‘Progressive Islam’ in Pakistan: Reflections on a Visit

‘Progressive Islam’ in Pakistan: Reflections on a Visit

Yoginder Sikand


Home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, Pakistan describes itself as an ‘Islamic Republic’. Yet, radical Islamist as well as traditionalist ulama groups alike bemoan the fact that Pakistan is hardly an ‘Islamic’ state in the sense that they imagine the term, one ruled in strict accordance with the shariah as developed by medieval Muslim jurisprudents. For their part, liberal and secular groups as well as Pakistan’s minority communities complain that Pakistan is hardly the model Muslim state that its ideological founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah is said to have envisaged it, where different communities could live together harmoniously and where the state would have no truck with religion at all. As many Pakistanis would themselves admit, Pakistan has miserably failed to live up to the promises of its founders. Widespread poverty and illiteracy, rampant corruption, mounting inequalities, the formidable power of the feudal lobby, enormous regional imbalances, slavish subservience to American dictates, the feebleness of democratic institutions, the might of the military and the clout of the mullahs and Islamist groups have all combined to constitute a major drag on Pakistan’s development, which, if remained unaddressed, bode ill for the country’s future and for stability in South Asia.

In this context, and given the fact that Pakistani nationalist discourse is so heavily imbued with an Islamic stamp, it is pertinent to explore the possibilities of an alternate, progressive understanding of Islam in contemporary Pakistan. I have just returned from a month-long visit to Pakistan, and conversations with a wide cross-section of Pakistanis have convinced me that many Pakistanis today are asking questions that they dared not ask before: Is Islam compatible with democracy and human rights? Is it possible to evolve an understanding of Islam that is not tied to the prescriptions of the medieval ulema? Can ‘lay’ Muslims interpret Islam on their own rather than being dependent on the ulema?  Can an oppositional Islam be evolved that critiques the ‘military-mullah-market nexus’ and that is vigorously anti-imperialist? How can Islam be interpreted in such a way as to accept the truth claims of other religions and the rights of non-Muslims as equal citizens? And, most boldly, some Pakistanis are also asking if the so-called ‘two-nation theory’, on which the official ideology of the Pakistani state is based, has any relevance today.

Contrary to Indian media descriptions, the average Pakistani Muslim is not a Kalashnikov-wielding, vociferously anti-Hindu or anti-Indian bearded monster. The most striking fact that strikes the Indian visitor to Pakistan is how very similar to north Indians the vast majority of Pakistanis look and behave. Relatively few Pakistani men wear caps or sport beards, and people in any town or village in Pakistani Punjab and Sindh look no different from the average north Indian, Hindu or Muslim. Overt signs of conventional ‘Muslim-ness’ are rare in personal deportment, this being in contrast to India, where Muslims, being in a minority, are naturally more protective and, therefore, demonstrative of their religious identity. For the average Pakistani Muslim, Islam is an integral part of his or her cultural identity, but it is not something that dominates every act or thought. This explains the fact that religious parties have consistently won relatively few seats in every successive Pakistani election, with political discourse being dominated largely by economic, personal, caste or biraderi and regional issues, rather than by religion as such.

In short, the fact that the vast majority of Pakistani Muslims are not ideologically programmed ‘fundamentalists’, unlike what the international media would have us believe, opens up the prospect of progressive visions or versions of Islam that could challenge the claims of radical right-wing Islamist groups that appear to actually enjoy little popular support. This, however, has not happened in Pakistan’s public domain, at least not on the scale that it should have, although such perspectives are routinely articulated in private conversations.

Both Punjab and Sindh, Pakistan’s most populous provinces, have had a long tradition of dissenting Sufi saints and poets, who could also be termed as revolutionaries in their own right, crusading against religious and political elites while also calling for a generous acceptance of adherents of other religions. Bulleh Shah, the love-intoxicated majzub of Kasur, boldly berated the Muslim mullahs, Hindu pandits and the rulers of his times, and even publicly announced that he was not a Muslim or a Hindu, in the sense in which these terms are conventionally understood. Baba Farid, whose tomb at Pak Pattan is a major pilgrimage centre, composed mystical verses that had such a wide appeal that some of them have been incorporated into the Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. The Qadri Sufi Miyan Mir of Lahore was such a widely revered saint that he was invited by the Arjan Dev, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs, to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs. Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit, Sindh’s most acclaimed Sufi poet, continues to be held in high regard by both the Hindus as well as Muslims of the province for the message of universal love that he preached and for his denunciation of oppression. One could adduce numerous more such examples of Sufis who continue to be held in great reverence by millions of ordinary Pakistanis. Their teachings provide a rich theological resource for developing indigenously-rooted Islamic theologies of liberation and inter-community dialogue that at the same time effectively challenge the shrill rhetoric of radical Islamist groups who bandy about empty slogans calling for the ‘Islamic State’, ‘Islamic System’ and ‘Islamic Revolution’, and whose actual agenda, as many Pakistani friends insist, is to perpetuate the stranglehold of the military, the mullahs and feudal lords and their American patrons.

‘One of the greatest errors of the Left in Pakistan’, says my friend Hasan, a Lahore-based activist who describes himself as a ‘leftist Muslim, ‘is that we blindly followed Western Marxism. Many of us openly condemned religion, and this earned us widespread public disapproval. The Saudis, egged on by the Americans, pumped vast sums of money into Pakistan to publish literature and patronize madrasas and mullahs who branded all Leftists as atheists and anti-Islam’. ‘By blindly imitating Western Marxism’, he goes on, ‘we failed to explore people’s own traditions for the resources they might contain that can challenge mullahism, feudalism, dictatorship and hatred against minorities in the name of Islam. And our own popular Sufi traditions contain enough such resources. Had we used them in our campaigns we would not have given our opponents an excuse to brand us as anti-religion. Progressive politics in Pakistan would have had more popular appeal, rather than being seen as a Western import, had we developed an appropriate contextual Islamic theology based on local Sufi vocabulary and idioms’. Hasan blames what he calls the ‘cognitive elitism’ of the Pakistani Left for ignoring what he describes as the ‘revolutionary potential’ of popular Sufi discourses. ‘They have no real contact with the masses and so can’t speak in their language’, he laments.

Hasan does not place much hope in the custodians of the Sufi shrines for developing what he calls a ‘progressive Islamic theology’. ‘The Sufis whom they claim to be descended from may have been revolutionaries and forceful social critics in their own right, but the present class of sajjada nashins and mujawirs, custodians of the shrines, are nothing of the sort’, he argues. ‘Sufi shrines’, he adds, ‘have now been reduced to centres of pilgrimage and personal mediation, and are no longer centres of instruction. Popular Sufism has been thoroughly ritualized, shorn of its progressive potential. The custodians of the shrines have a vested interest in fleecing the credulous and do virtually nothing for the poor. Nor does the Waqf Board, that manages many of the shrines. In fact, many shrine custodians have become powerful landlords and have strong political connections, and so have developed a vested interest in preserving the system as it is’.

The failure to develop an effective Islamic theology of liberation and inter-faith dialogue based on Pakistan’s rich popular Sufi culture has other causes as well. Pakistan lacks a tradition of serious research on Islam and other social science disciplines. This is related to the wider problem of the pathetic state of education in Pakistan. Bookshops in Lahore, Gujranwala and Hyderabad, cities that I visited, have few titles on Pakistan’s Sufis. Almost all of these are hagiographies of Sufi saints, and I found none that seek to relate their teachings to issues of contemporary concern, such as human rights, economic and social inequalities, democracy, gender justice and the problems of minorities and inter-community relations. Interestingly, in the few bookshops that I came across that sell English books, most English-language titles, on social issues as well as on Sufism and Islam, are foreign publications, published in India or in the West and written by foreign, including Indian, writers. Urdu titles on Islam sold in most bookshops that I visited generally reflect traditional approaches rooted in medieval Muslim jurisprudence, and focus mainly on the nitty-gritty of Muslim jurisprudence and on inter-sectarian polemics, in addition to the Qur’an, the Hadith and the life of the Prophet and pious Muslim elders. Islamic publishing in Pakistan is still dominated by madrasa products and by Islamist ideologues, which explains, in part, the fact that I could find no literature on themes resembling what is called ‘progressive Islam’ or ‘Islamic liberation theology’ or even on issues of contemporary import argued from a progressive perspective but within a broadly defined Islamic paradigm.

Riaz, a friend of mine in Lahore who teaches Islamic Studies had an interesting explanation to offer for this. The middle-class, which could have been expected to champion liberal or progressive perspectives on a range of social issues, is miniscule in Pakistan. This accounts, in part, for what he calls the ‘pathetic state’ of intellectual discourse in Pakistan, because of which public Islamic discourse remains the preserve of the ulema and Islamists and subject to the dictates of the state and the military. Few middle-class families send their children to train as Islamic specialists, preferring more well-paying career options for them. Hence, he says, public religious discourse in Pakistan ‘remains stuck in its traditional groove, unable to respond positively and realistically to issues of contemporary social concern’. ‘Sharp educational dualism’, he comments, ‘has resulted in public Islamic discourse in Pakistan being monopolized by traditionalists and slogan-wielding Islamist ideologues, with few middle class progressives bothering to intervene in the debate’.

To make matters worse, Riaz says, is what he refers to as the ‘cynical misuse’ of religion by the state to pursue the interests of the country’s ruling elites. ‘In the compulsory Pakistan Studies classes’, he says, ‘students are brainwashed into believing that all Hindus are their enemies, that Hindus and Muslims, and hence India and Pakistan, can never live together in harmony. This is calculated to perpetuate rivalry between India and Pakistan and to bless this in the name of Islam, which, in turn, helps ruling elites perpetuate themselves by claiming to represent Islam and Pakistani nationalism’. ‘Textbooks present Islam in largely ritualistic terms, ignoring its message of social and economic inequality’, Riaz laments, ‘and this, of course, is a means to perpetuate feudalism, dictatorship and authoritarianism’. He argues that this ‘manipulation of Islam’ is also reflected in patronage of radical Islamist groups that ‘spew anti-Indian and anti-Hindu rhetoric but remain silent on the horrendous exploitation of the poor, the working class, the peasantry, women and minorities within Pakistan itself’.

The continued dominance of traditionalist discourses and approaches to Islam in Pakistan’s public realm is also a reflection of the country’s madrasa system. In a country that devotes less than 2 per cent of its budget to education, and where poverty and inequalities are immense and continue to mount, madrasas that provide free education are the only avenue for learning for millions of poor families. This explains, in part, the rapid rise in numbers of madrasas in Pakistan in recent decades. Rashid, a social activist I met in Hyderabad, Sindh, himself a product of a madrasa, tells me that Pakistani madrasas have been slow to reform. This owes to the perception that demands for madrasa reform emanating from America and voiced now by the Pakistani state are a means to curb the influence of ulema groups that are vocally anti-American, though not necessarily anti-imperialist. But, he adds, it also reflects the fear on the part of many ulema that reforms might threaten their own vested interests, based on their claims to being spokesmen of Islam. Hardly any Pakistani madrasas, he says, teach modern social sciences, as a result of which the ulema are unable to respond creatively and positively to a host of issues of modern concern. ‘All that they can offer are solutions offered by medieval jurisprudents, who lived in a world very different from ours’, he laments. ‘The same holds true for Departments of Islamic Studies in Pakistani universities. They are more like glorified madrasas’, he wryly comments.  ‘There are simply no Pakistani counterparts of the Indian Muslim scholars Asghar Ali Engineer or Wahiduddin Khan, who offer innovative approaches to issues such as women’s rights, capitalism, democracy and inter-faith dialogue’, he says, adding, ‘The feudal lords, the military and the mullahs and the Americans will simply not let them survive’.

‘Neither the ulema nor the Islamists are talking about land reforms or challenging the might of the feudal lords’, says Azmat, a sociology student I met in Lahore who dabbles in Sufi poetry. ‘Maududi, founder of the Islamist Jamaat-i Islami, denounced land reforms as anti-Islamic, claiming that private property is sacrosanct in Islam, while actually Islam calls for equality, not just in the mosque as the mullahs want us to believe, but in society as well’, he argues. ‘The mullah-led parties in the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan have come to power on the slogan of “Islam is the only solution” but they have no economic programme at all and have done nothing for the poor’, he says. ‘Our only hope’, he tells me, ‘is to develop an alternate Islamic paradigm that is grounded in the perspective from below, one that seriously addresses the plight of the poor and the marginalized, resolutely challenges local and global oppressors and embraces people of other faiths as equals’.

I could hardly agree more. I tell Azmat that what he says about Islam in Pakistan holds true for Hinduism in India or religion in general anywhere for that matter. ‘That’s why we need to go back to the Sufis’, he replies, ‘because when religion gets ritualized it inevitably works as a tool of oppression’.


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