The New Mohammedans

What Salman Taseer's assassination has to do with property rights and the decline of Islam. Faisal Devji explains.


Photo Credit: Flickr/Salman TaseerTHE recent assassination of Salman Taseer, Punjab’s governor and one of the many billionaire politicians who run the country, has focussed international attention on Pakistan’s notoriously vague blasphemy laws. These are frequently used to target religious minorities and indeed anyone against whom a (Sunni) Muslim has a grudge. So we are told that while higher courts tend to throw out such cases, those accused of insulting either the Prophet Muhammad, or the text of the Quran in which he is named, are routinely lynched by mobs. Commentators who do not simply attribute this behaviour to some changeless form of Islam, however, are in general unable to account for it beyond invoking standard explanations such as the growth of Islamism in the context of Cold War struggles in Afghanistan, its sponsorship by American-backed dictators like General Zia, etc. But there is more to this story than power politics and its unforeseen consequences. The politics of blasphemy, rather, tells us something more serious about Pakistan in particular and the version of Islam that undergirds it in general.

As we know, Taseer was killed by one of his own guards for supporting the cause of a poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy, and in addition calling for a reform of the law that criminalizes it with a death sentence. Because the governor’s murder not only occurred with the connivance of much of his security detail, but also won his assassin the plaudits of Muslim divines and a great many ordinary Pakistanis, much ink has been spilt on the breakdown of governance and political legitimacy that such events indicate. More important, however, may be the breakdown of religious authority and even solidarity that I think is also on display here. After all, the blasphemy law is no longer deployed to demonstrate the power of Sunnis over other sectarian or religious groups. It has become the weapon of choice in a kind of free-for-all that marks the self-destruction of Pakistan’s Muslim society, and therefore of Islam itself as the basis of nationality in the world’s first Islamic republic. For unlike the colonial-era controversies over insults to the Prophet, which played into communal conflicts among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, today’s disputes are as likely to occur within the Muslim community and between individuals.      

Asiya Bibi, for example, whose imprisonment gave rise to the current controversy, was accused of blasphemy by Muslim women with whom she had an altercation over the village well. Such violent and sometimes murderous quarrels over the sharing of water are common throughout South Asia, and have to do with distinctions of caste among Hindus as much as Muslims. As a low caste convert to Christianity, Asiya Bibi’s claim to the well might have been resisted more because of her caste status than the religious one she had adopted in rejecting it. Or take the case of blasphemy registered shortly after Taseer’s assassination against an Islamist father and son who had torn down a notice announcing the commemoration of the Prophet’s birthday. In their eyes, it constituted a sacrilege by calling for devotion to be offered Muhammad rather than his God. Here it was members of the supposedly “moderate” and mystically inclined Barelwi group who were charging others with blasphemy.

The fact that so many of these mutually opposed groups seem to have come together in their support of Taseer’s murderer demonstrates not their political solidarity so much as the curious role that the Prophet has come to play in Pakistani society. For it is always insults to Muhammad, and sometimes to the revelation he was vouchsafed, that arouse the greatest controversy. God, meanwhile, can apparently be mocked or denied quite freely. This might be the case because God can be claimed or repudiated by people other than Muslims and indeed without reference to Islam, while any reference to Muhammad is inevitably one to Islam. In fact the Prophet has played a crucial role in the redefinition of Islam from the nineteenth century, when Sunnis in particular started setting themselves apart from others in new ways. Yet unlike the imams of the Shia (to say nothing of Sufi saints), it was not as a supernatural being that Muhammad was venerated, but instead as an ordinary mortal graced with divine revelation. In other words it was precisely because the Prophet was no longer a sacred figure that he needed defending from insults.

During the nineteenth century the term Mohammedan, which Europeans often used for Muslims, and which many Muslims themselves adopted when using European languages, became unpopular because it seemed to suggest that Muslims worshipped their prophet as Christians did Jesus. The more of an ordinary mortal Muhammad became, however, the more devotion did Muslims show him, though such attachment was increasingly manifested by the desire to protect and defend a prophet who had suddenly become vulnerable to insult as a ward of his followers. That these roles, played by the Prophet as much as his followers, have now become part of Sunni Islam as a global phenomenon, is made clear by the great movements to defend him from being insulted: in a novel by Salman Rushdie, cartoons in a Danish newspaper and comments made by the Pope. Whatever else they were about, these global movements indicate that in some ways Muhammad has become a secular figure, one capable of being libelled and hurt. He has become in some sense a part of them, confirming rather than destroying the everyday selfhood of Muslims, which was the role that the Prophet had played for mystics in the past.     

Tellingly, the first great religious controversy in Pakistan, one that resulted in the expansion and politicization of its British-era blasphemy law, had to do with a case of insulting and demeaning the Prophet. In the 1950s, Islamist groups started agitating against the Ahmadis, some of whom held that their founder, a nineteenth century Indian preacher, had received divine revelation. This, of course, was seen as denying the finality of Muhammad’s mission, and so a violent movement was set in motion to deprive Ahmadis of the status of Muslims, prevent them from using the Prophet’s name or claiming any other peculiarly Islamic forms of worship as their own. By the 1970s, and even before the coming to power of General Zia, the Ahmadis had been declared non-Muslims, and any unauthorized claim about the Prophet had come to constitute the gravest offence against Islam. The curious thing about this controversy was that whatever their beliefs, the Ahmadis were scrupulously observant of Islamic practices. They were not, in other words, heretical in any outward sense but existentially. And this individualism is only mirrored in the actions of people like Taseer’s assassin, whose personal rage could be turned into violence on his own authority. The fact that his crime elicited public support, of course, made it meaningful by illustrating that Islam has become perversely democratized insofar as ordinary individuals can now act in its name.     

Interesting about the Ahmadi controversy is that the court given the task of deciding who was to be classed as Muslim relied upon modern copyright law to make the case that Islam, defined primarily by the finality of the Prophet’s mission, had to be seen as the property of its followers. This eminently modern and even secular language of ownership has since come to characterize a number of Sunni claims to protect Islam from the depredations and infringements of others. While they continue to propagate the idea of Islam’s universality, then, many of its Pakistani followers have in effect made it into a narrow and defensive religion on the model of property right. Yet this is a religion premised upon excluding even God from its purview, since more important to the definition of Islam is held to be the Prophet, himself venerated in a curiously secular way as mortal figure who came to announce the end of divine intervention in the world. This emphasis on Islam as individual property is evident in almost every aspect of Muslim life in Pakistan, for instance in the widespread and officially sanctioned replacement of the centuries-old Persian and Urdu farewell, khuda hafiz  (God keep you), with Allah hafiz (God keep you), in which the Arabic word for God replaces the Persian. 

Differentiating itself from the Persian and thus also Iranian and Shia use of the traditional term for goodbye, the replacement of khuda by Allah signals, in the minds of its proponents, the replacement of a generic word for the deity -- one that can in compounds also blasphemously be used for human masters, with God’s proper Muslim name. Yet in Arabic Allah is used as a generic name for God, common among Christians as much as Muslims. The coining of this new term, then, is intended to reserve God, like the Prophet, for the singular as well as communal ownership of Muslims. It is simply one instance of Islam’s transformation into a property to be claimed and protected as one’s own, in a free-for-all where Islamic authority is up for grabs and the Muslim community in a process of rapid disintegration. The agitation over blasphemy, in other words, marks the crisis of Islam as much as it does that of the Pakistani state, which is the same thing as saying that the breakdown of this state necessarily entails that of its official religion.