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Engaging with Islam

Contribution of Pakistani intellectuals to Islamic political thought

Engaging with Islam
— Photo by Banaras Khan / AFP

Islam, as a system of governance, and its potential capacity to deal with the substantive issues which emanate from the modern political discourse, has been within the scholarly gaze since 9/11. It goes without saying that Western academe is the epicentre of such cogitation.

An additional question of importance is the lack of a centralised system of authority, and thus competing claims for religious authority in various branches of Islam.

The answers to questions concerning the rights of women, jihad, minority rights and indeed the inter-relationship among different sects are predicated on the possibility of finality in decision-making. However, without any inherent institutional hierarchy, Islam is presented with a problem that no decision is necessarily ultimate. These issues are being unraveled in some Western universities with academic thoroughness.

One may argue that, in this day and age, Muslim political thought is bound to take a definitive position on these issues. By dealing with these crucial questions only Islam as a system can match up to the modern dispensation with the West as its locus. Thus, many scholars engaged with this set of problems have a Muslim bearing but are an integral part of Western academia and address an international audience in a language and idiom amenable to them. Talal Asad, Vali Nasr, Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Anouar Majid, Saba Mehmood, Sadaf Ahmed and Irfan Ahmed are some such scholars.

Another scholar, whom I consider important because of his engagement with the Islamic political theory, is Mumtaz Ahmed. Such a meticulous scholar is an asset. But it seems we are not tapping that resource properly. Bizarrely enough, he is cited profusely in international conferences and seminars but, while working at Islamic International University Islamabad, in Pakistani academic circles he is conspicuous by his absence. He did his PhD from the University of Chicago, and hence he owes his scholarship clearly to the Western academia.

All these experts have earned their position because they have the opportunity to operate in a space where free intellectual interaction is possible. Such a liberal space is vital for the advancement of any learning.

Among non-Muslim scholars, Wael Hallaq stands out for his scholarly work on Islamic law. He is both immensely prolific and profound. His writings lay bare the structural dynamics of legal change in pre-modern law, and he more recently has asserted ‘the central role of moral theory for understanding the history of Islamic law.’ His most exhaustive work to date, Sharia: Theory, Practice, Transformations, has been much applauded. It represents a pioneering attempt at introducing theory into the field of Islamic legal studies.

The irony, however, is that hardly any such deliberations appear to be visible in Muslim academia and, despite all the sound and fury against much of the supposedly anti-Islamic elements, nothing of the sort is happening in Pakistan.

These scholars, and certainly not those known to us as ulema, have the means, the contemporary tools, to lead us out of the current difficulties. It is a great pity that the interpretation of matters concerning religion has been left entirely to ulema. Though the likes of Abu Ammar Zahid al-Rashidi, the president of a leading Deobandi madrassa in Gujranwala, espouse the idea of involving the non-ulema in Islamic legal discussion, majority of them feel quite the opposite. They seriously consider it their preserve to decide on anything pertaining to Islamic law or jurisprudence.

But, hypothetically speaking, even if scholars from both sides are ready to sit together, their worldview, vocabulary, epistemic background and even idiom is so divergent that a fruitful interaction would be highly unlikely.

More importantly, in Pakistan, the ambience is not conducive for an open debate on outstanding issues. Biases and bigotry rule the roost, and the space for dispassionate deliberation is pushed to a breaking-point. In such a scenario, scholars and academics with expertise on classical branches of knowledge and equipped with contemporary tools of analysis should be our safest bet.

Unfortunately, at home, the institutional support required to produce capable scholarship with requisite insight into the religious matters has dried out. The resulting total absence of meaningful engagement with the issues at hand is a sad reflection on our academic milieu.

Consequently, though with a sense of dismay, one has to accept the bitter truth that the capacity of Pakistani intellectuals has been rendered incapable, for the last three decades.

The question worth asking is why the loci of such enterprise are Western academic institutions?

Even in India, as revealed by Qasim Zaman in his brilliant book Modern Islamic Thought in Radical Age, institutions like Islamic Fiqh Academy of India exhibits a vibrancy we lack. It seeks, as Zaman states, to provide a legal forum to scholars of different religious orientations. Founded in 1989, ‘central to the professed goals of the academy is efforts to thrash out solutions to the problems arising from the changing circumstances in different walks of life and to address them in “a modern and contemporary idiom” in the light of what are taken to be the overarching purposes of the Sharia’.

Do we have any such institutions? Even if we have any, what exactly has it produced?

For the resolution of religious issues of such nature, a liberal space is the greatest pre-condition. So, if any resolution of these contentious problems is possible, it is by Muslim scholars in the Western academia. In any ideological and narrowly-defined religious space, no creative act can ever come to pass.

Tahir Kamran

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


  • “The irony, however, is that hardly any such deliberations appear to be visible in Muslim academia and, despite all the sound and fury against much of the supposedly anti-Islamic elements, nothing of the sort is happening in Pakistan.”

    of course there isn’t. over here we are more focused with finding the name “Allah” written in the clouds, on trees, and inside fruits.

  • Lack of tolerance resulting from lack of knowledge. Lack of knowledge resulting from lack of tolerance. Its a cycle in which we are moving we have to break it by breaking the ego

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