Politics of the moon

Updated Jun 02 2020

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

“It is the very error of the moon; She comes more nearer earth than she was wont, And makes men mad” — Shakespeare

IF for decades we associated Eid with Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman and his quest to sight an elusive sliver of the moon in the sky, Fawad Chaudhry managed to supplant this image in a year or so. Eid will now — for some time to come — be an event where the PTI federal minister will come to mind for having ruffled Mufti Muneeb’s monotone. No mean feat this, in a country where the clergy have rarely been elbowed out of the spotlight so easily.

The battle is far from won, but there is little debate about who won this round. Fawad Chaudhry seems to have pushed the issue to highlight how practically technology can be used to resolve simple issues and the importance of nation states. He has argued that most Muslim states use technology to determine the calendar in advance and how important it is for a nation state to celebrate its important religious events on a single day.

It may be hard to disagree with him but in reality implementing what he says is not as easy as he makes it seem.

Chaudhry has basically highlighted the complex relationship of the Pakistani state with religion. Unlike the states he has cited, the Pakistani state has never made religious elements subservient to itself; a number of the countries cited by Chaudhry in the Middle East or Turkey, for example, are places where the state has extensive control over the khutbas in mosques, something which is an unattainable goal at home.

Why haven’t we been able to determine Islamic dates in a secular and technological manner?

Instead, the relationship in Pakistan has been more symbiotic and religious elements have provided the state legitimacy while also playing the role of an accepted and acceptable opposition. (Religious elements have never been driven underground; instead, they have been a legitimate player, which in turn has recognised the state as legitimate.) And this has meant that religious matters have always been part of the political realm — to be negotiated and settled and then negotiated some more.

Take zakat. The state is supposed to collect it; Ziaul Haq turned it into a legal obligation but the Shia community took umbrage, held the biggest-ever protest in Islamabad and the military dictator was forced to give them an exemption. Even with the Sunni majority, the legal obligation exists on paper while societal practice is completely different. The majority of the populace continues to see it as a personal matter and donates to organisations and individuals, as it sees fit. And the state, despite the laws, also allows this to be. Why else would we see a large number of organisations ask for zakat donations during Ramazan every year and society boasting of and encouraging the philanthropic nature of Pakistanis? It is not seen as a contradiction.

Moon sighting is no different — religious elements have resisted the state’s authority over the matter since the beginning.

Ayub Khan, like Fawad Chaudhry, decided that in a modern state, matters of the calendar should not be left to the clergy and gave the task to the meteorological department. But in 1961, its decision was not accepted by the Karachi Ruet-i-Hilal Committee and parts of the country celebrated Eid on different days. It is said that the controversy occurred more than once during his tenure and that the Jamaat-i-Islami — an opposition party at the time — too was averse to accepting the state’s decision on when Eid was to be celebrated.

Because of this, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took the matter to parliament and the committee was given legal cover. But as with the zakat issue, the law of the land has limited applicability when it comes to seemingly religious matters, for the state has its limitations.

And since then, little has changed. As the committee formed by Bhutto included provincial and local-level committees and the process of consultation, there is little large-scale opposition to the decision. But this does not stop the likes of Popalzai who are influential in their communities.

Mufti Shahabuddin Popalzai presides over a mosque in Peshawar, which dates back to 1842, and is followed by the residents of Peshawar, Charsadda, Mardan and other nearby districts, when it comes to moon sightings. The cleric charts his own path when it comes to dates because he disagrees with the methodology of the committee — he bridles at the lack of consultation, as did those who didn’t agree with the decision made by Ayub Khan.

In other words, as long as there is a Ruet-i-Hilal Committee which is deciding the sighting of the moon, there is bound to be someone, somewhere, who feels left out of the ‘religious’ voices being heard or the shahadats being considered and will establish his (or her, perhaps) own one and a half inch mosque.

But along with this, there is the larger issue of why Pakistan has not been able to determine Islamic dates in a more secular and technological manner. And this is because of the state’s relationship with religion as pointed out earlier. Because the state has shared a cooperative or symbiotic relationship, it has allowed the religious elements to flourish, due to which they jostle for space and negotiate with it. And in the process, they have also managed to win over a share of the state largesse. The Ruet-i-Hilal Committee is a case in point as is the Council of Islamic Ideology, which was headed by a member of parliament of the JUI-F from 2010 to 2016.

And no one needs to be told why it is difficult to withhold state generosity from those who have gotten used to it — from the car industry to the steel mills to the clergy.

These larger issues will have to be addressed if the state — and not just Fawad Chaudhry — decides that national unity and harmony require technology to determine when Eid is to be celebrated. Demonstrating the efficacy of science or forcibly sending Popalzai out of the country on the eve of Eid — as was apparently done one year — may not be enough.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2020