Bigotry in the name of God

Updated March 17, 2014

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THE chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), Muhammad Khan Sheerani, has stated that prohibition of child marriage under the Muslim Family Law Ordinance is un-Islamic. He argued that the requirement to seek permission of the first wife before taking on a second (or third or fourth) is also un-Islamic.

A few months back he declared that evidence generated by forensic DNA testing can’t be treated as primary evidence in rape cases. Given his proclivity for regression in all forms, it would be unjust to conclude that the CII chairman is merely a proponent of gender inequality.

The crisis of religious thought in Pakistan is epitomised by the likes of Muhammad Sheerani. The divide here is not just between those who advocate absolute conservation of tradition and those who advocate progressive change, or between those who have a minimalistic approach to religion and those who wish the state to enforce a maximalist version, or between proponents of rigid construction of religious text as opposed to contextual construction.

The real problem is the ascent of coercionists who claim a monopoly over the understanding of religious texts, and leave no political and social space for reasonable people to debate and disagree over matters of faith.

The debate around religion in Pakistan has been hijacked by a bigoted mullah brigade for whom discovering, debating and promoting the truth is not the object.

The goal is to perpetuate invidious traditions and cultural practices no matter how cruel, and block any move towards striking the right balance between conservation and change.

Fazal ur Rehman (the Islamic scholar) argued in Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition that the real challenge is to understand the context of revealed scripture and how principles laid down in Quran and Sunnah are to be interpreted and applied today.

Is text to be applied, as it was understood at the time of revelation, or are principles to be derived from it and applied in view of current socio-political and economic realities? This sums up the debate between rigid and progressive constructionists.

Pakistan’s rigid constructionists simply refuse to acknowledge that human beings are involved in the process of interpretation as if texts speak directly, explain their meaning and advise all and sundry on how the principles laid out in the Quran and Sunnah are to be applied in a changing world.

This refusal is accompanied by the mullah brigade’s claim that its understanding of the meaning of the Quran and Sunnah is in itself Divine Truth. You ask them about the challenge of interpretation and they’ll tell you that the question itself is a conspiracy against Sharia enforcement.

What’s the logic of CII’s latest pronouncements? It believes there is anecdotal evidence that women during early years of Islam were married off before reaching the age of majority.

Thus prohibiting marriage of minors is un-Islamic. By the same logic there’s irrefutable evidence that slavery existed during Islam’s early years and keeping slaves has also not been explicitly prohibited. Should Article 11 of our Constitution forbidding slavery then be declared un-Islamic for being ultra vires of the Sharia?

Are the CII’s claims the product of rigorous study of Islamic theology or that of a misogynist cultural tradition entrenched in the name of religion? The CII’s opinion regarding polygamy and child marriage reveals its decadent worldview.

The reason why minors shouldn’t be getting married is because humans lack agency and autonomy before they become adults and neither know right from wrong nor can be held to account for their actions.

If the guardians of a young girl can contract her out in marriage regardless of her age and hand over her possession later when she is old enough to endure sex, are we saying that women are nothing more than chattel and marriage a delayed delivery contract?

More worrisome is the design fault in the CII’s conception. Given the level of intolerance our society has already surpassed, it’s now evident that the CII can only be an instrument of further radicalisation, not the harbinger of progressive change. Do its decisions find acceptability within the religious right unless they pander to the extreme right and endorse savage cultural traditions in the name of religion?

Under Prof Khalid Masud, the CII supported the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws) Amendment Act, 2006, to guard against the abuse of Hudood Laws. The rabid mullah brigade rose up in arms against the CII.

A few years later, the CII proposed amendments in the nikah form to protect women against harassment and abuse they are subjected to while seeking khula. The mullah brigade was livid again and blocked the reform.

Any talk of reforming the blasphemy laws to prevent against their abuse is now seen as blasphemy itself. When Javed Ghamidi spoke up in the wake of Salmaan Taseer’s murder he attracted a bomb attack and had to flee Pakistan along with his family.

The Oxford-educated Fazal ur Rehman who returned to Pakistan in 1961 to head the Central Institute for Islamic Research also had to settle down in Chicago University to be able to freely research Islam and write about it.

Whether it is Israrullah Zehri justifying the killing or burying of women alive in the name of honour and tradition or Muhammad Sheerani propagating child marriage in the name of religion, we must understand that bigots are cut out of the same cloth. And so long as they keep doing well in this country, progressive change won’t.

The writer is a lawyer.

sattar@post.harvard.edu Twitter:@babar_sattar