Islam and Modern Times

Raza Habib Raja

It was a day in 1994. I picked up the Daily Jang to have my daily dosage of information and news. In those PTV dominated pre internet days newspapers were the chief source for somewhat objective and independent coverage of the events. The front page was full of news about ongoing political battle between PPP and PML(N). The decade of 1990s was characterized by constant political tussle between the two major political parties. While glancing down, my eyes suddenly caught hold of a two column new article. It described an incidence which had taken place in Gujranwala.

According to the article a mob in Gujranwala , had burnt a Hafiz Quran, Hafiz Sajjad alive on suspicion of desecrating the Holy Quran. According to the details, Hafiz had burnt Quran and as soon as the nearby Mullah got the whiff of it, he issued a fatwa. A mob gathered and dragged the individual out of his home and started beating him. As they were beating him, someone in the mob stopped the others and suggested that the culprit should be meted out proper Islamic punishment of stoning. At that point, police reached the spot and took the individual into what under normal circumstances would have been a protective custody. However, soon an even larger crowd gathered in front of the police station and started to demand that Hafiz should be handed over to them. Due to the huge size of increasingly vociferous mob, the police inspector buckled under pressure and handed over the guy. They started stoning him mercilessly and thereafter set his body on fire. If this were not enough, they tied his corpse to a powerful motor-cycle and dragged it through the streets for two hours. I felt a strange revulsion and just put the newspaper down. After two days, another article appeared which gave details about the initial inquiry. It was established beyond doubt that Hafiz Sajjad was a traditional devout Muslim and while reciting Quran accidently dropped it on the stove. Although it was pure accident but someone reported it to the nearby mosque as a deliberate act. Needless to say, the Imam did not even bother to ascertain the facts and started to agitate the nearby community to take action. This agitation “convinced” people to do what they did. Although it was shocking but the reaction to all that barbarism was even more tragic. There was hardly any agitation or debate and no political party even raised that issue.

That incidence is not an isolated incidence. Our country and for that matter Muslim world has witnessed many such incidences, the most recent being what happened at Gojra and attacks on religous minorites like Ahmedis. However, the reason I have quoted this particular incidence is that it demonstrated the religion’s role in perpetuating violence, venting out of core violent instincts, complete inability of anyone near the mob to even raise a dissenting opinion, impotence of the state apparatus to give protection at the time it was taking place; and lastly, but perhaps most importantly the reluctance of political parties to stir any debate on failure of administration to give protection and on controversial blasphemy laws in Pakistan. The last point also demonstrated that the issue perhaps did not register as an issue with the populace. After all, by design political parties try to stir debate on issues where there is some political meat which in turn emanates if there is some genuine concern for it in the public. That incidence, flurry of subsequent incidences and complete inability of the general public to denounce such acts coupled with a strange tendency to knit weird conspiracy theories, have made me a far more thinking person with the result being that I have eventually ended up being on the liberal side of the political spectrum with an unshakeable belief in its ideals. Pakistan in my opinion has to shake off religious conservatism to be in conformity with the modern times and to have a chance of being a progressive society with some credible record in human rights.

And yet, apparently Pakistan looks to be a relatively moderate country particularly when compared to the likes of Iran , Afghanistan , Saudi Arabia etc. Here the hardliners have never been voted in power through the ballot box. It has an independent media and relatively loose censorship standards. Anyone coming from abroad for the first time is generally bewildered at the contrast between what he actually sees and the ultra conservative picture often portrayed in the western media. However, at the critical points the ultra conservative streak riddled with a hate filled insensitive violence surfaces leaving all bewildered over the strange contradictory behaviour. It also reminds us of the menace which is always lurking below. However, the issue is not only restricted to religious inspired violence but extends to virtually all facets of society from discriminatory laws against women to financial affairs (where we are still locked in a battle whether present day interest is anti Islam). Virtually every major issue in society is seen through religious paradigm with an objective to see whether it “adheres” to real Islam or not. Moreover any violence or atrocity committed in the name of Islam will either have support or“understanding” behaviour in the form of apologetic defence. The similar pattern of making use of others (whether in terms of assigning blames or making excuses) is always order of the day.

This problem has its genesis in: power, importance and hold of religion; the way religion is interpreted; the structural authority of the power brokers of religion such as clergy; and the way the state has patronized and promoted religion.

First, the importance given to religion has virtually made it impossible to have any type of debate on it. Culturally religion has been a very dominant aspect in the entire Islamic world and has created a kind of uniformity across various nations. There will always be a raging debate on the criterion of what essentially constitutes a nation and whether Islamic world can be defined as one, but the fact remains that Islam nevertheless lends commonness across globe to the Muslim world. The importance of religion is dominant in every sphere of life and even those who may not be religiously inclined nevertheless do subscribe to Islam as an important part of their identity. Due to this importance and extremely revered status of religion, it becomes difficult to even question anything related to religion. The importance is chiefly a cultural factor and though protected and promoted by state will still be there even if state removes its patronage, though to some extent it will be diluted. I will support this argument by referring to colonial era where under the British rule, the state was not patronizing any particular religion nor the education curriculum was designed to such an end. Yet the colonial times did not see any decline in Islamic fervor and in fact saw creation of Pakistan which in principle was a religiously inspired state (though we can argue to death whether Jinnah was a secular or whether he had secular vision for Pakistan ). Moreover, often overlooked factor is that state’s patronage is partly due to cultural dominance of religion though of course it’s a reciprocal relationship where both draw strength and reinforce each other.

Second is the way religion has been traditionally interpreted. Historically religion has been interpreted as “complete” and suitable for all times and this makes any independent discussion on it extremely difficult without rousing the violent passions. Moreover, literalism dominates the interpretation where by the holy text is interpreted literally and no attempt is made to understand the context. Allegorical interpretation is virtually nonexistent which in turn makes interpretation time bound in 7th century and suited for those circumstances. This practice of literal interpretation has actually proven detrimental to Muslims as it has become an effective propaganda weapon in the hands of critics of Islam. Whenever Muslims try to argue that Islam is a religion of peace, the opponents would actually quote verses about Jihad and point to the fact that Islamic religious scholars interpret these as literally. Literalism thus becomes an extremely effective tool for the opponents and they exploit it well.

Third, the way religion is interpreted owes a lot to the people responsible for interpreting it which are the clergy and religious scholars. Broadly across Islamic world and also in Pakistan , Muslims can be compartmentalized into two groups: devout and deeply conservative; and relatively moderate. The former adheres closely to both ideology as well as rituals and is the major source of Islamic scholars and the clergy. This category is by and large inflexible and glued to literalism. They may be small in number and at times may not hold political offices (though in countries like Iran , they do), but nevertheless they are firmly in charge when it comes to matters pertaining to religion. Since they derive their power through religion, therefore it suits them that religion is always given extreme importance and the mantle of interpretation remains with them. Anyone trying to reinterpret-particularly when that reinterpretation is different from conventional one- at a PUBLIC forum is blasted and severely criticized and in some cases may end up being dead. This group has historically resisted Ijtihad and has stressed on literal and at times completely inflexible interpretation. That interpretation coupled with extraordinary supreme importance to religion creates a general mindset which is devoid of independence of thought and impotent to question anything done in the name of religion. Even people who are not deeply religious, and at least in Pakistan , they are perhaps a majority, are completely unable to question any law imposed in the name of religion.

Now this “moderate” majority may not be strictly adherent to Islamic rituals and some deviation can be observed in their behaviour from universally accepted Islamic principles. Within this group, which largely constitutes of urban population, some may invest in interest bearing instruments, not observe veil, not regularly pray, attend mixed gatherings, listen to music, drink and even indulge in sex outside (though secretly). However, a substantial bulk of this group considers religion an extremely important component of their identity. Moreover, despite not observing every ritual, this category will not debate the opinion of the clergy where modernity and religion are in conflict. This group will not vote for religious right but at the same time will not challenge their interpretation. Most importantly although this category will not vote for introducing strict Islamic laws but also will not raise voice for removal of existing controversial ordinances such as hadood and blasphemy laws. This category will feel aggrieved when fellow Muslims are in problem anywhere in the world and is quite an expert in knitting weird conspiracy theories to absolve the Muslims of anything. It is this majority which despite not strictly compliant, constitutes the “soft” and perhaps invaluable support to the clergy and hardliners at critical points. And this moderate majority is spearheaded by urban middleclass. Since the Media originates from urban middle class and targets it, therefore what this class thinks becomes the dominant opinion. Right now this class though not ultra religious is by and large conservative. A substantial segment of this class has learnt to live with the status quo and the rest even if not happy is too passive to challenge it.

The combined effect of these factors resulted in a mindset of the general populace which is too rigid, devoid of the faculty of independent thinking, subservient to the interpretation handed down by the clergy and extremely prone to a strange of denial where every atrocious act committed in the name of religion is either endorsed or if it is too grotesque is conveniently blamed on the grand conspiracy of the West. It is that mindset which has made clergy stronger than what the electoral results may suggest and moreover has ensured that religious bigotry remains imbedded in the population. It has also made population passive on matters where the dominant conservative religious opinion is clearly in contradiction of basic human rights and demands of the modern times. Moreover this mindset has contributed towards violence committed in the veil of reaction against blasphemy.

For the religion to become functionally effective and progressive rather than static and time trapped, it has to be reinterpreted metaphorically and the mantle of interpretation has to be taken away from the existing ultra conservative clergy/religious scholars. It is an extremely tall task as the importance given to religion and generational literal interpretation has made minds extremely unreceptive to any such idea. Moreover such suggestions would be branded as “kufr” and opposed by hardliners with such ferocity that even those who find the idea appealing would be afraid to raise any counterarguments as they fear being branded as kafirs. Moreover an effective tool in the hand of hardliners and their supporters is “lack” of religious knowledge in critics. Anyone trying to raise an argument would be challenged as not being “qualified” or not having diplomas in religious study. The fact that all religious curriculums are ultra conservative and any one qualified would naturally have the same ultra conservative static beliefs is conveniently ignored.

What is needed is the emphasis on progressive spirit and cultivation of understanding that insistence on interpretation without context and on literal terms is proving to be counterproductive to acceptability of Islam as a moderate religion. Moreover this also jeopardizes religion’s conformity with modern day ideals of human rights, tolerance and international cooperation.

Second is the concept of Ijtihad, which is very much a part of Islamic Philosophy and has been practised by Muslim scholars in ancient times. There is, I understand a considerable amount of debate about the scope of Ijtihad and also on who is legally allowed to indulge. However, the concept exists in Islam and therefore allows a basis for presenting an argument against literalism and can be subsequently used as a modus operandi for bringing the interpretation more in line with the modern times.

Now scepticism about the success of such efforts would not be misplaced here but these efforts have to be initiated. Focus has to be on the soft support, i.e. urban middle class, as it is the dominant class in media, armed forces and civil services. Though largely passive, conservative and offering soft support to the hardliners, this class is not religious in ultra conservative sense. Pakistan despite the presence of Taliban in its Northern parts is still lucky that compared to countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia , it does not have thoroughly radicalised middle class. This class has to be mobilized through media to begin this effort. Islamic reformists like Javed Ahmad Ghamidi have to play a critical role as they can counter the conservatives effectively on Media thus paving the way for the reform. We have to start from somewhere if we want to come out of the status quo and restore our religion’s image to the outside world.


  • Nuree

    RHR has brought one new point, thankfully, in this article that middle class educated people of Pakistan are giving tacit support to extremists by not openly speaking against them. IMO, they are the main culprits, who actually agree with the views of the hardliners, without openly saying it, because they want to be known as moderates to the world. They are the worst kind of hypocrites. Rest of the article is the same old wine in the new bottle, blaming clerics, wrong interpretation and the usual stuff, which has never worked before and will never work now or in future. Extremism among Muslims has only increased even after millions of such article have been written.

  • Mustafa Shaban

    @RHR: I agree with what has been said in this article, you are absolutely right, I will try to expand on some points.

    But the main tragedy is that people are totally frozen in time and are narrow-minded and the clergy is too powerful and very few are progressive.

  • Mustafa Shaban

    I believe the extreme religiosity comes about due to moral degradation and hypocrisy. When a society becomes completely morally compromised, with crime, theft , etc. then they try to maintain legitimacy by focusing on minute details and cosmetic parts of religion to the extreme in order to hide the crime and very big deviation that society itself has taken from religion

  • Mustafa

    @RHR: I understand your criticism of conspiracy theory , and of course most people in society have foolishly resorted to conspiracy theory to shift the blame away from their own faults. But I do believe that geopolitics of foreign powers do play a role in the region, and have some effect on political leaders. Societies riddled with corruption, hypocrisy and religious extremism produce weak and corrupt leaders who are easily manipulated by powerful regional/international powers , whereas progressive, forward thinking societies produce strong governments who can chart their own vision and foreign policy more independantly.

  • Mustafa

    Religious extremism and cultural backwardness, is the product of clash between culture and religion and of course unfortunately, backward culture wins out against religion. Islam can easily be in harmony with modern times but our backward cultures cannot

  • Mustafa

    Lastly there are many progressive scholars and Islamic researchers who are putting forth the correct interpretations of Islam.

    However despite having very liberal/progressive views some people believe that Javed Ghamdi paradoxically puts forth very sectarian views at the same time.

    But in any case we need more forward thinking, open minded and non-sectarian scholars to bring the correct interpretation of Islam

  • AA_Southpaw

    “Lastly there are many progressive scholars and Islamic researchers who are putting forth the correct interpretations of Islam”

    Everyone who’s putting forth his version of Islam is putting out the correct interpretation of Islam. That’s what happening everything. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    Or is the correct interpretation because it’s in agreement to your interpretation of Islam?

  • AA_Southpaw

    In the case of Sufis, extreme religiosity never came because of moral degradation or hypocrisy. It came as a means to end both of these.

  • AA_Southpaw


    O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result. (4:59)

    There is no room for any law, either of the state or personal, that can be acceptable to a Muslim if it’s not in accordance with the Quran and Hadith. No matter what times we live in.

    Please look at the above ayat and let me know if I’m wrong.

  • Kamath

    PTH used to have insightful columns by writers like Saadh Hafiz. Where is he now?

  • Mustafa

    @AA Southpaw, Progressive scholars do exist. Islam itself is very pluralistic and progressive. Why do you feel they do not exist? There are millions of Muslims in both East and West who are leading normal and productive lives and many scholars emerge from them

  • Mustafa

    In an Islamic State, you will have Islamic law, and in a non-muslim country or non Islamic state Muslims are bound to follow the laws dictated by the government.

    Since Islam is flexible and practical a whole host of laws are acceptable within the parameters of Quran and Hadith.

    In addition there is no compulsion in the matters of religion

  • Mustafa

    @aa_southpaw:disqus : True, the case of Sufis is different. Sufis are not obsessed with law and Fiqh, unlike religious conservatives or extremists. Sufis are more interested in spirituality and looking inwards, this is a very different kind of religiosity, It is not the same kind we are talking about.

  • Nuree

    Will any country in the world suggest such guideline for another country?

    Pakistan Senate panel recommends targeting ‘Modi and his RSS ideology of Hindutva,’ an Express Tribune report says

    NEW DELHI: A panel of the Pakistan Senate has recommended policy guidelines such as targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi “and his RSS ideology of Hindutva,” and raking up “alienated” religious and caste groups, and Naxalite insurgencies, the Pakistani newspaper The Express Tribune reported on Saturday.

    Mindset of Pakistan is a big problem. Only blaming clerics or trying to change the interpretation won’t help this country.

  • Nuree

    Nobody believes in Pakistan. . Not the Americans, not the Europeans, not the Arabs, not even the Taliban. Mullah Zaeef has memorably said: “Pakistan … is so famous for treachery that it is said they can get milk from a bull. They have two tongues in one mouth, and two faces on one head so they can speak everybody’s language; they use everybody, deceive everybody.”
    What was once an establishment in denial has become a country in denial. And where previously we were lying to outsiders, now we are lying to ourselves.” Dawn, 10th September, 2011.
    This was writer 5 years ago. Now they are even worse.

  • Kamath

    Welcome RHR. But with this kind of writings and thoughts, you are doomed to disappointments the day you get out of your class room with a degree!

  • k_rash

    There is nothing with being conservative, devout or even literalist. The problem is with any interpretation that gives the believer the right to force his views on others. This is the ONE reform that needs to happen in the Islamic world. Religion must be seen as a completely voluntary activity practiced freely.

  • Kamath

    Yar: Do you understand you are stuck at this rate with 7th century tribal mindset of cave dwellers?