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Class, State and Islam in Pakistan

The New Pakistani Middle Class by Ammara Maqsood, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017; pp 194, price not indicated.

The Politics of Common Sense: State, Society and Culture in Pakistan by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, New Delhi and Singapore: Cambridge University Press, 2018; pp xiv + 200, price not indicated.

Now that Pakistan has moved out of the domain of the war on terror which determined economic, political and social life in the country for far too long, and, as a consequence, resulted in a particular focus in academic scholarship, there are signs that academic and scholarly research is returning to more substantive and grounded concerns, investigations and issues. For the last two decades, being in, or adjacent to the home of military engagement in the region, in Afghanistan, Pakistan has paid a high price in many significant arenas. Apart from the huge loss of life, where over 70,000 Pakistanis have been killed on account of numerous decisions taken since 2001, and perhaps even earlier, economic losses have been estimated to be around $125 billion. Pakistan’s so-called “engagement” in the regional war on terror led to diplomatic ostracisation and being called either a pariah or rogue state, resulting in a particular insidious stereotyping of all Pakistanis, and also concretised the notion of a security state, determined, administered and ruled by Pakistan’s military, undermining and limiting prospects of democratic and radical, social and economic alternatives.

Overabundant ‘Scholarship’

One of the post-9/11 consequences of how Pakistan changed was depicted in the considerable scholarship and research conducted on Pakistan, with scores of international and domestic, usually journalistic accounts, assessing Pakistan’s position in the region and in the world. Any evaluation of the books and accounts written over the last two decades suggests an overbearing assessment and concern with such matters, where every journalist and academic worth their salt, ended up writing their own account of Pakistan, from being the “most dangerous place in the world” to being a “resilient country” able to take more blows, yet survive in some mangled form. With research funding coming in from United States (US) and European agencies, and think tanks, mainly “security analysts” and academics willing to respond to some Western notion of how Pakistan was imagined, were sought after, to offer some nativist understanding of how Pakistan was responding to these developments.

Most of these publications, not fully cognisant of the domestic economic, ­social and structural nature of Pakistan, simplistically focused on Pakistan’s military state, with some even arguing that Pakistan’s only future rested on the military taking, or at least being, in power. This might not have been surprising, since for many scholars Pakistan’s past, present and future has been sufficiently determined by and entangled with the military, or its numerous clandestine agencies, in some form or the other. Often, significant nuances about the role of the military, how its techniques of power and manipulation had changed, were seldom examined, appreciated or explained. This simplistic analysis was easy, yet was often inappropriate and wrong. To argue, or assume that Pakistan’s political economy depends solely or primarily on the military, undercuts far deeper analysis and fails to examine the changing nature of the military, or its relationship to other actors in Pakistan.

The other significant theme to emerge from at least 1977 when General Zia-ul-Haq took over power, but more forcefully and in somewhat scholarly manner over the last two decades, has been the ubiquitous presence of Islam in the political, social and cultural essence of what being Muslim in Pakistan has meant. There has been a publication orgy of books on and about Islam in Pakistan. Again, funding from US, European and United Kingdom (UK) development agencies has driven this agenda, although many scholars have taken an interest as part of their intellectual, political and social positioning and ideologies in trying to examine the nature and presence of how different notions and understandings of Islam play out in Pakistan. From numerous books in progress on a “softer,” supposedly “Sufi,” vision, version and interpretation of Islam in Pakistan, to trying to understand political and pietist manifestations of Islam, scholars have engaged with this theme extensively over the last two decades. One reason has been a noticeable increase in scholarship in the social sciences by Pakistanis, many of them diasporic, and overwhelmingly women, who have turned to their personal and political engagement with the presence of Islam in Pakistan’s many lives.

While, perhaps one cannot take out either the military, or Islam, from an understanding of what constitutes Pakistan, this overwhelming focus on both, compromised the growth of social science in developing in a more mundane, yet meaningful manner, by looking at class, agency, the state, social and structural transformation, and how Pakistan actually exists outside of an overdetermined influence of either the military or of Islam. And, importantly, how and where Pakistan’s social structures inform what Islam and the military actually are, and how their presence is arti­culated in specific contexts and circumstances. Fortunately, with the waning of terror-related interest in Pakistan where research and scholarly agendas have been bifocal, things are changing. Over the last few years, in a trend that is noticeably growing, Pakistani scholars are turning to investigate issues such as bazaar traders and their politics, agrarian relations, social classes, the state and society, women as political and agentive forces, secular alternatives, cinema, working class politics, political parties, the media, Baloch nationalism, and much more. With numerous Pakistani scholars just completed or in the process of completing their doctoral dissertations, one can expect, or at least hope for, a rush of publications, although of variable quality. The two books under review here are amongst the more recent scholarship which has emerged, and is beginning to emerge, from and by Pakistani scholars.

The Religions of Classes

Ammara Maqsood’s mistitled The New Pakistani Middle Class—mistitled, because it is not at all about a “Pakistani” middle class, but looks at a small section of individuals belonging to her notion of the middle class, only in a tiny handful of localities in Lahore—is based on her doctoral dissertation in Anthropology, at the University of Oxford, where she examines how groups of women in religious circles in Lahore attending Quran schools, acquire their subjectivities, and how they and their families develop identities, mainly Islamic, which differ from those women and their families, who constitute the “old” middle class in Lahore. Using this ethnographic canvas, calling herself a “native anthropologist,” Maqsood spends some months interviewing such women who belong to “the new middle-class and upwardly mobile groups,” through their “piety practices.” In this mapping of the religiosity and Islamic identity of this new middle class, Maqsood examines not just what it means to be religious, or in this case specifically Islamic through pietist practices, but also what it means to be “modern,” a modern which she argues is very different from the modern of the old, “established” middle class of the 1950s and 1960s. One of her main focuses is how the “struggles and aspirations” of the new, “emerging middle-class and upwardly mobile groups” are represented in the new forms of piety, making the link that these new forms of piety are what define this new class.

One does not envy the task Maqsood has set out to do, at least in terms of her discussion of class. While there have been a number of sociological and ­anthropological studies on pietist women in Lahore, none of them have been so bold as to locate these pietist trends as part of any social class: aspirational, upper, middle, emerging. Here is where Maqsood distinguishes herself from other scholars. However, this is also one of the two main failings in her endeavour, in examining the excessively complex notion of class, neither in theory, nor, more importantly, in the muddled religio-economic reality of South Asia and Pakistan. Even established political economists and mainstream economists have shied away from identifying and quantifying social classes in Pakistan, since the task is quite formidable, and although they do use some criteria to identify and locate such categories, they themselves are quite circumspect about such findings. This is despite the fact that there have been a number of newspaper accounts of trying to quantify the size of the middle class in Pakistan, usually using consumption patterns—number of motor-cycles or washing machines purchased—where some estimates consider Pakistan’s middle class to be 38% of the population, with the “upper class” at 4%, giving a total of around 84 million. There is a general recognition of what the middle class, or any other class, might mean, but identifying or estimating it, is a particularly challenging task.

There is no one who would disagree with the claim that there has been a far more noticeable Islamisation of Pakistanis in public and private spaces over the last few decades. Pietist movements, madrasas, Quran schools, even religious (Islamic) universities have been opened up in both urban and rural settings. More vivid public trends in the display of what are seen as religious symbols, such as abayas, beards, tele-evangelism, and such like, are fairly commonplace now, and here, any scholar examining Islam in Pakistan would concur with Maqsood’s broad arguments and generalisations. What becomes problematic is how she uses the category of class, particularly “middle class,” to make her claims. Clearly, Maqsood has no understanding of the categories she is employing.

Her understanding of what the ­middle classes might have been under colonialism, makes clear a lack of reading of South Asian texts, both modern and of the colonial era, whether scholarly or literary. She identifies the colonial middle class as being one whose members “were educated in colonial schools, and children of more affluent families were sent to universities in Britain, including Oxbridge and the London Inns of Court” (p 5). This would have been a minuscule proportion of the population, but has other complications in its formation as well (see below). Maqsood continues, that the

middle and lower tiers of the colonial middle class consisted of professional groups and nongazetted government officials. In broader terms, however, state employment and participation in the colonial public sphere became a path towards middle-class respectability. (p 5)

Clearly, anyone familiar with social transition under colonialism would know, that such notions of the colonial middle class were those defined by the colonialists, and excluded social groups who were not part of the “colonial public sphere.” For Maqsood, this colonial middle class seems to require some westernised notion of respectability and excludes all those writing and reading in Indian languages, by far many times greater than this tiny group whom she calls “Macaulay’s Children,” itself evident of her falling into orientalist notions of categorisation. To suggest that while their social backgrounds may have differed, “the mind-set of the emerging middle class in India ... was similar to its corresponding class in Britain,” is really difficult to comprehend.

This confusion about social class is reflected in her use of categories in modern Lahore as well. Her key categories for differentiation are what she calls the “established” or old, and the “new” middle classes. Here, she defines the old middle class, specifically of Lahore, as those families who “progressed through state employment, and participation in the urban public sphere during colonial rule and in the early decades after independence” (p 6). These groups were dependent upon state support to progress “to an established status.” The “new” middle class, on the other hand, “consists of upwardly mobile urban groups that have emerged since the 1980s,” many of whom are migrants to Lahore, mainly educated in government schools and colleges, many “employed in state institutions while a significant portion works in mid-level positions in the private sector or runs small businesses” (pp 6–7). Such vagueness in trying to define a particularly complex category, is made worse when she uses multiple and interchangeable labels for such classes, where terms like “affluent,” “established,” “old,” “elite,” “upwardly mobile,” are used very loosely. While this identification of the middle classes becomes an important issue, what really concerns us here, is Maqsood’s understanding of their different religious subjectivities.

Similar to her simplistic depiction of the colonial middle class, is how she portrays religious identity in her “established” or old middle class. Throughout her analysis and description, a major argument is made that the older middle class is not religious in the way the new and upwardly mobile middle class is. One gets a sense that Maqsood is arguing that it is middle-classness which determines how religious one can be, and hence, if one belongs to the “old” or established or privileged middle class, one would really not be religious at all, as religiousness is a prerogative of the new middle classes. Clearly, this is absurd, as is evident from experience from Pakistan and elsewhere. It is not just confusion about social class that causes many of Maqsood’s arguments to implode, but also her use of categories such as “Muslim” or “Islam,” “modern,” and progressive.

Progressiveness as Culture

While this attempt to discover religion in a particular class is one of the main problems of Maqsood’s book, the second major problem is her treatment of “progressiveness,” which she attributes largely to the “old,” “established” middle class, almost as an inverse to its absence of religiosity, and looks at progressiveness not as materiality or claims over changes in property ownership or relations, but as culture. Hence, “progressives” are those who recite Faiz, attend qawallis, participate in literary and cultural events, and interact in certain “social circles” of the elite. This stereotyping is as bad as Maqsood’s use of Macaulay to define the colonial middle class. For Maqsood, there seem to be no multiclass activities, whether progressive, secular or religious, and the divide between such supposedly simplistic ideological positions—which are also overlapping— are based on notions of old and new middle classes. She falls into this trap of defining Pakistan’s progressiveness as culture, relying on a particularly flawed analysis of Pakistan’s communist past, one by anthropologist Kamran Asdar Ali (2015), who overemphasises the cultural activities of Pakistan’s literary circles as left politics, focusing particularly on the Progressive Writers Association.

Sadly, such analysis takes away any material and substantive notion of what it meant (and means) to be progressive in Pakistan or elsewhere, taking away the agenda for social and structural transformation, based on a redefining of property relations. A more thoughtful, better resea­­­­­rched, and more comprehensive study—based on more than just a few Urdu writers examining the politics and theorisation of the Communist Party of Pakistan on the basis of its own documents—is still awaited. No matter how much Faiz one recites, and whether one attends yet another literature festival, this simply is no substitute for a politics that emphasises social and structural transformation in the modes and relations of production and distribution, and other material interventions to bring about equality among people. The fact that literature festivals in Pakistan are supported by global and local capital, clearly brings in a major contradiction between material progressiveness and cultural reproduction for the elite and middle classes.

A Return to Gramsci

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is Pakistan’s leading radical academic-activist who, apart from being a professor teaching within Pakistan in a public sector university—unlike many of the new recent authors who live and teach abroad—is also the Punjab President of the Awami Workers Party, Pakistan’s main left-wing political party. Moreover, unlike other younger scholars writing their first book, Akhtar has been publishing for many years and has already co-authored two books. However, this latest, also based on his PhD, offers a substantive engagement in the political economy of Pakistan, both as theory and as a possible practice.

There has been little academic research on the political economy of Pakistan for some decades now, where analysis of transition, structural transformation, and their resulting impact on the formation of social classes, has been missing. Akhtar’s is amongst the very few, and most recent, contributions that provide a substantive understanding of Pakistan’s political economy. He uses Gramsci’s formulation of hegemony, dominance, coercion, and resistance, and builds upon more recent scholarship on notions of “common sense,” giving rise to a consent, where the ideas of the ruling classes become subsumed as ideas of the everyday, as a legitimation of class dominance and exploitation. For the most part, Akhtar’s is a political-economic history of Pakistan’s social being, focusing on the evolution of the social order from after the fall of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977, with the rise of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977–88), whose rule brought about deep-seated structural interventions in economic, social and cultural ways of being Pakistani.

The rise of an intermediate class, sometimes called the middle class, is one of the main manifestations of Zia’s particular hegemonic rule—dependent on US and Saudi capital, both material and cultural—that brought about the rise of this new social group, which differed in both material and ideological terms from the groups prior to 1977. A key theme of the book is to show how the intermediate classes and the religious right (which are often the same), “have forced their way into a structure of power which is based on the passive consent of the subordinate classes” (p xi).

Starting from an evaluation of the structure of power “from above,” revealing how power is articulated by the state and its institutions over time, Akhtar shows how these structures of power have changed from the 1960s to the present, and how they continue to evolve, interacting with new social and political forces. While the state structure and its composite institutions—such as the military and bureaucracy—also change, being “the most significant transformations to have taken place in Pakistan over the past few decades” (p 43), the state itself plays a role in “moulding the social formation.” While examining the role of the bourgeoisie in its many forms with its continuing ability to accumulate capital, he argues that despite the emergence of new social and economic forms and forces—such as those in the unorganised sector—“the structure of power has not been weakened, but has successfully absorbed new players so as to subdue potential counter-hegemonic challenges” (p 73). Another important argument made in the book, is how the “role of religion has become ever more important in conditioning economic, political and cultural fields” (p 89), and that it has “shaped the body-politics ... and it is constitutive of common sense politics” (p 94).

Bringing in nationalist politics as another marker into Pakistan’s body politic, Akhtar makes the claim that “ethnicity rather than religion has been the primary marker of identity in large parts of Pakistan” (p 116), a claim with which one could concur, although it weakens the dominance-of-Islam narrative, which Akhtar spends a chapter on. Perhaps not his best chapter, but the point is well-taken, that the nationalism of the many ethnic nationalists is, “by definition, an ideology of resistance precisely because they are largely excluded from the exercise of power” (p 119). Such statements, however, require a deeper class analysis of the different nationalisms in Pakistan, where class and ethnicity, often fail to find an equilibrium. Unlike many academics in the past, notably Hamza Alavi, Akhtar brings in extensive historical discussion on the subordinate classes, by looking at some categories, including farmers and the unorganised urban dwellers, showing how and where resistance has taken place in recent years.
Finally in his concluding chapter, making the case for a counter-hegemonic politics, Akhtar argues that a “new political ­imaginary ... requires a break from the politics of common sense beyond idealized notions of the “Islamic” state and “anti-corruption” populism” (p 172), something that he concedes, will take time.

Questions and Disagreements

Despite the often very wide and deep analysis undertaken in Akhtar’s understanding of Pakistan’s political economy, a number of questions emerge from his book, which are either not answered completely or are avoided altogether. One key unexplained issue is why it is that the new intermediate classes become “Islamic.” Akhtar talks about networks cultivated by religious functionaries and by mullahs at the local level, and how Islamisation “has been a crucial component of the politics of common sense,” but a greater analysis of what it is that draws these social groups towards Islam, is missing. Why does Islam succeed in this social class? Why is it that right-wing and Islamic forces have been able to maintain “a comprehensive infrastructure within students, workers, young professionals and the intermediate classes” (p 106)? Why do non-Islamic, or left ­parties and groups fail to make such inroads? Clearly, intermediate classes are not inherently religious or right-wing, so why do they subscribe to such politics? Certainly, Akhtar concedes, they have received “considerable support from state institutions and foreign patrons” (p 109), but that raises questions about the independent consciousness of what constitutes the intermediate classes: Do they have any agency of their own, or are they swayed by foreign patrons and the state?

When Akhtar argues that the “religious right adopted the populist organizing methods of leftists and nationalist forces, [and] it has widely co-opted their slogans as well” (p 109), is this not due to a failing of the left, and not simply due to the ­success of the right? Why does the left not “re-learn” from these right-wing groups? In his analysis of the Bhutto years and the left politics that brought him to power, Akhtar fails to explain the rise of right-wing forces at a time when socialist ideology was in tatters. The political role of the left in the pre-1977 period cannot be explained without the political ideology that created some ideas about what socialism would be, how one worked to bring it about, and how after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the left in much of the world lost its entire perspective, purpose and identity. Apart from a couple of passing references to the Soviet Union and its form of communism, Akhtar does not engage with the failures in the left that give rise to Islamic intermediate classes.

A second, key troubling area of Akhtar’s reading, is that of his rather odd notions of secularism, which he considers to be an “elitist” concern, identity and practice. It is surprising that Akhtar dismisses secular ideas as elitist in Pakistan, for, given many of his examples and commentary from all across Pakistan, the interlocutors he talks to, and quotes—from farmers, to traders, and even military men—he ought to have observed practices and experiences that could have been anything but in the realm of the “religious.” The statement that “rich and powerful Pakistanis sporting ‘secular’ lifestyles have become increasingly alienated from larger society” (p 102), implies an odd (and incorrect) reading of the term “secular,” and in many ways overstates the case that the non-rich and the non-powerful Pakistanis are so imbued with an Islamic ethic, and that this is what mainly defines them.

I differ here with Akhtar’s reading of Islam in Pakistan, and what he calls elite secularism. I would even make a contrarian, counter-intuitive, claim, that the Islam that had been manufactured in Pakistan for the last four decades has been on the wane for some time now, precisely because it was a coercive Islam “from above” (to use Akhtar’s own terminology), and not of an indigenous variety having different manifestations. I would make the argument (tentatively and speculatively, for it cannot fully be verified empirically) that despite the general perception that Islam dominates in all that is Pakistan and Pakistani, due to numerous factors, it may be receding in the form in which it has existed as a manufactured, coercive political category. Consumerism, modernity, global connections, the failure of “Islamic” organisations like the Taliban or ISIS, etc, may suggest a loosening of the form of expression and adherence to constructed, and forced, Islamic practices of the nature that existed.1 New forms may emerge as the intermediate classes interact with new forms of society and the state, and are conditioned by them. Moreover, something close to “secularism,” however it is imagined and whatever it implies, could also find root in the subaltern classes, and I believe that it has already manifested itself in very quotidian ways. Clearly, how left political actors read and react to these changes, will determine the direction the subaltern classes choose, lest another factory forging “Islam” is set up by the powers “from Above.”

There is little in common in both these books, except that both are particularly slim—only around 170 pages of text—and both represent and explain divergent elements of modern Pakistan. Both authors differ in academic discipline, but importantly, in theoretical and political orientation. For Maqsood, her canvas is minuscule, a handful of pietist women in Lahore, while for Akhtar, his canvas is a macro political economy of class, state, neo-liberalism and imperialism, transforming and affecting Pakistan. The noticeable increase in the study of Islam at a localised level in Pakistan as has been undertaken by a long list of academics over the last decade. Maqsood, the most recent, represents a new trend in the social science research field related to Pakistan. So does the work that emanates from the likes of Akhtar, along with dozens of younger academics and scholars, interpreting and rereading Marx, Gramsci and, of course, Foucault, giving rise to more pertinent scholarship, beyond the security/rouge-state, war-on-terror, narratives. It would not be wrong to say that Pakistani social science scholarship has perhaps never been this diverse, vibrant or fertile.


1 I have called this the “Post-Taliban Present.” See Zaidi (2017).


Kamran Asdar Ali (2015): Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism 1947–1972, London, New York: I B Tauris.

Zaidi, S Akbar (2017): “Pakistan in the Post-Taliban Present,” Economic& Politcal Weekly, Vol 52, No 9, pp 27–29.

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Updated On : 17th Sep, 2018
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