Dr. Niaz Murtaza

MANY people say Pakistan’s problems today stem from the willful failure of rulers to establish an Islamic system. These are not supporters of the militant Islamic State group but wellmeaning individuals who abhor IS excesses. For them, this system is like turning on a water tap waiting to deliver unlimited sustenance.

But when asked for specifics, they can only express vague generalities and wishful desires for an egalitarian system. However, egalitarianism is a final outcome that cannot be reached directly but through effective policies which they struggle to identify. Their basic belief, sold widely by clerics, is that the human mind is weak and leads us astray, so we must follow religious injunctions even for small things by gleaning Islamic history for edicts which only clerics can decipher.

There are many issues with this view. Firstly, what constitutes God’s word? Besides the Quran and hadith, even broad and often questionable interpretations by latter-day and present-day clerics and often even their unsupported opinions are termed God’s word.

The high disregard for human intellect also seems contrary to the message of the Quran which extols it. Human beings are called the best species only since they have high intellect. The Quran says things have been made easy to fathom and those who use their minds can fathom divine signs easily. It is unlikely that a faith which values human intellect so much would expect humans to constantly copy ancient eras with very different contexts for minor things.


There are many societies globally without any history of revealed religions or adherence to detailed religious dogma which have still built materially and morally advanced states, eg, Japan, which far excels all Muslim states on both counts today. The human mind has made amazing discoveries with no clerical input. Disparaging it makes little sense.

Thus, this view seems designed to empower clerics by making them the custodian of divine knowledge while disempowering the masses as incapable of discovering the right way without clerics’ help. But this is contrary to Quranic edicts that everyone can understand Islam directly without clerics’ help. In reality, especially when it comes to statecraft, Islam expects people to use their intellect to identify policies relevant to their times. So, even the most important issue in governance, ie, how rulers should attain power, is left to people to decide as both the Quran and hadith appear silent on such matters. Thus, it stretches credulity to claim that Islam expects the divine word to be followed strictly for lesser decisions when even the most key decision has been delegated to people.

Similarly, while the debate on edicts vis-à-vis present-day governance, eg monetary, fiscal, industrial policies, continues, they are questions about their applicability to the challenges of the current times. Islam seemingly expects policies in all such areas to be developed by people. But many things that clerics present as divine injunction and mandatory policies to be adopted by states are either irrelevant or even harmful to the establishment of an egalitarian society today.

So, while we may think that establishing an Islamic system is like turning on a water tap, the obstacles in doing so are far more structural than unwilling rulers.

The Medina system was heavily reliant on the presence of people of very high morals, the likes of whom are absent today. Even if such people could be assembled, the next challenge would be for them to find an easy and peaceful way of attaining power. But if honest people could attain power, they could perform wonders even within a secular social democratic system.

So the next challenge would be to demonstrate that they have a vision and concrete policies based on Islam which can outperform secular systems, ie, deliver the strengths of Western democracies while avoiding their weaknesses. Even so, the next challenge would be to overcome the vehement opposition of clerics since this new vision will likely be very different from the clerics’ brand of Islam and will marginalise them. Finally, they will have to win the trust of people who, weary of decades of misuse of religion’s name in politics, largely shun religious politics in Pakistan.

Despite being a firm believer in secular democracy, I still believe if someone builds on Islam’s progressive elements, like egalitarianism, rights for women and minorities, etc., they should be able to develop such a vision. I am a firm believer in secular democracy not because I don’t believe in Islam’s progressive elements, but because I see the faith hijacked by retrogressive forces and little inclination within the majority to challenge their hold and develop a progressive Islamic vision. In such a situation, secular democracy seems the best available option.

The writer heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit, and is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley.