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Pakistan and its Theological Heart

By Akbar Ahmed

June 23, 2018

“For Professor Akbar S Ahmed to be invited at the Council of Islamic Ideology — the heart of what many see as conservative ultra-orthodox interpretations of Islam which are often imposed on Pakistanis — and for him to speak with empathy and wisdom on women’s rights, respect for minorities, and universal ideas of peace and justice as core teaching tools for religious scholars and youth was breaking new ground!”

These were the words Dr Amineh Hotiused to describe my recent lecture to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) in Islamabad, on June 7 where we also launched my Journey into Europe. Some 200 attendees packed into an overflowing hall in the midst of a Ramadan heat wave. I had been invited by the dynamic new chairman of the Council, Professor Dr Qibla Ayaz, a scholar with a PhD in Islamic history from Edinburgh University. Through this event, Dr Qibla was clearly indicating a new direction for the Council. The evening was billed “An academic and intellectual evening with Akbar S Ahmed”. The lecture was chaired by Zafarullah Khan, the advisor to former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. It was followed by a grand Iftar dinner.

The CII, first established under the government of President Ayub Khan, plays a crucial role in Pakistan, as it is viewed by the government as a key body for determining Islamic law on all matters. It is traditionally seen as being quite conservative; for example, the previous chairman Maulana Sherani advocated beating women, creating an uproar in the country.

In my talk, I highlighted how under Dr Qibla’s leadership, the Council as a major Islamic body, has a special obligation, even beyond Pakistan’s borders where millions of Pakistanis live, to publicly discuss and explain the key features of the faith. Controversy and debate surround for -example the Sharia, the role of women, and violence in Islam. I added that if we are to have any hope of pushing back against these misunderstandings, the Council must come out and engage non-Muslim societies and leaders on these issues.

I emphasized too the importance of treating minorities in Pakistan with respect and dignity as promised by the Quaid, who even included the white band in the Pakistani flag to signify the importance of minorities, as contrasted with the green of Islam. Furthermore, I underlined the importance of Ilm and knowledge in Islam and encouraged all attendees to embrace the pursuit of knowledge.

The CII is traditionally seen as being quite conservative; for example, the previous chairman Maulana Sherani advocated beating women, creating an uproar in the country

Among the dignitaries present were the European Union’s Ambassador to Pakistan, former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to the US Riaz Khokhar, and former High Commissioner to Canada Akbar Zeb. Also present were Allama Iqbal’s daughter-in-law, Justice Dr Nasira Iqbal, the Commandant of Military College Jhelum, Quaid-I-Azam University Vice Chancellor Dr Javed Ashraf, Brigadier Tahir Mehmood, who is the chief editor of the magazine Hilal, and my cousin Ahmed Masood, who is a direct descendant of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Tahir Ayub Khan and author and activist Dr Ayesha Leghari were also present. Aleem Ahmed Khan and his parents, Farooq Khan and Razia, all of whom are senior figures within the Cholistan Development Council, drove all the way from Bahawalpur to join for the occasion, leaving at Sehri and driving all day through the searing heat. They even presented us with a fez and an Ajrak shawl, which are traditional gifts from South Punjab.

Sikh leaders and the head of the Bahai community were also present and Dr Hoti was thrilled as she thought we had “introduced a vital inter-faith peace-building dimension to the Council.”

Dr Hoti, in addition to her comment featured earlier, wrote following the event: “This was a historic event. The usually rigid separation of genders and generations broke down in the seating for the lecture and the Iftar dinner afterwards. In terms of spreading peace and peace building, this interaction between the liberals and conservatives was solid gold. Senior traditional scholars and heads of military academies said for the first time they found peace building as presented by Professor Ahmed highly engaging and wanted to contribute to this positive dialogue.

The enthusiasm of the capacity audience and the excitement of the women and minorities was a testimony to Dr Qibla’s vision. A friend of mine who is half Pakistani and half French, Amina, told me that she saw a lot of hope in the very fact that the Council invited a renowned peace building scholar like Professor Ahmed.”

After the function, Dr Hoti and I received a rich array of feedback celebrating the event and its inclusive message. Here are some samples:

Dr Qibla wrote to say, “I am receiving very positive response and appreciation from a large number of diverse individuals and groups. CII transforming into a platform for scholars of religion and society.” He added, “Scholars are overwhelmed with your CII talk So boosting and encouraging. Dr. Sahib we are already proud of you. You have been contributing so tremendously to making this planet a decent place for living that every sane person should join hands with you.”

One attendee, Baha, from Quetta, one of Dr Hoti’s students who embraced an inclusive Islam after taking her course, wrote her following the event to say, “It was dream of my life to meet at least once in my life my favourite writer who inspired me to come out of self to see the outer world which is full of knowledge and diversity. I am so thankful to you for fulfilling my life wish.” He came from Lahore for the event.

Mr Aleem Ahmed Khan posted on Facebook: “This unique event … can become the first icebreaker toward co-existence. I with family had a privilege to be part of such a historical event. This has to now set a tone in Council to organise such kind of events so that inclusiveness could prevail.”

Walter Ruby, a leading advocate of interfaith dialogue in the US, wrote to Dr Hoti. “Thank you for informing us of your father’s historic appearance at CII! It sounds like his appearance there was like a breath of fresh air for so many in Pakistan. Very happy to hear and hopeful for what it may mean for the cause of pluralism and openness in that key Muslim country. Marbuk to him.”

Brigadier Tahir Mehmood wrote, “Indeed it was a great opportunity and blessing to listen to Dr Akbar S Ahmed sahib on such a grand topic. His work is worth weighing in gold.  Love and respect remain true essence of humanity.”

Social activist Sohail Kayani wrote, “What a wonderful event to attend like a breath of fresh pristine air .. ..absolutely wonderful.”

Jan Figel EU Special Envoy for Religious Freedom wrote, “Congratulations to all for that event! It is promising signal for future of pluralist and justful Pakistan.”

Wardella Doschek, a prominent American author in DC, emailed me upon learning of the event, “Masha’ Allah!  This is beyond wonderful!  It is absolutely what is so urgently needed, and I am so proud of you for doing it. Just this one event must make the entire three month journey worthwhile!!”

We may live in a world seemingly fraught with divisions and violence. Yet as this momentous evening with the Council reminded me, if given the opportunity, anyone can find their way to the path of bridge-building on the basis of knowledge and understanding. May more leaders in Pakistan and the Muslim world follow the inclusive example of Dr Qibla Ayaz.

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Press, 2018)