Can the clergy rule? Do the ulema combine in them the piety of Hazrat Umar and his statecraft, which was informed by his ability to do ijtihad freely?
It was in 1992 that I got around to meeting Prof Karrar Husain in Karachi during a seminar. I had heard about him a great deal and knew his reputation of a great teacher. Speaking to us at the seminar he made what we thought was a shocking statement. He said the best environment for an Islamic society was secularism.
It is after several years that I have come to understand the meaning of this remark. Now I tend to realise that India emerged as the best scholarly exponent of Islam in the world under the secularism of the British Raj and its edict of freedom of expression. I can extend this observation to politics too and claim that the post-1947 leaders have been dwarfs compared to leaders produced under the Raj.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was apostatised for his rationalist approach by his contemporary ulema but he couldn’t be harmed under the British administration. Syed Amir Ali and Maulvi Chiragh strengthened his rationalist movement without being pilloried. Shibli ‘reinterpreted’ Shah Waliullah on the hudood laws with impunity and prompted Allama Iqbal to do the same in his Sixth Lecture. Allama Iqbal had expressed the same view in 1924 and attacked by the ulema but had come to no harm. Maulana Abdul Maajid Daryabadi went through his phase of philosophical heresy safely. When Daryabadi tried to get the ‘impudent’ poet Yas Yagana Changezi hanged by angry citizens, he was prevented by the British police.
The greatest ‘tafseers’ of the Quran were written under the British. Maulana Maududi wrote his best work in that period but got into trouble when he wrote his ‘balanced’ history of early Islam in his book, Khilafat aur Malukiyat. Maulana Ahmaduddin wrote his Biyan al-Nas and was not punished for setting aside hadith on the question of the timing of namaz. Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi in his book on Shah Waliullah refused to accept the law replacing the mansookh (abrogated) Quranic verse (accepted by Shah Waliullah) that enjoined vasiyat (last will). He wrote that he saw the wisdom of the Quran in allowing a Muslim to will his property because he (Maulana Sindhi) was worried about his non-Muslim mother’s welfare after his death.
Today, Maulana Sindhi would have been punished for that. Under the British, the famous Ali Brothers were not punished for criticising the king of Afghanistan for killing Ahmedis. Ghulam Ahmad Parwez, once a prized supporter of the Quaid and the Pakistan Movement, is today a heretic whose works have to be banned in the NWFP.
Before the secularist era of the British, the Ahle Hadith in Delhi punished people they thought were heretics. Bahadur Shah Zafar had to retreat in the face of their anger after using the dust of Karbala to cure his illness. The great poet Ghalib was accused of being an apostate for turning rafizi or shia. If one reads Abul Kalam’s great account of the ulema under the Mughals in Tazkira, one realises how many good scholars were killed for daring to express opinion not accepted by the orthodoxy. In fact, the small rulers used the accusation of heresy to get rid of scholars who would not bow to them. The mystics were always in trouble, facing royal inquisition, and were sometimes killed for heresy by the kings.
Intizar Husain has put together a collection of Prof Karrar Husain’s lectures in Sawalat-o-Khayalat (Sang-e-Meel) which once again highlights the great teacher’s worldview. The most significant theme in the book is Pakistan’s saqafat (culture). He believed that the sense of culture sprang from collective historical experience. The Muslims in India were not able to convert the Hindus, unlike Iran where you could have Muslim names like Rustam Ali. In India the two communities developed separately, often in opposition to each other. Culturally, they represented two concentric circles that swung apart as much as they swung in. The Muslims failed to produce a ‘Hindi’ Islam that would paper over the great sectarian divides and allow internal pluralism. Prof Karrar thought that Pakistan erred in thinking that it was a ‘refuge’ for Indian Muslims. It created the either/or kind of ideology that was harmful.
He thought that Pakistan was wrong in using coercion on regions it thought would like to leave. If you coerce a part to remain inside, it is bound to develop an internal dynamic of separatism. He thought that the idea of ‘unity’ in Pakistan was also without morality. The unity worth aspiring to was diversity that sincerely thought it profitable to remain in a united framework. The different units of the state must feel distinct from one another and yet think it in their interest to remain linked. The status of Urdu in Pakistan unfortunately became the instrument of coercive policy. From a language that was on the way to becoming South Asia’s lingua franca was made a regional pariah through policies of coercion.
Talking of religion as a constituent part of culture, Prof Karrar pointed to the paradox of its enforcement in Pakistan. He said while on the one hand we insisted that Islam was compatible with the scientific demands of modern times — in fact we insist that science was foreshadowed by the discourse of the Quran — we oppose passionately all efforts to bring Islamic laws in conformity with modern times. The moment someone tries to do ijtihad, we immediately give the call of ‘Islam is in danger’ and go several steps back in reaction. Unable to reconcile our worldly concerns with our faith, we have adopted hypocrisy as a way of life: and no living culture is possible on the basis of hypocrisy. If a purely scientific worldview made one a Communist, and a purely non-scientific world view took one to sufism, a middle position, he thought, may be suitable.
The Muslim world’s abiding antipathy towards secularism rests on the historical experience of the government of the Prophet (PBUH) and the Companions who followed him. Religion and statecraft are seen by Muslims as intertwined in this ideal period. Revelation and politics are not separated although one is beyond reason and the other dependent on it. It is sinful to allow oneself to believe that Islam could be divorced from the task of running the government. Extrapolation from Islamic principles is not enough; the guidelines set by the Exemplary Early Caliphate are to be followed literally. Since the laws embodied in the Quran and the example of the early Caliphs are eternal, they cannot be modified in the light of practice. Islam cannot be experimentally applied.
In a very thought-provoking book, Politics & Revelation, Palestinian scholar, Hanna Mikhail, notes that under the Umayyad and Abbasid governments, the caliph functioned in tandem with the ulema to enforce the Shariah. In fact, two separate authorities did come into being. Under the Abbasids, the traditionalist ulema became greatly disturbed by rationalism imported from Greek learning. They thought that Revelation was being subjected to the rules of logic and circumstance, and that Islam might be altered in the process and lose its pristine early glory. The Abbasid caliph at first persecuted the ulema but later came to an understanding with them. He enforced traditionalist Shariah to get himself legitimised by them. The ulema on the other hand developed the doctrine of abolishing popular revolt against the caliph if he enforced the Shariah.
This led to a kind of dyarchy which took the political activity of the caliph beyond the ken of religious judgement. A kind of sinister secularism grew out of this ‘cooperation’, somewhat on the pattern of tsarist collaboration between the king and the Orthodox Church in Russia. This is the pattern that has come down to our day. The ruler, military or civilian, derives his legitimacy from the enforcement of Shariah. The clergy supports him as long as he keeps the Shariah in tact. The clergy itself is no longer willing to suit the Message to the times, ignoring the early methodology of suiting the Quran to the demands of changing mores through naskh (abrogation) of the Quran. Many laws now in force under Shariah are the result of these abrogations and a process of supplementation on the basis of hadith; for instance, the law on the dead man’s will and the law of rijm (stoning to death). The argument today is that the "doors of ijtihad (reinterpretation) are closed".
It was a secularism that suited the caliph and the ulema, but not the common man. The trend of legitimisation of the caliph’s politics through Shariah caused the Muslim society to decline in morality. In Pakistan, the more the rulers passed laws on Shariah, the more corrupt the society became. The ulema couldn’t win elections because the common man accepted the concealed secularism of the Islamic state and considered the ulema good for the adjudication of religious matters but not politics. As the ulema became empowered through jehad, they sensed the false secularism and decided to include politics too in the Shariah. This has led to another crisis in the Islamic world, most of it strangely connected with the jehad in Afghanistan. The rulers were challenged. The new paradigm sought was that of Iran: let the medieval dyarchy be merged in the person of the religious leader.
Can the clergy rule? Do the ulema combine in them the piety of Hazrat Umar and his statecraft, which was informed by his ability to do ijtihad freely? The pattern today is that the ulema cannot reconcile themselves to human rights because of their fixed view of the dhimmi (non-Muslim citizens). Their economic doctrine is likewise fixed in the idea of falah (welfare) which favours the discarded Soviet model. They look at the global system with great suspicion, rejecting such international financial organisations as the IMF, because, among other reasons, of their rejection of the modern banking system based on riba (interest).
Since democracy depends on the will of the common man (who thinks that the ulema should not take part in politics), they reject it in favour of revolution — overthrowing a malfunctioning Islamic dyarchical system and replacing it with, what they believe, will be ideal. Unfortunately, because of the historical delimitation of functions, their new order will be seen as merely theocratic. A perverted secularism begun by the Abbasids will not deliver. And the Muslims are not yet ready to give the real secularism a chance.
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