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Islamic fundamentalism: Is the Taliban Mindset compatible with the Shariah?

By Ishtiyaque Danish

26 Apr 2009


First, they whipped a girl in public because she was “seen” with a man who was not her husband. Then, they imposed Jizya on the Sikhs. Recently, they gunned down a couple for trying to elope. And now the latest: Taliban say that democracy is a Western concept and incompatible with Shariah.


But here’s a question: Is the Taliban compatible with the Shariah? They are trying to impose it in the way Zia ul-Haq and Jaafar Nemeiri did in the 1970s and 1980s. The Taliban seem to understand Shariah as no more than a set of tough laws and harsh punishments.


Is this accurate? Not according to some hadith, which means sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad. There are many Quranic verses that explain the Shariah as a civilizing ideology. Sufis’ understanding of Islam also presents Shariah as a caring message of social service.


The Quran mentions Jizya, the tax levied on non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state but only in lieu of military service. This, because an Islamic state cannot force military service on non-Muslims. But, a non-Muslim citizen willing to serve in the army would be exempt from Jizya. In any case, Shariah says this tax should secure non-Muslim citizens many rights and privileges, which it would be hard to believe the trigger-happy Taliban granting to the Sikhs. Many believe the Taliban imposed the tax to humiliate the Sikh community, rather than uphold the Quran.


It is hard to understand how the Taliban justify opposition to “Western” democracy. A recent study by John Esposito, professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, concluded that most modern Islamists support democracy even as they interpret Shariah as a way of life. This is in line with the thinking of many prominent medieval Islamicists. For example, al-Ghazali, one of the greatest Islamic Jurists, theologian and mystical thinker, described the Shariah’s purpose as ensuring the welfare of man. Sunni jurist and thinker Ibn Qayyim also believed that “the basis of the Shariah is wisdom and welfare of the people... This welfare lies in complete justice, mercy, well being and wisdom. Anything that departs from justice to oppression, from mercy to harshness, from welfare to misery and from wisdom to folly has nothing to do with Shariah.”


That was how the early Muslims understood and implemented the Shariah. It is well known that the second caliph, Umar, was pious and had an admirable method of governance. Mahatma Gandhi was greatly impressed by Umar. Even though this caliph lived and ruled in an age that believed moral dereliction needed to be punished by the whip, Umar started putting people behind bars for such crimes. It was clear that his approach to crime and punishment was kindness. According to one account, a girl who committed an indiscretion, tried to commit suicide for fear of harsh punishment. She was saved and repented sincerely. A man, who did not know of the girl’s misdemeanours, sought her hand in marriage. The girl’s guardian asked Umar for advice. Should he tell all to the suitor? Umar reprimanded the questioner, saying don’t reveal what God has hidden. He also urged him to marry off the girl with customary fanfare.


There are many lessons from this and other stories about Umar, not least his secret nightly trips to check on the welfare of his subjects. During one such nocturnal outing, he came upon a house where he could hear a man singing loudly. He knocked on the door but received no response, so he climbed over the wall and saw that the man was enjoying women and wine along with the song. But the culprit coolly told Umar that the caliph had sinned three times more than he. “First, God has forbidden you from prying into one’s privacy but you have spied on me. Second, God has ordained that private houses be entered through the door but you jumped up on the wall to look inside my house. Third, God has ordered that no one enter a house without its owner’s permission but you have done so against this clear Quranic injunction.” Umar admitted he was in the wrong and apologized profusely.


Is it possible to see this self-correctional, enlightened form of Islamicism among Taliban rulers? The Swat Valley abounds in problems, including poverty and illiteracy. Why can’t the Taliban deal with these first? If they did, Islam would become relevant to the local people.


At least some of the problem with a hard-line interpretation of Shariah is the lack of knowledge of Islamic history. Mutual consultation was the hallmark of the early Muslims who ruled the Islamic state they built immediately after the Prophet’s death.


Various election and selection procedures were adopted to appoint a caliph but he assumed office only after the common man approved the choice.


The Talibans’ excesses and their threats to impose their brand of Shariah on the whole of Pakistan have not gone unchallenged. Intellectuals have been very critical. But the Pakistan government seems confused. On the one hand, it has signed an agreement with the Taliban; meanwhile, it bombs Taliban targets in other parts of the country. It almost appears to be a clever move to use the Taliban threat to secure billions of dollars in aid. But perhaps such strategies too have nothing to do with Shariah.

 (The author teaches Islamic Studies at Hamdard University, New Delhi)

Courtesy: The Times of India, New Delhi