Who was Jinnah, an Islamic cultural relativist or a brown sahib?

Published: June 8, 2016

Jinnah wanted Pakistan the right way. PHOTO: FILE

There are two bar rooms in the Lahore High Court. One is considered the bar room of left liberals and progressives. The other bar room, much bigger of the two, is the favourite haunt of those with a tinge of religious right wing. The left leaning bar room has a photograph of an emaciated Mr Jinnah in a suit. The other one has a sombre portrait of him in a black sherwani and karakul cap. Next to his portrait is an equally serious portrait of Allama Iqbal. 

In a poignant piece for Granta sometime ago New York Times journalist Jane Perlez pointed out that one’s choice of Jinnah portrait could tell a lot about one’s ideological affiliations in Pakistan. But what was Jinnah’s own ideology? Was he a liberal or a conservative? Which of the two bar rooms would he sit in if he were here today?

His background and training gives us a clue. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam and the founding father of Pakistan, was born into an Ismaili household as Muhammadali Jinnahbhai, though he became a Khoja Ithna Ashari Shia in 1901 after the Agha Khan refused to bless his sister’s marriage outside the Ismaili community.

Earlier he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali Jinnah while at Lincoln’s Inn in 1892 arguing that the suffix “bhai” was rudimentary because in his view “bhai” and “mister” were interchangeable. Like all barristers, however, he was most commonly referred by his peers as “Jinnah” or “Mr Jinnah” depending on who addressed him.

His time at the Bombay bar suggests that young Mr Jinnah identified himself first and foremost as a modern Indian. To him most religious practices were either meaningless rituals or useless superstitions. Dietary restrictions were summarily rejected by him. From all accounts he ate and drank at Bombay’s finest eateries like Cornaglia’s Restaurant. These eateries did not serve halal food and that did not seem to bother him in the least. Indeed he was the embodiment of Macaulay’s ideal Indian, an Indian by skin and name but an Englishman in tastes and habits. From his time in London, he also imbibed the best that British liberalism had to offer, rejecting racial distinctions and tribal associations as relics of the past.

His commitment to this British brand of liberalism was so strong, that he was amongst the earliest supporters of the Suffragette Movement in Britain.

The left leaning bar room has a photograph of an emaciated Mr Jinnah in a suit.
Photo: Jinnah Blog post

For a decade and a half, Jinnah was Bombay’s most eligible bachelor and its leading politician. In 1918 he, in the immortal words of Sarojini Naidu, plucked the blue flower of his desire. Ruttie Petit, the daughter of Parsi magnet Dinshaw Petit, had to convert to Islam. This had to do with the law which required, in the event of an inter-communal marriage, either renunciation of faith by both parties or conversion by one.

Jinnah, by now elected on a Muslim constituency, had to retain his religious identity. It was well known, however, in Bombay’s circles that Ruttie Jinnah’s conversion to Islam was merely in name. Instead of becoming a Muslim wife, Ruttie freely dabbled in theosophy and even delivered lectures on it in Duke University in the US.

Meanwhile her strapless dresses often created scandals. On two separate occasions, Jinnah walked out with his wife, after a host chided Ruttie for wearing strapless dresses. Once was at a dinner with Lord and Lady Wellingdon. The second was when the Begum of Bhopal told Ruttie that she was a Muslim now and that she should dress accordingly. Jinnah’s reaction on both occasions is instructive.

Politics often decides its own course. Jinnah’s politics continuously evolved from 1906 when he joined the Congress to the time he took office as Pakistan’s first Governor General. Much has been written about it. There is no dispute, even amongst his worst critics, that from 1906 right up to 1937, Jinnah’s politics were completely secular.

During this period he saw himself as an Indian first, second and last and was unwaveringly committed to the ideal of a united and independent India. It was only after 1937, after failing to secure an equitable power sharing arrangement with the Congress in UP, that Jinnah turned his attention to consolidating the Muslim community as a voting bloc. It is a fact that even when Jinnah took up the Muslim cause, his idea of Islam was informed not by the religious orthodoxy, but by a modernist interpretation of Islam.

This was a time, when the modernists in the Muslim intelligentsia far outnumbered the religiously orthodox. The binary of secular versus religious just did not exist for the modernist Muslims of the Muslim League. This is why for Jinnah there was no contradiction in speaking about Islamic principles of justice and fair play in one speech and speaking of religion as a personal matter in another.

Laws; whether religious or secular, in Jinnah’s estimation could only be drafted, discussed and enacted by modern men and women elected through the ballot. All citizens of Pakistan regardless of their religion or gender would be equal citizens of the new state.

Jinnah made it absolutely clear that Pakistan would not be a theocracy to be run by priests with a divine mission. There was no space for a Council of Islamic Ideology and the Federal Shariat Court in this vision. Nor could he have imagined that one day Pakistan’s National Assembly would decide whether a particular sect is Muslim or not.

Was he a liberal or a conservative?
Photo: Pakwheels

So which picture of the Quaid-e-Azam is based on fact? And which is fiction?

General Ziaul Haq’s Islamising government in the 80s actively censored his photographs in suits, his photographs with dogs, and him smoking cigars. Instead the Zia government tried to project him as an Islamic cultural relativist, which was the farthest from what he was.

Take it or leave it but Jinnah was the embodiment of the term “brown sahib”. He smoked, drank and ate as he pleased, all the while dressed in immaculate three piece suits and two tone shoes. As a politician trying to mobilise the masses, he did don the sherwani and karakul for select public occasions but that was an exception, not the rule. When the Islamists and conservatives try to find a puritan and a fundamentalist in Jinnah they are sorely disappointed. This is why they insist on elevating Allama Iqbal, the true cultural relativist as his equal as a founding father.

Nor should left liberals and secularists expect to find a consistent and an ideologically pure secular position in Jinnah’s politics post 1937. He was a great advocate and a master politician but never an ideologue. Jinnah was essentially a liberal and modern man who nevertheless was a pragmatist catering to the idiom of his people.

We must therefore study Jinnah holistically as a great practitioner of the art of politics. We should refrain from retrofitting our own ideologies on him.

Who do you think Jinnah was?

     View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Yasser Latif Hamdani

Yasser Latif Hamdani

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. He tweets as @theRealYLH (twitter.com/therealylh)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Fahimuddin

    After retrofitting ideology through out the article in the end author gave free advice not to retrofit. ThanksRecommend

  • Salim Alvi

    He was similar to his grandpa who converted for getting tannery contract. Same is true about iqbal whose grandpa was originally Hindu Pandit Sapru. He was not much different and ran away to London. Jinah ran away to London in 1930, as Gandhi made sure that Congress cease to be a evening debating club for rich and Anglicized elite who line marowed air headed girls Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    Everything I have written here is based on verifiable facts. How have I retrofitted my ideology? Please do point out instances.Recommend

  • Lets look at logic

    Yes. I have cross-referenced what you wrote here and it is all true.

    What Pakistanis see as their founding father was no different from a typical jihadi militant commander.Recommend

  • W R

    Absolute rubbish. Without going into answering each of your nonsensical allegations suffice it to say that in 1929 when chudhary Rehmat Ali suggested Pakistan Jinnah angrily called the suggestion ridiculous! Stop stretching the fiction to suit your nefarious designs!Recommend

  • Babu Rao

    Thanks for sharing the propaganda against Jinnah in your textbooks. But as they say appearance speaks for you, Gandhi’s attire, his vegetarian lifestyle and gomutra snaan spoke loudest about the intensity of his religious beliefs! Jinnah had to respond to protect the biggest minority (muslims) of the sub-continent and he did that without exhibiting a religious appearance. In fact, only Jinnah succeeded in creating a new state, whereas after second world war, Britain had already decided to leave its colonies including India.Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    Anyone who has read the 14 points knows that there is nothing religious about them. The rest of the claims are blatant untruths I am afraid. I suggest you read a good book on Jinnah’s life instead of trolling this article.Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    I think it is very clear that he wanted a modern Muslim country and not a theocracy – which he had opposed consistently. The debate really is on the secularity of that modern Muslim country.Recommend

  • Lets look at logic

    Only Pakistanis believe in Jinnah non-sense, The rest of the civilized world looks at facts, the biggest of which being the promotion of a false two nation theory propaganda, that only breeds hatred towards anyone who does not believe in Arabic Islam.

    You are making yourself look like a fool, projecting a suit-wearing-jihadist as some kind of savior of mankind.


  • Fahimuddin

    1) You mentioned “There was no space for a Council of Islamic Ideology and the Federal Shariat Court in this vision.” Can you give some verifiable facts ?
    2) Hiding information is biggest form of retrofitting. Jinnah relation with Ghazi Ilmuddin and 14 points in early political career.
    3) Highlighting such information that was in early part of life but not in end. What matters is the end only, that determines what he was!Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    My understanding is that Jinnah converted in 1901. Also as a Congressman from 1904 to 1920 he was very antagonistic towards Aga Khan because of Aga Khan’s pro-British inclinations. Please produce some evidence for 1919 expulsion. Thanks.Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    Instead of same old abuses, why don’t you answer the question: Which part of the 14 points was religious?
    Historians world over have studied Jinnah and concluded similarly to what I have here. Surely Patrick French Nisid Hajari Wolpert and H M Seervai are not Pakistanis.
    Calling Jinnah a jihadist shows your own bigotry. Does not change the facts about Jinnah.Recommend

  • Kushal

    “the direct action day in Calcutta got violent but there it was the Muslims who were butchered by Hindu gangs and Sikhs bussed in from other parts of India. ”
    Dear Yasser, please spare Kolkata out of your propaganda. Please answer who started the rioting first? Who paralysed the provincial police forces so that they remain in their respective “thana”s while the city burned?
    “Jinnah at no point disowned his daughter- this is a myth and a lie – Jinnah’s own will and testament proves otherwise and also the fact that Jinnah kept in constant contact with Dina afterwards”
    Well well…
    “”Jinnah, in his usual imperious manner, told her that there were millions of Muslim boys in India, and she could have anyone she chose. Reminding her father that his wife (Wadia’s mother Rattanbai), had also been a non-Muslim, a Parsi also coincidently, the young lady replied: ‘Father, there were millions of Muslim girls in India. Why did you not marry one of them?’ And he replied that, ‘She became a Muslim'”.
    Says enough for your hero.
    Also .. It is said (by Jinnah’s associate M C Chagla in “Roses in December”) that when Dina married Neville, Jinnah said to her that she was not his daughter any more.
    Why should I believe you instead of his associate?Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    Kushal sb,
    No one is trying to make you believe anything you dont want to… I am only giving you my view.
    Jinnah’s last will and testament (prepared a few months after his daughter married Neville Wadia) clearly mentions his daughter. http://www.jinnah.pk/2010/12/25/quaid-e-azams-will/ And it is also a fact that Jinnah remained in constant touch with his daughter long after the marriage. So it does not matter what M C Chagla says.Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    PS. Enough information about Calcutta rioting has come out to blow to bits the standard Indian mythology about the direct action day…Recommend

  • Sophie

    A very accurate portrayal of Mr Jinnah. A lot of people have no idea that he used to drink and eta ham and pork. However I don’t understand why such a non religious person fought for a separate country based on religion? Is it possible that he was manipulated by British to create a permanent chaos and keep the region unstable just like they have done from Fiji to Zimbabwe?

  • Lalit

    ”Jinnah being a secular leader, merely responded to these discriminatory policies of religious leaders of Indian Congress and aimed at protecting the identity of biggest minority (muslims) in sub-continent. He wished, that identity be defined through an inclusive and democratic process and which would be able to create an environment of equality and respect for all sects and faiths.”

    And his ”Two Nation theory” and ”direct action day” were the embodiment of his inclusive and secular mindset.Isn’t it ? How was Gandhi’s support to truth and non violence, communal ? you are talking about his emphasis on Bhajans.Do you know he used to sing ”ishwar allah tero naam” ? Whole world still vouches for the universality of Gandhi’s philosophy and message. .The real truth is MAJ sensed a clear electoral defeat and no worthwhile position in Independent India as was proved in elections of 1937’s elections.He insisted upon being the only leader of Indian Muslims.He hijacked a movement,milked the emotions of Muslims, took undue advantage of the insecurity of Muslim landed gentry on the name of proposed land reforms by Congress and took poor gullible Muslims for a ride on the name of an ideology called Pakistan,the consequences of which they continue to tolerate.Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    1. Direct Action Day was a call for civil disobedience not violence. In Calcutta three times as many Muslims as Hindus died. These facts are well documented.
    2. This is absolutely untrue and even the article you quote doesn’t support it. It is easily disproved by the fact that Jinnah’s first law minister was a Hindu.
    3. What Pakistan did in Kashmir was no different than what India did in several places all over India. Jinnah in any event was not associated with the raiders in Kashmir and this is proved by Alastair Lamb. However it was Kashmir that had broken the standstill agreement. And Poonch rebellion was already happening. Pakistan could not stand aside when people were being butchered by the Maharaja. It is ironic that Indians speak of Kashmir in such manner. What of India’s massacre of 150,000 Muslims in Hyderabad? What was that all about?
    4. The term genocide cannot be applied for mutual bloodletting. 70-80 percent of all victims of violence at partition were Muslims. Who organized the Sikh Jathas ? If you insist on calling it a “genocide” then you should also answer for the complete ethnic cleansing of Muslims from East Punjab which was much more deliberate and supported by Congress leadership.
    5. You obviously do not understand what Two Nation Theory meant. It was not an inherently unsecular claim to say that Muslims constituted a nation and not a minority. Secondly Jinnah’s claim to represent all Muslims was based on the election results. Jinnah claimed to represent the Muslims because by the 1940s he had most of the Muslims behind him and because in 1946 elections they gave Muslim League most of the Muslim seats… more than 90 percent of the seats and 70 percent of the electorate. So it was a perfectly justified claim and in the end even Gandhi conceded it.
    I recommend you read H M Seervai’s Partition of India Legend and Reality to clear the prejudice which you have internalized through right wing Indian nationalist propaganda.Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    He said that Muslims were a nation. It did not mean Muslims could not co-exist with another nation. What he was getting at was consociationalism and settlement between two nations for the governance of their common motherland … his words not mine. However I have already written in the article above that you should not expect to find a consistently secular ideological position in Jinnah after 1937 as he was a politician and not an ideologue. What part of that is unclear?Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    1. So you agree that Jinnah did not want a council of Islamic ideology.
    2. Jinnah was paid by donations of Punjab Muslims. Read any book on the issue. Jinnah was not emotionally involved in any way with Ilam Din’s cause. Even his defence shows that he was arguing that ultimately Ilam Din should be spared because he was young and misguided. Read the record of the case in AIR 1930 Lah 157. On 14 points – you have obviously not read the 14 points. Read “Ambassador of Hindu Muslim Unity” by Ian Bryant Wells which analyze the 14 points. There is nothing about Muslim autonomy in the 14 points. It spoke of the rights of all minorities and not just Muslims. It was a secular document. Read it some time.
    3. Please produce a reference for this statement by Jinnah. In the 11 August speech Jinnah also said “In due course of time, Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims, not in a religious sense that is the personal faith of an individual but in a political sense as citizens of one state”. This is as clear a secular statement as any. No distinctions of deen and mazhab here.Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    Pray tell what happened to the universal message of Gandhiji in South Africa viz the Africans who he called savages and subhuman? And what about B R Ambedkar’s critique of Gandhi? Is that wrong too.
    Gandhi has gotten great PR but those who read his collected works get a whole different picture.Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    No. He was forced out of the Congress by Gandhi’s increasingly cultural relativist politics especially after the Khilafat movement. Still Jinnah tried to keep India united even in 1946 by accepting the Cabinet Mission Plan. It was Congress that vetoed it.Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    PS: Jinnah did not at any point disown his daughter. That is a myth. She was part of his last will and testament and was constantly in touch with him through out the 1940s. There is correspondence between the two and Jinnah often met and played with his grandchildren including Nusli Wadia.Recommend


    Beverley Nichols wrote the book, Verdict on India in 1944 having lived and researched the political situation in the country for over a year. In his view Jinnah was ‘the most important man in Asia’. ‘He can sway the battle this way
    or that as he chooses. His 100 million Muslims will march to the left, to the
    right, to the front, to the rear at his bidding, and nobody else’s —- that is
    the point’ (Verdict on India, p. 188). This was when Jinnah held no
    power as such. How many leaders in history can claim such distinction?

    Sir Patrick Spens, the last Chief Justice of undivided India paid this tribute to Jinnah: ‘The tallness of the man, the immaculate manner in which he turned out, the beauty of his features and the extreme courtesy with which he treated all; no one could have made a more favourable impression than he did. There is no man or woman living that imputes anything against his honour or his honesty. He was the most outright person that I know’.

    When he passed away, throughout the length and breadth of the country, in cities,
    towns and villages, in streets, offices and homes, among both the young and the
    old, men and women, there was not a dry eye to be seen. All of them cried
    unabashedly, wailing, ‘Haaey, Baba mar gaya’. I know for I was there. They were inconsolable, people who had never even seen Jinnah. That was the true measure of the man. How many in history can claim such devotion and distinction?
    Hussan Zia.Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    What can one say to people who instead of understanding a counterpoint of view start with accusations like “you are trying to give a good spin to the tale”. It never ceases to amaze me the vitriol and hatred that comes pouring forth by Indians on this website. It serves as an eye opener for many.Recommend

  • Fahimuddin

    1) I agree only not to take dictation from any Scholar. That is against Islam and also Jinnah’s vision. But any institution working and recommending Islamic law is OK.
    2) If Jinnah was not emotionally involved, why would he taken an already lost case and a client who is not cooperative at all? It was only emotional linkage with Islam nothing else. Also read 14 points yourself “In the Central Legislature, Muslim representation shall not be less than one third;” In what definition this point is secular ? (There are other points too)
    3) Islam and muslims are different things. Don’t confuse yourself, I agree that in Islamic state of affairs non-muslims should have equal medical, educational, judicial rights. But regarding constitution is concern Quaid-e-Azam never said it won’t be Islamic. “What more can one really expect than to see that this mighty land has now been brought under a rule, which is Islamic, Muslim rule, as a sovereign independent State.” ( Speech in reply to the Welcome Address by the Principal, Staff and Students of Edwards College, Peshawar, 18 April 1948).Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    You may hold that prejudiced a-historical and bigoted point of view. Jinnah went to England in 1931 to plead India’s case at the Roundtable conferences. And he returned in 1934 and allied the Muslim League to the Congress.

    No one who has read history can accuse Jinnah of being anyone’s tool or an opportunist. Dr. B R Ambedkar wrote this about him: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ambedkar/ambedkar_partition/412d.html#part_5

    “Secondly, it forgets that Mr. Jinnah, who represents this ideological transformation, can never be suspected of being a tool in the hands of the British even by the worst of his enemies….It may be that his fame is built up more upon art and less on substance. At the same time, it is doubtful if there is a politician in India to whom the adjective incorruptible can be more fittingly applied. Anyone who knows what his relations with the British Government have been, will admit that he has always been their critic, if indeed he has not been their adversary. No one can buy him. For it must be said to his credit that he has never been a soldier of fortune. The customary Hindu explanation fails to account for the ideological transformation of Mr. Jinnah.”Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani


    Secondly, it forgets that Mr. Jinnah, who represents this ideological transformation, can never be suspected of being a tool in the hands of the British even by the worst of his enemies…. At the same time, it is doubtful if there is a politician in India to whom the adjective incorruptible can be more fittingly applied. Anyone who knows what his relations with the British Government have been, will admit that he has always been their critic, if indeed he has not been their adversary. No one can buy him. For it must be said to his credit that he has never been a soldier of fortune. The customary Hindu explanation fails to account for the ideological transformation of Mr. Jinnah.- B R AmbedkarRecommend

  • Kushal

    Like? example? Source of information? Kolkata is my city so think twice before spreading propaganda like ” More muslims killed” and other rubbish.Recommend

  • Yasser Latif Hamdani

    Lord Wavell wrote on August 21 that “the estimate of casualties is 3,000 dead and 17,000 injured. The Bengal Congress is convinced that all the trouble was deliberately engineered by the Muslim League ministry but no satisfactory evidence to that effect has reached me yet. It is said that the decision to have a public holiday on August 16 was the cause of trouble, but I think this is very farfetched. There was a public holiday in Sindh and there was no trouble there. At any rate, whatever the causes of the outbreak, when it started, the Hindus and Sikhs were every bit as fierce as the Muslims. The present estimate is that appreciably more Muslims were killed than the Hindus” (page 274, Volume VIII, Transfer of Power Papers).

    This was confirmed by Sardar Patel’s letter, where he gloated about more, many times more, Muslim casualties than Hindus. This letter is quoted by renowned Indian historian Sumit Sarkar on page 432 of his book Modern India: 1885-1947. One of the big gaping holes in the Indian nationalist version of history is that while all accounts seem to indicate that Muslims were armed with sticks, according to Sir Francis Tuker, “buses and taxis were charging about loaded with Sikhs and Hindus armed with swords, iron bars and firearms”Recommend

  • hoshiar singh gill

    Babu Rao ji would it not have been better and moral to speak up for all minorities instead of just one !Recommend

  • hoshiar singh gill

    I am not a Gandhi fan nor a jinnah critique but most people outside Pakistan do not know who Mr. Jinnah was whearas Gandhi is recognised as an International icon of peace!Recommend

  • Sarah Uzair

    That was quite an insightful article – I did not know Jinnah had no issue with haram or halal meat, that however does not decrease any ounce of respect I have for him. Every muslim has a certain degree of acceptance of ‘immorality’ – a woman who chooses to not do hijab could be very devout otherwise or might not be.
    Problem with Pakistani mentality is that we tend to judge others based on what our own level of tolerance of ‘immorality’ is…. So if we do not eat haram meat and we see a muslim who does, we presume that person to be ‘immoral’. Its psychological I suppose, a natural tendency of humans to do that. But a lil bit of self-reflection goes a longggg way.
    Hypocritical society we are.
    The article is beautiful, it highlights a more human side of Jinnah, where he won’t seem perfect to us in our orthodox Muslim eyes, but in the sight of God, he made an entire nation free, something no local mullah has done.
    Or anyone for that matter.Recommend

  • Ze-yom-Durrani

    Decades passed by still trying to understand who he was. A man who loved red wine and never prayed in his whole life caused indian sub contenent to fell apart and suffer.. that was under the name of religion! Recommend

  • Emmon Raza

    Thank you Yasser for all your research for this piece. I hope it reaches more people so that they know Jinnah for what he was instead of the Maulana Zia’s regime made him appear as.Recommend

  • brar

    And the same Trana is still the National song of Pakistan and one Hindu was made law Minister and he died where I don,t know , you may enlighten ?Recommend