It has been some time since the recent edict of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) – Pakistan’s premier constitutional body for ensuring Islamic observance in state matters – caused ripples by making the outrageous claim that DNA evidence cannot be considered conclusive in rape cases. It is difficult to tell whether the ensuing censure from the media and human rights community has stricken a chord with the authorities, but the obligation to keep the debate alive remains. In fact, it would be better if it were taken a step further.
CII’s ruling is just the latest in a tradition of absurd attempts by the clergy to find its place in a changing world. Be it the ulema during the Mughal era or modern day scholars who have supported one dictator or the other, it seems all too obvious that the religious establishment has been trying desperately to retain its share of state power like any other group. At a societal level, they have been clinging to their conservative agenda by issuing fatwas against anything modern, including the printing press, railways, loudspeakers, and cameras to name a few. And while the clergy continues to subdue the masses through a rejection of rationality and science, there is an unqualified allegiance towards anything deemed religious, no questions asked.
The unfortunate fact is that contrary to all our boastful claims about the absence of a clergy in Islam, there has developed a religious class all over the Muslim world that plays on religious sentiments and the ignorance of people in its attempt to tighten its grip on social and political power. From Indonesia to Morocco, every other day, well-meaning and rational Muslims are left aghast at outrageous religious rulings that seem completely out of place in our world. And what is worse is that the Muslim world seems incapable of formulating any framework for challenging and testing the legitimacy of any claim made in the name of religion.
The question of legitimacy stands settled in the modern world. In the intellectual domain, it is the objective, rational and scientific method that offers the bedrock to test any claim. And in political matters, it is simply the power to persuade others of one’s claim, manifested popularly through the vote. The majoritarian framework of governance, however, loses its legitimacy if it fails to ensure universal human rights.
The question then arises as to why we Muslims are not able to understand and follow these same standards and stop falling prey to questionable religious authorities. The answer is anybody’s guess.
(Editorial Issue 10)