I am not a religious scholar but one does not have to be one to understand the Quran and hadith, just a quest to learn.

Islam has no clergy and its followers do not need a priest-like figure to intervene into their life to absolve them of sins. The title mullah is a Persian variation of the Arabic maula, “master”. It is commonly translated as “cleric” in the West and thought to be analogous to “priest” or “rabbi”, but is not. It is a misconception of people who think of Imams and clerics as such. Maula/mullah was a title of address for any educated or respected figure, not even necessarily religious. Sheikh (“elder”) was used similarly.

These titles are scholastic or academic and pertain to the holder’s exemplary knowledge of the theory and practice of deen. They do not confer any particular spiritual or sacerdotal authority and are open to challenge.

The Imam khatib’s title is a compound of leader (imam) and preacher (khatib) or the khutba on Friday. The duty can be performed by anyone recognised as qualified by the congregation, giving the place of Imam an almost democratic nature. One does not have to be ordained for it, because Islam does not impose a strict structure on its followers. But, we know things are different here, and such openness and fluidity is not acceptable to many who are happy to protest rather than read history.

It is even more relevant now to remember, research and read your history… at a time when religion seems to have been taken over wholly by the loud rude bearded man, to find alternatives to his understanding of religion. If your religion is one of peace, it is time to act like it and find evidence for it. Here is one ayat for starters: “Then he was among those who believed and advised one another to patience and advised one another to mercy” Surah Al-Balad 90:17.

My article is about everything, and nothing at all, and the reader can hopefully understand why. There is nothing for me to gain but hate from formulating a strong opinion that goes against powerful ideological sentiments.

I use the term powerful, and not majority, because I hope that the majority is not violent, does not want to kill and maim minority sects, and has some small hope for the survival of a pluralist democratic state in Pakistan. I hope this majority can act in time to protect the Ahmadis hiding in fear, and the Shia’s insecure about their place in Pakistan and the Christians who have seen members of their community burned to death. I hope there is a silent majority, that sees the situation in Islamabad for what it is, and does not sympathise with the language being used at the event and wants parliamentarians debate about minimum wage, agricultural subsidies and public health care rather than the complexities of a religion that is not under threat and has never been under threat in an Islamic Republic. I hope that people can see that this obsession with the re-re-re-Islamisation of Pakistan is not because the tiny fringe of secular liberals are taking over, but because politics has become a vocation for religious groups. Bickering is the only thing they know how to do, and they cannot progress from theological debate into real matters of governance - like how can they help the youth get jobs, or what they can do for socio-economic uplift.

A few days ago, Jawed Naqi wrote for Dawn, “But academic genius alone cannot ensure a safe future.” His argument was that the extreme religious right in India will still distort history, even when it is familiar with its facts. The rush to reason, to fight distortion with fact, does not work. Those with an agenda may not care, and do not need facts, they just need the situation to progress in their favour. “The problem really is the free rein given to violence and the state’s complicity in terrorising people with a different view.” He said this about India, but like me he might be referring to a problem closer to home in a more discursive way. The rational thinker can be on solid ground with fact but politics is a game of spinning facts and fictions to one’s advantages.

A famous Egyptian cleric Mahmood Al Masri was found saying on TV that even though lying is a crime in Islam, yet in certain circumstances a Muslim can tell a lie. The example he gave was that if a Jew who has an affinity for drinking alcohol wants to convert, it is safe to lie to him and say Islam allows him, and once he converts, threaten him punishment under sharia and force him to quit. Many people would find this example useful, and are quite okay with Hindu girls being kidnapped to be converted and forced into marriage. When did we stop recognising the right to choose and how many conversions based on lies and intimidation can one count at the time of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)? There are many many Al Masris around to take advantage of their status as sheikhs and ulemas and too many Muslims who do not try to check if what they are saying is actually from the Quran or Sahih Hadith.

Since childhood we are taught the Quran, encouraged to read it over and over again, yet we are so unfamiliar with it. Translations, commentaries and all forms of interpretations are available to the modern Muslim to read, compare and understand. Yes, it requires more effort than to just believe what Zakir Naik is saying on television, but the TV is the last place one should look for true knowledge. Do you really need the Khadim Ali Shahs, Nouman Alis, Tariq Jameels and even Tariq Ramadans telling you who you are and what your religion is when all religious knowledge is freely available to you?

Strong, factual minority opinions have never dented loud, rude, fact-spins, and can often result in threats, bulling and violence. Social media is just one example where fake news and “alternative facts” have helped destroy good research and journalism, and this includes “facts” about religion and minorities in Pakistan too. The solution may not be to give people facts, and argue alternatives, but to just lightly unseat their knowledge base, and ask them to reinterpret what they already know.


The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.

Twitter: @saadiagardezi