By Afiya Shehrbano
March 16, 2014
It’s really quite unfair. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) is facing considerable criticism for following its mandate and legitimately attempting to align Pakistan into a Shariah compliant state.
Never mind. This constitutional body should be reassured that, while sold-out moderate Islamic scholars and liberal-fundamentalist Pakistanis may be outraged by its recent recommendations, there are some erudite revivalist academics and scholars who would be very supportive of the CII’s recent steps.
The current chairman of the CII, Maulana Sherani of the political party JUI-F, has been a busy man for what is usually considered a ceremonious office with rubber-stamps authority. However, Sherani’s leadership has been very different to that of the previous chairperson, the scholar, Dr Khalid Masud. Between 2004 and 2010, Dr Masud had engaged the CII in a pragmatic programme towards making the Muslim Family Laws (1961) more comprehensive and removing rather than exacerbating inequality and discrimination in the name of religion.
Women’s rights activists have been split in their support of this effort, with some collaborating with the CII but others maintaining a secular distance from the reformist approach. The secular Women’s Action Forum has historically resisted and refused to recognise the authority of supra-state and anti-democratic bodies such as the CII.
On a personal level, one has maintained that to depend on the goodwill of an officer of the state rather than challenge the office itself, which is by definition anti-secular, is a dangerous precipice on which to place women’s or minorities’ rights.
Still, in the recent past, under the stewardship of an Islamic scholar rather than political clerics, the council’s efforts were aimed at removing the blatant discriminatory bent of some Islamic laws and directing them towards the protection of women, children and minorities. These recommendations were not as modernist as they were commonsensical.
Interestingly, scholars such as Saba Mahmood (2006) and Sadaf Aziz (2011) have been critical of the overall cooption of religious reformers and ‘heroes of the secular Left’ in the US-led imperialist project towards a redemptive or reformed ‘good’ Islam. Thus, Aziz indicts juris consult Javed Ghamidi as a complicit part of neoliberal projects such as Musharraf’s enlightened moderation but not Dr Khalid Masud. In such a world-view, Muslims cannot be reformists or secularists.
In any case, reformist redemptive Islam should be the least of anyone’s concern in Pakistan today. Since the CII has come under the control of the JUI-F, its special interests have been, not surprisingly, women, sex and money. Himself a primary opponent of the Domestic Violence Bill when it was tabled in 2009, Maulana Sherani, has pulled the CII into the media spotlight for a range of ‘critical’ matters.
During his term, the CII has stated its objections to the ‘absurd’ term ‘gender equality’, its agreement to sex change operations only if they are according to the Shariah (no idea what that means), its rejection of DNA testing as evidence in rape cases, its concern over Zakat deduction, consideration of the Shariah veil and status of installing statues in museums and public places as well as its intent to scrutinise national and international agreements.
The all-male (the reserved seat for one woman remains vacant) CII’s latest recommendations have come in defiance of the 1961 and 1929 laws. The first corrective is to rehabilitate Muslim men’s rights to contract polygamous marriage without permission from the existing wife and the second opines that the child marriage ban is un-Islamic. These should not surprise anyone.
In fact, recommendations emerging from such ‘Islamic epistemology’ should be celebrated by those who reject ‘occidental secularisation’ and by those who insist that Islamists can responsibly and rationally steer the country towards a just and egalitarian society – in theory or practice (Aziz, Iqtidar).
More importantly, the CII’s intervention must be seen as a valid challenge to the ‘imperialist typology of good and bad Islam’ that postmodernist scholars such as Sadaf Aziz object to. The membership of some 20 wide-ranging scholars of the CII is reclaiming Islam from the imperialist clutches of modernity and refusing to kowtow to reformist impositions. Win-win.
Over the past decade, several scholars (predominantly associated with the Lahore University of Management Sciences) have been critical of the forced coupling and myth of “equality-espousing human rights norms” and argued instead for the recognition of “the originary importance of Islamic forms of legality” (Sadaf Aziz, Abdul Rehman, Moeen Cheema, 2005, 2007). For their critique of attempts to reconcile liberal modernity with Islam, these scholars may be positioned as postmodernists.
In this vein, several other scholars have defended Islamist organisations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaatud Dawa suggesting that these are the authentic bearers of the ‘secularisation’ of Pakistan (Humeira Iqtidar 2011). They have even defended the persecution and murders of blasphemy accused and attributed these to be motivated by worldly rather than divine inspiration.
Additionally, scholars Sadaf Aziz and Moeen Cheema have specifically argued for Islamic legality rather than the colonial legal ban on early marriage as a more likely effective “bulwark” against such harmful social practices.
Clearly, the CII has been paying attention to such scholarship and so it claims today that the colonialist ban on early marriages of 1929 must be replaced by Islamic provision. So they recommend that Muslim marriage may be contracted even amongst toddlers but (sigh of relief) only consummated after puberty. It must be gratifying to have one’s scholarly recommendations for an “Islamic constructivist project” (Aziz 2005) expedited by a state body by just the swish of a scholar’s pen.
Revivalist scholars also consider the existing competing and conflicting forces of ‘western’ universal laws as a hurdle towards all-embracing, pure and egalitarian options under Islamic jurisprudence (at least for men). In 2010, Moeen H Cheema and Barrister Shahzad Akbar defended the Supreme Court’s (ultra virus) decision to strike down the NRO as a violation of Article 62(f), which requires a member of parliament to be “sagacious, righteous and non-profligate and honest and Ameen”.
These revivalist scholars called those who objected to this judgement, ‘liberal fundamentalists’ and argued that such a judgement would accrue broader moral rewards that can emerge from Islamic readings of all financial and political cases, especially for the ‘poor and disenfranchised people of Pakistan’.
Clearly, there are many supporters for the erasure and replacement of modernist or democratic values of rights and instead, they invest more hope and optimism in a re-discovered, supposedly ‘authentic’ and uncontaminated divine legal discourse.
The targeted dilution and replacement of the modernist, liberal, military-led Muslim Family Laws Ordinance (1961) should be celebrated and owned by all these critical scholars as a victory of their antithesis and they must step up and support the CII morally and academically. At this point, their silent retreat into academia would amount to nothing less than a travesty of the principled purpose of scholarship.
Meanwhile, the more pragmatic, profane and intuitive response seems to be calling for the end of a council that is simply adding to the existing crisis over the polity’s Islamic ideology.
Afiya Shehrbano is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: email@example.com