Are Ulama Agents of Social Change in Pakistan?

Publication Year : 2020

Academician Muhammad Khalid Masud ascribes religion as the “formidable challenge” to the socio-economic and political development in Pakistan. The more contemporary scholarship is not very critical of the relationship between religion and development. The increase in the number of scholarly literature on the relationship between religion and development can be attributed to the growth of madrassah networks across South Asia; as part of these burgeoning networks another interactionist framework has emerged which explains the relationship between ulama and civil society. Building upon this relationship, this piece describes: (i) the conceptual foundations of religion-development nexus, (ii) deconstructs the role of ulama in development projects, and (iii) signifies the reticent stance of ulama to social change.

  • Conceptual Foundations of Religion-Development Nexus

Signified as one of the contemporary debates in Development Studies, religion-development nexus has long been viewed as unimaginable and dichotomous by modernization theorists. One of the modernist justifications is that on etymological grounds development is defined along the axis of modernity, growth, acceleration, advancement and progression. This evolutionist stance was invoiced in the ideas of enlightenment, rationality and scientific reasoning which in turn promulgated and later on surfaced the notions of autonomy, human rights, individuality, and modernity in the West. This instrumental conceptualisation of development by the West which glorifies economic modernisation clearly demarcated the world into developed and under-developed countries. The western scholarship on development stereotypes the under-developed region as backward, regressive, and deprived, and in need of helping hand extended by the West.

With this competing argument at the backdrop, religion doesn’t seem to be an organic fit because it is conceived as a component of tradition which resists change, modernity and in simpler terms development (as conceived and institutionalised by the West and in wake of implementation in the East). In order to simplify this entangled relationship and locate argument in the context of Pakistan, I refer to Political Scientist, Louis Cantori who provides a detailed explanation of Muslim responses to modernisation. One of the two are the defensive responses that glorify the ‘social and political positions of the Ulama’, whereas the second ones are the apologetic responses describing that how Islam had already anticipated modernity and how the Islamic revivalists such as Sayyid Qutb, Hassan Turabi, and Sayyid Mawdudi re-conceptualised the Islamic ideation of development in the light of the Western polemical stance against Islam. Later on, the re-interpreted Islamic views on and of development were communicated to the world by articulating lexicons from Arabic language and drawing parallels within the lexicography of Development Studies. For instance, according to Khurshid Ahmad the Islamic perspective of development is based on the theological terminologies such as tawhid (unity), tazkiya (purification) and taghayyur (change). Opposed to this line of thinking are the neo-revivalists who claim to mark the difference between Muslims and West. Along this domain, it is imperative to signify that ban on bank interest, ban on family planning, defining women’s status in the society, and circulation of money through zakat (among others) differentiate Muslims from the West.

  • Deconstructing the Role of Ulama in Development Projects

On explaining the intersectionality of ulama with development in Pakistan a few studies can be cited. A study conducted by Riaz Hassan in Faithlines was based on interviews conducted in 1996-98 with 4500 Muslims from Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Kazakhstan. The study showed that in Pakistan the number of people who trusted ulama was less than in other countries included in the research although they trusted ulama more than the pirs, politicians and parliamentarians. Having said that, the respondents had more trust in educational, judicial and intellectual institutions than the ulama which clearly signifies the fact that the notion of religiosity is socially constructed in Pakistan. Another significant research which can be cited in this regard is “Ulema and Development” by National Research and Development Foundation (NRDF). The report is a corollary of different development projects in which the role of ulama was highlighted as of being trusted and of those who can motivate people to development practices. One of the significant features of the report was the role of ulama in sensitising about reproductive rights of women. The project though proclaimed to be a success, stays silent on:

  1. The impact of the project in terms of whether (or not) women’s mobility to healthcare institutions was improved in Peshawar?
  2. Whether (or not) men could be sensitised about the importance of women being examined by health professional during their pregnancies? And whether response rates to breastfeeding and awareness of the same were positive or negative?

The study highlights that in rural areas the role of ulama is more significant where literacy rates are low and media is relatively limited, as they occupy a powerful status in religious seminaries and mosques. They are also bestowed with the platform of exfoliating misperceptions and propagating positive conduct and behaviours in the society.

  • Reticent Stance of Ulama to Social Change

Going by this positive assertion about role of ulama, Carol Rakody’s (an academic with expertise in religion and development) research asks whether ulama really function as agents of change in Muslim societies. The study highlighted that more than functioning as agents of social change in Pakistan, ulama function as political forces governed by the interests of the religious political party/ies they are associated with. In addition, they also exert strong power and authority on the body polity and governmental structures of Pakistan. The lack of public discourse questioning and deconstructing this politicised hegemony of religious supremacists exacerbates the instrumentality of religion in Pakistan. Religion as an instrument to one’s own vested interests has been theorised in Bourdieusian (social inequalities on the basis of religious capital possessed by religious scholars), Marxist (false consciousness as a strategist stance on creating class inequality) and Foucauldian (religious texts, imagery and symbols in popularising dominant discourse) schools of thought. In Pakistan the instrumentalization of Islam is operating on manifolds; through formal and informal institutions of social control, through religious seminaries in the form of madrassah and through political parties. Therefore, the nexus between religion and development needs to be problematized in Pakistan on theological, discursive and political fronts.