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    The day after the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Kamal Ataturk, passed away in November 1939, a leading Urdu daily in pre-Partition India, Inquilab, reported that Ataturk, who had slipped into a coma, briefly woke up to convey a message to a servant of his.

    According to the report, Ataturk instructed his servant to tell the ‘millat-i-Islamiyya’ [the Islamic nation] to follow in the footsteps of the ‘Khulfa-i-Rashideen’ [the righteously guided caliphs]. After saying this, he passed away.

    In 1988, the Islamic scholar Dr Israr Ahmad claimed that, according to one of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s doctors, the founder of Pakistan during his last moments spoke about the importance of imposing Shariah laws. Both claims have been rubbished by most historians. However, as late as in May 2019, the then prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan was circulating the second claim as a fact. All three cases can be understood as examples of ‘presentism’ and ‘invented tradition’.

    Presentism, as a sociological term, refers to concocting a past that validates one’s political beliefs in the present. Presentism can also lead to invented tradition. The latter is about traditions that are posited as being old, but are actually recent inventions.

    Politicians and ideologues often make use of invented traditions and presentism — concocting a past that validates one’s political beliefs in the present

    Presentism and invented tradition are often used to construct national communities. Both are applied to forge a set of invented memories and traditions that a group of people are encouraged to embrace, so that they could become a community with a shared ‘history’.

    Although not more than 24 hours had lapsed between Ataturk’s demise and the appearance of the aforementioned report in Inquilaab, this can still be understood as a case of presentism. At the time, India was in the midst of an evolving political battle between Muslim nationalists, Indian nationalists and Hindu nationalists. The ‘modernist’ faction of Muslim nationalism had hailed Ataturk when he abolished the Ottoman caliphate in 1924.

    However, the counter-modernist faction, which had begun to advocate the creation of an ‘Islamic state’, felt uneasy about Ataturk’s secularisation project. When Ataturk was about to launch his project, he critiqued the idea of the caliphate by pointing out the presentism in it. He declared that, “the notion of a single caliph exercising religious authority over all Muslim people was only in books, not in reality.”

    By books he meant theories that were attempting to justify the revival of the caliphate as if it were an ancient tradition. The fact is, just decades after Islam emerged in 7th century CE, its political system had become entirely monarchical. After the mid-7th century, the caliph was a monarch in every sense.

    In the books that Ataturk was referring to, presentism and invented tradition had come together to claim that the Ottoman caliphate was a continuation of an unbroken chain of caliphs who first emerged in the first half of the 7th century. This was a concoction. Ottomans were nothing of the sort.

    So Inquilaab had to go out of its way to refigure Ataturk as a man who suddenly realised his folly of secularising Turkey. Dr Israr’s similar claim regarding Jinnah came when the Ziaul Haq dictatorship had been trying to remould the founder of Pakistan as a late-blooming Islamist ideologue.

    In reality, Jinnah was entirely secular in his habits. He claimed to be working towards the creation of a Muslim-majority country to safeguard the economic and political interests of India’s Muslims from the hegemonic designs of India’s upper-caste Hindus. But he detested theocracy.


    Indeed, the modernist Muslim nationalism that Jinnah adopted also contained presentism. This presentism claimed that modern economic and political ideas, which the Europeans had introduced, were already embedded in Islam. This presentist notion freed 19th and 20th century Muslim reformers to adopt modernity.

    This is why most counter-modernists were opposed to Jinnah. Nevertheless, their own use of presentism and invented tradition went deeper. Ironically, the counter-modernists too were a product of modernity. For example, when they began to speak of an Islamic state, they borrowed heavily from theorists who helped build the concept of the modern state.

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    The state as we know it today is a European construct, not more than 300 years old. And the concept of the Islamic state is an entirely 20th century concept. It emerged in the first half of the 20th century to counter the idea of the modern Muslim nation-state. The counter-modernists understood the nation-states as a Western concept and constructed the idea of the Islamic state as an alternative.

    They lamented that there was no room for a nation-state in Islam nor do the faith’s scriptures allow it. Their critics retorted by pointing out that nowhere do the scriptures speak of an Islamic state as well. They called out the presentism and invented tradition that the advocates of the Islamic state were using.

    The modernists insisted that the scriptures were a moral guide. But the counter-modernists posited that the scriptures not only provided moral guidance, but in them was a political ‘blueprint’ for the construction of a state navigated by pious men, who were to operate as viceregents of God. Thus was born Political Islam.

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    The modernists rejected this and saw it as a way through which their opponents were politicising the scriptures to grab state power. According to the historian Nicholas P. Roberts, the core of Political Islam rests upon a series of reinvented understandings of traditional Islamic concepts and symbols.

    For example, words in the scriptures that are meant to forge social harmony and mindful individual behaviour in a community, are given a political meaning. These words begin to operate like political concepts through which Islamists formulate their contemporary rhetoric.

    They validate their current political ideas by suggesting that these ideas were a continuation of a pristine past that had been destroyed by modernity. However, Political Islam itself is an outcome of modernity, no different or older than other modern ideologies such as socialism, nationalism, capitalism, etc. As Roberts puts it, whereas the modernist strand of Muslim nationalism tried to modernise Islam, counter-modernists Islamicise modernity.

    In the 1980s, when Zia’s projection of Jinnah as an Islamic ideologue was blown to bits by historians such as Stanley Wolpert and Ayesha Jalal, out came Dr Israr’s claim that, in his dying moments, Jinnah had desired a modern-day caliphate.

    This is still believed by those who are faced with the fact that Jinnah was an outright liberal, and a Muslim modernist. Zia and Israr were flexing presentism to validate the state’s shift from the modernist Muslim nationalism of its founders, to adopting a more theocratic strand of this nationalism.

    When Imran Khan enthusiastically circulated Israr’s words, he was trying to validate his own image of being a contemporary architect of an ancient pious state.

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