The Tariq Jameel Problem And Our Search For The ‘Right Kind’ Of Islam
Ayesha Siddiqa deconstructs Maulana Tariq Jameel’s fan base and narrates how he makes religion accessible to the middle class and beyond. The cleric’s popularity is linked to the educated class’s struggle to find a kind of Islam that it can live with, she argues.
Anyone, who has read Jamaludin Afghani, Hassan al-Banna or Maulana Abul A’la Maududi would blush at calling Tariq Jameel a Maulana. He is well-described by his nemesis, Tahir Ashrafi as a khateeb (religious speaker) which is his best description.
We may agree or disagree with the above-mentioned Islamic scholars but no one can debate their scholarly contributions. Tariq Jameel has added nothing to our knowledge of Islam.
I first came across Tariq Jameel in 2013 during Hajj. The Hajj operator I used had co-hired Jameel with Junaid Jamshed’s company to preach at maidan-e-Arafat where it is believed that prayers are heard and fulfilled. Jamil caught my attention because he sounded different and somewhat liberal-ish as compared to other mullahs. While shedding tears at Arafat, Jameel talked about how it was not a woman’s duty to even serve a glass of water to her husband’s parents if they asked for it. Instead it was the son’s duty to do so, but only if the girls/women would be kind. He spoke about how it was a husband’s job to provide for a wet-nurse for the infant as it was not a wife’s duty to feed the child. A lot of young women present at Arafat started to listen.
After I returned home, I asked Prof. Khalid Masud (former head of Council of Islamic Ideology, and a reputable author on Islam) about what Tariq Jameel said. He pointed out that the tradition that the latter cited wasn’t necessarily about woman’s empowerment but marriage as a transaction. A woman had certain rights as part of providing sexual service that included not serving the man’s family. But it also meant that she would have to provide for her own health and wellbeing.
Tariq Jameel is indeed a tremendous storyteller, the kind one used to once find in sleepy small towns and villages. His art lies in charming people towards religion by mixing small talk – the kind that takes place outside pan shops or wherever people gather – with basic religious references.
With a command on verbal expression and possessing photographic memory he can impress his audience by repeating tales that he has probably read in the Deobandi/Tableeghi, Qasas-ul-Biyan, and naming every single patriarch backwards in one breadth from Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to Adam. Furthermore, he adds selective theatrics like copying the Prophet (PBUH) as he may have sat at the grave of his deceased mother.
During Hajj, one could not but notice Tariq Jameel’s great salesmanship. Like Aamir Liaquat Hussain, who was brought by another Hajj operator to arouse the sentiments of the pilgrims and make pilgrimage their money’s worth (at a minimum rate of Pak rupees 1.1 million per pilgrim), Jameel was not interested in addressing the poor or less affluent pilgrims. Like Junaid Jamshed’s haute couture, his Hajj package included Tariq Jameel. Later, friends from South Punjab talked about how the maulvi reportedly pushed singers, musicians, and dancers out of his area Tulamba, and made fortune out of the property evicted by those people. His aversion to nakedness of the female body and prostitution is, hence, understandable.
But Tariq Jameel makes religion accessible to the middle class and upwards. He emotionalises the early days of Islam without contextualising the era.
As I write these lines, I am reminded of my research on extremism and militancy in South Punjab. One of the measures my team took to gain insights into how the youth think was by asking them about their ideals. The research was conducted in South Punjab including Multan, the administrative division where Tariq Jameel lives. What came as a shock was that youth didn’t have ideals including those from the madrassa. It is then that one understood that religious seminaries did not necessarily teach, leave alone rationalise, the history of Islam.
The Society In Need Of A Maulvi’s Narrative
The problem here is not a man like Tariq Jameel, who has never hidden his conservativeness, but the state and society which are conservative and thus demand the maulvi’s narrative. He is indeed street-smart, which is why he is able to capture the weakness of the society, especially the educated segment’s search for the right kind of Islam.
His audience is incapable of observing his conservatism as it is unable to see Maulvi Tahir Ashrafi’s radicalism. Many of the educated and liberal people loved Ashrafi because he spoke for Salmaan Taseer, and in the process, did not notice what else he did.
Tariq Jameel draws people towards a lighter form of sharia compliance and talks of forgiveness, which is what some of the Sufis like Bahauddin Zakriya have done in the past. His ability to connect makes him explore their psychological weaknesses and bring them into his fold. He appears broad-minded enough not to engage in sectarianism. He will talk about how joint family system is spoiling marriages and lives because the parents of the groom start putting burden on the bride. But in the same breadth, he asks young girls to remain silent and not protest if and when they are maltreated because ‘nothing wins hearts more than silence’.
This is probably what my grandmother may have told my mother.
But Tariq Jameel’s magic is not in what he does but who we are as a state and society. We could contest whether the idea was for Pakistan to become a theocracy or not, but the fact is that it was made for the Muslims of the subcontinent to freely live by their cultural norms. Culture includes religious beliefs. How hard we may try to drag in Jinnah’s image of a Westernised, cigar-smoking man of Muslim descent, the fact is that his image doesn’t modernise the state automatically.
In the initial years of state formation, all efforts were aimed at creating an Islamic state. Sir Zafarullah Khan, the first foreign minister of the country, whose selection had caused friction between Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Jamaat-e-Ihrar (that insisted that an Ahmadi shouldn’t be appointed to the position), had vociferously argued in the Constituent Assembly on March 12, 1949 for the establishment of a Muslim state. In his speech, Sir Zafarullah Khan snubbed the Christian and Hindu members who argued against adopting the Objectives Resolution, 1949.
The fact is that Pakistan’s modernity is very material and not conceptual. This is not too different from India where years of secular politics were not able to stop the religious right-wing euphoria and its ascent to power. Western modernity that created the subcontinental nation-state did not penetrate the societies. It’s just that in the initial decades after independence, the ruling elite was largely urban and poised in western culture.
Since its birth, Pakistan has been through at least five cycles of elite. Every generation has been greatly mired in local culture. How generations became more organic one gets a sense of it from (late) Stephen Cohen’s book on Pakistan. The American political scientist, for example, talked about how the officer cadre evolved from those trained at Sandhurst and the US, to Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul. General Ziaul Haq indeed was one of the first of the locally trained boys.
The state became increasingly religious because the ruling elite could not find any other way to accommodate religious ethos of the society. According to the South Asianist David Gilmartin, pirs in Punjab pledged to support Jinnah only if he created an Islamic state.
The state hurriedly created space for religion – the passing of the Objectives Resolution 1949, granting a minimal role to religious ulema in the 1962 Constitution, the state acquiring the right to declare who was a Muslim through the 2nd amendment to the 1973 Constitution, and later, with numerous economic and political changes under Zia-ul-Haq.
We should also acknowledge the chapter in Pakistan’s history during which the society became increasingly radical due to the impact of the Afghan war of the 1980s fought against the former Soviet Union.
However, there was also an absence of intellectual engagement with local culture. The middle class and ruling elite that emerged through the decades was mired in conservative interpretation of Islam. As people like Naseem Hijazi, Qudratullah Shahab, Ashfaq Ahmed and Mumtaz Mufti tutored the educated middle class to embrace conservatism either in the form of Sufism or other schools, there was no push back or even engagement from the liberal-minded scholars. One of the rare exceptions was the Communist leader Dada Ameer Haider Khan, who tried to engage with religion and use Islamic history to explain intricate concepts of socialism as visualized through a religious-cultural lens. Unfortunately, his was a brief conversation as Stalinism proved overpowering in allowing local smells and tastes to guide the conversation.
The lack of a non-right-wing engagement with religion happened at a time when a lot of other things changed as well such as the death of the tradition of storytelling. There used to be storytellers that would enthrall people just like Shahrazade entertained her King Shahryar.
Rapid internal and external migration during the 1970s onwards took millions to the Middle East. The migrants brought back influences external to the local cultures. In the urban centers, mosques became important spaces that attracted rural migrants and thereby influenced thinking by various communities that inhabit urban areas.
Absence Of A Strong Alternative To Conservatism
The point I am trying to make is regarding the lack of an alternative discourse that could attract people and engage them to think about religion more rationally. Disengaging people from conservatism may not be possible until those offering the alternative narrative engage with local culture. The subcontinental societies are not modern. Religion and everyday life coexists with shades of conservatism that have been growing stronger because of many reasons, but certainly due to lack of strong alternative. There is either a total acceptance of religion or its rejection. The internal journey of these societies to modern rationality is staggered or perhaps has not happened.
In Pakistan’s case, religious culture has not just sustained because it’s about belief of ordinary folk but because the elite have needed it. Despite western education or bureaucracies having a western structure, there is a huge distance between cultural ethos of the powerful and western modernity. The elite has, in fact, played with religion and modernity at the same time depending on what suited their convenience.
There have been disastrous engagements such as the 2nd December 2003 assassination attempt on Musharraf that involved Jaishe Muhammad. At one point, as a senior police officer confided, investigators feared that they may have to send home many officials of the air force because of the extent of penetration by Masood Azhar and his likes. He was allowed in to proselytize.
Banning radical-extremist elements led to the entry of other kind. For instance, Farhat Hashmi of Al-Huda being asked often to deliver lecture at the air complex in Islamabad and other air bases. When Farooq Laghari was the president, Farhat Hashmi was regularly invited to the presidency and his home base in Choti. Similarly, Tariq Jameel gets invited by senior police officials, heads of government departments, and by other security agencies.
Tariq Jameel is just the tip of the iceberg.
Political Elite Cosying Up To Religious Figures For Power
The social and political elite have remained wedded to religion and conservative ethos making men of religion of all kinds relevant. Benazir Bhutto’s visits to the Pir of Golra Shareef and Bari Imam are known history. These pirs not only provided solace but were central to back channel contact with people in the establishment. It was Ziaul Haq’s recognition of how important the Bari Imam shrine in Islamabad was that he manipulated the change of the sajjada nasheen or the top pir. The present sajjadda was installed there in the 1980s. Places like Tableeghi Jamaat’s center in Raiwand rose to importance because Mian Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan visited the place.
There was another category of religious men that emerged, who did not have legacy of a shrine but had the capacity to provide relief through a mixing of religious preaching with intricate personal power networks. For those worried about Tariq Jameel, who indeed falls in this category, they need to look at people like Professor Ahmed Rafique Akhtar. With his base in Gujjar Khan, the gentleman was a teacher who developed his skills as a numerologist, face-reading to charm people. Since he is from an area that represents a major military recruitment belt, he has managed to lure many top generals, bureaucrats and much more.
People initially went to Prof. Akhtar with matters of personal interest like postings, promotion, love, marriages and more but then kept filtering back. His adda (base) is a place where people troubled by personal problems would frequent because their bosses or powerful people were regular visitors. Or they knew this to be a way to solve their issues. Members of top army brass and many important politicians have been his regular visitors. Prof. Akhtar can build careers. There are instances when people were introduced to Akhtar by officials of the security establishment, and then, through that route inserted in political parties.
But Rafique Akhtar’s bigger charm is engaging his audience with religious discussions by packaging it as modern. He uses references from Greek/Roman/western history, wears western clothes, which makes him very different from the rural mullahs that shun such clothing, and uses English in his conversation.
Finding The Right Kind Of Islam
And this is where Rafiq Akhtar’s relevance lies. His presentation and style make his audience, which is caught in the dilemma of material modernity versus religious ethos, comfortable in their skin. Rafique Akhtar or even Prof. Javed Ahmed Ghamdi have indeed become more relevant in the post-9/11 era for representing the elite and middle class’s search for an Islam that can be presented as peaceful and modern.
I understand that Prof Ghamdi is a trained scholar who does not manipulate contacts like Akhtar but they were put together in the same bracket to highlight how both present Islam as an acceptable framework rather than an extremist value.
In the past few decades, there is a struggle in Pakistan to find an Islam that one can live with. Conversations and internal debates are important for cultures to grow. However, the deliberate socio-political instability and constant manipulation of religion for power doesn’t allow normal evolution.
I am reminded of a seminar on counter-extremism in Avari, Lahore organised by some NGOs with the help of the Ghamidi center on a day when the roads around Avari were blocked by those protesting against blasphemy-accused Christian woman Asiya bibi’s release. This is how we continue with a condition where organic culture prospers but generates more fear than peace. Because the notion of ‘peace’ is reserved for private spaces while violence helps manage power on the streets.
The writer is a defence and security analyst.