Over the past week almost everyone not a proponent of violence against women seems to have had a lot of fun with Muhammad Khan Sherani under whose leadership the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) put forward its 163-point ‘Women Protection Bill’.

The bill was exclamation marked with the proposal that husbands be given permission to ‘lightly beat’ their ‘defying wives’, which has been mocked, memed and ridiculed, culminating in the #TryToBeatMeLightly trend on Twitter recently.

It’s almost as if Sherani alone stands between Pakistani society’s collective surge towards gender equality, and maybe if it hadn’t been for him the Muslim world would have long mapped out the route to Islamic reform.

While many have been understandably outraged by the suggestion that men should be allowed to beat their wives, there is a haunting lack of critique directed towards the origin of the outrageous proposal.

This is because both Sherani, and most of his critics, treat the origin identically, resulting in a hyperbolic campaign against an individual and a group of clerics, more than any meaningful attempt to initiate a long overdue debate.

Constitutionally, Sherani does not hold the position of a Qazi – an adjudicator who would give verdicts in accordance with Sharia. The CII’s legal status is that of an advisory body, limiting its proposals to theological interpretations, making Sherani a 21st century mufassir, if you will.

All of Sherani’s verdicts, hence, are derived from the Quran and Sunnah, the infallibility of which is perpetuated as much by the CII as many of their detractors.

Sherani shouldn’t be blamed for choosing the literalist interpretation - the most popular one since the advent of Islam - which falls perfectly in line with his long stated ideological position. The fault lies with our government and the Constitution that not only demand that all legislation be compatible with Islam, they have given a body of literalists the monopoly over the interpretation.

Like countless theologians before them, the CII has quoted Surah An-Nisa [The Women] (4:34) to justify their claim of wife-beating being permissible in Islam. The verse reads as follows:

“Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.”

Unfortunately, amidst the anti-Sherani hullabaloo, the only citation of the actual source behind CII’s proposal has come from those either endorsing wife-beating or the ones weaving preconceived apologia for what the scriptures ‘actually’ say. Both groups reinforce the viscosity of literalism, bolstering the inertia against the immersion of Islam into modernity.

While anything from handkerchiefs to flowers have been propounded as the instrument to ‘strike’ women, and soften the blow for a 21st century conscience, when the text clearly says that men have been made ‘in-charge’ of women, we can either give in to patriarchy as sanctioned by the commandment, or reform the text in synchrony with present-day morality.

Reform, however, is only possible when – following the footsteps of reformists in other religions – datedness and fallibility of the scriptures is accepted and the institution of Islamic ijtihad widely promulgated. The scriptures will only conform to modern morality, when the latter is liberated from the shackles of religion, and primitive theology. And an integral part of this reform is accepting and shelving ideas no longer relevant, instead of twisting or denying their existence.

Amina Wadud, in Qur’an and Woman and Inside the Gender Jihad, has called for a holistic reinterpretation of Islamic scriptures and a pluralist reading of the Qur’an, inviting excommunication and threats from the radical literalists whose hegemony we fuel by echoing the claims of scriptural omnipotence.

Other modern examples of reformist feminist literature in Islam would be Asra Nomani’s Standing Alone in Mecca or Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam Today where she calls for ‘Operation Ijtehad’ and the rise of ‘Muslim Refuseniks’.

Like any feminist literature trying to conform religious scriptures to modernity, none of the cited works and many other similar ventures, are devoid of inconsistencies. This is owing to the simple reality that organised religion has emanated from, and underpins, patriarchy and hence reforming implicit – and explicit – misogynistic texts with gender parity requires wiggling around tight corners and synthetic dead-ends.

However, instead of fanning the nascent illusion that religious scriptures establish gender equality, these works strive for a feminist reinterpretation, acknowledging that the problem lies with both the text and the hegemony of literalism, which many other ostensibly feminist works fail to accept. It is this refusal to acknowledge scriptural shortcomings that fuels antagonism against the religion as a whole, and its adherents as well, which come from a wide spectrum of theological positions.    

Instead of proposing a collective shunning of religion, it's important to acknowledge that for synthesis of societal reform one has to let go of absolutist formalism. For, legal realism is just as applicable to Islamic jurisprudence as any other legislative superstructure.

This simply means that the Council of Islamic Ideology and Muhammad Khan Sherani – who have been made the scapegoat for Pakistani liberals’ utter failure in pursuing honest reformism within Islam and the self-inflicted mockery of the term ‘moderate Muslim’ – belong to a school of thought no longer relevant to statecraft in a country that claims to be a democracy. Therefore, as mentioned above, it is the state that needs to understand the superfluity of the religious body in modern day legislation, and promote honest mujaddids who don't shy away from calling a spade a spade. 

When 7th century scriptures are endorsed as infallible by the ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’ and ‘moderate’ sections of the society, the literalists’ supremacy is inevitable. And so, instead of targeting those literalist individuals or clerical groups, let’s blame ourselves for our collective failure in formulating a reformist alternative. For, the burden for reform lies with the progressive sections and not Sherani or the Council of Islamic Ideology.