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Pakistan: The Wages of Orthodoxy

Monday 9 September 2019, by siawi3


The Wages of Orthodoxy – I

Parvez Mahmood examines some of the places where Muslim communities have been hit hardest by rigid attitudes

by Parvez Mahmood

June 14, 2019

Photo: A Gutenberg Bible, today in the New York Public Library

The dictionary meaning of orthodoxy is to “follow or conform to the traditional or generally accepted rules or beliefs of a religion, philosophy, or practice.†More than actual actions, it is an attitude and a way of life.

The implications of this mindset are characterised by a set of failures. There is failure to innovate, failure to progress, failure to lead, failure to educate, failure to achieve. Orthodoxy generates failures, retards intellectual growth and bears no benefits.

Many Muslim communities have been mired in orthodoxy for the last few centuries. By the time the Mongols appeared on the scene in early 13th century, the great centres of Muslim learning and civilization – Samarkand, Bokhara, Rey, Nishapur, Merv, Baghdad – were already in decline. Arch-conservatives, who became strengthened in the very early era of the Muslim Caliphate and were patronized by many a ruler, held back the full potential of progress in rational thinking and liberal philosophy in Spain and Khorasan. The Mongols, however, put an end to the Islamic civilization – or at least the eastern half of it – and ushered a long spell akin to the Dark Age of Europe. Today in many ways, the progress of Islamic thought is stuck in the 13th century and the Muslims have not been able to break free from the stranglehold of their clergy – who claim the right to dominate and control every aspect of their lives. Indulging in rational thought in Muslim societies was never easy in the face of some authoritative figures even during the age of remarkable achievements. Now, however, putting forward any opinion, thought or suggestion to adjust our practices with proven scientific discoveries and align our lives with modern concepts of justice, human rights and compassion raises mortal dangers from religiously inspired youth and makes one culpable under prevalent laws. This legal and social environment holds the society back in pursuing scholarship and research. The clergies in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as indeed in Pakistan and India, seek total conformity, as such.

A map of South East Asia from 1728 – part of the first printed book of maps and drawings to appear in the Muslim world

This article will discuss some aspects of Muslim society where the orthodox has severely arrested social progress.

One clear and criminal case of orthodoxy in history, and the one for which the Muslims paid a heavy price, is the late adoption of the printing press by Muslim peoples. Gutenberg developed his printing press in 1439 in Germany. Within a few decades, printing presses had been established in hundreds of cities all over Western Europe. By 1500, 20 million volumes had been printed. This was 25 years before the Mughal Babur established his dynasty in Delhi and before the birth of the Ottoman Sulaiman the Magnificent. Within another century, when Akbar lay on his deathbed, the estimated number of copies of books had risen to about 200 million in Europe. This number is greater than the European population at that time. By comparison at that time there were only a few thousand hand-written books in the entire Muslim world.

Tragically, the Mughals did not establish a single printing press in their vast domains during their entire rule though they had extensive contact with European powers and must have been aware of the technology and its product. We know that the Ottoman clergy opposed the printing presses because they realized that they could not control, regulate and censor the dissemination of knowledge. Despite ruling a large part of Europe, where this technology was proliferating, the Ottomans did not allow printing presses in their land till 1729; a delay of a full 290 years. According to Şükrü Hanioğlu in A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire only 142 books were published up till 1838 in Ottoman lands, because the State and the Clergy were scrutinizing each book proposed for printing. The relative decline of natural and social sciences, and technologies in Muslims lands was therefore imminent.

Image: Depiction of a printing press in use, 1568

The progress of education in the West can be gauged from the observations of Abu Talib ‘Londonee’ of Lukhnow, so named because he visited London in 1799-1803 and wrote his experiences in his travelogue titled Sair-i-Talibi. He found that the town of Oxford had 16 colleges, each having a library with over a hundred thousand books. This was at a time when India had yet to have a single press, except the ones installed by the British and the Portuguese in their forts and trading houses in Goa, Madras, Bombay and Hoogly.

It is a glaring contrast that it was the Western clergy that often promoted printing by having the Biblical scriptures published so as to spread knowledge of Christianity whereas the Muslim clergy opposed it because they felt that Islam was somehow threatened by letting people publish their intellectual output. However, this is not an isolated occurrence. We know that the European Church devotedly patronized painting and sculpturing whereas the Muslim clergy often opposed it vehemently.

[( Despite ruling a large part of Europe, where this technology was proliferating, the Ottomans did not allow printing presses in their land till 1729; a delay of a full 290 years)]

Was such opposition to the printing press theologically grounded? The Quran asks of its followers in Surah 39:9: “Are those who know and those who do not know equal?†Personally I have never heard any khateeb, zakir, mufti, allama or alim recite and explain this verse to their listeners because it does not fit well with their message of rigidity. Muslims will be mired in mediocrity, poverty and ignorance unless they pay attention to the Quranic injunctions exhorting them to education and learning.

[(In fact, we see an abiding pattern since the Renaissance that Muslims have often been averse to a new scientific development, and accept it belatedly when crucial time has been lost and technical advantage has been ceded to the West. The clergy is in the forefront of this attitude and the general public has blindly followed their obdurate myopic dictates. When the technology becomes widespread and its benefits become evident, the clergy adopts it readily. In the case of printing presses, the number of Islamic books and literature being published these days in the Muslims’ lands rivals that of science-related books. Our clergy was opposed to loud speakers but now cannot live without them. Not far in the past, they were against photographs and movies but now they do not tire of being featured on print and electronic media. They record cassettes and CDs, and have Youtube and Facebook pages like the rest of us. They conveniently forget that they were opposed to all such developments.

Legislative efforts to restrict early marriages in Pakistan have met with opposition from hardline conservative voices

The muftis and ulema continue to lag behind on issues as diverse as artificial insemination, surrogate mothering, organ donation, LGBT rights and abortion. Luckily, we are now hearing muffled voices in support of some of these issues. The Pulpit will eventually understand the wisdom of human rights, individual choices and medical compulsions related to these subjects. It has always been a matter of time and money before the clergy turns around. Unfortunately, as we have learned from history, those who do not adopt technology and change will it have it rammed down their throats by those who do.

In essence, we have shackled our youth. We are holding their potential in fetters. Freedom of thought is a prerequisite for any kind of progress. We have placed obstacles on their ability to think. Things have reached such a dire state that not only in the social sciences, but we find clerics dictating even what ought to be taught in the hard sciences – phsyics, chemisty and biology. Students are often given the message that all scientific laws are based on religious teachings and revelations. A true scientific message would be that every scientific law and theory is open to scientific challenge. If students in our classrooms are taught that the laws discovered and theories proposed by Newton, Faraday, Darwin and Einstein flow from the eternal Scriptures quoted at the beginning of their course book, then they cannot develop the capacity of asking questions. They would be fearful of the sword of blasphemy in stating anything that causes a backward hint of doubt. Common sense laments, “What is science without questions, scepticism and doubts?â€

Image: Mughal noble with scholars, a 17th-century depiction

Let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind that progress will only come through liberal education. The conservatives in Pakistan have made the word “liberal†a stigma. We need to let our youth understand that a liberal education does not threaten our religion. We should not even think that our divine religion, whose protection Allah has taken upon Himself, can be threatened by new discoveries and technologies.

On some of the critical social issues, our general stand remains anchored in antiquity and moored in anachronistic believes. One of these is women’s rights. Conservative Muslims are not as baffled on any issue as they are on this. Confusing science, myths and social customs, their stance on women’s rights is at times embarrassing. For instance, the Muslims of India constitute the only large group in the world that violently takes to the street to exclude their sisters and daughters from rights and protections granted to women by the courts. One case in particular, famously known as the Shah Bano Case, stands out – where the courts found themselves under fierce criticism for mandating that a well-to-do husband to support his divorced wife and children. Justice Markandey Katju’s recent article in the Daily Times is of great relevance on the social attitude of Indian Muslims.
Printing press in the Late Ottoman Empire

[( The Western clergy often promoted printing by having the Biblical scriptures published so as to spread knowledge of Christianity, whereas the Muslim clergy opposed it because they felt that Islam was somehow threatened by letting people publish their intellectual output)]

The recent sorry sight of some Pakistani federal ministers and legislatures vowing to block legislation on minimum age for marriage is really disconcerting. It is sad that our national political leaders are opposed to prohibiting marriage of puberty-age girls. It is especially unfair because these parliamentarians will not let this thing happen in their own families. This oppressive practice is prevalent in the lower middle class who give away their girls in marriage to avoid raising them or to gain monetary benefits. In both cases it is unjust and unfair to the girls, and must be stopped. Allowing girls as young as ten to be married is simply unacceptable in light of current medical knowledge. Coupled with malnutrition, their bodies are not developed enough to bear the rigours of child bearing or of taking on the physically exacting workload of running a house. Socially, it robs these girls of their childhood and education.

It is not right on any count, yet we can hear religious leaders and some of the conservative politicians take a stand against legislation to end this ugly practice.



The Wages of Orthodoxy – II

Parvez Mahmood examines some of the places where Muslim communities have been hit hardest by rigid attitudes

by Parvez Mahmood

June 21, 2019

The Shahbano Case is seen by some as pitting Indian Muslim orthodoxy against a uniform legal code

In the preceding part of this piece, I had argued that unless our attitudes change, we will remain trapped in a social milieu which properly belongs in centuries gone by. We have seen how orthodoxy is not simply about “religion†, but that conservative clergy and intellectuals can mobilize religious concepts in defence of the old, the decaying and the unjustifiable.

Some of the most intractable issues raised by rigid religious-social orthodoxy in relation to our daily life are surveyed in this article.

Our record on women’s rights is abysmal. It often seems that our orthodox clergy have a special interest in matters where freedom and justice for women is involved. They just wouldn’t allow it. Our practices and legislation on child marriages have been outrageous but there are other issues as well where the social customs have not moved beyond practices of pre-modern times. One case is of inheritance for women. The general traditions of our society discourage giving a fair inheritance to women – in some cases going as far as the sacrilegious practice of “marrying†women to the Holy Book! We need to move beyond the tendency to justify ancient attitudes by putting a religious spin on them. Quite simply, the property shares of women have to be brought in line with universally accepted standards of justice.

[( Parliament is the best place for enacting laws on the issue of inheritance. It cannot be left to orthodox rigid muftis who have arrogated the right of interpretation of Islamic laws purely to themselves

Then there is the issue of widows’ inheritance. There are a number of households where both husband and wife are educated and employed equally, and both contribute to acquire property. Today, if the property is in the name of the husband, then in case of his death, the wife gets only one fourth of her husband’s property if he was issueless and one eighth if he had children. This distribution has to be discussed in today’s context where women are entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers and supporting their families financially.

Another great tragedy that we inflict upon ourselves is that in case of a divorce, the husband is not bound to share his wealth with the ex-wife. If a husband divorces his wife after, say, twenty years of marriage and she has made sacrifices to build their combined property, she gets no share. To expect that her parents would be living and earning to support her at that stage is completely unfair. It is only fair that instead of settling the matter just by payment of dowry (Haq Mahar) as alimony, the portion of property that has been acquired during the marriage should be divided between the two on an equitable basis. As each such case would present a different situation, the two parties in a divorce should either come to a mutually acceptable division or the matter be settled by court of law. But contrary to this, the way many Indian Muslims behaved during the famous Shahbano Case in India is a matter of shame for all Muslims.

A number of religious political parties in Pakistan came together to oppose pro-women legislation

Considering the complexities of modern life where wives may excel their husbands economically, a more practical and fair system of distribution of inheritance is needed. Modern life has left behind many tribal customs. Family structures that were intact a generation ago have broken down and fresh legal thinking is required to do justice to women.

Parliament is the best place for enacting laws on the issue of inheritance. It cannot be left to orthodox rigid muftis who have arrogated the right of interpretation of Islamic laws purely to themselves. The ratio of 2:1 for sons and daughters in inheritance may have had some rationale in days gone by, but now a principal of parity is needed. For a comparison: let us note that historically, women in Hindu society were discriminated against in every walk of life, but now the Indian Supreme Court has applied the principal of parity for inheritance. Western societies have arrived at far more fair system of distribution of property in case of deaths and divorces. Why should Muslim women be denied this natural right?

The practice of a woman’s testimony being “half†as good as that of a man in financial matters, which I found being implemented in banks in Pakistan, merits no comments. It is a practice that is meaningless at a time when women are increasingly occupying top positions in government, bureaucracy, judiciary and armed forces.

One of the strangest – and most unfortunate – applications of orthodox religious attitudes in Pakistan is around the prosecution of rape cases. In Islamic jurisprudence, consensual sex between non married couples is an offence. But to safeguard against unwarranted interference in others’ personnel matters, Islamic rules require four witnesses who have observed the actual carnal act. However, the application of same principal in case of rapes – as was promulgated by General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime – is absurd and completely against the demands of justice. In case of rape, the “witnesses†would actually be accomplices for not helping the victim at the time of crime. Some of our orthodox religious leaders even disapprove of forensic evidence in rape cases, though it has become the mainstay all over the world. This type of interpretation of Islamic laws by the religious orthodoxy is one reason that the world labels our beliefs as being misogynist. These attitudes are the reason that ratio of convictions for rape in Pakistan is one of the lowest in the world.

The attitudes of religious conservatives towards better practices for dealing with the crime of rape are particularly troubling when seen in the overall context. Pakistan has a horrific record when it comes to protecting women and children. According to a 2017 report in The News, there are on the average 3,000 rape cases per year in Punjab and the conviction rate is only 3%. A 2017 estimate by Madadgar National Helpline reported that 93% women in the country experience some form of violence in public places in their lifetime. An August 2018 report in Dawn states that all the accused in the 144 reported cases of paedophilia that year were on bail. Other reports are equally dismal and pessimistic.

One law promulgated by General Zia to please the orthodoxy, the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance, has been another source of great national anguish. Now, when hearing of a brutal murder, people desperately exclaim, “I hope they don’t get pardoned after paying money.†The courts and administration have now found a way of bypassing this unfortunate legal situation by registering some murder cases under Anti-Terror laws. It is, therefore, time that the nation gets rid of these relics of tribal justice and adopts civilized and equitable laws. This law has become a tool for the rich and the powerful to evade justice. Even Raymond Davis, the CIA agent accused of murdering two innocent people, paid money to evade justice.

Another matter pegged in orthodoxy, and the one that has made us Muslims a laughing stock of the world, is the issue of moon sighting for Islamic festivals. It defies common sense that in this age when we have sent satellites to most planets in the solar system, we continue to depend on visual sighting of moon for Eid and Ramazan. We use watches, as we do, for all religious matters including for prayers, Sehri and Iftar. Why, then, do we need clergy to sight the moon for us, when we could depend on an almanac which is accurate to a fraction of a second?

When we think of the fury with which our religious conservatives today oppose progress on these issues, let us remember that this is nothing new. Without the efforts of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, and many others, Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent would never have attained the economic and political status that they now have. All the reformers of the 19th century, like Ibn Rushd, al-Razi, Tabari and others before them in the Islamic ‘golden age’, had to face the dire opposition of extremist orthodox elements of society.

There is also a misconception that it is the religious classes that are primarily responsible for orthodoxy. That is only part of the problem. I argue that a major issue is that our people have been left in a state of inertia and don’t have the intellectual energy to change. There is an urgent need to struggle for freedom of thought and expression for our youth. The forces that preach conformity with dogmatic ideas harm the development of society. Orthodoxy keeps the people chained to a stagnant way of life where their capabilities and energies wither away.

Nothing short of a mass intellectual awakening can move us out of this morass of orthodoxy and ultra-conservatism.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues.

Group Captain Parvez Mahmood served in Pakistan Air Force on Air Traffic Control, administrative and staff duties. After retiring in 2000, he did his MCS (with a gold medal) and MS in software engineering. He has worked in software industry for 15 years. He has been writing for various magazines.