Religion as a deliberate enterprise to seize the ultimate principle of value, and thereby to reintegrate the forces of one’s own personality, is a fact which cannot be denied.
– Sir Dr. Allama Mohammad Iqbal
I am not an Islamic scholar, but I am a Muslim. I believe, but my belief has run into lots of troubles recently. Some say that I am too much of a Muslim, that everything or the other has something to do with Islam or Allah; some say I am a heretic and apostate, who comes up with his own examples and facts and metaphors to suit a certain argument or discourse. Well, maybe both are right, or maybe both are wrong; I am least bothered, because the true value of this judgment – to me at least – can only be revealed once Allah Almighty makes this Judgment Himself. For the time being, I would let Pakistanis make the judgments that only Allah is supposed to make, because that is the kind of Islam that prevails in Pakistan. It is when people have a problem with me being Muslim – although my choice of identity is totally up to me – that I call myself a Pakistani, even though I am the same person and my religious and national identities are not exclusive to each other. I am a Pakistani Muslim, and I am a Muslim Pakistani; apparently that is too hard for a lot of people to understand.
Most of Pakistan’s problems today stem from the fact that Pakistanis – and the country’s legal structure in particular – find/s its legitimate roots in the notion of Pakistan being an “Islamic” state. But what does this mean? Today, this question haunts us as much as terrorism, deprivation, crises, inflation, marginalization, corruption, ineptitude, misgovernance, insensitivity and poverty does. Does an Islamic state mean that Pakistan was ordained by Almighty Allah Himself? Or is Pakistan an Islamic state because the majority of its population – at the time of independence and even today – are Muslims? And if it indeed is an Islamic state, then what does being an “Islamic state” entail? Does it imply that the Holy Qur’an is the national political constitution? Does it imply that prevention of vice and promotion of virtue should take place according to the transcribed Traditions of the Holy Prophet Muhammad PBUH? Does the state govern the people according to Islamic laws and administers these laws, or is the state itself subject to Islamic law? And in a modern circumstance, where does all this leave the non-Muslim citizens of Pakistan? Are they equal citizens of the nation-state, or are they supposedly ‘second-class’ citizens in the form of protected “dhimmi”s?
Much of these questions have been answered many many times, but the diversity of the answers themselves leads to new problems, and new complexities that a nation-state in transition finds hard to cope with. To most commentators – who evidently belong to educational institutions following the Western model of instruction – an “Islamic” state means regression to the State of Medina that existed 1400-odd years ago, i.e., the time of the Holy Prophet PBUH Himself. The next image that is painted to all and sundry is one where all men will have beards, all women will wear burka’s, all theives will have their hands amputated, and so forth. But 1400 years ago, Muslim society was more concerned with processes of equality and justice; to medieval Arabia, Islam brought peace and stability in a landscape wrought by tribal, ethnic, religious, internecine and economic struggles. Enforcement of Islamic law is often seen as an exercise in the repression of women – and in its modern manifestation, it may as well be – but when the Islamic “revolution” was successfully completed by the Prophet PBUH, girls were no longer buried alive when born, and women experienced newfound equality among men as citizens of the nation-state, as integral parts of home and family, as inheritors of property, and so on. After a sinusoidal history of 1400 years, the perception of discourse has completely changed, as Islam has become distorted to fit into circumstantial, political and economic motivations since the use of Islam as a religion is monopolized by clerics and self-proclaimed proselytes of faith. What we all forget is that the most important revolution brought about by Islam was in destroying the structural institution of religion itself; Islam revealed true faith to be complete surrender by man (or woman) to the Will of God – certainly not to that of a cleric or militant waiting for you to try out his suicide vest. This faith was not to be administered by priests or rabbi’s, to determine who would go to Hell and how one could obtain redemption and achieve Heaven, but it would become a coherent part of a human being’s own physical, psychological and spiritual essence – the faith of a Muslim and his connexion with God are both inalienable. In Islam, a Muslim is answerable directly to Allah, not to middlemen with flowing beards and shalwar’s above their ankles. In Islam, causing the premature death of any innocent human being is sacrilege and strictly forbidden; Islam does not allow the killing of anyone – Muslim or non-Muslim – who may have been accused of anything without admissible evidence and tried without a juridically robust process. But when one presents this view to another – one Muslim to another – a surprising yet obvious reply is, “Who’s Islam is this? Yours?”.
Which brings us to another thing we Pakistani’s all share – that I am a Pakistani, and you are a Pakistani, but we aren’t Pakistanis. Our national identity remains restricted to our own individual self, as we are unable to extend our national identity to other conditions and other experiences. Again, like our own little “Islam”s, we also have our own little “Pakistan”s where the definition of being Pakistani changes from person to person. Ethnic, linguistic, religious, locational, and institutional identities have surpassed the common denominator that binds approximately 180 million people of the subcontinent together. To some, being Pakistani means ultranationalistically supporting the nation-state no matter what; to others, it means acknowledging all the shortcomings and taking ownership of all mistakes so that they can be rectified and the country can progressively move ahead. Yet, these two kinds of Pakistani’s seem to have nothing in common with each other – if they do, they themselves don’t see it. Ardeshir Cowasjee rightly stated that in 1947, Pakistan was a nation in search of a country, and today, it has become a country in search of a nation. Nobody, no Pakistani, is willing to own up to Pakistan. We have absolved ourselves of our responsibility to each other, to our fellow citizens, and to our country. When we exercise our responsibility as citizens of Pakistan in criticizing the country, we forget crucial elements of this responsibility insofar as we forget that we must also suggest rectifications and means to make the situation better – that we must acknowledge our strengths and successes, but we must also not be bogged down by our failures and shortcomings, which we must correct and over through sheer perseverance and hard work. Having said that, Pakistan is still looking for Pakistanis, only to find Muslims and non-Muslims, Punjabi’s and non-Punjabi’s, etc.
Sadly, in the only avowedly Islamic Republic of the world, which has often claimed to be the Bastion of Islam, the very concept of Islam has become a divisive and taboo subject. And rightly so, because everyone’s religious beliefs (I would hesitate to call them Islamic beliefs) are different, even if minute and seemingly inconsequential.
When I heard that “Your Islam My Islam” remark for the first time, and when I found out that Islam – like your mobile phone, or wallet, or X-Box – has become a personal endowment and not an element of being that pervades all our rational and experential faculties, I was instantly reminded of a powerful phrase about the tragedy of Karbala that was ominously repeated in Aitchison College’s Urdu declamation competitions by our Head Boy from 2001-02: “We killed 72 Muslims and created 72 Islams”. Beyond the martyrdom of the Prophet PBUH’s kin, and beyond the sectarian divide that Pakistan is especially subject to, the practice, belief and version of Islam is different from person to person. The point is that nobody should expect them to be similar or perfectly congruent in the first place; while we are all Muslims, we are all answerable ourselves for our own actions and our own intentions. Nobody will intercede for anyone or on anyone’s behalf in front of Allah’s Judgment, except when Allah permits, as the Ayat ul Kursi tells us. We cannot all have our own Islam’s: but we must have our own individual faith in Almighty Allah if we are to qualify as Muslims in this life and the hereafter.
Today, “Islam” has been distorted beyond compare, and Muslims in other countries seem different from Muslims in Pakistan. When I say Islam, I mean Islam the religion – which it was never supposed to be in the first place – and not Islam the faith, which we practice and experience during every single sentient moment of our daily lives. That is because we have ended up following our imam-e-masjid’s version of Islam, or our maulvi sahib’s version, or that of our pir, or any other intermediary that we feel more comfortable to – we forget the One intermediary that permeates all life and reality, Who is the “bridge” between our mortal consciousness and the real world as we see and experience it. One does not need to go further than the late great Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s couplet from “Wohi Khuda Hai”: that which you cannot see, but is still visible – that is God.
My father always told me that I should have faith in myself and in what I am doing; that I should believe in Allah and always do good; that life will not be easy or fun, but hard work and dedication to righteousness will definitely make life meaningful and, well, easy to live. He also said one more thing: “When the going gets tough, one should not expect Almighty Allah to don a white shalwar kamiz and come down on earth to solve one’s problems. One must take heed of what Allah has already revealed to us, and one must consistently seek guidance and mercy from Allah, because we are all mortals and despite limited or expansive perceptions, we all make mistakes”. Islam is not in danger, not at all, but Muslim society is in danger because we have surrendered our mosques and madrassa’s to vested interests. The mosque – as the center of civic life in the Muslim world – must be reclaimed in Pakistan, by the Pakistani people, because it is the most potent institution of the community, yet it is only used for specified and ritualistic purposes by those clerics and proselytes who have tried – and succeeded – in monopolizing the One True Word – and its interpretation(s) – that gathers dust in our respected bookshelves. Allah has already sent us the True Faith; He will not come down to earth to give us our mosques back, or correct the distorted interpretations of our clerics and preachers. We must reclaim our religious spaces ourselves. Our so-called religious leaders are human beings too; when they make mistakes, they must be reminded of their humanity as well as their mortality, because whether we are Muslim or not, we cannot escape death. And if we are Muslims, then we cannot escape Judgment. We must end the religious marginalization of moderate Muslims who consider the mosques to be the bastion of radicalization instead of an institution that is supposed to promote and maintain communal harmony.
It looks like Pakistan is paying the price for the mistakes that generations of Pakistanis have – willingly or unwittingly – made, and our collective suffering continues to exacerbate because we continue to make those mistakes – apart from coming up with completely new mistakes to make.
The mistake – or sacrilege rather – that I am most concerned about is the misuse of religion that goes on in Pakistan. This kind of misuse is not found anywhere else in the world. Extremism, marginalization and exclusivity – things completely alien to Islam – have been borne out by the unique cultivation of our religious experience (and by the ways in which Pakistanis are indoctrinated to be “good Muslims”), whereas in other countries, extremism and exclusivity are religious concepts that prevail only on the fringes. The overlapping of political, economic, social, security, educational and other discourses have made it more difficult for Islam – true Islam, not any distorted version portrayed by an opportunistic evangelist – to eliminate these structural divergences and perceptual divides. The methods of Islamic indoctrination that have long been prevalent in Pakistan’s education system, social structure, and basically all facets of practical life, have aggravated divides instead of bringing people closer; it has created more uncertainty and confusion when it was supposed to generate visions of clarity; it has led us all to create our own little “Islam”s – people call it a one-and-half-inch (or one-and-half-brick) mosque in colloquial Urdu – because Islam was always meant to be a faith and never a religion. We all woke up to this reality on January 05, 2011, a day after the brutal murder of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer by a self-proclaimed protector of Islam, who was actually supposed to protect the Governor in the first place. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, who is hailed by certain segments of the Muslim population as a hero and saviour of Islam, has actually passed a judgment on Salmaan Taseer that only Allah is allowed to pass on human beings – a Tradition of the Holy Prophet PBUH reveals how perturbed the Prophet was when one of His Companions slayed an enemy after the latter had recited the Kalimah – the Companion slayed the enemy anyway. The Holy Prophet PBUH, when told that the enemy only accepted Islam under fear of the blade, the Prophet PBUH replied “Did you tear open his heart to see what was in it?”, implying that even a Companion would not be able to judge whether anyone’s acceptance of Islam was true or not. The notion of takfir – of one Muslim declaring another Muslim an apostate – has been explicitly prohibited – The Holy Quran (4:94) states that whenever a person says “Assalam o Alaikum”, that person cannot be called a non-Muslim (no matter what creed he or she adheres to). And essentially, the “people of the Qibla” cannot be declared kafir (unbeliever) or murtad (apostate) as per strict instruction of the Holy Prophet PBUH and subsequent Traditions and juristic interpretations handed down over the centuries. Abu Dawud’s Book of Sunnah, published by Quran Mahal in Karachi, relates another extremely relevant Tradition in Volume 3, page 484: “Ibn Umar related that the Holy Prophet said: If a Muslim calls another kafir, then if he is a kafir let it be so; otherwise, he [the caller] is himself a kafir.” A similar Tradition is found in Abu Dawud’s Book of Jihad (15:33). Bukhari’s Book of Ethics has another relevant Tradition in Book 78, Chapter 44. Tirmizi, in his chapter on “Iman” (faith), relates a warning – also referred by Bukhari – from the Holy Prophet PBUH as follows: “Whoever attributes kufr [unbelief] to a believer, he is like his murderer”. It seems like Mumtaz Qadri was not satisfied with mere attribution, and had to actually become the murderer in order to become a “pious” Muslim.
Sadly, His Eminence the Prophet Muhammad PBUH is not around to tell us whether the Pakistani killed on January 4th this year was an innocent Muslim, or an apostate. The divisive opinions that separate previously similar segments of society became even more evident after this ignominious event, and nothing has healed these wounds so far. Religious leaders failed to openly condemn the brutal murder, and some so-called clerics even refused to attend the funeral prayers – there was a commensurate ruckus over arranging an imam to lead the funeral prayers, as the regular imams shirked this duty because of ill health or because they were not in Lahore. Evidently, these imams fear the bullet and bomb more than they have faith in Allah and His Prophet PBUH.
But Dr. Allama Mohammad Iqbal, the Poet of the East and the Philosopher of Pakistan, had already seen Muslims reaching such a state in their collective consciousness and religious experience. In his magnum opus, he questioned whether religion was possible or not, developing on Kant’s original inquiry on whether metaphysics was possible or not, and made the following note which seems pertinent – and is exceedingly relevant to Pakistan’s sociopolitical circumstance even today:
Surely the present moment is one of great crisis in the history of modern culture. The modern world stands in need of biological renewal. And religion, which in its higher manifestations is neither dogma, nor priesthood, nor ritual, can alone ethically prepare the modern man for the burden of the great responsibility which the advancement of modern science necessarily involved, and restore him to that attitude of faith which makes him capable of winning a personality here and retaining in hereafter. It is only by rising to a fresh vision of his origin and future, his whence and whither, that man will eventually triumph over a society motivated by an inhuman competition, and a civilization which has lost its spiritual unity by its inner conflict of religious and political values.
– The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Sang-e-Meel Paperbacks, p. 165.
Also published by Zimmedar Shehri