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Islam, Ideology & The West: How Pakistan’s Islamists Failed To Take Politics Seriously

The foremost historian of Islamic political thought – both modern and medieval – the Iranian born Hamid Enayat informs his readers that in most of their history Muslims have hardly treated political science as a separate subject. “Problems such as nature of the state, varieties of governments, qualifications of ruler, limitations on their powers and rights of the ruled were discussed as part of comprehensive treatises on jurisprudence and theology – securely within the unassailable walls of the Sharia” writes Hamid Enayat in his seminal work, Modern Islamic Political Thought. “It was only under the trauma of European military, political, economic and cultural encroachments since the end of the eighteenth century that Muslim elites started to write separate works on specifically political topics”. This tradition of mixing politics and purely religious issues prevails to this day among the Islamists in Pakistani society. And so, to this day Islamists still mix social and moral reformism as enshrined in their thought about Islamic law with the division of political power in society. And in the process they become completely oblivious of the fact that what they are talking about is social and moral reformism, and certainly not politics.

This problem is not restricted to Islamists only, as most of the Muslim scholars and intellectuals in the British era were not writing any separate treatise on politics. Most of them, including intellectuals like Sir Syed Ahmed and Allama Iqbal, were mentioning politics as a passing reference in their writings of the colonial era.

Pakistani intellectuals like Ayesha Jalal, Hassan Askari, Saeed Shafqat and others do certainly write on politics along modern lines, but firstly they are writing in a foreign language and therefore mass diffusion of their thoughts is not a possibility and secondly what most of them are writing is the political history of Pakistan and not a normative treatise on political thought in our society. What exist in more diffused forms in our society are the books on Islamic principles and laws relating to Islamic modes of politics. Maududi’s Islami Raiasat is the prime example of popular literature that one can find in every book shop in major cities of Pakistan—and in the words of booksellers it is one of the most sought after books in cities like Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.

Without going into detailed critique of this type of popular Islamists’ literature I would simply say that this has not helped our society to think along modern lines on politics. They are the ones who are responsible for politicized religion in the first place in our society and yet paradoxically speaking they don’t have any developed political thought to their credit.

In fact one of the problems associated with Islamists’ thinking on the state and political systems is that they want to give full legislative powers to the intrusive modern state.

Here we have a paradoxical situation. On the one hand Islamists’ recognize Almighty Allah to be the only Lawgiver, but the will of God has to be exercised by some human agency. For this the Islamists want to give a leading role to the religious scholars who are well versed in religious scriptures. For instance, in Iran members of clergy have a veto on laws made by the parliament. The thinking of Pakistani Islamists on legislative arrangements in the state structure is not very different from the Iranian setup. Here we have a very lethal combination of intrusive modern state and narrowly based religious clergy, whose ambitions and aspirations are most of the time in conflict with those of the common people. You don’t have to travel to Iran to see this. Pakistani society is also a case in point. Historically speaking, the state was never the sole lawgiver in pre-modern Muslim societies. Interpreting and expounding (that amounted to legislation) the scriptures were the prerogative of the Muftis, who were not appointed by the state and who acted independently of the rulers’ appointed courts, even as late as Ottoman period. In the pre-modern times this gave the whole system a kind of flexibility and prevented it from becoming static. Such is the view one gets after reading Wael B. Hallaq who is an American scholar of Islamic law and Islamic intellectual history.

However Islamists seem more interested in acquiring state power to implement their agenda on society, rather than in resolving the problem as to what kind of disastrous consequences we would be facing if a bunch of religious scholars really succeed in grabbing all the terrifying power of an intrusive state.

One is not at all surprised to see many Islamist scholars admitting that Islam doesn’t favor any particular political system. This trend of thinking primarily stemmed from the fact that of Muslim intellectuals who wrote on political subjects in 19th and 20th century agreed on the point that political organization is not a matter determined by Islamic doctrine but it is rather determined from time to time according to the circumstances, by general consultations within the community. Muslim intellectuals were in agreement on this point by the start of 20th century. Another relevant interesting issue in this regard is that any discerning student of modern Islamic political thought will agree on the point that there is a wide diversity of opinion within the existing Islamist groups about what exactly constitutes an ideal political system.

Interestingly, the diversity of opinion within the Islamic political tradition is not something new that has come with the arrival of political modernity in Islamic lands. Diversity of opinion has been a norm throughout Islamic intellectual tradition.

For instance Imam Ghazali, the most influential thinker in the intellectual history of Islam, is famous for his readiness to confer legitimacy to rule on anyone who is militarily in a position to assert his authority on an area. Later thinkers, who followed Ghazali’s tradition, went a step further, when they “declared military power pure and simple as constituting the essence of rulership”. Thus in modern times, Ghazali’s thought has been used, albeit unfairly, to justify military dictatorships. On the other hand an equally – if not more – orthodox Sunni scholar, Imam Ibn Taymiya, has been credited (by Western historians) with the introduction of the republican ideal in Muslim societies of the 11th-century Middle East. These changes in the intellectual directions were almost always preceded by changes in the political configuration in the Muslim lands.

Throughout history, existing political and social philosophies have always influenced the way Muslims have thought and favored or disfavored any existing political systems. There is no dearth of Muslim intellectuals in British India, who under the influence of rising political and economic philosophy associated with Marxism, favored a synthesis of socialism with the Islamic principles to solve the problems faced by Muslim societies in 19th and 20th century British India. Even in the medieval world, when Muslim societies came into contact with the teachings of Classical Greek philosophers they started to think and expound Islam’s political ideals in language and framework of those philosophies. So it is not surprising that a great many thinkers in Muslim societies (from the 9th to the 11th century in the Middle East) started to project Plato’s utopia as something close to the Islamic political ideal.

This is not to say that Islam doesn’t propose any political ideals of its own. I am sure it certainly does. (Here let me admit that I am not an expert on religion and this article is not about religion per se). But after going through the literature produced by Islamists and religious revivalists, one gets the impression that these movements are certainly not aware of those ideals. One can surely point out anti-colonial and anti-Western themes as the central feature of Islamists’ political thought.

So instead of pursuing policies of inclusion of as many segments of societies in its folds as is possible – as any religion with universalist claims would surely do in the real world of politics – Islamists are always focused on politics of exclusion and demarcation of boundaries even within the societies in which they operate. It is not at all surprising that Islamists’ presence in Muslim societies is always divisive, which apparently is in clear violation of the universalistic claims of Islam.

Hossein Nasr is one of the most brilliant minds in the contemporary Muslim world. Iranian-born Nasr teaches Islamic studies at George Washington University in Washington D.C. He has written extensively on Islamic history (from a sociological perspective), philosophy and religion. In one of his writings he has made a very strong case against treating Islam as an ideology. He tells his readers that the “traditional Islam (both Shia and Sunni) refuses to accept Islam as an ideology”. Nasr’s assertion has wider meaning in the context of today’s Muslim societies, where the political, social and cultural narratives have remained dominated by the Islamists who not only present Islam as an ideology but as a corollary of that, claim Islam to be a political system.

Nasr makes a very interesting revelation in his book Islam And The Modern World about this poorly conceived notion of treating Islam as an ideology. He sees it as opposed to observing Islam as a religion. He says that the classical languages of Islam, Arabic and Persian, in their classical forms, don’t have any word to describe the Western political term “ideology”. He points out further:

Nearly every Muslim language now uses this term, and many Muslims in fact insist that Islam is an ideology. If this is so, then why was there no word to express it in classical Arabic, Persian and other languages of the Islamic peoples? Is Aqaida or Usul-e-Aqaida by which it is sometimes translated at all related to ideology? If Islam is a complete way of life then why does it have to adopt a 19th century European concept to express its nature, not only to the West but even to its own adherents?”

Presenting Islam as a political system is fashionable in our society. Islamists and religious revivalist groups that originated in British India could rightfully be called the initiators of this fashion. These groups and their ideologues were the first among the Muslim intellectuals of British India who got them self familiarized with the concepts associated with the western notion of mass politics that gave rise to modern forms of political systems. The world was intensely debating the contours, advantages and disadvantages of political systems like representative government, authoritarianism and communism, when the revivalists in British India started formulating their theories of ideal political system based on Islamic scriptures. That these theories of an ideal political system were influenced by contemporary Western political thought is obvious by the repeated use of Western political terms like “Islamic democracy” and “revolution” and by the way Islamic institution of Shura (an institution where consultation takes place) is equated with the Western institutions of democracy in the revivalists’ literature.

Hence the notion that Islam is, in fact, a political system, is in currency in Pakistani society. In our brief history of 70 years we have seen political movements launched with the aim of introducing Islamic political system (or as it is commonly referred to in popular parlance, “Islami Nizam”) in the country, an avalanche of literature describing contours of such a political system, and even mature and sensible politicians using “Islami nizam” as a slogan to attract votes.

Not for a minute has anyone in society paused to inspect whether even in the Islamists’ literature any such system existed which can qualify to be rightly labeled as a “political system”. The notion of “Islami Nizam” is in such currency in our society that few understand that what in the serious ideological writings of Islamists is presented as a political system is not a political system at all!

The Islamists in Pakistan started to project Islam as an ideology (and as a corollary a political system) as opposed to Islam as a religion just after the creation of Pakistan. The campaign to present Islam as an ideology was substantially accelerated after Islamists got into competition with the Marxists or the traditional left in Pakistan. Marxism is an ideology which in Pakistan claimed to present a solution to the problems of rising class of proletariat as industrialization got underway in and around urban areas of Pakistan. Islamists started using the terms such ideology, revolution and economic equality after Pakistani Left started to make gains in the potentially radical groups including students, industrial workers and peasants.

The basic premise of religious observance, which in traditional Islam was based on individual salvation was turned on its head and now the attainment of political glory became the ultimate objective of observing religion. This line of thinking became more and more entrenched in our social behaviour as society came to associate itself with political objectives that have more to do with power politics and less and less with religious observance. Over time these political objectives started to become narrower and narrower – for instance, first the political objective was liberation of Kashmir (a war-cry of the Islamists) and over time it became narrower. And now the exclusion of heterodox religious sects from social and political life has become the ultimate objective of religion for these groups.

The basic principle of the so-called “Islami nizam” described by Maulana Mawdudi (and many other scholars of the Deobandi brand) in his book Islamic State is that in this system, Almighty Allah is the Absolute Sovereign and in this way this system does away with the possibility of subordinating the human to another human or a group of humans. Under this system Allah is the only lawgiver. Mawdudi devotes most of his voluminous book to explaining the legal point that in an Islamic state sovereignty belongs to Almighty Allah and that the executive authority of the State is exercised by the pious Muslims who are, nevertheless, elected representatives. Mawdudi labels this system as a “theo-democratic state”.

The first problem is that one can hardly describe these normative principles as a system. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes “political system” as “the set of formal legal institutions that constitute a ‘government’ or a ‘state’.” In the context of our present political situation, for instance, we can label parliamentary democracy as a system, where we have a set of legal institutions, which exercise political authority over Pakistani society that is located within well defined territorial limits of the Pakistani state. It will be interesting to note that the normative principles described by Mawdudi in his serious ideological writings are incorporated into the Pakistani political system. For example, preamble of the Pakistani constitution declares that sovereignty belongs to Allah and executive authority is exercised through elected representatives. But it is not these normative principles, which constitute political system of Pakistan, but the set of legal institutions provided in the main body of the 1973 constitution that can be rightly described as a political system that regulates political authority in Pakistani society.

Islamists’ program in most of the Muslims societies – especially those societies where Islamists are influential – revolves around Islamizing the law. In other words Islamists think that making Sharia the normative, penal and civil law of the land will give birth to a political system which could be called Islamic. All their political activity is directed towards the objective of introducing Islamic Sharia as public policy and normative, civil and penal law in the society. Ironically, the attitudes and policies of Islamists in Pakistan over the years themselves contradict their claim that Islam is a distinct political system.

A cursory look at Pakistan’s political history will make it clear that the Islamists have been demanding Islamization of law under distinctively opposite and conflicting political systems that have prevailed in the country at different points of time. They had demanded Islamization of law from the democratically elected government of the elder Bhutto, who was presiding over a purely Western-style parliamentary form of government, and from the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, who assumed most of the executive political authority while presiding over a mixture of parliamentary and presidential forms of government.

The point that comes to mind is that if Islamizing the law is the only thing that Islamists’ slogan of “Islami Nizam” stands for, then, in Pakistan’s context, this has taken place under distinct political systems over the years. The military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq launched the most ambitious program of Islamizing the law in Pakistani society. On the other hand the newly restored parliamentary democracy presided over by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif showed equal enthusiasm for Islamizing law in the early 1990s.

In both the cases Pakistani Islamists were the partners of military government and parliamentary democracy respectively.

So, in the context of Pakistan’s political history, we can rightly ask: what exactly constitutes an Islamic political system? Is it parliamentary democracy, a presidential form of government or plain, unadorned military dictatorship?


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Naya Daur