Wanted: non-sectarian, enlightened ulama in Pakistan

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zafar Bangash

Shawwal 14, 1419 1999-02-01


by Zafar Bangash (Features, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 23, Shawwal, 1419)

Ulama have been described as successors to the Prophet. Since the prophetic mission ended with the last and final messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace, the responsibility on the shoulders of the ulama is heavy indeed.

This, however, is not evident in Pakistan where most ulama are divided along sectarian lines. They prefer to tread the narrow path of sectarianism rather than traversing the broadway of the Shari’ah (as its meaning implies). The consequences of narrow mindedness are obvious: division and conflict in society where none existed before. This has led to much suffering and bloodshed for ordinary people.

Sectarian killings have become rampant. There are groups determined to divide people by spreading hatred and creating misunderstandings among them. This phenomenon reared its ugly head in the last decade or so.

True, there are genuine differences of opinion among Muslims on theological issues and the interpretation of history. But as the noble Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace, had said, differences of opinion in the Ummah are a sign of Rahman (mercy). These should not be turned into a source of conflict or warfare. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, such differences have been used as justification for killings and bombings.

It is also a fact that whenever the ulama have assumed their proper role, they have performed great feats. The Muslims’ history over the last 200 years testifies to this. Ulama such as Shaikh Othman Dan Fodio in West Africa set up the Sokoto Khilafat which lasted more than 100 years (it ended in 1904). Shaikh Abdul Qadir al-Jazairi led the resistance against French colonialism in Algeria. His contemporary was Imam Shamil of the Caucasus (1825-1859) whose successors finally defeated the Russians in Ichkeria (formerly Chechenya) in 1996. The resistance of the Caucasus people lasted more than 200 years. It was launched in 1873 by Imam Mansour, a Daghestani Shaikh.

Shari’atullah led a similar movement against the British in Bengal in the early part of the nineteenth century while Sayyid Ahmed and Sayyid Ismail, both achieved martyrdom at Balakot in 1831 in present-day North West Frontier Province of Pakistan while fighting against the Sikhs. It was the followers of the two martyred Sayyids who established the Darul Uloom at Deoband in 1860.

But the role of ulama is not confined to fighting against alien invaders only, as the cases of Iran and Lebanon show. In both places, the ulama have played a leading role in bringing Islam to the forefront of all activity in society.

In Iran, the ulama under the leadership of Imam Khomeini overthrew the tyrannical regime of the Shah. The victory of the Islamic Revolution led to the establishment of the first Islamic State in contemporary history. Iran’s Islamic Revolution is 20 years old today. In Lebanon, the ulama have led the Islamic Resistance which has inflicted humiliating defeats on the Zionists.

Compared to Iran, Pakistan cuts a sorry figure. The ulama in Pakistan, far from providing leadership, have turned inward and adopted narrowmindedness. Instead of inspiring people, they have become the butt of jokes. It is pertinent to ask: where are the successors of the two martyred Sayyids and of Shah Waliullah who provided such exemplary leadership in their own times?

One can identify two issues immediately that need addressing to prevent the situation in Pakistan from deteriorating further. As a Sunni-majority country (we do not believe in such divisions but it is a ground reality), the Sunni ulama must rise above their narrow outlook and provide leadership to all the people.

The hallmark of a true alim is that he can guide people of different Schools of Thought. He should be able to attract people from divergent outlooks who must all feel comfortable with him. At present, there is not a single alim in Pakistan who is able to inspire such confidence.

It is no great feat to keep people pinned down on a narrow sectarian path. This is bound to lead to division and confusion in society.

On the Shia side, an equally divisive group exists. They, too, do not wish to see unity among Muslims, fearing that they would lose influence if they were to tone down their anti-Sunni rhetoric.

What is required of the Shia ulama is to bring to an end the vicious attacks on the Sahaba, especially during the month of Muharram when Shia passions are in any case, quite aroused. Many well-meaning Shias have admitted that the efforts they make during the year in trying to bridge differences between Shias and Sunnis are destroyed by various zakireen (narrators of events at Karbala who lace their rhetoric with strong anti-Sunnism) when they address Shia gatherings in Muharram.

Without perhaps realising, these zakireen provide the very ammunition which the Sunni extremist groups use to keep Muslims divided. Were some enlightened ulama to emerge in Pakistan, there is little doubt that the masses would respond to their call and follow them.

The challenge lies with the ulama. They can either assume their rightful place in society as successors to the Prophet - which is a great honour - or continue to preach narrow sectarianism and be the butt of all kinds of jokes.

The choice is theirs.

Muslimedia: Feb.1-15, 1999

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