Political theology and literature

—Ahmad Ali Khalid

The surrender of religious interpretation to reactionary clerics has opened a vacuum for conservatives and violent extremists to thrive. There are few clerics in Pakistan who have made any authoritative study into human rights theory and philosophy and translated this successfully to the public sphere at large

The exchange and competition of ideas happens through mediums, they do not appear in a social vacuum and literature is one of the most important mediums for the propagation of ideas.

It is clear that the major genre of literature in Pakistan is of a religious nature. Pakistani liberals cannot shy away from the fact that religion defines the consciousness of the people. The radicalisation of Pakistani society by religious groups producing, on a mass scale, literature about politics and civic values such as the validity of tolerance underlies this fact even further. People in Pakistan do read; what they read is of a religious nature and the use of language is cosmic not secular. The growing phenomenon of jihadi cyber media and publications further illustrates how radicals and extremists can tap into this religious sentimentality to further their discourse of political theology.

The answer lies in the language and the importance of critical and rigorous engagement with the religious traditions of Islam. Political ideology is concerned with goals and visions and the method to achieve them. It is quintessentially a normative thought process, discussing how things ought to be. It is a disparate and diverse corpus and tradition of thought, with excursions in multiple domains of human activity and intellectual endeavour whether it is science or economics. Hence, it is markedly different from political theology. Political theology is the interaction of political philosophy and faith; it is where a framework of scriptural hermeneutics defines political ethics and morality.

Hence, the whole conceptual scheme of pitting ‘conservative Islamists’ with ‘progressive liberal secularists’ is a false one. There are liberal Islamists, conservative Islamists and radical Islamists. Since Islamism in itself is an expression of political theology, it can have various persuasions, for instance the Tunisian Rashid al-Ghannouchi is considered a liberal Islamist, while the AKP Party in Turkey is considered Islamist but has introduced multiple democratic and social transformations that can be seen as liberal. Hence it can be quite alienating to many Muslim communities to equivocate Islamism with violent extremism. Be that as it may, conservative proponents of political theology are more media savvy, mobile and tend to be better at communicating their ideas to societies at large from the grassroots up than their liberal and reformist counterparts.//

On the question of why, in Pakistan, there is no viable mainstream discourse of liberal political theology, the answer remains that the Left and liberals, while lamenting the loss of the secular paradise Jinnah was meant to have propagated, have abdicated and surrendered religious discourse to the conservatives. Pakistani governments have always made concessions to accommodate the religious right in all matters, including the repeal of discriminatory laws. The surrender of religious interpretation to reactionary clerics has opened a vacuum for conservatives and violent extremists to thrive. There are few clerics in Pakistan who have made any authoritative study into human rights theory and philosophy, argued for a liberal position of respecting rights in terms of equality and discriminatory practices and translated this successfully to the public sphere at large.

Whereas conservatives frequently publish pamphlets and manuals denouncing concepts such as human rights and democracy, arguing for a crass cultural and ethical relativism, liberals have been trying to accommodate this rather than directly challenging the weak religious foundations of this political theology. In Pakistan the puritanical strains of religious tradition are dictating political norms and they remain unchallenged in terms of counter liberal political theologies. It is no good to simply quote a few Quranic verses and have a piecemeal application and utilitarian use of religious rhetoric to combat this phenomenon; a deep and critical engagement with the religious tradition is needed to produce new hermeneutical, ethical and political frameworks. This can only be done through the printed word.

For Pakistani liberals to have a truly transformational effect, they need to speak in the religious idiom and bring to the table a rigorous and charismatic theology of liberality. It is critical to talk about the arts, Urdu literature and the humanities but not as a hope that it will act as a creative buffer against radicalisation. The real buffer against terrorism with a religious impulse is a culture of religious tolerance and pluralism borne out of a unique theology of liberality in combination with these aforementioned disciplines.//

Examples of liberal theology, the use of the religious tradition to cultivate democratic sensibilities and cherishment of tolerance and diversity do exist among Muslim intellectuals. Unfortunately, their presence is being felt mainly in traditionally non-Muslim societies in the US and Europe. There is an issue of outspoken religious liberals being exiled or forced out from their own countries due to their writings such as Nasr Abu Zayd in Egypt, Abdul Karim Soroush in Iran or the late Professor Fazlur Rahman in Pakistan. These are the theologians and religious intellectuals who call for greater democracy, tolerance and pluralism, but do so from within the religious tradition which is why their voices are more potent than say the secular left who try and locate these same concepts but in a foreign idiom. That is not to say that one should reject an idea on the basis of its origin. However, this is the reality of social and political discourse in Muslim societies.

Conservatives and the right cannot alone determine social, political or cultural norms, since they have a second hand and superficial grasp of the complex and interconnected issues associated with the establishment of such norms. Hence, there is a requirement for Muslim intellectuals in other traditions to contribute to the process of religious interpretation. In short, a reintroduction of critical rationalism back into the jurisprudential and ethical-legal traditions of Islam has been one of the defining contours of the projects of these intellectuals.

In short, liberals need to break the monopoly conservatives have over religious discourse in Pakistan. Liberals and progressives should not concede religious discourse to conservatives. Rather, they should reclaim the arena of religious interpretation and challenge these conservative political theologies. In order to move from the fanaticism and intolerance that brings about so much bloodshed, we can draw on our own religious traditions, such as the Prophet’s (PBUH) saying, “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” Moving from jihad to ijtihad is needed to shape a religiosity that endorses rationalism, pluralism and diversity.//

The writer is a student at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England

Advertisements

11 Comments

Filed under Pakistan

11 responses to “Political theology and literature

  1. Raza

    Excellent article and reinforces the points which I made in my article “How Reluctance to Debate Religion Has Resulted in a Total Quagmire”

    I will quote the following

    “In Pakistan the puritanical strains of religious tradition are dictating political norms and they remain unchallenged in terms of counter liberal political theologies. It is no good to simply quote a few Quranic verses and have a piecemeal application and utilitarian use of religious rhetoric to combat this phenomenon; a deep and critical engagement with the religious tradition is needed to produce new hermeneutical, ethical and political frameworks. This can only be done through the printed word.”

  2. Anwar

    Good writeup.
    I also noticed that the liberal discourse in most Muslim countries is reactionary and rebellious in nature and that is why it has not succeeded in penetrating the shell that the conservatives have been able to shroud the people with.
    A paradigm shift in the liberal thinking is needed to develop alternate strategies to counter extremism from within.

  3. Mustafa Shaban

    Good article… a reform in religious thought is very much needed.

  4. An Ahmadi Muslim

    ” Moving from jihad to ijtihad is needed to shape a religiosity that endorses rationalism, pluralism and diversity.//” and
    @ Raza “……This can only be done through the printed word.”

    In other word, a Jihad of pen is being endorsed. Ahmadies agree whole heartedly.

    “Many take up the pen, but few are granted the spirit to conduct the Jihad in the most acceptable manner. Many wish to take up the pen, but their incorrect beliefs and lack of knowledge prevent them from doing so, and thus they drop back into a state of undeclared truce. But, it is the Jama’at Ahmadiyya only which has not stopped this great struggle ever since its inception and it has become the only vehicle to usher in the revival of Islam through its peaceful, yet determined intellectual process which was initiated a century ago by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, the Promised Messiah and Mahdi in Islam.” from http://www.alislam.org/library/links/00000064.html

  5. An Ahmadi Muslim

    Dear moderator,

    By moderating my IP you defeat the stated mission of PTH which includes propogation of freedom of thought as well as freedom of expression.

    Your true conscience should make you fearless of being labeled a “Qadiani collaborator’, if you are not one.

    Peace!

  6. An Ahmadi Muslim

    @ Mustafa Shaban
    “Good article… a reform in religious thought is very much needed.”

    Just some food for thought. A reform does not happen on its own without a leader or a reformer.

  7. Hayyer

    The argument implies that Pakistan’s political discourse must be anchored in religion. If it is, and I don’t see how it cannot be if the premise is accepted, then questions of political, social economic life will have to be argued with reference to the sunna, the hadith and of course the Quran.
    Liberal Muslim politicians will have to undergo courses in Islamic theology if they are to debate the Ulema and that will certainly entitle them to the status of Alims themselves even if like Javed Ahmad Ghamdi they are denied the distinction because they have not earned a degree that entitles them to it.
    But if political leaders are to conduct and practice a faith based political discourse how can there be more than one political party-unless separate political parties representing differing Islamic schools come up and compete with each other. That would lead to religious anarchy and social upheaval, if not religious fratricide, because faith dictates revolt against government promoting kufr. The situation would be as bad as it is now, if not worse.

    Indonesia and Malaysia are trying to run a secular sort of system but the faith constantly intrudes. Once faith comes in, even if through the back door it cannot but take over.

    I understand why it is so important to invoke Jinnah in the liberalization of Pakistan; there is no other way. I read today that Ghamdi has left Pakistan because of threats to his life. What does that say about the chances of other like minded reformers of Pakistani politics. A survey published in Dawn yesterday said that 46% of Pakistanis want an Islamic party to rule. That does not mean MMA types necessarily. But there is a majority in Pakistan against the idea of religion in politics.
    The distinction between state and church has to be hammered in, by ‘liberal fanatics’ if necessary. There is no other way.

    If all

  8. Mustafa Shaban

    True, Pakistan needs a leader and reformer as a whole. But when it comes to reinterpreting Islam, then it needs to be done with a consensus of scholars. These would be young progressive scholars of Islam. It can be done. Reorganizing religious thought and bringing change to a nation are done differently. In Pakistans case both are needed.

  9. If you haven’t come across it yet, check out my blog, the “Political Theology Agenda”:

    http://www.political-theology.com

    Cheers

  10. Farukh Sarwar

    Our religion was never a narrowed streak that was so hard to follow, but unfortunately the discourses of a hand full of hate mongers have corrupted the minds of a number of people; thanks God the percentage of the ones believing in a conservative version of Islam is very less compared to the liberals, but the later group is dormant and never opposes the former in open forums. This needs to change, because if we want a positive change in our society, we need to tell these extremists that we don’t want your teachings.

  11. Dear Pak Tea House

    In response to Mr. Kofmel’s spam/post as a comment above- you and readers of your blog should be aware that Mr. Kofmel is an
    internationally wanted internet fraudster on the run from the police.
    For independent press verification of the same, and to watch a BBC documentary about the same, visit our website above. Please drop me a line if you need any further information whatsoever.