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.