How Islamic is Pakistan meant to be?

How can we reconcile the authoritarian and coercive structures of religious authority present in Pakistan with the country’s stated allegiance to democratic principles?

Ali Ahmad October 08, 2010
Even among our most mature thinkers, columnists or critics, the discussion of secularism lacks substance.

Nearly all articles on secularism within the Pakistani press conflate liberal political theory with secularism (I use secularism in this context as a paradigm of mosque/church-state relations). Out come the arguments for rights, progress, science, rationality and tolerance, but to any student of political theory, this is the sign of a confused mind. These are not ‘’secular’’ concepts at all, but political values that are borne out of the liberal tradition of political thought.

Liberalism and secularism are not the same

Indeed, secularism itself is not a political ideology but just one part of a wider array of critical questions.

The real substance in any discussion on secularism must be about religious authority, religious law, the role of religion in the public sphere and the relationship between religious and political institutions (mosque and state relations).

Religious authority and the nation state

In this post, I am concerned with just religious authority. What is to be the nature of religious authority in a modern nation state? Can religious authority be democratic? We need a discussion on the relationship between religious authority and the nation state.

The nation state marks a paradigm shift for Muslim societies who have traditionally been ruled by sultanates, self proclaimed caliphs and monarchs. The concept of the nation state itself arguably borne out of the experiences of the French and American Revolutions, which gave rise to the phenomenon of constitutionalism, codification of a positivist law and separation of powers, has presented unique challenges to Muslim societies. Indeed the modern era has perhaps plunged Muslim societies into a crisis of legal authority.

The first Shari’a-based modern code of law which sets the pattern for all future codifications of the Shari’a, was not in the medieval age, but in the age of modernity initiated by the Ottoman Empire in the sixteen books of the Mecelle (subsumed under the Tanzimat Reforms) during the decade just preceding the drafting of the Ottoman Constitution, 1869–1876, which can be seen as an attempt to create an ‘’Islamic Constitutionalism’’ in response to the perceived encroaching juridical-political hegemony of the Europeans.

Religious authority can assume a number of functions from establishing orthodox and orthopraxy normative to establishing a canon of authorative texts and interpretations. But defining and constructing religious authority in a nation state presents unique challenges.

What do laws have to do with it?

This question is even more pertinent given the recent changes made to the Council of Islamic Ideology and the appointment of a new head who some say is unrepresentative of the religiosity of the general public and regressive. Senator Shirani the new appointed head belongs to the Jamat-e-Islami party, a party which is one of the worst performing at elections and achieves a small percentage of the vote. Hence the question which is rightly asked by many is how can such an unrepresentative political agent be given such an influence on legislative authority? Is it simply because this is ‘’religious legislation’’, and hence democratic principles are suspended when constructing religious authority in a legislative context? Why is there this ‘’religious exceptionalism’’?

Should not the bodies and organizations which have influence on the legislation of a nation state be held to account, and  scrutiny, even if they be religious. After all religion is divine and infallible but the musings and reasoning of no particular cleric progressive or regressive is infallible, and human knowledge whether religious or secular should not be treated as Divine.

But was religious authority always so coercive and authoritarian? The picture is different, historically speaking; religious authority in classical Islam was pluralistic and tolerant of divergent view points:
‘’ By codification and state promulgation, the movements that aim to reintroduce Islamic law through the political power of the state end up changing radically the nature of Islamic law, which was traditionally epistemically [the structure and theory of knowledge] grounded and contained a variety of equally valid and orthodox viewpoints.’’

The history of religious authority in the Islamic traditions is too expansive a topic to tackle here, though we can safely say religious authority in Muslim societies never had full control of political power and usually religious authority was subordinated or independent of the sultanate etc. Historian Mubarak Ali in a recent interview said:
’ Almost all the rulers in Muslim history applied the model of secularism during their rule. During the Abbasid period, ulema were not allowed to interfere in the political affairs of state and the caliph was not allowed to meddle in religious affairs.’’

Which Islam represents the state?

The concern today is how to reconcile the authoritarian and coercive structures of religious authority present in Pakistan with the country’s stated allegiance to democratic principles. With the rise of the new and unprecedented political construct of the Islamic State (or Islamic Republic) in the post colonial era, questions about the role of Sharia in this new political reality and how and who is to determine it have become more important. We are faced with a flood of questions:

  • Who speaks for Islam?

  • Who has the right to interpret the foundational religious texts?

  • Can there be a ‘’State Islam’’, a state sponsored religiosity which all have to abide by?

  • Furthermore, even more tricky questions arise as to the nature of ‘’true’’ ijtihad, who performs ijtihad, who defines it, what is its scope?

Does Islamic law stop becoming the will of God and the political will of rulers when the State enforces it? Professor An Naim seems to think so, in his book ‘’Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating The Future of Sharia (pg 261):
"Any Sharia principle that is enforced by the state only represents the view of the ruling elite and becomes the political will of the state rather than the religious law of Muslims’’

All these questions arise when we try and merge republicanism, with a legal discourse which spans over many centuries and many schools of thought with immense complexity and diversity. In effect a clash of mindsets arises, a democratic psychology when it comes to determining temporal authority, but a more subdued, devotion based psychology when it comes to religious authority. It marks a dissonance and the conflict and challenges modernity brings to the dynamics of the Islamic traditions.

The innate pluralism, flexibility and diversity of Sharia it seems is only quashed and repressed in the new political reality of the nation state. Historically speaking:
‘Throughout the development of Islamic legal theory, there has been

widespread divergence in the interpretations of the Muslim

jurists qualified to expound God’s sharia.

This captures the tension between  unity  and  diversity  in  Islamic

legal doctrine which  goes  to  the  very  core  of Muslim  jurisprudence. ‘’

In an effort to codify and centralise the dispensation of Sharia the pluralism, complexities and subtleties of the legal tradition are being cast aside. One wonders whether merging the political structures of modernity in the manifestation of the nation state with the dynamics of such a vast and tradition based legal discourse as Sharia is a wise decision. Who does the State turn to in the absence of a divinely ordained clergy and ‘’church’’ as in the case with Roman Catholicism to determine these religiously based legislative norms?

Iqbal too was keenly aware of adapting notions of religious authority in a legislative context with the new political paradigm, in a lecture in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam:
‘’ The growth of republican spirit and the gradual formation of legislative assemblies in Muslim lands constitute a great step in advance. The transfer of the power of  Ijtihad from individual representatives of schools to a Muslim legislative assembly which, in view of the growth of opposing sects, is the only possible form  Ijma can take in modern times, will secure contributions to legal discussion from laymen who happen to possess a keen insight into affairs.’’

Iqbal keenly aware of the challenges of the nation state argued for a modernization of the Islamic legal tradition:
‘’ The only effective remedy for the possibilities of erroneous interpretations is to reform the present system of legal education in [Islamic] countries, to extend its sphere, and to combine it with an intelligent study of modern jurisprudence.’’

Indeed in the editor’s introduction in a particular edition of the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, the following remarks are revealing:
‘’ In a press interview, a little before the second Round Table Conference, the Allama expressed his intention of writing a book on ‘the system of fiqh in the light of modern knowledge’, another ‘work of reconstruction’ on the legal aspect of Islam, much more important than its purely theological aspect. To this second work of reconstruction, his present work of reconstruction on the philosophical aspect of Islam, he added with his usual modesty, was ‘necessary as a prelude’. The much cherished book: ‘The Reconstruction of Legal Thought in Islam’ was, however, not written: but the bare fact that the Allama wanted to write it and the great importance that he attached to the writing of it, signifies, perhaps, his will to posterity.’’

Could such a work be conceived in modern Pakistan?

The rupture of the juridical tradition of ‘’classical Islam’’ in seeing the determination of Sharia as a matter for a class of individual scholars, compared to the need of legal centralisation in the context of a modern nation state is a  critical clash . This conflict and rupture will continue to take place until serious questions about the nature, legitimacy and scope of religious authority is once again robustly discussed.

Ultimately, the fundamental question is: who speaks for Islam in Pakistan?
Ali Ahmad A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Anoop | 10 years ago | Reply The lesson to be learned from Pakistan is: Never create a state on the basis of a divisive theory or how different your faith is to others.
Ahmad Ali | 10 years ago | Reply Though I am cautious about over historicising and contextualising categories and words, that we fundamentally create an epistemic block towards understanding said categories in today's context. It's as if rather than opening up new vistas of understanding, the contextualisation process (sometimes) empties words of their meaning entirely to the point we refuse to engage in the substance of the category (what are the actual principles involved and what do they mean for our society today) and are too concerend about the form (how were these categories constructed and conceived) hence sliding towards a deconstructionist form of postmodern idle talk.
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