Past Present: Power of religion Sunday, 12 Apr, 2009 03:00 AM PST by Mubarak Ali [Courtesy: The Review - Daily Dawn, Karachi]
Past Present: Power of religion:
Generally, the domination of religion on politics takes place as a result of the weakness of the state and its institutions. When the state fails to fulfil the needs of the people and is unable to protect them against internal and external threats, religious elements who claim to establish a society based on justice, and get rid of the corrupt political set up, begin to gain power. In this case religion dominates politics and uses it as a tool for implementation of its practices.
Religion gained domination over politics in two ways. In the first case, a ruler, in the interest of his rule and stability of his ruling dynasty, implemented the shariat and allowed the ulema to play a leading role in the state affairs. In the second case, the ulema, after capturing political power, established a religious state and forced people to follow their religious agenda. Such religious states, whether they were founded in the West or in the East, basically believed that human beings could be reformed only by coercion and control over their actions. Therefore, to set up a purified society, strict and exemplary punishments were given on minor crimes. It was also believed that worldly rulers were corrupt and evil-minded, therefore, only religious scholars could rule with honesty and work for the welfare of the people.
One example of this type of domination is the city-state of Geneva that was established by the Christian reformer Calvin (d.1599). After acquiring political power, he was in a position to implement his religious ideals. The first thing he did was that he announced that those who were not in favour of his religious ideas should leave the city. Those who stayed back faced rigorous disciplinary action on various offences; the punishments included excommunication from Christianity, exile from the city, imprisonment, and death.
On his orders all hotels and guesthouses, which provided sexual facilities to the guests, were closed down. Those traders and shopkeepers who were found involved in cheating in quality or quantity were severely punished; vulgar songs and playing cards were prohibited. Care was taken that Bible should be available at all-important places. Those who were found laughing during a sermon were reprimanded. It was obligatory for every person to thank God before eating. As a result of these strenuous laws, the people were completely under the control and supervision of Calvin’s spiritual police. Punishments were severe and no consideration or exemption was given to anybody; for instance, once a child was beheaded because he struck his father.
It is said that during the period of six years 150 heretics were burnt alive. The result was that the citizens of Geneva soon got fed up with this system, which ended after Calvin was expelled from the city.
In the Islamic world, in the 18th century a religious movement erupted in Najad and Hijaz and soon engulfed the whole region. Its founder Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahab (d.1792) launched the campaign to purify Islam from irreligious practices. Muhammad Ibn Saud, the founder of the Saudi ruling dynasty, was influenced by his teachings; this resulted in matrimonial alliance between the two families. When Ibn Saud’s son, Saud (d.1814) established his rule he made the Wahabi religious ideas his state religion. As Wahabis believed in revivalism and purity of religion, they demolished tombs, took away religious relics which were kept there, and banned pilgrimage to shrines.
On the one hand, the Wahabis wanted to revive the ideal society of early Islam, while on the other, they destroyed all those historical monuments of the early Islamic history only because people had emotional attachment to them and regarded them as holy and sacred. They implemented strict rules and regulations for observation of religious practices as praying five times regularly and those who tried to avoid them were chased by the police and forced to go to mosques.
The Wahabi model inspired religious reformers in other Muslim countries as well and a number of movements emerged to capture power and reform the society on the basis of their religious agenda. In India, the Jihad movement of Sayyid Ahmad Shahid (d.1831) followed this pattern. To fulfil his mission, he migrated from North India to North Western Frontier in order to establish his Islamic state there. In 1827, he proclaimed himself the caliph and Imam. He and his followers used all coercive methods to establish a pure and virtuous society in the frontier region.
Mirza Hyrat Dehlvi, in his book, Hyat-I-Tayyaba, writes that Sayyid sahib appointed many of his followers on important posts with the order that they should force people to follow shariat. However, these officers misused their authority and sometimes forced young girls to marry them. It was also observed that some young holy warriors forcibly took away young ladies from bazaars and streets to mosques and married them without their consent. Those officers who were appointed to look after peasants also misused their power and treated the common folk with arrogance. The result was that poor and simple villagers were fed up of them.
The officers, in order to assert power, declared anybody who did not follow the instructions as kafir (non-believer). If somebody’s beard was found to be larger than the standard, the lips of that person were cut off as punishment. If somebody was found wearing tahmad (cloth to cover up lower body) below the ankles, the bones of his ankles were broken.
The same happened in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule and in some altered shape in Iran, after the overthrowing of the Shah in 1989, where all coercive methods were used to implement its own version of the shariat.