Is apolitical Islam possible? – Tahir Kamran


When Prof Joya Chatterji posed the question, ‘is apolitical Islam possible’ I was flummoxed simply because it is a rare nevertheless extremely relevant query.

The advent of IS in Levant, which flaunts a peculiar brand of Islam and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan as the upholders of a very strict version of political Islam accord Prof Chatterji’s question considerable relevance.

Can Islam be apoliticised in the particular context of Pakistan? With sectarian fissures and brutalisation of minorities, such question is of course tenable. Apolitical Islam is an interesting proposition but practically, and even intellectually, extremely hard to take effect unless jurisprudential revision is carried out which is highly unlikely in the prevailing circumstances.

Nothing can be stickier than striving for the intellectual possibilities to sever the spiritual from the political dimension of Islam. The complexity is compounded when political and spiritual realms are inextricably enmeshed. The political is deemed as a prerequisite to the spiritual solace as it is very much in the case of Pakistan. A bid to disentangle the two domains becomes extremely enigmatic because the all-pervasive belief, having currency in Pakistan as in several other countries, underscores the universality of Islam. ‘Islam as a complete code of life’ is a common refrain of a common man.

Politics if defined and understood in Foucaultian sense tends to encompass the whole spectrum of human activity including the belief system and its resonance on the control that it exercises as well as the ordering or re-ordering of the bodily practices. From that particular trajectory, Islam can hardly be categorised as apolitical. But important to underline here is political Islam as a modernist configuration. In pre-modern period, the politics in South Asian Islam remained strictly reined in by the people at the helm. Carrot and stick were both employed to put the people of the religion under check.

Even the spiritual domain of any religion and particularly Islam has an explicitly-stated political intent which can be gleaned from the various tazkiras of the Sufi saints of the medieval period. The very spiritual resonance on the political at times brought them quite close to the ruling elite of the day. The eminent king from the Slave dynasty, Ghias ud Din Balban, married off her daughter to a Sufi out of political exigency.

As against Sufis, Ulema asserted as and when opportunity arose, as epitome of the divine sanction to re-order human life according to the injunctions of religious text(s), which obviously is an act of politics. That might be a reason for the kings to employ them into the state bureaucracy particularly in judiciary.

Many of the kings, including Akbar, assumed the mantle of a Zill-i-Illahi (shadow of God). In 1579, Akbar issued a declaration and took over the authority to interpret religious law, superseding the authority of the mullahs. This became known as the “Infallibility Decree”, and it furthered Akbar’s ability to create an inter-religious and multicultural state. Ulema and Sufis were rendered subservient to the state by instituting madad-i-muash, the funding mechanism by allocating a chunk of agrarian tract to the shrine and maktab. Thus the people of religion were controlled by making them dependent on the state.

But that carrot was accompanied with the stick too: whoever resorted to disturb the order was dealt with all the severity that the king could bring to bear on the perpetrator. Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi was incarcerated in the fort of Gwalior after he allegedly blurted out some heretic pronouncements.

All said and done, until the 18th century, the political component of South Asian Islam was kept in check by the Great Mughals who preferred to rule by a Changezi code instead of employing Sharia to rule India.

It was with the Hijaz-returned Sufi and Scholar Shah Walliullah Dehlvi’s (1706-1762) rise to prominence that the commencement of political Islam began to make its appearance. It was synchronised with Mughal decline therefore no political power was there to stem its emergence.

The political Islam’s full articulation happened in 1831 when Syed Ahmed and Shah Ismael waged jihad against Sikh kingdom. Though it failed to achieve its goal of establishing Caliphate, it obdurately sustained itself. Gradual displacement of Sufi Islam was a conspicuous fallout.

With the advent of Deobandi denomination in 1867, political Islam institutionalised itself. Literal Islam with Takfeer and exclusion were its abiding features. By forging Pan-Islamic links it moved from strength to strength and finally the establishment of Jamiat-al-Ulma-e-Hind came about and the upholders of political Islam carved out a permanent niche for them during Khilafat Movement.

That movement was crucial because through it, political Islam acquired maturity which subsequently was articulated through the politics of agitation. The agitation as the core principal of their politics tended to give way to violence which was relatively contained. Violence came to be the centrepiece of their strategy in 1953 anti-Ahmadi movement.

All the major players who later on professed and propagated political Islam had imbibed tremendous influence from both of these movements. Shabbir Usmani, Maulana Maududi, Mufti Mehmood, Ataullah Shah Bokhari, Yusaf Binori, Maulwi Abdul Haq, Manzur Chinioti gained essential training as practitioners of political Islam through these two movements. The people who later on trained Taliban of all hues, Abdul Haq of Akora Khattak and Yusaf Binori (Binori Town known as MIT of Jihadi Islam) were greatly influenced by the 1953 movement.

The ‘direct action’ though is the modernist trend but the Ulema appropriated it as if it is intrinsic to Islam. Not only the central but the Punjab government fell because of their agitational mode of asserting exclusionary claims in 1953. In 1974 even Zulfikar Ali Bhutto could not withstand the threat of direct action.

The progeny of these practitioners of political Islam is far more violent and aggressive. The weakness of the Pakistani state provides them an added stimulus to assert and challenge even the law of the land and constitution.

Islamisation of Ziaul Haq gave them a sort of an aura of indispensability. In the post-9/11 period, violence perpetrated in the name of Islam has acquired a new and extremely perilous level. Seeing the way things are in Pakistan, one cannot help but conclude that apolitical Islam is not possible. The best solution will be to strive for segregating religion from state affairs instead of fiddling with Islam.