Given Iqbal’s categorical rejection of mullahs, their domination of the religious discourse in Pakistan should be a cause for some reflection. After all, isn’t Iqbal our official national poet? So, why is discussion on religious matters monopolized by mullah-e-haram and there is no reference to Iqbal’s thoughts on the matter? Have we turned him into a decorative icon that we dust off every 9th of November to pay hollow homage to? Do we even know what he was talking about?

I must confess that I’m no authority on Iqbal. In fact, until recently, my exposure to his work was limited to what is included in text-books and the ‘safer’ poems that have been popularized by the media. And though I have now started to read him independently, I am still in the process of discovering the greatness of his ideas and how relevant and revolutionary they still are after so many years. Even for a student, it is actually very difficult to miss them. So why is everyone mum about them?

Why is the bite missing from the Iqbal Day messages of our leaders, from the special programs aired on the occasion by virtually every television channel and the scholars splitting various hairs in conferences and seminars? Why have his bold and inspiring ideas been buried and replaced by a toothless idol with his head resting on his fist in our imagination; an idol that doesn’t speak to us but is showered with flowery platitudes every year? With entire university departments devoted to Iqbaliyat and heavily-funded research institutions founded in his name, how does one explain this refusal to own up his ideas that strike at the heart of extremism and the fitna of our so-called religious leaders?

Considering that this fitna is one of the most formidable challenges facing our society today, this disdain for the ideas of a man we constantly eulogize as our national poet and a founder of Pakistan, ideas that have the power to overcome the clerical challenge, is unforgivable. In fact, had his thoughts on religion been a guiding light for our leaders, things would not have deteriorated to such an extent and we would not have come to this jungle of intolerance we find ourselves in, a jungle cultivated around our lives by professional clerics and self-proclaimed champions of Islam.

When it comes to terrorism, our leaders of opinion in politics and media refuse to decipher the obvious and important connection between barbaric militants holed up in the mountains and their associate maulanas leading religious outfits and thriving in our neighborhoods. Our professional clerics spread ignorance from loudspeakers on maximum volume and lecture us on television about every inane thing under the sun in the name of Islam. They lead us in prayers, perform our nikahs and funerals, and provide children under their guardianship to recite the Quran at khatams. And they get paid for these services.

It doesn’t seem to matter that this is against the teachings of Quran that repeatedly warns us of those selling religion for a pittance, those turning it into a profession and using the words of God for worldly gains. With their divisive debates about inconsequential matters, they turn what is made easy for us by God into something difficult. Their sectarian interpretations of Islam create fitna and fasad among the believers. Quran clearly warns us about such people but we put them on a pedestal to guide us in religious matters.

Friends tell me that these are harsh views and one should not generalize about the maulvis and maulanas in our midst as some of them are sincerely serving God. So let me clarify that this criticism is not directed at individual clerics but the institution of clergy that has no place in Islam. The idea is not to punish every cleric, for most of them come from less-privileged backgrounds and were never given any other skills to earn a living. In fact, one would argue for the rehabilitation of these misguided and mistreated souls and for providing them skills that could make them productive members of the society. At the same time, it would be a folly to ignore the mischief, ignorance and superstitions that they spread in the name of Islam.

While Quran tells us not to quote it in fragments, they do it all the time to prove their convoluted points and to win pointless arguments. Their worldview is rooted in a plethora of associated texts written by men rather than in the words of Quran about which there is no doubt. They tell us that we are incapable of understanding the message of Quran and that their professional assistance is necessary to understand what God wants from us. It suits them because it creates space for them in our lives, ensuring their livelihood. The question is: Does it suit us to outsource our faith to those for whom it is a profession? Can we expect leaders of religious parties fighting for political power to lead us in religious matters?

With their emphasis on observance of hollow rituals and substitution of values for superstitious beliefs, they prepare the ground for extremism and militancy. Terrorism begins with our maulvis and maulanas who have assumed the right to pass fatwas against anyone who challenges their views, blackmailing people into submission to their authority on religious matters. This is the first step towards submitting to militant extremists who come with an exaggerated version of superstitions and coercion dubbed as Islam.

The mullahs didn’t like Iqbal because he exposed their charade and guided Muslims to the real meaning of Islam, and so they passed fatwas against him as well. Iqbal reclaimed our faith from the fitna of our professional preachers and helped us understand it as a dynamic force with the power to transform not only ourselves but also the world around us in a positive direction for humanity. His words have the power to shatter the curse of our professional mullahs and maulanas. But he has been turned into an idol; garlanded every year but not allowed to speak.

n    The writer is a freelance columnist.