‘Except for a tiny portion of Muslims called Jihadists, who resemble the Klu Klux Klan, the vast majority of Muslims are not a political, civilizational or a demographic threat to the West.’
‘Muslim modernists argue that modernity with its emphasis on reason, human rights, liberal democracy and tolerance of pluralism are inherently Islamic attributes and to follow these today in Pakistan is merely to reclaim an Islamic heritage that has historically enriched the world.’
‘On the other hand, Islamists or revivalists hold the opposing view. They view modernity with suspicion seeing it not only as a western concept which threatens Muslim values, but also as a sinister attempt by western powers to dilute and weaken Islam.’
By Javed Amir
Before we discuss Islam and modernity in Pakistan the prior question is whether Islam as one of the great Abrahamic religions of the world followed by about 1.6 billion people on this planet, is itself compatible with modernity. The attacks of 9/11 by Al Qaeda on civilians in New York and Washington followed by terrorist attacks by the ISIS on innocent people in Europe has intensified this debate about the very nature of Islam and its role in the modern world.
Most western writers and journalists see Islam through the lens of Al Qaeda and ISIS and think of the Islamic world as a backward, violent monolith. The truth is quite different. Except for a tiny portion of Muslims called Jihadists, who resemble the Klu Klux Klan, the vast majority of Muslims are not a political, civilizational or a demographic threat to the West.
Therefore, it must be appreciated at the very outset that there has been a struggle going on within Islam for a long time on the question of reforming it. The same is true of Pakistan where both before and after its creation in 1947 an unresolved debate continues between the modernist reformers and Islamists/revivalists who want to recreate a pure Islamic utopia of the 7th century CE.
The modernists argument
The Pakistani modernists argue that Islam is a liberal religion as many periods in its past history amply demonstrate. To name a few: the Abbasid civilization in Baghdad of the 9th and 10th centuries which saw a golden age of a multi-national state under Haroon al Rashid of the thousand and one nights fame; the multicultural and multilingual Moorish civilization in Spain from 8th to roughly 15th centuries where world renowned scholars like Averroes (Ibn Rushd) whose commentaries on Aristotle and the Persian born Avicenna (Ibne Sina) whose work on medicine with its solid scientific basis remained in use well into the modern age; the Ottoman empire which lasted almost seven centuries and in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries initiated a comprehensive process of reform and modernization known as the Tanzimat and finally the Mughal empire covering today’s India and Pakistan, which lasted from 15th to 18th centuries.
Akbar the Great who ruled for over 50 years, established a new cult, the Din-e Ilahi (“divine faith”), which combined elements of many religions, including Islam, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. Surprisingly his son Jahangir was born of a Hindu mother.
In the 20th century, the strongest force of modernity in Islam was the emergence of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. He embraced all things modern and turned the Aya Sofia mosque into a library.
A recent book by Christopher de Bellaigue, a British journalist and historian of the middle east titled “The Islamic Enlightenment: The modern struggle between Reason and Faith” points out how after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 prominent writers, doctors, generals and sultans in Cairo, Istanbul and Teheran embraced modern thought and technology in the early 19th century with gusto while remaining good Muslims.
In view of this past history, Muslim modernists argue that modernity with its emphasis on reason, human rights, liberal democracy and tolerance of pluralism are inherently Islamic attributes and to follow these today in Pakistan is merely to reclaim an Islamic heritage that has historically enriched the world.
On the other hand, Islamists or revivalists hold the opposing view. They view modernity with suspicion seeing it not only as a western concept which threatens Muslim values, but also as a sinister attempt by western powers to dilute and weaken Islam. They would, therefore, like to see an Islamic republic of Pakistan based on sharia, sunnah and the Quran and recreate a pure Islamic Khalifate like the Khalifa-i-Rashideen, which existed for 30 years in the 7th century CE in Arabia.
Tug of war
This tug of war between the orthodox and the modernist Muslims started even before the birth of Pakistan in 1947. The modernist Muslims fought two parallel struggles: one of winning independence from the British colonists; and two, to awaken the downtrodden population who lived in the decadent glory of the past.
The orthodox clergy, on the other hand, opposed not only the idea of Pakistan but they also treated Islam as an “opium for the masses” to use a classical Marxian term.
Around 1860 a Muslim rationalist and reformer by the name of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan emerged who understood that after the brutal repression of the great rebellion of 1857 by the British, a Muslim renaissance was vital for the socioeconomic progress of the community. He rejected literal interpretation of the Quran and favored Muslims to engage in higher education and scientific inquiries.
However, the mullahs of the subcontinent and their religious network built a counter movement of rejecting that effort presenting modern education in conflict with Islamic ideals. To counter the mullahs and liberate Muslims from this deadly embrace Sir Syed and his colleagues established a modern educational institution the MAO college later to become the historic Aligarh university in 1875. This university became a beacon for the Indian Muslim elite who sought progress in life and was the alma mater of the fledgling Muslim political leadership in the subcontinent. This university was primarily aimed at preparing the Muslim elite become part of the new ruling class. It did not aim at the middle or lower-class Muslims. This blind spot came to haunt Pakistan’s leaders later on.
In-step with the modern world
It was around the 1920s that the poet-philosopher Mohammed Iqbal and the practical politician Mohammed Ali Jinnah, beneficiaries of the cultural climate created by Sir Syed Ahmed fifty years ago, got together and moved the struggle forward. Iqbal was first to conceive the idea of Pakistan as a separate homeland for Muslims along with a message of hope, change, empowerment and general awakening among Muslims. He wanted to recapture the glory of Islamic civilization not by passive day-dreaming but by walking step-in-step with the modern world. In his seminal 7 lectures on the “Reconstruction of Islamic Thought” which he delivered between 1924 and 1930, Iqbal tried to analyze and make religious experience understandable to the modern man.
Being a great admirer of Bergson, Nietzsche and Rumi, in his final lecture Iqbal raised important questions for contemporary times like “Is religion possible?”
Once again the literalist conservative Ulema of the subcontinent declared him a heretic when, for instance, he wrote that “heaven and hell are not localities but states of mind”, echoing Milton’s “paradise lost’ where Satan taunts god with the line that “the mind is in its own place it can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.”