The pursuit of knowledge is an important concept in Islamic thought. The Prophet (peace be upon him) drove home this point when he said, “The ink of a scholar is more precious than the blood of a martyr.”
As I wrote in my column last week, rational thought was a pivotal element of early Islamic jurisprudence. In fact, it paved the way for Islam’s golden age through a group of scholars known as Mutazilites growing in influence. This group discarded the adherence to fatalism that had become common amongst Arabs, instead stressing the ability of human beings of having control over their life through the exercise of free will. Their most lasting contribution was the belief that it was foolish to read scripture devoid of the context in which it was revealed. Religious obligations, they observed, must make rational sense because God is just. This form of thinking is not different from the celebrated natural law tradition in Western jurisprudence. It is this emphasis on rational thought to interpret the commandments of faith that allowed Muslims to become pioneers in many different subjects such as the sciences.
But the schools of rational thought were supplanted by schools of rigid traditionalism for reasons that were purely political. This new ‘traditionalist’ group of scholars often discarded even common sense to push Islamic thought into a system that rejected science, practical reason, pluralism, and healthy disagreement. What happened to Islam’s golden period is, as they say, history.
Throughout most of its history, there has been only one type of scholar that has been able to attain mainstream popularity in Pakistan: the rigid traditionalist. Despite the majority of Muslims in Pakistan supposedly following the teachings of Imam Abu Hanifa (who was a believer in rational interpretation), our so-called scholars are all rigid traditionalists. They preach simplistic interpretations of faith and the world we live in, reducing a complex history of Islamic jurisprudence to myopic principles.
Maulana Tariq Jameel’s recent statement about women and immodest behaviour is one example of this. According to him, Covid-19 is God’s wrath upon our country because our women are immodest.
I have always found it strange how this thinking works. When women demand their rights, these very same scholars and preachers say Islam grants them more rights than other faiths. Yet, they then go on to project hate towards women by blaming them for natural disasters. How they reconcile these two ideas without splitting the mind into two pieces is baffling.
Like many other religious preachers in Pakistan, Maulana Tariq Jameel’s views on women are inherently problematic. They continue to describe women as catalysts for our misfortunes. The simplest reason for this seems to be internalised misogyny, and the fact that most scholars in faith have historically been male in our country. Religion is simply interpretation, and if you look at it from the lens of patriarchy you will no doubt find arguments to justify what you already believe. That is a failure of scholarship that every serious scholar wants to avoid.
But let’s not forget that these individuals are not strictly scholars in the sense that they write academic papers for other scholars. Instead, they are also spiritual guides who depend on mass followings to remain relevant. So, they often project simplistic views of the world. Convincing the people of this country that they are God’s chosen ones allows them to amass cult-like followings.
Unfortunately, because the world is more complicated than this picture, these scholars run into problems when misfortune strikes their followers. How then do they explain why something like Covid-19 infects the chosen ones?
Here, they draw on the same principles that populists use across the globe. They find an easy, vulnerable group to blame. This group is almost always women in Pakistan. Women with their clothes; women trying to do jobs left for men; women going to private universities; women preaching feminism. The legions of followers gobble it up because it is exactly what a patriarchal society wants to hear. Everybody wins.
And while our televangelists casually blame women for Covid-19 and go home, across the country women are facing rising cases of domestic violence. Women are killed in the name of honour. Women are raped and blamed for it. When scholars label them for our misfortunes, does it surprise anyone that their followers take out their frustrations on women?
People resent criticism of Maulana Tariq Jameel because he is a scholar. But when scholars use perspective bias to further their own misogyny should they not be called out for it? When they make irresponsible statements that may lead to violence against women should we not try to prevent it? To use the label of scholarship to peddle harmful ideas goes against the message of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the respect he accorded to the attainment of knowledge.
And why shouldn’t we criticise such scholarship when our country has made sure that an opposing voice in the debate is effectively non-existent? Only a certain type of scholar of faith is allowed in our country. Those bearing even a remote affinity for rational thought are exiled or shunned. Take the example of Fazlur Rehman Malik, or Javed Ghamidi.
An apology is the least Maulana Tariq Jameel can do to prevent further harm to women from his statement. If he is a scholar, then he must discard the intellectual laziness of blaming Covid-19 on the actions of women and immodesty. The golden age of Islam that so many crave for happened because people weren’t afraid to answer complex problems with complex answers. People like Maulana Tariq Jameel talk of that golden age often but refuse to do anything to reclaim it.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 28th, 2020.
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