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Theocracy in the 21st Century

Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology has a long history of seeking to impose more religion in all aspects of life

by Khaled Ahmed

Pakistan began describing itself as an ideological state after the word had been made respectable by the Soviet Union through its planned economy and rapid growth. Ideology means the state has an idea which it thinks is right, and will punish anyone who doesn’t believe in it. Section 123-A of the Pakistan Penal Code specifically criminalizes anyone who opposes the ideology of Pakistan, which the state has designated its religion, Islam.

Pakistan’s ideology, like most other ideologies, was utopian; it made Pakistanis different from Indians. It also set Pakistan apart from states like Iran or the Soviet Union, with theocratic characteristics vulnerable to “theocratic” Taliban and parts of the population that live under their influence. At least one leader, Imran Khan, employs political rhetoric that links him to Pakistan’s “theocratic” dream.

Theocracy, or the rule of God, was a great experiment tried during the Middle Ages in the Christian West. As history shows, that experiment in governance failed. Although some theocracies continued to exist for hundreds of years, the idea never really worked for the simple reason that the will of God must always be interpreted by mortal, fallible human beings. Theocracy, in the last analysis, is no better than the men who govern in God’s name. As a matter of practice, such men are no better than other governors, and often they are worse. Unlike Christianity, Islam has never quite given up the theocratic ideal. Almost all Christian nations today erect strong constitutional hedges between religion and the state. God may continue to be understood as guiding the nation’s destiny, but his servants are not permitted to interfere in the affairs of the state. Some Islamic nations, although not all, have refused to erect such barriers to direct action by the servants of God and the interpreters of His will.

Theocracy in Iran

Iran, under the ayatollahs, is the leading example of theocracy. The shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980), was overthrown in 1979 in a revolution led from exile by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989). Khomeini returned to Iran in February 1979 and immediately took over control of the new government, which he appointed and continued to dominate until his death. He was succeeded by another ayatollah, but it appears likely that no Iranian successor will have as much power as Khomeini did.

An absolute despot who convinces his subjects that his word is the word of God may enjoy more power than any other kind of ruler. Numerous examples of people ruling with absolute power and authority over religious communities have been noted during the 20th century. Jim Jones (1931-1978) ordered more than 900 of his followers to commit suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, on Nov. 18, 1978. Most of them did so, passively and without protest. Jones himself died of a gunshot wound, perhaps not self-inflicted. Other communities have undergone similar experience.

As a nation, Iran underwent a comparable suicidal experience in its war with Iraq (1980-1988). The number of casualties, many of them teenage boys, has been estimated at well over a million. These children gave their lives for God, the ayatollah said, and the people believed it to be true.

Democracy as enemy of Islam

Democracy is anathema to theocracy. It is not surprising, therefore, that the United States, the leading exemplar of democracy in the world, was considered an evil nation by Khomeini and the Iranian imams. A religious tyrant cannot afford to allow his followers to be tempted by democracy; he must claim that democracy is the invention of anti-God, or Satan. For Khomeini, the United States became the Great Satan. As long as his followers believe this to be so, there can be no dialogue between democracy and theocracy. And when dialogue begins, theocracy is inevitably dissolved. Theocracy cannot survive freedom, which, like democracy, is anathema to it.

The Ayatollah Khomeini was able to impose an absolute tyranny over his followers. Anyone who sought to interject the slightest amount of freedom into the operations of the state was killed in the name of God. Historically, it has usually proved impossible for a succession of theocrats to impose and enjoy such absolute power. In the present state of world, with the vast majority of living human beings either already possessing or manifestly desiring and demanding democratic freedoms, theocracy has very little chance of surviving for long except in the circumstances that occurred in Iran in 1979. At the present time, therefore, theocracy would seem not to be a serious long-term threat to democracy.

It should not be forgotten, however, that a theocracy lasted in ancient Egypt for 3,000 years. And theocratic overtones are often heard in the claims of despots of other persuasions. Communism, as an example, banned God not only from the government but also from society with men and women not being allowed to be religious or to worship God privately, to say nothing of permitting God’s servants and interpreters to play a role in the state. This might have created a kind of vacuum in the lives of many persons that could only be filled by the state itself and the overwhelming idea of the Revolution. The Revolution was, or became in some people’s minds, a kind of deity. Thus several Communist states, notably the Soviet Union, began to take on a theocratic hue even though they were explicitly nonreligious and indeed antireligious.

The example of Pakistan

In Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), an advisory body of clerics and scholars tasked with assisting the government in bringing laws in line with the holy Quran and the example of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), declared in 2004 that a man might not ask for permission from his first wife before marrying a second one. The “decision” at the CII 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 permission she can be divorced by the husband by pronouncing “talaq” (divorce) three times, no questions asked. But the primitive anachronism of the Council’s “advice” provoked the Human Right Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) into condemning it as another sign of tightening up the faith in anticipation of the Rule of Taliban.

There is a common fallacy that Islam as enforced in Pakistan is misinterpreted and somehow there exists a true religion of Islam which should be revived. The truth of the matter is that under the prevailing principles of interpretation, what Pakistan has is the correct interpretation of Islam. The “rational” Islam of Sir Syed Ahmad was rejected in his lifetime by all schools of thought among Muslims, Deobandi and Barelvi alike. In Egypt the reformist spirit of Muhammad Abduh was challenged and set aside by the Islamists of the 21st century, including the ulema of Al-Azhar. There is an emphasis on fiqh under the principles of ijtehad (reinterpretation). Not many people know that Islamic law is based on fiqh and that ijtehad is allowed only on matters not decided by fiqh. Allama Iqbal once tried to write on ijtehad and corresponded with Maulana Salman Nadvi, asking him tough questions on points where fiqh actually supersedes the Quran, to which the maulana made no reply.

Women under the religious state

The verdict on riba by the Supreme Court Shariat Appellate Bench in 1999 shocked many, but it was according to the standard application of theocratic jurisprudence called fiqh. Right after that, the Federal Shariat Court also abolished the old Family Law Ordinance and allowed men to practice polygamy without the permission of their first wives. In an effort to make the verdict rational, the Court said it was good for Pakistan because there were more women here than men! After that the wife of Dr. Israr Ahmad, a famous Lahore cleric, said that she would not mind her husband taking another wife.

Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed never stopped saying that democracy was against Islam and that those who believed that Islam allowed Parliament were ullu (owls). Only the Army liked what he kept on saying, but he was right. The CII and the Ministry of Religious Affairs should not be blamed for issuing outrageous Islamic proposals (one advice being that all banknotes be withdrawn and the photo on them of the Quaid-e-Azam be erased) because they are following the rules of interpretation in Islam.

Extremism as misinterpretation

Most people think that extremism comes out of a misinterpretation of Islam. This is wrong. Extremism and violence occur when people do not accept what the Islamists regard as the irreducible crux of Islam in the shape of shariah. (What is shariah may differ from country to country). The mood among the clergy and the Islamists has been aggressive since the turn of the 20th century and violence is normally resorted to when a literalist version of fiqh-dominated Islam is not enforced. That is where extremism starts. As for the practicability of literalist Islam, many laws in force have either produced malpractice or have simply lain dormant, as in many cases of diyat (blood money) and qatt-e-yadd (cutting of hands).

In such cases the stand of the Islamists is that only they will enforce them correctly when they come to power through aggressively isolationist policies in the manner of the late Mullah Umar of Afghanistan. According to an old edition of daily Urdu newspaper Jang, the CII would hold a session to recommend that anyone blaspheming against Allah should be punished. It would also recommend that no woman be allowed to marry without the permission of her wali (male guardian). It was expected to ban kite-flying, organ transplant and smoking.

Pious destruction of Buddha statues

According to daily Khabrain, the ministry for religious affairs in Islamabad gave its verdict on the destruction of ancient statues in Afghanistan in 2001 by saying that the Taliban were right in doing so; the Foreign Office had earlier asked the ministry about the status of this destruction in sharia. Thus Pakistan now had to support the destruction of the ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan, although it was not made clear what should be done to such statues in Pakistan. According to Khabrain, the CII had also become seized with the question of Christian jallad (hangman) executing Muslim convicts in Pakistan. Among issues taken to the CII by the religion ministry was the issue of girls marrying of their own choice.

According to daily Din, the religion ministry had given the task of preparing a draft ordinance for the enforcement of namaz in Pakistan. Its directive was that all businesses should be closed down five times a day during namaz and during Friday namaz, and no one should be allowed to break this law. The entire country would also have the same namaz and azan (call) timings.

No songs on television, please!

Not long ago, according to daily Jang, the federal ministry for religious affairs sent a recommendation to the ministry of information that all songs and dances shown on PTV should be banned. The ministry’s letter said the PTV was involved in emulating Indian TV channels and was showing women shaking their bodies. According to daily Khabrain, the CII also announced that girls getting married of their own choice should be punished under law. A verdict undoing such a marriage at the Lahore High Court was, however, set aside by the Supreme Court. The other enlightened opinion of the CII was that co-education should be banned, that all lotteries like prize bonds should be banned and the paper used for printing the Quran should not be recycled.

According to daily Din, incumbent chairman of the CII S.M. Zaman has criticized the Supreme Court for postponing the removal of bank interest for another year. He said it was not an economic issue but an issue related to the Quran and the Prophet (PBUH). According to daily Nawa-e-Waqt, the CII also rejected then-religion minister Mahmood Ghazi’s plan to use zakat to allow the poor to invest in businesses by saying that zakat could not be used for investment of any kind. The body has also ruled that insurance of all kinds was against Islam and should be abolished forthwith, with instalments paid into a policy given under mudaraba (leasing) to make it Islamic; Mudaraba businesses did not do well in Pakistan.

In another report from Jang, the CII came to the conclusion that soft drinks sold as non-alcoholic beer were not jaez (allowed) in Islam, adding that any drink that is not sharab (alcohol) could not be called sharab or that the name beer should not be put on it. It also said preparation and trade of non-alcoholic beer inside or outside Pakistan was haram (prohibited). Another newspaper reported that despite the passage of 23 years since the CII made its first proposal about it, the government had not changed the flag; the recommendation had called for the kalima tayyaba (short prayer in Arabic) to be inscribed on the national flag along with Allah-u-Akbar.

Get women to stay at home

Quoted in another newspaper, the CII said that women should be disallowed from appearing in ads and only men should be used to promote products through photographs. It said that women were allowed to work as air-hostesses but only if they wore burqa or hijab, adding that no darzi (tailor) should be allowed to sew clothes for women and only women darzi should be used for women. According to the daily, the CII also recommended that ACRs of all state employees should contain sections indicating religious observance and those not saying namaz should not be promoted.

At one point, per Jang, the CII also declared that it was wrong to label jihad as solely a defensive war. The truth, according to the CII, was that jihad could be offensive as well. According to Nawa-e-Waqt, the CII stated that Western propaganda against jihad had pushed it into the background, but everyone should be grateful to Afghanistan for having revived it. It said the greatest act of piety was participation in jihad; and one cause of the decline of the Muslims was their abandonment of it.

The final verdict

Daily Jang magazine once quoted Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed—today in confinement under a FATF “grey-list” fiat—as saying that when an Islamic government is imposed on Pakistan, currency would be abolished and gold and silver coins would be the sole legal tender. He said the Constitution, too, would be abolished as there was no need of a Constitution in the presence of the Quran. Similarly, Khabrain reported, the CII declared that sending anyone to prison was against Sharia and recommended that prison sentences be abolished. Early Islam had no jails, no police, and no banks, it said, and thieves used to have their hands cut.

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1 comment

Imran Ahmed July 18, 2022 - 11:10 pm

May Allah SWT preserve us from the piety of true believers.


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