Engaging with religion and the religious

Published: November 6, 2013
The writer teaches Islamic Studies at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS. He tweets 

The writer teaches Islamic Studies at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS. He tweets @AurangzebH

A few days ago, I posted on my Facebook, a column by Hafiz Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi, chairman of the All-Pakistan Ulema Council, in which he countered the militants’ claim that the September church attack in Peshawar was in accordance with sharia. Using the holy Prophet’s (peace be upon him) examples and other important events in Islamic history, he made a convincing argument that destroying non-Muslims’ places of worship is against the Islamic religious tradition.

Hoping this would be appreciated by the religious and non-religious alike, I was surprised when a friend suggested that I need not promote ‘mullahs’ as they already enjoy more power than they should have. By promoting them, I was according them even greater authority over how to interpret religion for the rest of us. In her opinion, “they are the problem”. She stressed on the right of individual Muslims to interpret God’s will on their own.

To begin with, ‘mullah’ is an unfair term: one that lumps together the best and the worst and fails to represent the internal diversity and rich heritage of the scholarly religious community. This other-ing and reductionist approach increases polarisation in an already fractured society. It prevents ‘us’ from engaging with the ‘mullahs’ — with even those whose voice might often sound like ‘ours’. Unwittingly, this attitude of non-engagement gives more authority to the ‘mullahs’ over interpreting religion, since they end up being the only ones doing it in the public domain.

If one wishes to change how religion manifests itself in society, one cannot ignore the social function of religion and its interpretation by the religiously learned community. To recognise this function is to be able and willing to contribute to the religious discourse in the public domain. While I agree with the necessity and God-given right of an individual to interpret religion for one’s own purposes, it can neither propel alternative discourses nor transform the existing ones, unless it is considered authoritative in the public sphere for its serious engagement with religious sciences and tradition.

With respect to presenting alternative viewpoints to affect public religious discourses, there is a need for religious literacy in alternative frameworks. Recently, Habib University organised a conference on post-colonial higher education. As part of their new liberal arts curriculum, they plan to include Islamic Intellectual Tradition as part of a course on Hikmah. This approach, within the framework of Humanities discipline, takes into account the literary, historical and philosophical aspects. It places the intellectual tradition of Islamic milieu in conversation with that of Greek and traces its continuity up to the modern South Asian intellectual tradition. One member of the audience perhaps, misunderstood the university’s intention. She complained, “Why are we talking about a year-long course on Islamic Traditions? Don’t you think it is time we move away from merging religion and humanities?” She wrapped up General Zia and ‘mullahs’ in the same breath. Acting Dean of the university responded, “We cannot completely disown or disinherit Islamic traditions … Large domains of human thought cannot be dismissed simply by saying it’s irrational.” Knowledge and understanding about religion, which is a relevant and important social phenomenon, is indeed necessary. Major universities around the world require their students to study religion as part of their liberal arts curriculum.

She was also mistaken about something else. In post-colonial Muslim societies in general, and in Pakistan in particular, we have never really studied religion as Humanities. Exactly the opposite has happened so far. Specialised study of religion has been relegated to madrassas, which have little or no interaction with other academic disciplines. In public and private educational institutions, barring a few exceptions, Islamiat is controlled by the state and influenced by the dominant religious discourses produced in the madrassas by the disengaged ‘mullahs’. Even at the university level, things are not very different. Coupled with a historical and political context of conflict-ridden modern-day Pakistan, this situation has given rise to a certain religious discourse that is for the most part reactionary, exclusive and extreme in its outlook.

It is when the study of religion is demerged from Humanities that we face a problem. Historical evidence suggests that during the first 200 years of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-950 CE), it was its intellectual tradition — not further conquests — which transformed an Arab tribal society into a world Islamic civilisation. A central feature of this tradition was ‘adab’. Translated as ‘Humanism’ by George Makdisi, it represented a certain kind of critical refinement. It included sciences of language with literature, history and sometimes philosophy, among its various sub-fields. Studying Islam was not detached from studying these disciplines. In fact, disciplines which fall under Humanities today, were at the centre of all learning and respectable professions in classical and medieval Muslim societies. Having this precedent makes a stronger case to merge the study of Islam and Humanities. It is hoped that this approach — this alternative framework — will open up a space for engaging with religion in a manner that would help create alternative religious discourses that are for the most part proactive, inclusive and balanced in their outlook, while being sincere to the Islamic sciences and tradition.

I sometimes engage with ‘mullahs’. Often, I do not agree with them. When I do, I support their opinions. When I do not, I try to converse with them. Sometimes, they are willing to listen. This is crucial because engagement provides a space and opportunity to build trust. It also carries the ‘risk’ of mutual transformation. In the aforementioned reactions of both respected individuals — with due apologies if misunderstood — I sensed a certain distrust and fear, and therefore, perhaps, a disregard of the other and an unwillingness to engage with the unknown: the ‘mullah’ and the kind of Islam he represents. This distrust also holds true for the ‘mullah’, who is deeply suspicious of anyone who criticises him in this manner and who claims to seize religious authority from him. The problem is on both sides. In order to transform the role of religion and the religious into a positive one in society, one must be willing as well as capable to engage. Shunning away both, religion and the religious, since ‘they are the problem’, reflects an attitude that is part of the problem itself.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (29)

  • faraz
    Nov 7, 2013 - 12:02AM

    Fate of one man Ghamidi is enough to refute your argument about the need for engaging mullahs using Islamic tradition!


  • sabi
    Nov 7, 2013 - 1:04AM

    ”Unwittingly, this attitude of non-engagement gives more authority to the ‘mullahs’ over interpreting religion, since they end up being the only ones doing it in the public domain.”

    Before engaging with mullah over interpretation of religion it is a must to read the relative clauses of the law of the land that deal with such adventurism.It’s the Mullah that doesn’t allow any ‘engagement’ he has guns and law at his disposal.
    A man overwhelmed by an ad, ‘How to become millionaire over night’,went to the book store and ordered that book.Man at the counter returned with two books.What is this second book? inquired the the customer; ‘Pakistan penal code’ replied the shop keeper.


  • unbelievable
    Nov 7, 2013 - 1:25AM

    Things aren’t going to change until you have the guts to stand up and confront the extremist – regardless of whether he’s a Mullah or a follower. How many Pakistanis have walked out of hate filled sermon or openly challenged someone promoting jihad? You created the pedestal that Mullahs perch on – you can remove it as well.


  • Omar J.
    Nov 7, 2013 - 1:44AM

    The author’s argument is deeply flawed. Religious study as part of Liberal Arts courses makes sense when there is freedom for “Liberal”ism. In Pakistani society, including in our classrooms, there’s no such freedom to critically analyze religion and its practices. Here any narrative other than a deeply conservative affirmation of the majority religion’s beliefs results in persecution under our blasphemy laws and death. Just ask Salman Taseer’s family.

    In this environment, religious study even in a Liberal Arts curriculum will serve no purpose other than to peddle the religious majority’s deeply divisive maximalist narrative. It will only serve to justify and reinforce our hatred of minorities under the guise of “analysis”. As such religious study is best left out of schools and classrooms.


  • No man
    Nov 7, 2013 - 2:24AM

    Unfortunately in Pakistan the liberals have failed to engage with ‘mullahs’ in a constructive dialogue. They are as much responsible for polarization of this society as are ‘mullahs’. Part of the reason is that these liberals consider themselves to be part of so called elite and don’t identify themselves with a common Pakistani. The article has raised an important issues. Thanks for the balanced analysis.


  • NA
    Nov 7, 2013 - 3:02AM

    Brilliant! Bravo.


  • shahid
    Nov 7, 2013 - 4:01AM

    Thank you. I hope you can find others who will join you in furthering your ideas, spreading them and expanding them. That is the only hope.


  • Talha Rizvi
    Nov 7, 2013 - 11:32AM

    I agree with you sir. It is the duty of parents to instill good values in their children and to teach them about religious tolerance. My father’s elder brother was killed in anti-muslim violence in India and I am happy to say that despite that I was never taught to hate the followers of Hinduism and India. I was told that my uncle had gone ‘missing’ in the anti-muslim violence in Hyderabad Deccan. It was only in my late teens that I came to know about the whole version of the story. It is also imperative of every parent to instill sectarian tolerance in them. I was never taught to hate shias or any other sect for that matter.
    My mother had an Ahmedi friend when she first started teaching and although she was advised by people to discontinue this friendship and subsequently there was some distance between them and then my mother got transferred to another college but I can never forget that after my father’s death she was the one who consoled my mother most efficiently and according to her she shared her grief beautifully.

    @ unbelievable: I have. Many courageous people have done it in many large public gatherings. The problem with you Indians is that you think all Pakistanis are religious fanatics. How many Indians have ever protested against Modi, Bal Thakrey , Sushma Swaraj etc.?


  • Rex Minor
    Nov 7, 2013 - 1:17PM

    ET moderators,

    How do you reckon people in your part of the world will begin to understand about the religion of Islam, when those who teach the religion and cannot separate the religion from culture, traditions and politics. I did try to point this out in my comments but you have censored them away. No one can save Pakistan from ignorance if you as an important media prevent the flow of knowledge among the Ummah?

    Rex Minor


  • Nov 7, 2013 - 3:30PM

    It seems so reasonable that you want to engage with the mullahs. It is like the anchors, who say they are neutral and in that guise allow rabid religious right a platform to spew the views on life.

    The problem with reasonableness is that religion per se is not reasonable. it is a dogma – you need to believe -the bush doctrine of with us or against us.

    When Nehru and Ambedkar put forward the Hindu reform laws in the 1950’s – they did not engage with the pandits or gurus. They just looked at social justice, equality for the sexes etc.

    To this, most Islamists will tell you that Islam is a perfect religion that has given women all the rights and there is no need for reform.

    You cannot bring social justice to any society on the coattails of any religion – that is the sad, harsh truth. Religion has no place in the public domain.


  • mind control
    Nov 7, 2013 - 4:09PM

    Some body help me understand this.

    Is the author saying that Pakistan has reached where it has reached because it is not ‘engaging’ with Religion and the Religious? Is he seriously trying to say that the journey from

    A. ‘You are free to go to your Temples’- (1947)


    B. The Objectives Resolution -(1949)


    C. 2nd Amendment -(1973)


    D. Blasphemy Laws and Hudood Ordinance- (1986)


    E. Article 91 (3)- (2010)

    All came into existence without any engagement with either Religion or the Religious?

    Spurious- is a word that I am strongly reminded of.

    If you are looking for a way out of the present mess, lay down a line between the Personal and the Public and the Religion and the State, and the Religious and the Citizen.

    Moderator ET- Care to revisit your Comments Policy, please.


  • Parvez
    Nov 7, 2013 - 4:32PM

    Excellent article and you have made a very valid point. In academic terms it rings true, the difficulty would arise when put to the practical test but that does not mean that one should not try.
    In Pakistan’s context its not so much about religion but rather the ‘ use of religion ‘ to further a cause and this has distorted religious values to such an extent that the distinction between good and bad has almost disappeared. Small example : We kill in the name of religion…….how can that be good ??


  • Imad Uddin
    Nov 7, 2013 - 4:50PM

    Careful analysis. I would like to take it in a specific direction. One has to deeply understand its subject (extremism) to tackle it, specially how it would react to different stimuli. Only then one can determine suffecient legal political and social safeguards and controls to be applied on Vulnerable and sensitive areas,.
    Thanks et for entering into a new area of analysis.


  • A Bozdar
    Nov 7, 2013 - 5:27PM

    The tolerance shown by the author with religious right is something we should all be adopting. Engaging with people who have different point of views should help remove the current situation in our society where whoever speaks the loudest and the most is considered winning the debate. Moderates and liberal left needs to understand first and then properly challenge doctrines issued by various religious school of thoughts. All of this is important if we wish to progress intellectually as a nation. It is tough especially if the other side has guns and don’t wish to engage with you. However if everyone start believing that we are all doomed that then there is no way we can come out of our current abyss. History of the world shows that nations which were in dire straits and were in a rapid decline (we are in this category whether we believe it or not) came out of their dark period realising the power of thought and engagement.


  • observer
    Nov 7, 2013 - 5:50PM

    @Talha Rizvi:

    The problem with you Indians is that you think all Pakistanis are religious fanatics.

    That is not true. Not all, onlly almost all.For example Taseer was not one. But then more people turned up to garland his killer that to his Namaz-e-Jenaza. And that causes confusion

    So tell me 5 people from Pakistan who are not religious fanatics.Excluding Asma Jahangir, Saroop Ijaz, NFP, Mr Abdul Sattar Edhi and Mohammed Hanif.


    How many Indians have ever protested against Modi, Bal Thakrey , Sushma Swaraj etc.?

    Enough numbers to ensure that the Shiv Sena does not rule Mumbai (despite 26/11) and BJP does not rule Delhi.

    Now tell me what role did TTP play in PMLN and PTI victory?Recommend

  • raj
    Nov 7, 2013 - 5:59PM

    Moderator ET- Care to revisit your Comments Policy, please.

    @mind control
    I think the moderators rotate. The person moderating today is fascistic. Just about blocking all comments.

    Hello moderator, share this truth with ur readers.Recommend

  • sensible
    Nov 7, 2013 - 6:24PM

    author well pointed out—– but

    The concept of Pakistan is now questioned.Pakistan was created for the Muslims of the subcontinent because it was impossible to live under oppressive Hindus.
    So why study comparative religions or liberal arts when Islam is all inclusive.

    in fact all Islamic countries should have stricter version of Islam and sharia because it is the solution for all mortal problems.

    chalk and cheese !!Recommend

  • Midhat
    Nov 7, 2013 - 9:08PM

    It is a very sensible article. Unfortunately some leftists and a few liberals( Pakistanies) tend to go on the extreme defensive as soon as they see man with a beard. When they see a turbaned individual with no religious credentials talk nonsense, they lumpsum all the religious into this clan of mullahs; the senseless, untrustworthy and regressive kind dictating our social lifestyles and architecting terrorisim. The term ‘mullah’ in Pakistan has evolved into something with a negative connotation and the author has righlty pointed out its reason being non-enagegement with the learned elite scholors. The reason the foriegn expat muslims are more logical and excepting of the religious culture than Pakistanies is that they have engaged with the more rational, educated and learned scholors instead of turning a deaf ear to them. In Pakistan the extremist Fazullah is termed as a mullah, and with this non-enagagement approach unfortunately his likes take the face of mullaism in Pakistan, which further widens the gaps and mis-trust between the educated regilous and the leftistsRecommend

  • Rex Minor
    Nov 7, 2013 - 9:20PM

    I do not mean to be rude sir, but please, hinduism is not a religion but an ancient cult! It is obvious that the author is dealing with the mullahs and the society of mullah scholars about the religion of Islam. Islam for every ones information is the reformed version of the Ibrahimic religion and human rights are based on the values derived from the scriptures of the Ibrahimc religions.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • x
    Nov 7, 2013 - 10:00PM

    Excellent article. Religion and religious people are not the problem, active discourse and critical thinking is required which involves being able to think, argue and make your own choices even if u disagree with others.
    ‘liberals’ are not just drinking, partying elite class, even among the middle and upper middle classes, reasonably educated, upwardly mobile, hard working people constitue the liberal classes who may be somewhat ‘religious’ but are also critical, open minded and rational. Again, there are those who do notfollow religion but in discussions, maintain a dogmatic stance. Thee hypocrites do the most damage. Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Nov 7, 2013 - 10:08PM

    @A Bozdar:

    Well said! But sir Pakistan is not in decline, it has never taken of the two century of colonisation! Pakistan avows to the religion of Islam of ancient times but is governed more or less by the laws of colonial times including such abhoring laws of blasphemy and others including excommunications of people who have promised to be muslims. Yes, a muslim, a believer, the one who PROMISES to submits to the religion of Islam.

    What is needed is the Aufklarung of Islam as a religion in our times similar to christianity which has experienced the Aufklarung among the protestents and catholics and others during the period of renaissance which gave birth to Humanism instead of sheer dogma.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Tariq
    Nov 7, 2013 - 10:30PM

    In current day Pakistan, the playing field is not leveled.Heck, it is lopsided in favour of the “mullah”. As an example see the fate of one who decided engage the extremist views using his position as an agent of the rule of law (Salman Taseer), and the one who did so as an agent of fair intellectual discourse (Ghamdi).

    It may take multitudes of Taseers and Ghamdis before engagement starts bringing something benefits to Pakistan. Is the society even on a path to produce a hundred such men? How about 50? 20? 10? One??Recommend

  • A Bozdar
    Nov 7, 2013 - 10:32PM


    Pakistan as a nation state is in decline, at least in my humble view, compared to world around it. The religious fervour and mosque in every street we see today with every Imam being funded by someone to create division is a relatively new concept even in country which came into being not long ago. We always had ethnic divisions previously which is not a new concept globally (present day Europe is the same) but religious subdivision and extreme violence by at least one sect is quite current. Recommend

  • Amin
    Nov 8, 2013 - 1:24AM

    I’m sure Iranian liberals wrote such things in their newspapers too before the clerics took over everything.


  • Rex Minor
    Nov 9, 2013 - 4:00AM

    @A Bozdar:

    Let me try again to reply an hope that the moderator will allow its printing.

    If there are mosques in every street simply shows that the country has a systemic failure in the communitiies which are meant to plan, approve and supervise city constructions. The prolonged military government with marshal laws and the attempt to administer the country with colonial rules and laws beyond the transition period is not going to place the country into the 21st century. People may not realise or accept the reality that Pakistan is still living and struggling in the 20th century mode. The country needs reforms in its constitution, education institutions, judiciary as well as the civil service and the military. The newly elected Prime Minister of Pakistan has the opportunity to write the history of Pakistan by setting up several commisions with foreign advisers to formulate the necessary reforms which are needed for the Republic. Turkey is the model which is progressing with leaps and bounds with the assistance and the advice of the European Union commissioners so as to fully qualify for becoming the member of the European Union.

    Rex Minor


  • Omer Masoon Wazir
    Nov 9, 2013 - 6:44PM

    I agree with the author’s idea to include religious studies as a part of humanities. In enginnering and in medical sciences if one go to see the course of Islamist and Pakistan studies it is only designed to clear the students with passing marks and has nothing to do with training the students of science to at least have the glimpse of true spirit of Islam.as an enginner when I visit my past over that course which I studied at u.e.t Lahore now I feel it was just a joke and I learnt what I knew during my matriculation.instead of getting something new itt was just the repetition of nothing new..


  • observer
    Nov 9, 2013 - 11:21PM
  • Insaan
    Nov 11, 2013 - 7:49AM

    @Rex Minor:”How do you reckon people in your part of the world will begin to understand about the religion of Islam, when those who teach the religion and cannot separate the religion from culture, traditions and politics.”

    If Islam is a WAY OF LIFE, everything Muslims do is Islam and that includes culture, traditions and politics.


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