Hamza Alavi: Third World Thinker and Activist


  • Zafar Shaheed

  • I would like to gratefully acknowledge the helpful comments of a number of friends on earlier drafts: Karamat Ali, Kamran Asdar Ali, Rashid Amjad, Irfan ul Haque, Akmal Hussain, Khalid Nadvi, S.M. Naseem, Abbas Rashid, Asad Sayeed, Werner Sengenberger and Farida Shaheed. While many of these individuals also knew Hamza Alavi, that does not absolve me of the responsibility for the contents of this article, which I am happy to assume. I would like to thank Ashwani Saith for initiating the idea of writing this article.

‘… each idea not yet realized curiously resembles a utopia; one would never do anything if one thought that nothing is possible except that which exists already’.

Simone de Beauvoir, Les Mandarins (1954) cited in Baran (1973: 28).


Hamza Alavi was a thinker, a political activist and, above all, a teacher. History will remember him for his theories on the post-colonial state and related socio-political classes, peasant organization and movements, and analysis of the Pakistan movement. Perhaps more than anything at this time, he should be remembered for having addressed, well before 9/11 and the current global turmoil around the struggles within Islam, issues of religion in Muslim societies.

As the editorial in the leading Pakistani English daily Dawn said at Hamza's death: ‘Starved of minds which think independently and rationally, our society — and establishment — has not really appreciated the men of scholarship who have refused to toe the conventional line’ (Dawn, 2003). Moreover, as the editors of the Socialist Register wrote at that time in a web tribute, ‘Hamza's consistent opposition to authoritarianism, fundamentalism and capitalism was not calculated to earn him honours of the conventional kind, and his modesty would probably have made him quite resistant to them, had they been offered’ (Panitch and Leys, 2003).

In that respect, he may be compared with another rare thinker-activist, Eqbal Ahmad. Both Eqbal Ahmad and Hamza Alavi were Pakistanis who established international reputations for their outstanding intellectual and political integrity, and yet who wanted to do things in and for their country and its people. They shared a generosity of spirit with which they met everyone, particularly young people, devoid of notions of hierarchy or ceremony. They hoped to inspire and encourage future generations to pursue critical enquiry and develop an anti-imperialist vision that could challenge simple reductive religious formulas for understanding the past and current reality of post-colonial countries like Pakistan.

This Legacy article is divided into two parts. The first is a chronological outline of Hamza Alavi's life and activities; the second addresses some of the ideas that he left behind, and how these remain relevant today. This approach seems appropriate since Alavi did not pursue the typically singular cursus of an academic, but undertook a number of activities in his life that all add up to the fruition of a thinker-activist. It should help us see the person and how his ideas emerged through his life-activities (or praxis, as one is tempted to say). We will see a man who moved from central banking as part of post-colonial nation building, to farming, to anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti-dictatorship activism, to an academic career in the United Kingdom and the Unites States, finally to return home to reflect upon the democratic movement. In this journey, he moved academically from finance and economics, to political science, sociology and anthropology, culminating with history, religion and philosophy.


Hamza Alavi was born in Karachi on 10 April 1921, and died in that city on 1 December 2003. His grandfather and father were established businessmen and well-known philanthropists and educationalists. While coming from the business-inclined Bohra Muslim community in Karachi, Alavi developed his socialist conscience as he first came into contact with poor students at one of the schools run by his family's education trust. Later, in the Karachi Academy High School, he was also placed by his family in a stream where the bulk of the students came from poor backgrounds. He was educated further at DJ Science College, Karachi, Wadia College, Poona, Bombay University, and Aligarh Muslim University (where he obtained a Master's degree in Economics). He joined the Gokhale Institute, Poona, for a PhD but left that course to begin his working life.

In 1945, at the recommendation of his PhD supervisor, Alavi joined the Reserve Bank of India as a research officer. Two years later, at the time of partition and independence of India and Pakistan, he played a leading role in setting up the State Bank of Pakistan, including taking the unilateral decision to set up an Exchange Control in Karachi four months before the national State Bank of Pakistan was officially established, to allow the new state to hit the ground running. Having served as the authoritative State Bank official in East Pakistan, with very wide ranging powers while still in his twenties, Alavi rose to become one of the five principal officers of the Bank in 1952, as Secretary of the Central Board. In these positions, he had to contend with growing conflicting pressures, from both national and international vested interests and the rising merchant and industrial economic barons who were anxious, then as today, to benefit unfairly at the expense of the nation. He managed to do this without fear or favour, maintaining his moral compass, with the support of Zahid Hussain, the Governor of the State Bank. However, the strain and stress of the job, combined with his ultimate desire to return to academic pursuits, determined Alavi's decision to leave the Bank.

Had he stayed on at the State Bank, Alavi would in all likelihood have become its youngest Governor, and from there could have gone on to a successful career at the IMF or the World Bank, or gone into the family business, had he been so inclined. Instead, he made a total break with this first career in 1953. As an antidote, he moved with his wife Khatoun to her home in East Africa, where he took up farming in the Urumba Mountains — and started his study of the peasantry, which was to become his first specialization in development studies.

In 1955, in part due to health reasons, Alavi moved with his wife to the UK and joined the London School of Economics for a PhD on banking in Pakistan. As he says in his auto-biographical sketch, he could have written that thesis blindfolded, so instrumental had he been in setting up the system. Tired of that subject, he began to attend seminars on sociology, anthropology and political science, as part of his life-long study and writings on history and social science more generally.

General Ayub Khan's military coup of 1958 in Pakistan and the preceding degradation of national democratic processes propelled Alavi into a decade of intense political activism. He and his wife joined a few like-minded friends in the task of sensitizing the early Pakistani diaspora in London to the social injustice under the dictatorship back home, the social injustice experienced by students and immigrant workers in the UK, and the social injustice of neo-imperialism. They started a variety of groups, including a broad forum that brought together people from Asia, Africa and Latin America to discuss post-colonial issues. Another group, the Pakistan Youth League, a broad liberal-to-socialist forum, held fortnightly meetings that were addressed by non-Pakistanis as well, including Tony Benn, Stuart Holland and Eric Hobsbawm. A more restricted Pakistani Socialist Society led to the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy of Pakistanis against the Ayub Khan regime. There were two Pakistani Welfare Associations — one in East London, consisting mainly of Bengali East Pakistanis and the other in Slough, with mainly Punjabi West Pakistanis — through which Alavi and his friends organized workers.

From 1957 to 1962, Alavi edited the quarterly journal that he initiated, Pakistan Today, providing a trenchant analysis of his homeland under military dictatorship. The final number was dedicated entirely to Alavi's 1961 article ‘The Burden of US Aid’ (later reprinted and distributed in Pakistan by the renowned socialist activist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz). With David (later Lord) Pitt, Alavi co-founded a key pressure group of that era, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), of which he was Vice-Chair, while Pitt, a West Indian, was Chair. Two women — one an Indian Maoist, the other an American Trotskyist — were elected as Joint Secretaries. CARD, a multi-racial organization of Pakistanis, Indians, West Indians as well as sympathetic white Britons, was an important part of the larger movement to fight the rising tide of racism. Some of these diverse community representatives, including Alavi, were invited by Martin Luther King, en route to receiving his Nobel Peace prize, to talk about racism at his London hotel. This meeting helped these activists realize the value of joining forces against racism in Britain, and influenced the decision to launch CARD.

As a political activist in Britain in the early 1960s, Alavi became an active member of the Labour Party, resigning because of what he considered the racist politics of the Wilson government. Concerned with problems of post-colonialism both at the first and the third world levels, Alavi became an active figure in the New Left movement of Britain, contributing regularly to the newly founded Socialist Register and the New Left Review. He was also involved with the precursor of the New Left Review, the Universities and the Left Review (ULR). While the first issue of ULR included articles from his friend Isaac Deutscher and other leading figures of the Left, Alavi's contribution appeared in the second issue in 1957 (under the pseudonym of Gordon Henderson, since he did not want to ruin his chances of going back to Pakistan!).


Hamza Alavi started his first academic job at the interdisciplinary Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at Sussex University in 1966, the year that IDS was established. It was from here that he undertook, in 1968–69, his seminal socio-anthropological study of peasant society in Pakistan, highlighting the centrality of the biraderi kinship system to the electoral political system. The intensive participant-observation he conducted during fifteen months in a village in Sahiwal district of Punjab Province helped him to develop his insights into the rural bases of political power, ethnicity and kinship networks, and the green revolution in Pakistan.

In 1971, Alavi's aim of returning home was thwarted by the war with India and the break-up of Pakistan; in a more stable, less militaristic Pakistan, he had intended to start an Institute of Peasant Studies.1 In 1972, Alavi took up a lectureship in the Department of Politics at Leeds University. The department was chaired by Ralph Miliband, his old LSE friend and co-founder of the Socialist Register. Like him, Miliband had also worked on the role of the state in the political economy, although in a different setting.

Two academic jobs that did not happen around this period are also worth mentioning, because they shed light on Alavi's personal, collegial, family and moral values. One was a Professorship at Queens University in Ontario, Canada, and the other was a Chair in Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. The first one, for which the letter of appointment had been issued, did not materialize due to the inordinate interest of the intelligence services in his political background, even after the ‘landed immigrant visa’ had been awarded in 1971, following three months of checks. Only months before they were to depart for Canada, Alavi and his wife were summoned to the High Commission of Canada in London where they were subjected to extensive interrogation regarding his political activities and beliefs, after which he was informed that he was banned from entry into Canada. The Vice-Chancellor of Queens University finally managed to get the ban lifted. By then, however, Alavi found the idea of going to Canada quite offensive, particularly disappointed at how a liberal façade had hidden what he considered vicious scrutiny and discrimination against progressive thinkers. He notes in his memoirs that other distinguished scholars suffered similar treatment, including André Gunder Frank, Gabriel Kolko and Istvan Mezsaros. What disturbed him in particular was that, despite the Vice-Chancellor's combative stance, none of his prospective colleagues stood up for him, not even to send him a word of support in private. So much for ‘the hypocritical liberalism and freedom of thought of the Democratic West…empty slogans. McCarthy lives on’. He gave up a professorship that would have paid three times as much as what he earned at Leeds University, but his honour was safe and his moral stand strong.

The Chair being vacated by Professor Wertheim at the Sociology and Social Anthropology Centre at the University of Amsterdam was an exciting proposition — and after all, the Netherlands in the early 1970s was relatively liberal if not progressive. Invited by Wertheim to apply, Alavi was selected above a number of other applicants, because his work ran parallel to Wertheim's in the areas of sociology and anthropology, and because the university wanted to broaden its focus from Indonesia to encompass other Asian countries. The appointments board selected Alavi for the Chair; but while the lengthy procedure of formal approval — going all the way to the Minister of Education — was still under way, his wife Khatoun expressed serious doubts about moving to Amsterdam. She felt more at home by now in the UK. Aware that his life partner — they had no children, and she was not as socially gregarious as him — had already made considerable sacrifices for the sake of his career changes and geographical shifts to date, Alavi withdrew his candidature. This was a little to his embarrassment and much to the astonishment of the members of the appointment board and the Centre in Amsterdam. Foregoing the distinguished Chair, he opted for a simple lectureship at Leeds University, largely for the sake of his wife. He felt more than compensated by the cordial and fruitful working relations with Ralph Miliband and other members of the Department of Politics which they helped to revamp, and with the research students they attracted to their programme.

Alavi subsequently moved to Manchester University as Reader in Sociology in 1977, in the department run by his friend Teodor Shanin, another leading scholar of peasant society. There followed a rich decade of rewarding work with colleagues and students from different parts of the world. A small story is worth relating here, since it illustrates Alavi's refusal to pander to formalistic requirements. He recalled that at one stage, with the growing need for university departments to compete and market themselves based on the star-like quality of their staff, Shanin said something like, ‘Hamza, we need to get you a PhD. It will look better in the staff list and our brochure. We know that any one of your various works can qualify you. Why don't you simply register whatever topic you are currently working on — and at a mutually agreed time, when you feel you are ready, you submit the work and obtain a PhD’. Alavi thought for a moment, and then recounted a story along the following lines.

‘In the Sahiwal village that I was studying, there was an old man who was one of the leading community figures, well regarded by everyone. One day, the villagers sent a small delegation to him. “Uncle, you know we respect and love you. You are everything to us. However, the villagers next door are saying funny things because they have learned that you are still … uncircumcised!”. Everyone laughed, the old man unrestrainedly, the others uncomfortably. One of them said, “We are glad you are laughing — now, to solve the matter, why don't we get the best barber [used traditionally for circumcisions in rural settings] and get your circumcision done with?”. The old man laughed some more, and said: “You know, it's funny that after all these years, when I have children and grandchildren, and more than one wife over this long life, you should ask me to consider circumcision. Now that the poor old instrument in question has served its purpose through thick and thin, and I am well into the autumn of my life, why should I bother going through these formalities, simply for the sake of what others might think?”.’

Teodor got the message and never raised the issue again. After all, Alavi had guided others for years through PhDs and MPhils, to say nothing of Masters and Bachelors, without the benefit of a PhD after his name. Had he been interested in one for the sake of the title, he would have obtained it in the 1940s in Poona, or in the 1950s at LSE.

After retiring from Manchester University in 1988, Alavi lectured at different universities, obtaining a professorship at the University of Denver in Colorado, before completing his academic career at the University of California. In all, Alavi's research and teaching career had taken him to University of California, Los Angeles, University of Denver, University of Sussex, University of Manchester, University of Leeds, University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, and Michigan State University.

While active and recognized in the West, Hamza Alavi always yearned for Pakistan, and to do something meaningful there. He kept in touch with like-minded friends and colleagues. In 1979, for instance, he visited Lahore, and addressed a gathering of Left-leaning intellectuals known as the ‘Tuesday Group’. After the loss of his wife Khatoun to cancer, Alavi returned for good in 1997 to his ancestral home in Karachi, to be closer to his family. Despite his delicate and deteriorating health, he remained active until the end in this final stage of his career, in a Pakistan quite changed from the country to whose edification he had contributed half a century earlier at the State Bank. He gave regular lectures in different cities, and continued writing and researching, and interacting with old and new friends and colleagues. In particular, he enjoyed interacting with younger people, some of them less known and most of them less privileged. His study was open to all those who wished to discuss ideas, as it had always been in the different universities he had taught at, in the manner of informed and animated exchanges and gracious giving of his time and ideas — Alavi's way of teaching. Some of his work was translated into Urdu. The first translation of one of his articles was published in the quarterly Tarikh, then two books were published, entitled Jagirdari Aur Samraj (Feudalism and Imperialism) and Pakistan: Riyasat Ka Bohran (Pakistan: The State in Crisis). He supported Tarikh and became an advisory member on its board. He had a long association with the Irtiqa Institute of Social Science, and supported the group of young people who started to publish a monthly magazine Badalti Dunya, to which he occasionally contributed articles. One might say that Alavi continued and crowned the family educationalist tradition, but with an attitude: in contrast to his father and grandfather, the education and ideas he imparted were clearly socialist and potentially revolutionary.


Returning to Pakistan towards the end of his life and career, Hamza Alavi's broader global kinship with the international community of socialist activist-intellectuals remained intact. This was confirmed at the time of his death in 2003, when people such as André Gunder Frank, Colin Leys and Leo Panitch contributed to web tributes to Alavi. His global analytical achievements include theories of post-colonial societies, peasant political action, ethnicity and kinship ties, and religion and democracy. The collection of essays published towards the end of his life to honour his achievements attest to the rich variety of these accomplishments. The collection was put together by Prof S.M. Naseem and Dr Khalid Nadvi (2002); the editors are respectively the doyen of development economics in Pakistan, and a leading Pakistani development scientist at the international level.

Following his 1950s journal Pakistan Today, mentioned above, Alavi was a founding member of the editorial board of the Journal of Contemporary Asia (1971–85) and the Journal of Peasant Studies (1973–96). In addition to the articles he kept writing and publishing throughout his career, he also edited a number of books, including Introduction to the Sociology of the Developing Societies (1982) and South Asia: The Sociology of Developing Societies (1989).2

Perhaps Hamza Alavi's first major contribution to the field of social sciences was his 1965 article ‘Peasants and Revolution’, concerning the conditions under which different categories of peasants may contribute to progressive movements. In the literature, it is bracketed with a comparable later contribution in 1969 by Eric Wolf, distinguished professor of the City University of New York. The so-called Alavi–Wolf thesis, drawing on the peasants’ role in the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Algerian and Cuban revolutions and Indian peasant uprisings, has been vigorously debated in numerous learned journals, books and PhD dissertations. The essay caused a considerable stir, with its focus on the role of the middle peasantry as the most militant section, at least initially, of that class in the countryside and, hence, a natural ally of the urban proletariat, as opposed to the poor peasants. This is due to a relative freedom of manoeuvre not enjoyed by the poor peasants. Terry Byres (1985) joined the group arguing for the revolutionary potential of the middle peasant. It may be posited that the major opponent of this thesis was Mao Tse Tung, who argued that the middle peasants were likely to vacillate while the poor peasants had nothing to lose (Oommen, 2010). Others who argued against the middle peasant theory include Gough (1968), Dhanagare (1983) and Oommen (1985). Be that as it may, the thesis is alive and well today, and needs further debate in today's context, where greater polarization of class in the countryside may require a major review of class analysis that redefines what small, middle and big peasants might mean under conditions in which rural agricultural production is beset with new problems such as speculation on product prices and the rental of expanses of land to non-national giant corporations.

Alavi's analysis of power in peasant societies and the methodological and theoretical lessons drawn from that could be, and were, extrapolated to other settings. For instance, he contrasted the situation of the peasant with that of the industrial worker. In his view, the latter ‘can engage in militant class action with relative impunity, insofar as he is able to find alternative employment and (unlike the poor peasant) does not place at risk the entire livelihood of himself and his family, his home and his entire social existence in doing so’ (Alavi, 1974: 417; see also Alavi, 1975a). This hypothesis, and the concepts of ‘dependence’ and ‘autonomy’ suggested by Alavi, were important aspects of the theoretical underpinning of the major study carried out in Pakistan on the structures of power and of leadership of industrial workers (see Shaheed, 2007 and the review in Asdar Ali, 2008). Similarly, while Khalid Nadvi's (1999) field research in Sialkot had an urban focus, it also used Alavi's earlier work on biraderi and social identities and their implications for economic inter-relations. More recently, the lawyers’ movement of 2007 in Pakistan, in support of the independence of the Supreme Court, which contributed to the ousting of the last military dictator, General Musharraf, may be analysed within the framework of relative autonomy posited by Alavi. Lawyers are urban, middle class, independent professionals, not dependent on ‘salariat’ jobs (see below), but requiring a functioning and autonomous legal system and process in order to make a living. It may thus be argued that, in the particular and exceptional conjuncture that forced General Musharraf to step down from power, the lawyers had the relative autonomy to stand up for the rule of law and resist the emergency imposed by the military regime.

In his web tribute to Hamza Alavi in 2003, André Gunder Frank — renowned for his work on imperialism, neo-colonialism and the globality of capitalist development, and a founder of the ‘dependency’ and ‘world systems’ theories within development studies — remarked on the parallel tracks that their intellectual development had taken. Writing a couple of years before his own death, Frank recognized that Alavi's structural analysis of colonial capitalism and the burden of US aid, published originally in Pakistan Today and subsequently in Economic and Political Weekly in the early 1960s, provided important source material for his own analysis of capitalist underdevelopment.

In their web tribute, Panitch and Leys, the co-editors of the Socialist Register, noted that Alavi contributed his path-breaking essay ‘Imperialism Old and New’ to the Register's first volume in 1964, and two further essays in the following decade, ‘Bangladesh and the Crises of Pakistan’ in 1971, and ‘India and the Colonial Mode of Production’ in 1975 (the latter especially becoming almost as influential as the first essay on imperialism). A measure of his lasting impact on progressive thinking was the fact that in the 2004 volume of the Register, entitled The New Imperial Challenge, Gregory Albo began a major contribution on ‘The Economics of the New Imperialism’ with an extended quotation from Alavi's (1964) essay. He noted that the theoretical and political insights of that essay — written four decades earlier — remain central to the analysis of the new imperialism today.

Alavi's work on the colonial mode of production fed into an important debate of the time regarding diversity in the paths of transition to capitalism, and how best to analyse and address the resulting social relations (see Patnaik, 1990). This area of work has been taken forward by, for instance, Jairus Banaji (involved in the debate since the 1970s), whose 2011 publication Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation has recently been awarded the Isaac Deutscher Prize. The analysis and arguments put forward have relevance not only for scholars of history, but for a critical and revolutionary understanding of the inner workings of capitalism and its crises today. At the national level, Taimur Rahman (2012) has adopted the lens of the colonial mode of production through which to start an analysis of class structure in Pakistan today (where, in addition to analysing current modes of production and class structure in Pakistan, he also provides an overview of the ‘modes of production’ debate in South Asia and elsewhere).

The current situation in Pakistan, where aid (with strings, ribbons and chains attached) constitutes the third largest source of foreign exchange — export earnings and remittances by the Pakistani diaspora, some of whom Alavi sought to sensitize and organize back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, are the primary contributors — reminds us that neo-imperialism is alive and kicking. The new old imperialist game for securing Middle Eastern and Central Asian oil and other resources continues to be played out daily under our eyes.

One of Alavi's seminal contributions to the discourse on the dynamics of state and society was the thesis of the overdeveloped state in post-colonial societies. It helped to explain the kind of questions often posed in post-colonial underdeveloped countries with regard to frequent interventions by the military. In such societies, state institutions such as the army and the bureaucracy are overdeveloped during colonial rule whose ends are social and political control and regulation in metropolitan interests rather than the development of the colonized. This structural imbalance is inherited by the state upon independence, with all its implications for imbalanced national socio-economic development. Alavi defined the Pakistan that emerged in 1947 as an ‘overdeveloped state’, by virtue of the overwhelming influence of its bureaucratic–military complex.

The notion of the relative autonomy of the state bureaucracy in a post-colonial state may benefit from revisiting, in the light of elite bureaucracies in Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia and beyond having become increasingly subjugated to political interests and political groupings. However, at least one element of the state in Pakistan and perhaps elsewhere continues to have growing relative autonomy, and that is the military. In her 2007 book Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, Ayesha Siddiqa naturally refers to this identification by Alavi of the weaknesses of post-colonial political institutions (Siddiqa, 2007: 66–9), that the counterpoint to an overdeveloped role for the military and bureaucracy is fragmentation and factionalism among civil society and the political class. In the role of mediating between rival interests and competing demands within the nation, the balance in civil–military bureaucracy tipped increasingly towards the military. Over time, the military began to benefit from land, postings in state corporations and even in the civil service, and ultimately lucrative positions throughout the economy.

When Alavi's article ‘The State in Post-colonial Societies’ appeared in the New Left Review in 1972, it gave rise to a lively debate. After that article, John Saul wrote on the subject with particular reference to Africa in 1974, followed by Colin Leys in 1976. The subject remains alive today, with particular reference to the appropriation of the concept by the international financial institutions (IFIs) and their structural adjustment programmes starting in the 1990s, seeking to down-size the role of the state and its institutions. This may be considered a somewhat backhanded confirmation that Alavi and his colleagues were right on target as regards the overdeveloped nature of state institutions. However, they were referring to the civil–military bureaucracy, its corrupt rent-seeking and exploitation of civil society, and not the sectors of health and education and other public goods provided by the state, which have been assailed by the policies of the IFIs. Of course, this is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater — the bathwater is those aspects of the post-colonial state that are not imbedded in and essential for national society.

Within Hamza Alavi's conceptualization of the post-colonial state, of seminal influence is the concept of a ‘salariat’, a class of educated government job-seekers whose role he argued was pivotal in the making of Pakistan. Breaking with the idea that the movement for an independent Pakistan in the 1930s and 1940s had been inspired solely by religious motives, Alavi contended that it had been led by the salary-dependent class of Muslim government servants, whom he dubbed the ‘salariat’. The Hindu and Muslim salariats competed for jobs and power in pre-partition India. Having experienced a diminution in its share of state jobs, this newly emergent salariat saw that it stood to gain most from the creation of a new state. This concept helps us to comprehend better both the Pakistan movement and the subsequent rise of ethnic movements in Pakistan — and indeed the rise of regional movements in the politics of South Asia as a whole. Thus, Alavi's analysis underlines that Pakistan was not obtained for Islam but for Muslims. The difference is crucial and relevant today. The creation of a theocracy was not approved of by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the movement for Pakistan. He was a liberal democrat who wanted Muslims to live without fear of Hindu domination but did not want a theocracy. In his address to the Constituent Assembly on the eve of Pakistan's birth, Jinnah had declared ‘You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State’ (Rashid, 2004: 82–83). Jinnah's colleague and successor, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, declared in March 1949: ‘The people are the real recipients of power. This naturally eliminates all danger of the establishment of a theocracy’ (ibid.: 90). This is an important argument that needs to be understood, refined and elaborated in the light of the current struggles against fundamentalism.

In a manner comparable to the inter-communal competition for state jobs in pre-partition India, provincial and ethnic rivalry among the salariat has contributed to ethnic conflict in Pakistan. It may be argued that current concerns in Pakistan to create new provinces based on linguistic and ethnic characteristics reflect at least in part the desire to create new government jobs in an expanded salariat, as well as new political positions.

A related implication of this concept is that members of the middle class competing to join the salariat were interested not so much in pursuing education for knowledge as in obtaining educational qualifications in order to compete for jobs and positions. This important distinction may be one explanation for the apathy and lack of seriousness that have persistently and tragically characterized national efforts to address the critical issue of educational reform. In this context, it is illuminating to note the recent proclamation by a member of the Pakistani Parliament with regard to educational qualifications. Addressing the issue of fake college degrees in a system which at that time stipulated that a requirement for being elected to parliament was a university undergraduate degree, this parliamentarian argued, ‘A degree is a degree. Whether fake or genuine, it's a degree. It makes no difference’ (Ellick, 2010). It was found at the time that many members of parliament had fake degrees. This may be considered an advanced form of commodity fetishism regarding educational degrees — i.e. the ‘paper qualification’ syndrome required for formal sector employment that has been of concern in most post-colonial societies.

In the long and continuing intense debate over the secular versus religious basis of Pakistani nationalism, Alavi's contribution has been significant. It was engagement with this debate that led him to closely examine the Khilafat movement in British India, which he believed had laid the foundations of the political ascendancy of the Muslim clergy. The movement was a pan-Islamic call to defend the Caliphate of Istanbul, at a time when Ottoman Turkey — having sided with the Central Powers in the First World War — saw its political influence severely limited. While the movement was idealized in British India as being anti-colonial in nature, its main ‘achievement’ was to promote a religious and communalist understanding of politics among Indian Muslims at the expense of a secular one. It was no small irony that the Khilafat movement was supported by Gandhi and opposed by Jinnah.3

Alavi spoke about the territorial dimension of Pakistani nationhood — as distinct from the religious dimension — at the Lahore Press Club in 1997, which was included in an article in Rashid's 2004 book Pakistan: Perspectives on States and Society. He argued forcefully that the shared legacy of the Indus Basin could go a long way in ‘building up a sense of our common history and destiny’.

On the issue of secular politics and equality of citizenship, Alavi studied the Constitution of Medina at the time of the Holy Prophet, the first Islamic political state. By virtue of the Misaq-e-Medina, he argued, all residents of Medina, including those Jewish clans that had thrown in their lot with the new state and were mentioned by name, had become members of the Ummah. From this precedent fourteen centuries ago, Alavi reminds us — in the midst of a growing penchant for divisiveness and exclusion in Pakistan and other states with Muslim-majority populations — that there is much to be learned from the Holy Prophet about equality. This has far-reaching lessons for tolerance and non-discrimination in Islam that may be drawn upon for a better inter-faith understanding that is essential for peace today.

The Daily Times editorial said that while Hamza Alavi may have been known mostly as a Left-wing intellectual:

…in truth he was a rational philosopher in the tradition of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who thought that Pakistan as a Muslim state could survive only if it read its Scripture rationally and interpreted it pluralistically. Mr Alavi therefore was a great supporter of the Quaid-e-Azam and wrote about him in his characteristic investigative manner, only to put off the religious establishment in Pakistan. (Daily Times, 2003)

In a sense returning to his initial work in banking, the editorial continues, it may be argued that ‘his last great work was a series of articles on the impractical interpretation of the Quranic edict on interest (riba) by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. (Pakistan couldn't implement it.) Ever the man of reason, he demonstrated once again how a religious state may hurt itself by being literalist’ (ibid.). The editorial concludes: ‘If he hadn't declined in health in recent years, he could have been in the vanguard of the anti-capitalist movement whose importance we all recognise as we approach the year 2005 under the WTO’ (ibid.).


The personal, political and intellectual contributions of Hamza Alavi were closely inter-related throughout his life. He was propelled into seeking social justice and radical change by the situation he found himself in, in a post-colonial state that he served initially, which he then left and whose trajectory of development he criticized systematically. He did this within a broader critique of post-colonial and neo-imperialist developmental processes, his critique growing global with time. He came back to a Pakistan much changed, especially as regards the interpretation of Islam by important segments of society, within a further complicated neo-imperial version of globalization. He took on this reality and criticized it, to the end, never losing sight of the individuals, families and communities that state and society are supposed to serve.

Much of what Alavi wrote about and taught is still relevant today. These ideas naturally need to be reviewed critically in the light of current reality: for instance, the nature of the post-colonial state has been transformed considerably, especially as a result of structural adjustment programmes, with significant weaknesses in bureaucracies and simultaneous growth in the power of military establishments. Both rural and urban class analysis needs to be carried out in changing settings, taking into account new entrants to the workforce such as women and those dispersed in the small-scale and informal economy. Perhaps most importantly, the role of religion in nation building and defining national identity needs to be studied from a variety of angles. In all this, the character and role of a new imperialism, further refined and complex in its concerns relating to energy and resources and perceived national interests of global security, need a renewed critical analysis. As an important part of his legacy, then, Hamza Alavi has thus left considerable work to be done by others today.

Alavi's legacy underlines the need for academics today to be engaged in the world of praxis while at the same time permitting the policy world to benefit from deeper intellectual roots. This is something that is increasingly lacking. Academics tend not only to be driven too often by what one might regard as a deluxe ‘paper-qualification’ syndrome (or what might in future be referred to as the ‘academic-circumcision’ syndrome, for those who now know the village tale recounted above), but by the demands of academic reputation (research and grants merely for the sake of publications, citation indices, etc.). They tend too easily to forget that the aim of what academics do is to change the lives of people for the better.

Alavi's life-story also serves to remind us that those with the best brains may well study subjects like mathematical economics and finance, and certainly understand and even work in those areas. But they need not stop there; there is always room for human agency to do something more meaningful for the greater public good. Personally, politically and professionally, Hamza Alavi was dedicated to the common good of humanity. He applied this dedication through his varied life career, in the state bank, in farming, in academia, in his empirical, ideological and theoretical writing, in political activism in Britain and Pakistan and — above all — in the formation of younger activist-intellectuals. They are the ones to carry forward the legacy Alavi has left us.

  1. 1

    Following the collapse of the Ayub Khan dictatorship in 1969, Hamza Alavi returned briefly to Pakistan. During this short period, he attended and addressed a Cabinet meeting regarding labour policy. It is reported that his forceful presentation to the Cabinet contributed to the adoption of a new labour policy with respect to rights at work.

  2. 2

    For a comprehensive list of Alavi's publications, please see the Hamza Alavi Internet Archive: www.hamzaalavi.com.

  3. 3

    Perry Anderson (2012: 9–10) has noted most recently Gandhi's support of the Khilafat movement.


  • Following doctoral studies with Hamza Alavi, Zafar Shaheed worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Laos and in Sudan, before joining the International Labour Office in Geneva, until 2009. He worked first as a wages and industrial relations specialist, and then on rights at work, areas in which he has a number of publications. He can be contacted at e-mail address: zshaheed1@gmail.com.