Does Pakistan need an Islamic council?

Muhammad Khan Sherani, Chairman of Council of Islamic Ideology that advises the Pakistani government on the compatibility of laws with Islam. Faisal Mahmood/ REUTERS
06 June, 2016

The news first emerged mid afternoon, on 29 December 2015. Soon, it was all that prime time talk shows and newscasters in Pakistan could talk about. Two senior religious clerics, both bearded, both well-regarded among their followers, had used their fists rather than their words, to settle an argument during the 201 meeting of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), Pakistan’s top Islamic advisory body. News outlets were salivating. Leaked videos of the brawl emerged. The incident was unusual; religious hardliners are more likely to face-off against liberals than one of their own. “I am stronger than him,” boasted the pot-bellied Maulana Tahir Ashrafi while talking to a television crew. He held back, he insisted, out of respect for his opponent, the 78-year-old Maulana Sheerani, also the chairman of the advisory body, who grabbed his collar and ripped out the buttons.

The two came to blows after the council reopened debate for the legal status of the already persecuted Ahmadis—declared non-Muslims under a parliament amendment in 1974—on whether they should instead be categorised as murtads (those who renounce Islam and are punishable by death according to Sharia). It was a dangerous suggestion that could put the minority community more at risk of being hunted and killed.

During the meeting, Ashrafi spoke first, and loudly. He challenged Sheerani’s decision to focus on topics which were controversial and could potentially lead to a bigger fall-out in society. “There is a dictatorship within the body,” a frazzled Ashrafi told us over the phone on 13 May. “The environment is such that no scope for dissent is left.” The new chairman, he argued, had made the body unnecessarily notorious.

Ashrafi had a point. Since the death of military dictator General Zia ul-Haq in a plane crash in August 1988, the CII had remained mostly invisible. Its annual reports—over 100 in number—were gathering dust and cobwebs in a forgotten corner of the parliament. Here was a constitutional body no lawmaker seemed to want to talk about, until the current chairman Sheerani took over in 2010. Under him, the council began making headlines, but for all the wrong reasons.

Consider this. In the last week of May, the council proposed a draft for a women’s protection bill. One clause stated that a Pakistani husband could “lightly” beat his wife if she defied his commands or refused to have intercourse with him. In April, the council argued that Pakistan should revoke the current economic system and paper currency and replace it with gold and silver coins. Earlier, in January, its members agreed that girls as young as nine-years-old were eligible to be married. Marvi Memon, a politician from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), who had called for a ban on child marriages, was bullied into withdrawing her bill, after the council dubbed it “unIslamic” and “blasphemous.” In fact, if previous declarations by the CII ever make it through the parliament, co-education would be banned in Pakistan, airhostesses would wear burqas and the government would sack civil servants who do not say their daily prayers. If the CII had its way, Pakistan would be a theological state like Saudi Arabia.

Fortunately, for all the rabble-rousing headlines these proclamations by Sheerani generate, none are binding and none of the recent recommendations have been enacted into law. But the extreme interpretations of Islamic tenets do lead to confusion, and invite much brouhaha in the conservative circles of the media. Memon refused our request for comments on the CII. Allegedly, she withdrew the bill because the council dubbed it blasphemous. She may have feared repercussions, something alluded to by Pakistan People’s Party’s Farhatullah Babar as well.

For a country made in the name of religion, Pakistan’s path towards Islamic ideology was set after the implementation of Objectives Resolution in 1949, which proclaimed that the constitution of Pakistan would be modeled on the ideology of Islam. Four years later, the country saw its first religious-based violence when there were mass protests against the Ahmadis, a sect of Islam considered heretical to traditional Islamic belief. While the newly formed country continued to establish an identity, the rulers decided to find refuge in religion. Under the dictatorship of the then president Ayub Khan, the council was first set up in 1962. Its mandate was to serve as a constitutional body of clerics, scholars and judges to assist the government in Islamising the laws. Any legislature found to be in conflict with the Quran and examples of the Prophet would have to be reconsidered.

Over the years, the council’s leadership has oscillated between hardliners and reformists. Under Ayub Khan, the CII was steered by an unorthodox Islamic scholar, Fazlur Rahman. In her book, Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan's Religious Minorities, Farahnaz Ispahani wrote that during his term, Rahman offered “bold and ingenious interpretation of Islamic themes, including suggesting that drinking of alcohol was permissible, provided it did not result in intoxication.” Rahman was hounded out of the job due to his unorthodox interpretation of Islamic tenets, which were not considered mainstream, forcing him to tender his resignation.

That soon changed. In the 1980s, Zia ul-Haq reorganised the council, increasing the ulemas, spiritual leaders, and gave it a boost it never expected. Seemingly, the council has had an affinity to military dictators. Formed by one, its most victorious moment was enabled by another. For Haq’s Islamisation campaign it was essential that the council be efficient and authoritative, to provide religious legitimacy to his rule. During his term, for the first time, the CII’s recommendations were enacted into law. The notorious Hudood ordinance—laws passed in1979 as part of the Sharisation process—is the Council’s only examples of success to date. For Pakistan, on the other hand, they were a reminder of its failure to protect women and basic human rights. The ordinance covered theft, pre-marital sex, and rape, stipulating punishment such as stoning to death and public whipping. It was excoriated for making a rape survivor vulnerable to prosecution if she could not produce four upright male eye-witnesses.

The council had one task laid out in the 1962 constitution passed by Ayub Khan: to review all existing laws and submit a final report within seven years of its appointment. That never happened. The first report came after 18 years. The reason for this delay is not known. It is also unclear why the body still exists today, despite having achieved the one task it was meant to.

The answer, or at least the reasoning for the existence, was to be found at a leafy road in Islamabad, in the administrative center of Pakistan. The sprawling structure of the council, situated on Ataturk Avenue, is shaped like a mosque with distinctive green domes. On its right are the parliament lodges, and on its left is the Central Bank of Pakistan. It houses over 100 employees, but even on a Tuesday morning, barely a dozen were in attendance. The council and its administrative affairs, such as members’ salaries and other expenses cost Pakistani taxpayers Rs 91 million last year. That amount has been increased to Rs 99 million, according to the federal budget released on Friday for the fiscal year 2016-17.

On 17 May, from his air-conditioned office in Islamabad, Maulana Muhammad Khan Sheerani, who is also a member of the National Assembly with the religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazal), explained why an Islamic council is necessary for the country. Removing his slippers and then carefully wrapping a string of prayer beads around his hand, he began, “Let’s say that the government is a fruitful tree.” He spoke softly and slowly. “The parliament is its root. The council provides the nutrients. Pakistan was created on the basis of Islam. If you take away a tree’s nutrients, will it survive?” Under the constitution, Pakistan is an Islamic republic. “If the parliament will keep making laws, the CII will keep debating them,” he added.

Constitutionally, the Council should have 20 members, including two judges and one woman, and should ensure a balanced representation of the sub-sects of Islam. Yet, majority of its members follow the hardline and puritanical Deobandi version.

Each member draws a salary of PKR 70,000 per month and enjoys additional perks, such as free lodging, medical expenses, petrol, and security, since their status is equivalent to that of a federal minister.

However, weighing heavy on the parliamentarians, the question remains: does the Pakistan of today need a Saudi Arabia-style body, whose past recommendations have been both comical and irrational and, as pointed out by Babar, dangerous?

The parliamentarians finally broke their silence this year, in a first-of-its-kind debate, which bifurcated the upper house into two camps: the Islamist and the secularists. Babar was bold and unusually candid. The council, he said, is “dangerously conservative” and irrelevant, and should be disbanded. That did not go down well with the Islamic parties, whose members goaded Babar to prove his religiosity by reciting verses of the Quran. In a country where blasphemy accusations can lead to mob violence and murder, this debate was taking a precarious turn. “Islam cannot be eliminated from the constitution,” thundered an emotional senator from the main Islamic political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazal), as reported by the media, “For it, we can give our lives and take that of others.” The order of the house soon moved to other matters.

“I am pained that some of the council’s pronouncements have prompted the critics to describe it something of medieval nonsense at public expense,” said Babar. Its list of suggestions is “long and frustrating,” he added, including calling for “Allah-o-Akbar” to be inscribed on the national flag to inspire martyrdom and jihad. The senator would like to see the council be populated with scholars well versed in Islamic and modern jurisprudence. And it was, for brief periods, steered by just the kind of progressive clerics Babar is talking about.

“When first formed, the Council comprised of mostly judges and lawyers,” explained Khalid Masud, a former chairman, “there were maybe two or three ulema then.” That changed under ul-Haq. Today, its 20 members are predominately religious clerics. In recent history, Masud has been one of its most progressive voices with the theological qualifications to back it. A PhD in Islamic Studies from McGill University, Canada, he was appointed after a thorough vetting process and an hour-long interview with the former president General Pervez Musharraf. But for the Islamic parties, Masud’s credentials were cause for suspicion. The late Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of Jamaat-e-Islami, had called him a “man of no repute.”

Masud’s successor, Maulana Sheerani, appointed six years ago by the perceived left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party, has a less impressive resume. Once a federal minister for religious affairs, the septuagenarian has been elected to the National Assembly several times, on the JUI(F) ticket, from his hometown in Balochistan, Pakistan’s poorest province. Sheerani has never attended any public schooling. His educational certificates are from two local religious seminaries, which fuels the suspicion that his appointment was in return for a political alliance between the ruling political parties and the JUI(F). In 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif extended Sheerani’s term by another three years.

On the first day of the job, the former parliamentarian quickly realised that his new post did not wield any real power.  That had to change. Samia Raheel Qazi of Jamaat-e-Islami told me that Sheerani decided to exercise his sway like a media-savvy seasoned spin-master.

Old and new reports were declassified and uploaded on a revamped and user-friendly website. Each council meeting is now followed by a briefing to the press. Sheerani, instead of talking to the parliamentarians, began speaking directly to the people. It worked like a charm. In a country that is fueled by 24-hour cycle of breaking news and quotable quotes, his recommendations created a ruckus on air and otherwise, but also helped in bringing the council back in the public spotlight.  Everyone was listening, even if not agreeing, when the council announced in 2014 that a man does not need the permission of his first wife to simultaneously marry a second, or when it decreed that DNA test carried out to convict a rapist could not be regarded as conclusive evidence. Most of its antagonism was reserved, however, for women and non-Muslims.

Sheerani was by us if a council, made-up of men, and very old Muslim men at that, would debate women’s and minority rights. “Women rights have already been clearly laid out in the Quran,” replied Sheerani. “So, now, will I have a better knowledge of the Quran or would you, just because you are a woman?”

Qazi, the only female member, admitted that last year almost all the topics on the agenda were related to women. But Qazi says she makes sure to voice her disagreement when women rights are being trampled upon. “We often disagree,” she explained, “I cannot agree that girls as young as nine can be married off. Very frankly speaking, I am not entirely comfortable in an all-male council. There should be more women. One woman, alone, cannot present her arguments as confidently.”

Paradoxically, for all the controversies associated with him and the council, one of Sheerani’s recent pronouncements had even the critics applauding. Last October, the Council announced that transgender individuals should be given the right of inheritance and their share be determined by the gender they identify with—an important suggestion, which, like others, fell on deaf ears.

The journalist Khaled Ahmed told us that there are several reasons why elected representatives do not want to be seen openly debating the CII. “One is that they do not want to implement the suggestions. Another is that majority parliamentarians are from non-clerical parties and want to hide their ‘modern’ approach from the nation. Yet another is embarrassment from opposing Islamic law because Islamic law is difficult to practice and there is the risk of getting killed by non-state actors.”In other words, it is much safer to ignore the CII than to oppose it.

Religious loyalties run deep in Pakistan. No one is safe from blasphemy accusations. In 2011, trumped up allegations led to the killing of the Punjab governor Salman Taseer. Interestingly, Sheerani doesn’t feel safe either. The topics he deals with, he stated, are sensitive, and a single misstep can put him in trouble with the hardliners. Although the chairman has refused security details, he carries a small gun at all times. “I have been told by intelligence agencies that I can be targeted,” he said nonchalantly. Then, pausing, he looked directly at the tape recorder placed near him, smirked, and continued, “But if I am in danger from anyone it is the government officials.”