19 Jul 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.