The mantle of religious interpretation needs to be taken away from the clergy

Published: November 6, 2016

From our childhood, religion is revered and its reverence is reinforced through promoting a culture of unquestionable acceptance.

I have often been more amazed not at the religious fanaticism of the few, but at passivity of the moderate majority. And although sceptics will cast their doubt, the fact is that Pakistan on the whole has a moderate population. In Pakistan, comparable fervour is dominant only in pockets. Yes, this is a country which has Taliban but it is also a country where people have largely voted for moderate parties. This is a country which despite being conservative has never voted the clergy into power. It has a relatively independent media and entertainment avenues are more eclectic compared to many Islamic countries from the Middle East.

And yet this is also the same country which through legislation declared Ahmadis non-Muslims and that too during the tenor of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, arguably the most intelligent prime minister who headed a left leaning party. And mind you Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP – the party in power at that time) did not originally have any such agenda item in its manifesto.

Moreover, the Hudood ordinance (a controversial law which is discriminatory against women) and blasphemy laws (which carries death sentence to the convicted) are solidly entrenched despite the fact that these were not enacted through a proper legislative procedure.

Today, parties are reluctant to even debate these controversial legislations, despite the obvious fact that these are in contravention with modern day ideals of human rights. Due to these laws, religious extremism and discrimination have been institutionalised and Pakistan has become extremely controversial in the international arena. Despite the enormous negative publicity and being in the watch list of various human rights organisations, there is hardly any concrete debate in Pakistan on mainstream media and legislative forums to repeal these laws. No political party wants to be a political casualty, even if it can muster the two-third majority. And this is happening in a country where clergy are regularly outvoted by huge margins.

In my opinion, the issue is not that the population is radicalised, but rather actually too timid due to the extreme veneration of religion and its fanatic patronage by the clergy. This is an important factor which needs to be understood before we can have any realistic chance of repealing of controversial laws and even tackle general extremism. Plus it is this reverence which creates this state of denial wherein Muslims find it impossible to believe that any Muslim can indulge in heinous crimes like terrorism.

From our childhood, religion is revered and its reverence is reinforced through promoting a culture of unquestionable acceptance. Once we grow up, despite the fact that the majority is not completely adherent to the rituals, the unquestionable reverence remains embedded in our mind-sets.

I even know people whose personal lives show complete divergence from even basic Islamic teachings and yet they would never publicly question anything in the name of religion. Then there are so called moderate and educated Muslims, who also are too timid to question things on a public forums.

The central issue is that once a thing is widely projected as unIslamic by the mainstream religious ‘scholars’, no one raises any effective voice to challenge it and the prime reasons are extraordinary unquestionable reverence and inability to challenge clergy in interpretation. In our personal lives, we will even violate several unquestionably good Islamic rituals but in public, we are too afraid and indifferent to raise a voice against something which clearly is against modern human rights ideals and the spirit of our religion itself.

A classic case is the issue of Ahmadis. Since mainstream clergy has declared them as non-Muslims and their status does not directly affect us, therefore all of us have simply accepted that they are. None of us are ready to challenge the clergy and to conduct efforts to repeal the second amendment. No political party can muster the courage to confront a handful of zealots.

Of course passivity and timidity originating from this reverence is also reinforced by manic irrational “defence” from the clergy, which is ready to pounce on any one talking about reformation in religion. In several instances, people have been forced to retract their “bold” statements when the clergy fanatically retaliates by categorising them as blasphemy. The media either endorses the fanaticism or merely adopts appeasement as the approach to “pacify” things. People like Salman TaseerShahbaz Bhatti are the casualties of this manic behaviour. Likewise, Sherry Rehman, a prominent female activist was literally forced to retract from her proposed amendments in the controversial blasphemy ordinance.

I remember an interview in which she tried to explain her position asking Muslims to show some tolerant behavior towards Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman who was sentenced to death by court. And merely, the day after her interview, I vividly remember Amir Liaquat Hussain (a TV anchor), trying to prove that how blasphemy’s legal punishment in Islam is indeed death. He was openly mocking Sherry Rehman during his program.

At that point I came to the realisation that we do not have a future with respect to human rights. I knew even if viewers were finding his views repulsive and objectionable, they would not be able to say a word due to the extreme veneration of religion and the fear that they would be branded as blasphemers themselves.

Another rationale for passivity comes from believers of “religion is a personal matter doctrine”. There are several of us who show reluctance to debate religion by citing the above reason. In principle, I fully agree that it should be a personal matter as religion relates to our innate and spiritual beliefs. Since different groups practice it in their own way, when it is incorporated into a law, it can be overly imposing on others. And the problem is that here it is incorporated in our laws and therefore it is no longer that personal! And if you want it to be relegated to personal affairs you need to debate those laws and therefore you will end up debating the source of the laws, the religion.

A common tactic used by religious rights is to discourage any critical debate, and to give a belittling reference to inadequate qualifications of those who are trying to adopt a reformist approach. What really amazes me that this reference is never made when you are supporting ultraconservative view of Islam. Surely our qualifications are inadequate for that also. Moreover, all of us are ready to knit sophisticated conspiracy theories about foreign affairs without any so called qualifications and yet for religion, which majority of us have studied right from class one to intermediate, we are required to have extraordinary qualifications.

Until and unless we are ready to discuss religion’s interpretation with a critical approach, we will always be stuck. Unless we try to challenge the clergy and take the mantle of interpretation away from them, we will always be impotent and virtually on the defensive when critics brand Islam an intolerant religion internationally.

So my brothers and sisters come forward and let’s break this apathy! Islam is your religion and you do not need these clergy to interpret it. Only by taking the discourse on religion away from them, can you change the status quo.


Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (

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

  • vinsin

    Completely agree with the author but the real issue is, Pakistan is still stuck up with Jinnah, his fourteen points and question on creation of Pakistan. Another issue is that Indian Muslims are far more backward than Pakistani Muslims. Pakistan is a nation created by people who never moved. Pakistan entertainment avenues, arts, marriages and many cultural aspect are in complete contrast with her creation.

    Pakistan was created for those who wanted to emulate Islamic countries from the Middle East, even though success has not been that great.

    Compared to other religions and Dharma, Islam has no concept of human rights and minorities. Muslims are seen as people who support and celebrate extremism and violence.

    Pakistani may not have elected clergy but they have also never opposed any type of Jihad against minorities whether they are Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Jews, Buddhists, Ahmadis, Zoroastrians, Sufi and Shia.Recommend

  • Farah

    Excellent article! Thanks a lot for sharing these ideas. I sincerely wish that this debate will become more and more prevalent.Recommend

  • Jugnu

    Ahmedis were declared non muslims by the most liberal parliament of Pakistan. The author appears to have short sight of History. Bhutto and PPP had no mood of declaring them non muslims. It was actually the testimony of the Khalifa Nasir of Ahmedi community and his confusing answers that led to this conclusion. Before him, Mirza Bashir had clearly laid out in his speeches and writings that those ( mainstream muslims) who did not believe in Mirza ghulam Ahmed as a prophet were non muslims. I invite author to read the history before writing such idiotic piece.Recommend

  • Tahir Amjad

    ………..And be handed to likes of Sherry Rehman,Salman Taseer, Farzana Bari, asma jehangir, Shereen mazari, And above all Ali Ameen Gandapore.Recommend

  • Munna

    Yes let behuda people like Qandeel Baloch interpret religion so that eventually religion is made irrelevant and we eventually end up with things like “gay marriage” in western countries.Recommend

  • AA_Southpaw

    There is no clergy in Islam.

    Only if you knew.

    You come up with your interpretation and lets have a debate.

    Let the arguments decide.Recommend

  • jay

    you must be living in a cave! Who let you out ?Recommend

  • Ahmad

    Go to youtube you’ll find 100s of debates b/w different sects declaring each other KAF-IRS, So Should you have another parliamentary debate to declare all of them Infidels?

    And What did you earn From this?

  • Tahir amjad

    Dr Allama Muhammad Iqbal very rightly explained the hypocrisy of our so called Scholars in one of his verses.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Interesting read……..and a thought provoking read.
    In my opinion most people who consider themselves religious scholars develop a notion that their interpretation of religious text is the right interpretation and all else is wrong. Very, very few have the wisdom to say that this is my view and if you are not convinced you are free to try convince me and if I am not convinced…..we can both go our separate ways in peace.
    Agree religious interpretation should be taken away from the clergy, because they have made a mess of it, and let the apex court decide matters if need be.Recommend

  • Fahim

    Sects are confused as they are even 100+ while Quran is Islam and it is only one.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    Agree religious interpretation should be taken away from the clergy,
    because they have made a mess of it, and let the apex court decide
    matters if need be.

    How does this theory stack up with the freedom of expression that RHR enjoys in a democracy? Do you expect the politicians to interpret the religion to the students in Madrassas and not the theologists. It is not the clergy but the so called neo liberals who have not the understanding of the arabic language nor the feelings and appreciation of the time related events of the 7th century, that confuse the teachings with political interpretations.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Fahim

    Yea and some Mullah gone mad such that they claimed prophet hood Recommend

  • Muhammed Usama Aziz

    ..”Compared to other religions and Dharma, Islam has no concept of human rights and minorities.”…

    You just showed that you have zero knowledge of Islam and is here only to rantRecommend

  • Fahim

    no not most people do, who gone proud & mad do such kind of thingsRecommend

  • MR.X

    Read mr.x for reference his answer is sufficient i guessRecommend

  • Babar

    And what was the divine message? That Ahmadies must be followers of Prophet Muhammad(saw) and follow his Islam. Ahmadies must be peaceful, law abiding, pray 5 times a day in the manner prescribed by the Prophet SAW. Respect all religions and do Jihad by pen and not by war. In other words Ahmadies were asked to revive Islam which has been corrupted by the clergy. They build more mosques in Africa and Europe and the rest of the world, translate Quran into all languages, and invite people to understand real Islam and the message of Prophet Muhammad (saw). This can only be done by a Khilafat system as originally established by Prophet Muhammad so that there is one voice in matters relating to Islam and for guidance. Today most Islamic sects are corrupted by the clergy, and it has only created confusion and disorder. The kind of Islam practiced by most Muslims has become a mockery all over the world and no one respects them. The real Islam practiced by Ahmedis is respected all over the world as the follow Prophet Muhammad<s teachings only.Recommend

  • Babar

    Because religion is between man And God. It is for God to judge. He has provided the religious scriptures. In a country where literacy rate is as low as in Pakistan, one should spread education and not Mullahism. Clergy does not impose anything on the followers of Christianity in the West. All Christian sects wether Catholics, protestants, Mormons or even Jehovah witness live as equal citizens with the same laws and rights in peace and harmony. Their interpretation of Christianity is a private matter between God and the individual.Recommend

  • Babar

    Central authority is only in the Khilaft system and today it lies with Ahmadies as they have a Khilafat system with a central authority. Millions of people in the world who follow the Khilafat are all on one page. Unfortunately for Pakistan , they have been “declared” non Muslims by the StateRecommend