Islam and ideology: the Pakistani connection

About the author

The various debates on Islam, Islamism and sharia law in openDemocracy have reflected different currents of thought on these great issues in the context of modern political and intellectual developments: including the use of religion for ideological ends, and the controversy over the speech of the Church of England's spiritual head which explored the place of religion-based legal codes in modern Britain.

The contributions have included Meghnad Desai's thoughtful article "The roots of terror: Islam or Islamism" (6 February 2007) which identified "Islamism" - a "political ideology which uses religious language [for a] purpose like any other political ideology: to win power" - as the root of terrorism; and Sami Zubaida's challenging response "Islam, religion and ideology" (14 February, 2007), which argues that although this distinction may be valid under some circumstances, the period since 9/11 has seen many points of convergence between Islam and ideology.

Izzud-Din Pal is an economist who taught at universities in Pakistan and Canada until his retirement in 1989. Among his books are Pakistan, Islam and Economics: Failure of Modernity (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1999) and Islam and the Economy of Pakistan (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2006)

This short article offers another perspective on this debate. If ideology is characterised as a set of closely related ideas and beliefs held by a group (which may aspire to "hegemony" over others, in Antonio Gramsci's formulation), then some similarities can be detected between this concept and the cluster of followers associated with a narrowly defined doctrine. But it does not follow that such a thing as "Islamic ideology" exists. As I have argued elsewhere see (Islam and the Economy of Pakistan: A Critical Analysis of Traditional Interpretation, Oxford University Press / Karachi, 2006), religion per se represents a diversity of beliefs and actions around a fundamental principle which cannot fit in the narrow framework of ideology. This can be illustrated by reference both to early Islamic history and Islamism's modern political manifestations.

The doctrine of "promoting virtue and forbidding wrong" in Islam enjoins every Muslim strictly to abide by its injunctions. Two important figures in Islamic thought, Imam Ghazali (who developed the idea of hisba [duty to forbid wrong]) and Imam Ibn Taymiyya (who redefined the notion of the ideal Muslim community in light of the experience of the Mongol invasion of the Abbasid realm in Baghdad) played an important role in elaborating the scope of this doctrine. In the modern period, it has become closely associated with the idea of Muslims' responsibility to wage jihad (understood - or interpreted - as armed struggle) in the name of Islam, embraced for example by the Taliban in Afghanistan and by Osama bin Laden in his justification for the attack on civilians at the World Trade Centre in New York (in which he invoked Ibn Taimiyya).

Also in openDemocracy on religious identity and the sharia controversy in Britain:

Callum Brown, "'Best not to take it too far': how the British cut religion down to size" (8 March 2006)

Tina Beattie, "Rowan Williams and sharia law" (12 February 2008)

Fred Halliday, "Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)

Theo Hobson, "Rowan Williams: sharia furore, Anglican future" (13 February 2008)

Roger Scruton, "Islamic law in a secular world" (14 February 2008)

Sami Zubaida, "Sharia: practice of faith, politics of modernity" (22 February 2008)

, the conversation on the future of the United Kingdom, features posts and debate about the sharia controversy here

The ideas of these two scholars - and those of others who belong squarely in the centre of Islam's intellectual development - have been employed to promote terrorism (see David Cook, Understanding Jihad, University of California Press, 2005). Some later Islamic thinkers, belonging to the Salafi / Wahhabi orientation that came to dominate in Saudi Arabia for example, have used the power and wealth afforded by statehood and official sponsorship to extend ideas such as hisba and jihad via petro-dollars and madrasas. In this context the distinction between religion and ideology is less easy to sustain.

The ideas belonging to the early history of Islam (especially from its third and fourth centuries onwards) which sought to reassert "traditional" Islam in reaction against the Mutazilites ("isolationists", or rationalists) were formative for later understandings, establishing a strong "consensus" (including over issues such as sharia) that continued to exert a great pull towards tradition and against the tide of modernity (see Michael Cook, Forbidding Wrong in Islam: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2003).

The life of ideas

The way that the ideas of Muslim scholars have seeded what Sami Zubaida calls a "totalising vision" in the modern era is exemplified at many points in he history of Muslim India from 1857 (the year of the Mutiny, or the "first war of independence" as official history now characterises it). It is particularly evident in the crucial decade leading up to the creation of Pakistan in 1947, when the Muslim League began its quest for a separate homeland for Muslims living in the majority areas of British India and the outline for the new Islamic state began to emerge (see Furhan Iqbal, "Pakistan and violence: memory, shame, and repression", 18 February 2008).

The Muslim League (including its leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah) had kept its vision of the new state deliberately undefined (until Jinnah's speech on 11 August 1947). This vacuum was filled by two very strong messages from voices outside the Muslim League: Muhammad Asad (Leopold Weiss in his earlier life) and Abul A'la Maududi.

For Asad, the malaise that Muslims were suffering from would only be resolved when they returned to pure Islam. This was the core message of his book Islam at the Crossroads (published in Delhi in 1934, which by 1947 had gone through several reprints).

For Abul A'la Maududi, the proposed new homeland for Muslims must be a theocracy, with a pious Muslim as head of the state, and a chosen advisory council around him. These ideas started to receive attention from Muslim students and many professionals, especially in the bureaucracy. As they did so, this prolific pamphleteer and astute politician (who headed the militant Jamaat-e-Islami party) played an important intellectual influence on Pakistan's constitution-making process.

General Zia-ul Haq's period as the country's military dictator after his seizure of power in 1977 accelerated Islamic reforms; a process in which Maududi's ideas were the main source of inspiration (see Maruf Khwaja, "The Islamisation of Pakistan", 11 April 2006). Asad and Maududi can be seen here as preparing the ground for the growth of Salafi /Wahhabi ideology in Pakistan. The mix of madrasas, petro-dollars and the military security-state fixation has created a nexus of power in the country that it will take far more than elections and a new coalition government to overcome.

In the modern history of Pakistan, as in the larger development of Islamic ideas, the relationship between religion and ideology is neither one of identity nor instrumentality. Rather, religion allows a cluster of ideas and associations to seek power around it - a constant reference-point offering salvation.