From 2006 to 2016 I was working as Islamabad based correspondent of the country’s leading political magazine. The news organization provided me the opportunity to travel extensively throughout these ten years to cover the political developments in Punjab and the security situation in KP. So normally I would spend my time meeting people from all walks of life—ordinary folks like farmers, shopkeepers, laborers, police walas, lawyers, clerics and all other different types of people.
Apart from talking to these people about the political developments and security situation in their areas, I also had the opportunity to acquire knowledge about these folks’ belief systems and cultural and religious practices. I developed a layman’s understanding of how these people view the world around them just by talking to them about ordinary things. But it was not an expert’s understanding as I lacked sociological understanding of the intricacies of the social, cultural and religious life in these remote areas of Pakistan. However, after all these years I developed a feeling that the narrative of religious orthodoxy that the Pakistani state has imposed on us is not the complete picture of the religious scene of Pakistani society. Our society is very diverse as far as religious belief systems are concerned and even more diverse as far as religious practices are concerned. And that the narrative of uniformity and orthodoxy imposed on us by the state, using media as a tool, is not the true or complete picture of Pakistani society.
If orthodoxy is not the complete picture of Pakistani society then what is the true situation here? I had no clue. I was kind of lost. But I don’t have to wait for long. One day searching for a good book to read in one of Islamabad’s bookshops, I found a book by the name of, ‘In search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan’. Author was a young man, Haroon Khalid, an anthropologist and teacher by profession. This book filled the gap in my knowledge about the diversity of religious practices and belief systems in the society.
The book took me away from the world of uniformity and orthodoxy as depicted by the Pakistani media (both newspapers and TV channels), whose only sense of diversity begins and ends with short news clips showing Christmas services in churches on December 25 of every year. The book took me on a tour of the world where there were sacred trees and animals with vast followings in the localities where these shrines were located. I found myself in the world, which finds expression “in shrines of phallic offering”. And this world existed in the sea of ruthless orthodox mullahs, who don’t desist from preaching violence to their followers at the slightest hint of any practices and beliefs, which cross the circle of orthodoxy as defined by religious authorities. These diverse religious practices and belief systems are not an innovation or an aberration in the neat and clean world of orthodoxy. Rather this world of religious diversity has existed for hundreds and thousands of years in this land of pure. And those practicing this diversity have not come from outside. They are sons of the soil.
The Pakistani State since its inception is deeply and strongly associated with religious orthodoxy, whose contours were defined during the British colonial period. Pakistani state and the people who have been running it from the very first day are either a product or a follower of one of reformist movement that spawned during colonial rule in India—these two include Barelvi reformist movement and Deobandi reformist movement, both of which remained at loggerheads during the colonial period with violent clashes taking place from time to time. Both these religious thoughts emerged in the soil of what is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and both these movements found a comfortable sanctuary in the Pakistani province of Punjab in the post-Independence period.
These two kinds of religious thoughts and systems secured most of the official patronage in the post-independence period. Pakistani media, both state owned and private—presents only those religious debates which revolve around these two reformist thoughts, or their variants, as the only authentic form of religion that is allowed to exist in the society. And the Pakistani state safely presumes religion only exists in our society in either of these two forms, thus, in the process, ignoring the religious diversity that exists in our midst to this day.
Two constitutional landmarks consolidated the orthodoxy in our state structures and society: firstly when Islam was declared the official religion of the state, and second when the Ahmadiya community was declared non-Muslims. Although religious clerics associated with the state several times advocated the insertion of the provision to define a Muslim in our constitutional documents, the religious lobby only succeeded in getting their way in 1974 when Ahmadiya community was declared non-Muslim—and this was the closest we came to eliminating the diversity in our society.
Haroon Khalid’s book took me away from the world of uniformity and orthodoxy as depicted by the Pakistani media, whose only sense of diversity begins and ends with Christmas services in churches on December 25 of every year
What the Pakistani parliament did on September 7, 1974, hardly has any precedence in Islamic history. Orthodoxy has largely been a Christian concept, consisting of a centralising church authority. The concept, according to scholars, has largely been alien to Islam. Yet this move in 1974 came out as a result of the alliance of the religious clergy and political leadership, to designate what, they thought, were “acceptable beliefs” in the Islamic context.
The orthodoxy constructed and inserted into the legal system by the legislative branch of the state in 1974 borrowed heavily from the victim community’s theological techniques. In the more than 400 pages of cross examination of the leader of Ahmadi community, Mirza Nasir, Pakistan’s Attorney General used Ahmadi community’s concept of excommunication of majority Muslims from the folds of Islam to bring home the point that the victim community could as well be pushed out of the ambit of Islam on theological ground in the same manner. During cross examination, the Attorney General Yahya Bakhtiar repeatedly asked the leader of the Ahmadi community his opinion about the theological concept of takfir, and in the process, attempted to justify the legislature pronouncing takfir on the Ahmadi community.
The passage of the 2nd Amendment was a clear indication that the modernist class which dominated the political system of the country was conceding ground to the religious clergy. The Bhutto regime was forced to shift from a quasi-secular outlook to a position where it had to sponsor an amendment in the Constitution that created a new division, based on religious beliefs in the society.
The 2nd Amendment was passed amidst a wave of gruesome violence in the province of Punjab. The religious parties which took to the streets in 1974 were badly defeated only three years back were now using the slogan of religious orthodoxy in danger to play with the insecurity of the economically unstable society.
The passage of the 2nd Amendment was a clear indication that the modernist class which dominated the political system of the country was conceding ground to the religious clergy
This time around we see the successors or self-proclaimed successors of Barelvi Movement using violence as a tool and religious orthodoxy as a slogan to gain controlling position in the political system. It is pertinent to mention here that only three years back this group was propped up by military establishment to divide the vote bank of secular but conservative political party, PML-N in Central Punjab. The group advocating orthodoxy didn’t secure a single seat in the parliament. But that is not preventing them from making attempts to secure for themselves a position of control within the political system. In this way they are using orthodoxy as a tool to secure a position for themselves in the political system. Apart from the disruption they are causing in civil life, they are emerging as the most divisive political force in the society.