Illustration by Wania Waseem
The culture of any human society is rooted in the shared experience of its inhabitants. It reflects the norms and values of the people that have developed over the course of history. While cultures can adopt new ideas from other societies, those ideas will only take root if they resonate with the people of that community.
The culture of the subcontinent developed as a unique blend of Indian and Persian cultures through the historic interaction between the people of the subcontinent and Central Asia. It encapsulated the ethnic and religious diversity of India. Thus, it became a unifying force in Indian society.
Despite the social divisions introduced by the colonists along religious lines, Pakistan inherited a syncretic culture embedded in the history of its people. The culture remained firmly in place till the 1980s. The Islamization project of General Zia-ul-Haq started a drastic shift in social norms and values which was antithetical to the Indo Persian heritage of Pakistan.
The top-down model of cultural change forced Pakistanis to replace their civilizational roots and adopt an Arabized culture. This was aided by an imagined connection between the subcontinent and the Middle East which had little bearing in reality.
The Indo-Persian Culture
In this section, we will firstly discuss the roots and development of the Indo-Persian culture and its key features. Secondly, we will explore the difference between Arab and Indo Persian culture vis-à-vis religion. The Indo-Persian culture is commonly understood to mean all aspects of Indian/South Asian Islamic culture expressed in Persian (Dale, 2003).
However, it must be noted that it does not exclude non-Islamic groups; even non-Muslims in the subcontinent shared the Indo Persian culture. This seems to be a counterintuitive statement, as it contradicts our understanding of religious boundaries in the subcontinent (especially Pakistan) today.
Pre-colonial India did not have boundaries based on religion. The vocabulary of “Muslim community” and “Hindu community” etcetera were introduced by the British colonizers who viewed them as separate communities based on their religion. Pre-colonial India had fluid religious boundaries, attributed in large part, to the Sufi brand of Islam.
The roots of the Indo-Persian culture can be traced to Mahmud of Ghazni who began a series of raids in the subcontinent during the latter part of the 10th century. Mahmud established and maintained a sophisticated Persianized court (Metcalf, 2009). He patronized works of Sufism and science in the Persian language, leading to the first text on Sufism “Kashf al Mahjub” by the revered Sufi saint Abu Hasan Ali Hujwiri (Metcalf, 2009).
Apart from literature, the Persian language gained immense political value, as the Ghaznavids used Persian as the official administrative language (Dale, 2003). Therefore, the Ghaznavids established precedence for using Persian as the official language of the court for later central Asian rulers who conquered India.
However, the Ghaznavids were more interested in looting than establishing a dynasty in India. Muhammad Ghauri, who succeeded the Ghaznavids, essentially laid down the foundation for Islamic rule in India that began from the Delhi Sultanate and reached its peak under the Mughals.
These Muslim rulers brought with them their Persian heritage. The Persian language maintained its status as the language of high society and the only official language of India. Apart from language, the Sufi brand of Islam rose to prominence in India with the help of government patronage to Sufi orders like Chistiya and Naqshbandi which had Persian origins and produced Sufi literature extensively in the Persian language (Dale, 2003).
The Growth of Sufism
The sultans of Delhi patronized Sufis who were considered to be the moral guide for all rulers (Metcalf, 2009). These patronage networks allowed Sufi orders to develop a strong institutionalized presence in India and their affinity to rulers increased their political value. Furthermore, they were able to use patronage networks to develop connections with the general masses through philanthropic activities.
While the patronage ties to the ruling elite aided the institutionalization of Sufism, it was the intrinsic features of Sufism that helped it gain followers among the general masses. The prime focus of Sufism is on the personal relationship between the believer and the divine which extends beyond the formal rituals and practices of Muslims and Hindus (Metcalf, 2009).
It emphasizes the relationship rather than the method of connection. Thus, it was able to mitigate the religious differences that existed between the Hindus, Muslims, and other faiths of India. Consequently, Sufism in India fostered peaceful relations between religions which enabled them to influence one another.
The 12th-century Sufi saint Syed Muhammad Usman Marwandi, popularly known as Lal Shahbaz Qalander, preached love, respect, and tolerance for all religions. His main focus was on the spiritual devotion to the divine (Ahmed, 2017). His pluralistic teachings had a strong influence on Muslims and Hindus alike.
The connection between the individual and the creator is aspired by most mainstream religions. Therefore, his teachings resonated with people across different faiths. The shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander continues to be a vivid example of the syncretic culture of the Indian subcontinent. His shrine welcomes all religious minorities and is open to both men and women who participate in the Dhamaal ritual dance without any gender segregation (Brehmer, 2017).
Similarly, Kabir Das, another Indian mystic poet, considered the spiritual foundation of Islam and Hinduism to be the same and was greatly influenced by both faiths (Burman, 1996). Kabir Das and Usman Marwandi are just two of the many examples of mystic poets in India who elucidate the syncretic features of the Indo-Persian culture that promoted respect and tolerance for all regardless of gender, religion, and ethnicity.
Persian: The Language of Poets
The Persian language was another pillar of Indo-Persian culture that served as a source of unity across religious divisions. Similar to Sufism, the popularity of the Persian language can be attributed to the horizontal ties among the people of Central Asia and South Asia. Throughout the era of Muslim rulers, Persian-speaking people from Central Asia migrated to India for security and political opportunities.
The Delhi Sultanate allowed many people from Central Asia to take refuge in India from the atrocities of the Mongols (Dehkan, 1970). Similarly, the need for Persian-speaking officials to run the bureaucracy prompted rulers to invite Persian-speaking elites to settle in India and occupy administrative positions.
Therefore, the horizontal ties between the people increased which helped to foster a unique expression of the Persian language that captured the lived experiences of Indian people. Amir Khusrau exemplifies this trend in his poetry which was in the Persian language that was rooted in Indian experiences and was inspired by Indian indigenous culture (Dale, 2003).
Urdu: The Descendant of the Persian Language
The Urdu language is a product of the Indo-Persian culture, as it is a hybrid of Persian and Sanskrit languages. The wide literature of Urdu exemplifies its cultural value and its literature can be considered a joint heritage of Muslims and Hindus (Dehkan, 1970). Thus, it provided another literary platform for unity among Muslims and Hindus.
Many famous Urdu poets like Asad Ullah Khan Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, and Dr. Muhammad Iqbal also wrote extensively in Persian that was inspired by Indian culture (Paul, 2018). Therefore, the Indian subcontinent developed an Indo-Persian culture that fostered over centuries. Sufism and the Persian language became part of the Indian cultural fabric that symbolized, love, tolerance, and inter-faith harmony.
Religious boundaries held little value in public life as all religions influenced one another. In contrast to the Sufi Islam of India, Wahhabism symbolized a conservative fundamentalist version of Islam that called for a return to the teachings of Prophet Muhammad and his companions (Blanchard, 2005).
The Wahhabi movement stands out from other forms of Islamist movements as it propagates an exclusionary brand of Islam. Wahhabism strongly opposes Sufis, Shiites, and other Muslims who do not conform to the conservative literal interpretation of Islamic scripture (Winsor, 2007). Wahhabism deems all non-Wahhabi sects of Islam to be unbelievers.
Therefore, it enforces strict religious boundaries on Muslims. Historically, Wahhabi ideology has failed to gain mass support in the subcontinent as it contradicts the cultural roots of the Indian masses. Since the 1980s, however, a mass cultural imagination began in Pakistan that promoted Deobandi Islam, which is very close to Wahhabism regarding its conservative outlook on Islam.
The Arabization of Pakistan
General Zia’s Arab-centric Policies
The Islamization policy of Zia-ul-Haq was accompanied by an “Arabist shift” in the culture of Pakistan. The “Arabist shift” refers to “the tendency to view the present in terms of an imagined Arab past where the Arabs are considered to be the true Muslims” (Irfani, 2004, p. 148). This implies that Muslims all over the world should follow the Arab version of Islam.
This model of thinking disregards the cultural content that influences the brand of Islam that develops within a particular society. For instance, the Sufi brand of Islam became the mainstream Islam in the subcontinent despite the presence of institutionalized Deobandi madrassas in the region because of its features that resonated with the diverse population of India.
Zia-ul-Haq looked towards Islamic elements to clamp down on the secular opposition from political parties that was gaining momentum as a result of democratic sanctions placed on Pakistan when General Zia assumed office. The 1979 Afghan invasion provided an opportunity for General Zia to solidify his position.
Saudi Arabia Sees an Opportunity
Saudi Arabia saw this as an opportunity to extend its influence in the region and was willing to fund Islamic organizations in Pakistan, with the condition of promoting Wahhabi ideology (Hashmi, 2009). Deobandi madrassas were the principal beneficiaries of the new Arab patronage. The Deobandi school of thought is a puritanical movement like Wahhabism, it is against Sufi-inspired Islam that is influenced by Hinduism and other faiths (International Crisis Group, 2003).
Conservative Islamic organizations received generous funding from Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries that promoted the establishment of militarized madrassas which served as breeding grounds for mujahedeen fighters (Nasr, 2000). Between 1975 and 1996, the total number of madrassas (mostly Deobandi) increased from around 700 to 2463, most of which were established in Punjab (Nasr, 2000).
Wahhabism Takes Over
Wahhabi texts and scholarship were promoted in these madrassas that promoted a conservative model of Islam that strongly opposed the Sufi culture. The state and foreign patronage helped madrasas develop a strong basis in the lower middle and working class. Their expansive sources of funding allowed them to offer free education, lodgings, and food to the students (Ahmad, 2004).
Furthermore, Zia encouraged madrassa education by offering employment opportunities to madrassa graduates in bureaucracy and government agencies (Nasr, 2000). Moreover, job prospects in the government sector encouraged many working-class parents to send their children to madrassas.
The imams of local mosques, in rural settings, hold an influential position within the community. During the Islamization process, Arab-trained Wahhabi imams coopted or replaced the imams in villages (Ghoshal, 2010). Thus, the Wahhabi brand of Islam was able to permeate large sections of the poor masses in Pakistan.
Religion or Culture: Which Is It?
As observed in the first section, religion forms a part of the culture. However, Zia considered culture to be a part of Islam. His Islamization policies also focused on changing the dominant culture besides changing the perspective on Islam. The importers of Wahhabism considered all aspects of Arab culture to be part of Islam.
Zia considered the process of Islamization and Arabization to be inseparable from one another (Hashmi, 2009). Consequently, Pakistan experienced wholesale import of certain features that were almost exclusive to Arab culture. For example, the burqa is a cultural feature that is rarely found outside the Arab world. It was forced into Pakistani society as a part of Islam.
The Quranic verses that were used to justify the burqa were hitherto interpreted as guiding principles of modesty as opposed to a strict dress code. Apart from the political ambitions of General Zia, Arabization was encouraged by certain other developments that shaped the experiences of Pakistanis.
Arabization Surges in Pakistan
Saudi Arabia had become prosperous at a time when the western world was experiencing an economic recession. There was this belief among the people that Saudi wealth was due to God’s blessing on them. Moreover, Gulf funding helped Pakistan recover from an economic recession, with oil creating many employment opportunities in Saudi Arabia for working-class Pakistanis.
These working-class individuals were exposed to a conservative version of Islam which they internalized and brought back to Pakistan (Weinbaum & Khurram, 2014). The economic aid combined with the employment opportunities developed a positive sentiment regarding Saudi Arabia as a “savior” and Arabs as the chosen people of Allah.
Thus, the Arab culture was considered to be a blueprint for Pakistan. The urban middle-class was also targeted in the Arabization of Pakistan’s culture. The education curriculum was systematically altered to reimagine the roots and identity of the country. The curriculum was changed to include Arabian culture and history in place of the indigenous cultural history of the land which promoted diversity and interfaith harmony.
Instead, a new idea was propagated that Pakistan was always destined to be an Islamic country whose roots are sometimes erroneously attributed to the invasion of Muhammad bin Qasim in the 7th century. The glorification of an Arab commander who failed to establish an Islamic dynasty indicates the tendency to imagine historical ties to Saudi Arabia.
The syllabus for Pakistan studies has been significantly changed to foster the idea that Pakistan was founded on common religion instead of shared culture and geography (Cohen, 2004). Furthermore, history books post-1980s imagine the subcontinent’s history to begin from the beginning of Muslim rule, sparingly mentioning the Hindu emperors of the region (Hoodbhoy & Nayyar, 1985).
The Arabist shift was an expansive exercise to replace Pakistan’s centuries-old Indo-Persian cultural heritage with an ahistorical Arab culture that contradicted the values and lived experiences of Pakistan. Unlike the Persian influence, the Arabic influence on the region was an export of set ideas that did not infuse with the local culture.
The Impacts of Arabization
The Arabization of Pakistan was essentially an exercise in changing the definition of Pakistani identity. The cultural content of Pakistani identity was attached to a Pan-Islamic identity replacing its Indo-Persian roots. The extensive changes in education curriculum fostered the abstract concept of “Muslim Ummah” which is tied together by Islam.
Thus, the national identity became deterritorialized. Furthermore, the national identity was Islamized at the expense of a secular nationality that was shared by all Pakistanis regardless of their faith. The ahistorical outlook of Pakistan as an inherently Islamic state serves to establish a dichotomy between Hindus and Muslims.
A Divided Culture
The curriculum of schools in Pakistan frequently mentions Hindus and India in a negative light to develop nationalism that is rooted in opposition to India and Hindus (Afzal, 2015). Thus, a culture of hatred for non-Muslims especially Hindus developed in Pakistan.
The culture of hate has manifested in the rise in sectarian conflicts since the 1980s. Key features of the Indo-Persian culture such as love, tolerance, and interfaith harmony have been replaced with rigid religious boundaries, intolerance, and hatred for non-Muslims and Muslim minorities who do not conform to the Deobandi brand of Islam like Shias and Barelvis.
The adherence to a puritanical version of Islam like Wahhabi or Deobandi ideology implies that all other sects to be un-Islamic. This exclusionary model of Islamic identity combined with the militarization of religious madrassas resulted in the rise of sectarian violence.
The Militarization of Madrassas
Moreover, the militarization of madrassas resulted in the formation of extremist militant organizations like Sipah-e-Sahaba. It was founded by Deobandi scholars and former members of Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Pakistan (JUI) in response to the Shia organization Tehreek Nifaaz Fiqa Jafari (Irfani, 2004, p. 158). This Deobandi militant organization had publicly demanded that the state declare Shias as non-Muslims (Ahmar, 2008).
Consequently, these militarized madrassas radicalized the youth who often resorted to violent clashes against those sects of Islam that did not adhere to the Deobandi school of thought. According to the South Asian Terror Portal, since 1989, there has been a general upward trend in sectarian violence, with Shias being the main victims (Siddiqui, 2015).
Apart from Shias, the Sufi-inspired Barelvi Islam has also been the target of Deobandi militants, according to whom, Sufis are heretics who have corrupted the Islamic faith. Although most Sunni Muslims in Pakistan subscribe to Barelvi Islam, the sect does not have the same political and economic support as enjoyed by Deobandi Islam.
The state patronage allowed the Deobandi sect to promote its anti-liberal teachings across the society. The Barelvi sect neither has the same level of institutionalization nor the financial resources to promote their discourse. Apart from polemical and scholarly attacks, Deobandi militant groups have carried out deadly attacks on Sufi shrines that are symbols of the syncretic Indo-Persian culture.
The attack on Data Darbar in 2010 and Sehwan Sharif in 2017 are among the most deadly attacks on important Sufi shrines (Chughtai, 2017). Under pressure from conservative branches of Islam, Sufi shrines have been forced to adopt anti-liberal practices and policies. Many Sufi shrines in Punjab have been forced to adopt gender segregation during the rituals (Paracha, 2012).
Although Barelvi Islam continues to be the sect followed by the majority, it has been forced to transform to a more conservative outlook on Islam and society in general. The religious political parties have always performed poorly in democratic elections. Consequently, their role in Pakistani politics remained secondary to the secular elite in the first few decades after independence.
Overwhelming Power Retained by the Religious Parties
However, Zia’s relationship with religious parties transformed the political culture of Pakistan. The cooptation of religious political parties by General Zia gave them the opportunity to perpetuate their undemocratic ideas and influence key policy decisions. Furthermore, the induction of Deobandi madrassa graduates into bureaucracy and government agencies developed a conservative sentiment within the state institutions.
Thus, inter-community conflicts were projected at the state level which became biased against those sections of society that opposed the Deobandi ideology. Furthermore, the presence of religious parties in important political positions created religious constituencies. As the state institutions became biased, religious groups sought political power to secure the interests of their community.
Therefore, religious identities became politicized, and voting on sectarian lines emerged in certain regions of Pakistan. Although the religious parties do not have electoral support to formulate governments on their own, they have often joined ruling coalitions. Thus, they have been able to influence government decisions.
Moreover, these religious parties can exert pressure on the government by wielding their street power. In recent years, the extremist Barelvi party, Tehreek Labaik Pakistan (TLP), has mobilized large crowds to protest against decisions that are not in their favor. TLP blocked many roads on the acquittal of Asia Bibi in the blasphemy case.
Furthermore, TLP forced the government to stop the release of the film “Zindagi Tamasha” even though the censor boards cleared the film twice (Guramani, 2020). The government of Pakistan has been unable to explicitly ban congregational prayers in mosques despite the coronavirus pandemic (Afzal, 2020). These examples showcase the immense power wielded by religious groups outside the democratic system.
The rise of undemocratic religious forces has been accompanied by an increase in the persecution of religious minorities like the Ahmadis and Hindus. These non-Muslim religious minorities have been subjected to forced conversions, killings, and suicide attacks on their places of worship (Ispahani, 2013).
They have become second-class citizens in their own country, finding it difficult to integrate into the larger society due to limited education and economic opportunities. They are unlikely to gain employment in state and government jobs. For instance, the current government was forced to withdraw the appointment of the economist Atif Mian who belonged to the Ahmadi community, due to the overwhelming pressure from religious parties (Chaudhry, 2018).
The civil liberties and fundamental freedoms of religious minorities in Pakistan are eroding in the face of conservatism and religious extremism. The Arabization has greatly influenced the language and customs of Pakistan as well. The Urdu language has been altered over the years to increase the Arabic influence on the language.
For instance, Khuda Hafiz has been changed to Allah Hafiz, thereby replacing the Persian word Khuda with the Arabic word Allah. Similarly, the Urdu phrase Ramzan Mubarak has been replaced with the Arabic phrase Ramadan Kareem (Hoodbhoy, 2017). Moreover, many festivities which are part of the subcontinent have been declared unIslamic by conservative religious elements.
Arabization of Pakistan’s Culture
Conservative critics have often condemned traditional wedding ceremonies like Mehndi and Dholki to be Hindu influences with no bearing in Sharia (Amna, 2019). Moreover, gender segregation at wedding ceremonies has also increased over the years. Many women have started to wear the burqa in public spaces like markets, offices, and educational institutes.
Gender-segregated educational institutes have also become popular in Pakistan. Thus, Pakistani society has become more conservative with regards to women’s rights and mobility. All aspects of Pakistan’s society have been severely impacted by the rapid Arabization of Pakistan.
The land that once offered refuge to those fleeing persecution is now marred by religious extremism and sectarian violence. The syncretic cultural heritage of Pakistan that championed liberal values has been greatly harmed by the conservative and rigid elements of the Arab culture.
There has been an increasing push to Islamize every aspect of Pakistani culture where its diversity is replaced with religious homogeneity. The imposition of Arabic culture has greatly severed the ties of Pakistan with its Indo-Persian heritage. This has resulted in an identity crisis for most Pakistanis who are forced to take on a Pan-Islamic identity that is devoid of any cultural content.
Furthermore, the Islamization of Pakistani identity has alienated religious minorities from their own nationality. However, features of the Indo-Persian civilization are still visible in Pakistan. Despite the relentless attack on Sufism and Barelvi Islam, they remain popular among the masses across the country. The hybrid Arabized identity will not take root in Pakistan because it neither has history nor does it capture the lived experiences of the people.
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