The ridiculous questions put to some of the candidates for the upcoming general elections by the returning officers in the garb of Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution reopened a debate on the question of the Islamic ideology of the state of Pakistan, public morality versus private conduct, sin versus crime and whether having a superficial knowledge of rites and rituals of one’s faith is more important than the desire to honestly fulfil both social and professional responsibilities as a citizen.

In the midst of this renewed discourse on the recurring issue of ideology taking place in journalistic and intellectual circles, a statement from the chief of the army staff (COAS), Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, came forth as he spoke at the passing out parade at the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul, over the last weekend. As a commander is expected to do, he reassured the nation and cautioned the external powers that our military is fully prepared to meet any threat posed by enemies within and without to the security and existence of the country. However, he made another point about the nature of the country itself.

The COAS said that Islam cannot be taken out of Pakistan and should remain a unifying force. He further said that, regardless of the odds, the Pakistan Army will keep on doing its best towards its common dream for a truly Islamic Republic of Pakistan envisioned by Quaid-e-Azam and Allama Iqbal. He has made similar statements before and these words of the general would have been taken in a stride and seen as nothing unusual if it had not been picked up and used to the benefit of bigotry and conservatism.

Therefore, it is important to remind ourselves a few things. Islam cannot be taken out of Pakistan not because there are any constitutional provisions that make it impossible to do so. It is because more than 95 percent of the population is Muslim. How could anyone take Islam out of the society at large and deny the manifestations of a system of beliefs and values weaved into the cultures practised and languages spoken across the country? How could we refute our history, traditions, literature, art and cultural preferences?

It is not Islam but the interpretation of Islam espoused by the powerful institutions of the state and society that makes all the difference in the social fabric and body politic of Pakistan. Besides, Islam cannot be a unifying force only if everyone believes in the same God, prays in the same direction and fasts for a month in a year. The majority of Bengalis believed in the same faith and observed the same rituals before and during the upheaval in 1971. Please also consider that in today’s Pakistan, the majority of Baloch and Punjabis share the same faith. Islam can only be a unifying force if its universal principles of equity, social justice and human dignity are practised by the state and promoted in the society.

Although I am one of those who advocate for going beyond the political texts of the past and redefining the priorities of the state and nation in the light of new and emerging realities, it is important to emphasise and reiterate what Allama Iqbal and Quaid-e-Azam believed in since the COAS has referred to their vision. They believed in a modern, progressive and democratic polity and an inclusive, egalitarian and just society. For them, that was being Islamic. Allama Iqbal wrote to Sir Francis Younghusband that Islam is Bolshevism plus God. He reconfirmed what he wrote in an interview to a correspondent of The Bombay Chronicle in 1931 when he reiterated that Islam is a socialistic religion. His poetry in both Urdu and Persian and prose writings in Urdu and English profess economic and political liberation.

In the true mystic tradition of Islam, he castigated and ridiculed the orthodoxy and narrow-mindedness of clerics. He celebrated Marxism, Lenin and the Russian revolution, because it overthrew capitalism and the rule of the Church. Not because he was anti-Christian but because in his view the Church had turned against the teachings of the Christ and did not side with the poor and the oppressed.

A few months before his death, Iqbal wrote a rather critical letter to Quaid-e-Azam and said, “The League will have to finally decide whether it will remain a body representing the upper classes of Indian Muslims or Muslim masses who have so far, with good reason, taken no interest in it.” He objected to the elitist party constitution of the League then and urged Quaid-e-Azam to take cognisance of the issue of Muslim poverty and ensure representation from across different classes in decision making. He writes further in the same letter that, while he sees a contradiction between social democracy and Hinduism, for Muslims the acceptance of social democracy in some suitable form which is consistent with the legal principles of Islam will not be a revolution but a return to the original purity of their faith.

When Quaid-e-Azam spoke at the opening ceremony of the State Bank of Pakistan on 1 July, 1948 in Karachi, which was perhaps his last speech in public before being moved to Ziarat due to ill health, he said, “We must work our destiny in our own way and present to the world an economic system based on true Islamic concept of equality of manhood and social justice. We will thereby be fulfilling our mission as Muslims and giving to humanity the message of peace which alone can save it and secure the welfare, happiness and prosperity of mankind.” This sums up the economic ideology of both Allama Iqbal and Quaid-e-Azam.

As far as the vision for an inclusive and just Pakistani state and society is concerned, I cannot resist quoting from the speech of the Quaid that he made on 11 August, 1948 – once again. What makes this speech significant is that it was the first address of the head of the state to the first constituent assembly of the newly-founded country. It was not a speech made in a public rally or for electioneering purposes. Hence, it delineates his vision and should have actually become the preamble to our constitution.

Here are some excerpts. “You may belong to any religion, caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State... We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State... Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

Three days later, at the inauguration ceremony of the same assembly on the day of independence, the Quaid said, “The tolerance and goodwill that great Emperor Akbar showed to all the non-Muslims is not of recent origin. It dates back thirteen centuries ago when our Prophet (pbuh) not only by words but by deeds treated the Jews and Christians, after he had conquered them, with the utmost tolerance and regard and respect for their faith and beliefs.”

Rather than going further ahead in becoming more rational, just, tolerant and prosperous from what the founders of this state had envisioned for us in the first half of the last century, we have actually Regressed .