The Wages of Orthodoxy - II

Parvez Mahmood examines some of the places where Muslim communities have been hit hardest by rigid attitudes

The Wages of Orthodoxy - II
In the preceding part of this piece, I had argued that unless our attitudes change, we will remain trapped in a social milieu which properly belongs in centuries gone by. We have seen how orthodoxy is not simply about “religion”, but that conservative clergy and intellectuals can mobilize religious concepts in defence of the old, the decaying and the unjustifiable.

Some of the most intractable issues raised by rigid religious-social orthodoxy in relation to our daily life are surveyed in this article.

Our record on women’s rights is abysmal. It often seems that our orthodox clergy have a special interest in matters where freedom and justice for women is involved. They just wouldn’t allow it. Our practices and legislation on child marriages have been outrageous but there are other issues as well where the social customs have not moved beyond practices of pre-modern times. One case is of inheritance for women. The general traditions of our society discourage giving a fair inheritance to women – in some cases going as far as the sacrilegious practice of “marrying” women to the Holy Book! We need to move beyond the tendency to justify ancient attitudes by putting a religious spin on them. Quite simply, the property shares of women have to be brought in line with universally accepted standards of justice.
Parliament is the best place for enacting laws on the issue of inheritance. It cannot be left to orthodox rigid muftis who have arrogated the right of interpretation of Islamic laws purely to themselves

Then there is the issue of widows’ inheritance. There are a number of households where both husband and wife are educated and employed equally, and both contribute to acquire property. Today, if the property is in the name of the husband, then in case of his death, the wife gets only one fourth of her husband’s property if he was issueless and one eighth if he had children. This distribution has to be discussed in today’s context where women are entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers and supporting their families financially.

Another great tragedy that we inflict upon ourselves is that in case of a divorce, the husband is not bound to share his wealth with the ex-wife. If a husband divorces his wife after, say, twenty years of marriage and she has made sacrifices to build their combined property, she gets no share. To expect that her parents would be living and earning to support her at that stage is completely unfair. It is only fair that instead of settling the matter just by payment of dowry (Haq Mahar) as alimony, the portion of property that has been acquired during the marriage should be divided between the two on an equitable basis. As each such case would present a different situation, the two parties in a divorce should either come to a mutually acceptable division or the matter be settled by court of law. But contrary to this, the way many Indian Muslims behaved during the famous Shahbano Case in India is a matter of shame for all Muslims.

A number of religious political parties in Pakistan came together to oppose pro-women legislation

Considering the complexities of modern life where wives may excel their husbands economically, a more practical and fair system of distribution of inheritance is needed. Modern life has left behind many tribal customs. Family structures that were intact a generation ago have broken down and fresh legal thinking is required to do justice to women.

Parliament is the best place for enacting laws on the issue of inheritance. It cannot be left to orthodox rigid muftis who have arrogated the right of interpretation of Islamic laws purely to themselves. The ratio of 2:1 for sons and daughters in inheritance may have had some rationale in days gone by, but now a principal of parity is needed. For a comparison: let us note that historically, women in Hindu society were discriminated against in every walk of life, but now the Indian Supreme Court has applied the principal of parity for inheritance. Western societies have arrived at far more fair system of distribution of property in case of deaths and divorces. Why should Muslim women be denied this natural right?

The practice of a woman’s testimony being “half” as good as that of a man in financial matters, which I found being implemented in banks in Pakistan, merits no comments. It is a practice that is meaningless at a time when women are increasingly occupying top positions in government, bureaucracy, judiciary and armed forces.

One of the strangest – and most unfortunate –  applications of orthodox religious attitudes in Pakistan is around the prosecution of rape cases. In Islamic jurisprudence, consensual sex between non married couples is an offence. But to safeguard against unwarranted interference in others’ personnel matters, Islamic rules require four witnesses who have observed the actual carnal act. However, the application of same principal in case of rapes – as was promulgated by General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime – is absurd and completely against the demands of justice. In case of rape, the “witnesses” would actually be accomplices for not helping the victim at the time of crime. Some of our orthodox religious leaders even disapprove of forensic evidence in rape cases, though it has become the mainstay all over the world. This type of interpretation of Islamic laws by the religious orthodoxy is one reason that the world labels our beliefs as being misogynist. These attitudes are the reason that ratio of convictions for rape in Pakistan is one of the lowest in the world.

The attitudes of religious conservatives towards better practices for dealing with the crime of rape are particularly troubling when seen in the overall context. Pakistan has a horrific record when it comes to protecting women and children. According to a 2017 report in The News, there are on the average 3,000 rape cases per year in Punjab and the conviction rate is only 3%. A 2017 estimate by Madadgar National Helpline reported that 93% women in the country experience some form of violence in public places in their lifetime. An August 2018 report in Dawn states that all the accused in the 144 reported cases of paedophilia that year were on bail. Other reports are equally dismal and pessimistic.

One law promulgated by General Zia to please the orthodoxy, the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance, has been another source of great national anguish. Now, when hearing of a brutal murder, people desperately exclaim, “I hope they don’t get pardoned after paying money.” The courts and administration have now found a way of bypassing this unfortunate legal situation by registering some murder cases under Anti-Terror laws. It is, therefore, time that the nation gets rid of these relics of tribal justice and adopts civilized and equitable laws. This law has become a tool for the rich and the powerful to evade justice. Even Raymond Davis, the CIA agent accused of murdering two innocent people, paid money to evade justice.

Another matter pegged in orthodoxy, and the one that has made us Muslims a laughing stock of the world, is the issue of moon sighting for Islamic festivals. It defies common sense that in this age when we have sent satellites to most planets in the solar system, we continue to depend on visual sighting of moon for Eid and Ramazan. We use watches, as we do, for all religious matters including for prayers, Sehri and Iftar. Why, then, do we need clergy to sight the moon for us, when we could depend on an almanac which is accurate to a fraction of a second?

When we think of the fury with which our religious conservatives today oppose progress on these issues, let us remember that this is nothing new. Without the efforts of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, and many others, Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent would never have attained the economic and political status that they now have. All the reformers of the 19th century, like Ibn Rushd, al-Razi, Tabari and others before them in the Islamic ‘golden age’, had to face the dire opposition of extremist orthodox elements of society.

There is also a misconception that it is the religious classes that are primarily responsible for orthodoxy. That is only part of the problem. I argue that a major issue is that our people have been left in a state of inertia and don’t have the intellectual energy to change. There is an urgent need to struggle for freedom of thought and expression for our youth. The forces that preach conformity with dogmatic ideas harm the development of society. Orthodoxy keeps the people chained to a stagnant way of life where their capabilities and energies wither away.

Nothing short of a mass intellectual awakening can move us out of this morass of orthodoxy and ultra-conservatism.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: