Why has the Jamaat-e-Islami failed in Pakistani politics?

Pakistan is a deeply religious country with over 95 percent of its population being Muslim (Rais, 2011, 22). Although the Pakistani military has ruled Pakistan for most of the years since it gained independence from India in 1947, Pakistan remains a democratic republic with elections being held at the national and provincial levels over the past few decades (Tanwir, 2002, 252). Democratic governments have been formed by the leftist party, the Pakistan People’s Party, and the right-of-center Pakistan Muslim League on different occasions (Tanwir, 2002, 252). Surprisingly, the Islamic parties in Pakistan have continuously failed to perform well in the general elections (Moten, 2003, 401). One would expect the Islamic parties to fare well in a country that calls itself an ‘Islamic Republic’; however, this has not been the case. Why has the Pakistani public been so reluctant to vote the Islamists to the legislature? How do the Islamic parties view the relationship between religion and politics? What kind of relationships have the Islamic parties had with democratic and military governments in Pakistan? What has caused these Islamic parties to perform poorly in the elections?

This paper will attempt to answer the preceding questions by: first, talking about the origin and ideology of the biggest Islamic party in Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI); second, the paper will present the concept of an Islamic state as envisioned by JI; third, it will talk about the JI’s track record in elections and its relationships with military and democratic governments; fourth, it will identify reasons for JI’s failure to rise to legislative assemblies. In all, the paper will discuss the strategies implemented by JI to contest elections and their vision of an Islamic state to show how their ideology and actions have led the Pakistani public to distance themselves from Islamic parties.

Jamaat-e-Islami: Mawlana Mawdudi’s Brainchild
As British rule neared its end in India, Indian Muslims became increasingly politically and socially isolated. Muslims in the Indian subcontinent were divided along ethnic lines and had failed to have their concerns addressed at the national level (Mukherjee, 2010, 322). The Muslim theologian Mawlana Abu’l ala Mawdudi thought he could use this opportunity to create a party which would work to bring all Muslims under the banner of Islam. Thus, the Jamaat-e-Islami came in to existence in 1941 to serve the interests of the Muslim community (Kumar, 2001, 274). Mawdudi believed the Muslim culture had been diluted from centuries of influence from the Hindu culture (Nasr, 1996, 6). Muslim Punjabis could relate more with Hindu Punjabis than their co-religionists in Bengal. Similarly, Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims had more in common than with people from their own religions (Mukherjee, 2010, 323). Mawdudi intended to remove what he thought were impurities from the Muslim culture. He called for unity amongst the Muslims and separation from the Hindu culture (Nasr, 1996, 6). In Mawdudi’s eyes, the Jamaat-e-Islami was not just for the Indian Muslims but rather the Muslim umma (community) at large. The vision was pan-Islamist in nature and Mawdudi hoped his party to transcend the national boundaries to encompass all peoples and countries (Jackson, 2011, 79). Initially, Mawdudi had rejected the creation of an independent state for Muslims but later moved to Pakistan after its independence. He dreamed of making Pakistan an Islamic state, a model, that the rest of the Muslim states could emulate (Mukherjee, 2010, 331). To the dismay of Mawdudi, his party and its supporters, this dream would not only fall short of coming true but Jamaat-e-Islami’s transformation from a social movement to a political party would result in embarrassing election outcomes.

The Jamaat-e-Islami was to be led by an amir (leader) and consisted of the Majlis-e-shura (consultative assembly) and the members of the party. The members were required to be pious Muslims, with a morally upright character (Moten, 2003, 392). Even non-members were divided into different groups based on their closeness with Jamaat’s ideology. Those who sympathized with the goals and objectives of the Jamaat, hamdard, were held in the highest rank followed by mutahtir, those who recognized the Jamaat’s mission as a positive influence. The lowest ranked amongst the non-members was reserved for mutaarif, those who had been introduced to the objectives of the Jamaat but had not been influenced or become sympathizers (Jackson, 2011, 76). The shura or the consultative assembly of the party was responsible for policy formulation and involved a rigorous process of debating. Only once a consensus was developed among all members would the policy be adopted (Jackson, 2011, 78).

The vision of an Islamic state
Roy Jackson in his book ‘Mawlana Mawdudi and Political Islam’ writes “Mawdudi portrayed the Jamaat as the moral guardians of Pakistan: a holy community that did not dirty its hands in the mud of political wrangling” (Jackson, 2011, 71). Indeed, the JI initially limited its role in Pakistan to spreading Islam’s message and social work for the refugees who had migrated from India (Ali, 2010, 220). However, it did not take long for Mawdudi and his party’s position to change. In 1948, the JI initiated a campaign to establish an Islamic state and involved itself in the country’s politics. Nonetheless, JI sought to achieve its objective only by acting as a pressure group (Ali, 2010, 220). The aim of Jamaat-e-Islami was to bring an Islamic way of life in the country and Mawdudi wanted to prove the it to the world that Islamic laws could exist in any age (Ali, 2010, 221). It is important to note that Mawdudi believed for these Islamic laws to work, they needed to be implemented along with Islamic principles of tawil, qiyas, ijtehad, ijma and istihsan (Ali, 2010, 221). The first step towards building an Islam State, Mawdudi believed, was the declaration of the following statues by the constituent assembly of Pakistan (Ali, 2010, 223):
(1) That the sovereignty in Pakistan belongs to God almighty and the government of Pakistan shall administer the country as His agent;
(2) That the basic law of the land is the Islamic shariah which has come to us through our Prophet Mohammad;
(3) That all those existing laws, which may in conflict with shariah shall in due course be replaced or brought into conformity with the basic law and no law, which may be in any repugnant to the shariah, shall be enacted in the future;
(4) That the state, in exercising its powers, shall not be competent to transgress the limits laid down by Islam.

The Islamists believed an Islamic state was the only answer to Pakistan’s problems. They saw Islam as not just a religion rather a complete way of life. Mawdudi’s concept of the legislature was based on the “concept of shura (consultative assembly) and on the institution of ahl-al-hall wa’l –aqd (those who unbind and bind)” (Nasr, 1996, 94). He also wanted to have an Islamic constitution implemented in Pakistan. Mawdudi viewed this constitution to be a constantly evolving document based on neither a fixed sharia nor on any other existing document. According to Mawdudi there were two kinds of laws; on the one hand there were those laws that were unalterable and on the other there were laws that could be changed according to the needs and requirements of the state (Nasr, 1996, 99). These latter laws could be changed by invoking the Islamic principles of tawil (hermeneutic interpretation), qiyas (logical reasoning), ijtehad (independent inquiry into Islamic law), ijma (collective consensus) and istihsan (invoking the spirit of the sharia in novel circumstances). This Islamic state was divided into four groups consisting of male Muslims, female Muslims, Zimmis (followers of a religion recognized by Islam i.e. Christians and Jews) and non-Muslims. In this state, citizenship would be offered to Muslims all over the world (Nasr, 1996, 99).

The transformation of JI into a political party
During the partition of India, princely states were given the right to choose to side with either India or Pakistan. Kashmir, a princely state, with a majority Muslim population was expected to join Pakistan but the Hindu Maharaja of the state decided it would accede with India. Pakistan, in response, declared jihad (holy war) against the Indian army in the territory. Mawdudi, a scholar on the subject of jihad, disagreed with the Pakistani government on terming the war a jihad and went on to make his criticism public. This resulted in his arrest along with the arrest of other Jamaat leaders (Jackson, 2011, 71). The arrest of its party’s leaders forced the JI to move into the political arena indirectly taking part in the elections that were going to be held in the province of Punjab in March 1951 (Jackson, 2011, 73). Even though JI did not field its own candidates in the election, it supported those it considered as pious Muslims. As the Jamaat did not consider the Pakistani government to be Islamic, taking part in the direction albeit indirectly seemed somewhat hypocritical. JI was trying to become a part of the government it considered un-Islamic. This did not sit well with some of the members of the JI but the meeting of the shura ended up giving the party a go ahead to support pious candidates claiming it was trying to prevent the election of corrupted people to the parliament (Jackson, 2011, 72). The candidates that the Jamaat supported ended up losing. Nonetheless, JI had never been this close to the political circles prior to these elections.

Mawdudi was released from jail in 1954. In 1957, he decided that JI would contest the national elections due to take place next year. This decision was made after realizing that it was impossible to create a significant change without making Pakistan an Islamic state. To make Pakistan an Islamic state, the mandate of the people had to be won; to win this mandate, elections had to be contested. This was an important drift in JI’s perspective. From the view that by changing individuals you bring a change in the society, JI was now focused on bringing a change to the society in order to reform the individuals (Jackson, 2011, 73).

JI during democratic and military rule
Before the JI could make its debut in Pakistani politics, General Ayub Khan brought a military coup in Pakistan. Khan was seen as a secular figure who intended to keep religion separate from politics (Jackson, 2011, 74). In order to make Pakistan into a modern state, he passed the Muslim family laws in 1961. These laws abolished unmitigated polygamy, gave powers to the women by making it compulsory for husbands to seek their wives consent for a second marriage, and abolished the practice whereby a husband could divorce his wife by saying talaq (divorce) three times (Jackson, 2011, 75). Seen as very progressive and in contrast to the traditional understanding of Islam, JI strongly opposed these laws and tried to put pressure on Khan to repeal them. General Khan did not give in to JI’s demands but had to look to the leader of the party for support during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. He appealed to Mawdudi to declare the war against India a jihad in order to legitimize the Pakistani army’s actions and to raise the morale of its soldiers (Jackson, 2011, 75). At the same time, JI decided to attain more political strength to protest liberal laws like the Muslim Family Laws.

The stage finally came for JI to test its political strength in 1970. Ayub’s successor, Yahya Khan held general elections in 1970 in which the Jamaat took part (Jackson, 2011, 75). The JI had gone in with much hopes of capturing power to fulfill its dream of an Islamic state but was faced with an embarrassing election result winning only 4 out of the 300 seats in the national assembly (Kumar, 2001, 272). All Islamic parties together, the JI, Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (JUI) and Jamiat Ulama-e-Pakistan (JUP), were only able to secure 13.95% of overall votes cast (Kumar, 2001, 272). Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), won the elections. Bhutto, who had campaigned for the elections under the banner of socialism, was criticized by the religious parties as being anti-Islam while socialism was called a ‘godless’ system that was in opposition to the teachings of Islam (Jackson, 2011, 75).

The results of the 1970 elections had dejected Mawdudi forcing him to return to his original vision of the Jamaat where it only existed as a holy community, in a domain separate from politics (Jackson, 2011, 75). Mawdudi and JI would have seen the 1970 elections as the last blow to their vision of an Islamic state had General Zia-ul-Haq not come to power. Zia-ul-Haq, after bringing down Bhutto’s government and imposing martial law in the country, offered hope to JI and Mawdudi for the establishment of an Islamic state. Mawdudi was appointed as a senior statesman during Zia’s rule and the process of Islamization of Pakistan began. Consumption and selling of alcohol was banned and strict laws on sex outside marriage were imposed. General Zia also put in place sharia benches temporarily removing the existing British law (Jackson, 2011, 76).

General Zia finally fulfilled his promise of holding general elections for the national assembly in February 1985. These elections were on a non-party basis with candidates still receiving backing from different individuals and parties. These elections saw the defeat of many of the candidates supported by General Zia and his political allay, the JI(Kumar, 2001, 272). The next elections were held in 1988. In these elections, the JI joined forces with other Islamic parties. The alliance of the religious parties, Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), was defeated by the Pakistan People’s party with the JI only winning 8 of the 26 seats it contested (Moten, 2003, 402). The JI faced a similar result in the 1990 general elections. It ended up with just 3 per cent of the popular vote in the National Assembly elections, 4% in the North-West Frontier province, 3% and 0.8% in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh respectively (Kumar, 2001, 273). The Jamaat-e-Islami repeated its poor performances yet again in the next two elections that were held in 1993 and 1997 receiving 6.75% and 1.83% of the percentage of total votes cast respectively (Tanwir, 2002, 252).

It was only in the general elections of 2002 that the alliance of religious parties ended up with a considerable number of seats in the parliament (Tanwir, 2002, 252). The percentage of total votes cast for the religious parties increased from less than 2% to almost 11% winning them 46 seats in the national assembly. The religious alliance for the first time in Pakistan’s history formed a majority government in the province of North-West Frontier (Tanwir, 2002, 252). The increased support for the religious parties was linked to the religious alliance’s anti-American slogans that had been used to exploit people’s emotions after American forces had entered the bordering territory of Afghanistan. However, as the most recent elections of 2008 have shown, the Pakistani public has taken back the mandate from the religious alliance and elected a semi-secular party, Awami National Party (ANP), to form a government in North-West Frontier replacing the religious alliance (Goodson, 2008, 11). The religious alliance once again ended with a dismally low of 2% of total votes cast.

The beginning of the end for JI
While some of JI’s own policies resulted in its failures, there were factors beyond the party’s control that also contributed towards its poor performance in the elections. The JI started off as a platform for Mawdudi’s ideas. However, later conflicts developed on the objectives and vision of the party. JI as a political party had to make certain compromises that did not go in parallel with its ideology. For example, in 1965, JI was supporting Fatima Jinnah for her presidential campaign against Ayub Khan even though it was against Mawdudi’s views on the social role of women (Nasr, 1996, 44). Moreover, by siding with General Zia after the fall of Bhutto’s regime, JI showed its willingness to work with authoritarian regimes to achieve its objectives. This created an unfriendly relationship between the JI and other political parties.

As a pressure group, JI had done well in having the government respond to their concerns and demands but because of its hardline approach, JI as a political party failed to gain popularity at a national level. Even though Mawdudi tried to create unity under the banner of Islam, the different sects within Islam undermined the role of Islam as the uniting force. In addition, some of the off-shoot groups of JI became involved in militancy and sectarianism (Kumar, 2001, 278). Kumar (2001) states “These organizations which divided the Islamic political forces, fuelled extremism and sectarian violence, and further alienated the people from religious politics.”

With a very rigid membership criteria, the JI limited its scope of becoming a party of the masses. It could only field limited number of candidates due to the increasing requirements of closeness to religion by the members (Moten, 2003, 403). Another missing feature in the speeches of Mawdudi and JI’s strategy was a viable economic plan (Nasr, 1996, 50). The JI leaders were active in criticizing socialism but did not have a sound economic plan of their own except resorting to Islamic teachings about creating a just society. Vali Nasr (1996) writes Mawdudi “worried less about economic liberation than about preserving dress, language, customs for they were essential to safeguarding Muslim culture”. These vague and abstract principles did not seem to attract people who ended up voting for other mass parties.

To the defense of JI, it can be said that almost all democratic and military governments that have come to power in Pakistan have tried to use religion to advance their own interests. All wars were termed as jihad to legitimize the states actions and to gain support from amongst the masses (Mukherjee, 2010, 338) Also, JI could not spread its roots at the national level due to closed political structures of Pakistani politics. When Pakistan is not under martial law, its either the Pakistan People’s party or the Pakistan Muslim League that is in power. These parties contest elections by fielding candidates who are either feudal or business tycoons. Votes are forced or bought. On the other hand most of JI’s candidates come from the middle class and only rely on Islam’s message to attract voters.
The birth of ethnic parties like the Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) that focus on advancing the interests of a particular ethnicity also lead to a decrease in support for religious parties (Kumar, 2001, 273). With Pakistan moving towards modernity and a larger population of the country being educated, JI has even fewer prospects of doing well due to its hardline approach towards Islam and its views on the minorities and women. According to the founder of the party, Abu’l Ala Mawdudi, “only 5 percent of the Muslim population of Pakistan were enlightened about Islam, 90 percent were illiterate with blind faith and the remaining 5 percent had been corrupted by Westernization” (Moten, 2003, 396). Perhaps, it is only the 5% enlightened Muslim population of Pakistan, as Mawdudi put it, who have been able to relate with the ideology of JI and vote for it.

The JI has not only failed to achieve its objective but also moved away from it while trying to make compromises to achieve political success. With a huge Muslim population, Pakistan remains a country where religion is very important. However, while people would like to see god fearing politicians, they would not like religion to be the basis for all the political decisions. For parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami, it is better to act as pressure groups, keeping a check on government’s policies by voicing concern where the policies are found to be in contrast with Islamic teachings. A democratic government will allow these voices to be heard in order to reach an understanding. The JI’s electoral misfortunes should tell us that the dream of establishing a shariah state is, if not impossible, unnecessary and unwelcome in Pakistan. The politicization of Islam and Islamization of politics will only lead to the abuse of religion for political purposes and vice versa.

Ali, Sheikh Jameel. Islamic Thought and Movement in The Subcontinent. New Delhi: D.K Printworld, 2010.
Goodson, Larry P. “The 2008 Elections.” Journal of Democracy, 2008: 5-15.
Jackson, Roy. Mawlana Mawdudi & Political Islam. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Kumar, Sumita. “The role of Islamic parties in Pakistani Politics.” Strategic Analysis, 2001: 271-284.
Moten, Abdul Rashid. “Mawdudi and the Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistsan.” The Muslim World, 2003: 391-413.
Mukherjee, Kunal. “Islamic Revivalism and Politics in Contemporary Pakistan.” Journal of Developing Studies, 2010: 329-353.
Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. Mawdudi and The Making of Islamic Revivalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Rais, Rasul Bakhsh. “Pakistan.” Political Insight, May 23, 2011.
Tanwir, Farooq. “Religious Parties and Politics in Pakistan.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 2002: 250-268.


9 thoughts on “Why has the Jamaat-e-Islami failed in Pakistani politics?

  1. asad

    JI is not only a political party but mainly an ideological party. The slogan that Islam is a complete code of life was basically coined and defined by Syed Maududi and today, most of the Muslims in and outside Pakistan admits that Islam is a complete code of life. JI is basically a literature based party and unfortunately, literacy rate in Pakistan is only 3o percent. We can see its huge penetration in the educated upper and middle class of the country. Undoubtedly. Islami Jamiat e Talba is the largest student organization of the country with more than 40,000 student activists . Ideologically, JI has successfully defeated socialist ideas in Pakistan…..

    1. hasan

      i do agree with u sir…bt jamat should be more pragmatic in politics…jamat should separate the political parties from the main organisation….because in politics we need to compromise but as a ideological organisation we should not compropmise..so even if we separate the party from the organisation today we can do better work in pakistan

    2. Nauman salarzai

      But why they are failed to defeat the capitalist ideas because they are the puppets of america and westerns.They used every time pathan as a watch dog of pakistan but in a result they supported pakistan army while they starting opperation in FATA……this is bullshit

  2. Pingback: ALJAZEERA: We’re in SHAHBAGH to HANG WAR CRIMINALS | probz blog

  3. imraan

    Jamat e Islami is corruption free Jamat, their Love for Pakistan is very clear and no doubt in their efforts and sacrifices to keep Pakistan united in 1971 (Jamaat leaders in Bangladesh are still have label that Jamat e Islami’s people were loyal of Pakistan, hence being punished)
    Their efforts in Kashmir for Kashmiri people’s freedom and in Afghanistan against Russia are not hidden, their social work on the platform of Alkhidmat Foundation in Pakistan is known to every one.
    Yes you can say they lack the ability to promote what they do for the wellness of nation. They are most of the time trapped by FazlurRehman and NawazShareef but one can not say Jamaat is wrong.
    I wish they can make successful alliance with PTI.

  4. Abbas

    Zaheer Ahmed only a professional liar and hypocrite can use such word for our beloved the colossal Jamaat e Islami because liars and hypocrites have natural disdain for honest and straight people

  5. Abbas

    the writers last sentence reflects his unIslamic views and lack of understanding of holistic paradigm. separating Islam from politics is abuse of religion in it self in case of Islam because Islam is way of life not theory or dogma of merely faith and worship. Quran and Sunnah ordains us do politics in accordance to Islam and establish Islamic state rather than separating Islam from politics and giving free way to taghoot. if Pakistani people don’t want Islamic state that doesn’t mean we shell bow down to wrong public opinion because we are bound by public opinion but the will of Allah SWT as Muslims


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