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Clergy and modernity

Pakistan, a skewed mix of modernity and tradition

Clergy and modernity

Prior to the French Revolution of 1789, France had a unique socio-political structure, comprising clergy, nobility and the third estate with over-arching supervisory authority vested in the king. The impact of the French Revolution had its resonance in most of Europe.

Arguably, the real difference between medieval and modern social formation(s) lies in the subsumption of religion into the all-encompassing structure of the state, which underwent a radical transformation in the 19th century. The third estate was represented by affluent merchants, traders and professionals, who wanted to be a part of the state’s decision-making process. This triggered the process of revolution that limited the political and social powers of the nobility, clergy and monarchy, particularly that of the clergy which was controlling the process of thought.

Every aspect of social life was substantially transformed.

Many Western European societies as a consequence saw the emergence of a vibrant public sphere which was additionally stimulated by the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. The exclusivity between state and society, the hallmark of the medieval era, was dissipated and the public sphere came to exercise pressure on the state — which was indicative that the heydays of clergy were over.

With colonialism, these changes started making their way into North India, particularly the areas that became Pakistan. Hence, the assertion that much of the post-colonial socio-political ethos is the colonial legacy cannot be totally ruled out.

Dr Faisal Devji, a historian from the Oxford University, goes on to contend that even the religious sensibility and its demonstration has been largely punctuated by the action/re-action to the thought processes that were a creation of the colonial dispensation.

In the following lines, much of my emphasis will be on the two classes namely the landed aristocracy (like European nobility) and the clergy, which are extremely important because of their seminal role in galvanising the socio-political trajectory in Pakistan.

During the second half of the 19th century, the landed aristocracy was facing challenges from the fast-emerging mercantile class, demonised by the reports and gazetteers of the British officers. A landed aristocracy was re-imposed by the British through the Land Alienation Act (1900-01) on the population of Punjab. Their hold was consolidated further by the Court of Wards Act and the law of primogeniture (according to that law the property was inherited only by the oldest son, an inherently European practice).

Hence, the principles of the laissez-faire economy, which advocate the state’s non-interference in any economic/financial transaction, were set to rest. Through the Court of Wards Act, the dwindling jagirs were provided a prop by management wizards (civil servants), such as Malcolm Hailey (he became the governor of Punjab in 1920s), who bailed out the Kalra, the jagir of Tiwanas.

Omar Hayat Khan Tiwana, when he was orphaned at a tender age, was brought up under the watchful eyes of the British administrators.

Similarly, the landed elite of Multan were saved from destitution through the Court of Wards.

The argument which I am trying to put forward is that the class of landed aristocracy was a British creation. The Mughals had Mansabdars which were far from the feudals in overall context. One can equate Mansabdar with modern day bureaucrats — their control over the jagirs accorded to them was neither permanent nor an ancestral property.

Importantly, one must not confuse the category of the “feudal” with the landed aristocrats of the modern day subcontinent. The feudal had been a European category and it had autonomous existence vis-à-vis the state, quite unlike our zamindar class, which generally is tied to the apron strings of the district administration. All said and done, the zamindars have a very strong presence in the Pakistani political arena and that class is likely to sustain itself for many years to come. Radical alteration in the political structures is direly needed to rationalise their role in Pakistani polity.

Far more important than the landed aristocrats are the clergy which secured a sizable niche in the public sphere during the colonial rule. From the 19th century onwards, clerics were privileged over the Sufi pirs (Sajjada Nashins). Thus the reins of religious authority were passed on to the clerics, Sufi pirs being divested of that privilege in the new dispensation. The Ulema or clerics are a modern phenomenon, who have kept on trying to legitimise themselves by harking back to tradition, to do which they have employed the instruments of modernity. With the selective appropriation of modernity, clerics became a force to be reckoned with by the start of the 20th century.

Ironically, the Ulema followed a pattern of castigating any new invention before adopting it wholeheartedly. The technology of print in particular proved to be a handy instrument in spawning their influence among the Muslim literati. Religious discourse was transformed decisively as it switched to literate from oral. Leaflets, pamphlets or booklets were used by the Ulema, more than any other section of contemporary society. That was the huge impact that modernity had cast over the way the religion came to articulate itself.

Then loudspeaker became an integral part of the mosque or any religious gathering. Audio, video-cassettes or CDs are used profusely to disseminate the religious message.

The religious parties and groups started organising themselves differently. They started employing logic to prove the veracity of even the metaphysical dimensions of religion. The politics of religion had centred on agitation (of one kind or the other, like Khilafat movement, anti Ahmadi Movement or anti Salman Rushdie agitation etc.). One may contend that such agitation and the manner in which it is expressed is essentially modern.

The current state of Pakistan therefore is a skewed project of modernity which is constantly asserting its basis in tradition.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

One comment

  • Hassan Mujtaba

    The British engineered feudal Lords using the religion to protect their illegitimate hold on the country ,the Clergy is supporting them.The regulatory bodies are in their control. They have become the apostle of ignorance, because their kith and are studying in foreign countries they are not bother in the Education common folk .So ignorance is the Slogan of the day.

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