Allama Iqbal was convinced that an elected parliament could perform the function of Ijtihad (creative interpretation of Islamic law) in an Islamic society. He had mentioned this opinion in one of his lectures contained in his book The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Many experts have stated that Iqbal was under the influence of the Young Turks from Ottoman Empire when he made this observation part of his lecture. This in practical terms would mean that Iqbal allowed the Islamic legislature to interpret or reinterpret the Islamic Shariah principles in the light of new developments in Muslim society and the world.
Iqbal was not alone in this opinion. Many of his contemporaries reached the same conclusion after they came face to face with Western political systems and institutions. But this axiom is not without problems of its own. Dissent is the essence of parliamentary democracy—not only political dissent, but dissent on social, political, cultural and philosophical issues. Will citizens in an Islamic state be allowed to dissent or disagree with the decisions of the parliament reached after it had practiced Ijtihad? As a tool of interpretation, Ijtihad is as old as the process of formulation of Islamic Fiqh, which started to take shape in the 8th and 9th centuries AD. The conclusions drawn, fatwas issued or court verdicts declared by the Qazis in Islamic societies of the past were accepted as interpretations of the word of God by later generations of Muslims. And you cannot disagree or dissent with the word of God. Will ordinary Muslims be barred from disagreeing with parliamentary Ijtihad in an Islamic society, under Iqbal’s model? It is a problem that can unravel Iqbal’s system of Ijtihad and a parliamentary democracy practicing it.
This and many such problems have always played a role in stunting the growth of sustainable political institutions in Muslim societies. Parliamentary democracy is not a success story in even one Muslim society around the world. Muslim societies failed to smoothly grow out of traditional ethical and moral systems, and proved unable to come to terms with the ethics and political values of modernity that are considered a prerequisite for parliamentary democracy. Traditional ulema added the condition of religious scholars’ approval or sanction for legislative process in a Muslim society by an elected parliament—both Khomeini and Maududi have expressed similar views on this point in their writings. This principle is inherently opposite to what Iqbal had to say about legislative process or democracy in Islamic society. Pakistan is close to Maududi’s opinion rather than that of Iqbal in its legislative processes under the 1973 constitution.
Under Islamic principles, it is the duty of the ruler to eradicate evil from society. In parliamentary democracy, the preservation of opposition is as essential for the government as the need to preserve its majority in the parliament
Parliamentary democracy can no longer be described as alien to our political culture—it was introduced in united India by the British colonial administration more than 100 years ago. Since then, it has remained in place at different levels of governance in our society. Now both the administrative structures of the state and society at large are familiar with the dynamics of parliamentary democracy. It is well integrated into the state and society. But at the ideological level, Pakistan’s political elite or segments of it espouse and spread ideas and philosophies that have always stunted the growth and consolidation of parliamentary institutions and values in our society.
Imran Khan’s recent appeal to the people to invoke the Islamic principle of, “Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong” (al-Amr bil Maruf wa Nahi anil-Munkar) in a political fight with the opposition parties is a case in point. Dubbing the opposition as evil or representing evil is thoroughly problematic for parliamentary democracy.
Firstly, you don’t negotiate with evil under Islamic principles. Meanwhile, in parliamentary democracy, you cannot move a step without negotiating with your opponents. Under Islamic principles, it is the duty of the ruler to eradicate evil from society. In parliamentary democracy, the preservation of opposition is as essential for the government as the need to preserve its majority in the parliament. In many well established democracies, the opposition is considered a shadow government, and therefore it could potentially and rightfully invoke the Islamic principle of, “Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong” against previous governments which had invoked this principle in the first place.
In such a situation, the persistent and continuous invocation of this principle could potentially lead to a civil war in a religious country, if the society is sufficiently armed with weapons, as is the case with Pakistan. And last but not least, dissent is the essence of parliamentary democracy—dissent with government policies, dominant beliefs and narratives and social and political philosophies. And who can dare to dissent with a person who is invoking the Quranic principle of “Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong” and remain unharmed in a religiously unstable society like Pakistan?
Imran Khan is invoking this principle in a highly unstable and violent society—where psychologically disturbed people are punished for blasphemy, where someone could get killed for the simple act of removing a religious sticker from an industrial machine and where uneducated mullahs can bypass the judicial system and declare anyone guilty. There are very potent threats to the survival of parliamentary democracy in our society. And our intellectuals and predecessors have not left a very good record of precedents and intellectual heritage that could facilitate a harmonious integration of Islamic principles with parliamentary values. Parliamentary democracy is one hurdle in the way of complete anarchy spreading its tentacles in our society.
Will Imran Khan be compassionate enough to spare this society and parliamentary democracy?