Turning on the faucets of Thought

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Anjum Niaz[1]


(The seminar on  Extremism, law on order in Pakistan organized by the Criterion quarterly in May 2007 identified the fanciful doctrine of abrogation used by extremists to justify violence in the name of religion. They claim that Islam’s doctrinal emphasis on peace and non-aggression was abrogated by chapter 2 verse 106 of the Quran although the abrogation refers to the earlier scriptures and not to any passage of the Quran. The lack of education and the resultant intellectual deficit is yet another reason for religious obscurantism. The seminar, which was televised live, was chaired by Justice Khalilur Rahman Ramday of the Supreme Court.  – Editor).

A seminar is often an exercise in insouciance. Workshops fall in the same genre as do high-sounding conferences and esoteric roundtables. Most of these events are quickly erased from the tablet of memory. The few and far-between exceptions are those that succeed in inspiring thought and, perchance, yielding an idea that shapes destiny. Thus Victor Hugo, 1802-1885, once wrote: “There is one thing stronger than all the armies of the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

The event.

This was the motive behind the seminar organized by the Criterion quarterly at the Islamabad Marriott in the third week of May 2007 on the theme, Extremism, law and order in Pakistan. Extremism is not peculiar to Pakistan. It is the overarching problem of our times from which no nation, big or small, is immune. Extremist violence has been carried out in the name of religion and there could scarcely be a greater blasphemy. Most of these acts have been perpetrated by a miniscule minority that professes Islam.

The organizers of the seminar had hoped that it would expound the Quranic principles of non-aggression and peaceful coexistence in order to expose the distorted interpretation of the religion that terrorists employ to justify violence. In other words, it was the message of the Quran that was the “idea whose time has come” and stronger than the false creed of extremism.

The project was ambitious and the pieces seemed to be in place for a memorable event. Unprecedented for a private effort, the entire three-hour seminar was televised live because the theme evoked interest and the chief guest, Justice Khalilur Rahman Ramday of the Supreme Court, is currently at centre stage in the politico-judicial drama being enacted in Pakistan. In fact there was initial scepticism among the audience that he would   turn up.

The panellists included the former Governor of West Pakistan, Air Marshal (retired) Nur Khan; Dr Manzoor Ahmad, Rector International Islamic University, Islamabad; Members of Parliament Ms. Fauzia Wahab of the opposition PPPP and   M.P.Bhandara of the ruling PML (Q); and Tasnim Noorani, the debonair former Secretary Ministry of Interior, who Justice Ramday described as the “most handsome bureaucrat” he had seen. The line-up thus represented the judiciary, the legislature, the executive, the academia and the armed forces.

The government was nervous on three counts. First, the subject was important; second, the on-going judicial crisis had thrust Justice Ramday into domestic and international prominence because he heads the 13-member Supreme Court Bench hearing the petition against the presidential reference against Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Choudhry, and; third, the event was being telecast live. There was no safety net and the proceedings could have had immediate and far-reaching consequences. A trend seemed to have been set because, a few days later, another seminar was organized by lawyers at the Supreme Court itself. Soon afterwards the government instructed the electronic media not to televise such events live.

The fears generated by the Criterion seminar proved unfounded. Some of the speeches were undoubtedly hard-hitting, but most were anodyne and even boring. The sensation-hungry audience were disappointed and the event quickly faded from memory. However, at a deeper level, vital issues that could impact on future peace and stability were raised and, therefore, merit scrutiny.

The abrogation theologians.

In his welcome remarks, Criterion editor-in-chief, Iftikhar Murshed, told the audience that the verse from the Quran that was recited at the beginning of the seminar had been deliberately selected because it was exploited by extremists to justify violence in the name of Islam. It appears in chapter 2, verse 106 of the Quran and reads:

“Any message We annul or consign to oblivion We replace with a better or similar one. Does thou not know that God has the power to will anything?”

Through the centuries a number of Muslim theologians have used this passage to evolve a fanciful doctrine of abrogation under which some of the verses of the Quran are said to have been cancelled by subsequent ones during the twenty-three years that it took for the Quran to be revealed.

Muhammad Asad (1900-1992), born Leopold Weiss, provides perhaps the most insightful comment on the above passage and I quote:

“The principle laid down in this passage – relating to the suspension of the Biblical dispensation by that of the Quran – has given rise to an erroneous interpretation by many Muslim theologians. The word “ayah” (message) occurring in this context is also used to denote a “verse” of the Quran (because every one of these verses contain a message). Taking this restricted meaning of the term “ayah,” some scholars conclude from the above passage that certain verses of the Quran had been “abrogated” by God’s command before the revelation of the Quran was completed. Apart from the fancifulness of this assertion – which calls to mind  the image of a human author correcting, on second thought, the proofs of his manuscript, deleting one passage and replacing it with another – there is not a single reliable Tradition to the effect that the Prophet ever declared a verse of the Quran to have been “abrogated.” At the root of the so-called “doctrine of abrogation” may lie the inability of the early commentators to reconcile one Quranic passage with another: a difficulty which was overcome by declaring that one of the verses in question had been “abrogated.” This arbitrary procedure explains also why there is no unanimity whatsoever among the upholders of the “doctrine of abrogation” as to which, and how many, Quran-verses have been affected by it: and, furthermore, as to whether this alleged abrogation implies a total elimination of the verse in question from the context of the Quran, or only a cancellation of the specific ordinance or statement contained in it. In short, the ‘doctrine of abrogation” has no basis whatever in historical fact, and must be rejected. On the other hand, the apparent difficulty in interpreting the above Quranic passage disappears immediately if the term “ayah” is understood correctly as a “ message,” and  if we read this verse in conjunction with the preceding one, which states that the Jews and Christians refuse to accept any revelation which might supersede the Bible: for, if read in this way, the abrogation relates to the earlier divine message and not to any part of the Quran itself.” [1]

In his address, Murshed explained that the “doctrine of abrogation” was at the heart of extremist violence that recurs in the contemporary era with alarming frequency. Aggression in any form is forbidden by the Quran. The first revelation permitting Muslims to fight came almost immediately after Prophet Muhammad was forced by relentless persecution to shift from Mecca to Medina in 622. The permission to wage war was conditional and restricted to self-defence. Aggression is anathema to Quranic doctrine. Al-Baydawi (d. 1291), who scholars describe as “the soundest and most authoritative commentator of the Quran,”[2] defined aggression as:

“Initiation of fighting, fighting those with whom a treaty has been concluded, surprising the enemy without first inviting them to make peace, destroying crops or killing those who should be protected.”[3]

The flawed “doctrine of abrogation” also jeopardizes several Quranic injunctions on important matters that concern peace and security such as: (a) terminating hostilities should the aggressor incline towards peace;[4] (b) showing compassion towards those professing other beliefs;[5] (c) protecting non-believers and escorting them to safety in times of war;[6] (d) restricting fighting only to combatants thereby prohibiting terrorism;[7] (e) ensuring that the damage inflicted on the enemy is not excessive but proportional to the damage they have caused thus ruling out the use of weapons of mass destruction;[8] (f) stressing that the conditional permission to fight does not imply a clash of civilizations because war can also be waged against believers if they persist in aggression;[9] (g) extending cooperation to the international community in promoting global peace and harmony; [10] and (h) honouring all treaties in letter and spirit[11].

The abrogation theologians have thus spawned the debate for and against extremism in Islam which is frightening in its capacity for mobilizing opinion among extremists. They have canonized a doctrine to destroy, to gain legitimacy to kill, and to provoke various sorts of murderous acts in the name of Islam. They propound the absurd theory that all the Quranic injunctions that strictly prohibit violence and aggression have been annulled.  Similarly, to justify suicide bombings and other terrorist acts, these elements have employed the concept of abrogation to negate all verses pertaining to the conditional permission to fight only in self-defence. An example in point is the following verse:

“And so, when the sacred months are over, slay those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God wherever you may come upon them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every conceivable place. Yet if they repent, and take to prayer, and render the purifying dues, let them go their way: for behold, God is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace.”[12]

According to Murshed, the 6.247 verses of the Quran[13] reinforce each other and cannot be taken out of context. Thus 2:106 refers to the preceding verse which deals with the Bible in the context of abrogation. Similarly, the above verse pertains to a war already in progress and cannot be de-contextualized. He observes.

“The killing of “those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God” has been taken out of context to justify violence although the verse pertains to an ongoing war and cannot imply the initiation of hostilities because aggression in any form is prohibited. This passage, which is misconstrued by extremists as authorization for indiscriminate slaughter, has been described as “the sword verse” although the word “sword” does not appear even once in the Quran.[14] In fact the very next passage enjoins believers to protect polytheists who have not attacked them and conduct them to a place of safety. The second part of this so-called “sword verse” beginning with the words “Yet if they repent…” is said to have abrogated several passages of the Quran such as 2: 256 which unambiguously affirm that there cannot be any compulsion in matters of faith. This has not only resulted in the mistaken belief even among Muslims that apostasy is punishable by death but has also led to the distortion of history that Islam spread through the sword though closer to the truth is that the religion established itself  in spite of the sword. The requirement that those who repent should “take to prayer, and render the purifying dues,” etc., is only one, and by no means the exclusive, way in which the aggressors can demonstrate the termination of hostilities.”[15]

In the context of the seminar, I had hoped that these opening remarks would be like the overture to a symphony and that the other speakers would develop the concept. However, only  Dr Manzoor Ahmad and, to a lesser extent, Justice Khalilur Rehman Ramday  picked up the thread of  Murshed’s introductory words and added to the wisdom of the Quranic verse with their robust analysis.

In truth, the audience had side-stepped the fusion of Verse 2:106 with the overall discussion that Iftikhar Murshed had creatively constructed until Dr Manzoor Ahmad re-animated it by his opening lines:

“God has changed His mind… and God has been changing His mind and unless we accept this, we won’t be able to solve the problem. This is a very crucial point because we have forgotten this and we’re facing these difficulties…the Shariah needed to be changed, we needed a new prophet…”

The breathless urgency in his tone and recusant syntax employed by the respected academician enticed everyone to take note. The slouchers, seduced by his disputation, sat up and tried to dig out of the hole earlier dug by Murshed’s epigrammatic lines. It is not what the learned Dr Ahmed said, but that his opening didn’t appear a good fit to the framework raised on 2:106 by Murshed.  On the other hand, Dr Ahmad’s zinger appeared contrary to Murshed’s avowal that whatever was in the Quran was immutable. I again borrow a passage from Murshed’s  article in the inaugural issue of Criterion:

“Implicit also in this controversial doctrine [of Abrogation] is a presumption of Divine fallibility. The implication is that God made His commandments known but then had second thoughts and amended His earlier pronouncements. The annulment indicated in 2: 106 was necessitated because of human manipulations of the earlier scriptures. For instance, it was only at the Council of Nicaea in 325 that the concept of the divinity of Christ became the basis of Christian beliefs. This, however, generated controversy which raged till 381 when the Emperor Theodosius the Great convened the Council of Constantinople which confirmed the Nicene doctrine of Trinity.” [16]

Writer Max Beerhohm, famous for his witty quotes, once said “But, (it seems I must begin every paragraph by questioning the sincerity of what I have just said).” So must I. Let me therefore pause here. Quoting the Quran and interpreting the meaning is a matter best left to specialists and scholars of Islam. But by the same token, lay persons not well initiated in the study of the Quran, yet wanting to understand the divine message in crisp, cogent and pared-down prose can have a hard time figuring out what is true and what is not. Wary about misquoting Dr Manzoor Ahmad, I emailed him some questions for this article and he replied:

“When I talked about God changing His mind what I meant was that the Sharias i.e., laws governing our social structures have been changing from
time to time. God Himself has said that He has sent Shariahs for every ummah (community). Since we believe in the finality of the Prophethood and since no Prophet is going to come to make amendments in the Shairah, it is the duty of the Muslim ummah to amend it if necessary. To believe that social evolution has stopped 1400 years ago would be irrational and to believe that the Shariah is fixed would thus be contradictory.”

Earlier, during the seminar, Dr. Manzoor Ahmad had told the audience:

“Against this background, reading the Quran carefully is de rigueur and you will see that God has given Sharias which are ways and paths to various people and they were not the same, they were different. They were suited to different times for which they were given i.e., laws governing our social structures have been changing from time to time. Since we believe in the finality of the Prophethood of Mohammad and since no prophet is going to come to make amendments in the Shairah, it is the duty of the Muslim ummah to amend it if necessary. God said that there was no need for another prophet, everybody has been endowed with one very important thing that is your head. Use it you will find the right path if you have the motivation.”

Here, I must categorically assert that not one word, not one syllable, not one coma of the Quran can be changed. Its laws whether pertaining to the executive, legislature or any other matter are immutable. Thus while Islam believes in strong central authority, it does not countenance totalitarianism. The powers of the head of state are limited by the injunctions of the Quran and, in this sense, there can never be a Hitler or Mussolini in an Islamic society.[17].Similarly, the Quran also curtails the powers of the legislature. No parliament can promulgate the profane or prohibit what is lawful. “There can therefore be no question of a parliament in a Muslim society, legalizing homosexuality, altering the basic laws of the Quran or curtailing the rights that it gives to men and women. However this does not substantially restrict the competence of parliaments to legislate because only 190 of the Quran’s 6,247 verses deal with personal, penal and civil laws as well as jurisprudence and testimony. Therefore, there is no impediment in the way of Islamic legislatures enabling them to enact laws in line with modern values.” [18] If by Sharia Dr. Manzoor Ahmad means laws in Islamic societies that are not Quranic injunctions then, perhaps, these can be amended and here a distinction has to be made between religion and ideology.

Religion and Ideology.

According to Dr. Manzoor Ahmad, “Ideology is secular; religion is sacred. Ideologies are based on secular principles for structuring society in a particular way and have proven to be more coercive in nature than accommodative. On the other hand the word religion encompasses a whole range of attitudes starting from the Sufi’s world view to liberalists who believe that God actually sits on a throne and intervenes in worldly affairs on a day to day basis. Religions establish a relationship between man and a higher reality whereas ideologues have been earth bound and mostly concerned with themselves in regulating the daily life of a human being.”

He believes that all ideologies are intolerant and zealots have made Islam into an ideology operating on a true or false logic. It was only in the 20th century, that a new and exotic meaning was affixed to Islam by intellectuals eager to prove that the religion could meet the modern challenges of the global world if dubbed an ideology. Just as the Muslims under the influence of communism began calling Islam an ideology in the last century, the current century opened with fundamentalist forces in the forefront. Consequently most intellectuals opt out of discussing religion. They fear inviting controversy that can spiral into ugly accusations scourging them heretics by die-hard purists who shun views on Islam that don’t correlate with their beliefs. This is a very dangerous development, quite recent, where the level of tolerance grows increasingly narrow. It shuns probes and explorations for value and benefit; it marginalizes free and parallel thinking and a spirit of inquiry; it discourages honesty and confession; it abhors hunch, intuition, experience, judgment and feelings. Flick through any religious channel and you will find turgidity not innovation; read through any religious literature and you will find ignorance not enlightenment.

Addressing the basic problem of intolerance, the root of extremism in religions, Dr Manzoor Ahmad calls it “command and obedience” which rules our social, moral, religious and political life.  Since this paradigm is coercive in nature and tries to shut all avenues of debate and disagreement, the pent-up feelings burst through the weak spots in the command structure whenever they find a chance.

Dr. Manzoor Ahmad’s differentiation between ideology and religion raises fundamental issues. To many, Islam is more than a just a personal faith – it is a way of life. The secular and the spiritual are not watertight compartments of human existence. They are inter-related. In this sense the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar are not separate entities. They are one. If this is the case then it also must be said that religion, if wrongly interpreted, is not merely the opiate of the people as the Marxist believed  – it can become the poison that destroys society.[19] The correct interpretation of religion is, therefore, directly related to education and this is what both Dr. Manzoor Ahmad as well as Justice Ramday stressed during the seminar. The latter, without naming the clergy,   emphasized the need to study and understand religion ourselves rather than through the “eyes, ears and minds of professionals whose bread and butter depended on it.” He then struck out at the mullahs saying “in legal and judicial terms we discard such people as ‘interested witnesses’ because there’s a motive attached to their evidence.”

“As I was coming here I thought of the Almighty ordaining knowledge for man after He created Adam. And it is no coincidence that the commencement of our religion also started with the command” said Justice Ramday. He recited the relevant verses in fluent Arabic underpinning the splendour of self-study and logic made easy for humans. The judge asked the audience to mull over it. “Ordinarily, at the first meeting, you make your own introduction, the way God did with Moses when he went up the mountain in search of fire. ‘I am God.’ But in the case of Prophet Mohammad, God asked him to read. That’s the kind of emphasis Islam puts on learning.”

That settled the judge moved on to the heart of Islam. “It is nothing beyond a path that prescribes a man to be a good human being. There is not a single religion in the world that believes in this life being temporary and when our life ends, there has to be accountability and stocktaking with reward and punishment coming into play.” As one deeply interested in other religions, Justice Ramday’s quintessential observation was profoundly simple: “What does the Old Testament, the Bible, Vedas, the Wheel of Life with 8 spokes, Jainism, Buddhism and all other scriptures speak of? They show the path for man to be a human; how to attain nirvana and salvation.”

The venerable judge is aware of the ‘Day ;/of Judgment’ hovering over all of us. He recently rebuffed a government counsel arguing against the chief justice: “Will a judge wait for the Day of Judgment to get justice?” As an ardent advocate of interfaith dialogue, he said “this planet would be worth a life if, a Muslim, Hindu, Jew or Christian irrespective of his faith, is above all a good human being.”

He took the road not taken by others. “It’s sheer ignorance on our part that we become exposed to exploitation by certain vested interests who pitch us against each other’s religions.” Calling people who attack each other “narcissists” Justice Ramday gave a parabolic example of two people travelling to Lahore from Islamabad via two different routes – the Motorway and the GT Road. Instead of “slitting each other’s throats” saying their route was better wouldn’t it be civil if both the feuding parties eschewed their differences and said to each other: “I wish you good luck. Follow the rules. Be careful with your speed.” I have to interject at this point by respectfully adding that such logic is easier said than done. Real life tells us that when there is such a polarization of views, it’s well neigh impossible to reach a middle ground.

Thus we have two different points of view: an academic who believes that the secular (ideology) and the spiritual (religion) are mutually exclusive and cannot be reconciled; and a judge whose vision is inspired by the belief that there is unity in diversity as the human race embarks upon a transcendental voyage towards the One reality. The former envisages conflict; the later does not abandon the hope that religion-motivated violence, particularly in the name of Islam, can be defeated. The implication is that the Quran must be understood and not merely chanted.

This was the essence of what emerged from the seminar. Had it been properly developed, then the event could have been both memorable and consequential because of the live telecast. The opportunity was lost and, instead, sub-themes were dwelt upon. Known facts were repeated ad nauseam and Justice Ramday referred to some of them in his summation.

The sub-themes.

“Strong women are not tolerated,” was the important line in Ms Fauzia Wahab’s presentation. She gave the example of Ms Nilofur Bakhtiar, the federal minister for tourism currently standing in the line of fire for hugging a paraglider in Paris! The Taliban at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad have declared her a ‘non-Muslim’ and the government, despite all its talk about “enlightened moderation,” seems to have knuckled under.

Ms Fauzia Wahab described extremism as a “monster at the doorsteps of every home.” To that extent, she is right. She is also right when she said that Muslims over the last 800 years lived a peaceful existence where women attended qawallis, mushairas, urs and visited tombs of saints.  She blamed Gen. Ziaul Haq’s tsunami of Islamisation that swept away moderation and all the student unions leaving behind a flotsam of fundamentalism. The rabid arm of Jamaat-e-Islami’s student body known as the Jamiat-e-Tulaba-e-Islam was the only union allowed by Zia. “Today you see the stuffing from those dark decadent days serving as professors and administrators.” Having won the battle for the hearts and minds of their students, the extremists’ supremacy stands unchallenged in universities and colleges.

Ms Wahab spoke of the wave of religiosity in the 90s when organizations like the Al-Huda seized control under state patronage: At the Presidency, the First Lady would invite women to a weekly lecture on Islam and purdah (segregation), the same being the case at the Corps Commander’s House in Karachi. “This influence was devastating. It ruined the extended family because women began observing strict purdah from their close relatives,” was Ms Wahab’s lament. Would it not have been wonderful had she connected the dots she put out for the audience and wisely and ably steered her ship toward a dock? It is always convenient for politicians to pass the buck to their adversaries, but her own party, led by a woman, Ms Benazir Bhutto, holding the singular distinction of being the first Muslim woman prime minister and despite serving as Pakistan’s prime minister twice, failed to abolish anti-women laws for fear of losing support from the clergy and conservative elements in the political sphere. Would we not have clapped had Ms Wahab vowed to fight for an end to honour killing, little girls given in marriage to older men, gang rapes and domestic violence?  No man or woman head of government has had the guts to end such inhuman practices.

M.P. Bhandara made at least two important points that have a bearing on religious extremism in Pakistan. The first was the proposal to move a constitutional amendment bill calling for the inclusion of the Quaid-e-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s 11 August 1947 speech in article 2 of the Pakistan Constitution. In that speech Jinnah had said: “you may belong to any religion, cast or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”[20] However, article 2 of the 1973 Constitution declares: “Islam shall be the state religion of Pakistan.” Bhandara elaborated that this provision does not appear either in the 1956 or the 1962 constitutions. Indeed, if one goes through the Muslim League Council records from 1906 to 1948, there is no reference to a theocratic Pakistan.[21] It is significant that Justice Ramday, a religious scholar who refuses to be intimidated by fundamentalists, declared during the seminar: “There’s no theocracy in Islam.”

The second, no less relevant, element in Bhandara’s address was his proposal to amend the Blasphemy Laws. Under the amendment, the punishment for defiling the Holy Quran would also apply to the desecration of any other Holy Book. Similarly, the punitive measures for derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet are also sought in respect of such remarks against any other Holy Prophet. Although the proposed amendments have already been rejected by members of parliament from both sides of the political divide, Bhandara stated that he would continue with his efforts.

However, as a parliamentarian from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Q), Bhandara glossed over the violence inflicted almost every day on members of the minority community despite adequate coverage of these atrocities by the print and electronic media. For instance, only recently one of the leading English language newspapers commented editorially:

“In an atmosphere of increasing religiosity, the Bishop of Rochester (UK) Michael Nazir Ali has done well to voice his concerns for Pakistan’s non-Muslim minorities. Unfortunately, so long as divisions between Islam and the West deepen all over the world, minorities in Muslim societies will continue to be targeted by zealots who are egged on by fire-breathing mosque imams.” [22]

All that Bhandara could bring himself to say at the seminar was: “There is a lunatic fringe here and elsewhere who burn churches and other places of worship. This is a very small fringe. All sane people must condemn it.” To him such incidents were few and far between and “by and large minorities have been fairly dealt with.”

Good governance!” came the cry from Air Marshal Nur Khan, a giant of an administrator, who put the Pakistan Air Force on the victory stand during the 1965 war against India; who de-politicized the Board of Cricket Control; who professionalized the Pakistan International Airline and pinned it on the world map as one of the best air carriers. Now, in the twilight of his life watching helplessly his country slide into the throes of chaos, the air marshal hangs on the remote hope of Pakistan returning to normalcy. “Law and order is worse than ever, but I am an optimistic man…Pakistan has a great future.” Field Marshal Ayub Khan was not a “political man” and that’s why he floundered in the end. However, it is an irony of history that all others who followed him down to the present incumbent “tried aping Ayub.” They followed his practice of one-man-rule and shunned dissent. Predicting that Gen. Musharraf will have a “hard landing” if he doesn’t invite all the political parties, including the religious, to arrive at a consensus regarding holding of fair and free elections conducted by an independent election commission. He concluded: “There is a revolt against the system. Muslims have been humbled by their own governments. People have been left illiterate and unlettered. Unless you educate your masses, the disconnected will take up guns.”

Tasneem Noorani, another outstanding administrator who until last year was the interior secretary, controlling the law and order machinery of the country,  played out the role of a typical Monday morning media quarterback, a term given to American sports commentators who wax eloquent after the game is over. Mr Noorani with his ‘seven-points’ failed to engage the audience with case studies and real life experience of ways and means to weed out terrorism. Yes, he talked of Pakistan’s support to the US on the war against terror; the arrests of Al-Qaeda activists here; the spread of talibanization; Shia Sunni animosity; the nurturing of Jihadi parties to liberate Indian Held Kashmir; the gap between the rich and the poor, the law and order situation prevalent in Pakistan today, but all these points didn’t quite gel. Instead it was all canned stuff.

My admiration for Justice Ramday, therefore, goes up a notch when as a serving judge presiding over the most sensitive issue that Pakistan could ever face, he spoke without any fear knowing full well that each word of his was being weighed by the audience and all the TV viewers including the establishment waiting for him to trip. But   Tasneem Noorani, undeniably the “most handsome bureaucrat” in the words of Justice Ramday, took us on a jerky ride through the jungle of jargon and officialese. I am going to show you the other side of this “handsome” face which is more human and therefore more appealing by quoting you from his article in the Op-ed page of Dawn. He begins his story thus:

“An outstanding functionary of the state was killed with a shot to the head in his bedroom in front of his wife during the wee hours of the morning some time ago in Pakistan’s so-called safest city — Islamabad. The immediate reaction of the police was that it was a robbery. This instinctive reaction to point out a “safe” direction for the deed defies logic. Why should four men waste their time in trying to rob an officer with an honest reputation and living in Spartan conditions when they have far more lucrative alternatives? Investigations are being supervised by the apex court of the country — the deceased being an officer of the Supreme Court at the time of his demise.” [23]

Noorani then shares the contents of an email the deceased, Syed Hammad Raza, sent to his friend three days before his death. Talking about corruption wrote Mr Raza: “Before putting someone else to the test, I tried it on myself with horrifying results. May I then submit my own case: 1. Not every minute of my time spent in the office has been in discharging official duties. 2. Not every call from the official telephones provided for use has been official. 3. Not every litre of fuel provided to me officially has been used for strictly official purposes. 4. There have been certain occasions during field postings when I have not paid my utility bills. These are some of the charges that came up against me during the investigation of “introspection.” And I plead guilty on each count and await your verdict as to where I stand.”

Noorani’s brilliant piece of writing can become a trailblazer were he to often open up his heart and spill the beans on why the government cares two figs for the life and security of its non-VIP citizens. An eye-opener is the amount of money guzzled by the exercise of protecting VIPs in Islamabad. According to an year end review of police performance by the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, out of Rs 290 million for capital police, the lion’s share went towards protecting VVIPs.

What also could have been rewarding was the question answer session. But it wasn’t. Justice Ramday was conducting the proceedings and was perhaps too polite to order us to be brief and ask pointed questions instead of making lengthy statements. Its worthwhile to recall an observation of Brigadier (retd) Abdul Majid Khan who gave an eye-witness account of ‘foreigners’ of Uzbek and Middle Eastern origin operating in Bannu “They came from abroad and we should expel them but our government is too soft on them,” he said. Interesting, a few days later one read in the news of  “militants” firing rockets on a police check-post in Bannu while in a separate incident, a bank official, Mohammad Rashid of Agriculture Development Bank of Pakistan at Bannu was injured when a home made bomb exploded in his car. Meanwhile at Landikotal’s (Khyber Agency) Agencies Headquarter Hospital, another set of “militants” struck injuring clerk Khaista Mohammad. The NGO ‘Save the Children’ unit was the target. The principal officer of the US Consulate in Peshawar had inaugurated the office at the hospital two months earlier. This happened on the same Friday when 130 miles away, the Imam-e-Kaaba was giving his sermon on Muslim brotherhood and harmony. A groundswell attended the Friday prayers at Faisal Mosque on 1 June to hear the sermon by Imam-i-Kaaba Al Sheikh Abdur Rehman Al Sudais. He preached to those gathered and to Pakistanis all over to shun sectarianism and extremism as they have no place in Islam. “For a single Ummah that faces one Kaaba there should be no reason for differences.” He said Islam protected human rights and promoted harmony and brotherhood and discouraged mischievous acts. He called for resolving conflicts through dialogue and negotiations taking into consideration social and economic benefits that could be achieved by resolving disputes. President Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz played host to him at their respective palaces. Better it would have been had the Imam-e-Kaaba in clear and categorical diction denounced suicide bombings, violence against women and extremism in the name of Islam. His words more than anyone else’s in the whole world would have sunk in the souls of 160 million Pakistanis. But that’s asking for the moon. He’s a man of the cloth and perhaps prefers to stay away from religious issues that are tainted with controversy.

Justice Ramday’s summation.

As I begin to assemble a portrait of the judge – very much a product of the society in which we live today – the contrarians among us may well ask why the pressing need to know Justice Ramday. Fair question. The persona of a judge – his intellectual pursuits, mannerisms, attitudes, interests and life outside the purview of the court – helps us frame our personal beliefs by correlating his legal arguments with his personal characteristics rather than  legal precedents that he may cite. Our opinions can be over simplistic or too nuanced, fiercely dramatic or cloyingly pious, but at least we would have tried entering the judicial monastery where no ordinary mortal dare wander. Taking a chapter out of the book of Confucius Sayings is instructive. The Chinese sage preferred focusing on behaviour rather than personality that Freud later pushed on to us. Relying on the wisdom of Confucius, allow me to spotlight Justice Ramday’s personality and not merely his behaviour at the seminar which he presided with professional sangfroid. Furthermore, it would be unfair to Justice Ramday were I to place him beyond the pale of human experience, etherizing him as a judge whose heart and soul cannot be touched. On the contrary, generous with his personal narrative, the judge provided us a multi-dimensional view of his diverse background, the telling feature being that he was comfortable sharing his life story just like any other human who himself tells about who he is, and why.

On the dais, he sat not nitpicking panellists, but wanting to be enlightened. He heard with rapt attention what Air Marshal Nur Khan said about the end of Musharraf’s army rule and the beginning of democracy; he introduced the former interior secretary Tasneem Noorani as the “most handsome bureaucrat he’d seen;” he appreciated MNA Meenu Bhandara’s bid to re-launch his amended bill on Blasphemy; he complimented his host  Iftikhar Murshed for his excellent journal the Criterion; and he gave us a patient hearing when the audience instead of asking short questions engaged in dialectics.

He joked, smiled, listened, spoke as if he was one of us and not above us. A flesh and blood kind of man one can dialogue with. His moral compass pointed in the right direction; his spiritual reach was authoritative; his knowledge of Islam and other religions far-reaching. The audience, wary at first (aren’t we all scared to even approach our lordships for fear of contempt of court?), drawn by his sincerity of purpose, gravitated towards Justice Ramday.

“Don’t scare us” Justice Ramday had warned Malik Qayyum, the government’s counsel, after hearing how Malaysian president Mahathir Mohammad deposed judges inimical to him.  The judge who today is the most crucial point person in the judicial crisis raging like wild fire through Pakistan, left the Supreme Court to motor across to Marriott that Monday afternoon to preside over this lecture on religion, terrorism and law and order. Apart from one oblique reference about the crisis “it is very embarrassing moment for me today,” Justice Ramday immersed himself in his role as a moderator of the seminar. This one-liner caps a thousand word essay on the duel between chief justice and the president with Justice Ramday as the referee. The judge genuinely looked pained.

From his heavenly discourse mentioned earlier, the judge descended the spiritual staircase down to the every day world inhabited by ordinary Pakistanis in quotidian life. He reminisced of his college days, some 40 years back. Earlier parliamentarian Ms Fauzia Wahab of the PPPP had mentioned her university days in Karachi and how girl students were free to roam around the campus. Justice Ramday joked about having missed all that fun for being in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” He told us that he went to Gordon College, Rawalpindi, and was not allowed to talk to girls: “We had a notice saying, ‘anybody talking to a girl will be fined Rs 10.’” The underlying humour was contagious and the audience began to chill out, no longer awestruck by the presence of a judge presiding over the destiny of the nation. “And the lady I couldn’t find in the campus,” pointing towards Ms Wahab, “who talked longingly about life on the campus” where out of 5000 girl students only one wore a burqa, Justice Ramday dispelled her fears, with terse and witty remarks that the “beard is not the sole identity of Muslims.” The Jews, Christians and Sikhs too sport beards. “A beard is not the kind of curse we take it to be.” Similarly, he said, we shouldn’t look down upon women who cover their faces. He mentioned travelling the countryside in India and found Hindu women bent in veils coming down to their ankles. When he visited the Gurukul University in India, one of the elitist and oldest seats of education, he found no girl students. “Dr Satwant Kumar, the vice chancellor told me when I asked him where the girls were, that the college didn’t adhere to co-education and that the girls’ campus was a good 40 miles away!”

Given to epigrammatic one-liners, Justice Ramday’s summation made a deeper impact than all other speakers except Dr Manzoor Ahmad. But remember, our Lordship was an ace debater in college.


Ideally, my model for an exchange (not a seminar, please!) is the Doha Debates. Dubbed as “a public forum for dialogue and freedom of speech,” the Qatar-based debates are chaired by Tim Sebastian, renowned for putting his interviewees on the spot. His programme on BBC called ‘Hard Talk’ is remembered by many where he would eke out the last iota of truth or falsehood from his guests, especially the controversial kind. The three-year-old Doha Debates, sponsored by the Qatar Foundation encourage “open and frank dissection of important issues in the Arab and Islamic worlds; principles of free speech and democratic decision-making through the use of this traditional debating format.” They provide a forum for “serious discussion on the hottest issues” for people of various backgrounds, expertise and opinions to share knowledge and exchange views.

Besides, the Debates’ ultimate objective is sublime: to create a sense of social responsibility that will carry through to real life.  In the words of Tim Sebastian “The Doha Debates form part of the vital push for change and reform that’s being spearheaded in Qatar. The programme is a unique venture for this region and represents, I believe, a vital exercise for a free and modern society.”

Iftikhar Murshed is no Tim Sebastian. Alas. Can he become one? Well, what’s stopping him? He has the makings of one: He couldn’t have chosen a more newsworthy topic than he did for Criterion’s inaugural seminar, he couldn’t have bagged a newsier chief guest than he did; and he couldn’t have been pushier than he was when he told the audience to ask whatever, without fear or favour, never mind if the event was being carried live on one of the television channels.

However, the weakest link was the quality of ‘intellects’ he managed to pull together.  Most were time-worn, tired, recyclers. They had nothing new to reveal. Why invite them then? Wasn’t his role that of a ‘concept manager’ responsible for rousing, stimulating and shepherding his flock?

Had he followed the format adopted by the Doha Debates, Iftikhar Murshed, at the most, would have erred on the right side of grandiosity. The guest speakers, instead of flaccid floggers of tired dogma could have transformed into fiery debaters zeroing in on the logic of their argument by examining the complexity of the issue from different angles to reach a conclusion that the audience would have found inspiring and fresh.

Another claim to fame of the Doha Debates is its invited speakers which according to the organizers are “highly regarded academics, politicians, religious figures, government officials, policy experts and journalists from around the world.”

Keeping the Doha Debates as the model, Criterion must strive to raise the level of discussion by its speakers. The so-called intellectuals and experts must not take for granted the audiences in Pakistan. Thanks to the Internet and 24-hour news channels from around the world, an average Pakistani is extremely savvy about religion and politics. He doesn’t need lectures and classroom seminars; he needs answers and solutions to problems he is perhaps better initiated than our talking-heads. What we also need is accountability, putting on the mat those responsible for misusing their power and authority. They must be singled out and pressurized to respond, on the lines of a truth and reconciliation commission. Criterion is an ideal forum for civil society to constitute a pressure group that makes meaningful inroads into territories till now marked “restricted”, “no-go” and “out-of-bounds” for the ordinary citizens.

At the conclusion of the Criterion seminar, I asked Dr Manzoor Ahmad as to what his thoughts were when he stood at the lectern? “To tell you the truth I went to the meeting quite unprepared and had to trust my guts to say something meaningful. I don’t know whether I succeeded or not but the sort of things I had in my mind have been expressed in a slightly different way on different occasions (that he later emailed to me).  I own what I have written in these pages.” I then proceeded to ask him his opinion of the audience participation. “The audience was perceptive and good but I am afraid I probably was not able to say certain things which were in my mind in very coherent way. I thought I would later write something about it, but have not been able to do so yet.” Now here is an honest response. It only reiterates what I state in the beginning of this paper – that seminars are perhaps not the forum for a meaningful dialogue. “By saying that Islam is a religion of peace is not enough. Instead build a self critique not on if and why Islam is the religion of peace but on a paradigm on which you have built your Islam for the 20th century and then try to build an alternative paradigm on the basis of which you can say Islam is a religion of peace and not an extremist religion.” He thinks that Muslims as a whole suffer from an “intellectual deficit.” We don’t have a critical mass of philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, economists of world repute in the Muslim world today. “Unfortunately those who are especially interested in reviving Islam have not been able to develop a new hermeneutics which can gel with modern understanding,” Dr Manzoor Ahmad laments.

They say journalism is the first draft of history. What the speakers at the seminar said had little relevance to the day-to-day realities reported prominently in the national press. In this landscape of irrational fault-lines where religious extremists spread their malevolent tentacles, shutting out public discussion on religion is a sin. At the risk of repeating myself, let me state with confidence that newspaper columnists are frequently given a shut-up call by their editors and proprieties of mass media under the practice self-censorship. Recently, in one of my columns, I put across a sufistic view of divine intervention in the affairs of men and how God was busy ‘balancing the books’ of both the rich and the poor. I gave first-hand examples. My column angered the so-called thekadars (contractors) of Islam, a term most recently coined by President Musharraf for the mullahs.  My harried editor emailed me to “refrain” from writing on “religion” in future! Newspaper editors and media barons would do well not to buckle under the pressure of a handful of illiterate obscurantist who will not allow a public debate on Islam for fear of the educated class taking over their turf and depriving them of a cushy lifestyle sustained by gullible followers.

But the bigots in the West are no better. Their diatribe against Islam is succinctly summarized by Mustapha Marrouchi. Discussing his thesis in Countercurrents.org, the professor of English who writes with aplomb on all things Middle-Eastern says discourse on terrorism often gets streamlined. Its scholarship is yesterday’s newspaper or today’s CNN bulletin. Its gurus–Judith Miller[since sacked from the New York Times for misreporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq],Tom Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, David Frum, William Safire, George Will, Norman Podhoretz, Seymour Hersh, Michael Massing, Mark Danner, A.M. Rosenthal, to name the “happy few”– are journalists with obscure, even ambiguous, backgrounds.” Most of the writing about terrorism is “brief, pithy, and totally devoid of the scholarly armature of evidence, proof, or argument. Its paradigm is the television interview, the spot news announcement, the instant gratification one associates with the Bush White House’s ‘reality time,’ the evening news based entirely on the sound bite,” says Mr Marrouchi.

The oftentimes “pseudo scholarship and expert jargon” by the US media has never ceased to amaze me while living in America for the past nine years.  I have spoken with investigative journalist Seymour Hersh (mentioned above) famous for his revealing pieces in The New Yorker magazine that frequently ignite spirited talk shows sending seismic signals over America. Even the White House goes into twitters but pretends ignorance of Mr Hersh’s very existence. He has honed into a rabid confrontationist and claims inside knowledge with his war chest of intelligence briefs collected during interviews with intelligence operatives in the most sensitive parts of the world. However he is no different from the run-off-the-mill western writers who  Marrouchi’s describes as “self-righteous sophists” who forward “specious arguments and sermonize tiresomely without ever undergoing an exercise in self-criticism,”

[1] Anjum Niaz is a journalist with over 20 years experience in national and international reporting.

[1] Asad, Muhammad, The Message of the Quran, The Book Foundation, Bristol, 2003,  p. 31, footnote 87.

[2] Glasse, Cyril, The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam, Stacey International  (revised edition 2001) p. 83.

[3] Abdel Haleem, Muhammad, Understanding the Quran: Themes and Style, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 1999, p. 64,

[4] The Quran, 2:193.

[5] Ibid., 60:8.

[6] Ibid., 9:6.

[7] Ibid., 2:190.

[8] Ibid., 2:194.

[9] Ibid., 49:9

[10] Ibid., 5:2.

[11] Ibid., 5:1, 16:91-91, etc.

[12] Ibid., 9:5.

[13] The number becomes 6,360 if the words In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace, are counted as a verse because 113 of the 114 chapters of the Quran begin with this sentence which also finds mention within the text of one of the chapters.

[14] Abdel Haleem, Muhammad, Understanding the Quran: Themes and Style, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.. 1999 p.65.

[15] S. Iftikhar, Murshed, Criterion, Vol 1, No. 1, Oct – Dec 2006, p.14.

[16] Ibid., p.p.13.

[17] Roy, Olivier, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan Cambridge University Press, 1986, p.5.

[18] S. Iftikhar, Murshed, Criterion, Vol. 1, No. 1, Oct –Dec 2006, p. 21.

[19] Ibid., p.23.

[20] Speech delivered by the Quaid-e-Azam as President of Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly and as governor-general designate on 11 August 1947.

[21] Bhandara, M.P., “Quaid’s Concept of Pakistan,” Daen, Islamabad, 25 March 2007.

[22] “Plight of Minorities,” Dawn, 5 June 2007.

[23] Dawn, 24 May 2007.