by Youssef Aboul-Enein

Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan by M.J. Akbar. Originally published in 2011 and re-issued in paperback in 2012 by HarperCollins (Harper Perennial), New York.

M.J. Akbar is editorial director of India Today, an English-language weekly that is the region’s equivalent to Newsweek or TIME Magazine. Anyone interested in an Indian perspective of local and regional issues should peruse the magazine and its Website. The author lives in Delhi and is also an editor for the Sunday Guardian, another Indian weekly magazine. His book, Tinderbox, offers a deep yet India-centric view of Pakistan’s history.

The author proposes that Pakistan is a successor state to the Mughal Empire, and a search for a Muslim space defines its identity. To this end, Akbar discusses the scars that pre-date the formation of modern India and Pakistan. They include the Shiite Safavid Persian Nadir Shah (1739-1757), who entered Delhi and massacred 20,000 Hindus and Muslims. The Mughals, a Muslim dynasty ruling India, failed in its basic duty to protect its people from 58 days of terror, plunder and murder.

The Sunni cleric Shah Waliullah tried to make sense of this Shiite Safavid scourge. Waliullah’s remedy was to conduct an ideological and emotional separation from Hindus. He advocated that Muslims should live far enough from Hindus that one should not see the smoke from their kitchen fires. Waliullah also stimulated opposition to the British East India Company that culminated in the 1757 Battle of Plassey.

Another figure the book discusses is Sayyed Ahmed Barlevi, a disciple of Waliullah, who incited battles against Sikhs in the Punjab, ending in the Battle of Balakot in 1831.

These events define identities in India as well as Pakistan.

It is regrettable that the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and the father of modern India, Mohandas Gandhi, died in 1948. In the case of Pakistan, the book argues that Jinnah died without establishing a more moderate definition of the role of Islam in a polity. The father of South Asian Islamist politics, Maulana Maududi – whose views would be realized with the ascendancy of the dictatorship of GEN Zia-ul-Haq – defined this. Akbar argues that the remedy for Pakistan is the transformation of the body politic and the struggle between the visions of Jinnah vs. Maududi.

In case you think this history doesn’t matter, Akbar highlights four major figures in Muslim India:

  • Mahmud of Ghazni (d. 1030) emerged from Afghanistan and established the Ghaznavid Dynasty in parts of India, Afghanistan and Iran. Hindus hold him responsible for the sack of their temple in Somanath.
  • Muhammad of Ghauri (d. 1206) established Muslim rule from Gujurat to Bengal.
  • Zahir-u-Din Babur (d. 1530) founded the Mughal Empire.
  • Ahmed Shah Abdali (d. 1773) defeated the Hindus in 1761 in the Battle of Panipat, replacing the Hindu king in Delhi.

All four of Pakistan’s nuclear missiles are named for these four figures of regional history. Also, in 1951 Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru unsuccessfully dissuaded his ministers from attending the rededication of the Hindu temple in Somanath.

The book does a great job outlining the evolution of Islamic thought in India, such as the codification of Hanafi law (one of four major schools of Sunni Islam) and how some sought a return to fundamentalism by emulating an idealized view of Arabs and not Turks or Hindus. Another fascinating aspect of the book is the discussion of Britain’s sending 16 military expeditions between 1850 and 1857, with a final push in 1863 to defeat what they termed a Wahhabi (a subsection of Hanbali Sunni Islam) insurrection in the Northwest Frontier provinces.

Akbar discusses how the British used the politics of sectarianism to divide and rule, and quotes Lord Macaulay (1800-1859): “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern.” This decade-long colonial policy exacerbated the trauma of partition in 1947.

There is much for the reader to learn with this book; I had to re-read chapters to understand the nuances and complexity of the subcontinent. Readers with an interest in Pakistan and India will find this book worth reading, discussing and debating.

CDR, U.S. Navy

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