This month, Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), an advisory body formed by military dictator Zia-ul Haq, suggested abandoning paper currency in favour of gold and silver coins while urging the government to adopt an “Islamic economic system”.
A day later, the panel announced indirect taxes are forbidden under Islamic principles. The council’s controversial chairman, Muhammad Khan Sherani, told the media that under Islamic principles “only progressive taxation can be levied on the masses”.
The statement perplexed many in a country where barely 1% of the population pays direct taxes. Such a move, if binding on the government, would have resulted in a financial crisis.
But given that the CII is a purely advisory body, its edicts are usually taken by the government in its stride.
The problem, say observers, is that while the government considers the council an advisory panel, a number of organisations and sections of the public see it as a guiding force for governance.
“The CII, which comprises religious leaders from different schools of thought, is increasingly being taken seriously by people and religious organisations and parties,” says Ashfaq Khan, an economist and political commentator.
When it comes to issues such as women’s rights and family laws, the CII is particularly orthodox and regressive. Regarding the existing law that requires a written approval from the first wife if a man wants to marry a second time, the council is of the view that the law is against Islamic principles and should be abolished.
Sherani, a stern-looking maulana with a flowing white beard, says the government “should amend the law to make the issue of more than one marriage easy and in accordance with Shariah”. He adds, “We urge the government to formulate Shariah-compliant laws related to nikah, divorce, adulthood and wills.”
He had earlier said it is okay to discipline a disobedient wife or children who disobey parents. “There is nothing wrong in corporal punishment,” he said.
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan considers the CII to be regressive. It has condemned the council’s recommendations to roll back family laws and called on the government to “stand fast in defence of women’s rights”. So far, no one has paid any attention.
The CII also delves into other controversies. It once recommended DNA testing not be used in crime cases, primarily rapes. This caused law enforcement authorities to slow down in such investigations.
The CII considers DNA testing “un-Islamic” and wants the government to remain with the Shariah law that requires four mature individuals to testify rape occurred. The council, however, allowed a DNA report to be used as supplementary proof.
“What we are seeing is CII is muddling religion and politics,” says HRCP member Ghazi Salahuddin. He says for its own agenda, “the CII is taking the country back two centuries”.
This is a dangerous trend, say observers who argue the CII tries to interpret issues it has no business to interfere in because it does not have the means or the expertise to do so.
In one instance, the CII advised a scientific calendar not be used for determining the placement of the moon with regard to the Islamic lunar calendar, insisting instead the moon must be sighted by people for determination of a new month.
“It is fighting against science,” says Salahuddin. But the sad part, he adds, is it seems there are millions of people who support the council in its “fight against reason and logic”.
Despite its advisory nature, the CII has a constitutional status. In the past, there were attempts by elements to make the council’s edicts binding on the government.
The HRCP warns this would be a disaster. For example, in one ruling, it said a woman older than 40 can serve as a judge “provided she is properly veiled”.
Within the council, there is also a growing rift. Sherani recently came to blows with another member over a declaration that Ahmadis, a minority sect of Islam, are not only non-Muslims but that action should be taken against them.
Tahir Ashrafi, who urged Sherani not to revisit the Ahmadi issue, warned that the CII chairman wants “cheap publicity on a sensitive issue”. Ashrafi warned the consequences of such a policy could be disastrous for Pakistan. So far, no one in the CII is listening.