Interview with Ziauddin Sardar

Posted on September 19, 2010 by


Ziauddin Sardar is a writer, broadcaster, public intellectual and cultural-critic who specialises in Islamic Studies
First published in The News on Sunday, August 29, 2010

The News on Sunday: The Chief Justice has questioned the power of the parliament if it takes the ‘drastic’ decision of declaring Pakistan a secular state. You have talked about reformulating the Shariah and given examples of some Muslim countries that have done this. The question is, who is the competent authority to effect these changes if not the parliament? Or, what is the role of an elected parliament which is supposed to reflect the will of the people and was declared a legitimate consultative body, as envisaged by Islam, even by Iqbal?

Ziauddin Sardar: The parliament is the supreme decision-making and legislative body in any democracy. It reflects the collective desires of the citizens and makes laws. It is the only body that can decide what kind of state Pakistan should be. The job of the chief justice is not to tell the parliament what it can or cannot do, or should or could do; it is to ensure that the laws established by the parliament are interpreted fairly and upheld by the citizens and applied equally to all. The parliament and the judiciary are independent branches of the state. Just as the parliament should not interfere with the judiciary, the judiciary has no right to interfere with the parliament. The judiciary does not make the law, parliament does. So, it is also the only institution in Pakistan that can decide what aspects of the Shariah to reformulate, change or drop altogether.

The important thing to realise is that the Shariah is not Divine, as most Pakistanis seem to believe; it’s a law that was socially constructed in history by Muslim jurists. And, like all laws everywhere, it must by dynamic, adjust to changes in society and accommodate new developments. The only thing Divine in Islam is the Qur’an; and we can only have an interpretative relationship with an eternal, sacred text. Therefore, the sacred text has to be interpreted constantly in the light of new knowledge and changing circumstances – and we need to keep deriving new understanding and new legislation from our primary sources.

The new reformulated Shariah that was developed, for example, in Morocco is a product of a new interpretation that involved both Muslim scholars and secularists, men and women. Since it is based on the Qur’an and Sunnah, it is, of course, just as Islamic as the Shariah we find in classic texts.

TNS: In one of your articles on secularism, where you talk of the victory of Asharites over rationalists in the fourteenth century, you also talk about oppression of secularism. But the examples that you give of Jamal Abdul Nasser and the baathist regimes all come in the twentieth century. What about the period in between? Did we see ideal Muslim societies being formed and put in place that offered a viable alternative to secularism?

ZS: The point I was making was that any good thing, no matter how good it is, can become poisonous if taken to an extreme. Too much sugar and you become a diabetic. Too much salt and you have hypertension. We need both but if consumed in excess they can kill you. The same is true with religion and secularism. We need both in measured doses to become a healthy society. Islam in Pakistan, I am afraid, has ceased to be a religion and a worldview; it has become an obsession, a pathology. It has been drained of all ethics and has become a mechanism for oppression and injustice. A society that locates the notion of honour and shame on the female body, that believes it possesses absolute truth and all truth and denies legitimacy to all other religions and outlook is an inhuman society. On the other side, secularists too have become extremists — for them everything is ‘secular’ with no place for spirituality or religion in public space. So, good wholesome ideas are turned into poisonous ideologies.

One way to turn a life-enhancing idea into a pathology is to romanticise it and turn it into an unrealisable ideal. There is no such thing as an ideal Muslim society or a kind of an Islamic utopia. Indeed, all recent attempts to produce Islamic utopias have turned out to be devilish nightmares. Muslims are a human community and, like all humans, they have their strengths and weaknesses. We need to shape the best society we can with all our follies and a limited understanding of Islam. It will not be perfect or ideal. It should be just and egalitarian.

TNS: Secularism may have tended to be ‘totalitarian’ in its practice in the Muslim world but what about the merits of the idea itself, theoretically speaking?

ZS: What I am objecting to is totalitarianism of all sorts — secular or religious. Religion can lead to totalitarianism just as easily as secularism. When turned into an arch ideology, in theory or in practice, secularism becomes a tool of oppression. But as a mechanism that allows all members of society — whatever their religious position, moral outlook or political stand — to participate equally in public space, secularism can be an invaluable tool for building consensus, for progress and development. Pakistan does not need another ideology. It needs a system of governance where so many competing notions of what it means to be a Muslim and Pakistani can coexist, participate as equals in the political process, and help build a sustainable civic society. Well thought out secularism can provide such a system.

TNS: In Pakistan, secularism has not been given a chance and it has always been pitched against Islam as an opposing idea and the absence of secularism has produced an intolerant state and society.

ZS: It is a fundamental error to pitch secularism against Islam. To begin with, it assumes that there is one kind of secularism and only one Islam. But there are different forms of secularism and numerous interpretations of Islam. The fear of secularism in Pakistan is based on ignorance of what secularism can mean or be interpreted to mean for a highly fragmented society. It is also based on the ridiculous assumption that Islam is ‘a complete way of life’ and has solved all the problems of humanity forever. You only have to look at the Muslim world to realise just how absurd this sounds. This assumption also generates a sense of moral superiority. Much of the intolerance, bigotry and sheer inhumanity we find in Muslim societies is based on this absurd belief. Islam is a not a ready-made solution to all the problems we face but a way of looking at and shaping the world based on faith. God has provided us with an eternal source of ethical and moral guidance to solve the constant and perpetually changing streams of problems we face as a human society. But we have to find the solutions ourselves. And, in shaping our societies and solving our problems, Muslims, like all other human beings, have to use whatever tools are available. So, instead of fearing secularism, we need to engage with it and shape it to suit our purpose with full confidence in our own faith. This is exactly why the Islamic parties of Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia have embraced secularism and, as can be seen, are reaping the rewards.

TNS: You have also spoken of interpreting Islam according to the times one lives in. What about the peculiar reality of Pakistan which is sharply divided into sects and no one interpretation of Islam will do for the rest?

ZS: The important thing to realise is that there has never been a single interpretation of Islam. Right after the death of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), numerous interpretations with competing interests emerged and have been with us ever since. So Islam has always been about plurality of interpretations but throughout history we never learned to live with this pluralism. What we cannot have is one interpretation claiming to be the absolute truth, the complete and utter understanding of Islam, at the expense of all others — and actively persecuting and suppressing other interpretations. Unfortunately, this has been the tragic reality of our history.

But for me the most important interpretation is the interpretation of our own context – the times we live in. We cannot live in history. The interpretations of history made sense in their own particular times. The Shariah, for example, was developed during the Abbasid period and made a great deal of sense in that context. That is why, wherever it is implemented it recreates the social condition of the eighth and ninth centuries which makes little sense in the 21st century. Similarly, the verses of the Qur’an have little significance for us outside our own time. We have to understand them in relation to the world we inhabit so we can gain guidance from them to solve the problems we face today. We have to reinterpret them in the context of our own time so they make sense to us and provide meaning and direction for us today. Otherwise we will be perpetually living in history — rather than moving to a viable future.

TNS: One reason why Muslims shirk from the idea of secularism is that since there is no organised religious class in Islam there is no ground for separation of religion and state. But, in Pakistan, the influence exercised by the religious orthodoxy is beyond question and they have acquired a vested interest, particularly after Ziaul Haq. What is the role of mullah in Islam?

ZS: The mullahs provide a good example of how absurd things have become. On the one hand, we say there is no priesthood in Islam. On the other hand, what are mullahs if not a priestly class? I think they have reduced Islam from an egalitarian endeavour to a repressive, exploitative one. The classical Muslim scholars, the great jurists and thinkers, shunned politics and stood up against political tyranny and oppression, censorship and suppression of ideas. Contemporary mullahs need to follow their example.