Now galloping religiosity- I.A. Rehman


SINCE we took notice of the ‘Creeping religiosity’ in these columns some days ago, the process has picked up speed and is now threatening to undermine not only peace among Muslim sects and other groups but the spirit of pristine Islam itself.

For instance, the Punjab Textbook Board banned over 100 books that were being used by private schools without offering a satisfactory justification.

But perhaps the most grandiose adventure by Punjab’s high priests of religiosity is a bill adopted by the provincial assembly recently under the title the ‘Punjab Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Act, 2020’.

At the very outset, one must take note of the unforgivable audacity of replacing the original foundations of Islam, namely iman, namaz, fasting, zakat and Haj, with a badly drafted law that gives extraordinary and arbitrary powers to a bureaucrat.

The bill is ostensibly designed to provide “for prevention of objectionable material in books” sold in Punjab, indigenously produced or imported. The bill camouflages its assault on the freedom of expression by referring to terrorism, sectarianism or racism, interfaith disorder, threats to the ideology of Pakistan or its sovereignty, integrity or security — all offences that have been covered by the Pakistan Penal Code, so a new Punjab law was not required. A reference is also made to defamation of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) which is covered by Section 295 C of the PPC.

The definition of objectionable material includes anything in conflict with standards of morality, such as obscenity and vulgarity. Who will be the judge in such cases? The director general of public relations, or DGPR.

The material for which the whole measure has been conceived, is the use of the name of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) without using ‘Khatim-un-Nabiyeen’ at the beginning and ‘sallallahu alayhi wasallam’ at the end. A long schedule mentions the names of the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) family and descendants, the Khulafa-i-Rashideen, and the companions after whose names the expression ‘Razi Allahu unho’ must be added.

The Shia ulema took exception to the use of prescribed nomenclature for those who they thought didn’t deserve it. The authors of the bill have fuelled a dangerous confrontation between two of the largest branches of Muslims. This is no service to Islam or Muslims.

How will the bill’s injunction be implemented? Will the books of ahadith be rewritten? How will foreign authors be made to accept Punjab’s order. What about those who will follow the Quranic way of addressing the Holy Prophet (PBUH)?

The definition of a book in the law is a broad one. It includes any sheet of music, sign, chart, map produced in soft form for digital or electronic storage.

The bill can at best be described as an attempt to strengthen a ritual loosely attributed to Islam. It is an established convention that any ritual that is not grounded in Islam takes the faithful away from his faith.

The bill relies on the coercive power of the state to achieve its dubious objectives. The state has no authority to impose Islam. Its religious obligations end with the creation of conditions in which the Muslims of Pakistan can freely practise their faith. Beyond this, the state has no legitimate right to interfere with anyone’s belief, which is strictly each believer’s private matter. The crude form of state interference in religious matters advocated by the bill is firmly hit by one of the most fundamental principles of Islam: ‘La ikraha fid deen’ (there is no compulsion in religion).

The bill deserves to be rejected and denied the governor’s assent on the ground of the extraordinary powers granted that have been granted to the DGPR and even to a lower level official chosen by him.

The DGPR can enter any printing press or publisher’s premises and bookstores “and confiscate any book whether before or after printing, including any material thereof”, as well as “inquire into, investigate, assess or ascertain any act or omission”. Can any wider and more wonderfully vague provision be recalled?

There is no provision for appeal against the DGPR’s orders, it seems.

This is the latest attempt to reduce the space for writers to express themselves on whatever they consider is worthy of comment. It can only be described as an unwarranted and illegitimate attack on the people’s right to freedom of expression.

The governor is reported to have withheld his assent so far. One can only hope that he will be able to persuade the assembly speaker to withdraw the law. But regardless of the bill’ s fate, it has exposed a cancerous growth in the body politic that could whittle down the country’s capacity to meet the ever-present Taliban challenge to the state of Pakistan.

Above all, the bill has entangled the people in a debate on a matter that is not of central concern to the state. It is not even a peripheral matter. It was about the involvement of Muslims in such banal matters that provoked Iqbal to declare:

Haqeeqat khurafat mein kho gayee

Yeh ummat rivayat mein kho gayee.

(Reality has been lost in banalities

This ummah has got lost in traditions.)