Book Review: The Oxford Companion to Pakistan History-A complex history

Ishtiaq Ahmed

The Oxford Companion to Pakistan History (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012) edited by eminent historian Ayesha Jalal is a milestone in information on and knowledge about Pakistan. The first attempt is always the most challenging and daunting. Fahd Raza and Salma Mahmud at OUP, Karachi were the initiators of this project. Later, Nadia Ghani took over as project editor. She deserves to be applauded, especially because of the very large number of entries she has contributed.

In the preface, Ayesha Jalal succinctly sets forth the philosophy that informs her selection of items and contributors: “There can be no singular view of history that has remained open to multiple and conflicting interpretations. The volume avoids projecting any specific viewpoint and takes the diversity of interpretations as given. Contributors have been allowed to adopt their own standpoints in delineating a topic. Users of the companion are free to disagree with the contributors while still taking advantage of the information made available on any particular subject.”

Indeed that approach and vision is abundantly manifest. There is hardly any recognised scholar of Pakistani history, culture and politics whose expertise is not included. Most of the contributors are Pakistanis but international scholars of Pakistan are also represented well. I myself have had the privilege of contributing on more than 30 subjects.

The concentration is understandably on the post-independence period, but the colonial and even pre-colonial periods have been adequately covered. The topics included are individuals, events, places, government, military, foreign relations, linguistics, archaeology, judiciary, art, theatre, education, government, political parties, media, economics, the nuclear issue, philanthropy, civil society and many other subjects.

Pakistan’s travails as a nation-state have always posed intellectual and political challenges. Was it conceived as merely a Muslim-majority national state or was it meant to be an Islamic state based on a strict and dogmatic interpretation of the Shari’ah? This question has been dealt with in sufficient detail and diversity but understandably, no resolution of this controversy emerges from the different entries. We get a fair picture of what standpoints were taken by different political organisations, sects and sub-sects. The problems posed with regard to Pakistan’s national identity derive essentially from the fact that unlike most nation states that emerged in Asia and Africa as a result of decolonisation and bona fide residence of their people in the same territory were included in the nation, Pakistan was won in the name of Islam and Islamic culture. Despite an overwhelming Muslim majority, non-Muslim minorities were found in significant numbers in what became Pakistan. Their numbers have decreased after East Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh, but they are still in millions in present day Pakistan.

Constitutional and legal measures purporting to define the rights of Muslim and non-Muslim citizens opened a Pandora’s Box. As a result the raison d’être for the creation of Pakistan, the Two-Nation Theory, brought out tensions not only between the rights and status of Muslims and non-Muslims but also within Muslim sects. Who is a Muslim? This notorious question has dogged Pakistani history and politics throughout its chequered history.

Jalal has adopted a genuinely inclusive and liberal approach on this issue and the diverse and contradictory spectrum of views and standpoints on this contentious issue have been included. Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Ahl-e-Hadith, Ahl-e-Quran, Barelvi, Ahrar, Khaksar, Sipah-e-Sahaba, the Ahmadiyya community and others are included. Pakistani Christians and Hindus and minorities such as Parsees, Kalash, Sikhs and Zikris are also covered. There is no denying that the question of identity has taken a heavy toll of the democratic potential and resolve present in Pakistan. As a consequence, cultural of militarisation has thrived. Entries on these issues are very useful. Another major problem that has bedevilled Pakistani politics is the relationship between the Centre and the provinces. The Oxford Companion covers satisfactorily this controversial question as well in both theoretical and empirical terms.

Equally, as an ‘ideological state’, Pakistan has to work out its relations with neighbouring states as well as internationally. The theoretical and empirical problems that arise as a result of tension between classic Islamic theory and contemporary norms and principles of international relations are also taken up. This is particularly relevant because Pakistan is a nuclear weapon state with a highly accentuated concern for security.

The most difficult problem confronting such a volume must have been about the selection of candidates for the ‘who is who?’ entries, both with regard to the historical record and the contemporary period. It is also fairly representative, especially with regard to politicians. It was a pleasure to note that some leading stalwarts of the Indian National Congress are also included. I would urge the inclusion of Dada Amir Haider, the veteran revolutionary who was a legend of the working class struggle extending from the 1920s until his death in 1989. Some sports personalities would also be a worthy inclusion in forthcoming editions of the Oxford Companion.

The great bonus of this volume is the encyclopaedic information on science, culture, architecture, music, the arts, including performing arts and other miscellaneous subjects.

Such a huge undertaking is bound to have some typing errors and weak entries; some entries have become obsolete in the light of recent research and findings. The project was launched six years ago and during this period, many myths have been shattered. Apart from such minor faults that can be eliminated in future editions, the work is a solid contribution to understanding Pakistan and its people.

The reviewer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South AsianStudies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at

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