By Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal

Over the last twelve years, I have only once written a “Quantum Note” in response to a response from a News columnist or newspost letter, but “Sinning believer” by my very dear Harris Khalique (The News, March 02, 2012) has imposed an obligation that cannot be discharged without directly engaging him and perhaps thousands of other readers of The News on a subject that requires serious and thoughtful consideration, not hasty and angry responses.

First and foremost, my column does not contain two choices (“a choice to be branded as a ‘hypocrite’ or a ‘sinning believer’”); rather, it contains a third, albeit unstated, possibility for all who care for the state of the world: to examine the issue at hand in the light of solid textual and historical evidence. But, before that, I must reiterate that I feel a sort of literary affinity with Harris Khalique, because of our common interest in literature and poetry, even though we have never met and I hold him in great esteem and there was no intention on my part to posit these two stark choices. What I intended to do was to actually establish a starting point, a basic premise—something which is urgently needed to begin any serious discourse on “political Islam”.

This primary premise or baseline is to reiterate that all parties share a fundamental belief: there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet. This is important because one cannot enter into any serious discussion without establishing a framework and if one were to engage a non-Muslim in this discussion, one’s arguments and sources will be different than those which one can use if the discourse is between believers.

We can start from this common belief, but one more thing must be clarified: Harris has twice pointed out the “stark realities of human suffering in Pakistan” and my physical absence from the daily suffering, even though he does not know my personal history and the ten long years filled with those stark realities and the eventual painful squeeze which resulted in my departure from Pakistan. But never mind that personal anguish, what needs to be understood in the context of a discourse on political aspects of Islam is that it cannot be reduced to painful realities of contemporary Pakistan, or Syria or any other Muslim country even though it is true and necessary that we need to understand, acknowledge and engage with Muslim history and not merely remain at the abstract level of thought, we must also attempt to understand the theoretical framework from which Islam’s political system emerges without submitting to current realities of a polity that has lost its bearing.

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That means, we must have necessary tools to tap into the vast body of literature on the subject and that is where most contemporary Muslims derail the discourse: having no grounding in Arabic, having no direct access to the literature on the subject, they tend to take the painful ground realities of their homeland or isolated, scattered, and often distorted nature of past events as a substitute for principles of Islam’s political system.

Thus, they then take the dark side of the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Safavids, the Fatimids, the Ottomans, the Sultanates of Delhi, the Mughals, et al, as proof for the lack of any possibility of a political system based on Islam’s teachings. While it is true that these were empires and not caliphates, it is not true to say that “any possibility of a caliphate ended with the martyrdom of Hazrat Ali”, because for better or worse, the office of the caliphate was not abolished until that terrible drunkard in Turkey whom our own last dictator took as his hero, ended it in 1924.

It is unfortunate that Harris “learnt [the true spirit of Islam] from Maulana Hasrat Mohani and Ali Shariati” and not directly from the Qur’an and the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace. This is true of many educated Muslims today. Having no direct access to the Glorious Qur’an and little time and affinity to the numerous Sira texts—some of them in English and Urdu—which may become a starting point for a personal and intimate relationship with the Noble Messenger—upon him blessings and peace, they look toward secondary, tertiary and problematic sources to understand Islam.

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What prevents them from engaging with the primary sources also prevents them from “owning” their true identity. And this is what I mean by the baseline, the fundamental premise of discourse: anyone who has pronounced the shahada is automatically part of the polity which the Qur’an has called an Ummah. Those who say there is no Ummah actually forget—or are not aware of the fact—that they are, in fact, challenging a construct which Allah Almighty has coined for them and to challenge Him requires something greater than I can perceive.

Thus, if they are part of the Ummah—and they are as long they hold on to their shahada—and if they believe that no one has proposed a system of governance which can address the malaise of the twenty-first century Muslims, then it becomes incumbent on them to strive to come up with solutions, rather than toil in deconstructing those who are attempting to do so.

Finally, the Hoodbhoy-like condemnation of the “custodians of faith”, positing “many major Muslim poets, scientists and scholars between the ninth and the 16th centuries” against an imagined “orthodoxy” which Goldziher bequetted to him and his followers, is simply not the issue at hand. Anyone interested in that discussion should first read what has been written on this subject by both Muslim and non-Muslims historians of science during the last quarter century. The subject at hand is indeed the state (and not “the fate”—as Harris misconstrues) of 1.6 billion Muslims today. True, it is “linked with the liberation of the oppressed, wretched, exploited and dispossessed everywhere”, but how?

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That “how” should be the main concern of anyone hoping to change the contemporary political scene and no one can begin to construct that “how” without taking into consideration the immediate past through which the contemporary Muslim world has come into existence. And this cannot be done by simply sidestepping into a “Pakistan [where] our men, women and children are targeted and blown apart by terrorist outfits in the name of religion”. This outburst, genuine as it is in some ways, is not the issue, my dear Harris Khalique. This is the result of something else: just like a heart attack is not a disease, but often a consequence, these random attacks of violence are consequence of something else. Just like the accumulated fat which one day finally blocks the heart, one must delve deep into the processes which have contributed toward the emergence of this violence and that cannot be done without first owning one’s spiritual, intellectual, and emotional roots, which by necessity all go back to the affirmation: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger.”