Islam: Moving On

By Anjum Altaf

Religion is so central to life that its impact on society needs to be studied quite independently of the beliefs of the analyst.

Religion has both individual and collective dimensions. At the individual level, it can provide a sense of meaning and predictability and be a source of comfort and solace. The individual dimension can cast its shadow on the collective depending on selective emphasis by those who interpret God’s will on the religious tendencies of resignation or revolt (qana’at versus jihad, for example).

At the collective level, religion inevitably gets intertwined with politics and more often than not ends up as a tool subservient to larger political objectives. Any objective analysis of the history of religion has to record the terrible costs inflicted upon society by this combination.

It was a realization of these costs that spurred the European movement to separate Church and State – to free politics from the ill effects of religious factionalism while retaining the positive contributions of religion at the individual level.

This movement has been largely successful but there is still a strong residual effect in the US where the religious lobby has a significant bearing both on domestic issues and on foreign policy. Outside of the religious lobbies, there is general acceptance of the view that the impacts on foreign policy are negative for global peace and human welfare.

In this framework we can look at some aspects of the impact of Islam in Pakistan. One can easily identify areas where the interpretations of Islam and its use in the socio-political arena have stymied progress and development. All one has to do is to step into any of the issues deadlocked by the Islamic/un-Islamic controversies.

The point to note is that while these controversies impact events in Pakistan, they are by no means new. Is interest Islamic or un-Islamic? Is contraception Islamic or un-Islamic? Is suicide bombing Islamic or un-Islamic? Is gender equality Islamic or un-Islamic? Is music Islamic or un-Islamic? These have been open questions for hundreds of years and they are no closer to a resolution today than they were when they were first posed.

The most deleterious impact of this irresolution is the arbitrariness and uncertainty it imposes on society. Every political leader finds it possible to find a religious authority that would justify his or her personal interpretation and legitimize its imposition on the country. A new leader can just as easily find support to reverse this interpretation. The net result is a hodge-podge of institutions and practices, endless controversy, and frozen development.

Islam is peculiar amongst religions in this regard because it has no unified Church and no single source of religious interpretation. Some authority can always be found in support of any one interpretation and there is no process whereby the conflicting interpretations can be resolved to the satisfaction of all. Hence the phenomenon of fundamental questions remaining open for centuries.

One can see this in everyday discussions in Pakistan. One can find individuals aggressively challenging each other on their reading of the Quran and labeling the others source of interpretation as either ignorant or an agent of external powers. Not a single one of these heated discussions every ends in agreement.

Given the above and given that it is not possible to separate Church and State in Pakistan, how does one overcome this overwhelming barrier to development? Ironically, the very source of the problem suggests a solution.

There is agreement in Pakistan that no measure that violates an Islamic injunction can be included in the Constitution or be a part of public policy. This could be modified to state that all legislation and public policies would be in accordance with religious edicts on which there is consensus amongst the major schools of Islam.

This would put the onus on the religious authorities and force them either to find acceptable solutions to the open questions or step out of the way of policy making. Factions would no longer enjoy the luxury of arbitrarily holding up one measure or the other in opposition to other religious factions, a process that inevitably leads to the dominance of street power over reason. It would also take away the opportunity for political leaders to advance their personal religious preferences by taking advantage of favorable theological interpretations.

One can return to music as a relatively innocuous topic to concretize this discussion. Even the major Sufi orders, quite at odds with the traditional Ulama, differ amongst themselves on the religious legitimacy of sama’. Till such time as the various parties reach agreement, it would make sense for the State to take an agnostic position while allowing the adherents of the different orders and traditions to act in accordance with their interpretations as long as they do not cause harm to others.

It would make sense to require a consensus on religious edicts before they can be incorporated in state policies. Till such time, laws and policies can be formulated on the basis that is standard practice in the modern world – that of advancing the welfare of all the citizens of the state.

An earlier post on the functions of religion can be accessed here. Students of South Asian history will find a foreshadowing of these issues in The Mughals, The Sufi Shaikhs, and the Formation of the Akbari Dispensation by Muzzafar Alam.

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  • Vinod
    Posted at 01:38h, 20 July Reply

    Regarding music, I think that most of those who prohibit it have negative associations that go with music in their psyche. It is also a fact that music that is enjoyed by teenagers today has unwholesome lyrics. There are exceptions ofcourse. And it is the overbearing dominance of modernity with all its good and bad that the mind of a muslim scholar is trying to resist. He feels impelled to search for those evidences from the sources that make these wrong. He loses sight of the fact that music can also be wholesome; that it is in essence a value neutral activity. Less fatwas and more spiritual guidance is the need of the hour. The onslaught of modernity cannot be contained. It’s too late for that. But people can be moulded with gentle and compassionate spiritual guidance in dealing with this onslaught. Edicts are not the best way to deal with the nuances of modernity.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 15:32h, 21 July Reply

    It appears to me that somehow it is embedded in our psyche that suffering is religiously good and having fun sinful. God is merely projection of a tyrannical zamindar from 35mm film to a giant screen. Therefore pushed to wall to reach a consensus on all unresolved issues; the clergy will opt for all the negative options. From frying pan to fire.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:19h, 22 July

      Anil: We can just hazard our best guess about the likely outcome. I feel the clergy is dealing with the word of God; no one sect would agree with the interpretation of another.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 17:04h, 22 July Reply

    For past seven eight years you can notice collective loss of sanity in Delhi in the month of “saavan”. Several thousand nuts embark on a difficult barefoot journey to Hardwar some 200 Km north of Delhi to fetch a jar full of holy water from Ganga. These crazy men occupy road, cause traffic jams and indulge in vandalism at the slightest pretext. Another set of morons set up shamianas on the highways to feed these rascals creating perpetual traffic jams. Nobody dares raise voice against this anarchy. Originally this ritual has been carried out in a place called Devgarh in Bihar, now I am told the disease has spread to other cities too.

    I can’t believe that Kabir had the sense to mock these nonsensical rituals six hundred years ago and yet in twenty-first century we are getting worst.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:28h, 23 July

      Anil: People visiting Pakistan regularly have remarked on a bizarre phenomenon. Five times a day, as many as half a dozen mosque imams start reciting the azaan on loudspeakers within one neighborhood. None of these are coordinated and lag each other by a minute or two. As a result, the word of God is made completely incomprehensible. This babble signals the time of prayer. It might as well be a bell. In fact a bell would be better because none of the imams has a trained voice and they are hideously off pitch. The interesting twist is that the authorities are so scared of the religious political forces that they refuse to touch the issue and prefer everyone to suffer this mockery without protest. This is emblematic of the status of Islam in Pakistan – full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 15:14h, 15 August Reply

    These two articles can be read together exemplifying one way of moving on from religion:

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