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Originally published in The Boston Globe, July 22, 2007.


The Fundamentalist Moderate

Religious scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi has become a popular figure in Pakistan for his strict reading of the Koran -- which, he says, dictates against gender discrimination, terrorist jihad, and other favorites of modern Islamists

AFTER THE SUICIDE bombing in Islamabad last week that killed 17 civilians, I picked up a slick hardbound book called “The Islamic Shari’ah of Jihad” in a local bookstore. As I read through the first few pages it became clear to me that this was no apology for Islamic holy war. The book analyzed every verse of the Koran that mentions the word “jihad” and related it to its precise social context in seventh-century Arabia in order, it said, to “remove some grave misconceptions.”

I opened to the chapter titled “Suicide Bombers.” I was disturbed by the events in the city — the joyous mood of a pro-democracy rally, with thousands swaying to anthems, snuffed away in a moment of scattered body parts — and I wondered about the Islamic basis for what I had witnessed.

The chapter was brief, barely two pages long, and it focused on one verse (5:32) of the Koran: “He who killed a human being without the latter being guilty of killing another or being guilty of spreading disorder in the land should be looked upon as if he has killed all mankind.”

There was little else left to say.

The book was written by Javed Ahmad Ghamidi. Like anyone who has spent time in Pakistan or even watched Pakistani television, I recognized the name of the slightly built, graying Muslim religious scholar, or alim. It is typical of Ghamidi to speak — at conferences, on television, on the radio — about the most politically charged issues with calm religious authority. The popular media gravitates to him for his impeccable oratory and the ease with which he makes common sense out of millennium-old religious texts. Of late he has become a bit of a rock star — adored, hated, popular, and notorious all at once — thanks to his extraordinary interpretation of Islamic Law.

At a time when many pin their hopes on “moderate” secular Muslims to lead the charge against radical militant Islam, Ghamidi offers a more forceful and profound deconstruction of the violent and bitter version of Islam that appears to be gaining ground in many parts of the Muslim world, including Pakistan. He challenges what he views as retrograde stances — on jihad, on the penal code of rape and adultery, on the curricula in the religious schools, or madrassas — but he does so with a purely fundamentalist approach: he rarely ventures outside the text of the Koran or prophetic tradition. He meticulously recovers detail from within the confines of religious text, and then delivers decisive blows to conservatives and militants who claim to be the defenders of Islam. His many followers are fond of comparing his influence in South Asia to that of Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim Islamic thinker of global repute, in Europe.

“Mr. Ghamidi has had a huge role in shaping Islamic laws in the country,” said Khalid Masood, the chairman of the Islamic Ideology Council in Islamabad. “And his debates on television have made a profound impact on public views.”

Ghamidi first appeared on the popular radar after being handpicked by President Pervez Musharraf last year for the Islamic Ideology Council, an independent constitutional body that consults for the Pakistani legislature. Soon after Ghamidi joined, the council moved to roll back Islamic sharia laws regarding rape and adultery that required, among other things, four witnesses to a rape for a successful conviction. Ghamidi worked overtime, throwing himself into classical Islamic texts, spending hours on the air in the popular media, and churning out documents from the Al-Mawrid Institute of Islamic Sciences, a think-tank and publishing house he founded in the city of Lahore. In every possible forum, he invoked his religious authority to make the case that the “Islamic laws” themselves were “un-Islamic.”

The old laws were finally amended. Along with a few like-minded scholars, he had managed to pull the rug out from under the political Islamists at the peak of their post-9/11 power.

Even more incendiary than his specific position on questions of Islamic law, though, is Ghamidi’s vision for the future of Islamic politics. Ever since the Islamization campaign in Pakistan in the 1970s, religious parties have been making deep inroads into political power. But their real glory days came after September 2001, when a coalition of religious political parties led by the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami landed a majority in two of the four provincial governments in Pakistan. Pakistan, which began as a secular republic, has increasingly Islamized thanks to shrewd realpolitik maneuvering by some religious leaders.

Ghamidi expounds a different ideal: Muslim states, he says, cannot be theocracies, yet they cannot be divorced from Islam either. Islam cannot simply be one competing ideology or interest group that reigns supreme one moment and is gone the next. He instead argues for the active investment of the state in building institutions that will help create a truly “Islamic democracy.”

“I challenge liberal and conservative thought at the same time,” he told me recently at his home in Lahore. “The liberals in Pakistan are confused by me. The religionists are fuming and have called me everything short of an infidel.”

Born to a rich, land-owning, religious family, Ghamidi grew up studying the Koran, Arabic, and Persian, and found a special interest in Western philosophy. He began his formal study of Islam only after completing his Masters in English Literature in 1977 from the prestigious Government College in Lahore. It was a chance meeting with Amin Ahsan Islahi, an Islamic theologian best known for his 6,000-page Urdu commentary on the Koran, which drew Ghamidi into the realm of religious scholarship.

“If you want to study Islam,” he recalled his mentor warning him, “you will have to leave dreams of leadership and become a servant of knowledge.”

Ghamidi followed Islahi into the Jamaat-e-Islami, the first major organization of Islamists in Pakistan, and got the chance to work closely with Sayyid Abul-Ala Maududi, who is considered, along with Sayyid Qutb, to be the main ideologue of the modern Islamism that is said to have inspired Al-Qaeda. But serious differences emerged between the Maududi and Islahi, two founding members of the Jamaat. The organization was becoming increasingly politicized, and Ghamidi and Islahi split.

Ghamidi’s Al-Mawrid Institute has already published 16 volumes of his work on Islam. In “The Penal Shari’ah of Islam,” for example, Ghamidi argues against the prevalent interpretation of the laws on rape, which require four witnesses to the crime. Since the Koranic word zina, on which the law is based, refers to consensual sex, Ghamidi suggests it applies only to adultery. Rape, on the other hand, is subject to tazir, the Islamic legal sanction that allows discretionary judgment for crimes not described in the Koran. Ghamidi also went against centuries of scholarly consensus, arguing that a woman’s testimony is always equal to a man’s.

It was during the public debate around the laws in 2006 that Ghamidi began receiving death threats for the first time. When the editor of Ishraq, the journal published by Al-Mawrid, was shot by some hard-liners outside his office late last year Ghamidi became guarded for a while, but he didn’t back down. He continued to broadcast his understanding of the most controversial aspects of sharia: women are not required to cover their heads in public; they are allowed to lead prayer; there is no obligation on Muslims for jihad.

Ultimately, Ghamidi wants to see Muslim religious scholars, or ulema, restored to their classical role: as prestigious, independent intellectual theorists of religious text who are above politics and power, as they were for more than a millennium. In Egypt the ruling elite depended on the ulema for legitimacy throughout the medieval period, and in the Ottoman Empire the ulema were given a leading role in the judiciary as qadis, or judges. But the concept of ulema getting involved in the business of actually running a state came with the Shia Islamic revolution in Iran. Ever since, in the Sunni world — in Pakistan, Indonesia, and now in Somalia and Iraq — religious scholars have sought the power of the state.

It was two such ulema who led the battle at the Red Mosque that ended this month in violence. Two brothers — one a lay religious scholar and the other formally trained — led an armed rebellion against the state a few blocks from the president’s residence, demanding the implementation of sharia. Becoming a scholar of Islam used to be a choice, Ghamidi said, like becoming a doctor. Now it is destiny from the moment a child is enrolled in a madrassa.

“Just like the Industrial Revolution created a class of workers in the West,” he said, “now we have a class of ‘scholars’ that is lashing out for its place in society.” Many of these students, isolated in the madrassas, are becoming the foot soldiers for movements like Al Qaeda, which is now said to be reestablishing itself in Pakistan’s border regions.

This month Ghamidi is publishing a commentary on Islam entitled “Mizan,” or “Balance,” a 1,000-page treatise 17 years in the making that deals with many of the issues around Islam facing Pakistan and other Muslim countries. But in a country where most ulema are now seeking office or leading urban insurgents, he doubts any will have the time or the desire to consider his scholarship.

But the power of the alim has never rested with his scholarly contemporaries, he said. The alim’s influence rests, instead, on his (or her) moral appeal to the masses.

“Mohammed was able to convert one Jewish clergy[man] with his word,” he said. “And Jesus — we all know what the Jewish clergy thought of him. So I surely don’t have a chance of converting any of the ulema. The people — they are my real target. Because, whatever they might think,at least I know they listen.”

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