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