A major objection that is raised against a secular Pakistan is that Islam describes a complete way of life covering both the state and the society. Hence all laws of Pakistan must be in accordance only with Sharia. This objection is, however, made without considering what exactly is a secular state and is without regards to the logical consequences of numerous Islamic principles.
To reiterate, a secular state is defined as one where each citizen has complete freedom to convert, to preach, to practise or not to practise any religion, and to have equal rights in participating in the affairs of the state. While it can be demonstrated from a careful study of history that a flexible enough political framework can be established in Pakistan which is simultaneously secular and Islamic however such a framework is strongly at odds with the Islamist narrative.
Before answering this objection, it is important to backtrack and examine a most important event from Muslim history that, in principle, establishes that mosque and state can be separate in Islam. This event is the tragedy of Karbala where Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet (pbuh) and revered by Muslims of nearly all denominations, was killed by Yazid’s army. Imam Hussain had also been branded a ‘wajib-ul-qatal’ (liable to death) by certain Ulema for refusing bayit (allegiance) at the hands of ‘Amir-ul-Momineen’. Yazid’s Ulema had issued these verdicts simply because Imam Hussain deemed Yazid unworthy of any spiritual station and his refusal threatened Yazid’s legitimacy. The events at Karabla tell the story of a man disinterested in aspiring to political offices but at the same time he cannot give his support to the tyrant posturing as a custodian of Islam. Despite being a Caliph with support from a council of supposedly learned Muslims, Yazid’s act was a most outrageous abuse of religion for political purposes.
Muslims of all sects would acknowledge that while Yazid may be the Caliph of an Islamic state, or that his administration supposedly ran the affairs of the state according to Sharia, yet the real religious leader of Islam was Imam Hussain. Therefore, this tragedy should explode the myth that somehow a Muslim state or its head is necessarily a divinely sanctioned entity. Certainly, Imam Hussain did not think that the office Yazid occupied had any religious merit. Thus those today who want to bring a Caliph to power as a representative of Islam ought to learn from Karbala that true leadership of Islam is not vested in any political office.
This, however, does not mean that spiritual leaders will never have political authority – the Prophet’ (pbuh) life is certainly one instance of this. But instead of drawing the right lesson from Sunnah that, as a role model, the Prophet also had to demonstrate a righteous example of statecraft to his followers, Islamists today covet purely worldly offices like the ultimate spiritual prize. Certainly, Muslim political leaders have a right to seek guidance from Islam. However, this right is often made an excuse for violating basic moral principles of statecraft derived from the religion itself.
Even the Sunnah itself demonstrates that the religious liberties and rights of non-Muslims cannot be sacrificed to consolidate Islamic rule. Numerous treaties that the Prophet agreed to illustrate his political principles. For example, the Charter of Madina is the first political agreement in the history of Islam by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that establishes a working relationship between a plurality of Muslim and non-Muslim denominations. As such, it may represent the default position of the Prophet (pbuh) in how to conduct statecraft where a number of inhabitants do not profess affiliation to the Islamic faith. Thus the Charter of Madina sheds light on constitution-making as this has the blessings of a person none other than the Prophet himself.
A closer examination of the Charter would refute the idea that only law deemed ‘Islamic’ by a creed of Ulema can be used within an Islamic state. The fact that the Prophet asked for and used Jewish law in passing some of his rulings should be sufficient to dispel this notion. Clearly, an Islamic state must accomodate the religious traditions of other faiths in line with this.
Another interesting observation from the Charter is that there is no mention of jizya (protection money in lieu for military service) on non-Muslims inhabitants of Madina. After all, the Charter required the Jews to defend the city along with Muslims from outside aggression thereby obviating the need for jizya. This implies that under peaceful circumstances, when Muslims and non-Muslims share equal responsibilities, such a poll tax cannot be imposed.
Often ignored is the religious right of non-Muslims within an Islamic state to preach their beliefs. Chronicles record that in the 9th Hijri, a Christian delegation from Najran debated religion with the Prophet in his own mosque. This was the year when the Prophet’s political authority had expanded nearly all over Arabia. Clearly, a religious debate of the Christians with the Prophet himself illustrates that non-Muslims should have complete freedom in preaching their faith. Moreover, instead of taking offense from their arguments, the Prophet signed a treaty with them providing guarantee that their religious places and liberties will be protected at all costs.
To summarize, there appears to be ample Islamic sanction for a pluralistic multi-religious society where each community can practise and preach its faith and can be accorded equality in the service of the state. Such an ideal Islamic state can also be described as secular.
In our times, laws created by worldly leaders declare the official religion of Pakistan to be Islam (as interpreted by them) and limit key political offices to Muslims. This only contradicts the spirit of equality between different faiths and creates classes of citizens. Moreover, allowing the state to arbitrarily determine who is a Muslim or not serves only to gives it authority to abuse the rights of its citizens.
Instead Quran’s emphasis has been on establishing justice among people. We find a pertinent verse instructing those in power to exercise strict fairplay: “Surely, Allah commands you to make over the trust to those entitled to them, and that, when you judge between men, you judge with justice” (4:58). The verse clearly asks for people capable of honestly running affairs of the state to be placed in positions of authority so that they act without discrimination. Thus the whole idea of purging a state’s administration of able non-Muslims on religious grounds seems foul and against this message.
History has borne witness that Islam has prospered in societies which have given Muslims the right to religious freedom (contrast the tolerant society of Madina with the bigoted culture of Mecca) whereas whenever religion has been abused for statecraft then no community has been able to follow its faith in peace. Would we Pakistanis learn and apply this lesson?