A sensitive issue treated with scholarly finesse
After a vertical scrutiny of blasphemy law and surveying its impact in various Muslim countries, Prof Haq links the issue with the bigger paradigm, that of the sharia. In that particular respect, it is pertinent to underscore the correlation between apostasy, heresy and blasphemy and the mildness of the reaction(s) such commissions evoked in the times of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the pious caliphs.
The theme of sharia and the intellectual history mapping the changes which that paradigm underwent with the passage of time has been discussed in Chapter 4, in quite an insightful manner. This is the most valuable contribution of the author. Academics from the epistemic realms of Islamic studies, Islamic law, comparative politics, and history can benefit from the incisive debate furnished by the author.
In this chapter, titled Sacralizing the State and Secularizing Sharia: Islamic Politics in the Age of the Nation State, the author has contested the widely- held perception that “the role of sharia in Muslim societies has remained fixed through time”.
As a post-colonialist scholar, Prof Haq considers 19th century extremely significant because it was then that “the rise of West and the decline of the Muslim world fundamentally altered the nature and practice of sharia.”
A pluralistic, contextual, and contingent amalgamation of the legal, the moral, the mystical, and the mundane minutia of daily living and a code defined and guarded by the ulema, was changed into a “codified and rigid” set of rules during the second half of the 19th century. With the political decadence of the Muslims and the ascendancy of the West, sharia as an institution beat a retreat while through reform process, religion assumed the role of a panacea for every problem, economic, social, or political.
The author makes an interesting point. She refers to the emergence of post-colonial Muslim nation states and how they proceeded aggressively “to both control religious institutions and use Islam to burnish their legitimacy.” This fundamentally changed “the meaning and implementation of Islamic law.”
Along with the students and academics interested in sharia and blasphemy law in the Muslim countries, I will earnestly urge the legislators of Pakistan to read it and read it more than once.
The ulema, she asserts intriguingly, posed no challenge to the state. Rather, she says, a new group, the Islamists – of which Maulana Maududi can be taken as a prime representative - “put forward the project of creating an Islamic state.” Their vision of the modern Islamic state is predicated on the premise that Islam is “a comprehensive ideology that would generate a clear and uniform code-based system of laws.”
Chapter 5, captioned The Administrative State Chasing the Goldilocks Moment: the Conundrums of a Muslim Nation-State, is equally interesting. The author has exploded several myths through her careful and close perusal of three important files inhabiting the National Document Centre, Islamabad.
The three files broadly deal with the management of Islam between 1950 and 1985. These were (a) scheme for supervision and control of religious institutions and religious activity, (b) observance of weekly holiday on Friday instead of Sunday, and (c) promulgation of Zakat and Ushr Ordinance. Prof Haq’s disquisition about Gen Ayub Khan imputes him with bringing Islamism into the fray.
Ayub’s instrumentalising of mosques for the purpose of spreading general education and, more importantly, using Islam for his project of modernising Pakistan refutes the perception of his been religiously neutral. ZA Bhutto and Ziaul Haq are often accused of promulgating Islamic regulations, which obviously is incontrovertible but the construction of Ayub’s image is starkly different. There is the argument on record that the assertion that the government should not interfere in religious affairs “sounded alright under alien non-Muslim rule, [but] it has no significance in present conditions.”
There is a recommendation to educate prayer leaders at the mosques administered by the Auqaf Department, with emphasis on “basic principles of Islam which are common to all sects… with particular emphasis on the concepts of social responsibility and national solidarity.” The expectations remained unfulfilled. Mullahs got job security and the power to inflect the national narrative.
It was after seven years of investment in mullahs, that the inanity of the project was realised. The sectarian impulse prevalent among them precluded any possibility of Islam welding various sects and ethnicities together and to produce a nation. Such initiatives went a long way towards weakening the power of the intelligentsia which was not trusted by the Ayub regime.
Haq traces the history of the Friday holiday issue from the 1950s rejecting the general perception that its projection was ZA Bhutto’s brainchild. She argues, instead that it was rather an imposition on him. After sleeping over the matter for quite a while Bhutto made the declaration when the Nizam-i-Mustafa Movement got to full throttle. It was thus a compromise under pressure from clerics.
The promulgation of Zakat and Ushr Ordinance is the most significant of all the measures so far implemented in a bid to push the agenda of Islamisation. It proved the first and the most decisive steppingstone towards the revival of blasphemy law.
The ordinance exacerbated the Shia-Sunni divide. The Shia condemnation of some of the prophet’s companions was held blasphemous by some Sunni clerics. This opened the doors for mob justice and expanded the role of non-state actors. As punishment were handed down to perpetrator(s) of alleged blasphemy by private parties, the state apparatus was rendered irrelevant.
To conclude this rather inordinately lengthy review of the book, I have to complement Farhat Haq for the brave effort in taking up an extremely sensitive issue and treating it with scholarly finesse. Along with the students and academics interested in sharia and blasphemy law in Muslim countries, I earnestly urge the legislators in Pakistan to read it. They should read it more than once.