Will the real Mr Jinnah stand up?

Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity
August 15, 1997

Mohammed Ali Jinnah has always had what public relations people call "an image problem". The uncritical, pedestrian biography by Stanley Wolpert, the malevolent Jinnah we encounter in Richard Attenborough's film biopic of Gandhi and the unattractive figure found in the standard lives of Nehru and Gandhi are all one-dimensional and unsatisfying, the work of hagiographers, popularisers and demonologists. Only Ayesha Jalal has produced a subtle exploration of a complicated and misunderstood figure in her study, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan.

Now Akbar Ahmed, author of Discovering Islam and Postmodernism and Islam, has entered the fray with a biographical study of Jinnah and the creation of Pakistan. This is the first product of a four-part Jinnah project Ahmed has undertaken to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of Pakistan: in addition to this book, a "graphic novel" about Jinnah, a television documentary and a controversial feature film starring Christopher Lee will all appear in 1997. Ahmed's revisionist take on Jinnah is that he evolved from "a seemingly secular politician" into "the champion of an exclusive Muslim identity", an Islamic role model who provides "a response to (contemporary) negative media images" of Islam. Ahmed wants to deconstruct these negative representations of Islam in the West, and his heroic Jinnah is contrived to be a counterweight to Gaddafi, Khomeini and Saddam, "the most hated villains in contemporary global culture".

What we have here is Jinnah as an unironic eminent Islamicist conjured out of "the methodology of cultural anthropology, semiotics and media studies". Not surprisingly, given this underlying polemical impulse, the Jinnah Ahmed posits is as much of a caricature as previous versions. But the attempt to reinvent Jinnah as a distinctly Muslim personality is ingenious, for even his admirers have rarely disputed Jalal's argument that "Jinnah's appeal to religion was ... a political tactic, not an ideological commitment".

The major problem that bedevils all Jinnah biography is our lack of access to the inner man. Unlike Nehru and Gandhi, Jinnah did not write an autobiography or keep a diary. Few of his personal letters survive, and the recollections of his sister Fatima and daughter Dina Wadia (who was interviewed by Ahmed), are reverential and unilluminating. Ahmed, however, exploits this biographical handicap to his own advantage. Lack of evidence facilitates speculation. Hence in a chapter entitled "Jinnah's conversion" Ahmed theorises Jinnah's pilgrimage from secular spokesman for Hindu-Muslim unity to "a man of extraordinary spiritual authority", the leader of the Muslim "nation". In Ahmed's account, this evolution involves, among other things, an unauthenticated "midlife crisis" after the death of Jinnah's estranged Parsi wife in 1929 and the influence of the Muslim poet and philosopher Sir Mohammed Iqbal, who, Ahmed claims, established "a spiritual connection" with Jinnah "that resulted in the passing of the flame from one to the other", when Iqbal died in 1938.

Speculation finds its apotheosis in Ahmed's two long chapters devoted to Jawaharlal Nehru and the Mountbattens. Not surprisingly, these three are the villains of the piece. It would have been a welcome change to have the oft-rehearsed events of 1947-48 recounted from Jinnah's point of view, but Ahmed chooses instead to give his own version of what he calls in one chapter title "Partition in the heat of passion". Briefly, his argument is as follows. After Lord and Lady Mountbatten arrived in Delhi in the spring of 1947, Nehru became involved with Edwina Mountbatten in order "to command the viceroy's office through his bedroom". Nehru was, according to Ahmed, the Jewish Edwina's "demon lover", who turned her against Jinnah and the Muslim League by saying they were like Nazis. In addition to the political advantage to be gained from Lady Mountbatten, Ahmed claims that Nehru was drawn to her because "sex with the memsahib was the ultimate taboo ... the ultimate racial and colonial metaphor for power... (Nehru) had conquered the white woman ... it was the ultimate victory, the planting of the flag on top of Everest." According to Ahmed, compromising letters between Edwina and Nehru were intercepted and made available to Jinnah who refused to use them, saying that "Caesar's wife should be above suspicion" and that "this was not his kind of politics".

There are a number of problems with this torrid account. The evidence for the Nehru-Edwina liaison is contradictory and circumstantial and is likely to remain so until Sonia Gandhi releases their voluminous correspondence. Quite apart from this, Ahmed's grasp of chronology is poor. Whatever the "affair" between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten involved, it flourished only in the months and years following partition. Much more damagingly, Ahmed's argument ignores nearly everything we know about the personality and values of Nehru, and a good deal of what we know about the Mountbattens, including their intelligence.

Though Ahmed purports to be writing a postmodern study, he comes dangerously close to producing a communal work with extremely partisan accounts of Nehru, Gandhi and Mountbatten (headlined here as "the first Paki-basher"). Ahmed even condemns Jalal's book on the grounds that it originated as a PhD thesis written under the supervision of the Cambridge historian, Anil Seal, who is the son of a Hindu father and British mother. At the same time, Ahmed's Jinnah is a carelessly researched book which relies heavily on dubious secondary sources such as Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre's Freedom at Midnight, Wolpert's biographies of Jinnah and Nehru, and Richard Hough's early and now superseded biographies of the Mountbattens. There are no reference notes and the bibliography contains no mention of crucial primary and published sources such as the Quaid-i-Azam Papers in Islamabad and the 12 indispensable Transfer of Power volumes.

The fundamental problem with Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity, however, is its agenda. Ahmed baldly states: "I have attempted to simplify complex issues and paint with a broad brush in order to highlight what is of greatest relevance today." This is a dangerous and self-defeating approach in any biography, a genre that has been described as the books little men write about great ones. History is larger than its chroniclers and too important to be reduced to the perceived needs of the present. Despite his ambition to reconstruct Jinnah as a Muslim hero - a new Saladin for our troubled times - Ahmed's "broad brush" and simplifications have only served to diminish his hero. Meanwhile, Jinnah remains as elusive as ever and the search - not for Saladin - but for his biographer, goes on.

Katherine Frank is writing a biography of Indira Gandhi.

Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin

Author - Akbar S. Ahmed
ISBN - 0415 14965 7 and 14966 5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £12.00
Pages - 5

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