WHEN Sheikh Abdul Aziz, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa directing Muslims not to play chess as, according to him, the ancient board game was un-Islamic, a roar of laughter greeted this edict on social media.
A similar reaction was seen when a Malaysian cleric decreed that yoga should not be practised by Muslims as it had Hindu origins. More recently, a so-called fatwa permitting Muslim men to eat their wives in extreme circumstances went viral on social media. Although the Saudi grand mufti denied having issued it, many may have believed it to be genuine as the same worthy had urged in 2012 that all churches in the Arabian peninsula be destroyed.
But why look towards Saudi Arabia and Malaysia for such examples? Here in Pakistan some years ago, a cleric in Noshki, a small town in Balochistan, reportedly issued a fatwa to the effect that girls using mobile phones would have acid thrown in their faces. He cited ‘Islamic tradition’ to bar girls from receiving a formal education and was critical of women working in NGOs, urging them to go home and look after their husbands.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban banned all forms of sports and entertainment. Women showing an inch of skin could be flogged, as they are in Saudi Arabia. And while the world is outraged at the routine beheading of prisoners by the militant Islamic State group, it chooses to avert its eyes from the same savage punishment regularly meted out to convicts in Saudi Arabia.
And let’s not forget our own Council of Islamic Ideology’s preoccupation with the subjugation of women. Its misogynistic rulings on child marriage and divorce threaten to drag Pakistan back to the seventh century.
The clergy is not focusing on the real issues.
I am citing these examples to highlight the priorities our clerics have set themselves. By refusing to focus on the real issues of the day, they are making themselves irrelevant. Most of the Muslim world is socially and economically backward, and its people suffer from poverty, poor health, illiteracy and a lack of employment opportunities. So one would have thought Muslim clerics would have major issues to concern themselves with other than keeping women at home.
Instead of asserting the right of men to four wives, why aren’t our religious leaders putting pressure on governments to improve education and healthcare? Why don’t we see fatwas in support of the right of every child to food, shelter, healthcare and a decent education?
And from where do they dredge up their edicts against chess, yoga, music and sports? Certainly, my reading of the Holy Book revealed no such bans. So why have they attempted to turn Islam into a mere checklist of do’s and don’ts? Why is it all about punishments and threats? Whatever happened to reflection and contemplation? Why is religion being turned into such a joyless experience? Above all, where’s the compassion?
The Islam I see around me today is certainly not the one I grew up with. The Pakistan of my boyhood was a far more tolerant place than it is today. The reason for this regression lies, of course, in the harsh interpretation of the faith as practised in Saudi Arabia, and exported by the kingdom’s clerics with the royal family’s active support.
The 9/11 attacks, the subsequent extremist violence that has convulsed the Middle East, and the terrorist atrocities carried out in the West as well as the Muslim world, have all produced a backlash. It has now become a default position for Muslims to say: ‘Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by terrorists.’
The reality is that the faith has been hijacked by the clergy: the words of many Muslim clerics provide ammunition to those who see violence in the faith’s DNA. The harsh, angry sermons at Friday prayers, the fulminations of clerics like Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid, and the weird fatwas issued by ill-qualified and uneducated religious leaders all feed into an increasingly negative narrative about Islam.
When the Holy Book was revealed, it contained many progressive ideas regarding women’s rights and the redistribution of wealth. But instead of extending those principles, we have allowed them to stagnate, thanks to the monopoly a retrogressive clergy has acquired over the interpretation of the scriptures.
One reason for this intellectual moribundity is the power earlier Muslim rulers exercised over the clergy: the latter provided legitimacy to dynasties in violation of Islamic principles. The same is true of the relationship between Saudi and Gulf clerics and the ruling royalty.
In the colonial and post-colonial periods, the only original thinking was among opposition theologians and radicals who opposed the status quo. The clergy mostly support the ruling elites, but as soon as it sees its power slipping away, it turns on its masters.
As long as we don’t separate religion from the affairs of the state, the confusion we see today will continue.
Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2016