Surah-i-Fatiah as Anthem

Posted by sepoy on December 22, 2021 · 12 mins read

Ammad Ali is a writer and researcher on History, Politics, Literature, Heritage and Cinema. He tweets @Ammad_Alee

Surah-i-Fatiah as Anthem: Early moments in Nationalization of Pakistan

by Ammad Ali

Z. A. Bukhari. Image courtesy of Radio Pakistan
Z. A. Bukhari. Image courtesy of Radio Pakistan

A few years ago at a literary festival in Lahore the attendees stood up when the national anthem began playing. The playing of the national anthem was unusual, as on such gatherings organizers are typically not obliged, nor required by law, to play the national anthem. It is only at official ceremonies and sport events that singing and playing the national anthem is common or compulsory. At fora, such as literary festival, where there is hope for a platform for dissent and critique the playing of the national anthem had raised many questions, both about patriotism and of academic freedom. Since then, the national anthem then has emerged as a key signifier of allegiance and patriotism with videos of gatherings where the national anthem is being sung circulating on social media, especially from areas with strong separatist sentiments.

During colonial rule, “God Save the King” would play at cinema halls after the end of the movie though there were no strict rules for Indians to stand up for it. Post-independence the national anthem flirted in an out of cinema halls–popularity rising during the periods of war (1965, 71 etc.) In 2016, India cinemas were ordered to make standing for the national anthem mandatory. The order was rescinded in 2019. While Pakistan has not had similar cases, the role of the national anthem remains critical to defining this nation-state as well. An instructive episode from the early history of the Pakistani republic helps us think about the question of nationhood and Islam for Pakistan.

At the moment of Partition, in 1947, a majority of the population were ethnically Bengali and spoke Bangla (located in the “East Pakistan” wing), while the dominant languages in West Pakistan were Punjabi, Pashto and Sindhi with Urdu being a minority language. While religion had been the reason for a call for a separate homeland, language had lurked in the mixture. What would be the official language? What language would the Constitution reflect? What language would be the anthem? What music? Such were the highly contested questions that would beset the first decade of the creation of Pakistan. Briefly in 1947, the state considered a composition by Joseph Welsh, composer to the British Royal family, as a musical anthem. His song was composed on a piano and recorded at Radio Pakistan Lahore. However it was considered by many to be too western a choice for Pakistan.

It took Pakistan seven years to finalize an official national anthem. This late adaptation of the anthem has led to some unfounded histories in later years–such as that M.A. Jinnah ordered a Hindu poet Jagan Nath Azad to write the National Anthem of Pakistan. A version of this became popular with Luv Puri’s article in the daily The Hindu published on 19 June 2005, that stirred a debate in Pakistani intellectual and literary circles, lasting for almost a decade. However, the reason it took so long was that the young nation was struggling with ideas of religious as well as linguistic uniformity. It is helpful to recall this struggle especially focusing on the role of Z. A. Bukhari, in February, 1948, and the later commission to select a national anthem.

Zulfikar Ali Bukhari, better known as Z.A. Bukhari, was amongst the founding broadcasters of All India Radio. Bukhari was a man of many talents. He was a renowned poet, writer, musicologist and humorist. However, his lasting legacy is as a radio broadcaster and administrator who holds a prominent place in the broadcasting history of Pakistan for his liberal thought. In January 1948, as the Controller of Broadcasting, he suggested that Surah-i-Fatiah (the opening chapter of Qu’ran) should be the National Anthem of Pakistan. The suggestion was made, by Bukhari in a letter, when the Home Ministry called an internal meeting to discuss the issue and asked Z.A. Bukhari for his input.

Bukhari wrote to the Deputy Home secretary:

Muslims throughout their history have never had a National Anthem. National Anthems, in my opinion, are tantamount to artificial respiration administered to those who have no other inspirations to keep them alive. This was never the case with Muslims. Nevertheless, I suppose it is necessary for Pakistan to have a National Anthem in the 20th century only because every other nation has one.

In choosing a National Anthem for our State we have two problems to face–the problem of language and the problem of music. They are difficult problems indeed.

Z.A Bukhari was very familiar with official parties, gatherings and ceremonials where Muslims and non-Muslims would be present. He also understood that a religious text would not be appropriate for various public spaces. He continued:

Bearing the above in mind I suggest Sura-i-Fatiha as our National Anthem. I suggest this on the presumption that the use of the National Anthem will be restricted to very solemn occasions and that we shall not follow the West and use our National Anthem at the end of cinema shows or cocktail parties.

Z.A. Bukhari listed eight advantages for his idea:

  1. It is known to a very large majority of the nationals of Pakistan.
  2. It is known to every Muslim in the world.
  3. It is translated in particularly every language of the world.
  4. When recited in a traditional manner it is “musical”.
  5. It has the right kind of reverence in the hearts of a majority of our nationals.
  6. It does not require any instrumental accompaniment.
  7. Even M. K Gandhi recites this Surah in his public prayers and he has publicly declared it as acceptable to all religions.
  8. It will satisfy both the “intellectuals” and “learned” of our country.

Bukhari’s usage of a surah from the Qur’an suggests an early effort to seek legitimacy and cohesiveness on religious grounds for Pakistan. Bukhari does not address the fact that Arabic was not understood by the vast majority of Muslims, and he claims that it would be “acceptable” to Pakistan’s significant Hindus, Christians and other religious minorities on the grounds that it was recited by Gandhi. At the end of letter, he also wrote an English translation of Surah-i-Fatiah.

Bukhari’s suggestion was not taken up. Instead a nine-member National Anthem Committee was constituted in December, 1948 by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan to suggest a suitable national anthem. Bukhari was made a member of the committee along with Sardar Abdurrab Nishtar, Abdus Sattar Pirzada, Chaudhry Nazir Ahmed Khan, Rajkumar Chakravarty, Hafeez Jalandhri. A.D. Azhar, Jasim ud Din and S.M. Ikram. Bukhari continued to exert considerable influence on its workings.

national anthem of Pakistan in Bangla
Original submission for lyrics of national anthem of Pakistan in Bangla by Kazi Nazrul Islam and produced by Jasimud Din. Source: National Documentation Wing, Cabinet Division, Government of Pakistan

The committee made a number of suggestions. Among the short-listed anthems, there was only one in Bengali, by the poets Kazi Nazrul Islam and Jasimuddin. Their anthem “Chol, Chol, Chol” (move forward, move forward, move forward) was not adopted but later declared as national song. Yaqoob Khan Bangash comments in his article Hymning the Nation on the failure of the commission to select anything from the vast corpus of the poet Muhammad Iqbal. Bangash writes:

This was interesting since Iqbal’s corpus was large, and India had already used his poem ‘Sare Jahan Say Accha’ as one of their national songs. For Pakistan to have been unable to find a suitable poem, especially when it regarded him as the originator of the idea of Pakistan and their national poet, was in the least embarrassing.

Being a member of National Anthem Committee, Bukhari also submitted his own lyrics for the anthem:

Qaumi Taranah by Z.A. Bukhari

insaaniyat ka nishaan / ilm o amalimaan / azm o yaqeen hai zindagi
/zindagi amal*

insaaniyat ka nishaan / insaaniyat ka nizaam / Allah keeh kaam / Pakistan ki har dam khidmat / hum sab ka imaan

insaaniyat ka nishaan / ilm o amalimaan / azm o yaqeen hai zindagi / zindagi amal / insaaniyat ka nishaan

Bukhari’s poetry was rejected by the committee. Instead, their final choice was a poem by Hafeez Jalandhari based on Rag Bilwal: “Pak, sar zameen shād bād”. Being not someone to give up easily, Bukhari then sought to edit the original text of Jalandhari’s submission such that an entire stanza from Jalandhari’s poetry was replaced with his own poetry :

Parcham-e-Sitara-O-Hilaal / Rehbar-e-Taraqqi O Kamal / Tarjuman-e-Maazi Shaan-e-Haal
Jaan-e-Istaqbal! / Saya-eh-Khuda-e-ZulJalaal


Insāniyat ka nishān / Iilm o amal imān / Azm o yaqeen hai zindagi / Zindagi amal / Insāniyat ka nishān

Jalandhari took strong exception to the changes, and wrote to Hashim Raza defending the poetic and lyrical uniformity of his work. The amended stanza of Bukhari’s poetry was removed from Jalandhari’s poetry and the anthem was approved as-is. It was the last attempt by Bukhari to influence national anthem.

Z. A. Bukhari’s attempt to “Islamicize” the national anthem is an instructive moment from the early history of Pakistan. He was among those in bureaucracy who wanted to use religion as a cohesive force. In his views, an anthem of religious nature, based on the Qur’an, would be a universally known signal that Pakistan was an Islamic Republic. Perhaps his use of Qur’an can be seen as force to protect the newly independent country from internal and outer threats. The adaptation of powerful symbols of state, such as the flag and the anthem would link Islam and Pakistan. Yet, the tune of National Anthem of Pakistan is purely western and recorded on a western musical instrument.

Mahe Nau
(Above) Tune of national anthem of Pakistan (Below) Second from right: Ahmed Gulamali Chagla along women, children and Pakistan Navy Band. Source: Monthly *Mahe Nau* (Karachi) June ,1961