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The Sharia question

Published Feb 17, 2014 07:23am


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DURING a recent talk show discussion on the form of Islamic laws desirable for Pakistan, the anchor brushed aside a panelist’s cautious questioning of the premise by proclaiming that ‘everyone in Pakistan wants Sharia, and what is left to determine is its form’.

This statement, especially the first part, has gained a fair number of peddlers since the initiation of negotiations with the TTP. Every evening we now have the luxury of picking from a variety of clerics paying tribute to the salvation offered by religious law, while carefully avoiding any comments on the inherent complexity involved in its interpretation and application. Such is the freedom of choice on offer in the Islamic Republic.

The underlying message being projected is the universality of its demand. Everyone wants it. Nobody’s disagreeing with the basic gist. All that’s left to determine are the modalities.

In fact, as far back as 2011, the head of a political party (who shall not be named for fear of a defamation suit) vaguely announced that Sharia is a system that distinguishes humans from animals, and that the concerns regarding violence in Swat — the application of ‘Sharia’ according to its proponents — was the ‘so-called liberal class’ engaging in unnecessary alarmism.

In the context of such claims of universality, what one could ask is whether a significant majority in Pakistan actively reflects on the shortcoming of their ‘heathen’ legal-political system, and expresses a deep-seated desire for an order based on the ‘true’ version of Islam. Despite the clerics and TV anchors’ claims to speak for everyone and everything, the answer is that nobody’s really sure.

What we do know, however, is the following: at least 95pc of Pakistan’s population describes itself as Muslim. Many of them engage in rituals that, they point out, flow from divine instruction. This is done partially out of habit, but mostly in the hope of attaining a better after-life.

There are, however, a hundred other things that ordinary Pakistanis do on a daily basis that have nothing to do with their beliefs or how they worship. A 20-something in Lahore posts a Maulana Tariq Jameel lecture on his Facebook page right before switching to Katrina Kaif’s steamy new Bollywood number. Traders in every city rip unsuspecting customers off and evade taxes, while sporting Sharia-compliant beards and vocabularies.

There is and always has been a duality to life in Pakistan. A delicate, often sub-conscious, demarcation between ritual and aspiration, between piety and accumulation. This duality is equally present in the state as well. Envisioned and functioning (in whatever condition) as a Western, common law enterprise, it has attempted to resolve its own questions of identity through token homage to ritual and form. An Objectives Resolution here, a Second Amendment there — each resulting in a problematic yet somewhat stable equilibrium of sorts.

Liberal commentators, while analysing this condition, have often equated Pakistan’s duality with hypocrisy. This may well be the case, but it’s the kind of hypocrisy one would expect in a country popularly thought to have been created in the name of religion, and where successive regimes, for a host of reasons, have placed a legal premium on ritualistic behaviour.

The crisis, as it stands now, is that the Taliban have fully understood the nature and scope of this duality. Through the government’s indecisive handling of the matter, and a series of well-thought-out manoeuvres by the TTP, Islamic groups have shifted the language of mainstream political conversation away from corruption, redistribution and economic growth, to the question of whether our legal-political system is compliant with the after-life or not.

Closely abetting them in this task, unwittingly or otherwise, have been a herd of clerics, talk show hosts, and ‘analysts’ — each one eager to prove himself a bigger champion of the Sharia, and a bigger representative of the country’s population.

Maybe the underlying thinking underscoring their commentary is that such moves would somehow vanquish the TTP from the turf they’ve laid out. By turning this into a question of ‘which Sharia’ — TTP versus XYZ — the population would magically rally around the yet-to-be-devised alternative, saving the country in the process.

What they completely fail to see in the process is that this turf can never yield one victor. It is designed to fracture opinions, create sectarian differences, and spark conflict. By getting the state and civil society in Pakistan to deliberate on the very question of ‘which Sharia’ (as opposed to ‘whether Sharia’), militant Islamic groups have been helped in accomplishing one of their major goals — a goal that, ironically enough, they’ve been clear about since day one.

By inadvertently echoing the TTP’s critique of Pakistan’s duality, by bringing the question of which form of Sharia to our television screens and newspapers, and by forcing the population to reflect on its own belief system, the government and the media have unsettled a political equilibrium, and effectively lost control of the parameters in which this conflict is taking place. Surely, and I say this with more than a hint of fatalism, it will take nothing short of a miracle for the country to emerge from this stand-off in recognisable shape.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

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Umair Javed is a freelance columnist.

He tweets @umairjav

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (21) Closed

Wasif Feb 17, 2014 09:39am

Excellent stuff; please continue to write more frequently.

Fahad Feb 17, 2014 10:13am

I think it is about time the state and the Pakistani people confront these difficult questions and decide if to go with the Turkey model or the Iran / Saudi Arabia model. The hybrid model we've had so far has resulted in mass confusion and has cost us dearly in the international arena.

IMHO Feb 17, 2014 11:51am

"This duality is present in the state as well. Envisioned as a Western enterprise, it has attempted...through token homage to ritual."

Essentially this duality stem from the fact that there are 2 entities vying for space in the geographical,economic,political and legal limits of one-the state and the nation. Pakistan is not unique here,for many countries around the world have been,and continue to be,afflicted by this duality. What is unique in this case,however,is that neither has conclusively defeated the other,since both claim to stand for the same ideology.

During the pre-1991 years,various forms of authoritarian regimes, claiming to be representative of the people but actually representing the state within the state, presided in most of the eastern bloc countries. When they were replaced with more representative systems of governance (i.e. nation defeated the state), the ideological narrative of the new regimes shifted from communism to various mixes of nationalism and capitalism. When the revolution in Iran occoured, the narrative shifted 180 degree from secular monarchy (state) to rule of God and Scriptures (in other words, rule of the Ayatollah and the council - nation defeating state again as it was a popular overthrow). South Africa shifted from white state to black nation. The many drug-fueled autocracies of South America shifted from dictatorship states to nations of Catholic democracy. China and India shifted from Communist / Socialist states to free market nations.

In case of Pakistan, though, both the state and the nation that threatens to overthrow the state now and then, justify their respective right to rule by trying to be greener than the another. In the process the discourse keeps getting greener and greener.

This cycle of oneupmanship between the state and the nation can only be trumped one of the two ways - either one of the parties changes its course to reverse its discourse, as Musharraf tried with the state (and succeeded for a time before his self-importance got the better of him), or as Zardari tried with the nation right at the beginning of his tenure, before his self-preservation instinct kicked in after Mumbai and Salman Taseer.

OR, a third entity that is neither the state nor the nation, but is greener than both, and therefore a better claimant to the reigns of the country, subdues both the state and the nation, as is now being witnessed.

That's just my humble opinion - I may be wrong but doesn't look like i

ravi Feb 17, 2014 12:26pm

This article brings out comlexity in otherwise simingly simple term Sharia. There is no single authority in Islamic world like pope for christians. This is giving so called clerics and mullahs give their own opinions regarding sharia or any other islamic matters creating confusion in Islamic communities and sects of Islam. This is true about most of prominent religions. Talibans are aware of this and they are exploiting this confusion and they are able to continue their agenda.

Anoop Feb 17, 2014 03:55pm

Islam, also like Sharia, has various interpretations, isn't it, JUST LIKE Sharia.

Yet, Islam was named the State's Religion. Why not follow the same approach to Sharia?

I think liberals are avoiding the Sharia question based on silly technicalities. They in fact are afraid of Sharia, but are too afraid to admit it. You can even reject Parliamentary Democracy citing technicalities. But, they are just arguments.

You can argue for or against anything. But, since Pakistan was deemed to be an Islamic state, Sharia should ideally be imposed.

khanm Feb 17, 2014 06:25pm

There is a growing frustration that Our country is seeing as something that is done to people rather than acting on their behalf. And this is being intensified by the very solutions required to resolve the social economic problems

Addy Feb 17, 2014 07:26pm

Are the Shia clerics also clamoring for Sharia?

NASAH (USA) Feb 17, 2014 09:07pm

If Saudi Arabia is doing so well with the Sharia -- it is not because of the Sharia -- it is because of the OIL -- Pakistan can flourish under Sharia like Saudi Arabia if Pakistan had the second largest deposit of Naphta under its own deserts -- but it is NOT.

So postpone the Sharia in Pakistan till the country finds streaming rivers of oil under its arid soil.

Moreover Sharia is not necessary for a country to progress in the 21st century -- always remember the West. West has reached the pinnacle of success in every field WITHOUT the Sharia -- so can Pakistan.

Sridhar Feb 17, 2014 09:08pm

@IMHO: A cool-headed, rational analysis.

Karachi Wala Feb 18, 2014 06:36am


Very Insightful.

El Cid Feb 18, 2014 09:01am

@Anoop: Hindu man telling Muslims how Islam is to be followed... Good one.

malole Feb 18, 2014 09:41am

Yea I always hear them say everyone in Pakistan wants Sharia. I, for one, don't want Sharia as I don't think it is practical anymore and neither is there any model for us to follow. What is a good Sharia model is like a chicken or the egg question.

saleem Feb 18, 2014 10:46am

religiosity is a tool so the intelligent of you make money!

Sanjoy Feb 18, 2014 08:26pm

The slippery slope has started. First the TTP will bring Sharia. Then floggings and amputations. Then everybody will be too terrified to oppose anything.

El Cid Feb 19, 2014 09:57am

@malole: "I, for one, don't want Sharia as I don't think it is practical anymore and neither is there any model for us to follow"

Shariah is not practical and not a model for you to follow, specially when a better more practical one is available to you: Bollywood..!

El Cid Feb 19, 2014 10:01am

@NASAH (USA): "Saudi Arabia is doing so well with the Sharia"

Saudia Arabia does NOT follow Sharia Law. It makes its own laws as it goes along, often in direct contradiction and abrogation of Shariah.

El Cid Feb 19, 2014 10:10am

@NASAH (USA): "West has reached the pinnacle of success in every field WITHOUT the Sharia"

Not true. The West does not identify it as such but its laws and practices are essentially in line to those of the Shariah: Elimination of Corruption, Equity, Fair play, and a level playing field. Equal access to Law and Justice for ALL .

Call them what you will but these are the fundamentals of Shariah Law.

IMHO Feb 19, 2014 12:14pm

@Sridhar, Karachi Wala: Thank you, and pardon the many grammatical / syntax errors I noticed only upon re-reading my comment.

gabriel Feb 20, 2014 06:48am

@El Cid: "Equal access to Law and Justice for ALL"

a worthy aspiration except for the fact that "ALL" with regards to Sharia refers only to muslim males

Abdul Feb 20, 2014 09:16am

@El Cid: What about the Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, laws which predate Sharia by at least a thousand years ?

El Cid Feb 20, 2014 04:04pm


Have you studied them? I have.

They don't begin to match Shariah in equity, mercy, forgiveness, balance, fair play or justice. Not even close. In fact, in many cases, quite the opposite.

Read and verify for yourself.