Friday, 18 April 2008

Book Review: Akbar S Ahmed - Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: the Search for Saladin

I recently re-read this book having enjoyed it so much in the past.

The book explores exactly the themes listed on its cover: The life of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, the birth of Pakistan and the emergence of Islamic identity in the Indian subcontinent.

Although it looks back as far as the appearance of the first Muslims in India, its focus is on the period preceding the creation of Pakistan, the movement which lead to it and the legacies left behind by the key players involved.

I grew up in a home which revered Jinnah as Quaid-e-Azam (the Great Leader) and which had Allama Iqbal’s anthem for Pakistan on the back of my Urdu lesson books. So after seeing only biased, demonised portrayals of Jinnah, such as that in Attenborough’s film Ghandhi, it was a pleasure to read a book which tries to delve into the intelligent, passionate, humane, yet flawed nature of the person that he was.

The writer raises the issue of bias in historical reporting and how most of the well-known writing about Jinnah uses sources which were hostile to him – the British and the anti-partition camp. On the other hand all of the books published about Jinnah in Pakistan (almost an industry in itself) are almost sycophantic in nature. The writer attempts to prove all of his arguments using sources traditionally hostile and this is the only thing preventing this book from becoming a biased diatribe against Nehru and Mountbatten.

At times this book does seem to engage in point-scoring and smug finger-pointing, but these moments are always balanced by the critical eye Ahmed casts over the Muslim’s of India and later Pakistan and their in-fighting and at times indolence.

The book provides a fresh contrast to the very negative view of Muslims, Pakistan and its people held by many. Well written and accessible for a history book, Ahmed’s writing gave me real insight into the history of my people, what they suffered and how they persevered despite being short-changed at partition and the breaking away of Bangladesh.

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