The Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (PCTB) has formed a committee of the Mutahidda Ulema Board (MUB) “to review every book, including those of science and mathematics.” The MUB members have recommended the board to exclude the words such as ‘interest’ and ‘markup’ from the mathematics textbooks. Some of them also issued directions that diagrams or sketches in the biology textbooks showing human figures “sans clothes” should not be printed which could otherwise exacerbate ‘immorality in educational field’.
Several colleagues criticized the MUB for being excessively intolerant by promoting unreason and rigidity towards secular education in academics after these recommendations. I tend to perceive these concerns from a larger perspective, and strive to assess the role of ulema in relentlessly influencing public discourse and public policy in this regard that emerge consequently.
It is essential to note that by using term “ulema” in this piece, I am referring to conservative religious scholars who strive to interpret Islam from a narrow and one-dimensional perspective that led a prominent scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi to leave the country in 2010. Ghamidi has considerable following among the country’s ‘urban middle-classes’.
Ghamidi is criticized on grounds for offering a much liberal discourse on Islam and being a heretic by defying and questioning traditional religious authority of notable Muslim scholars and their contributions. On March 17, 2017, the Express Tribune reported that books authored by Ghamidi were barred from being displayed at a book fair held at the Peshawar University. Ghamidi is currently based in the United States and working on his mission that is to ‘highlight a thoroughly ‘individualised’ approach to religious reform’.
This essay particularly sheds light on the role of ulema in Pakistan. What role do ulema exactly play in the country? There is a general perception from the academia that since no religious party has ever been able to win general elections in Pakistan, there is a limited role of religious parties and their leaders in politics. However, in reality, there is more than that meets the eye; the matter far complex and requires scrutiny over ulema’s sphere of influence.
Many Muslim majority countries have institutionalized the role of the ulema which makes them most important political force. In Pakistan, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a permanent constitutional body, not only advises the Parliament over the legitimacy of laws to Islam in the light of Quran and Sunnah and but “also recommends measures to be promulgated as legislations to promote Islamic way of life in the country.”
The CII works as a parent institution for the consolidation and expression of ulema’s authority in Pakistan. Under this model, ulema are made part of organizations like PCTB for two-fold purposes; to let ulema enjoy their prestigious position and to avoid any cultural backlash while working on any serious public policy related project.
The CII recent ambiguous role in public policy making was evident when it advised the government against using the slogan “Corona Say Darna Nahi, Larna Hai” (Don’t fear coronavirus, we have to fight it). This catch phrase was the driving force behind the national policy initiative to curb the spread of the disease and received a backlash from the ulema after a petitioner in the Lahore High Court (LHC) argued that “no one could fight against God’s will” and that the national media and government communication sources have been using ‘un-Islamic’ and ‘immoral’ words challenging the supremacy of God.”
Similar obscurity from the ulema side was pertinent in 2016 when the CII proposed an esoteric ‘model’ women’s protection bill, which allowed a husband to ‘lightly’ beat his wife ‘if needed’ and prohibited mixing of the genders in schools, hospitals and offices.
In a country where women already face discrimination in almost all aspects of their private and public life, such advises by the clerics who are on a pedestal for religious credibility leaves a dubious impact on every thinking mind. According to a report of the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 27.6pc of women have experienced physical violence since age 15. Within this group, 14.6pc reported experiencing physical violence often or sometimes in the past 12 months. The report also reveals that violence committed by husbands is the most common form of violence women face, and 23.7pc of women reported experiencing physical or sexual violence from their spouse. Thus, in such a discriminating environment where people look up to Islamic guidance for respite, the ulema side offers no breathing space.
These examples elucidate that fact that the ulema in Pakistan want to control every aspect of public and private life of the fellow Muslims and such assertion is neither exaggerated nor untrue. If history be the guide, there have been inexorable efforts to ‘forcibly’ Islamize the society and make everyone a ‘good’ Muslim with results being counterproductive. The clerics cease to learn from our past mistakes and understand forceful imposition of Islam to the grassroots of social and political order ironically shackles the very foundations on which a stable society stands.
A prominent Turkish author Mustafa Akyol recently wrote a book titled; “Reopening Muslim Minds. A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance”, urged the Muslim scholars to approach religion and history for an alternative (and progressive) view. Akyol quotes Alija Izetbegović, a Bosnian intellectual & statesman, to defend liberty in the Muslim world: “Only free conduct is moral conduct. By negating freedom, and thus the possibility of choice, a dictatorship contains in its premises the negation of morality. To that extent, regardless of all historical apparitions, dictatorship and religion are mutually exclusive.”
Ulema’s monopoly over education?
Prof. Ahmet T. Kuru wrote an insightful book, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison, and attempted to address the most important question of our times: Why are Muslim-majority countries less peaceful, less democratic, less developed?
Prof. Kuru, by using a historical comparative method and latest data, focuses on historical factors in order to identify reasons behind ‘Muslims’ contemporary problems’. Prof. Kuru argues that “the relations between religious, political, intellectual, and economic classes have been the main engine behind the changes in and reversals between the levels of development in the Muslim world, as well as in Western Europe.”
In his book, Prof. Kuru specifically points out the role of the ulema in consolidating authoritarianism in the Muslim world. He argues that “The ulema have claimed a monopoly over interpreting Islam, and Muslim masses have largely upheld the ulema’s claim”
Prof. Kuru carefully examines the historical record, and expounds that: “The main source of the ulema’s legitimacy was its monopoly over interpreting Islam, which they maintained through their control of madrasas. Printing presses could threaten this monopoly; therefore, the ulema opposed their establishment. Not a single book was printed by Muslims from 1455 (when the first European book was printed) to 1729 (when the first Ottoman book was printed). The ulema also opposed the translation of the Quran into vernacular languages.” Prof. Kuru maintains that the ulema wanted “to preserve their monopoly over education and scholarship”, therefore, they furiously opposed printing press so that any alternative or critical voice could not challenge their unprecedented clout over religious affairs.
Read More: Why nations radicalize
In this respect, Pakistan’s case reveals that ulema’ monopoly over education helps them to create a popular cultural discourse foster their narrative. A survey in 2003 conducted around the Rawalpindi area by Matthew Nelson, professor at the University of London, discovered a whopping 41pc preference for the statement: “A good school is a school that creates good Muslims. In other words, good schools provide students with strong values and strong religious beliefs.” A mere 10pc approved the case for evidence-based modern education.
Ulema under ‘liberal’ leaders
In this section, I will explicate the role of two westernized Pakistani leaders who played an important role in Islamizing the society. Riaz Hassan in his paper Islamization: An analysis of religious, political and social change in Pakistan argues that “Islamization first emerged as a nascent state policy under the Pakistan People’s Party government led by the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1971-1977).” Hassan points out that Bhutto used emotive religious phrases like “Musawat-i-Muhammadi (the equality of Muhammad) and Islami Musawat (Islamic equality)” to seek popular support in the face of opposition from the clerics.
The leaders of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) used Islam to mobilize people against Bhutto’s government. Buhtto, in response to the movement, sought to defuse the situation by announcing ‘Islamic’ reforms, declaring Friday instead of Sunday as the weekly public holiday and prohibiting alcohol consumption, gambling and horse-racing.
Zia ul Haq (1977-1988) further stretched out Bhutto’s project through an ideologically inspired programme under the mission of establishing a ‘true Islamic society’ in Pakistan. This Islamist ideology plunged Pakistan to the darkest period in its history, however, I do not intend to discuss Zia’a policies at length.
The other leader is Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Imran Khan. Imran Khan, Oxford-educated man who spent several years in the United Kingdom, is turning to be new Bhutto. Khan is following Bhutto’s footsteps at least the way he is dealing with Islamists.
To create what Khan terms as Riyasat-i-Madina (State of Madina), his entourage has introduced a “single national curriculum” initiative to promote uniform education system across the country. In the first phase, primary schools shall be involved. The plan mandates the students to read the entire Quran with translation, learn Islamic prayers and memorize a number of hadith (words, actions and approval of the Prophet Muhammad). It also stipulates that every school and college must employ a pair of certified Hafiz (a person who has memorized the Quran) and Qari (a Quran reciter) to teach these subjects.
Experts fear that Khan’s policy, although aimed to bring national unity and cohesiveness in an apparently divided educational system, may end up achieving otherwise. Rubina Saigol, a Lahore-based educationist, told DW that the “madrassification” of public schools would have serious ramifications. “The syllabus is likely to produce students with an Islamic conservative global outlook, who would view women as subservient souls who do not deserve freedom and independence,” Saigol said.
Read More: Islam and Trade: Can Ulema be Merchants?
The bottom-line is that Pakistan’s case ironically suggests that ulema and radical Islamists find more space under the leaders having a liberal outlook or past. Leaders such as Bhutto and Khan attempt to counter the Ulema by infusing more extremist rhetoric in the name of Islam which potentially undermine not only the political discourse but also the social fabric that ties the entire community.
Farah Adeed teaches politics and international relations at UMT. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s Editorial Policy.