Modern Asian Studies

Forum: Secularism and the State in Pakistan

Embracing the Ummah: Student Politics beyond State Power in Pakistan*


a1 School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG, UK Email:


Studies of student politics in Pakistan often focus on the competition between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ student groups—for example, the leftward-leaning National Students Federation, regional parties with a broadly secular orientation like the Pakhtun Students Federation, the Islami Jamiat-e-Tuleba (Islamic Students Association), and sectarian groups like the (Shi'a) Imamia Students Organization. This paper describes the emergence of an increasingly violent stalemate between and amongst these groups since the 1960s. It then argues that for a growing number of students this stalemate produced a certain disenchantment with exclusionary efforts to control the ‘state-based Muslim nationalism’ that lay behind the formation of Pakistan itself. Seeking alternatives, these disenchanted students developed an interest in non-state-based forms of Muslim solidarity—forms that rejected the constraints of territorial Muslim nationalism in favour of transnational movements focused on the revitalization of Muslim solidarity on a truly global scale—movements like the (Deobandi) Tablighi Jama'at and the (Barelwi) Da'wat-e-Islami. Tracing this development, this paper takes up one application of Talal Asad's argument that alternative expressions of religion (and religious solidarity) are ‘produced’ by specific political circumstances. It also examines this formulation in the light of other theories that take an interest in the effects—indeed the potentially ‘democratizing’ effects—of protracted political stalemates.

(Online publication April 28 2011)


* I would like to thank the National Bureau of Asian Research for field research support and the following individuals for their comments and assistance: Syed Samar Abbas, Mumtaz Ahmad, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, David Gilmartin, Humeira Iqtidar, Ahmad Ali Khan, Laeeq Khan, Nadeem Paracha, Ziaullah Ranjah and two anonymous reviewers for Modern Asian Studies. This paper was completed in 2010 with financial support from the Wolfensohn Family Membership at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, USA.