Political Succession and the Islamic Challenge

One of the principal causes of the instability of Muslim rule, past and present, all over the world, including Pakistan, is the absence of a law of political succession in Islam, which has inevitably led to uncertainty, civil wars, wars of succession, etc. After the demise of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who did not nominate his successor, it was considered necessary to have the institution of the caliphate for the preservation of the religion and the administration of temporal affairs. An Imam was required to be appointed by the consensus of the community, but no machinery was evolved at that stage by which the votes of millions of Muslims could be taken as often as the rulers changed or had to be changed.

Abu Bakr Siddiq was elected by a majority but some believed that the Prophet (pbuh) would have wanted Ali Ibn Abu Talib, his cousin and son-in-law, to be his successor. Ali himself accepted Abu Bakr’s leadership, but during the next few years he seems to have been the focus of the loyalty of dissidents who disapproved of the policies of the first three caliphs. Ali became the fourth caliph in AD 656, but the Shias would eventually call him the first Imam or Leader of the Ummah. The Shian-i-Ali (those of the party of Ali), led by the Prophet’s grandson, refused to accept the Ummayyads who had seized the caliphate after the death of his father Ali Ibn Abu Talib.

‘With the advent of the Omayyads to power, the elective aspect of the Caliphate disappeared altogether and the Caliphs began to nominate their successors on dynastic considerations.’ The people were required to take oath of allegiance to the successor-designate during the lifetime of the reigning Caliph. The oath of allegiance had to be renewed at the time of succession of the new caliph. More importance was attached to the oath of allegiance by a handful of important personalities like the army generals and the qazis. The choice used to be made long before such an assembly was held. Since Islam does not recognize monarchy, or the hereditary right of succession, in practice no Muslim was disqualified unless he suffered from physical infirmities. His title to rule was as good as that of anybody else and was in direct proportion to the length of his sword and the sharpness of its blade.

With the introduction of the Turkish elements in the army, the generals assumed the role of the caliph-makers. That the Turkish generals had become the virtual masters of the caliphs can well be illustrated by a story related by Ibn at-Tiqtaqa, the author of Kitab Al-Fakhri, who says: ‘when Mu’tazz was appointed as Caliph, his courtiers held a meeting and summoning the astrologers asked them how long he (the Caliph) would live and how long he would retain his Caliphate. A wit present in the gathering said, ‘I know this better than the astrologers.’ Being asked to specify the time, he replied ‘So long as the Turks please,’ and everyone present laughed. Soon thereafter, the Turkish Army dragged the Caliph Mu’tazz (AD 853/855—866/869) by the feet and , stripping off his shirt, exposed him to the burning sun. Oppressed by the severe heat, he lifted his feet alternately and the Turks slapped him with their hands. Finally, they put him to death (cf. Tabari p.1710). This tradition survives till today and manifests itself in different forms in different Muslim countries.

Pakistan faces the same problem of orderly succession today. Since independence, it has experimented with Constitution, government, and the structure of the state. The military has seized power three times since 1947, ruling directly and indirectly for more than half the life of the country. Pakistan does have a law of political succession enshrined in the Constitution, but it is honoured more in the breach than in observance. It is abrogated or held in abeyance whenever it suits le pouvoir. Elected governments are sacked and restored to power at will. We have an elected government today but nobody knows when the axe will fall on it and, when it does fall, no tears will be shed because it is thoroughly corrupt, and the people are sick and tired of fake democracy; commitment to the democratic process in any case is quite weak, if not nonexistent. Pakistan has swung between democracy and dictatorship several times in the past and it does not look as if the pendulum will ever stop swinging from one extreme to the other. Meanwhile, the country remains gripped by fear, uncertainty, and confusion. Development is slowed down and the people suffer. The future of democracy—in fact, the future of Pakistan itself—will depend on the future role of the army in the political history of the country and how the problem of political succession is resolved.

In the 1991 book Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy, Donald Kagan, a professor of classics at Yale, propounds a principle that is valid today as it was 2,500 years ago. Democratic governance, he writes, relies on three conditions: ‘the first is to have a set of good institutions; the second is to have a body of citizens who possess a good understanding of the principles of democracy, or who have developed a character consistent with the democratic way of life; and the third is to have a high quality of leadership, at least at critical moments.’ Are any of these three conditions present in today’s Pakistan?

Today, Pakistan is a democratic country but in the strictly formal sense of the term only. Theoretically, it meets all the criteria for liberal democracy of periodic multi-party elections and guarantees basic rights; but very few Pakistanis will disagree that people have lost faith in the impartiality of the electoral machinery, the independence of the judiciary, and the rule of law, in fact the entire democratic process. In a situation like this and in a largely illiterate society and the sword of martial law hanging over its head, it is hard to imagine liberal democracy, or, for that matter, any democracy working properly or surviving for long.

To those who bluff themselves, referring to this country as a “democracy,” my questions are:
• Can a democracy afford not to have a census for sixteen years thus rendering every (repeat every) statistic—fiscal, commercial or constituency-wise or otherwise—incorrect?
• In what sort of democracy do known robbers, pillagers, looters of public wealth, breachers of trust, misappropriators of widows’ and orphans’ Baitul Maal, Zakat and Iqra funds, contest elections to its parliament?
• In what sort of a democracy does a chief of army staff publicly accept crores of rupees from a corrupt banker (later jailed) and preside over its dubious expedient disbursement to politicians?
• In what sort of democracy would a chief of naval staff give away the entire seafront of a naval base to the crony of a political bigwig, ostensibly to develop a tourist resort?
• In what sort of a democracy would the president, prime and other minister and senior bureaucrats fly a thousand miles (some on special flights) at the people’s expense to attend the wedding of an offspring of the country’s naval chief?’

Ardeshir Cowasjee in the daily Dawn, 3 Jan 1997.

To borrow the final questioning death-cry of Ken-Saro-Wiwa, ‘what sort of nation is this? What sort of a nation that permits this? What sort of a nation is this, within which I take my definition?’ Is it any wonder that democracy, in its twisted, uniquely Pakistani incarnation, has inspired no passion in the Pakistan body politic? Today, the number of choices that are available in Pakistan in determining how it will organize itself politically or economically are fast diminishing.

As in the rest of the Islamic world, with nearly one-fifth of the world’s population, in Pakistan also, Islam with its own code of egalitarianism, morality, concepts of political, economic and social justice is emerging as a challenge to liberal democracy, narrow nationalism, and other forms of government. Both liberal democracy and military dictatorship have been tried in different Muslim countries and found wanting.

Islam – not the scholastic, institutionalized, fossilized Islam co-opted by corrupt rulers – but the true, dynamic, pristine, revolutionary Islam of its early years with its emphasis on egalitarianism, social justice, and accountability, is perceived by the elite as the greatest threat to the established order. There is a yearning among the people, especially the poor, for a true Islamic society, a haven in the words of Shariati, for the disinherited who are plundered, tortured, oppressed, and discriminated against. Therein lies the portent of danger.

Between 1958 and 1997, a period of volatile and oscillating political fortunes, Pakistan has changed its Constitution and its rulers several times with disastrous consequences for its poor and downtrodden people. Within a few decades, we have witnessed the glorious period of Mr. Jinnah, the subsequent sickening political rivalries and palace intrigues, the horrors of successive martial law governments, the tragedy of East Pakistan, the false hopes generated by Bhutto’s failed promises, the loot and plunder and extravagant court of Benazir and her spouse. And to borrow Balzac’s description of France in the nineteenth century, which aptly describes the plight of millions of people in Pakistan today, ‘ we have liberty to die of hunger, equality in misery, the fraternity of the street-corners.’ I have no prescription to offer but, if we are to preserve the honour of our country, is it not time to devise and institute a form, a just, egalitarian, and durable system of rule so that the person, property, honour of its citizens—in short all the fortunes of Pakistan—are not periodically imperiled?

In April 1943 the Quaid had given expression to his views on social justice and economic equality in the Pakistan of his dream. ‘Here I should like to give a warning to the landlords and capitalists. The exploitation of the masses has gone into their blood. They have forgotten the lesson of Islam. Do you visualize that millions have been exploited and cannot get one meal a day? If this is the idea of Pakistan, I would not have it.’ The hands of the nation’s clock stopped the day the heart of the Quaid stopped beating. If the nation is to live, its resuscitation must commence where its heart first stopped beating.

Pakistan—A Dream Gone Sour by Roedad Khan, Oxford University Press Karachi 1998.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s