Stop the free ride for mullahs

Published: September 17, 2010

Why have we allowed the conservative interpretation of religion to dominate discourse?

The current floods in Pakistan have confirmed what some have suspected for years – that the underlying polity in Pakistan is irrevocably inept and dysfunctional. That the citizens of Pakistan have suffered under a broken polity. There is renewed scrutiny and critical commentary on political and social discourse in Pakistan due to the floods. However, there is one area which forever escapes this new found spirit of critical enquiry in the Pakistani media, and that is the issues of religious authority and religious institutions.

Ever since the so called ‘’media revolution’’ in Pakistan, everyone from chat show hosts to columnists have taken aim at the political actors of this country. Unfortunately not all loci of authority is questioned in Pakistan. Clerics, mullahs and madrassas get an easy ride in Pakistan. The media still does not question religious authority and religious institutions by and large, save for a few columnists in print media. With the recent spate of suicide attacks across the country, the same tripe of conspiracy theories resurfaced with blame being laid on the ‘’foreign hand’’. This delusional rant in that sections of the media, politicians and even religious leaders frequently take part in only compounds the issue.

Edward Said, famously in his Reith Lectures for the BBC spoke about the need to question authority. In Pakistan there is a religious exceptionalism, question politicians by all means but do not question the clerics and mullahs. There is a false equivocation in popular Pakistani consciousness that a sophisticated critique of religious authority and clerics is tantamount to blasphemy. We should be mindful of what the Iranian intellectual Abdol Karim Soroush has suggested in his work through his writings on the theory of ‘’Contraction and Expansion of Religious Knowledge.’’

Religion is Divine but religious interpretation is fallible and conducted by error prone human beings. That distinction between religion and religious interpretation needs to be made.

The current radicalism in Pakistan is endemic and rising with new studies and polls suggesting widespread support for puritanical policies and a preference for theocracy over secularism among the youth. The surrender of religious interpretation to reactionary clerics has opened a vacuum for conservatives and violent extremists to thrive. 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. In other Muslim countries such as Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and even among the reformists in Iran a sophisticated religious discourse has been established as part of wider programme for democratization and social reform, we think of the Green Movement in Iran which offers an alternative to the clerical and theocratic religious framework present in Iran, and the ‘’Ankara School’’ of theologians in Turkey along with the AKP, and reformers such as the late Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid.

The new found spirit of critical analysis in the media must squarely and unashamedly turn its attention to religious authority and religious institutions, if it wishes to fulfil its vocation of democratization and critique in our society. We need to ask searching and frank questions about religious authority and religious institutions in Pakistan, rather than shying away and indulging in conspiracy theories.

Soroush famously said that the Taliban and conservative radical religious ideas flourish in societies where there are no religious intellectuals to counter and keep these developments in check. One cannot help but think this is an apt summarisation of Pakistani society.


Ahmad Ali

A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • faraz

    Sectarian and extremist mullahs are allowed to deliver their hate speech while rational scholors like Ghamidi are made to live in exile. Extremists are part of our foreign policy and security doctrine. A common man can do nothing. Recommend

  • Mohammed Abbasi

    Wah! Great Article – but I doubt the so-called free media in Pakistan will dare question the mullahs – in fact any mullahRecommend

  • Khadim Husain

    Mr. Ali Ahmad you are anti-semitism and anti-U.S. perhaps because you are talking against current policies of Anglo-Americans. Please read written on the wall that all Jews and Israeli lobby is running fast to revive Mullah’s, Pirs and Makhdooms. For your info Israeli ambassador visited to grave of Moin ud Din Chishti, Hallbrook (Jew) visited grave at Mulatn with Shah Mahmood Qureshi, F W Patterson (jew) visited Mian Mir and Madhu Lal Husain’s grave, Hillary Clinton (Jew) visited to Bari Imam and there is long list how most fundamentalist Mullah’s are being financed and being provided nationalities of Western countries.
    Taliban is forgotton story and wait for new faces, groups and fanatics being financed today by Govt. of Pakistan and Anglo-Americans would be terrorists of tommorow.
    When you have been provided free dollars without any accountability than breed fanatics and extremists.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    Indeed they have to be questioned ! But not in any way,the “foreign hand” concept can be proven a conspiracy theory.That is the truth.The lack of knowledge and no “critical analysis” about the role that super powers have played till now,compels one to easily accept what main stream media shows.We have to understand that they only care about their national interests.Main stream media is a tool to keep people in shadow.BBC,Fox or CNN won’t show you the truth.We face internal as well as external threats.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    In this article,the picture in the beginning is of some women wearing hijab.Hijab is not the symbol of any extremism.It is Islamic identity.The sense one would get after reading this article is that Hijab is a symbol of extremism.That code of appearance is not any religious misinterpretation.Recommend

  • umair hashmi

    **the Moderate people wants to change the Basic Context of Islam, thats why they are demanding such changes. but unfortunately which will never accomplished.


  • parvez

    An extremely relevant article. I would agree with the comments of Faraz.
    There is something inherently wrong with the Muslim societies both in Pakistan and India as we stand out as religious jingoists.Recommend

  • Callen

    @umair hashmi:
    the moderate as you say it does not mean that we are willing to change the basics for our benefits, rather interpret it in a way that is both acceptable to the majority and humanity. As the Prophet (Peace and blessings be upon him) The majority of my Ummah will never fall into darkness.
    I suspect you would rather take a verse and impose the strictest measures you could think of. Recommend

  • M Mustafa

    لاَ إِكْرَاهَ فِى الدِّينِ There is no compulsion in religion.
    Yet we have death sentence for apostasy.
    The Quran has not prescribed stoning to death for adultery.
    Yet mullas prescribe death by stoning.
    We must constructively criticize and question mullas.Recommend

  • Sadaf.

    A great piece – Raises a very valid question. But truth be told, even on a personal scale, I usually don’t have the guts to question someone who is talking religious practices. Recommend

  • Abeer Khan

    Who decides what is conservative and what is not? Can we not just live in peace without pointing fingers at each other, calling some too modern and others too conservative. We need to develop religious tolerance more than anything.Recommend

  • Isfand

    @Well saidRecommend

  • Isfand

    An absolutly neccessary step

    @Callen well said!Recommend

  • Shumaila

    This reminds me of recent discussions with friends on how reinterpretation of the Quran is so desperately needed in these times – instead of complete reinterpretation even if modifications to extremist theology is made by questioning, probing, debating moderates, the effect would be good enough.

    You are so right when you say liberals and moderates not only do not question religious practices, but also do not even consider it their responsibility to question. That has to change.

    A very relevant, very well-written post.Recommend

  • Ali Ahmad

    Thank you to all who posted the kind and encouraging comments.

    I would argue that in Pakistan like in other Muslim societies like in Turkey, Iran (the reformist intellecutals), Indonesia and Malaysia there has to be a mature discussion about religiosity. A Muslim intellectual (whose name escapes me at the moment) once said that to:

    ”“seek secular answers [within Muslim communities] is simply to abandon the field to the fundamentalists, who will succeed in carrying the vast majority of the population with them by citing religious authority for their policies and theories. Intelligent and enlightened Muslims are therefore best advised to remain within the religious framework and endeavour to achieve the reforms that would make Islam a viable modern ideology.”

    [Secular in this context is meant to mean the absence of religion in public and intellecutal discourse (social secularism) rather than political secularism which is the separation of mosque and State] (See my article, Secularity or secularities?:]

    In the coming posts I hope to show that secularism is not a monlithic concept and rather there are different types of secularism and indeed theologically and religiously speaking a secular state where religious and political institutions are separated is in actual fact a moral arrangement consistent with Islamic teachings. In fact I argue that a contextual reading of Muslim history as illustrated in the works of Abdullahi An Naim (see his Islam and The Secular State), Abdelwahab El-Affendi (Who Needs An Islamic State) and Shaykh Ali Abdel Raziq [called “Islam and the Foundations of Governance” (Al-Islam Wa Usul Al-Hukm)] means that a very strong and credible case can be made. Theologically and morally a good case can be made for a State where religious and political institutions are separated.

    Indeed I have attempted to make this case elsewhere in my articles, ”Letters Concerning Toleration” (3 parts):

    Part I

    Part II

    Part III\18\story18-8-2010pg3_5

    I end with an extended quotation from AbdolKarim Soroush, the eloquent Iranian philosopher (from his lecture Text and Context):

    ””””””The science of religion is relative, that is relative to the presuppositions.The science of religion is age-bound, because presuppositions are.Revealed religion itself may be true and free from contradictions, but science of religion is not necessarily so.Religion may be perfect or comprehensive, but not so for the science of religion. Religion is divine, but interpretation of it is human in and out.

    That is the story of religion. All this implies that religion is always surrounded by a host of contemporaneous data and deliberations, in constant give and take with them, the interpretation of which remains constant so long as these external elements are constant, and once they change, the change will be reflected in the understanding of religion as well. Therefore it is not because of the conspiracy or aberration of mind or illegitimate manipulation or extravagant interpretations that the science of religion changes.

    Rather, it is the natural product of the evolution of human understanding in the non-religious fields and contexts that forces the religion to be comprehended differently. And as mentioned above, external factors are responsible not only for the change, but also for the constancy of religious interpretation during ages. ”””””””””’Recommend

  • Sajjad Ahmed

    Sadly, the writer has created more religious intolerance than breeding tolerance. Its people like him who create further divide in our already shattered social strata. TWO THUMBS DOWN !Recommend

  • Talha

    Well, it is clear that Mullahs have a substantial hand in rotting our society and poisoning the minds of many Pakistani’s.

    They were given a free hand by Bhutto and then Zia, today they are a big part of the problems we face.

    The simple solution, control Mullahs harshly and restrict them from inciting hatred or discussing political issues.Recommend

  • Noya

    A good effort by Mr. Ali Ahmad, to highlight a basic problem of world in large & Muslim world.
    Mullah have been given a really a free ride by the Muslims and Media as well. Why Media is affraid to question Mullah is due to illitracy of media itself, as far as Mullah Dominian goes.
    Mullah represents religion, and media as well as common man is completely illiterate from religious knowledge. Why they are illiterate, because no one is interested in study of Religious books. All the guidance was sent by God Almighty in His Books, Bible, Gosples and Quran, and many more forgotten, today.
    These books are to be read by every one who have a faith in these books. When media is not reading these but asks Mullah what is written in these Books, naturally, media will not dare to question Mullah, why they (Mullah) are teaching Hatred in the society ?
    All religions taught LOVE for fellow brethern. Today follow the real Religion sent by God, which is LOVE since arrival of ADAM (sa). Prophets came to teach Love for mankind. People rejected them always, God protected His Prophets and destroyed the people, who rejected His Prophets. Same is going to be true again.
    You like it or not, “Man proposes and God disposes”.
    Today everybody is a mini god. Creator, the real God, told from first day, He will not allow such gods, They will be perished by the Order of God. No one can save these gods, but God himself, if all these gods accept supermacy of God and bow before Him.
    If you want to stop free ride of Mullah, Read Religion and Books of God, understand and practice in your life. Mullah will disappear. May Allah Almighty shower some Blessing on you, and change your minds to follow His path….the Straight Path. Stright Path teachs Love and not Hatred.. Love your enemy and win the hearts.Recommend

  • umair hashmi

    well done NoyaRecommend

  • Sara

    i would agree with some of the comments above that the only reason why “mullahs” have it so easy and the media doesn’t question them is because of the ignorance of the media when it comes to religion!
    its not just the media but also the masses! no one in Pakistan is concerned about learning about Islam because they think that what they studied in their ‘islamiayaat’ classes is enough for life!
    I think clerics and mullahs should be questioned but only by someone who has genuine knowledge of Islam, not someone who only has an opinion about IslamRecommend

  • Ahmed

    I would again question why that picture showing women in niqab has been linked to extremism ?
    If you editors and analysts do not know Islam then there is a need to learn about it.Kindly don’t defame it just by your wrong perceptions and lack of knowledge about it resulting from your serious ignorance.Talk about what you know best.Recommend

  • AAK

    First of all I did not choose the picture for my article. Secondly, you have conflated the hijab and niqab, the two are completely different.

    Next, the niqab is not necessarily an originally Islamic piece of clothing. The niqab has roots in pre-Islamic cultures most notably in the Byzantine Empire.

    There is widespread debate amongst Islamic scholars across the world (particularly in European and American Muslim communities) on the religious legitamacy of the niqab. There are many conflicting opinions on the matter. Furthermore, as far as I know historically speaking the niqab was never seen as obligatory.

    Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, the late dean of Al Azhar explicitly said the niqab is part of a cultural tradition and is not a religious requirement. Elsewhere, in Europe, scholars such as Tariq Ramadan are saying the niqab is not an Islamic prescription and indeed we need to have a comprehensive debate on the issues of modest behaviour, rather than circumvent and socially intimidate people who are asking valid and productive questions.

    If a matter is not clear or is ambiguous instead of telling people not to think we need more thinking and more questions to shed further light on this matter. Instead of telling people to stay silent we need more voices on the issue to help solve critical issues.

    Having said all that I feel that no political or indeed religious authority should have the coercive power to tell women what to wear. See my articles (Letters Concerning Toleration: Daily Times), which I have posted on this thread already. If we are truly to experience the gift of free-will that God Almighty has bestowed upon us then we must prevent religious or political authoratarianism.

    To your statement on the link between the niqab and extremism, that is a separate issue for another time. I would encourage debate and discussion on the matter rather than try to prevent such a debate by playing the ”religious card”. Cultural practices contrary to Islam have continued in Muslim societies because these practices have been protected by semi literate clerics preying on the existential fears of ordinary people.

    The fact of the matter is that historically Islamic scholarship has produced conflicting and diverse opinions on several matters (this is an historical fact). Hence jurists elaborated a whole framework within fiqh, known as, ”adab al ikhtilaf” (Ethics of Disagreement). It is a testament to the maturity of our classical scholars that they accepted diversity in legal opinions and sought to accomodate this rather than exercise coercion and initimidation which is what clerics do in Pakistan today.

    If you feel strongly about the issue of niqab I suggest you send in a comment to Express Tribune and raise the issue on this forum of free discussion. Recommend

  • Ahmed

    Thanks for your kind response !
    I indeed mixed two different things together.I apologize !
    I find Islamic code of dressing to be linked with extremism as immature and highly offensive.Especially the advocates of freedom of lifestyle and speech lead the league.

    There are many who understand the true essence of Islam and are highly educated and still they prefer Islamic code of dressing.They don’t do it because their elders did this or they saw any cleric doing this.Society seems to have developed a hatred towards those following these codes.This is paving path for further chaos,and the picture chosen does this.I will surely contact them.

    Only one side of society is being scrutinized.People criticize Madrassa System for its curriculum.Nobody criticizes universities for not having compulsory subjects regarding Islam and its ideology.Outcome is the production of such minds which prefer to call themselves non-believers and secular.It could be the personal choice of many but most of them do so because they are not taught about the evolution of mankind and need of religions.Actually during our whole education period,we are not told what our religion is.That is perceived as optional thing.Why secularism ? Most common answer is because it provides freedom of choice and people belonging to different religions can lead better lives in that secular state.But at the same time,do someone tell people about what freedom Islam provides.If secularism is being defined in a very detailed manner then why the same don’t we do with Islam.But we prefer to show just our perceptions here about Islam.To summarize,every part of society has flaws and they all must be addressed.Not only those who don’t have access to social media.Freedom of speech does not include uttering our perceptions without knowing the actual facts which defame any particular country or religion..I also think of putting a STOP to FREE RIDE GIVEN TO ILL-INFORMED AND IGNORANT MASSES presenting themselves to be the experts of Islamic ideology and Pakistani affairs.
    I hope you have witnessed many editors and writers doing this.Recommend

  • noor


    hi, i want to ask you . Noya is a muslim girl name or no. can i keep baby girl name as Noya.