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Losing Their Religion

by Khaled Ahmed
Farooq Naeem—AFP

Farooq Naeem—AFP

Pakistan’s runaway Council of Islamic Ideology.

In Islamabad, the Council of Islamic Ideology—an advisory body of clerics and scholars to assist the government in bringing laws in line with the Quran and the example of Islam’s Prophet—has dropped its latest bombshell. On March 10, top cleric Maulana Muhammad Khan Sheerani announced after the Council’s deliberations that a man may not ask for permission from his first wife before simultaneously marrying a second.

This decision of the Council grated on many nerves because the law in force at present is that marrying the second time without asking the first wife will entail one year in jail and Rs. 5,000 as fine. The law of “permission” raised belly-laughs anyway because if the first wife refuses consent she can be divorced by the husband by pronouncing “talaq” (“divorce”) three times, no questions asked. But the primitive anachronism of Sheerani’s new “advice” has provoked the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan into condemning it as another sign of tightening up the faith in anticipation of the rule of Taliban.

The Council issued another bolt by allowing underage marriage for girls, saying marriage “of even minors can be solemnized but only with the consent of their guardians” but such girls can go with the bridegroom only after attaining puberty. No one can question the Council on the matter of the girl’s own consent when she is a minor. The Council’s verdict will only validate the widespread practice of child marriage occasionally interrupted by the police. It cannot have been ignorant of the fact that the founder of the state, Jinnah, had fought legal battles to ban child-marriage in India.

Somehow every newly “discovered” law goes against women. For instance, last year the Council decreed that the DNA test carried out to convict a rapist could not be regarded as conclusive evidence under the faith, thus indirectly confirming the widely held clerical view which conflates rape with fornication, requiring four eyewitnesses to what should normally be regarded as an act of violence. If the new law is enforced, a raped woman will have to bring four men—or eight women, since the evidence of one man equals two women—as eyewitnesses to get the rapist punished. If she can’t prove rape, she is to be whipped for qazf or wrongful accusation.

Reacting angrily to the latest women-related “correction” of law, Pakistan Peoples Party’s Nafisa Shah stated: “Why is the Council concerned with men’s four marriages and why have they done nothing to ensure that women get their property as enshrined in Islamic law?” There was a time before 1947 when Islamic family law was more progressive than Hindu family law because it gave a Muslim girl half of what a Muslim boy got in inheritance while the Hindu girl got nothing; however, in 1954, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru changed Hindu law and allowed full portion to Hindu girls, thus making Hindu law more progressive in India.

The Council was set up by Pakistan’s first Constitution in 1962 as an “Advisory Council of Islamic Ideology.” It was redesignated as the “Council of Islamic Ideology” in the 1973 Constitution by the more progressive PPP, thinking it would be able to ignore its “advice” and carry on as usual; but practices, such as by an institution like the Air Force approaching the Council for advice on the keeping of heretofore banned beards, developed to strengthen the hands of religious elements.

Malpractice has developed around the advisory and nonbinding status of the Council. The Council can frame new laws and pass them on to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, knowing that no move would be made by the ruling party to legislate the rendered advice into law. This has been followed by another evil practice of allowing radical clerics to populate the Council as a kind of bribe in return for the support of their parties in Parliament. This means that a certain kind of angry and revengeful perfectionist-literalist can run the Council as an instrument of fear for such vulnerable sections of society as women and non-Muslims.

The Council has behaved accordingly. It duplicates the Federal Shariat Court, the supra-parliamentary and therefore anti-democratic institution-with-teeth, but remains impotent. Pakistani rulers began by appointing moderate scholar-clerics to the Council, mostly retired judges of the higher judiciary who did not want to rock the boat of the state by delving into the literalist foundations of Islam. Gradually, however, the trend changed and the Council became radicalized under Justice Tanzilur Rehman whom the Islamizing dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq appointed in 1980 before imposing zakat (poor due) tax on the nation.

Rehman, who led the Council until 1984, had written his book on apostatization and was ready to implement General Zia’s vision when an even more powerful personality of the Islamic world intervened and stole the show. Saudi Arabia, having helped the general financially with the gift of the Zakat Fund, sent an Arab scholar, Dr. Maruf Dualibi, to supervise Pakistan’s transition to hudood (Quranic legal edicts). He was also instrumental in relocating the Sunni-Shia war raging in the Gulf to Pakistan.

Syed Afzal Haider, a Council member, in his 974-page book, Council of Islamic Ideology: Evolution and Activity, tells us how the Council came to its final draft of the Hudood Ordinance as it was later promulgated by General Zia. It records that Dualibi visited the offices of the Council. However, the Council’s own report to the government in December 1981 observed that Hudood laws were discussed by the Council and the law ministry “under the guidance of Dr. Maruf Dualibi, who was specially detailed by the government of Saudi Arabia for this purpose.”

The Zakat and Ushr Ordinance, 1980, was framed by Dualibi in Arabic sitting in the Council office. It was then translated into Urdu by the government and applied equally to both the Muslim sects despite the fact that the Shia traditionally did not pay zakat to the state. The first clash with the Shia community took place when it staged its “long march” to Islamabad against imposition of zakat on them not permitted by their jurisprudence. The consequence of going against good sense led to comic results. The Supreme Court first exempted all the Shia from paying zakat, which caused most Sunnis to submit certificates under oath that they were Shia, thus preventing deduction of the tax from their bank accounts. Later, the court, acting on equity, extended this exemption to Sunnis as well, thus making zakat voluntary, in violation of the traditional interpretation of Islamic law. Ushr, meaning 10 (percent), fared even worse.

In Agrarian History of Pakistan, land-revenue expert A. K. Khalid has made a study of ushr, coming to the conclusion that it was not correct on the part of General Zia to accept the clerical demand that ushr be treated as zakat. The act of haste that produced the Zakat and Ushr Ordinance ignored the disparity of rates between rain-fed land (10 percent tax) and canal-fed land (5 percent tax). Canal-fed land deserved the 10 percent deduction, but the fear of a backlash from the ulema suspended reason. Now the subterfuge part of the policy on ushr collection is that while ushr on canal-fed lands is compulsory (on the basis of self-assessment), it is “voluntary” in the case of rain-fed lands—even though it is only 5 percent.

The next chief of the Council, given to somewhat fiery advocacy of laws on TV, often rebuking the Supreme Court for letting modern banking run in Pakistan, was S. M. Zaman who led it for two three-year terms. He was said to be a Harvard graduate but was nonetheless hardline and is now in the academic council of Jamaat-e-Islami’s Institute of Policy Research headed by Dr. Khursheed Ahmed and which also features two distinguished retired ambassadors, Akram Zaki and Shamshad Ahmad Khan. After the rise of the Taliban and the consequent empowerment of the clergy, the PPP in its wisdom appointed Maulana Muhammad Khan Sheerani as chairman in 2010 and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) has compounded this wisdom by giving him a second term in 2013.

The Air Force asked the Council for advice on the keeping of beards.

Only President Pervez Musharraf acted in favor of moderation by not appointing the house of 20 “hard-shell” members to the Council and kept it at the minimum strength of eight to allow it to be functional under the Constitution. And he got Dr. Muhammad Khalid Masud, a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from McGill, to head it.

Why did the PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari give the Council to Sheerani? Pakistan’s assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto—her killing was owned by Al Qaeda—wrote in her book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West: “And the living reformers like Muhammad Arkoun, Abdur Rahman Wahid, Wahiduddin Khan and Khalid Masud would be able to preach and teach their modernizing theology without facing repression or marginalization by the state.”

Arkoun is an Algerian genius who is recognized in the West as a most gifted exponent of Islam who may not be able to live in Algeria because of his reformism. Wahid, a religious and political leader, served as the president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001. Khan is the Indian moderate scholar whose message is appreciated all over the world but is rejected by the Muslims of India because of the dominance of extremism in their thinking.

Bhutto mentioned Masud because of his scholarly contribution to a rational understanding of Islam, including the “Sixth Lecture” of the national poet-philosopher Allama Iqbal where the latter had bravely “reinterpreted” the concept of hudood in Islam, recommending that punishments such as cutting of hands not be imposed in our times. Although it hardly matters today, Iqbal had seen nothing wrong with modern banking and, following the example of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the great Muslim reformer of South Asia, had allowed bank interest in his writings.

One can easily claim that the Council under Musharraf was run by enlightened scholars with international standing. The other well-known member of the Council was the popular Muslim evangelist Allama Javed Ghamidi who adheres to the Quran and Sunnah (way of the Prophet), scrutinizes critically the dicey jurisprudence used by Pakistani clerics while formulating “funny” laws. As long as the Council was led by Masud (2004-2010) it sent down rational and noncontroversial advice to the government, occasionally disturbing the clerical dovecots by recommending pro-women changes in law—such as, that a wife’s appeal to the court for divorce be considered unchallengeable.

Masud was naturally not well-liked in conservative circles. The late Qazi Hussain Ahmed, ex-chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, was greatly put off by his appointment in 2004, saying, according to Jang: “In the eyes of the government, moderation means saying the namaz while drinking wine. Pakistan is suffering because of riba [usury] which has instilled laziness among people. [The Council] has been filled with the wrong people, its chairman Khalid Masud is a man of no repute, and one member of the Council had been editing a Qadiani magazine for 10 years.”

In 2010, Ghamidi’s seminary in Lahore was attacked and a teacher, mistaken for him, was murdered, forcing him to go into exile in Malaysia. His mistake was his criticism of Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws that had caused the assassination of the governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer. The Guardian had quoted him as saying: “The blasphemy laws have no justification in Islam. These ulema are just telling lies to the people. But they have become stronger, because they have street power behind them, and the liberal forces are weak and divided. If it continues like this it could result in the destruction of Pakistan.”

Today, the Taliban are knocking at the door pledging to enforce “all the advice,” now gathering dust in old files, the Council has sent to incumbent governments. This “ignoring” of the Council’s advice led to another practice: extremist clerics in the Council whose recommendations were set aside leaked them to the Urdu press where they started appearing regularly as “chastisement” to the “pagan” government in power. The following leaks to the press are noted with the comment that they have been once formally denied by the Council secretariat:

  • The practice of printing photographs on banknotes should be stopped, meaning that the portrait of Jinnah be removed from them.
  • Special women’s seats in Parliament should be abolished because “they are by and large terribly impressed by modernism and Westernism, and instead of believing in the Islamic principle of equity and justice believe in the Western slogan of gender equality.”
  • Anyone blaspheming against Allah, too, should be punished. No woman should be allowed to marry without the permission of her male guardian. Organ transplants and smoking should be banned.
  • Christian hangmen executing Muslim convicts in Pakistan should be replaced with Muslims.
  • The destruction of Afghanistan’s archaeological heritage by the Taliban was Islamic.
  • Insurance of all kinds is against Islam and should be abolished forthwith.
  • Soft drinks sold as nonalcoholic beer should be prohibited and nonalcoholic beverages should not carry labels like “beer.” The preparation inside Pakistan and export from it of nonalcoholic beer should also be prohibited.
  • Coeducation should be banned.
  • All lottery schemes, prize bonds, etc., should be discontinued.
  • Paper used for printing of the Quran should not be recycled.
  • The Council advised changing the national flag 23 years ago. It recommended that the kalima be inscribed on it along with the battle-cry of Allah-o-Akbar.
  • Women should not appear in ads. Women can work as airhostesses but only if clad in burqa or hijab. Only women tailors should make clothes for women.
  • The annual assessment reports of all state employees should contain sections indicating religious observance; those not saying namaz should not be promoted.
  • Jihad should not be labeled a defensive war alone. Everyone should be grateful to Afghanistan for reviving jihad. The decline of the Muslim world owes to the abandonment of jihad, participation in which is the greatest piety.
  • The government should fire civil servants who do not say their namaz; areas where people offer namaz should be selected for concessional development funds.
  • Pakistan should revert to Friday as the weekly holiday for Islamic blessings.
  • Sending anyone to prison is un-Islamic and prison sentences should be abolished. Early Islam had no jails, no police, and no banks; thieves used to have their hands cut.
Rizwan Tabassum—AFP

Rizwan Tabassum—AFP

When Sheerani was appointed chairman of the Council by the PPP government in 2009, it was hardly welcomed by the non-clerical citizens of Pakistan. The Aurat Foundation defending women’s rights in Lahore cringed at what might happen next. Led by Nasira Iqbal, an ex-judge, it demanded the order appointing Sheerani be revoked.

The Barelvi sect felt the tremor, too. Their Qaumi Yakjehti Council protested the appointment of Sheerani saying it was like replacing a scholar with a cleric. They accused Sheerani of being “disputable,” saying he will violate Sunni rights, and will “blow to bits” Islamic ideology. But the PPP had to make a compromise in 2009 with the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) to retain its majority in Parliament; and one pledge in the compromise was to give the Council to Sheerani. The same dilemma was faced by the PMLN in 2013 and Sheerani got his second term.

The provenance of the Council is murky. General Zia who ruled Pakistan after hanging prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto rejected Allama Iqbal’s view of ijtihad (reinterpretation) and not only imposed the cutting of hands for theft but also fired the-then chairman of the Council to impose stoning to death, which is not specifically mentioned in the Quran. It is not surprising that Bhutto’s daughter too was killed in Pakistan because she possessed a level of intellect that Pakistanis usually reject as being heretical. Those who killed her will not allow innovative thinking—and dissenting intellect least of all.

Founder of the Banuri Mosque, Maulana Yusuf Banuri was made member of the Council by General Zia in 1977. The Banuri Mosque, funded by the Arabs, later became heavily sectarian under Mufti Shamzai, who was killed by the opposed sect. The Council has not been the most helpful place in guiding Pakistan on the path of wisdom. The great leader of jihad and a persistent thorn in the side of India since his alleged assault on Mumbai in 2008, Hafiz Saeed includes the Council in his trajectory of fame and power.

After graduation in 1974, Saeed was appointed lecturer at the University of Engineering and Technology’s Islamiyat Department. He was sent from UET to Saudi Arabia “for higher studies.” There, he got together with the famous “blind” Saudi high priest, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz—who insisted the Earth was flat—to pronounce the fatwa of jihad in Afghanistan in 1979. He returned to Pakistan and was selected as a research scholar at the Council, a several-years-long selection made by a panel of High Court judges.

On Dec. 17, 2009, two years after Al Qaeda’s establishment of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, jihadist websites posted a new 128-page book by Ayman al-Zawahiri titled The Morning and the Lamp: A Treatise Regarding the Claim that the Pakistani Constitution is Islamic. Al-Zawahiri had probably written this book earlier but made it public after it had been translated and circulated to all the Deobandi-Wahhabi seminaries in Pakistan.

The book does not merely call for radical reform of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan along the principles traditionally espoused by Al Qaeda and its local allies; it calls for the destruction of the state itself. Al-Zawahiri sought to prove that the Pakistani Constitution was in contradiction with Islam and Shariah. Needless to say, most Pakistani Islamists and religious leaders hold that while the Constitution itself is Islamic, Pakistani regimes have failed to implement it. Council chairmen, too, have in the past raised objections, while the custodian of Islamabad’s infamous Lal Masjid, whom the Taliban selected as their representative for parleys with the government this year, Maulana Abdul Aziz, has openly declared the Constitution heretical. What are the points raised by al-Zawahiri in his polemic against the Constitution?

Prefacing his case in the form of questions, he states: “How is it possible that the Pakistani system is based on Islamic foundations yet results in all this corruption, sabotage, and subordination to the West and the Americans? Yet is the system that teaches confusion, which results in the creation of generations with a sentimental attachment to Islam, while, in fact, practice, tradition, and general fascination are sympathetic to Western culture? Yet the Army, the uncrowned king in Pakistan, is subordinate to the Americans? Yet Pakistan has become the greatest ally of America in its crusading war against Islam?”

Emboldened and empowered by al-Zawahiri’s case-building and the violence of the Pakistani Taliban, the religious scholars inducted into the Council would agree with all the points raised above. The book is critical of Pakistan because “the Constitution is based on the people’s power to legislate; because the power to amend the Constitution is also vested in the people which is a trespass on the authority of Allah; because [usury] continues to be practiced under the Constitution, and women are allowed to go unveiled and be together at the workplace with men; Pakistan is not an Islamic state, it contradicts the Shariah in a number of fundamental and significant ways like immunity granted to some officeholders from judicial prosecution, the non-restriction of important offices to male Muslims, and the fact that the word ‘democracy’ is mentioned in the Constitution’s preamble.”

Wrote Lahore’s veteran journalist Aziz-ud-Din Ahmad: “The [Council] comprises fossilized clerics trying to dictate to people living in the 21st century. They continue the futile attempt to push the wheel of history backwards. While the performance of the Council since its inception has been uniformly dismal, under Sheerani it has surpassed past records. The government spends millions on this outdated fixture. There is a need to seriously consider if the candle is worth the oil.”

From our March 29, 2014, issue.

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AH March 23, 2014 - 11:34 am

Sick. lets put their hairy pictures on the banknotes.

Muhammad Bilal March 24, 2014 - 1:03 pm

One sided article. Newsweek Pakistan you are truly anti-Islamic, Shame on your bias. You could have presented the other view of the picture as well.

Effa March 25, 2014 - 4:10 pm

Very informative article, that was dictator Zia ul haq who planted this tree of fundamentalism in Islam and now all nation is paying price of that mistake,

zafarov March 26, 2014 - 4:34 pm

@Muhammad Bilal The other side is a revolt against history with ignorance, fanaticism, brutality and death worship. This is covered by a cloak of religion by pathetic bearded men with serious sexual hang ups. Their visceral misogyny is due to their own inadequacies and shortcomings and hence their justification of paedophilia.

sk March 25, 2014 - 9:32 pm

complete agreement. to the likes of muhd bilal and others who speak before comprehending, criticising the council is not anti-islamic. claiming the council cannot be criticised is the real shirk – why are we treating men like gods? one’s relationship w/ God should be his own and inviolable by these bigots

Mehboob July 6, 2015 - 8:49 pm

Bilal is absolutley correct, there are a few handful of vagabonds like you who are real Munafiqs and who can’t openly denounce their Religion and hence they pick and choose, and they make joke of believers also. Unfortunatly the press Media is overwhelmed by commercially hungary Munafiqs who want aid from their foriegn masters by selling their Religion.

GN August 28, 2016 - 12:03 pm

Bilal, saying one sided will not help. Please write how it is one sided point by point.


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