political program. It continues to harp on the theme of Islamic revolution, although it operates within the bounds of the political process. In addition, it views revolution as a top-down process, whereby Islamization and its concomitant sociopolitical change will follow the education of the political elite in the teachings of Islam. Revolution is not a means of articulating popular demands but of defining a political struggle against the secular state. Islamic revolution in the Jama‘at’s rhetoric is not the battle cry of the masses but an elitist crusade aimed at appropriating the state. As a result, the Jama‘at has adopted a pedantic and literary style and ignored populist themes. The party even continues to respect the right to private property and has avoided challenging the existing economic structure of Pakistan.

Its revolutionary rhetoric is also at odds with its support of the federal unit. Having joined the political process, it has in practice abandoned even a semblance of opposition to the current makeup of the state. Its rhetoric, however, continues to imply a revolutionary stand. Support for the state, the avowed homeland of Indian Muslims, has meant opposition to ethnic politics. The party, for instance, is rooted in Urdu, which has little following among the masses, who speak in local vernaculars such as Pakhtun, Punjabi, or Sindhi. The chasm between the Jama‘at and the poor brought about by its obliviousness to socioeconomic concerns has reinforced its antiethnic attitudes.

In short, the Jama‘at has failed to convert revivalism as ideology into revivalism as a social movement. It has failed to mobilize the masses for collective action for any sustained period of time under an Islamic banner. The two successful mass movements in Pakistan’s history, those of Bhutto and the People’s Party in the late 1960s and of the MQM in the 1980s, owed their success to a political platform which effectively combined populism with a radical antiestablishment platform and appeal to ethnic sentiments. Bhutto adopted a populist rhetoric, opposed the established order, and successfully manipulated tensions between Sindhis, Muhajirs, and Punjabis on the one hand and Punjabis and Bengalis on the other. The MQM similarly combined opposition to the established order with socioeconomic demands, while manipulating tensions between Muhajirs and Sindhis, Punjabis and Pathans. The Jama‘at’s political platform has lacked all three ingredients. The political fortunes of revivalism, as the case of Iran also shows, hinge on mobilizing more than just Islamic sentiments. To succeed, an Islamic revolution must effectively appeal to political sensibilities and satisfy socioeconomic demands.

The shortcomings of the Jama‘at’s program have been evident and to no one more than the party itself. Since the mid-1980s its leaders have been debating organizational reform and opening up its ranks. To date, however, no significant changes have been evident. With the election of Qazi Husain Ahmad to the office of amir the party did adopt a more populist rhetoric, but it was then forced to mute it when it joined up with the landowner-dominated Muslim League and the industrial magnate Nawaz Sharif to form the IJI. On the question of playing a role as the radical opposition and adopting a more ethnic outlook, it has been unyielding. Not unexpectedly, therefore, its political fortunes are little changed.

The party has sought to court the masses by making concessions to their religious sensibilities, which has brought the Jama‘at somewhat closer to traditional Islam in South Asia and its practice of veneration of saints—which closely resembles North African maraboutism. Qazi Husain began his nationwide mass contact tour, the “caravan of invitation and benevolence” (karavan-i da‘wat’u muhabbat), with a controversial visit to the shrine of Sayyid ‘Ali Hujwiri (Data Ganjbakhsh) in Lahore, thus engaging in a religious activity that revivalism has always characterized as obscurantist and has strongly opposed—visiting a saint’s shrine. Similarly since the mid-1980s the IJT has held annual conferences on Hujwiri to appeal to Brailwi students, especially from rural areas and small towns. This ideological compromise was necessitated by the Jama‘at and IJT’s efforts to expand their base of support, especially since the advent of democracy, and further underlines the danger of democracy to revivalism.

Compromises of this sort are a poor substitute for meaningful organizational and ideological reform and, by stirring up controversy, can even adversely affect the process of change. Some have been sufficiently contentious to cause defection in the ranks, but have not been drastic enough to cultivate new sources of support for the party. The result has dampened the Jama‘at’s enthusiasm for undertaking major changes, for fear of losing the support the party already has. Change has as a result become a contentious issue that has inspired more controversy than action.

All this, however, is a continuing saga. Pakistan is changing, and so is the Jama‘at. The political fortunes of the party may yet improve; only time will tell. It is obvious now, however, that operating in the political process, especially in a democracy, will require the party associated with the rise of contemporary Islamic revivalism and which has viewed itself as the “vanguard of the Islamic revolution” to embark upon changes that will inevitably diminish its commitment to its original ideology if it is to succeed.


1. For instance, in his seminal study of factors which bear on the democratization process, Huntington has alluded to the importance of changes in the Catholic church in promoting democratization in Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and the Philippines; see Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman, OK, 1991), 75–85. The case of the Jama‘at suggests that for Islamic movements to support democratization such prerequisite changes are not necessary. Whether they will act democratically once in power is a different matter, one open to question as much as the commitment of many secular leaders of democratization movements. [BACK]

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