Pakistani Writers Examine the Role of Clerics and Mosques: ‘The Deobandi Leadership… [Has] Refused to Give… [Its] Disapproval to Suicide Attacks’; ‘Imagine Tens of Millions of Muslims as Captive Audiences to Imams for a Half Hour Every Friday’; ‘Imams… Are Answerable to Mosque Councils; Their Job Descriptions Should be Documented, Their Sermons Prepared in Advance’
From April 13 to April 15, 2010, nearly 150 Islamic clerics representing different madrassas and Deobandi religious groups converged in Pakistan’s cultural city of Lahore to discuss the issue of terrorism and its impact on Pakistani society and economy. The meeting was apparently held under pressure from the Pakistani military, to get the clerics to condemn suicide bombings in Pakistan. The Deobandi movement also had a stake in the meeting, as it faces a challenge from suicide attacks, which may lead to erosion of its credibility among the Pakistani people.
However, according to a May 2 report in the liberal Pakistani newspaper Dawn, titled “Still Shying Away From Condemning Suicide Bombings,” the conferees failed to condemn the suicide bombings, due to differences in clerical approach. In the report, Nasir Jamal wrote: “[Hardline clerics] Maulana Ludhianvi and Hafiz Hussain Ahmed are said to have ‘turned the tables’ on the organizers and forced them to restrict themselves to issuing a joint communiqué that was soft on militants and harsh on government and, obviously, on the United States.“
In Pakistan’s predominantly Sunni society, Deobandi clerics are overwhelmingly influential among the people; this influence originates from their many mosques and religious madrassas.
The following four articles examine the issue of clerics’ influence in Pakistan and the role of the mosques, and particularly their sermons at Friday prayers. Nasir Jamal’s report, mentioned above, noted that the Deobandi clerics remain divided on the issue of suicide bombings and still consider the situation in Pakistan to be the result of the U.S. role in the region. Prominent Pakistani writer Muhammad Ali Siddiqi commented on the Lahore conference, noting the condoning of violence by Pakistani Ulema (religious scholars) as a protest against the United States. Columnist and Ohio-based physician Dr. Mahjabeen Islam wrote in two columns in the Lahore-based Daily Times on the role of mosques, especially the Friday sermons and imams (prayer leaders), in Pakistani and American societies, arguing that governments need to regulate the mosques, set out the job descriptions for prayer leaders, prepare the Friday sermons for them in advance, and monitor their speeches.
“Still Shying Away From Condemning Suicide Bombings,” Nasir Jamal, Dawn, May 2, 2010
“The Deobandi Leadership in the Country… [Has] Refused to Give a Consensual Nod of Disapproval to Suicide Attacks”
“The Deobandi leadership in the country has for the moment refused to give a consensual nod of disapproval to suicide attacks and other acts of militancy – despite efforts by some members to reconcile the school to new realities.
“A meeting held here [in Lahore] recently was part of this initiative for reconciliation. Rising above their political and factional disputes, around 150 leaders representing different Deobandi groups, seminaries and political parties from Karachi to Bajaur converged in Lahore on April 15 for a rare meeting. Over three days they shared space at the Jamia Ashrafia [madrassa], one of the oldest and influential Deobandi institutions in the city.
“Many participants are known to have links with Pakistan’s visible and invisible [military-led] establishment. They included moderates such as Mufti Rafi Usmani and hardliners such as Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi of the banned [militant religious organization] Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan.
“Big names in politics – Maulana Fazalur Rehman, Hafiz Hussain Ahmed and Maulana Samiul Haq, whose Darul Uloom Haqqania in Akora Khattak in [the province of] Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is credited to have given birth to Afghanistan’s Taliban movement, were also there along with heavyweights such as Maulana Saleem Ullah Khan and Hanif Jalandhari, who manage the Deobandi seminaries and education system in the country.”
“The Objective of This Rare Deobandi Gathering, According To Some Participants, Was To Deliberate on Terrorism, Debate Its Causes, Discuss Impact on the Economy and Politics, and Suggest Solutions and Work Together To Stem The Menace”
“The objective of this rare Deobandi gathering, according to some participants, was to deliberate on terrorism, debate its causes, discuss impact on the economy and politics and suggest solutions and work together to stem the menace.
“‘The basic goal of this conference was to organize the movement for enforcement of Shari’a through peaceful and democratic means, and discuss the reasons for terrorism in the country,’ Qari Hanif Jalandhari told this reporter from Multan by telephone… Qari Hanif conceded that militancy and terrorism could harm the Deobandi movement, [wondering:] ‘If terrorism can impact upon the economy and add to the troubles of common citizens of this country, how we can escape its effects…’
“Others say the meeting was organized at the behest of the government (read establishment), which is desperately looking for wider support from Deobandi pockets against militants fighting the army in the tribal areas… If that was what the meeting aimed to gain, it was only partially achieved.
“Maulana Ludhianvi and Hafiz Hussain Ahmed are said to have ‘turned the tables’ on the organizers and forced them to restrict themselves to issuing a joint communiqué that was soft on militants and harsh on government and, obviously, the United States. ‘Neither a fatwa triggered this war nor will it help stop one. If a fatwa could stop this war, we would have peace in our tribal areas and the rest of the country now,’ another participant, who also refused to give his name, said [and added:] ‘Whatever is happening in Pakistan or Afghanistan today is a reaction to the American policies, its increasing influence and interference in Pakistan and our government’s inability to understand this fact and side with the West…'”
Clerics’ Communiqué: “Militancy and Terrorism Continue to Haunt This Country; In Our View It is the Consequence of the [Pakistani] Foreign Policy”
“[The joint communiqué] blames the government’s policy of ‘toeing the American line’ on Afghanistan for growing terrorism…”
Following are some excerpts from the joint communiqué are:
“Militancy and terrorism continue to haunt this country in spite of wide denunciation of such acts (suicide bombings and subversive activities) by all patriotic people as well as use of organized military force. The situation calls for a dispassionate analysis of the fundamental causes (of this situation). In our view it is the consequence of the foreign policy that [former military ruler General] Pervez Musharraf pursued… and the incumbent government continues to follow.
“We demand that the government separates itself from the war in Afghanistan and stops pursuing pro-American foreign policies and providing logistics support to foreign forces (for military operations in Afghanistan…
“[However] If the government is following erroneous policies, it does not mean that we set our home afire. We, therefore, confidently and honestly believe that only peaceful struggle is the best strategy that can help enforcement of Islamic Shari’a in Pakistan and secure it from the foreign influences.
“The use of violence is contrary to Islamic teachings and detrimental to our objective of enforcement of Shari’a in the country and efforts to expel Americans from this region. Rather, it is helping the United States deepen its influence in this region…”
“Ulema and Terrorism,” Muhammad Ali Siddiqi, Dawn, May 10, 2010
“Ulema at Lahore said that the Government’s… Obedience to Commands from Washington in Their Opinion is the Reason Behind the Militants’ War against the Government”
“The proceedings at the Deobandi Ulema’s recent conference in Lahore must be studied less for its expected refusal to condemn suicide bombings and more for the insight it gives into the psyche of a large section of our powerful ulema community. Of equal significance are the fissures that came to the fore between hardliners and harder-liners. Evidently, the latter carried the day.
“It was gratifying that at least some ulema – among them Maulana Samiul Haq – were cognizant of the negative impact which acts of terrorism were having not on the nation but on the Deobandi image.
“While the delegates did indeed plead with the militants to adopt peaceful and democratic means for the establishment of Shari’a in Pakistan, a majority of the ulema… said terrorism would continue to haunt Pakistan as long as ‘factors and causes’ responsible for it continued. What was mind-boggling, however, was the principle some ulema propounded to establish a link between terrorism and government policies.
“Briefly, the ulema at Lahore said that the government’s foreign policy is pro-America, and this obedience to commands from Washington in their opinion is the reason behind the militants’ war against the government. That this war against the government and the army translates itself into a war on the state of Pakistan itself was an issue into which the ulema chose not go.”
“To Our West is a Theocracy, in Iran… But No Opposition Group Has Started Killing Iran’s Men, Women and Children”
“If one were to accept resort to terrorism as a justifiable means for registering dissent against government policies, then every country in this world must be ravaged by terrorism, because there is no government on the surface of the earth whose policies do not have critics. Let us, for instance, see the situation in two of Pakistan’s neighbors – Iran and India — where government policies have diehard foes.
“The nuclear deal between America and India was first agreed upon in principle when Manmohan Singh met George [W.] Bush in July 2005… The treaty evoked opposition from key members of the Senate and House foreign relations committees, but to my knowledge no senators or congressmen or lobby groups resorted to terrorism or to threats of terrorism to express disapproval of this aspect of the Bush government’s foreign policy.
“In India, the treaty aroused intense opposition, not only from the traditionally anti-American parties of the Left but also from the extreme rightwing Hindu parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party. The press was equally divided… All along the intensely emotional debate, no party or group started killing India’s own citizens and blowing up markets and schools and temples and mosques…”
“To our west is a theocracy in Iran, almost as obscurantist and ruthless as Ziaul Haq’s tyranny [in Pakistan during the 1980s]. The clerics have imposed an ideological dictatorship on Iran, the Internet is censored, foreign channels are banned or shown selectively; there is no opposition press and even government newspapers are often banned when they deviate from the official line… But no opposition group has started killing Iran’s men, women and children, and blowing up shopping plazas in Tehran…”
“It is, however, in Pakistan that some segments of the ulema think that killing our own people is a justified way of expressing dissent against the government’s policies.”
“Ideologically Motivated Governments, Movements and Individuals, Whether Religious or Secular – Nazi, Zionist, Taliban – are Singularly Devoid of the Milk of Human Kindness”
“Mind you, the government’s perceived pro-American policies do not have opponents merely in the religious right. Even liberal sections of opinion – the recently formed Workers Party Pakistan, for instance – are sharply critical of a continuation of Pervez Musharraf’s war on terror by the Pakistan People’s Party-led government. But none of these political parties and elements has justified blasts… or the blowing up of mosques or a girls’ university to register their protest against the government’s foreign policy.
“The religious touch to the ulema’s anti-Americanism is laughable. Just the other day [i.e. during the 1980s war in Afghanistan], they were head over heels in love with America, and any opposition to the CIA’s overt and covert operations in Afghanistan was considered heresy because there existed an ‘indissoluble unity’ among the People of the Books [Christians, Jews and Muslims].
“The ulema know the hurmat [dignity] Islam attaches to human life. In case some of them have forgotten, the blast in the Rawalpindi Askari mosque on December 4, 2009 killed, among others, 16 children…”
“For some mysterious reason, ideologically motivated governments, movements and individuals, whether religious or secular – Nazi, Zionist, Taliban – are singularly devoid of the milk of human kindness. The attitude of a large number of Pakistani clerics today reminds us of the Christian church’s cold-bloodedness in burning purported heretics at the stake in medieval Europe.”
“The Power of the Friday Sermon,” Dr. Mahjabeen Islam, Daily Times, May 14, 2010
“Imagine Tens of Millions of Muslims as Captive Audiences to Imams [prayer Leaders] for a Half Hour Every Friday All across the Globe”
“Imagine tens of millions of Muslims as captive audiences to imams [prayer leaders of mosques] for a half hour every Friday all across the globe. The Friday sermon is so much a part of the prayer itself that one cannot talk, text or phone during it.
“Through the ages the juma [Friday] prayer has been ingrained as part of the Friday schedule of observant Muslim men. And yet most daydream during the sermon, shutting out the frequently out-of-touch imam. With the rapidly escalating state of global insecurity perpetrated by fringe-fanatics, it behoves the larger Muslim population to go into overdrive and find very quickly what it is that we can do to stem this tide of lunacy in the name of Islam.
“Feeling similarly violated after the London train bombings in 2005, I felt I had an epiphany: ‘Project Friday Khutba’ I called it. The premise is a simple statement in every Friday sermon plainly calling terrorism haram (forbidden). The Friday sermon is governed by rules: There must be a quotation from the Koran, one from the Hadith [sayings and deeds of the prophet], and by most schools of thought, some reflection on areas of current day socio-politics.
“To understand the impact of this better, first, the current state of imams the world over deserves attention. In Pakistan and probably most of the Muslim world, bright achieving children become professionals: doctors, engineers, architects, accountants and the like. As a general rule, imams, mullahs [clerics] and maulvis [religious teaching] are unfortunately a default profession. Some of them are products of orphanages and thus there is the added layer of the pathology of an absent family life.
“Unlike clergy schools in Christianity and Judaism, the basic prerequisite of being an imam in the Muslim world may only be that of being hafiz (having memorized the Koran). The non-religious education of an imam may be either non-existent or minuscule, up to the tenth grade, usually not university level.”
“Egocentricity, Myopia, Self-Aggrandisement, Frank Materialism, Hidden Agendas, Strong Male Chauvinism and Intense Patriarchy Characterize the Majority of Imams in North America”
“The North American situation is similarly bleak. Most imams are imports from the Arab and Muslim world, with thick accents in English and little understanding of the North American Muslim socio-politics. Some are graduates of Al-Azhar in Egypt or the International Islamic University in Islamabad, but mindsets do not change with BAs or even PhDs. Egocentricity, myopia, self-aggrandisement, frank materialism, hidden agendas, strong male chauvinism and intense patriarchy characterize the majority of imams in North America. There is also a perverse penchant for four marriages, the public one under American or Canadian law and a couple others under their distorted interpretation of Islamic law. For shame!
“The intense interest in sex is so transparent that during taraweeh (the evening prayer in Ramadan), the sole subject [of discussion] across the continent is how intercourse is allowed during the nights of Ramadan. And to these specimens we have given over our religion and the spiritual leadership of the Muslim masses!
“In Surah Juma (62:9) the Koran says, ‘O you who believe! When the call for prayer is given on (Friday) the day of congregation, rush toward the remembrance of Allah and stop buying and selling; this is better for you if you understand.’ As per a Hadith, women are exempted due to childcare constraints, but I figure that if I am a wage-earner and monitor a medical schedule and do not have little children to tend at home, Friday prayer becomes mandatory on me as well, for the Koran always supersedes a Hadith. I digress only to prove that Friday prayer at the mosque is equally imposed on both genders. And that swells the population that the imams have access to.
“If you draw upon memory you will agree that in the most major of world events, imams slickly go ostrich. It is true that a lot of them are totally clueless and have not heard about what is going on. Others feel that if they put on their robes and sit in the pulpit and act important and talk about minutiae like how not to close your eyes when you are standing for prayer, the elephant in the mosque, I mean the room, will miraculously go away.
‘“Sister, sister, we do not have… terrorists in the mosque!’ I was told dismissively when I approached a couple of imams to implement what is perfectly doable after the London train bombings. I thought machines had x-ray vision; here they were claiming to know the minds of their entire congregations?”
“No Imam Holds Divinity in the Eyes of God; Imams Serve the Mosque And Are Answerable to Mosque Councils; Their Job Descriptions Should be Documented, Their Sermons Prepared in Advance and Reviewed”
“If a disenchanted, angry and possibly economically distraught young man does attend the Friday prayer and for a half hour is compelled to listen to an imam, the opportunity for preaching Islam’s message of ‘killing non-combatants is haram’ becomes a golden one.
“Dire economic straits seem to rule the world over as well as a deep well of fury against the West for the perceived injustices in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and now Pakistan. One does not need both for an explosive future; one is more than enough to capitalize and build on. The premise is ‘listening to and talking about things does cause misgivings, regardless of rationalizations an enmity does build up.’
“All of us develop in the crucible of our own very personal worldview. With Faisal Shahzad [captured in connection with the Times Square attack] an ideological pull seems to have done it. With the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the same seems to apply, for it was his father that alerted the authorities of his leanings. Neither of them were economically disadvantaged, though talk has it Shahzad’s home was foreclosed a year before the event.
“Islam is a deeds-based religion and for those of us so inclined it is necessary to do a quick inventory and see how we fit on the world stage and what it is that we can do to prevent the crazies from wresting our religion. [Islamic caliph] Umar ibn al-Khattab advised to ‘do your hisab (accounting) before it is done for you.’ On a collective level, as an ummah we need to make it mandatory on ourselves to determine the causes of this lunacy and develop ideas to deal with it.
“No imam holds divinity in the eyes of God. Imams serve the mosque and are answerable to mosque councils and boards. Their job descriptions should be documented, their sermons prepared in advance and reviewed and each sermon should clearly state that terrorism is haram and that ‘killing one is like killing all of humanity’ (Koran, Maidah, 5:32)…”
“Muslim governments and congregations themselves should do some house-cleaning of imams that are equivocal about violence or openly promote it. And use the Friday sermon to wash the brains of the flock of any extremist ideology that might be taking root…”
“Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular have been brought to a precipice it seems. We need to de-escalate quickly. The message in the Friday sermon can be effective and powerfully reverberating, being all the while clothed in the beautiful tranquillity of Islam.”
“Revising the Friday Sermon,” Dr. Mahjabeen Islam, Daily Times, May 21, 2010
“With a Congregation That is a Captive Audience Every Friday, It is Vital that Governmental Regulation Monitors the Content of the Friday Sermon as Well as What is Taught in the Madrassas”
“The situation with mosques in Pakistan is very different from that in North America, and it is thus important to customise the solution. In Pakistan, with the exception perhaps of the very large mosques, most are the foci of prayer alone. Many have attached schools or madrassas. The criteria for leading congregational prayer according to a Hadith [sayings of Prophet Muhammad]… are first, knowledge of the Koran and Sunnah, and then seniority.
“The mosques in Pakistan remain largely unregulated and the majority is manned by imams [prayer leaders] who are only capable of leading prayers or have memorized the Koran. It is a micro-minority that has true religious training and a good grasp of the Koran, the Sunnah, Hadith, Shari’a, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), ethics, philosophy and economic and social issues.
“With a congregation that is a captive audience every Friday, it is vital that governmental regulation monitors the content of the Friday sermon as well as what is taught in the madrassas. Specific guidelines must be formatted and implemented. This is a relatively immediate solution.
“What will really change the situation will take a decade, maybe a generation. Pakistani society must pull itself up by its bootstraps and change its view of imams… The cycle of economic disadvantage being perpetuated also needs to be broken. The best and the brightest with an interest in Islam should be given scholarships in Islamic universities and then incentivized financially to take up spiritual leadership as a profession. When the poorest and the least educated become imams and are given half an hour or more every Friday to spout off at will, without perspectives or controls, extremism can only grow.
“In North America the situation has a different yet equally tragic face. Imams are largely imported from the Muslim world and they may be well schooled in religion but they are oblivious to current day socio-politics. A distraught Arab-American woman went with her husband to a North American imam for desperate counselling: ‘My husband is gay,’ she said and her husband did not deny it. ‘Sister, do not worry. Put on some nice nightclothes and rent a hotel room and everything will be alright,’ was the imam’s reply. They divorced soon thereafter. Not that they would not have anyway, but the content and tenor of the imam’s counselling leaves a lot to be desired, you will agree.
“Understanding issues that befuddle the youth is again an area that most North American imams are terrible at. There are questions about homosexuality, dating Muslims, drug abuse, incest, domestic violence and sometimes just adjustment and acceptance. Many an imam in the U.S. has only one answer to these questions: ‘haram!‘ [i.e. forbidden in Islam] If they were dealing with the village idiot that might fly but in our complex society it only serves to alienate and depress an already struggling Muslim youth.
“Many North American mosques have imams deliver lectures in the language of the majority community of the mosque. Some are advanced enough that headphones with a live translation into English are provided. How attractive is that ambience to American-born youth? Heavy accents in English and literal translations from their native tongues are terribly inhibiting. A Pakistani youth may understand the Pakistanized English of the imam but his or her full attention cannot be guaranteed in this situation. Already the sermon is out-of-touch; the accent makes it stratospheric…”
“Imams [in North America], Like the Rest of Us, Bring a Great Deal of Mental Baggage with Them from Their Countries of Origin – And A Lot Of It is Related to Women”
“A job description of imams should again be preferably templated in a central authority and then distributed for use across the continent. Imams, like the rest of us, bring a great deal of mental baggage with them from their countries of origin – and a lot of it is related to women. Gender roles, especially as detailed in Islam, should not just be understood, they must be applied to the North American context.
“Policy regarding the treatment of women in a mosque is shaped by the imam. If the Salafi brand of Islam is followed, Muslim women are gowned, gloved and shoved into hallways to pray, or cloistered in cluttered rooms with closed circuit television to pray among wailing babies and rambunctious toddlers. All the while the men pray in a hushed environ.
“Imams are supposed to be role models for the congregation. A squeaky clean personal life, unsoiled by clandestine [extra]marital alliances, violation of employment contracts, working all the hours that they are paid for and not arrogating sinless priesthood upon themselves or ownership of the mosque would be good first steps toward the role-model persona. Their Friday sermons must be read, preapproved by the Boards of the mosques and placed on the mosque website for further education of the congregation.
“And the most important change will happen only when American-born youth choose to become imams, educated in institutions here. Muslim parents must facilitate this, rather than pushing their disinterested progeny into the default profession: medicine.
“In Pakistan as well as in North America, Muslims must focus on the roles, character, qualifications and politics of the men that have millions captive to their sermon on Fridays the world over. The change though initially slow would eventually be exponential. And you will agree it is about time.”
 The original English has been lightly edited for clarity. All subheads are by MEMRI