By Dr. Niaz Murtaza
14 March 2017
MANY people say Pakistan’s problems today
stem from the wilful failure of rulers to establish an Islamic system. These
are not supporters of the militant Islamic State group but well-meaning
individuals who abhor IS excesses. For them, this system is like turning on a
water tap waiting to deliver unlimited sustenance.
But when asked for specifics, they can only
express vague generalities and wishful desires for an egalitarian system.
However, egalitarianism is a final outcome that cannot be reached directly but
through effective policies which they struggle to identify. Their basic belief,
sold widely by clerics, is that the human mind is weak and leads us astray, so
we must follow religious injunctions even for small things by gleaning Islamic
history for edicts which only clerics can decipher.
There are many issues with this view.
Firstly, what constitutes God’s word? Besides the Quran and Hadith, even broad
and often questionable interpretations by latter-day and present-day clerics
and often even their unsupported opinions are termed God’s word.
The high disregard for human intellect also
seems contrary to the message of the Quran which extols it. Human beings are
called the best species only since they have high intellect. The Quran says
things have been made easy to fathom and those who use their minds can fathom
divine signs easily. It is unlikely that a faith which values human intellect
so much would expect humans to constantly copy ancient eras with very different
contexts for minor things.
There are many societies globally without
any history of revealed religions or adherence to detailed religious dogma
which have still built materially and morally advanced states, eg, Japan, which
far excels all Muslim states on both counts today. The human mind has made
amazing discoveries with no clerical input. Disparaging it makes little sense.
Thus, this view seems designed to empower
clerics by making them the custodian of divine knowledge while disempowering
the masses as incapable of discovering the right way without clerics’ help. But
this is contrary to Quranic edicts that everyone can understand Islam directly
without clerics’ help. In reality, especially when it comes to statecraft,
Islam expects people to use their intellect to identify policies relevant to
their times. So, even the most important issue in governance, i.e., how rulers
should attain power, is left to people to decide as both the Quran and Hadith
appear silent on such matters. Thus, it stretches credulity to claim that Islam
expects the divine word to be followed strictly for lesser decisions when even
the most key decision has been delegated to people.
Similarly, while the debate on edicts
vis-à-vis present-day governance, eg monetary, fiscal, industrial policies,
continues, they are questions about their applicability to the challenges of
the current times. Islam seemingly expects policies in all such areas to be
developed by people. But many things that clerics present as divine injunction
and mandatory policies to be adopted by states are either irrelevant or even
harmful to the establishment of an egalitarian society today.
So, while we may think that establishing an
Islamic system is like turning on a water tap, the obstacles in doing so are
far more structural than unwilling rulers.
The Medina system was heavily reliant on
the presence of people of very high morals, the likes of whom are absent today.
Even if such people could be assembled, the next challenge would be for them to
find an easy and peaceful way of attaining power. But if honest people could
attain power, they could perform wonders even within a secular social
So the next challenge would be to
demonstrate that they have a vision and concrete policies based on Islam which
can outperform secular systems, ie, deliver the strengths of Western
democracies while avoiding their weaknesses. Even so, the next challenge would
be to overcome the vehement opposition of clerics since this new vision will
likely be very different from the clerics’ brand of Islam and will marginalise
them. Finally, they will have to win the trust of people who, weary of decades
of misuse of religion’s name in politics, largely shun religious politics in
Despite being a firm believer in secular
democracy, I still believe if someone builds on Islam’s progressive elements,
like egalitarianism, rights for women and minorities, etc., they should be able
to develop such a vision. I am a firm believer in secular democracy not because
I don’t believe in Islam’s progressive elements, but because I see the faith
hijacked by retrogressive forces and little inclination within the majority to
challenge their hold and develop a progressive Islamic vision. In such a
situation, secular democracy seems the best available option.
Dr. Niaz Murtaza heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit, and
is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley.