What does "Islamic law" mean in Pakistan?

by Feisal Naqvi
12 May 2009
Lahore, Pakistan - In an attempt to restore peace in the restive Swat Valley, the Pakistani government signed a controversial peace deal in March with the Taliban-backed group Movement for the Enforcement of Shari'a (TNSM). In the following month, the Taliban extended its grasp beyond Swat to within 60 miles of Islamabad, the nation's capital, forcing the army to restart military operations.

This move brought fresh international attention to Pakistan's economic and social problems. But within Pakistan, the rise of the Taliban has focused attention on a different question: what does Islam mean for Pakistan?

Talk to any Pakistani Muslim about their faith and the most common statement you will hear is: "Islam is a complete code of life." If pressed further, they may elaborate that Islam unlike Christianity does not distinguish between church and state, and that from an Islamic perspective there is no such thing as purely secular legislation. Push even further and you are likely to hear that the solution to all of Pakistan's problems is to make its laws consistent with Islam.

This seeming consensus is misleading, however, because there is, in reality, very little agreement on what Islam actually entails in terms of legal, enforceable rules. While each school of thought within Islam four major schools within Sunni Islam and one amongst Shi'a Muslims has its own clear and detailed laws relating to inheritance, marriage and divorce, everything beyond the limited arena of "personal laws" is open to debate.

For some people, Islamic law means imposing veils on women and beards on men. For more left-leaning Pakistanis, Islamic law means common ownership of property. For those inspired by Sufi tradition, Islamic law means a respect for the overarching principles of love, kindness and charity.

The real problem then is not that Pakistanis want Islamic laws, but the manner in which those laws are determined. In this regard, Pakistan has struggled from the very beginning with two distinct legal identities. The first identity was the secular administrative identity inherited from the British in 1947. The second was the Islamic identity espoused by most of its citizens.

Pakistan's constitutions of 1956, 1962 and 1973 were based on a secular, Westminster-style political model in which the parliament was sovereign.

Thus, it was the job of parliament not only to make laws but also to ensure that all laws were in conformity with the principles of Islam, or shari'a.

This model was then radically undermined by General Zia ul Haq following his military takeover in 1979. Zia's first attempt to justify his rule was to argue that he had quite literally been directed by God to impose Islamic law upon Pakistan. When his attempts to claim divine inspiration ran thin, Zia was forced to restore democratic rule, but not before he had tinkered with the constitution, creating a Federal Shariat Court charged with ensuring that all legislation was in conformity with Islamic laws.

The actual effect of his attempted Islamisation of most laws was minimal, except for laws relating to women's rights.

This change raised the question of who could decide whether a law was in conformity with Islam.

Zia's austere and rigid model of Islam was largely imported from Saudi Arabia and deferred to religious extremists who, bolstered by massive amounts of Middle Eastern funding, consistently argued that laws were to be decided by people like them, and not by the parliament. These conservative figures became public spokespersons for Islam, even though their beliefs had limited public support. Given the instinctive veneration most Pakistanis have for Islamic law, the end result was a paralysis in which people rejected doctrines of hate at a personal level but lacked the intellectual and institutional leadership to articulate a strong, unified response.

General Pervez Musharraf's military takeover in 1999 led to the collapse of parliamentary democracy that had been in place since 1987 after Zia's death. This created a political vacuum in which the ability to define what was Islamic was ceded almost by default to well-funded religious extremists.

This political collapse was accompanied by a continuing failure of all democratic governments in Pakistan to provide basic necessities like education, health, energy and clean water for all its citizens, which in turn have allowed fundamentalists to expand their zone of influence. For example, madrassas (religious schools), some of which might have extremist leanings, provide free education for children while government-run schools are routinely fraught with administrative and financial setbacks. Not surprisingly, the areas in which the Taliban are now ascendant are also the least developed.

The first step toward regaining security in Pakistan is certainly for the army to take control of the areas that were ceded to the militants. But in the long run, Pakistan will not regain the "middle way" of Islam for its people until it can show that a parliamentary democracy can deliver the basic needs of its citizens, and a more articulate Islamic leadership recovers its indigenous voice.


* Feisal Naqvi is a lawyer based in Lahore, Pakistan. This article first appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek's On Faith and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 12 May 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Women of Tunisia: Let your voices be heard!

The women of Tunisia have a decisive role to play in shaping Tunisia's future. Fatma Ben Saïdane reminds women of the power of their vote and the importance of civic engagement.
"I have received six questions from several individuals working for the Common Ground News Service. I hope that students and specialists in our university (Al Azhar), as well as those concerned with general intellectual matters, will take note of the effort behind these questions, how they came to be issued only after extensive information - gathering and study that could fill shelves, and after the kind of organized thought that draws connections between various facts and which does not busy itself with the illusions, trifles, and pettiness that upend the edifice of knowledge."

- Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt

It takes 200+ hours a week to produce CGNews. We rely on readers like you to make it happen. If you find our stories informative or inspiring, help us share these underreported perspectives with audiences around the world.



Or, support us with a one-time donation.

Voter education improves Indonesian women's political impact
Time for Somali consensus on Islamic law
In Middle East, poetry is the language of love: an interview with Claudia Ott
Muslim Americans on film
# of hours per week to create one edition
# of editors in 6 countries around the world
# of subscribers
Average # of reprints per article
# of media outlets that have reprinted our articles
# of republished articles since inception
# of languages CG articles are distributed in
# of writers since inception


Other articles in this edition

Voter education improves Indonesian women's political impact by Siti Musdah Mulia
Time for Somali consensus on Islamic law by Hussein Yusuf
In Middle East, poetry is the language of love: an interview with Claudia Ott by Mohamed Massad
Muslim Americans on film by Wajahat Ali