IS not casting a vote a sin? If it is then the envisaged fatwa occupies the other end of the spectrum in which some ulema consider the electoral process — in fact democracy itself — un-Islamic. But over the decades, there has been a sea-change in this thinking. Some leading religious parties, initially opposed to Western-style democracy and elections, have reversed their position and taken part in polls. For the people of Pakistan, however, a fatwa this way or that is of no consequence, because over the last 50 years, they have unmistakably settled for democracy and never seen the issue of voting or not voting as a religious one. Against this background, the outcome of a meeting of ulema in Islamabad on Thursday will be watched with interest. If not voting voluntarily is a sin, what position will the ulema adopt in cases where women are prevented from voting? Are the women guilty of sin or should we hold as sinners those who keep them away from the polling booth? The issue is relevant to some parts of the country where traditions have stood in the way of a woman’s right to exercise her franchise.
The Islamabad moot is to be attended by virtually all political parties; that should give us an idea of its importance. If the conference makes progress, there will be a larger convention of 5,000 ulema, representing all schools of fiqh, including those from Saudi Arabia and Al-Azhar. Let us hope the conference does not get bogged down in dogmatic hair-splitting, and, instead, the learned participants adopt a position that recognises the modern political ethos and upholds a democratic approach. The Pakistan Ulema Council will use the occasion to launch a 40-page booklet, which deals with electoral issues in the light of Sharia. The PUC’s thrust has been towards a more liberal interpretation of the texts. For that reason, it would be interesting to see what response it evokes from the more tradition-bound sections of the ulema.