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The Answer is Secularism and Democracy††


By Saeed Qureshi††


The latest recommendations put up by the Islamic Ideological Council of Pakistan on divorce and some other matters, have been vehemently resisted by the relgiousideologues (Ulemas), generatinga bitter controversy anda deadlock. The sectarian strife has always remained the bane of the Islamic world and the ideological unity or doctrinal convergences have ever remained elusive.


Any relgion, by virtue of its originating in a particular age, remains stuck up in the traditions and values of those times. Society on the other hand is, essentially dynamic and its culture and socio-economic and technological conditions change with the changing times. The technological innovations are always on the move forward whereas the relgious creed and beliefs remain rigid. If a religion claims that its teachings are for all times and generations then such a claim is merely a subjective claim and doesnít correspond to the real world. Hence there is always a continuous contradiction and clash between the society and the religion. The society consists of government, the people and the state.


All the religions that came up were the product of the tribal societies when, socially, man was much backward. As the societies advanced socially and materially, the relgious tenets fell short of meeting the emerging challenges and conditions. Most of the religions are grounded in mythology and therefore are far from the realities of life and objectivity. But those religions based on history had to reinterpret and recast the fundamental teachings in due course of time to cater for the socio-cultural milieu and beliefs of the lands they conquered.††


For Islam such reinterpretation also became a necessity to resolve the inter-relgious dissentions among the faithful. But invariably, the reinterpreting called Ijtihad (exertion to find solutions of unforeseen legal issues within the ambit of Islam) in relgious terms were diverse, divisive and far from being convergent. The need for legal reform has always been felt by Muslims and therefore the theologians and Islamic scholars have been trying to present Islam as a relgion that has answers to the intricate problems of latter generations.††


After the demise of the original apostles the Christianity started fragmenting into sects and factions and to this day every country had established its own church, although the main division between the Catholic and Protestants remains paramount. The Greek and Roman influence had radically transformed the pristine Christian dogma that was upheld and practiced by the early Christian faithful. Constantine the famous Roman emperor who converted to Christianity in 313 CE made Constantinople as his new capital. This one step divided the ďChristianity both in language and geography into two contenders of faith: the Latin speaking Rome in the west and the Greek speaking Constantinople in the EastĒ.


By 384 CE, Christianity was already divided into as many as 80 factions. The reformation in 16th century had its own profound impact on the Christianity and the Christian church further fragmented into such denominations as Lutheran. Calvinists and Anglican which had further subdivisions running into hundreds.††


Coming to the Islamic creed, after the demise of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the issue of his successor sowed the seeds of dissention and became a cause of division in Islamic ranks. The Sunnis believe that the main criterion for appointment of the Caliph is to be righteous and senior. That is how the first three caliphs of Islam were elected or chosen. As a matter of fact, in those primitive times it was the most viable democratic way to elect the head of Islamic politico-relgious office of caliphate.


The Shiite Muslims, however, believe that the caliphate was the right of the blood descents of prophet by which they mean Ali, the son in law of prophet, and his progeny. This conflict still divides the Islamic polity and would remain as the constant block in the way of ideological unity of Islam. This division of Muslims into Sunnis and Shias has torn apart the Muslims since beginning and not only weakened their monolithic unity but has remained one of the principle causes to kill each other down the centuries.


Ironically, Islamís division, on the basis of succession to prophet, is not confined to Shias and Sunnis only. It is further splintered into countless sects and denominations based on peculiar differences in rituals and interpretations of Islamic injunctions. It is humanly not possible to reconcile all these differences and divisions to bring about an ideological unity and cohesion among the Muslims.


There is yet another division or schism in the ranks of Muslims which is anchored on Muslim law or Fiqah (jurisprudence). The body of Islamic law derived from Quran and Sunna (Hadith), mainly comprise 500 to 600 legal references. But since these references were confined to the society in which Islam came into being, it was necessary that the ambit of Shariah should be enlarged and expanded to cater for the changing times and the new civilization and cultures. It was a give and take exercise in which Muslim law came into contact with other civilizations such as Romans, Byzantinian, Persian, Greek and even Jewish. In due course, the interaction between the original relgious practices and the local customs gave birth to new ideas both temporal and spiritual.


Following Prophet Muhammadís death, his companions and successors tried to find solutions to the recurring problems that had no definite or direct answers in the Quran and the Sunna. Apart from the elements of faith, four school of Islamic law emerged that tried to reconcile and reinterpret the Islamic Fiqah or legal system and conform it to the new realties, conditions and the new issues that were not clearly addressed either in Quran and or found specific answers in the Sunna. All these schools were a kind of inquiry or Ijtihad to reinterpret Islamic laws within the scope of Islamic faith and precepts. But while they came up with methods like Nass, Ijmah, Qiyas, Istehsan or Ray etc, these schools further divided the Islamic faithful along sectarian lines. Presently the Islamic countries practice these four dimensions of one Islamic faith in different part of the world. So the unity of faith and legal framework stands fractured.

Historically barring the initial period of four caliphs, when election of caliphs was made


with the consent of notables which was in fact a tribal form of democracy, the rest of the period thereafter till now has not witnessed an Islamic country which could be termed as democratic or whose rulers came to power with popular franchise. Until the technological revolution in communication; it was difficult to elect a head of state through a system of adult franchise.


While for the last several centuries people have been given fundamental rights, the democratic system is of recent origin. So any relgious system that came into being several centuries ago could not conceive of voting by the entire population for choosing a ruler. Those were the eras of family dynasties, despots and monarchical rulers. The democracy basically being of secular nature is not the product of relgion but of the civilaztional leaps and intellectual and social uplift of the society.


In Islam there is a general consensus on five obligations: proclamation about one God and his prophet, prayers towards Mecca five times a day, paying of Zakat (Islamic tax), fasting for one lunar month, and pilgrimage to Mecca . But the mode of their practical performance differs between Sunnis and Shias.Addiotionally there are five basic beliefs namely: belief in one God, in angles, in prophets, in Holy Scriptures, in the Day of Judgment, and Godís knowledge and determination of all events (predetermination).


Islam divided all matters and actions of the faithful as well as humans in five broad categories in order to determine their being right or wrong from relgious point of view. These are obligatory, commendable, permissible, reprehensible and forbidden. While for individual actions these could serve as a useful parameters to give relgious edicts but in case of complex nature of the modern society, these yardsticks may look irrelevant.††


While the Christendom has settled the dispute of ascendancy between church and state by separating their roles and extricating Church from interfering in state affairs, Islam is still embroiled in this futile and unending tussle. The conservatism and orthodoxy is still vibrant in Islamic countries and thus as a result of war between the liberalism and secularism on one hand and the obscurantismand orthodoxy on the other, the state is still far from being independent and the society remains hostage to the dictates of conservative clerics. In Pakistan there is a persistent refrain on making Pakistan as an Islamic state but even the most ultra conservative government of General Ziau-haq could not achieve this goal because of the inherent contradictions between the features of a modern state and the orthodox nature of relgion.



Since any religion is bound to degenerate and split into sectarianism and denominations, the state that is essentially a secular institution cannot function properly and peacefully because of the internecine feuding between various faiths. In a theocracy and in a state that calls itself a relgious state or the custodian of particular faith and relgion, the relgious and sectarian harmony is not possible as we can see in Pakistan . It is foregone, that notwithstanding the Islamic teachings about equality and justice, a majority sect seldom treats the adherents of minority sects on an equal footing. Rather the minority sects are persecuted and intimidated as heretics and unbelievers. This is still happening in various Islamic countries.††


Secondly, it is important to understand that the institution of democracy is the gift or product of modern society and civilization. As already pointed out democracy essentially is secular in nature and empowers the masses without their ethnic, racial, relgious, social or financial status. In Islam a head of state is both the custodian of faith and the ruler. He can be a monarch, an autocrat or a ruthless dictator (as the Umayyad, Abbasids, Ottoman caliphs were). In democracy power lies with the people of a state: in theocracy or in a relgious state it can rest with even an individual if he is the staunch proponent of the faith. There is no such thing as a relgious democracy because the relgious codes do not provide any system of elections on the principle of one man one vote for the entire population. A democratic head of state is more concerned with the welfare of the state and its people and not of a particular sect or relgion. The modern nation states are essentially secular and not narrowly relgious. Historically, relgious dispensation has always been a monarchy or autocracy. The hereditary right to caliphate as claimed by Ali cannot be termed as democratic.


It is, therefore, incumbent upon the Islamic theologians and scholars to find a way to integrate relgion with democracy as to serve the imperatives of a modern society. The relgion would best serve its pristine purpose of worshipping God and observing rituals and instilling morality if it is confined to the personal, individual or group levels. The underlying theme of all religions is morality, righteousness and obedience to God.††


A democratic dispensation and the religious political system are heterogeneous towards each other and therefore even the Islamic states like Malaysia and Indonesia have to liberalize their societies despite having Islam as their official relgion. Malaysia , Indonesia and Turkey are the appropriate models of an Islamic state where secularism and Islam converge. There is ethnic, sectarian and communal peace in those societies.††


It would be a landmark feat if the Islamic scholars can Islamize democracy or democratize Islam. The state has clear-cut laws and covenants and possesses the apparatus to apply them, while the bulk of relgious injunctions are contradictory, confusing and out of sync with the momentous changes in human societies and would draw divine wrath or pleasure on the last day. Human nature is devious and obeys when punishment is imminent and in sight. In face of such laws how can a political system or society remain stable, all the more when an unremitting ideological conflict has always been going on between the sects within Islam?††


Is it possible that there can be a reconciliation and compromise between the Islamic clergy and democracy? In a country which since its inception has remained in the throws of extremism, bigotry, sectarian and communalism, the most pressing need is to bring about a consensus and truce between the warring sects. The most crying urgency is to evolve a consensual code of Islamic faith between Sunnis and Shias so that the state and the society donít suffer due to their mutual doctrinal rivalry and ensuing bloodshed.††


As such the only rational way-out is to adopt the twin panacea of secularism and democracy that would allow every sect and denomination and rich and poor to practice their own faith without trading the accusations of heresy. The perception of secularism doesnít necessarily mean negation or elimination of religion. It simply means tolerance and coexistence in matter of difference of relgious beliefs and opinions. It is foregone that Pakistan as a theocracy or a country with a relgious label cannot move forward and would always be trapped in a self-destructive ideological conflict. The devastation of Baghdad by Mongol hordes in 13th century is a testifying tragedy to the Shia Sunni animosity towards each other.††


While acknowledging the distasteful fact that the ideological gulf between two main Islamic sects cannot be bridged, these must be legally bound to coexist and tolerate each other. As far political power is concerned, Pakistan has to decide once and for all that the war of conflicting beliefs should not be allowed to enter the political corridors. The other forms of relgious extremism and fanaticism also need to be forcefully curbed. The relgion should be confined to the personal and at best group contours and that is the only viable, practical and rational solution to the relgious bad blood that breeds violence and hinders smooth functioning of state and society. The State and society have got to be secular and truly democratic for prosperity and advancement and for Pakistan to enter the fold of modern states. At the same time Pakistan , like Turkey , Malaysia and Indonesia , should retain its Islamic identity. In a nutshell, Islam, secularism, and democracy should go hand in hand in Pakistan .††



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