The spectre of secularism is haunting the privileged elite of Pakistan, some privileged by birth or status, others by their grading in the realm of belief. Now pollsters have joined the effort to scare the people with reports that a majority of young persons prefer theocracy to secularism.
Unfortunately, huge confusion has been caused by presenting Islam and secularism as two mutually antagonistic and irreconcilable philosophies. In many cases this is done by persons who cannot, or do not wish to, analyse both Islam and secularism objectively.
The Oxford Dictionary gives many meanings and usages of the word ‘secular’, including a member of the clergy not bound by a religious rule; not belonging to or living in seclusion with a monastic or other order; belonging to the world and its affairs as distinguished from the Church and religion; civil, lay; non-religious, non-sacred; et al.
The strongest opponents of secularism always rely on its definition as “the belief that religion and religious considerations should be deliberately omitted from temporal affairs”.
However, it can be substantiated with the help of authoritative texts that Islam views secularism as a way of life that is inspired by Islam’s ethical ideal (Iqbal’s favourite expression) but in which reason is used to promote the good of humankind. That is why duties to human beings are considered more important than obligations to God.
The principle that Islamic injunctions can be amended to suit changes dictated by time and social development has been upheld by a long list of Islamic scholars, from Ibnul-Qaiyyam Jauzia and Ibn Khaldun to Allama Iqbal and that makes a strong case for Islam’s compatibility with secularism. (Falsafa Shariat-i-Islam, Majlis Taraqqi-i-Adab).
In Pakistan the advocates of secularism rely mostly on the Quaid-i-Azam’s dictum that religion has nothing to do with the business of the state. Actually, the subcontinental Muslims’ contribution to secularism has a much longer history, beginning (if not earlier) with Allauddin Khilji’s refusal to follow Qazi Mughis’s plea to convert or kill the more numerous non-Muslims. Babar advised Humayun to treat people’s religious affiliations as changing seasons and Aurangzeb scolded his teacher for making him waste his time on Arabic grammar while he should have been taught governance in a world that was larger than Shah Jahan’s kingdom. All these ideas bore the stamp of secularism.
In the modern phase of our history, Syed Ahmad Khan is considered the founder of the movement for Pakistan. He declared “the root cause of people’s misfortune lies in mixing the problems of the world with the problems of religion that are immutable…. Mixing of the affairs of the world with the affairs of religion is madness … conditions of society and civilisation change day by day, therefore, they cannot be part of religious commandments”. (Sibte Hassan in the Battle of ideas in Pakistan, Pakistan Publishing House, 1986).
Pakistan’s anti-secularism lobby has little respect for Allama Iqbal though quite a few mujavirs have won comfort by selling his name. In Iqbal’s life 1930 was a most significant year. It was the year he delivered the Madras Lectures, later on published in a book The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, and it was the year when he addressed the Allahabad session of the Muslim League.
In the lectures, Iqbal’s overriding concern was to see the unfreezing of the Islamic jurisprudence that had been frozen for 500 years and had suffered greatly under what he described as “Arab imperialism”. He began his sixth lecture, ‘The principle of movement in the structure of Islam’, by describing Islam as a “cultural movement” and holding “that all human life is spiritual in its origin”. He added that a prophetic revelation was world-life’s intuitive perception of its own needs and its choice of direction at critical moments, and that “loyalty to God virtually amounts to man’s loyalty to his own ideal nature”. He told his fellow Muslims that “a false reverence for past history and its artificial resurrection constitute no remedy for a people’s decay”.
Allama Iqbal upheld the Turkish view that “according to the spirit of Islam the caliphate or imamate can be vested in a body of persons, or an elected assembly”. He gave ijma great importance as a source of lawmaking through a modern assembly. Then he addressed the question as to how to prevent mistakes by an assembly of lay persons. He rejected the idea of a board of ulema to advise parliament and told the ulema to be part of the assemblies.
“The only effective remedy for the possibilities of erroneous interpretations is to reform the present system of legal education in Mohammadan countries, to extend its sphere, and to combine it with an intelligent study of modern jurisprudence” (emphasis added, all references from the book published by Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 2007).
In the last week of December 1930, Iqbal gave his Allahabad address. He declared that “Islam, regarded as an ethical ideal plus a certain kind of polity — by which expression I mean a social structure regulated by a legal system and animated by a specific ethical ideal — has been the chief formative factor in the life-history of the Muslims of India.” Then he added: “Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that India is perhaps the only country in the world where Islam, as a people-building force, has worked at its best.” Since no Islamic theocracy was ever established by the Muslims in India, Iqbal could only be extolling their secular traditions.
After proposing a Muslim state in the north-western part of India, Iqbal dispelled the “Hindus’ fear that the creation of autonomous Muslim states will mean the introduction of a kind of religious rule in such states”. He then approvingly referred to a newspaper comment to the effect the Indian Muslim states did not ban interest and offered it as an example of “the character of a Muslim state”. This is secularism.
One should like to suggest a fresh interpretation of the Allama’s lectures and his Allahabad address. He may well emerge as a strong Islamic defender of secularism.
While the common people of Pakistan have no reason to share the ashrafiya’s fears of secularism they have every reason to dread the anti-secularism lobby. The “principal institutions of a secular society” listed by Altaf Gauhar are: the elected legislature, the judiciary, and the press”. (Battle of Ideas)
It is quite clear that all these institutions have to bear with one another. The Supreme Court can never sack parliament or the media, nor will parliament ever be foolish or strong enough to abolish the Supreme Court or the media. But the extremist militants that are being reared by anti-secular elements, if they ever capture the state, will almost surely pack off parliament, the Supreme Court and the media into oblivion. The choice before the people of Pakistan has never been clearer.