Negotiating Tradition, Authority, and Sovereignty in Pakistan


A review of The ‘Ulamā’ and the State: Negotiating Tradition, Authority and Sovereignty in Contemporary Pakistan, by Mashal Saif

The role of religion in Pakistani politics receives widespread scholarly attention, but the key religious actors, their motivations, and their evolving relationship with the state remain underexplored. Mashal Saif’s dissertation focuses on the ulamā, whom she describes as experts in Islamic ethico-legal tradition, trained at religious seminaries and often patronized by the state. Describing them as an “intellectually hybrid” group, Saif provides a necessary corrective to the often-held belief that the ulamā are “unable to conceptualize their political realities and their Islamic state in a manner other than that dictated by the religious tradition in which they have been schooled” (p. 331). Consciously providing the readers with a holistic account of the ulamā that takes into account their “life-worlds,” Saif successfully conveys the changing and divergent goals of this group of scholarly men vis-à-vis the state and its various manifestations. Her dissertation is a remarkable contribution to an otherwise thin body of literature on religious authorities in the Islamic world, and Pakistan in particular.

Saif’s multi-method approach to her research question—“how do the Pakistan ulamā negotiate tradition, authority and sovereignty with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan?”—is one reason for the dissertation’s success. Her ethnographic work, which includes structured and unstructured interviews as well as participant observation, is coupled with rigorous textual analysis; this allows for a well-rounded and compelling argument. Saif’s ability to allow herself into and out of the narrative makes the work highly readable and imbues it with a sense of urgency. Particularly instructive are the differences outlined in the manner in which Sunni and Shi’a ulamā construct an identity vis-à-vis not only the state, but also their followers and each other.

In Chapter 1, Saif establishes that while the ulamā-state relationship did evolve following the birth of the nation-state, this occurrence did not completely eliminate the source of the ulamā’s religious authority or make them voiceless, as suggested by various researchers (Wael Hallaq, “Juristic Authority vs. State Power: The Legal Crises of Modern Islam.” Journal of Law and Religion 19:2 (2003-2004): pp. 243-258; Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy, and Islam. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004; Arskal Salim, Challenging the Secular State: The Islamization of Law in Modern Indonesia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008; and Sami Zubaida, “Is Iran an Islamic State.” In Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report, edited by Joel Beinin and Joe Stork. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997, pp. 103-119). Rather, the creation of Pakistan in the name of Islam imbued them with a default sense of authority, though one not rigorously defined. The chapter serves as a theoretical introduction for those unfamiliar with the terrain by situating Saif’s argument within the existing literature. For the remainder of the chapter, Saif takes us on a historical tour of Pakistan following independence, with a focus on the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). What Saif describes as the ‘ulamā’s victory over the CII on the controversial issue of the Hudood Ordinance is a fascinating example through which the continuing influence of the ‘ulamā’—particularly alongside, and sometimes against, state actors—can be explained. The Hudood Ordinance, which came into effect in 1979 under General Zia-ul Haq’s Islamization program, implemented shari’a (Islamic Law) rulings for the crimes of adultery and fornication, rape, and alcohol consumption. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Ordinance was that it required the same evidence for rape as it did for adultery and fornication. Saif uses debate around this Ordinance to describe the political pressure that the ulamā are continually able to exert in modern-day Pakistan. Her work here is one of the few available analyses of the Council of Islamic Ideology, making it a contribution in and of itself.

In Chapter 2, Saif turns her investigative lens to the blasphemy law in Pakistan, which has recently garnered national and international attention. Saif places the horrifying murder of Salman Taseer, then Governor of Punjab, and the resultant public support of the murderer, his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, within a historical and religious context: in the weeks prior, Taseer had criticized the country’s blasphemy laws and actively advocated for a Christian woman sentenced to death under them. Here the dissertation deals head-on with the question of competing sovereignties, that articulated by the state and that interpreted and articulated by the ulamā. Part of this contestation revolves around the question of the state’s monopoly over violence. The insights and analysis generated by Saif’s discussion of the role of vigilante justice in Islam are particularly useful, both in elucidating her central argument and also in speaking to the broader question of militancy in Pakistan and Islam. By pointing towards a handful of religious authorities who were willing to deem Qadri a murderer, Saif demonstrates that the ulamā are not a homogenous category. She parses support for Qadri into three central strands: 1) questioning the legitimacy of death penalty for such crimes; 2) challenging the validity of the central religious incident cited to support such an act; and 3) the religious permissibility (or not) of vigilante justice.

Chapter 3 turns to the question of the nature of the Islamic identity of the Pakistani state. Using her rich qualitative fieldwork, Saif demonstrates that the ulamā’s assessment of the state’s religious character can be divided into two main schools: those who dismiss and challenge the current state’s Islamic identity, and those who argue that the state is ideologically Islamic. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this chapter is Saif’s in-depth discussion of the manner in which ulamā’ anthropomorphize the State, likening it to an individual who is either a Muslim or an unbeliever. Saif is able to skillfully move from narrating and recalling specific conversations with ulamā’ to taking a step back and categorizing her interviewees’ thoughts into an analytic whole.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus attention on the minority Shi’a community in Pakistan. Given the unfortunate impossibility of discussing Shia Islam in Pakistan without at least mentioning the violence that has targeted this group over the years since the country’s independence, Saif examines the Shi’a ulamā’s relationship to the state in this violent context. Indeed, this “specter of violence” drives the ulamā’s political theologies. Saif convincingly suggests that while the ulamā question the legitimacy of particular state institutions, they nonetheless continue to harbor an idea of the state as the legitimate authority.

Saif’s dissertation is a much-needed and valuable addition to work on religion in Pakistan. Her ability to leverage rich fieldwork with textual analysis sheds light on an impressive array of cases effectively. Perhaps the dissertation’s greatest strength is its ability to be many things simultaneously: a historical overview of the relationship between the state and religious authorities in Pakistan; an ethnographic analysis of how the ulamā, both Sunni and Shi’a, navigate changing political scenarios, and; a contemporary account of the hot-button topics of the day, including the Hudood Ordinance and blasphemy laws. Once published, this work will be a must read for anyone with an interest in Islam or Pakistan.

Niloufer Siddiqui
PhD Candidate, Political Science
Yale University
Primary Sources
Ethnographic research (including interviews and participant observation) in 5 cities in Pakistan, including visits to major mosques and religious seminaries.
Religious literature in Urdu

Dissertation Information
Duke University. 2014. 356pp. Primary Advisor: Ebrahim Moosa

Image: photo by author of Jāmi‘a al-Muntaẓar seminary in Lahore, Pakistan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like