Nascent Ideas

Book Review: ‘‘Battle of ideas in Pakistan” by Sibte Hasan

Posted on: October 18, 2011

Recently, I was introduced to the concepts of Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment  in my Political Science class. In that context, I was moved to read this book which is a treatise on secular ideas and their validity. I, in no way, identify myself as a Marxist or socialist and this work by Sibte Hasan is, in my opinion, not inspired by his ideological affiliation with a Marxist group.

Sibte Hassan is known as one of the most renowned Communist writers in the subcontinent. He was a graduate of Muslim University Aligarh. He wrote extensively on matters of politics and ideology. He worked as an author and editor for numerous magazines and journals. He was affiliated with Communist Party of Pakistan (that was later banned by Ayub Khan’s regime) and Progressive Writers Association. Sibte Hasan was attached to the political philosophy of scientific socialism. His best known work is ‘‘Moosa Se Marx Tak’’ which has been considered as the best Marxist work in Urdu.

Sibte Hasan started writing polemical articles in a major English daily in support of secularism and rationalism. This enraged many elements in the right-wing Urdu press. Sibte Hassan’s ideas were lampooned by the orthodox writers. However, this debate inspired Sibte Hasan to compile a book in the form of a treatise. This book was titled as ‘‘The Battle of Ideas in Pakistan’’ and it is divided into nine chapters, each exploring one specific area. The writer has systematically falsified the ‘‘ridiculous’’ claims made by some Islamists against secular and liberal ideas in the very first chapter. The next three chapters deal with development of secular thought in the ancient societies which were dominated by monarchs who often propagated their divine right to rule. The author effectively exposes the resemblance between the religious obscurants of the past and the forces of orthodoxy that are prevalent in our society in twenty-first century. The author also reflects upon the relationship between state and religion in ancient world.  Medieval monarchs, in order to keep themselves in power, propagated the ‘‘divinity of rule’’ and ‘‘nobility of birth’’ doctrines. Writer, then, takes on the task of explaining the evolution of modern secular governments in the East vis-à-vis Western Imperialism. While explaining the history of secularism in Turkey, writer effectively relates it to the situation in Pakistan particularly after the so-called Islamic regime of General Zia-ul-Haq. The writer exposes the battle between traditional revivalists and progressives in modern Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The author also points to the relevance of struggle of Kemal Ataturk against imperialism and Pan-Islamism to modern day Pakistan. The writer also foresees that the victory of progressive ideas in modern day Pakistan is inevitable. A major bulk of the book deals with the unfolding of secular ideas in Indian subcontinent especially with reference to secular credentials of the Mughal empire. The writer throws light on the services of modernist writers and reformers in the subcontinent in the British era. The western political philosophy came to India with the advent of East India Company and it had a profound impact on minds of Muslims and Hindu intellectuals. Here is where the battle between traditionalist and modernist Muslims took a new turn. Author presents a case that the idea of Pakistan was secular in its nature. It was instituted to protect the rights of minorities in India particularly the Muslims. Writer portrays that Jinnah was a secularist and he wanted a truly democratic, liberal and secular Pakistan based on socialist ideals of Islam. A whole chapter is dedicated to ‘‘expose the conspiracy that Allama Iqbal was a revivalist’’. The writer explains how Mullahs have conveniently adopted a selective approach to Iqbal’s ideas to justify their orthodoxy. These same Mullahs who use Iqbal’s stanzas in their sermons used to label him an infidel and an apostate during his lifetime. Writer’s explanation in this regard seems impeccable when he maintains that we need to differentiate between Iqbal’s metaphysical emotional approach and his political rational approach.

Overall, Sibte Hassan’s book is no doubt a major contribution to liberal literature in Pakistan. It is a complete package as in it comprehensively covers the historical framework of secular thought and its relevance to Pakistan of this day. It debunks the false claims made by some apologists of political Islam. It hints upon the true essence of secularism which is antithetical to militant atheism. Writer addresses the challenges to secularism in Pakistan posed by a feudal aristocracy, self-interested civil-military bureaucracy and obscurantist religious organizations. It is an attempt to defend secularism keeping in view the unique circumstances of Pakistan. Writer presents the case that secularism can help Pakistan overcome its political problems and become a more harmonious and stable society.


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