The State of Medina and Pakistani context

December 1, 2019

The problem with Pakistan is that it lacks the socio-cultural flexibility whereby any synthesis of different systems becomes possible

Imran Khan’s recurrent allusion to the State of Medina as a model that he says he earnestly aspires to emulate in Pakistan in the 21st century needs a scholarly deliberation. Temporal difference of almost 1,500 years between the two, divergent histories, cultures and epistemic traditions, makes the replication of the State of Medina quite far-fetched, if not implausible altogether.

Socio-political realities in the pre-modern world, particularly in the 7th century Arabia were far simpler than what we currently witness. A globalised world, contingent on modern sensibility, has made politics and social values considerably complex. As days pass by, socio-political world, generally, tends to be fluid.

The political system, bound in the specificity of time and space, exists only in history books dealing with the Medieval Ages. In a globalised world, greater mutuality among the socio-political practices have become an inescapable norm. Isolation begets stasis and leads to decay. The USSR is an example.

Also, the state of Medina as a polity could not sustain for long. After 29 years of khilafat, monarchy crept in and the political system took an altogether different course, which had no affinity with the principles on which the State of Medina was founded. The egalitarian touch, the hallmark of the State of Medina, was conspicuously missing in dynastic rule that ensued the rule of four pious caliphs. The hierarchical structures, which became essential constituents of the polity from Umayyad rule onward, characterised monarchy that had been practised in the Muslim world ever since.

Another aspect of importance had been the invocation of ethnicity or familial factor as the identity marker of those dynasties like Abbasids, Fatmids, Saljuks or Ottomans, etc. The motion of ummah was invoked only in the 19th century by the Turk Sultan when Turkey was disdainfully dubbed as the sick man of Europe.

All I am trying to argue here is the ephemerality of the State of Medina under the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Thus, discontinuity in the tradition of egalitarian rule in the State of Medina was an unpalatable fact of history. Such discontinuity makes it virtually impossible for any system to bounce back into action in a new socio-political context. Thus, after the lapse of more than fourteen centuries, revival of the principles underpinning the State of Medina is beyond the realm of possibility. If that is so, why does Imran Khan mention it so often with utmost certainty?

After listening to him in Oxford and at a couple of other places, I am sure Khan, too, is cognizant of the implausibility of replicating the principles, constituting the State of Medina in the 7th century AD Let’s explain that phenomenon from a different angle.

Apart from being a diehard believer (in Islam), is there anything else that Imran Khan has taken fancy to about the State of Medina. The plural composition of the State of Medina may be advanced as one of the motivating factors for Khan. In Medina, despite plurality of every conceivable form, everybody irrespective of the religious differences or ethnic divergence, justice was dispensed.

Besides, the followers of every religion were part of the ummah. Because of these traits, for Muslims in general, the State of Medina holds out as a utopian model. But there is much more than what meets the eye. Khan usually mentions the State of Medina, Scandinavian countries and China in almost a single breath, which to some people seems quite dichotomous. But in any post-colonial situation, where political institutions have yet to strike firm foundations, the leadership role becomes vital. The leader, in order to inspire people, draws vertical references (from the remote “golden” past). Those (vertical) references are deployed for reaching out to the common people and these references serve the motivational purpose for the leader.

Since discontinuity in the political tradition initiated in the form of the State of Medina has been quite stark, some horizontal references are also needed. Horizontal references are always drawn from contemporary (lived/living) history. For the horizontal reference, there is hardly any instance idyllic enough in the entire Muslim world that is worth referring to. Therefore, Khan brings in Scandinavia as an example where the principles of the State of Medina are practised in their system of governance. Social justice and equality are exemplary and these countries balk at giving capitalism a free rein. They have invested heavily in human resources, a fact that makes them worthy examples from whom we can learn a good deal.

Then Khan mentions China (and not USA) quite a lot because the shortest possible route to eradicate poverty was taken by the Chinese. These are practical examples whereas for inspirational purposes, Medina is brought into focus primarily to make the systems of governance adopted by Scandinavian countries and China relevant to the country with an overwhelming Muslim majority.

It is quite commendable that Imran Khan uses these references, which seems fortuitous. Or if somebody advises him to link up these two different historical epochs and carve out a political discourse that is delivering good, that eminence grise is worthy of adulation. If it is the outcome of Khan’s own rumination then I must say he is far ahead of his contemporaries as a thinking politician. Undoubtedly, he has improved markedly over the last year or so. He is the most eloquent politician around and his charisma has not faded yet, and he does not ramble aimlessly in his speeches.

Reverting to Scandinavian states and China, it must be borne in mind that they have successfully worked out socio-cultural synthesis by integrating various systems. Scandinavian states managed to forge together both ‘freedom’ and ‘regulation’ and conjured up social equilibrium that helped them build a model society and state. The problem with Pakistan is that it lacks the socio-cultural flexibility whereby any synthesis of different systems becomes possible. In a nation that believes in having a complete code of life that transcends the specificities of time and space any effort to forge synthesis will not fructify. 

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