Toynbee and Pakistan

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Toheed Ahmad[1]

  • History is a vision of God’s creation on the move
  • Civilization is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbour
  • Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder
  • The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue – Toynbee

Long before Prof. Samuel Huntington set himself up as the haruspex of clash among civilizations, Prof. Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), the preeminent philosopher of history of civilizations, wrote in 1955 that “The world as a whole is suffering today from the sudden confrontation, at close quarters, of races, civilizations, and religions that have lived in isolation from one another in the past. Suddenly – as a result of ‘the annihilation of distance’ by technology – we have been compelled to live together on intimate terms, before we have had time to get to know and to understand one another and to readjust our behaviour to our neighbours’ behaviour. This is a dangerous situation, and it is bound to last for some time, since technology has brought us all into physical juxtaposition far more quickly than the human psyche can adapt itself to this new physical situation. The psyche has a place of its own, and, like a goat’s or a mule’s pace, this is a slow pace that cannot be speeded up”.

A simple statement of a profound truth around which Huntington wove his Star War-like thesis that rattled many a unlettered mind. Because Toynbee took Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a related group, and contrasted them with Buddhism, his analysis was very different. Toynbee wrote this in an article “Pakistan as an Historian Sees Her” which was included in the book ‘Crescent and Green – A Miscellany of Writings on Pakistan’, published by Cassell & Company, London, in 1955. A book that remains a compelling reading, full of insights, forecasts, and forebodings, which to my mind, tells us more about Pakistan of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, than any other single book. It has long been out of print and I wish that some Pakistani publisher will choose to bring out a fresh edition of this book. Full text of the book is, however, available at the following site:

See the following extract from a review of the book that was posted at the web site of American Anthropologist journal, Volume 58, Issue No. 6,posted on 28 October 2009:

“Pakistan  is  the lesser  known  of  the two large  nations created  out  of  the Indian subcontinent  in  the  1947 partition. The voice of Pakistan is usually drowned out by the sometimes naive, sometimes stimulating, always controversial voice of India as spoken by Nehru. This little volume of essays on various aspects of Pakistani culture is therefore more than welcome. Although not stated in the foreword or text (but mentioned on the jacket), most of these essays were first printed in the excellent Pakistan Quarterly, edited by S. Amjad Ali”.

The unsigned Foreword to the book says, “Only once in history was the region which is today (West) Pakistan a part of the Hindu Empire – that of the Mauryas which, however, in the third generation turned Buddhist under the zealous leadership of the Great Asoka”. Prof. Toynbee says, “Now in Pakistan I see the modern world’s situation and problem in miniature. Pakistan is a child of the strife that has arisen from the impact of Islam upon Hinduism. It is nearly a thousand years since Islam began to establish itself in India as a whole, and more than twelve hundred years since it gained its first footing in Sind and Multan. Yet the pace of the psyche’s self-adjustment is so slow that, in 1947, the Muslim community in Indian sub-continent decided that there was still not enough common ground between Muslims and Hindus to enable the two communities to remain united under a single government; now the people of the former British Indian Empire were to be fully self-governing.

“This is – no doubt in crude and over-simplified terms – a true account, I believe, of the feeling that brought Pakistan into existence as a State. Now that Pakistan is a going concern, what is she going to live for and work for?

“One thing that Pakistan obviously does stand for already is the transcending of physical and linguistic differences by a common religion. If, in Pakistan, political allegiance were to be decided on lines of race or language, Pakistan would immediately fall to pieces”. We saw this come true in 1971. This foreboding continues to disturb many of us now as we enter the 21st century.

Prof. Toynbee adds, “A common adherence to Islam is manifestly a force that binds a majority of the people of Pakistan together; but now I am going to venture onto more controversial ground. I should say that it would be a calamity if Pakistan were ever to become a Muslim state in an exclusive and intolerant way, for then Islam might become a far more disruptive force than the racial and linguistic differences which Islam at present overrides. For one thing, Pakistani Islam is not unitary; the Shia’ah and the Ahmadiyah, as well as the Sunnah, are represented in it, and for this reason, so it seems, Pakistan could never be identified, as some Islamic countries can be, with some particular sect. And then Pakistan contains numerous and valuable minorities – particularly a Hindu minority and a Sikh one. The majority community and the several minority communities of Pakistan have the task of living together as fellow citizens and, more than that, as friends. In so far as they succeed in achieving this, they will be doing a piece of pioneer spiritual work, not only for themselves, but for the world as a whole”.

This last sentence reminds me of Allama Mohammad Iqbal’s verse Sabaq phir parh sadaqat ka, adalat ka, shuja’at ka/ Liya jayai ga tujh sey kaam dunya ki imamat ka.(Revisityour lessons of Truth, Justice and Bravery/because you are destined to lead the world). I am quite sure Prof. Toynbee would not have read this much of Iqbal to have been acquainted with such a global mission for the people of Pakistan.

Prof. Arnold Toynbee wrote many books on history, but his magnum opus is the massive twelve-volume A Study of History issued over several years in the middle of the last century, the last of which was issued in 1961. It was abridged into two volumes, and later into one volume, by D. C. Somervell who described the book as presenting a single continuous argument as to the nature and pattern of the historical experience of the human race since the first appearance of the species of societies called civilizations, and that argument is illustrated and, so far as the nature of the material allows, ‘proved’ at every stage by a diversity of illustrations drawn from the whole length and breadth of human history, so far as human history is known to the historians of our day. Some of these illustrations are worked out in great detail.

I remember wading through the two-volume abridgement of the Study of History in my student days; one of my great regrets at that time was not being able to afford to buy the full ten volume set.Similarly another book that remained beyond my reach was Ariel and Will Durant’s 11-volume distillate of world history titled TheStory of Civilization. Later, I did pick up some of these volumes but, by then, the world had caught up with me, and I had been robbed of my student’s innocence and had lost my adolescent’s appetite. Book reading, like human relationships, is time bound; I have never been able to get back the magic that Dostoevsky novels cast on me when I devoured them as a teenager.

Commenting on Pakistan’s relations with its neighbours, Toynbee writes, “Pakistan cannot live without good relations, not only between her own citizens, but between herself and her neighbours. While there is a Hindu and a Sikh minority in Pakistan, there is also a Muslim minority in the Indian Union. If all goes well, these minorities across the frontier should be, not hostages, but ambassadors and interpreters, helping Pakistan and the Indian Union to live as good neighbours. Pakistan and the Indian Union are tied to one another by unalterable facts of geography; for nothing can alter the fact that the Indian Union has portions of Pakistan on both sides of her, while conversely, Eastern Pakistan is separated from the Indus Valley by the whole breadth of the Indian Union” (This was written in 1955).

“Pakistan is, of course, also closely bound up with the Islamic countries immediately to the west of her. On her frontier with Afghanistan, the British bequeathed to Pakistan the unsolved problem of the Pathan highlanders. This problem – which is perhaps, at bottom, not a military but an economic one – is a common concern of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The highlanders along this frontier are, I suppose, today in much the same stage of social development as the Scottish highlanders were in, let us say, 1753. At that date the Scottish highlanders were on the eve of a rapid social transformation. Perhaps the same destiny is awaiting the Pathan highlanders now.”

These lines remind me of a passage of Allama Iqbal’s Presidential Address at the 1930 Annual Session of All-India Muslim League, which were read out 25 years before Toynbee’s article was published. (I must mention here that the late Prof. Annemarie Schimmel once drew my attention to this passage in our conversation on India-Pakistan relations at her Bonn home, saying that New Delhi should realize how important was Pakistan for Indian defence). Referring to his proposal that “the Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan amalgamated into a single State”, Iqbal added, “The idea need not alarm the Hindus or the British. India is the greatest Muslim country in the world. The life of Islam as a cultural force in this living country very largely depends on its centralization in a specified territory. This centralization of the most living portion of the Muslims of India, whose military and police service has, notwithstanding unfair treatment from the British, made the British rule possible in this country, will eventually solve the problem of India as well as of Asia. Thus, possessing full opportunity of development within the body-politic of India, the North-West Indian Muslims will prove the best defenders of India against a foreign invasion, be that invasion one of ideas (which Prof. Schimmel described as from Communism) or of bayonets” (a prelude to which was provided by Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979).

Toynbee continues: “When I look at the present political map of Pakistan and her neighbours, I am reminded of older political maps of the same region. Pakistan and Afghanistan, between them, cover much the same area as the Kushan Empire in the first and second centuries of the Christian Era and as the Bactrian Greek Empire in the second century B.C. A landlocked country astride the Hindu Kush finds its easiest outlet to the sea as the mouth of the river Indus. I should guess that Karachi has a great future as a port with a vast economic hinterland”.

He goes on to point out what many of us believe is our country’s biggest problem – unchecked population growth. He says, “Perhaps this population problem will be the most serious one that Pakistan will have to grapple with in the next chapter of her history. The pressure of population is, I suppose, already acute in East Pakistan, and even in West Pakistan the future possibilities of water conservation and irrigation are not unlimited. This, too, is a problem that is common to the whole world, and we have no hope of solving it without world-wide co-operation”.

Toynbee was a leading analyst of developments in the Middle East. His support for Greece and hostility to the Turks during the World War had gained him an appointment to the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History at the University of London. However, after the war he changed to a pro-Turkish position, accusing Greece’s military government in occupied Turkish territory of atrocities and massacres. This earned him the enmity of the wealthy Greeks who had endowed the chair, and in 1924 he was forced to resign the position. His stance during World War I reflected less sympathy for the Arab cause and a pro-Zionist outlook. He also expressed support for a Jewish State in Palestine, which he believed had “begun to recover its ancient prosperity” as a result. Toynbee investigated Zionism in 1915 at the Information Department of the Foreign Office, and in 1917 he published a memorandum which supported exclusive Jewish political rights in Palestine. In 1922 he was influenced by the Palestine Arab delegation which was visiting London, and he adopted their views. His subsequent writings show the way he changed his outlook on the subject, and in the late 1930s he moved away from supporting the Zionist cause and moved toward the Arab camp.Volume 1 of the Study ofHistory, written in the 1930s, contains a discussion of Jewish culture which begins with the sentence “There remains the case where victims of religious discrimination represent an extinct society which only survives as a fossil. …. by far the most notable is one of the fossil remnants of the Syriac Society, the Jews.”That text has been the subject of controversy, and some reviewers have interpreted the text as anti-Semitic. In later printings, a footnote was appended which read “Mr. Toynbee wrote this part of the book before the Nazi persecution of the Jews opened a new and terrible chapter of the story…”.

By the 1950s he was an opponent of the state of Israel.Perhaps this change of heart earned him enemies in the History establishment of the West. Many critics complained that the conclusions he reached were those of a Christian moralist rather than of a historian. Z. A Bhutto’s teacher at Oxford, Hugh Trevor-Roper described Toynbee’s work as a “Philosophy of Mish-Mash”. Toynbee was seldom cited after 1960. Of course we in Pakistan have never celebrated any historian nor have we been impressed by the art and science of history.

The second article in the book Crescent and Green is titled ‘Pakistan and the West’, written by Prof. V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957), the Australian specialist of Prehistory, who remained a Marxist all his life. Before proceeding further I must share with you this incident, involving Childe’s book ‘What Happened in History’. This was in London of 1989 when I bought a copy of this book and went by British Rail to visit a friend who lived in the East Croydon suburb. I walked down to the East Croydon rail station and waited on its crooked platform for the train to Waterloo. To while away the 15 minute wait, I started reading ‘What Happened in History’ and got transported to some fascinating pictures of our antiquity. There was a line in its Introduction which I still reflect on: “The man of today is theoretically heir to all ages and inherits the accumulated experience of all his forerunners”. What does this line say to the Pakistani male today as to his relation with his Harappan ancestor? In the meanwhile a train came and stopped at the platform and soon as its doors opened. The platform was so crooked that I could not see the signages,and I jumped straight out of prehistory onto the train. As the compartment was packed, I stood in the walkway resting my back on the metal railing and kept seeing those dim pictures on Childe. I don’t know how many centuries later, a TT nudged me out of prehistory and asked to see my train ticket. I said I did not have one. When he asked where I was headed to, I said Waterloo. Suppressing a smile, he said we were outside London and the train was headed to Oxford. I was dumb founded. He was kind and asked me to buy the ticket for the first stop, Reading, that was yet 30 minutes ahead and then take another train back. I did as I was told. Getting off at Reading I did all the right things. Next day I returned to my base station of Brussels. Upon reaching home I laid aside Childe’s book and got back into my work routine. A constant back ache took me to the doctor who examined me and asked about that thick red mark all across my lower back. It was quite a quiz which resulted in the revelation that having kept my back pressed hard to the metallic railing in despair at climbing on to the wrong train had cut a wound on my skin all along my back. It was not too big a price to pay for spending those few minutes holding Childe’s hand as he showed me around the lost world of prehistory while I was journeying on the wrong train.

In his article, Gordon Childe writes that the excavations of Harappa and  Mohenjo Daro “exposed vast, orderly and populace cities giving every indication of huge accumulations of material and cultural capital, of formal government and of literacy that is taken as convenient criterion for distinguishing civilization from barbarism”, and added, “a vision of regular caravans crossing the mountains and deserts of Iran, of fleets of dhows following the coast across the Arabian Sea and of Indus merchants colonies established in Ur and Kish is by no means fanciful”. He goes on to say, “By that time, then, Pakistan was already in a position to contribute to the great cultural heritage transmitted to modern Europe and enriched by the Babylonians, Greeks and Arabs”, adding that,”To define that contribution is impossible”.

Why? Because, Childe says,” the Indus script is undeciphered and extant texts do not look as if they would be very informative when read. We know a priori that the Indus people, just as much as the Babylonians, must have organized some of their knowledge as science. A decimal numeral notation’s system of socially approved weights and measuring instruments afford direct evidence for the science of mathematics. In art the Indus sculptors and modelers may have anticipated the Greeks, but failed to influence the formalism of Mesopotamian and Egyptian Bronze age plastic….Yet many of the fundamental achievements of the Harappan civilization survived the catastrophe and the ensuing Dark Age, and live on in the folk culture of modern Pakistan”. He goes on to place the earliest signs of Neolithic Revolution – the beginning of farming on the planet – in Zhob valley of Baluchistan.

In A Study of History, Toynbee was deeply influenced by Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the great scholar of civilizations, whose Muqaddima, “Prolegomena”, the Introduction, to his planned history of the world which was never completed, was described by him as “a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”Toynbee presented history as the rise and fall of civilizations, rather than the history of nation states or of ethnic groups. Arnold Toynbee suggests that the civilization as a whole is the proper unit for the study of history, not the nation state, which he suggests is just a part of a larger whole He identified his civilizations according to cultural or religious rather than national criteria. Thus, the “Western Civilization”, comprising all the nations that have existed in Western Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, was treated as a whole, and distinguished from both the “Orthodox” civilization of Russia and the Balkans and from the Greco-Roman civilization that preceded it.

To make his intention for undertaking such a massive work of history clearer, Prof. Toynbee wrote a pamphlet in 1954 titled, A Study of History, What the Book Is For: How the Book Took Shape. He listed several reasons for this work, and here I give the last one:  “Lastly, there is a practical purpose which I have very much at heart. While, in the field of historical study, the archivists, Orientalists, and archaeologists have still been working almost out of touch with one another, in the field of practical life the World has suddenly been linked up into a single world-wide society by the technicians’ feat of “annihilating distance”. Civilizations which have developed very diverse traditions and diverse ways of life during the centuries for which they have been living in isolation have now suddenly been brought within point-blank range of one another. Their atomic missiles are now poised head to head, while their minds and hearts are still poles apart. We are all aware how dangerous this situation is for Mankind; we shall want to do anything within our power to ease it; and an historian has one thing that he can do. He can help his fellow men of different civilizations to become more familiar with one another, and, in consequence, less afraid of one another and less hostile to one another, by helping them to understand and appreciate one another’s histories and to see in these local and partial stories a common achievement and common possession of the whole human family. In an age of atomic weapons and supersonic guided missiles, Mankind must become one family or destroy itself. And it is one family; it always has been one family in the making. This is the vision which one sees when one focuses one’s gaze on the whole world today. I do believe that a synoptic view of History is one of the World’s present practical needs. And I therefore also believe that any early work in this field will have proved its worth if it is rapidly superseded, as a host of fresh workers pours in to gather up the harvest. If this were to happen to my book, I should feel that it had succeeded beyond all my expectations.”

Keeping in view the fact A Study of History has been called one of the greatest achievements of world scholarship, and is also rated as the longest book in the English language, let’s see another reason given by the author for the genesis of this work: “One of my purposes in writing A Study of History has been to throw my infinitesimal weight into the balance in which the historian’s interest and activity is distributed between the study of History in detail and the study of it as a whole. In my belief, there is no fundamental or irreconcilable opposition between these two sides of an historian’s work. One cannot be a historian without both taking general views and verifying particular facts. But each individual and each generation is apt to throw more weight into one of these two complementary scales of the historian’s balance than into the other. The balance is always fluctuating, and therefore always needs to be readjusted; and, in the generation in which I happen to have been born, most Western historians have been throwing most of their weight into the study of details. They have been exploring the vast surviving archives of the local governments of our Western World, and they have therefore been apt to see History mainly as the documentary history of Western national states. This has been a valuable and admirable enterprise, and no historian who was in his senses could think of saying about it: “We have done what we ought not to have done”. It might, though, perhaps be said of my generation of Western historians with more justice that “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done”. As far back as I can remember, I have always felt that many of my seniors and contemporaries have become prisoners of the documentary wealth [seen there and elsewhere] which they have opened up. It has been a generation in which historians have had keener eyes for the trees than for the wood; and, since the righting of the balance – on whatever side it may need righting at the moment – is a job that has perpetually to be done, I have felt a vocation to do something, in my own work, to help to bring the wood back into focus. This has been one of the purposes of the present book.” (Web blog, “Toynbee Convector”, at

Let me share with you the titles of some of the 16 articles included in ‘Crescent and Green’: “Pakistan Four Thousand Years Ago’ by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Sometime Advisor in Archaeology to the Dominion of Pakistan; ‘Pakistan and Western Asia’ by Norman Brown, Professor of Sanskrit, University of Pennsylvania; ‘The Oldest Baluchistan’ by Leslie Alcock, Sometime Superintendent of Exploration and Excavation, Archaeology Survey of Pakistan; ‘Pakistan in Early Sasanian Times’ by M. Sprengling, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages and Literature, University of Chicago; ‘Pilgrimage Through Time’ by Emily Polk; ‘Gulbadan Bano Begum’ by Wilfred Holmes; ‘Muslim Painting’ by S. Amjad Ali; ‘The Treatment of Nature in Mogul Painting’ by Eric C. Dickinson, Late Principal, Sadiq Egerton College, Bahawalpur; ‘Three English Novelists and the Pakistani Scene’ by Benjamin Gilbert Brooks, Professor of English, University of Peshawar; ‘The Urdu Writer of Our Times’ by Ahmed Shah Bokhari.

In A Study of History, Toynbee categorized five civilizations that have survived: 1) Western civilization: Western Europe, the Commonwealth of Nations, the U.S., and Latin America. 2) Orthodox Christian civilization: Russia and the Orthodox sections of southeastern Europe. 3) Islamic civilization. 4) Hindu civilization.5) Far Eastern civilization: China, Korea, Japan. His view of the American ‘civilization’ is striking and goes like this:”Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now.”

Reading history is such a joy; it’s a release, its freedom. History is thin air where I can breathe in a whole lot of oxygen (forgetting my smoke-clogged lungs), and can look at this tiny planet from a boundless perspective. Of course everybody talks of the lessons of history- for me a big one is: how far forward you can see depends upon how far back you can look. For me, apart from all the information and insights contained in books of history, its greatest effect is to lift me out from the calendar and chronometer driven quotidian world around me. Days of the week, months, and years limit my existence. The tick-tock of the clock reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s saying that, “May be this world is another planet’s hell”. Oh, to slink out of it on the viewless wings of history. I remember a whole lot of names, of kings and places, mentioned in our junior school history class. And yet, I sing with T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock:“I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”.

In his book Mankind and Mother Earth, published posthumously in 1976, Toynbee writes, “The future does not yet exist; the past has ceased to exist, and therefore, in so far as a record of the past survives, the recorded events are immutable. However, this immutable past does not present the same appearance always and everywhere. It looks different at different times and places, and either an increase or a decrease in our information may also change the picture. Our view of the relations of past events to each other, of their relative importance, and of their significance, changes constantly in consequence of the constant change of the fugitive present. The same past viewed in the same country by the same person, first in 1897 and then in 1973, presents two very different pictures; and no doubt the self-same past will look still more different when viewed in China in 2073 and even more different again when viewed in Nigeria in 2173.”

Listen to this warning of Toynbee as he closes the book: “The advance of technology, particularly the most recent advance during the two centuries 1773-1973, has vastly increased Man’s wealth and power, and the ‘morality gap’ between Man’s physical power for doing evil and his spiritual capacity for coping with this power has yawned as wide open as the mythical jaws of Hell. During the last 5000 years, the widening ‘morality gap’ has caused mankind to inflict on itself grievous disasters. Man’s spiritual inadequacy has set a limit to his social progress and therefore to his technological progress too; for, as technology has grown in scale and complexity, it has increased its requirement of social cooperation among producers of wealth.”

Toynbee argues that “self-determining” civilizations are born out of more primitive societies, not due to racial or environmental factors, but as a response to challenges, such as hard country, new ground, blows and pressures from other civilizations, and penalizations.  He argues that for civilizations to be born the challenge must be a golden mean; that excessive challenge will crush the civilization and too little challenge will cause it to stagnate. He argues that civilizations continue to grow only when they meet one challenge only to be met by another.He believes that the breakdown of civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the physical environment, over the human environment, or by attacks from side. Rather, it comes from the deterioration of the “Creative Minority,” which eventually ceases to be creative and degenerates into merely a “Dominant Minority” (who forces the majority to obey without meriting obedience). He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their “former self,” by which they become prideful, and fail to adequately address the next challenge they face. Toynbee argues that as civilizations decay, there is a “schism” within the society. In this environment of discord, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, e.g., by following a new religion).

How much of this ‘archaism’ and ‘detachment’ (of the ‘Creative Minority’) do we see around us in Pakistan today, minus Toynbee’s ‘futurism’ and ‘transcendence’? Civilizationally, are we in a state of stagnation or decay? Indeed our society is riven by schisms; all discussion and debate is marked by discord. Disagreement pays is the dominant dictum.A thought that gives me pins and needles!

[1] The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan