Recently, while on a flight to Dubai, from where I was to take a connecting flight to Germany, I had a short but rather telling encounter with another passenger. 

A group of three women and two men entered the plane. Two of the women were in black niqabs. Only their eyes could be seen. The third woman (who was much older) was in a plain shalwar kameez. Both the men, who seemed to be in their early forties, had long beards, but one of them wore the long traditional dress usually worn by Arab men in the UAE. 

No, these men were not Arab; they were Pakistani. The man in the Arab dress spoke fluent English and equally good Urdu. He sounded very courteous as he spoke to the two male attendants of the airline who helped him place the group’s hand luggage in the overhead compartments. 

The media’s reaction to the council of Islamic ideology’s most recent rulings, suggests that majority of Pakistanis tend to agree

The women and one of the men settled in the four seats in front of me, but the man in the Arab dress kept standing. He was eyeing the empty seat in my row. In that row there was me in the aisle seat; on my right was a young lady who I presumed to be either Burmese or Thai. The empty seat was on her right and on the right of that seat sat an elderly Pakistani woman. 

The man told the flight attendant that he would appreciate it if he could get me to move from my seat. Thinking that he wanted to be closer to his wife who was sitting right in front of me, I began to get up to move into the empty seat. But then he wanted the woman sitting beside me to move as well. He wanted her to move to the empty seat and me to move to her seat. 

I was already midway of getting up, when I heard him tell the attendant: “Thank you, you see, I can’t sit with women.”

These words immediately stopped my slow accent, and I almost instinctively landed back on my seat. I told the attendant: “Sorry, I can’t change my seat. I don’t sit with men who can’t sit with women.” Saying this, I went back to reading my newspaper. 

I didn’t see what happened next. Apparently the gentleman was given a seat right at the back of the 777-300 Boeing. From the corner of my eye I tried to gauge the reaction of the two women who were sitting on my right. They both had heard him clearly. The Burmese/Thai woman was just staring vacantly at the video screen in front of her. She had no apparent emotion on her face. Maybe she didn’t understand English.

The Pakistani lady, however, looked embarrassed. May be this was because the insightful man had anticipated her diabolical plan to test his moral uprightness? Or perhaps she was simply embarrassed because she was born a woman.

On a sober note, I wondered why he had to announce that he didn’t like sitting with women? It was a plane. And forget about the fact that women too travel, what on earth did he do when he was served by an air hostess? Did he refuse food served by her and instead asked a man to serve him? Maybe he went hungry, which, I’m sure was the right thing to do than having food that was morally contaminated by the touch of a woman! 

He seemed to be cordial and educated. But I’m sure he is the kind of man who hails everything which comes rolling out from the wise minds of Maulana Sheerani and his league of gentlemen in Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology.  

The council has recently become quite an object of ridicule and criticism in the media for its obsession with everything to do with women. When they should get married; how they should behave; and, more importantly, how, as wives, they should be willing to receive a ‘light beating’ from their husbands if he (in his better and more mature judgement) believes she has been unfaithful, or unwilling to meet his daily needs. 

The irony is that the council —which is purely an advisory body with no legislative powers — was originally a creation of progressive intent. Today, it might have become an object of ridicule largely run by dogmatic clerics placed there by political parties to appease their religious allies. Yet, the council was originally conceived to liberate faith from exactly the kind of conservatism and reactionary convolutions it has become a bastion of. 

The creation of the council was first mandated in the 1956 constitution which was authored by a constituent assembly entirely made up of indirectly elected members. Two highly competent scholars of Islam were behind this move: Abul Ala Maududi and Ghulam Ahmed Parvez. 

Interestingly though, both men were often at loggerheads. Maududi advocated Islam as a radical political ideology engineered to eschew modern concepts such as secularism and socialism, whereas Parvez explained the faith as a rational philosophy which was compatible with science and with social and political modernities. 

The purpose of the council stated in the constitution was to advise the National Assembly on any legislation based on ‘Islamic principles’. It was to be run by a group of religious scholars. 

But the council was never formed. In late 1958, president Iskander Mirza scraped the constitution and imposed martial law with the help of military chief Ayub Khan. Richard Seabrook in his 1970 book, The Constitutional Quest, quotes Mirza as saying that the 1956 constitution was “the selling of Islam for political needs”. 

In 1962, the government of Ayub Khan, who became ruler of Pakistan after sidelining Mirza in 1958, finally formed the country’s first council of islamic ideology. The stated goal of the council was to help the government “define Islam (in Pakistan) in terms of its fundamentals in a rational and liberal manner in order to bring out its dynamic character in the context of the scientific and intellectual context of the modern world”.

Ayub handpicked the members of the council and they included Justice M. Akram, historian I.H. Qureshi, and Maulana Hashim. All three held ‘progressive views’ about Islam. Also in the first council (as an adviser) was one of the period’s leading modernist scholars of Islam, Dr. Fazal Rehman Malik. 

The council was in the forefront in facilitating the various social and religious reforms undertaken by the Ayub regime, even though conservative religious parties vehemently opposed these measures. 

This council remained intact till 1968. It was disbanded after the fall of the Ayub regime in 1969. The council was reformed in 1973 by the populist Z.A. Bhutto regime of the Pakistan People’s Party. 

The Bhutto regime too populated the council with members who were largely non-clerical. For example, chairman of the council between 1973 and 1977, was the progressive judge, Justice Hamoodur Rehman. The stated goal of the institution remained somewhat the same as it had been during the Ayub regime.

However, even though the Bhutto government inducted various Islamic clauses in the 1973 constitution, the council during the regime was far less active than it had been during the Ayub government. 

Three more judges headed the council from 1977 till 1993. This period included 11 years of the reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship (1977-88). Yet, despite the fact that the dictatorship initiated a number of draconian laws which were explained away as being ‘Islamic’, Gen Zia too chose judges to head the institution. But they were more conservative in their outlook compared to Justice Akram and Hamoodur Rehman. 

Benazir Bhutto’s second government made the left-leaning Islamic scholar, Kausar Niazi, chairman of the council in 1993. But the council remained to be a purely ceremonial institution until the dictatorship of Gen Parvez Musharraf (1999-2008). He tried to give it the kind of impetus which Ayub had in the 1960s. 

Like Ayub, Musharraf too inducted ‘progressive’ Islamic scholars in the council, which included renowned liberal Islamic scholar, Javed Ahmad Ghamdi. Musharraf chose a professor of Islamic studies who had obtained a PhD from Canada’s prestigious McGill University, as chairman of the council (Dr. M. Khalid Masud). 

In 2010, the Zardari regime chose Maulana Sheerani as the council’s chairman to accommodate his regime’s pragmatic alliance with Sheerani’s party, the JUI-F. But even though the council continues to be an entirely advisory body, Sheerani and his team have been in the news ever since — especially due to some extremely reactive statements, mostly to do with the status of women.

The council’s rulings do not turn into law without the approval of the legislators or the courts. But many now believe that the council’s most recent statements have become an embarrassment to the country and to the faith as well. 

In January 2016, the Senate of Pakistan actually questioned the worth and purpose of the council, stating that it had exhausted its tenure and purpose. And the way the media reacted to the current council’s most recent rulings, it seems a majority of Pakistanis tend to agree.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 5th, 2016


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