Maulana, maulvi and the constitution

February 17, 2014 at 05:24 ,

Dr Haider Shah:
Our constitution’s preface, on the other hand, reads more like a short lecture in theology. The opening sentence sets the tone

The latest round of negotiations with the Taliban leaders has reignited the old debate on the constitution and sharia. Some, like Maulana Abdul Aziz, tell us that the future of Pakistan should be decided on the basis of sharia and not in accordance with the constitution. Pragmatic voices on the other hand argue that the constitution is Islamic and hence there is no need for sharia-based negotiations. Before we appraise the merits of this controversy, it would be helpful if we first study the preambles of three constitutions: the US, India and ours.

Created by humans, and like any other law, a constitution is organic in its character. If, on the one hand, it serves as the culminating point of one period in the history of a people, it also acts as the beginning of a new era. The preamble to a constitution is what a vision statement for a business firm is. It sets in motion a momentum of change for the future. For instance, the brief preface of the US’s constitution reads, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Notice the opening phrase of “We the people”. For the first time in human history neither a dictator nor a monarch nor anyone claiming to have divine powers but the people themselves were establishing a continent-wide state with the help of mutually agreed written principles. In 1787, the epoch making moment of constitution adoption by the former British colonies changed the world forever. No doubt, the importance of these 52 words of the preamble cannot be overemphasised but we may also not forget that women did not form part of “We the people”. The forceful discourse of equality unleashed by the preamble however paved the way for gradual granting of voting rights to women. The question of slavery, on the contrary, represented deeper schisms and US society could not sleep over the issue forever. Ultimately, the question not settled by the constitution had to be resolved through a civil war.

The constitution of the biggest democracy, India, also adopted the same vision of reposing confidence in the collective wisdom of the people and hence begins with the “We the people” phrase: “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic and to secure to all its citizens justice, social, economic and political, liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship, equality of status and of opportunity, and to promote among them all fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation, in our constituent assembly this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this constitution.”

Now look at the preamble of our constitution. Compared to the mere 52 and 85 words of the US and Indian constitutions, our preamble is a whopping 426 words long. The world’s first and biggest democracies do not categorise their citizens along religious lines and hence espouse a genuine cause of equality. Our constitution’s preface, on the other hand, reads more like a short lecture in theology. The opening sentence sets the tone, “Whereas sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone, and the authority to be exercised by the people of Pakistan within the limits prescribed by Him is a sacred trust.” Once this premise is accepted, and the preamble is allowed to contain the announcement that, “Wherein the Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and Sunnah,” we sow the seeds of a strife over the unsettled question: who will define what the limits to the sovereign power of the people are and what it means to be living according to the injunctions of the Quran and Sunnah? Just as the US constitution’s preamble set the momentum for the later civil rights movements, our constitution provides the likes of Maulana Abdul Aziz and Maulvi Fazlullah with a justifiable cause.

To be fair to the maulana and maulvi, they ask the very rational question that when the Quran and Sunnah are unanimous over the prohibition of riba (interest) and declare riba as waging a war against Allah and his messenger, then in the eyes of genuine believers are we not in a state of war with Allah and his messenger? As we cannot imagine our social life without music, movies, photography, festivals and working women, we turn our eyes away from the injunctions of scripture and accuse the Taliban of misunderstanding the true religion. We tend to give more credence to those who reassure us that we were not disregarding clear injunctions of the holy texts. However, the fact remains that once the strategic vision of the constitution is loaded with theological pronouncements, national discourse is bound to be punctured by religious controversies. Either it is “We the people” who decide what will be the law of the land or someone else will. Sovereignty cannot be apportioned. Our complacent liberals may fondly believe that the constitution has settled the issue of religion. On the contrary, the appeasement of the religious lobby in the constitution is now coming home to roost. Maulana and maulvi are making their case.

The article was originally published in Daily Times on 15th Jan. 2014.

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