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With the ulema in power

By Anwar Syed, Opinion piece in DAWN, and Afghan News, 21 February 2001

I HAVE been worrying about the role of the ulema in the Muslim world. In Iran, corrupted by political power, they are on the verge of losing the very worthy station they had traditionally occupied in society. They covet power in several other Muslim countries and, if successful, they may reap the same harvest as their Iranian counterparts have done.

In Shia Islam, particularly in Iran, the training of the ulema has traditionally been rigorous, their hierarchy rigid, and advancement from one rank to the next difficult, involving widespread peer recognition of one's scholarly accomplishment. The higher-ranking Shia ulema (Mujtahid, Hujjat-al-Islam, Ayatollah, Ayatollah-al-uzma, and of late the Faqih) may undertake innovative reinterpretation of the Sharia.

In Sunni societies generally, but notably in Pakistan, most of the mullas and maulvis have not had more than a few years of schooling in Islamic studies. A small minority of them has read Arabic, Islamic history, law and jurisprudence, theology, and understood the Sharia well enough to reinterpret it if and when necessary. It is not surprising then that they are not held in high popular esteem. Note also that during the past one century or so more laymen than professional ulema have produced truly distinguished Islam-related scholarship.

Until the Muslim world's encounter with western imperialism, the ulema performed a variety of roles. Not only did they lead prayers and deliver the Friday sermon, they also served as advisers to kings, judges and jurists, professors, administrators of endowments, and declarers of the correct Islamic position on disputed issues. They were, as a class, prosperous and influential. But note that never in Muslim historical experience did they actually become rulers until a curious combination of circumstances allowed them to seize power in Iran in February l979.

Having lost some of the influence, offices and income they had previously enjoyed, the ulema turned to politics in the twentieth century. Starting with the Ikhwan-al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), founded by Hasan-al-Bannah in Egypt in the l920s, they formed political parties in Indonesia, India and Pakistan, Malaysia, and later in Nigeria, the Sudan, Algeria, Jordan, and Turkey. Even when these parties did not expect to capture ruling authority, they sought to force changes in public policy according to their lights and by such means as were available to them (including violence). But since the Islamic revolution in Iran, and then the successes of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the quest for rulership has spread among the ulema elsewhere.

What would happen if the ulema became rulers? The Taliban regime in Afghanistan, still in a state of turmoil, may not be an instructive enough model. But the Islamic Republic of Iran, following a couple of years of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence and especially since the end of its war with Iraq, has been well entrenched and provides a fair indication of how the ulema will use their supremacy. We see that they hold a large number of positions of authority in all segments of government, from the ordinary village all the way to the capital.

Until the most recent election (less than two years ago), the more militant of them dominated the Majlis (parliament) and the cabinet, headed government departments, including the judiciary, and filled many positions within them. They also took charge of a number of foundations, which controlled public corporations in the fields of manufacturing, banking, and commerce; the wealthiest of them being the Bunyad-i-Mustazafin (foundation for helping the deprived ones).

As heads of these foundations, the ulema concerned were responsible to no one except possibly the Faqih (a religious functionary, higher in status than even the president of the republic, and entitled to veto any legislative, executive, or judicial decision or act which he may find objectionable). As departmental heads and as holders of other public offices also, the ulema were practically responsible only to themselves since the Majlis consisted of their own kind of persons..

This absence of accountability opened countless doors to corruption which most of the ulema, holding public offices, entered without fear of God or man. Absence of accountability was made possible by the expulsion of the regime's actual or suspected opponents from the political scene. Thousands were executed, tens of thousands imprisoned, and a much larger number made insecure enough to flee the country. The ghastly prisons, made notorious by the Shah's SAVAK, remain full. The regime in Iran is said to be on the way to mellowing, but for most of its time in power it has been intolerant and despotic.

It is unlikely that the ulema in Pakistan would act differently if they were able to attain political power. They have had a measure of exposure to politics for some fifty years. They have operated political parties and contested elections. They have never won any, but, for better or worse, they have made substantial impact on the country's constitutional structure and the direction of certain public policies. Very significant in this connection is the fact that their attitude toward democratic institutions, procedures, and rights is ambivalent. While they are out of power, and in the opposition, they favour democracy, presumably because it allows them to play their chosen roles.

But at the ideological level, many of them reject democracy, as we know it, on the ground that it is western and not Islamic. The more zealous they are in their faith, the more likely they are to believe that those who think differently are wrong, and that they deserve to be suppressed or, even eliminated.

Considering that the Pakistani electorate has, consistently and unambiguously, rebuffed the ulema's quest for power, it is unlikely that they will become rulers through the electoral process in any near future. But one cannot exclude the possibility that they may attempt to seize power by force. In addition to their traditional constituents, they can now summon the support of hundreds of thousands of young people whom the deeni madrassas have trained, among other things, in the arts of war. However, their resort to force will almost certainly plunge the country into a hugely destructive and possibly disintegrative civil war.

It seems to me, then, that every patriotic Pakistani, and every true friend of the ulema, must hope that, even if they continue to participate in politics, they will adopt the exercise of spiritual and moral leadership as their primary mission. They should oppose corruption in public transactions, urge dedication to duty, espouse supremacy of the public good over personal advantage, and preach other Islamic values relevant to governance. Their proper function is to be critics and reformers, and to bring about improvement through advocacy and persuasion. Rulership will inevitably corrupt them and destroy whatever popular respect and regard they have in Pakistan.