Maulana Tariq Jamil’s new fashion line and liberal critics

Maulana finds himself at the centre of a cultural and political battle for Pakistan’s soul between the right and left.

M Bilal Lakhani May 02, 2021

‘Awww,’ tweeted a liberal commentator in response to a news item that Maulana Tariq Jamil launched his flagship fashion line store in Karachi. “When you earn money by selling religion and build a business empire!” There was plenty of liberal scorn heaped on Maulana Tariq Jamil going about his business by, you know, starting a business. Why so much hate for a religious man who has consistently sought to heal the country’s sectarian divisions versus fuel them? That’s because Maulana Tariq Jamil finds himself at the centre of a cultural and political battle for Pakistan’s soul between the right and left.

First, let’s try to understand why Maulana Tariq Jamil started this business, in his own words. “I would pray to God to create a scenario where we didn’t just have to rely on zakat from people,” he shared. “My madressah never had an administration asking for charity. It was always me getting in touch with people I know, who would then contribute whatever they liked. However, after the pandemic I realised that everyone had been affected and I said to myself I cannot ask anyone for any more aid. I then wondered ‘how will the system work now?’” he said, revealing how the idea came into being.

Bottom line, the intent of Maulana Tariq Jamil’s business is to do the exact opposite of the liberal insinuation or critique that he’s commercialising religion. “In the Subcontinent, ulema involved in businesses are looked down upon and criticised, though I don’t know where this is coming from,” the religious scholar shared, citing the example of Imam Abu Hanifa who was a huge trader and cloth merchant of his time. “In our era, a maulvi is only looked upon as a beggar. Someone who begs in front of people,” he said, pre-empting the criticism he would receive.

What’s the worst that can happen if religious scholars get into the business of fashion? Moderation and bad fashion, I guess. This should be welcomed by our liberal elite instead of being criticised. Pakistan has a genuine right-wing, religious extremism problem. Where Covid couldn’t lock down our cities, the TLP could. But if you start painting all religious scholars with the same broad brush, including scholars enlightened enough to open their own fashion lines, you’re likely to leave religious leadership to those with extreme views.

This isn’t an isolated incident. This government faced intense liberal criticism on the introduction of the Single National Curriculum in schools. Liberals argued this would convert our schools into madrasahs. The truth was the exact opposite: all madrasah students would now receive standard, ‘worldly’ education, including science. This is a historic leap forward for our marginalised madrasah students but was instead painted as a downgrade for what’s taught in mainstream schools. The truth is that the Single National Curriculum is a floor, not a ceiling, for what can be taught to school age children.

All of this is a symptom of a larger, stranger Islamophobia within Pakistan’s liberal elite which polarises our public discourse. For example, when Covid began to emerge, there was intense (right and righteous) pressure to shut down mosques immediately. But the same guardians of public health and safety were then seen posting selfies of themselves at private parties. Nothing wrong with going to a party, this is a free country after all, but realise that the right wing has no monopoly on moral hypocrisy in Pakistan. Moral hypocrisy, not cricket or hockey, should be our national sport.

What is beyond me though, what made me angry enough to write this piece is how liberals go on and on about how religious scholars ask their followers to prioritise deen (religion) and de-prioritise dunya (this world) and how this is the primary reason for Pakistan’s problems. Now we have a religious scholar who is literally fusing deen with dunya, and you’re taking pot shots at him too. Will anything ever satisfy our liberal chattering classes? Sometimes our liberal friends should learn to live and let live. I believe more religious scholars stepping up into the mainstream — doing business and gaudy fashion — is a pathway for Pakistan to become a far more moderate and tolerant society.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 2nd, 2021.

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