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The Ink Of The Scholar: Paving The Way For Religious Coexistence In Pakistan

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Mitchell Moskowitz

Human history reflects the destructiveness wrought by the concoction of ignorance-induced fear, groupthink, and blind loyalty based along sectarian lines. This is made abundantly clear by the fact that throughout human history, minority groups in virtually any society have faced systemic exclusion from the mainstream population and unspeakable acts of violence at the individual and community levels. In the area of violent religious sectarianism, nowhere is this reality more evident than in the case of European civilization, which spilt enough blood in the name of the Christian tradition over the better part of the previous two millennia to permanently stain the earth red from the beaches of Barcelona to the edges of Siberia and beyond.

In other parts of the world, however, violent religious persecution remains prevalent. In many of these areas, a lack of the means and will on the part of governments and political elites to directly address such issues has left the burden of eliminating interfaith hostilities on the heads of a small yet crucial component of society: the scholars.

Dr. Amineh Ahmed Hoti, a female scholar and PhD in anthropology from Cambridge University, is among the scholars promoting dialogue and understanding among religions. On Tuesday, June 29, the Karachi-based Arts Council of Pakistan held a televised, virtual panel centered around Hoti’s groundbreaking new book Gems and Jewels: The Religions of Pakistan, which covers the ten religions of Pakistan and is the product of five years spent conducting fieldwork and gaining a firsthand insight into the lives and cultures of these communities.

From the Kalash of Pakistan’s northwest tip, to the country’s almost exclusively covert Jain and Jewish communities, Hoti offers a thorough and fascinating dive into the histories and traditions of Pakistan’s religious minorities in order to provide the mainstream of Pakistani and international societies a better understanding of these communities. It is undoubtedly a key factor in the efforts to promote pluralistic tolerance and dispel the inaccurate perception of Pakistan as an Islamic monolith teetering on the brink of radicalism.

Tuesday’s event featured some of the country’s major figures: Isphanyar Bhandara, a former parliamentarian who earned a legislative seat reserved for Pakistani minorities in the country’s 2013 elections; Dr. Qibla Ayaz, the Chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology which advises Pakistan’s government on issues related to Islamic law; Cardinal Joseph Coutts, who just completed his service as the Archbishop of Karachi; Fakir Aijazuddin, a renowned historian, businessman, former government minister, and recipient of the Order of the British Empire; and Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC, “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam” according to the BBC, and a giant of the interfaith movement who also happens to be Hoti’s father.

Each of the guests offered generous praise for Gems and Jewels and Hoti’s work to bridge the divide between the country’s religious communities and, as Mr. Bhandara, the patron of the project, reflected, to promote the vision of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father and first leader of Pakistan venerably known as the Quaid-I-Azam (“great leader”). Jinnah sought “a Pakistan in which all minorities have equal rights and equal protection.” “It is time for every Pakistani to see his or her God in every other human being,” declared Fakir Aijazuddin. From his home in Bethesda, Maryland, Ahmed conveyed the immense pride that he, his wife Zeenat, and the rest of their family feel for his daughter in advancing the cause of interfaith relations and the pursuit of knowledge through scholarship, causes which he has championed throughout the course of his own illustrious career.

Perhaps the event’s most significant remarks came from Dr. Qibla Ayaz, who hailed the book as “a great service” to Pakistan and its people. Given his position in providing Islamic legal advice to the Pakistani government and eminent status, Ayaz’s mere presence represents a clear stamp of approval from the religious establishment in the largest of the world’s four Islamic republics. Ayaz called upon the Ministry of Education and other government branches to read Gems and Jewels and shared his hopes that the book will improve and promote Pakistani scholarship.

“Everybody, whether a Muslim or a non-Muslim,” said Ayaz, “is a Gem and a Jewel in the necklace of our country.” The Cardinal especially appreciated this poetic metaphor.

The outpouring of support from the event’s panelists, ordinary Pakistanis, and people from around the globe has been nothing short of remarkable. “It occurred to me while you were speaking about the lack of role models for young Pakistanis, Amineh, that you, your husband and your father are role models par excellence,” wrote Dr Wardella Doschek, the Secretary-Treasurer of the Muslim Women’s Association of Washington, DC and a convert to Islam, in an email to Hoti in the aftermath of the Arts Council event.

Here we have a female Muslim scholar pushing the boundaries of an often rigidly traditional and deeply religious society in order to ensure the equality of religious minorities, itself a potentially dangerous task in a country whose government has struggled throughout its history to effectively control the wide, sparsely-populated swaths of territory inhabited by communities which are as fiercely religious as they are keen to preserve their autonomy – even through acts of unspeakable violence.

As part of the effort to diffuse religious tensions, Hoti played a major role in the formulation of a 20-point code of ethics produced by the Council of Islamic Ideology in October 2020 that notably called on religious leaders, government officials, and ordinary citizens alike to refrain from labeling ideological opponents or members of other communities as infidels and apostates due to the very real danger which faces anyone labeled as such. She has instead opted for a path of persistence and patience, which is embodied in the painstaking and extensive field research that went into Gems and Jewels. As the first such book to examine all of Pakistan’s religions in a single text, it offers the comprehensive knowledge and insight required for the fostering of better understanding and relations between religious minorities and the mainstream of Pakistani society.

Anyone who has studied the period known as the Islamic Golden Age would undoubtedly recognize its characterization as a both a time of religious coexistence and a period in which some of human history’s greatest scholars led the way to tremendous societal advancement. This makes it undeniably tragic to acknowledge that much of the religious minorities living in Pakistan and the broader Muslim world today face intolerance, discrimination, and the threat of violence based on their faiths. To assert that this situation is inherent to Islam is wrong and denies Muslim societies like Pakistan the potential to do what Dr. Hoti has undertaken in following the Muslim values which produced the Islamic Golden Age and provide the key to bridging the divide between the mainstream of Muslim societies and the rich array of minority communities which call these countries home.

For Pakistan, not only is such pluralism and tolerance decreed within Islam as the country’s official religion, but it was also fundamental to the vision put forth by Mr. Jinnah as the nation’s founding father.

The people of Pakistan, the Muslim world, and humanity as a whole must follow the path being repaved by Hoti through Gems and Jewels, once again allowing for scholarship to provide the knowledge required to create a better world for us all. As was said by the Prophet of Islam, “the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.”

About the author: Mitchell Moskowitz is the Program Assistant to the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC. He is a 2019 graduate of the University of Tennessee, where he studied Political Science with a concentration in International Affairs.

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