Enforcing or Mocking the Shariah in Swat?
Posted May 9, 2009

Enforcing or Mocking the Shariah in Swat?

By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated by Yoginder Sikand)

Broadly speaking, there have been two opposite reactions to the recent announcement about the purported enforcement of the Islamic shariah in the troubled region of Swat in northwestern Pakistan. Some Muslims celebrate it as a major ‘victory’ for Islam and for the group spearheading the agitation, the Tehrik-e Nifaz-e Shariah-e Muhammadi (TNSM). They hail it as nothing short of a great historical development. In contrast, many other Muslims see the development very differently. They consider the movement that supposedly aims at the enforcement of the shariah to be nothing of the sort actually. Instead, they argue, it is a movement led by some tribal leaders who want to capture power and resources by cynically manipulating the emotions and religious sentiments of gullible people. Frankly, this is what I myself believe.

It may be that the head of the TNSM, Sufi Muhammad, is himself not a worldly man and that he is sincerely committed to what he thinks is the cause of Islam. God knows best. However, as far as such radical, self-styled jihadist movements today are concerned, it cannot be denied that the vast majority of their leaders use them as a means for advancing their own personal interests. Stirring up religious emotions, they are able to attract a following among socially marginalized Muslims, who are led to believe that supporting these leaders is the way for them to attain a place in heaven. And then, very often, these people are led on to engage in acts that have absolutely no sanction in the shariah, despite the fact that, ironically, their leaders claim that the enforcement of the shariah is their sole purpose. So, in the case of the Taliban in Swat, we first heard that some of them were forcibly marrying local women against their will. And now news is coming in of these self-styled mujahids compelling the local Sikhs to cough up millions of rupees in the name of jizya. From these two developments one can get a clear idea of what these so-called ‘lovers of Islam’ are really like.

In today’s world, the imposition of jizya on non-Muslims is absolutely wrong and indefensible. In today’s world in every country, people, no matter what their religion, pay the same sets of necessary taxes to the state. As citizens of their respective states they are expected to abide by the same sets of duties. Hence, it is absolutely absurd to impose jizya on any community. Today, the whole world can be said to be an ‘abode of agreement’, or, in Arabic, dar ul-ahad. All the nations of the world are bound together by this agreement. Leading Deobandi scholars such as Maulana Anwar Shah Kashmiri and Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi had made this declaration decades ago. The majority of the ulema today also uphold this view. This is why jizya is not imposed on non-Muslims in any Muslim-majority country in the world. No Muslim country today enforces jizya as a law.

Jizya is not a sort of Islamic law in which changes cannot be made. This is illustrated by the report that on the death of his son Ibrahim the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) said that if Ibrahim had stayed alive he would have lifted, once and for all, the jizya on the Coptic Christians. Similarly, on the request of some Christians the Caliph Umar dropped the term jizya to refer to the levy that was made on them.

In the early Islamic period jizya was levied on those non-Muslim peoples who were defeated in battle by Muslim armies in what was considered to be dar ul-harb or ‘abode of war’. But today’s context is vastly different. Today no country can be called dar ul-harb or even dar ul-islam (‘abode of Islam’). Nor does the notion of, or even the need for, religious war still exist. And so, just as leading ulema now oppose slavery and do not want it to be reinstituted, they also consider that jizya has no relevance at all in today’s age.


The aims of the Islamic shariah include the establishment of social justice, freedom for all social groups, equality, prosperity and peace. In the early Islamic period, the shariah, when it was properly upheld by sincere rulers, served as a refuge for both Muslims and others. Sadly, in our times, the issue of the shariah has been so horrendously exploited that those who cynically manipulate it for their ends have caused torment and strife not just for non-Muslims but also for many Muslims themselves. Inhuman, immoral and patently anti-Islamic acts have been sought to be given sanction in the name of the shariah, causing the Islamic spirit to be almost totally submerged and lost. Not surprisingly, this has caused even many Muslims to be opposed to any moves in the name of the enforcement of this un-Islamic brand of so-called shariah. The example of Pakistan well exemplifies this. Despite the fact that Pakistan has been in existence for the last sixty years, the majority of Pakistanis do not consider the self-styled advocates of the shariah as their political leaders. In actual fact, they are scared of what passes for the Taliban-brand of shariah. They might verbally support the shariah, but deep in their hearts they hope that this Taliban-type shariah will never come to be enforced in the country. It would not be wrong, therefore, to say that the biggest challenge to the shariah comes from those who claim to be its most ardent defenders.

Terrible confusion exists about what exactly the shariah is. In actual fact, what is conventionally understood as shariah is largely fiqh or the product of the interpretations and works of medieval Muslim jurists, a product of their ijtihad or reasoning. This portion of what passes for shariah is, therefore, a human product. That is why the corpus of fiqh needs to be critically reviewed today, so that those aspects of fiqh that go against the needs and demands of today’s age can be excised from it.

Traditional Islamic political thought, which has developed within the frame of medieval fiqh is, not surprisingly, characterized by considerable conflict and stagnation. This is readily exploited by various Muslim political and religious groups, of which the Taliban in Swat are just one example.

It is crucial to understand the cause of this conflict and stagnation, for without this the lacunae of traditional Islamic political thought cannot be addressed. Every form of thought, be it related to religion, politics or any other sphere of life, is influenced by its geographical, social and political context and also responds to it. The biographies of leading classical ulema such as Imam Malik, Imam Shatibi, Imam Shafi, Imam Ghazali, al-Mawardi, Ibn Taimiya etc. clearly indicate the influence of the existing socio-political conditions on their political thought. In order to combat sectarian divisions and conflicts raging in their times they gave particular stress to the need for strengthening the central state authority. Muslim states at that time were faced with numerous threats, such as wars, insurrections and other such challenges, from non-Muslim forces and rival Muslim sects. This had a major impact on the minds of the ulema, creating a strongly defensive and combative mentality. This fear of being attacked or overwhelmed by others probably explains why, for instance, Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal is said to have commented, ‘Do you not know that if you did not engage in war Islam would have been wiped out, and then what would the Romans have done?’.

These ulema, mainly fuqaha or scholars of fiqh, who were particularly concerned with maintaining and defending the political domination of Muslims, accordingly viewed the Quran and the practice of the Prophet in a particular way that would lend further strength to their particular perspective and mentality. That is why they gave little attention to the ‘Meccan ideal’, the pattern of life and the ways of the Prophet during the thirteen years he preached in Mecca despite facing great opposition before he shifted to Medina and established a polity. This period was considerably longer than the Medinan phase of the Prophet’s life. Likewise, the fuqaha did not keep before them the model of the Prophet’s early political life in Medina, which was based on tolerance and broad-mindedness. Instead, their views about Islamic politics were heavily influenced by their perception of the last stage of the Prophet’s life in Medina, when he had become the unchallenged ruler of the state. This, to a large extent, explains the general drift of traditional Muslim political thought.

A very pertinent saying is attributed to Imam Ali. He is reported to have said, ‘The Quran is such a book that speaks through the human tongue’. This clearly indicates the role of individuals’ own mentalities in moulding their perceptions or interpretations of texts. This factor is also one of the major causes for the striking differences among the fuqaha as regards their interpretation of the Quran and their understanding of the shariah.

In other words, the corpus of fiqh, which represented human effort to understand the shariah, was heavily influenced by, among other things, the personal outlook of the medieval fuqaha. This inevitably had a seriously deleterious impact on Islamic thought generally, including Muslim political thought. This also played no small role in undermining Islam’s moral and spiritual message and universal appeal.

This negative development was further reinforced by the theory of naskh or abrogation, according to which some verses in the Quran allegedly abrogated certain other verses that had been revealed before them. This theory was so badly misused that key tenets of the Quran, such as patience, tolerance, freedom of faith and conscience and cultivating good relations with people of other faiths, were declared by some ulema to have been abrogated! The allegedly abrogated parts of the Quran included verses that stressed religious freedom, such as one that lays down that there is no compulsion in religion, or another one, according to which people are free to choose or reject Islam. Some fuqaha went to the absurd length of declaring around 140 Quranic verses as abrogated in order to interpret a single verse, known as ‘The Verse of the Sword’), in the Surah At-Tauba, a chapter in the Quran, in a particular way.

The stern authoritarianism and exclusivism of traditional Muslim political thought also arises from a sternly literalist interpretation of the Quran and a slanted and extremely subjective understanding of Muslim history. This has created a certain exaggerated and unrealistic utopianism that has indelibly influenced Islamic thought in a negative way. This utopianism is further reinforced by the widespread despair and strife generated in reaction to dictatorial regimes in Muslim countries. The marginalized and oppressed classes are thus easily attracted to utopian movements that promise to recreate the ‘Golden Age’ of early Islam where all their problems, so they are told, would be put an end to. It is this utopianism that dominates the thinking of those who call themselves Islamic revivalists.

Because Muslim political thought developed in an authoritarian mode, it was unable to properly reflect the Quranic spirit of universalism, especially with regard to people of other faiths. Furthermore, because the ulema were so obsessed with the nitty-gritty of fiqh rules, in many cases the actual intent or aim of the shariah (maqasid-e shariah) was lost, particularly that of justice. This is readily apparent in the fiercely negative and demeaning approach to non-Muslims in much of the corpus of traditional fiqh.

There is no doubt that traditional Muslim political thought, as reflected, for instance, in the case of the Taliban in Swat, urgently needs to be re-examined and reformulated. Muslims must realize that the present system of states being based on nations rather than religion is a great blessing from God. Muslims should respect and honor this blessing. This blessing provides Muslims, no matter in which country they live, the right and the opportunity to live up to their duty of calling people to God’s path.

Obviously, what the Taliban are doing in Swat with regard to the Sikhs is a deviation from God’s way. It can in no way be termed Islamically legitimate. Imagine if the same sort of treatment began being meted out to Muslims living in lands where they are in a minority. The Taliban would obviously be gravely agitated. It behoves them, then, to do unto others what they would have others do unto them.

In this regard, it is imperative for the ulema and other Muslim leaders in South Asia, particularly Pakistan, to stand up and fiercely denounce all moves, such as those recently made by the Taliban, that are based on wrong and subjective interpretations of the shariah and that only give Islam a bad name. Failing to do so can only further reinforce anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim feelings among people of other faiths, with deleterious consequences for Muslims themselves.

A graduate of the Deoband madrasa, Delhi-based Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Ulum, the official organ of the Deoband Madrasa’s Old Boys’ Association.