Mumtaz Ahmad, Ph.D.
Professor of Political Science
Vice President (Academic Affairs)
International Islamic University, Islamabad

The topic of my presentation is to reflect on The Role of Religious Leaders in the Modern World. Before I share with this learned audience my submissions, it seems relevant to define and narrow down the scope of at least two key concepts in the title assigned to me. These are “religious leaders” and the “modern world.” This conceptual clarity will enable me to stay focused on my topic and raise some issues around today’s talk.

When we talk about a “religious leader,” what is that immediately strikes our mind? A bishop, an ordained priest, a rabbi, a pandit, a monk, a minister, a maulana, an imam, a khatib, a mufti, a marj’a-e-taqlid, an ayatollah, or, to be more specific, the Sheikh-ul-Azhar, Ayatollah Khomenai, the newly installed Pope Francis in Rome, the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dalai Lama? Of course, all of them are recognized as religious leaders in their own faiths and within their own spheres of influence. One thing common between all of them is the specialized and traditionally sanctioned training in theology, rituals, liturgy and/or law that they are supposed to have received from the recognized religious educational institutions. From this perspective, therefore, we usually do not include academic scholars of religion, or even activists in religious organizations, as religious leaders.

The question becomes particularly important in the case of Islam. By religious leaders, do we only mean the “traditional ulama” and the graduates of Islamic schools (madrasas)? Or do we simply mean any Muslim having expertise in the realm of Islamic studies? Or even further, do we mean to refer to any lay Muslim in the area of social sciences engaged in understanding of Islam as the lived experience of Muslims and Islam? It is obvious that depending on our conceptual understanding and definition of “religious leader,” our point of reference will vary and so will the issue of his/her role in the modern world, especially in the case of Islam wherein there is no specific class of ordained priests and no established church. Similarly, we can bring into discussion the question of gender as well. Do we intend to include or exclude women scholars such as Dr. Farhat Hashmi in our definition of a religious leader?

Given the context, purpose and the audience of the present gathering, by a “religious leader” I will specifically refer to specialists of classical Islamic sciences (though the level and depth of their knowledge may vary across individuals) who have graduated from an Islamic school or madrasa recognized by the community and accredited by some mutually agreed and formal arrangement. And so by this analogy, the ulama, khateebs, imams and preachers will be included in my definition of an Islamic religious leader.

Perhaps more complicated and highly contested concept is the second one which is the “modern world.” What do we really mean by this? There are so many conceptual issues and philosophical underpinnings associated with this tricky and problematic concept. There are issues related to contestations of notions such as “traditional” and “modern.” Did we get to the modern world from a traditional one? How “modern” is the modern world? Are there no elements of the “traditional” in the modern world? Is modern world better than the traditional world? Are we as human race living in the modern condition “superior” and more “civilized,” as many social theorists would argue, to a world populated by our forefathers? Likewise, can we divide the present day world into “modern” and “traditional,” as for example, in the “west” (modern) and “the rest” (traditional)? Furthermore, this process of questioning can be stretched to include many other related issues: Does modern world require us to say goodbye to religion and traditional values? Does modern world imply a wholesale adoption of certain key features as approved and recommended by the normative standards of the Western world?

I elaborated on this issue in order to draw your attention to unpacking of this popular and yet uninterrogated concept known as the “modern world”. Unless we deconstruct, unpack and even digress from the popularly accepted notion of the modern world, we cannot improve our understanding of the real issues associated with it. After all, it is the modern world and the modern times that have gifted us colonialism and imperialism, two world wars, Holocaust, destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by nuclear bombs, industrial scale ethnic cleansing and genocides, massive environmental decay, and extreme inequality and poverty.

At the same time, however, it does not mean that we can deny the existence of the modern world as it exists as an empirical reality or should reject it outright.

So, what exactly I will refer to is a loose and fluid notion of a modern world, a world in our own times in which we live: a world that is defined by technological sophistication and bureaucratic organizational structures; a world full of opportunities in the realm of human progress, economic growth, international communication, cultural exuberance, and social interactions and, at the same time, confronted with social, economic and political challenges and mass deprivations and inequalities.

Let me begin by making a few general remarks about the role of religious leaders.

Religious leaders, by definition, are not only the leaders of their own faith communities but they are also interlocutors between their communities and the leaders and followers of other faiths. In other words, they are our representatives, diplomats and ambassadors of goodwill to other lands of faith. In this capacity, therefore, they must acquire a deeper ––and sympathetic – understanding of other faiths, their religions concerns and sensitivities, their internal debates and, most importantly, an ability to negotiate with them a common space of shared values and ethical-social concerns.

It will be too much to expect from the currently popular interfaith dialogue movements that they will eventually resolve the fundamental theological differences between different faiths. No, this is not going to happen unless different religions unequivocally decide to withdraw their truth claims about their own fundamental beliefs. What we can realistically expect from the ongoing dialogues between the leaders and followers of different faiths is a better understanding of each other, an environment conducive to peaceful coexistence, an articulation of common values and concerns and, above all, a willingness among leaders of different faiths to work together for issues and causes that are common to all religions; that is, helping the poor and the disadvantaged, eliminating poverty, fighting crimes and drug addiction among the youth, strengthening the institution of family, fighting domestic violence, protecting our physical environment from pollution, creating political space for policies that promote social justice for all, and fighting together against ethnic, linguistic, religious and sectarian biases, prejudices, discriminations and conflicts. These causes and issues may be seen by political leaders and secular elite primarily as social, economic and political issues –– in fact “material” issues –– but, for religious leaders, in their very essence, these issues are the very core of the ethical, moral and, indeed, spiritual fabric of a religiously informed individual and society. This is spirituality in its most essential, fundamental and urgent sense.

The modern world has presented us with issues that were simply inconceivable for humanity a century ago –– or even a few decades ago: economic and cultural globalization, new technologies of communication and information dissemination, the emergence of social media intersecting the boundaries of the private and the public, global warming and environmental decay, introduction of the weapons of mass destruction in warfare. These are some of the most important issues that have definite ethical and moral implications which the religious leaders cannot afford to ignore. Religious leaders today are naturally being called upon not only to respond to these issues but also to provide leadership to their followers on how to cope with them.
Faith leaders in several traditions have been seriously engaged in articulating their positions on these complex issues in recent decades. Unfortunately, however, Muslim religious leaders have lagged behind in addressing these issues and formulating policy positions from an Islamic perspective. There are some individual efforts in this regard but these efforts have been mostly haphazard, inadequate and often without a deeper understanding of the complexity of the issues. No Islamic religious leader or, for that matter, any religious leader in the modern world can afford to remain oblivious of these issues and still claim to be relevant. It is, therefore, imperative that our madrasas and other institutions of higher Islamic learning should incorporate a well-informed study of these issues in their curriculum so that their graduates, in their future careers as religious and community leaders, can deal with them effectively from the perspective of an Islamic worldview.

The modern world has also brought into sharp focus the question of the relationship between the state and the church, or politics and religion. I will not go into a detailed discussion here about the specific historical experience of Western societies that eventually culminated in the separation of the matters of religion from the affairs of the state. However, a few pertinent points in this connection do need our attention. First, the specificity of the historical experience of Western societies regarding the church-state relationship cannot – and should not –– be elevated to a universal norm. Different societies have undergone through a variety of experiences in negotiating the balance of forces of both established religions and the state. Even in the Western societies we witness today a wide variety of arrangements that define the relationships between the church and the state.

Second, while in most Western societies a sharp analytical –– and legal-constitutional –– distinction does exist between the private (religious) and the public (state) spheres, in actual practice certain developments in recent years have not only blurred this distinction but have tended to erase the boundaries between the private and the public. The cross-border aggression this time has not come from religion; it is the state and its expanding sphere of activities in society and economy that have tended to redefine as “public” what was always seen as “private.” The religious leaders must remain watchful of these encroachments by the state that may one day end up in the subordination of religion by the state.

Third, the political, ideological and intellectual environment in which religion and politics –– as distinct from the church and the state –– were seen as strangers to each other is changing. While politicians and public officials even in secular states feel no longer ashamed or embarrassed to publically admit that their political ideals are derived from their religious beliefs and that their decisions on war and peace “come from a higher Father,” the religious leaders too are no longer apologetic in expressing their views and opinions on issues of public policy, especially in such areas as education, health, social welfare, family, environment and war and peace. This growing interpenetration of religion and politics even in those Western societies that subscribe to the idea of the separation of church and the state opens up new avenues of both a challenge and an opportunity for religious leaders: the challenge is how to articulate a genuinely moral position on issues of public policy without getting bogged down in partisan politics, and the opportunity is to reaffirm the relevance of religious values to the problems of public life in the modern world.

These challenges and responsibilities for religious leaders take a totally different dimension, however, in many Muslim societies where the state is not a neutral actor in matters of religion; in fact, it embraces Islam as a religion of the state. As a consequence, the state apparatus is directly involved — in degrees that differ from state to state — in providing religious education, managing religious endowments, administering Muslim family laws, operating religious courts and, in some cases, implementing Islamic criminal laws. Among the Muslim societies that have functional democracy, there exist multiple Islamic political groups, headed by both the lay Muslim leaders and the traditional ulama. It is in the context such as this that the role of Islamic religious leaders becomes especially delicate and problematic: how to distinguish between the particularistic interests of partisan politics from the universal message and imperatives of Islam; how not to declare every single political stance of one’s (Islamic) party as an Islamic imperative (fard); how to restrain ourselves from declaring those Muslims who do not agree with our own interpretation of some specific injunctions of Islam as not good Muslims, or what is worse, as munafiq; how to make a distinction between what is fundamental and permanent in Shariah on the one hand, and what is peripheral and transitory, on the other; how to ensure that our Islamic enthusiasm does not trample on the religious and civic rights of our non-Muslim citizens; how not to equate Islam with coercion and punishments; and, finally, how best to translate Islamic ideals of a just society into institutional structures that are transparent, efficient, participatory, fair and non-discriminatory.

The role of Islamic religious leaders becomes especially critical in societies where Muslims are a minority. They have to play a dual role here: to provide leadership in religious and social affairs to their own community, and convey the interests and concerns of Muslims to the majority community and its leaders. In this particular context there is always a danger of becoming either too “loyal,” compliant, docile and compromising on the one hand, or too zealot, combative and parochial, on the other. An ideal Islamic religious leader in a minority context will be the one who stands up for the rights and interests of his own community with candor, conviction and integrity and, at the same time, is able to overcome the usual siege mentality and sense of perpetual victimhood. More importantly, he shouldn’t only address the problems of his own faith community; he should be equally concerned with the overall welfare of the society at large of which his own community is an integral part. It is this engagement with the larger society that will give him legitimacy, credibility, respectability and acceptance as a truly national leader. The challenges of maintaining and strengthening a distinct religious-cultural identity of his own faith community, and, at the same time, negotiating with the forces of assimilation and integration into the “mainstream” are not always easy to meet but a leader of vision knows how to balance these two apparently opposing demands. Here I would like to draw the attention of the audience to some very important developments in formulating a new fiqh, if you like, by a group of prominent Islamic scholars in the United States and elsewhere known as “fiqh aqliyya,” that is, Islamic juristic formulations for Muslims living as a minority.

One cannot discuss the modern condition without addressing the prevalence of extremism, violence, and militancy. Although the reasons and causes of this phenomenon can be debated, yet we do agree on a set of certain broader issues that, one way or the other, Muslims as a religious community face on local and global levels. This, in my view, is one of the most important challenges for Muslim religious leaders today. It is true that in many cases religion may not be the primary cause or motivation for the violent choices that people make in the name of religion. Nevertheless, since these acts of militancy and violence on the part of some individuals or groups are justified in Islamic religious idioms, Muslim religious leaders are often called upon not only to disassociate themselves (and their religion) from militancy and terrorism – a legitimate demand, in my view – but are also asked to take moral responsibility for terrorist acts and, in effect, apologize for belonging to the same religion as that of the “terrorists.” No matter how many times Muslim religious leaders repeat the mantra “Islam is a religion of peace,” the guilt by association continues to haunt them and their 1.6 billion co-religionists. The question, then, is: how to deal with this dilemma? Of course, we should denounce violence and militancy, not as a public relations gimmick or to earn commendation for being “good” or “moderate” Muslims but for the sake of own moral integrity and, indeed, for own religious obligation to uphold the sanctity of human life. It is in our own interest to inculcate the values of tolerance and peaceful resolution of problems and conflicts among our youth. We are not obliging the West here; we are fulfilling our own religious obligation when we condemn terrorism.

So far, I have discussed some specific issues that, in my view, directly impinge upon the role of religious leaders in the modern world. Let me now take up some general issues that may have serious consequences for the conditions in which the religious leaders will be called upon to act.

The birth of the modern world seems to have created political, ideological and cultural confusion and crises in much of the Muslim World, as it tries to incorporate new constitutions, institutions of governance and modern political ideologies which have been, in some cases, imported lock, stock and barrel. Most of the Muslim nation-states, emerging from the colonial experience in the post-World War 11 era, found themselves faced with post-colonial cultural imperialism, with its not-so-subtle demand to adopt modern political norms — and the philosophical underpinnings that gave rise to these norms — that had no grounding in the traditional frames of reference. The role of Muslim scholars and leaders in the context of this challenge should be to resist the imposition of Western philosophical/analytic categories and cultural forms but, at the same time, seek a dialogue; a dialogue between two horizons of meaning neither of which can claim a monopoly over the truth. Here we should be willing to risk ourselves into a transformative process in which the status of the self and the “other” are constantly renegotiated. The dialogue should begin with the belief in the inexhaustibility of meaning(s) and with the rejection of the possibility of an objectively valid interpretation. At the same time, as Muslims, we ought to be attentive to the radical inequality between the partners to the dialogue and should be conscious of the political, cultural and economic conditions that shape the terms of this dialogue. This does not mean, however, that the process of dialogue should take place between culturally and politically isolated, or even hostile, factions; a set of common concerns that transcends religious and political divisions is likely to create conditions for genuine transformation among the partners of the dialogue.

Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders also need to ponder over the broader ideological context of the global human rights and democracy movements, bearing in mind their political-ideological underpinnings. A simplistic translation of democracy into certain formal institutions and human rights discourse into the language of Islam will be a disservice to both democracy and human rights on the one hand, and to Islam, on the other. It is in this context that Muslim religious leaders and intellectuals need to seek greater critical engagement with the emerging social movements around the world and to find more authentic appreciations of human rights and democracy based on this engagement.

While questions of pluralism, human rights, and democracy remain pertinent, issues such as global economic injustice, consumerism and crony capitalism, militarism and war, and gender inequality should also be part of this dialogue. Muslim intellectuals must now move beyond the post 9/11 apologetic syndrome that desperately sought the certificate of good behavior from the West without in any way raising critical questions about the global West and the unequal political and economic conditions created by its policies. Muslim intellectuals should not only analyze and question the relationships with the “outsiders” in this context, but also challenge the violent convulsions of a quasi-fascist Islamically invoked response that emerges from within. There is thus a need to move beyond the notions of civilizational conflicts towards the preservation of the very soul of Islam; justifying our existence, our faith, our human-ness and our responsibilities as the citizens of the world. The argument should not be focused on the idea that Muslim societies or Islam are inherently opposed to democracy or, for that matter, that Islam is compatible with democracy; instead, we need to question what democracy really means, what does the cover of democracy really hide, and what the actual political reasons are for the “democracy deficit” in the first place. In the similar vein, other ground realities including coercion, especially the irony that the instruments of violence are being used to impose a language of peace, cannot be ignored as irrelevant.

In our desperate attempts to appease the West, our scholarly elite often overlook pressing issues like hunger, poverty, exploitation, socioeconomic injustice at the global level. Instead, they seem to be willing to accept the notion that the “great” issues of our time are madrasas, Wahabism, Salafism and terrorism. Muslim intellectuals today need to take into account the larger global context and historicize and unravel its implications when they consider issues of human rights, democracy, militancy and international conflicts, or even madrasas, Wahabism and Salafism, in their relationships to contemporary Islam. The experience of globalization has been a profoundly disempowering experience for the impoverished and marginalized, who are the social majorities. Proclamations of “thinking globally” or of “universality” do not automatically make one’s discourses global or universal; as always, the crucial question is “Whose globalism and whose universe?” “Who benefits from this particular “universe” and globalism and who loses out?” The tragedy that took place in Dhaka in April 2013 involving the death of more than 900 poor garment factory workers, mostly young women, as a result of the collapse of an illegally constructed building that cramped thousands of workers earning less than $40 a month and producing cheap clothes for the Western brand names is a stark reminder of what economic globalization is doing to the poor people of the Third World.

The question which then remains is how does one escape from a monoculture of a particular version of human rights and a zero-sum globalism and free market orthodoxy and engage communities in ways that take stock of their cosmovisions. The issue is twofold: Firstly, how does one speak of moral obligations within one’s own tradition in the context of human rights? This is an issue of cultural affirmation. Secondly, how is the nature of the individual self conceived in the liberal rights discourse and what are its policy implications? However, the appropriation of the human rights and democracy discourse by the Empire does not mean that Muslims can dismiss them outright because the message is coming from “them;” Muslim religious leaders and intellectuals, in fact, also need to investigate who are those in their own midst who want to “protect” them from democracy, rule of law, civil liberties and human rights in order to “protect” them from “them” and their cultural influences. Muslim intellectuals thus have to face a dual challenge whereby not only do they have to confront imperialism from outside but also to resist the oppression of their rulers and the reluctance to change from their religious establishments.

Authentic dialogue is about entering the other’s world while holding on to yours, with the willingness to be educated and transformed. It isn’t a typical marketplace or a bazar where deals are struck and profits are made. One cannot speak of a genuine conversation and meaningful dialogue unless one can reach some kind of consensus on a shared set of ethical values. This is neither an argument for anti-intellectualism nor a suggestion that there should not be a global vision. What Muslim religious leaders and intellectuals should oppose is an abstract identification with uninterrogated buzz words that are hammered out in the corridors of power and are then exported wholesale into the lives of social majorities, thus denying them their ability to speak from their own lived experience, to make their own mistakes and to learn from them. This also is not meant to imply that there can be no cross-cultural conversation; rather, we need to guard ourselves against blind imitation and accommodation in the name of dialogue. Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders will need to engage with the West and be critical about the way it deals with Islam but they must also be willing to understand the complexities of the West and its diversity and recognize the intrinsic humanity of those who comprise the West. When Muslim leaders and intellectuals fail to do this, then the methods with which they decide on engaging the West can easily reflect its own violence, in addition to their own share in the ongoing fires of hatred.

In the light of the above discussion there are a number of challenges for the critically engaged Muslim religious leaders and intellectuals who continues to identify with Islam and who derive their inspiration from it. Of course, the fundamental obligation is to live in conformity with Islamic teachings, values and heritage. This heritage, however, is neither stagnant nor unchangeable; rather, it is in the constant process of renewal, reform and transformation. When Muslim intellectuals lose organic links with their community then their faith is reduced to a soul-less, utilitarian instrument to transform others — “those ignorant Muslims” out there, who are in dire need of looking like them, behaving like them, thinking like them and, if at all, praying like them. This, I am afraid, equally applies to those of our intellectuals and preachers who, once alienated from their community, develop a disdainful, rather contemptuous, attitude to their “uncouth” and “ignorant” coreligionists and embark upon the noble mission of teaching them how to become good Muslims. There are, of course, periods of tension, even alienation, between Muslim intellectuals and their community of faith but should one always turn into a Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, Husri Ali or Irshad Manji?

As a critically engaged Muslim leader and activist, one should consciously locate his/her work among the marginalized, not as a sociological category, but as a real in-context condition. In addition, the social location of Muslim religious leaders should not be confined to a particular ethnicity or race but with specific communities in these groups that are being marginalized and made to suffer. While our religious leaders should stand up to be in solidarity with the Muslim community of Gujrat in India whose more than 2000 members were massacred and burnt alive by a fanatic Hindu mob – with a deliberate help of the local administration — their Islamic commitment and moral obligations equally require them to stand up in solidarity with the poor Hindu communities of Tharparker in Sindh and with the members of the impoverished Christian community in Badami Bagh in Lahore whose 170 houses were burnt by a bigoted and enraged Muslim mob on 9 March 2013 for no fault of theirs. It is this principled and Prophetic solidarity that the Islamic religious leaders need to inculcate rather than adhering to the expedient or situational ethics that dominate current Muslim public discourse and practice.

It is also important that in order to move towards a authentic and profound Islamic response to the modern world, Muslim leaders and intellectuals must move away from the crude binaries like religion versus reason, tradition versus modernity, globalism versus localism, regressive versus progressive, etc. that tend to reduce religion as an appendix to one or the other of these categories. There is an urgent need for the re-theorization of the discourse of the global, and of ideas such as modernity, secularism, liberalism, nation-state, and individual rights. The process of understanding these ideas as historically constructed and not universal will liberate us from being forced to think in these categories. Instead, we can now begin the process of re-imagining a culturally decentered or polycentric world wherein the humane and progressive traditions within different cultures and religions are available to all of us. Critically engaged Muslim leaders and thinkers and activists should have less to do with the essence of the Arab identity or even Islam as national power. We shouldn’t be so much thinking about Islamic revivalism as a political weapon against the West either. Our concerns should relate far more directly to the global structures of oppression – ours and theirs — whether economic, political or cultural — and ensuring that the oppressed – Muslims and non-Muslims — are once again become active agents of history. Muslim leaders should be simultaneously engaged in the task of articulating interpretative traditions within Islam and finding common ground with other liberatory social movements, recognizing the emancipatory potential of other religions. What we have here is emblematic of a global Islam of a different kind; where neither geography nor history but a trans-historical and trans-geographic liberatory potential of our faith is linked with the people of other faiths. The question is: are our madrasas and institutions of higher Islamic leaning equipped to train and produce such global Islamic religious leaders?