Rethinking religion and Pakistan

December 17, 2017

People’s enunciations of religion are different from the state’s formulations of religion. A rejoinder to an article published on these pages

Rethinking religion and Pakistan

In his article titled "Religion and Pakistan" published in The News on Sunday (December 3, 2017), Mushtaq Bilal has essentialised the relationship between religion and Pakistan. While doing so, he has failed to distinguish between the official versions of religion and its lived, everyday forms. I would like to analyse the everyday lives of the people of Punjab and their relationship with formal formations of religion and the state.

I believe that people’s enunciations of religion are different from the state’s formulations of religion. Folk religious practices in the subcontinent are primarily oral and should not be conflated with their written or official versions. Orality allows them to be syncretic or pluralistic in nature, absorbing elements from other indigenous forms of spirituality which, in the present era, are labelled as Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

For the first time in the history of the subcontinent a census took place in 1872. People of the subcontinent were divided into different religious subjects and a modern sense of subjectivity based on religion started to emerge.

While writing about Pakistan and its relationship with religion, one must take into account the folk versions of Islam in South Asia as they exist in everyday life and their inherent plurality. The writer only considers the written forms of Islam and analyses their relationship with the state and provides examples from the lives of Jinnah, Iqbal and the father of Salmaan Taseer and then bemoans the fact that these Western-educated founding figures of Pakistan were not tolerant enough. The problem is not in this fact but how the writer frames this issue that marginalises what is already marginalised: the lived, everyday, oral, and folk forms of indigenous spirituality.

Life before the arrival of Western modernity in South Asia was not infected with the present-day fascistic tendencies to protect identity in the public sphere. One example of this can be given from the life of Shah Hussain, a 16th century sufi poet. His life, as narrated in Haqiqat Ul Fuqra, revolved around writing poetry, singing, dancing and Madho Lal, a Hindu boy, the object of his passions. It is now read as a form of defiance against all formal religious edicts because the modern divide between the secular and the spiritual has taken place in the last two hundred years or so. In those days, syncretism existed even at the official level.

Mughal emperor Jahangir, in his book Tuzk-e-Jahangiri, mentions his father Akbar’s banning of the slaughter of cows and his own participation in the Diwali and revival of the Hindu Rakhi festival. These everyday practices are examples of the inclusiveness and plurality that existed in the Indian Subcontinent before the arrival of the British.

The article repeatedly laments the role of ‘educated’ people in propagating sectarian violence. He mentions Muhammad Ali Jauhar, an Oxford-educated activist and poet, Muhammad Iqbal, an alumnus of Heidelberg and the official poet of the nation, and Jinnah, a barrister trained at the Lincoln’s Inn, and their roles in supporting an ‘illiterate’ Ilm-ud-din’s act of killing Rajpal, the Hindu writer who had blasphemed. Implicit in his argument is the idea that ‘literate’ people should have behaved more tolerantly. I argue that intolerance in the outlook of people is an effect of modern education and modern bureaucratic rationality.

Usually there is one correct answer to every question asked during the entire stay of a pupil in the education system. Are there any modern school and university officially prescribed books that allow multiple answers to be entered as correct? Whenever the ideas of multiple interpretations are mentioned in modern textbooks, they are labelled as "relativity theories, relativism, or postmodern thought." If, still, there are some tolerant people in the modern world, they are not pluralistic because of modernity but despite modernity.

There is a relationship between writing, bureaucracy, and violence. Writing has existed in the Indian subcontinent for centuries. However, it did not control the public sphere to such an extent as it did when it was serving the colonial order. Before the arrival of the British and colonial modernity, people’s lives generally inhabited the realm of orality. This effect of writing has been elaborated by Claude Levi-Strauss. Writing, Levi-Strause argues, has created hierarchical societies in all parts of the world, and has promoted master-slave relationships. Leonard Shlain, an American neurosurgeon and a cultural theorist has also explained, in his book The Alphabet vs the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image, the way writing fosters "linear, sequential, reductionist and abstract thinking" which stands in opposition to orality which has a ‘holistic, simultaneous, synthetic and concrete view of the world."

The British first made legal interventions in the everyday lives of their subjects by the promulgation of the Gentoo Code and the Anglo-Mohammedan Law and paved way for the hyper-saffronisation of Hinduism and the Hyper-Islamisation of Islam. In 1772, Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India, introduced Bengal Law which formally divided the Hindus and Muslims into two different types of subjects. The law stated that "in all suits regarding inheritance, marriage, caste and other religious usages and institutions, the laws of the Koran with respect to the Mohammedans and those of the shaster with respect to the Gentoos (Hindus) shall be invariably adhered to; on all such occasions the Moulvies or Brahmins shall respectively attend to expound the law, and they shall sign the report and assist in passing the decree" (Hastings cited in Rudolph and Rudolph).

This formal gravitas, which the society had been unwilling to accord them before colonialism, was given to Mullahs and Pandits by a British ruler not by the locals. They are still trying to contain these figures through Rabelaisian jokes on both sides of the Wahgah border. After dividing the legal codes of the people, the British also began reversing the syncretic policies of the Mughals. For the first time in the history of the subcontinent a census took place in 1872. People of the subcontinent were divided into different religious subjects and a modern sense of subjectivity based on religion started to emerge. Moreover, one person was also becoming one vote. Communities began to think of themselves as minorities and majorities and modern, calculative rationality became dominant in the public sphere.

The article talks about how Article 295 was added in the Indian Penal Code: "The massive agitation by Indian Muslims forced the British government to add a sub-clause to Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code according to which ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’ become punishable offences." If the British had been so benign, they would not have separated the communities through their Gentoos Code and the Anglo-Mohammedan Law to begin with. Later on, it was not the people who introduced harsher legal measures against freedom of speech and thought but these changes were made by General Zia, who, as a brigadier deployed in Jordan, had earlier proven his loyalty to the neocolonial empire by killing hundreds of Palestinians while fighting with the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF) against the Palestine Liberation Organisation. This conflict is still remembered as Black September by Palestinians.

After becoming a general and usurping power unconstitutionally, Ziaul Haq introduced harsher clauses in the laws because the neocolonial empire wanted to contain the influence of the Soviet Union, then a superpower and an enemy of the West. The founding fathers did not employ Islam to unify Indian Muslims against both the Indian Hindus and the British government. They did so in unison with the British and later, the subsequent leaders of Pakistan helped the neocolonial empire by creating a highly charged sense of identity which was belligerently reliant on written codes.

In his analysis, the writer has failed to avoid another trap. He has taken the state’s official versions too seriously and that is precisely what the state desires. Religious fanaticism is not in the DNA of Pakistan, rather it is the essence, if one is forced to become essentialistic while arguing against essentialism, of modern social formations that the writer so vehemently celebrates. This is what Adorno and Horkheimer discovered when they studied Western Enlightenment. Rationality leads to the end of reason as the fascistic nature of modernity, through secular myths, becomes dominant in the public sphere.

Rethinking religion and Pakistan