VIEW: Deciphering a dangerous pamphlet —Naqib Hamid - Friday, March 25, 2011

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VIEW: Deciphering a dangerous pamphlet —Naqib Hamid
Very few Islamic scholars or Muslim social scientists have academically addressed existential issues in terms of the conflict between a globalising world mainly based on enlightenment and capitalist values and the struggle by puritanical, radical outfits to redefine it

As a sociologist, particularly interested in the sociology of religion and trying to analyse the difficult situation at hand, it is increasingly becoming clear that the war with the radicals is a war of scriptural hermeneutics and the worldviews that emerge out of these. An academic review of the pamphlet left by the members of al Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab after their killing of Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti clearly shows how there is a mammoth task for contemporary Muslim religious scholars and social scientists to rise to the occasion and try to provide the real meaning behind scriptural definitions and interpretations of terms and concepts that are at the centre of the radical discourse. This is an immense task. This article is a humble attempt at providing a framework of analysis for the kind of thought contained in the pamphlet.

Almost all the important terms in the contemporary radical discourse are contained in the above mentioned pamphlet, which makes it quite a representative document of such thought. The vocabulary that features prominently includes the terms kufr (in the sense of non-belief), murtad (apostate), jihad (armed conflict in the extremist context), saleebi (Crusaders), yuhud (Jews), hawarri (companions), kufriya nizam (system based on kufr, the reference is to democracy) and taghoot (in the sense of arrogant rebellion, transgression). Hurmat (honour/veneration) and gustaakhi (blasphemy) are also used in the pamphlet, two terms that have become an important feature of the radical discourse, especially in the post-Aasia Bibi case scenario in Pakistan. Something quite noteworthy is that the document cites itself as an ibrat nama (a warning message) for its readers who should reflect upon and learn a lesson from this episode.

In leaving behind the pamphlet, the terrorists have raised a host of issues that have long been ignored by our theologians, academics and social scientists alike. The pamphlet raises deep questions related to our true relationship with the Holy Prophet (PBUH), the concept of peace in Islam, the rule of law, the system of democracy, international relations, the concept of blasphemy, freedom of religion, relations with people of other faiths, including the People of the Book, and the concept of jihad. It is not only essential to seek and elaborate the real meaning, correct usage and nature of these concepts to reply to the terrorist discourse but also to protect our increasingly confused younger generation from radical indoctrination in the name of Islam.

Moreover, this document has yet again raised difficult questions about the interpretation and use of ayats in the Quran that were actually revealed in a specific spatio-temporal context of armed conflict with people, the kuffar (non-believers), who had deliberately and knowingly rejected the message of Truth after it had been made completely clear to them through the propagation of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and hence they received punishment by God at the hands of the Muslims.

Since the current episode related to Mr Shahbaz Bhatti has again put the relations of a Muslim majority with religious minorities in general and Muslim-Christian relations in particular in danger, another critical theme that needs detailed analysis in modern Islamic thought along with the above mentioned terms, especially in a rapidly globalising and pluralistic world, is the concept of Al Wala’ Wal Bara’ (loyalty and disavowal) in its particular sense of associating or disassociating with other individuals on the basis of faith. Many contemporary radical movements propagate that it is essential that Muslims completely dissociate themselves from all non-Muslims. Knowing from history and our Islamic sources that even during the Prophet’s (PBUH) lifetime, Muslims did have very cordial relations with, for example, the Christians of Abyssinia, perhaps a detailed analysis of the historical context of such verses can reveal the reasons why some particularly strict commandments were given to Muslims at times in relation to their conduct with non-Muslims. It is also important to consider that during several epochs of Islamic history, there were very peaceful relations of Muslims with the Christians, Jews and other communities, so it needs to be discovered how the contemporary jihadi notion of Al Wala’ Wal Bara’ developed with time. Along with theological reflection it is essential that such thought be analysed in terms of modern theories in social psychology related to stereotypes and in-group and out-group formation.

Similarly, insight into the real concept of Amr-bil-Maroof-wa-Nahi-anil-Munkar (commanding right and forbidding wrong) and its practical implementation in modern societies is the need of the hour. We also need to particularly look into matters related to fard-i-ayn and fard-i-kifaya, in the context of the role of the state and ruler in jihad and in what capacity is a Muslim to participate in such jihad. Having said all this, amidst all the polemics and heated sermons related to our Holy Scripture, it is sad how a deep reflection on the Quran as a conscience building book is still much awaited.

A particular line in the pamphlet clearly shows the dichotomous worldview so characteristic of the radical mindset. “By God, either you or we will live on the earth” clearly depicts not only the psychological urgency at the heart of radicalism but also a sense of deep, existential anxiety that pervades it. Very few Islamic scholars or Muslim social scientists have academically addressed such kind of existential issues in terms of the conflict between a globalising world mainly based on enlightenment and capitalist values and the struggle by puritanical, radical outfits to redefine it. This is an area of work that needs our attention.

The pamphlet, yet again, makes clear the war at the heart of contemporary Islam: a crisis of meaning, thought, identity and action. It is a battle of worldviews for the definition of Islam, a difficult war that can only be won if our best talent in theological and social sciences, combined, engages in the kind of exercise in scriptural hermeneutics and worldview (re)construction that is the call of our age. The difficult question is whether anyone will take up the challenge.

The writer teaches sociology at the University College Lahore (UCL). He can be reached at

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