Dr. Mubarak Ali - PhD (on Mughal Period, India) from Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany. Former head of history department of Sindh University - Pakistan. He was the director of the Goethe Institute in Lahore, until 1996.
Past present: Religion and colonialism
During the 19th century, the Islamic world passed through a crisis of colonialism that engulfed it and gradually established political domination in nearly all Muslim countries. The colonial state introduced a new structure of legal system that was quite different from the sharia, and separated religion from politics.
Under these circumstances, two types of movements emerged in the Islamic countries: one, the revivalist movements which resisted colonial state and its hegemony and wanted to implement the sharia. Mahdi Sudani’s movement in Sudan and Sannusi movement in Libya worked in this direction. Then there were the religious movements whose interest was to create a strong sense of religious identity among the Muslims without getting involved in politics; they were not in favour of cooperating with the colonial state. For example, the Deobandi movement in its early period remained aloof from politics and concentrated on religious teachings and spiritual training of the Muslim community. The Brelvis specially confined their activities to religious rituals and opposed taking part in any controversial political act.
However, the colonial state and its institutions had great impact on the social, cultural and economic life of the colonised society. Introduction of technology not only changed the structure of the society but also the behaviour of the people. New ideas of nationalism, socialism, Marxism, and the concept of free market challenged the old customs, traditions and values. Religion was not in a position to respond to these new challenges; therefore, it adopted a defensive policy and failed to take part in the creative process of modern civilisation. When it became stagnant and lost energy and power to sustain opposition towards modernity it adopted an ideology of extremism and fundamentalism.
Another important feature of the colonial period was the emergence of a European educated class whose model was Europe. They believed in separation of religion and politics. Subsequently, religion became the private matter of an individual. Religious attitudes were further affected when there were political movements in the Islamic countries on the basis of nationalism. The character of nationalism was either territorial, or linguistic or ethnic. It united people of various religions under the banner of nationalism and their religious identity was pushed back as it was considered divisive for freedom struggle. For example, in the Arab nationalism, the Muslims and Christians were united on linguistic basis in which Arabic language became the source of unity and brotherhood.
After decolonisation, when nation states were established in the former colonies, their constitutions treated all citizens as equal irrespective of their colour and creed. State institutions played a neutral role in politics and treated religion as a private matter of the individuals; however, in case of Pakistan, the situation was quite different. Attempts were made to transform the new state into an Islamic state and bring politics and economy under the domination of religion. Religious nationalism excluded people of other religions from its domain and equality of citizenship was affected when the society was divided into Muslims and non-Muslims. This deprived the religious minorities of their basic rights. Religion as a dominant ideology interfered in all aspects of life whether it was economy, education or science and technology.
After analysing the impact of different models, we can conclude what happens when religion and politics integrate with each other and what transpires when politics dominates religion or religion subordinates politics. In case of this integration, an absolutist and dictatorial system emerges, which saps all creative energies of the society and reduces it to passivity. In case of conflict, both religion and politics use people and their resources to acquire power, and deprive them of social and cultural activities. For example, today’s Saudi Arabia has wealth and vast material resources that provide all sorts of comfort and luxury but there is no culture. Culturally, it is the most backward and barren society. It has produced any musician, nor artist, writer, or filmmaker. It is a society of consumers and not of contributors.
However, whenever religion is dominated by political, social, or economic pressure, the society contributes in philosophy, art and literature, and music. Such was the period of Abbasid rule whose caliphs patronised men of letters and scientists. Emperor Akbar’s period in the Mughal rule is significant because during this period new ideas were allowed to flourish. The society becomes free when the hold of religion is weak; it becomes barren when religion dominates the society and adopts hostility to all changes, and reverts back to old traditions and reduces the role of progress.
Separation of religion from politics does not make it weak or vulnerable. The real strength of religion lies in the belief of its truthfulness and not in patronisation and protection of the state. History shoes that whenever politics is called upon to help religion, it uses it for its interest and makes effort to subordinate it which subsequently weakens religion and its beliefs. Moreover, whenever, religion tries to interfere in economy or politics and cannot keep pace with changes, it becomes the target of criticism. It is evident that in the modern period there is rapid development in the social and natural sciences and religion is not in a position to accommodate all these changes or to interpret them in religious terms; therefore, the best way is to separate religion from politics, economy, and science & technology and confine it to spirituality.