About two weeks ago, the U.S. based Ghamidi Center for Islamic Learning released a video that addressed the question of why Islamic scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi’s ideas have not received majoritarian support in Pakistan. The speaker, an affiliate of Ghamidi, indicated that a vast majority of people are followers who follow a particular ideology, and only a few people accept ideas based on reason and reflection.
This is certainly one way to look at the situation. Indeed, it is true that the most vociferous critics of Ghamidi have been those who refuse to engage with his ideas. They ideologically follow jurisprudential texts written in the age of empires, and crudely brand him as a Munkar e Hadith (rejector of the Hadith texts). This is concerning, as Ghamidi has been a consistent voice of reason against the draconian abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, and the crude application of medieval laws in contemporary times. Generally, Ghamidi’s approach helps Pakistani Muslims grapple with the dissonance they feel between the demands of contemporary realities and the dictates of ancient texts.
However, not all opposition to Ghamidi’s thoughts can be simplistically reduced to the reasoning that those who disagree with him have forfeited reason in religious discourse. This is because Ghamidi is not the only Islamic scholar who has offered a way to wrestle with ancient texts or to reduce the dissonance many Pakistani Muslims feel between modernity and tradition.
A better way to address the question comes from observing the market for religious narratives. Apart from Ghamidi, there have been scholars like the late Dr Fazlur Rahman, who is acknowledged as the founder of progressive Islam. Then, there is the late Ghulam Ahmad Perwez, who is viewed as a Qur’anist.
Often such thinkers have a niche market of their own, where their religious narratives compete with those of others. In current times, this is noted through the number of followers on social media platforms that promote the respective scholars.
This means that just as other scholars, thinkers, and even YouTube celebrity speakers have a cult following of their own, then so does Ghamidi enjoy a following of his own. Therefore, if a vast majority of people are followers, then the same applies to the people who religiously follow Ghamidi without question.
Many people follow scholars because their time and energy are limited. Given limited resources, their priority is to focus on their livelihood instead of being consumed by the intricacies of classical Islamic jurisprudence. Therefore, based on the idea of division of labour, people focus on earning a living and scholars specialize in developing their respective Islamic narratives.
Generally, people do not need Islamic scholars to tell them to be a better human being. If we need an intricate religious discourse to condemn mob lynching then we have forfeited our humanity. Scholars are needed to address the crisis of conscience that is stirred by ancient texts and to help make sense of the tradition in changing time, space and circumstance.
Scholars like Ghamidi offer their particular religious narrative that is internally consistent and is built on their specific methodology. This means that any religious consensus is next to impossible because in any intra-faith conversation one would have to play by the rules that apply in the other’s terrain, which is usually not feasible without forfeiting one’s own framework and methodology.
For instance, because of the jurisprudential methodology adopted by the Hanafi and the Shafi schools of jurisprudence, when Pakistanis and Arabs arrive in the West, the former are bent on consuming zabiha (ritually slaughtered) meat, whereas the latter are content with consuming non-ritually slaughtered meat with the recitation of the bismillah (In the name of God).
The way the two schools of thought read the texts is different. Neither is wrong for each offers an internally consistent narrative and each is able to supply its own proofs and evidence from the primary sources of Islam. The problem arises when scholars and their followers try to downplay this diversity of thought. And in this regard, Ghamidi and his followers are no different. They will defend their market share in the market for religious ideas, just as it is true of Muslims of various denominations and schools of thoughts.
Often, there is no level playing field between interlocutors. Where one enjoys greater intellectual ability, the other may have oratorical gifts. On such occasions, usually the weaker party has to succumb to the much superior speaker or thinker. And this is precisely why munazaras (debates) are a waste of energy and time, for they don’t usually show who is right but rather who is intellectually or oratorically superior.
Returning to the original question, Ghamidi’s ideas do not enjoy majoritarian support because the market for religious ideas and narratives is more competitive in the age of the internet than it was decades ago. Just as the monopoly of PTV has been reduced by the competition brought by a plethora of TV channels, the same is true in the market of religious ideas. Pakistanis are free to flock to Ghamidi, Maulana Tariq Jameel, Nouman Ali Khan, Engineer Muhammad Ali Mirza, and other religious speakers, thinkers, celebrities, or organizations that cater to their demands.
In essence, those who have a different viewpoint than that of Ghamidi are not all unthinking Muslims, who support blasphemy laws or ancient texts. They may simply subscribe to a different religious narrative, develop a different ethical framework, have a different methodology, and read the primary texts of Islam differently from him.