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A fine anomaly

Updated August 09, 2013

Recently the Bangladesh Supreme Court banned the right-wing Islamic party, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). Apart from accusing it of being involved in the atrocities committed by the party members against Bengali nationalists in league with the former West Pakistan forces in 1971, the court also maintained that the party’s existence went against the constitution of Bangladesh.

Few remember that even before the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, a similar move was attempted in Pakistan in which the government contemplated banning religious parties because they ‘soiled the image of Islam by mixing it with amoral politics’.

It is also bemusing to note that in a country that has increasingly become obsessed with religion and the role it plays in its politics and society, very few remember one of the finest and most refined Islamic scholars produced by Pakistan. He was also the man directly associated with the attempt to dislodge religious parties from politics in Pakistan.

Maybe this is because for years the image of an Islamic scholar that has been peddled by the state and accepted by society in Pakistan is that of a man with a long beard, speaking Urdu in an Arabic accent (!), or a woman fully draped in a jet black burqa, mumbling moralistic little nothings on TV.

The man in question was Professor Fazalur Rehman Malik. Clean-shaven, well-spoken, always looking sharp in his suits and ties, and more importantly, extremely well-informed and well-versed in Islamic literature, philosophy and history, he was on the verge of almost completely undermining the role of religious parties in Pakistan when he was forced to flee the country.

After studying Arabic at the Punjab University in Lahore, Rehman went to Oxford in the UK for further studies.

He was teaching Islamic philosophy at McGill University in Canada when in 1961 he recieved an invitation from Pakistan’s head of state, Field Martial Ayub Khan, to come to Pakistan and help him set up the Central Institute of Islamic Research (CIIR).

Ayub had come to power on the back of a military coup in 1958. Though a practicing Muslim who seldom missed saying his daily prayers, he was not only allergic to civilian politicians (whom he described as being selfish and corrupt), but he also had a great disliking for religious parties and the clergy.

With the ambition to create a Pakistan driven by his ‘benevolent’ military dictatorship, and based on state-facilitated capitalism, and a constitution culled from what he described to be the ‘progressive and modernist Islam of Jinnah,’ Ayub wanted the CIIR to help him achieve this through legislation and necessary laws.

It was the CIIR under Professor Rehman who advised Ayub to constitutionally curb the religious parties and their interpretation of Islam.

Rehman then drew a social and political framework for making Pakistan a ‘progressive, modern Muslim majority state.’

Though Ayub did not act upon each and every aspect of Rehman’s framework, the workings of the CIIR certainly made the Ayub regime ban the Jamaat-i-Islami in 1964. The decision, however, was overturned by the Supreme Court.

But Rehman was not a secularist, as such. Instead he saw himself and his work to be a modern extension of the ‘Islamic rationalism’ of figures like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Ameer Ali, Maulana Shibli Naumani, Niaz Fatehpuri and the 8th and 9th century Muslim rationalists, the Mu’tazilites.

Instead of attempting to become a militaristic bastion of international Islam, Rehman suggested that Pakistan take the lead in engineering an Islamic polity that through science and scholarship, could successfully compete with the economic and technological prowess of the two superpowers of the time, the United States and the communist Soviet Union.

The detailed research papers that the CIIR produced under his guidance emphasised the application of reason in the interpretation of the Qu’ran, and the absorption of western science, philosophy and economics to help Islam (in Pakistan) survive as a progressive and flexible religion with the ability to supplement economic, scientific and cultural progress instead of hindering or retarding it.

However, when in one such paper he suggested that laws and society in Pakistan should be based on a rationalist and modernist interpretation of the Qu’ran, and that the hadith (Islamic traditions based on hearsay), should only play a minimal role in this respect, he was vehemently challenged by his more conservative counterparts.

The counterparts were also well aware of his advice to Ayub to ban religious political parties.

Leading the attack on Rehman was the prolific Islamic scholar and founder of the Jamaat, Abul Ala Mauddudi, who demanded that Rehman be expelled from Pakistan. and from the fold of Islam.

Then, in 1967, during a lecture that he was delivering on Pakistan’s then nascent state-owned TV channel, PTV, Rehman suggested that drinking alcohol was not a major sin in Islam.

Even though alcohol was legal in Pakistan till 1977, the religious parties went berserk and held a number of rallies against Rehman.

Rehman, more or less, was basically repeating what early scholars of the Hanafi School of Islamic jurisprudence had already suggested.

And ironically, some 40 years after Rehman’s musings, and 30 years after the sale of alcohol (to Muslims) was banned in Pakistan, the highly conservative Federal Shariat Court of Pakistan finally decreed that consuming alcohol indeed was a minor sin.

On May 28, 2009, the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) declared whipping for the offence of drinking as un-Islamic and directed the government to amend the law to make the offence bailable — even though the last person to be whipped for consuming alcohol was in 1981.

In 1969 as Pakistan entered a turbulent period in which a far-reaching political movement led by leftist parties and student organisations forced Ayub to resign, Rehman continued being perused and harassed by the Islamic parties until he was left with no other choice but to leave the country.

He went to the US and distinguished himself as a highly regarded Professor of Islamic Thought and researcher at the University of Chicago.

The 1970s and 1980s were also his most prolific years as an author in which he wrote some of the most influential books on modern Islamic thought — especially Islam (1979) and Islam & Modernity (1982).

He never returned to Pakistan and died in Chicago in 1988.