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Smokers' corner: Curbing the mullah

Updated Apr 30, 2017 11:32am

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In his 2003 book Uncensored, former general manager of PTV, Burhanuddin Hasan wrote that after coming to power in July 1977, one ‘advice’ which Gen Zia issued to PTV was that TV plays (and films) should always depict clerics in a positive light.

The advice had been triggered by a concern exhibited by Zia’s information ministry which believed that the country’s cultural zeitgeist, partially shaped by Urdu films, TV plays and Urdu literature, had always portrayed a negative image of clerics and ulema.

It was a reflection of the larger paradigm shift initiated by the Zia regime in which the ulema were pulled in to play a more direct role in political and legislative matters.


The idea of ‘Islamic Modernism’ held sway in Pakistan until the mid-1970s but disappeared soon after


But why did Zia feel that religious elements had been demonised and kept away from influencing matters of state and government in Pakistan?

In Questioning the Authority of the Past historian Dr Ali Usman Qasimi explains how from 1947 till about the mid-1970s, the state and subsequent governments consciously kept the ulema away from directly influencing government legislation.

Usmani adds that this was not due to the fact that those who ran the state and governments between the mentioned years were secular. Instead, their idea of faith and its role in the formation of Pakistani nationalism was different from those held by the ulema and the clerics.

The civil-military establishment which was at the helm of state and government affairs from 1947 till the early 1970s was an extension of the idea of faith and Muslim nationalism developed and evolved by the likes of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Amir Ali, Chiragh Ali, Ahmaduddin Amritsari, Muhammad Iqbal, Ghulam Ahmad Parvez, Dr Khalifa Abdul Hakim, and to a certain extent, Dr Fazalur Rehman Malik.

These scholars were the main shapers of ‘Islamic Modernism’ in South Asia. As an idea it encouraged the acquirement of universal sciences and philosophies to facilitate a rational, practical and informed reading of Islam’s holy scriptures beyond the ‘dated’ interpretations penned by ancient ulema or contemporary clerics.

From the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, these scholars, through hefty scholarly treatises and philosophical discourses, urged the snatching away of matters of faith from the clutches of clerics and ‘dogmatic ulema.’

They advocated addressing the faith’s ‘stagnant’ and ‘retrogressive’ state through modern scholarly, scientific and cultural means so that its ‘true form’ (which was vibrant and supple) could be brought back to life. To them this recouped form was to become the engine empowering the rejuvenation of South Asia’s Muslims into becoming an enlightened and dynamic polity.

The founders of Pakistan led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah were very much a part and parcel of this narrative and of the evolving tradition of Islamic Modernism in South Asia.

For example, just a few months after the country’s creation in August 1947, Jinnah green-lighted the creation of the Institute for the Reconstruction of Islam (IRI) headed by the celebrated Jewish-journalist-turned-Muslim-scholar, Muhammad Asad.

Ishtiaq Ahmad in 1987’s The Concept of Islamic State quotes IRI’s first scholarly initiative as a detailed treatise which suggested that “no specific form of government had been prescribed by Muslim scriptures and it was up to the Muslims of every age to agree on one that suits their conditions.” The report emphasised that no matter what form of government Muslims decide to enact, it needed to be run on one of the central Islamic principles of “socio-economic justice.”

Even though the 1949 Objectives Resolution passed by the Constituent Assembly declared that Pakistan was to become an ‘Islamic Republic’, Usmani reminds his readers that the Resolution did not envision any special authority for the ulema.

In 1950, the government set up the Iqbal Academy whose first initiative was a monograph Iqbal and the Mullah authored by Dr Khalifa Hakim. The monograph pointed out the differences of the idea of faith advocated by Iqbal and those held by the “reactionary clerics.” The monograph was also distributed to the people by the military during its operation against the 1953 anti-Ahmadiyya riots in the Punjab.

The Pakistani nationalist narrative driven by the precepts of Islamic Modernism peaked in the 1960s during the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69). After taking power, he wrote in his diary (segments of which were published in his 1967 autobiography), that to make Islam a force of progress and unity (in Pakistan), it needed to be rescued from the influence of clerics and “retrogressive ulema.”

Though till then the ulema did not have any significant influence on legislative matters, Ayub further neutralised them by bringing all mosques and shrines under state control. This move was suggested and encouraged by Dr Javed Iqbal, the scholar-son of Allama Iqbal.

Then, on the advice of Dr Fazalur Rehman Malik, Ayub also attempted to get a single, government-approved sermon authored for Friday prayers which was to be read in all mosques.

Through some anti-traditionalist legislation and advocacy institutions that were navigated by staunch Islamic Modernists, Ayub continued to frustrate all attempts by ulema and clerics to enter the mainstream of policy formation.

In 1967, the regime launched an ambitious project to “impart modern education to the clerics so they could become more productive members of the society.”

In the late 1960s, with the economy sliding, Ayub began facing severe opposition from right-wing religious groups as well as from the left. In 1969, he was forced out by a largely left-oriented uprising.

The Islamic Modernist narrative lingered on until it began to erode during the Z.A. Bhutto regime’s populist rightward shift in the mid-1970s. It was then entirely discarded by the Zia dictatorship.

The more ulema-centred narrative and paradigm created by Zia lasted beyond his demise in 1988. Presented and legislated as an alternative to the floundering idea of Islamic Modernism, it eventually mutated and became a highly polarising and even anarchic entity, eventually plunging the state and society into an exhaustive quagmire.

One now wonders, would the state of the country have been better today had Islamic Modernism been allowed to evolve beyond the 1970s?

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 30th, 2017

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Comments (33) Closed



Ranjit Haripur Apr 30, 2017 08:35am

Just brilliant. Bullay Shah lives.

sms Apr 30, 2017 08:42am

What this essay demonstrates is what is "normal" course of events in history - imagining other outcomes is wishful against powerful undercurrents of the society.

While NFP is explaining brilliantly a set of thoughts on modernization going back nearly 200 years; i don't think anyone can well explain (why) the same set (more or less) of leaders were protesting against modernization in Turkey after WWI -- who after nearly 100 years of "modernization" is reverting! - one can't figure that phenomena one easily either - maybe NFP should try.

Zeeshan Apr 30, 2017 08:57am

Evolution if the human mind will fix it in a while.

Zeeshan Apr 30, 2017 08:59am

It is now a matter of a decade or so. Anything that can't be proved with evidence will hardly survive.

Ashraf Apr 30, 2017 09:54am

I beg to disagree entirely, living a pure life free from modern complications will prevent us from taking the path like those in US have taken. The capitalist trap seems attractive, but we want value based lives for our kids.

Mohajir Apr 30, 2017 09:56am

Overdose of religion and overpowering interference of defence forces in mainstream politics is extremely unfortunate for Pakistan

Dragon slayer Apr 30, 2017 10:09am

Pretentious piece of writing. Shallow in content high on rhetoric.

Sama Ansari Apr 30, 2017 10:19am

What an interesting piece indeed. Captured a complex history in a nutshell and in an informed manner.

Vimal Apr 30, 2017 10:28am

@Dragon slayer How?

Rahim Darr Apr 30, 2017 10:42am

Thank you NFP for highlighting a very important and progressive aspect of faith that became the main engine behind the creation of Pakistan and, as you rightly pointed out, peaked in the 1960s.

Its memory has been systematically wiped out ever since 1980s by the forces obscurantism and myopia.

Patriot Apr 30, 2017 10:52am

Very true!!! The current situation is far from the vision of our founders. Mullahs were against the very creation of Pakistan. The Pakistani society has plunged to its lowest level due to dictator Zia's legacy and the creation of thousand of mullah factories.

ABC Apr 30, 2017 11:30am

@Mohajir in Two line you sums up beautiful dear just forget third pillar that is corrupt Politician who behave like old king queen ,Nawab and Jagirdar of post British era in the name of serving the nation,

shaikh Apr 30, 2017 11:53am

An excellent piece indeed.

BNJ Apr 30, 2017 11:56am

Superb piece of writing! very informative

Abraham haque Apr 30, 2017 12:25pm

@Ashraf what kind of values the ones being practiced now are quite dangerous, US is not the only model

Hassan Apr 30, 2017 01:29pm

@Ashraf : Killing each other in the name of religion, that's not the values, I want my children to learn.....

Nasir London Apr 30, 2017 01:57pm

@Ashraf: What are those modern complications that prevent living value based life? Please specify. Or explain lynching a dead body and killing Mashal Khan in the pretext of blasphemy a value based observanc?

MG Apr 30, 2017 02:16pm

Religion is for cleansing a human being and to live in harmony in society. This must be private and within 4 walls of the home or at the most place of worship. Making it state policy and applying it to law and order, education, finance, business is the fundamental mistake.

Qaisar Apr 30, 2017 02:35pm

@sms IMHO - what happened in Turkey after WW1 was also an extreme step where the majority's religious sentiments was attempted to be suppressed. Its always the extreme steps that lead to half hearted acceptance of ideas. You will know very well that two very visible different segments of societies came into existence as a result of those extreme policies - one extremely left wing and the other ultra-conservative.

A secular government wasn't a bad thing at all but the fine line of extreme action was crossed when the government curbed everything religious almost everywhere, without putting a second thought for the ultra-conservative majority.

Erdogan seems to be doing the exact opposite now and again very well crossing the red line of extremity. Now that a big chunk of Turkish society has come into existence which fully believes in the western liberal values are being pushed to the wall.

For some reason being moderate is the hardest thing to do for all us humans in every facet of life

VINOD Apr 30, 2017 05:19pm

@Ashraf Sir I will agree with you about " living a pure life free from modern complications will prevent us from taking the path like those in US have taken. The capitalist trap seems attractive, but we want value based lives for our kids." If you come forward to shun all the comforts provided by gadgets, ACs, Aeroplanes, trains, cars, internet, mobiles etc. etc. (as the list is unending) provided by 'capitalist trap' and also convince your children to do so to live your 'pure life free from complications' otherwise Sir, all your rant is meaningless.

Saleem Mir Apr 30, 2017 06:28pm

Jin is out of bottle and would not go back by any persuation or compulsion.

Tariq Apr 30, 2017 09:01pm

@Ashraf ....You think the current preachers of faith exercise values themselves?

TZaman Apr 30, 2017 09:07pm

Sir, thank you for throwing light on the mullah aspect of our history. Real eye-opener. Right now we are in quagmire of extreme form.of mullahism, but soon the civil society will get rid of them. Only the soon should come early, we have been waiting for long.

Ahmad Apr 30, 2017 10:24pm

Great article

Easternkar Apr 30, 2017 11:09pm

Very good article

Easternkar Apr 30, 2017 11:10pm

Very good article

jamshed May 01, 2017 12:24am

@Zeeshan Scientific progress and discoveries has put religion in any form shape and philosophy on its head. In this era of internet/youtube/online resources, search engines etc; there are variety of answers at all level of human intellect available and no one can be fooled for long. By one estimate "youtube" has become number one source of news (and learning) around the world. Religion (all religions) as they stand and practiced today will be completely unrecognizable in another century, even sooner.

Azhar Hussain May 01, 2017 01:20am

And the results are here and looks very ugly. In an nut shell bad news and keep them away, they are nothing but bad news.

aga Khan May 01, 2017 05:06am

Educational and eye opening - learned a lot. Though left me very sad in the end, after realizing the present state's affair.

Shujaat Khan May 01, 2017 06:32am

Great read NFP. Thanks.

shaukat May 01, 2017 07:44am

@Ashraf At least we don't lynch people for religious differences in US.

Ahmer May 01, 2017 01:57pm

It feels that the article finished abruptly, leaving the reader mid sea, wanting for more. Are there more parts coming?

AD May 01, 2017 10:34pm

Amazing Nadeem