Smokers’ corner: The Invisible Scholar

On March 17, the Express Tribune reported that books authored by Islamic scholar, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, were barred from being displayed at a book fair held at the Peshawar University.

Initial reports suggested that this had been done at the behest of the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT), the student-wing of the politico-religious party, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). But the newspaper quoted a leader of IJT claiming that it was the university’s administration that had stopped Ghamidi’s books from being sold at the fair. A member of the Peshawar University Teachers’ Association has refuted the claim.

This is the same university which (under pressure from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government because of the fear of militant attacks) had disallowed the holding of a launch ceremony of Malala Yousafzai’s book on its premises in 2014. A January 14, 2014 report in Dawn informed us that the directive came from two ministers belonging to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) -JI coalition government in KP. One minister belonged to the centre-right PTI and the other one was from JI. This happened despite the fact that the PTI chairman Imran Khan had praised Malala on numerous occasions.


Islahi was a pupil of famous Indian scholar, Hamiduddin Farahi (d.1930), who believed that through deep study of the ancient/classical Arabic language used in the Quran, a single, coherent interpretation of the sacred text can be conceived which would negate the sectarian and theological splits born from multiple understandings of the various verses in the Holy Book.


But if Malala, the teenaged schoolgirl who was shot in the face by extremists, was (and still is) too contentious a personality for conservatives, why did books by Ghamidi, an Islamic scholar go missing at the Peshawar University fair?

Ghamidi is no ordinary scholar. He has a large following among certain sections of the country’s urban middle-classes. But he had to go into self-exile when he began receiving threats by extremists opposed to his views on terrorism and suicide bombings. Conservative ulema have also criticised Ghamidi for being ‘too liberal’ in his interpretation of Islam’s sacred texts.

When I was exchanging views on email with a former member of the IJT in regard to Ghamidi’s books being barred from the book fair, he slipped in a most interesting observation. This former IJT member now resides and works in Rome and though we were political opponents at college during the 1980s, we have remained good friends.

In one of his emails he wrote that he would not be surprised if IJT or JI had a hand in barring the sale of Ghamidi’s books. He said this has little to do with Ghamidi’s ideas, as such, which are clearly far more ‘modernistic’ and ‘inclusive’ than those held by most religious parties and groups in Pakistan. He added that more than ideology, ‘it is an ego thing.’ Ghamidi himself is a former JI member who quit the party in 1971. He explained this further by adding another interesting bit. He wrote: ‘The tussle between JI and Ghamidi is over 50 years old. Long before Ghamidi had even become a scholar.’

Curious as this may sound, what my former IJT friend was suggesting was that even today, some JI members still see Ghamidi as an extension of a man who vehemently opposed JI’s main ideologue, Abul Ala Maududi. His name was Amin Ahsan Islahi.

Ironically, along with Maududi and another scholar, Manzoor Naumani, Islahi was a founding member of the JI (1941). Islahi was as well-read and prolific as Maududi but he could not gain the kind of influence Maududi exercised in the South Asian circle of Islamic scholarship. Islahi’s legacy can be found more in the work of his two leading students, the late Khalid Masud and Javed Ghamidi.

Islahi was a pupil of the famous Indian scholar Hamiduddin Farahi (d.1930), who believed that through deep study of the ancient/classical Arabic language used in the Quran, a single, coherent interpretation of the sacred text can be conceived which would negate the sectarian and theological splits born from multiple understandings of the various verses in the Holy Book.

Islahi accompanied Maududi to Pakistan after its creation in 1947 and was JI’s naib amir (vice-chairman). Maududi was the amir. Islahi took active part in the JI-led movement against the Ahamadiyya community in 1953 and was arrested and jailed along with Maududi.

Dr Abdul Rauf in his 2009 study of the works of Islahi and Vali Raza Nasr in Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution wrote that Islahi’s experience in jail was the beginning of his emerging rift with Maududi. Dr Rauf adds that (after the anti-Ahmadiyya riots were crushed by the military) Islahi became opposed to using agitation and politics to achieve religious goals. He also insisted that the JI shura (elected committee) should have more say in party matters than the amir.

In 1958, the JI shura agreed to invest more powers in the hands of the amir and JI launched itself as a full-fledged political party. Islahi resigned, complaining that ‘it was against Islamic polity that one person be given more authority over rest of the people.’

After he quit JI, Islahi began publishing a magazine called, Meesaaq. In 1966, he handed over the magazine to another former JI member, Israr Ahmad. But soon Islahi was at odds with Israr as well, accusing him of deviating from the magazine’s policies. All the while, Islahi was working on a study of the Quran which he had begun in the late 1950s.

In 1965, the Muslim modernist regime of Ayub Khan approached Islahi and told him that the field marshal and president was an admirer and wanted to meet him. Islahi agreed but on the condition that he will meet Ayub without the president’s guards. Ayub agreed. Dr Rauf says that the meeting was short and Islahi did not say much.

The delicate research that his study of the Quran required and his tussle with Israr left Islahi exhausted, so much so that in 1973 he fell seriously ill. His financial situation worsened as well. He was taken care of by his two most promising students, Khalid Masud and Ghamidi. The populist Z.A. Bhutto government offered help, but Islahi refused it.

In 1979 Islahi was finally able to complete his hefty study of the Quran (Taddabur-i-Quran) after almost 22 years. Gen Ziaul Haq who had come to power through a reactionary military coup, nominated Islahi to be accorded the country’s highest civil awards, but Islahi declined and got his name removed from the nomination list.

In the early 1980s, the Zia regime wanted to impose the punishment of stoning for adulterers (rajm). Islahi came out against the purposed law, saying that no such punishment is mentioned in the Quran.

Khurshid Ahmad Nadim in his book, Jurm-o-Saza writes: ‘Ulema in some cases even threatened him of dire consequences but Islahi stood firmly for his views without heeding threats by the fanatics.’

Islahi passed away in 1997. His philosophy and works were furthered by Khalid Masud and Ghamidi. Masud passed away in 2003 and Ghamidi was made a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology by the Pervez Musharraf regime.

However, in 2006, Ghamidi resigned from the council when the regime was pressured by the JI-led coalition government in KP to make amendments in a progressive Women’s Bill passed by the Musharraf govornment. In 2010. Ghamidi left the country after facing threats from extremists.

Islahi’s admirers believe that he could not exercise much influence in Pakistan’s discourse on faith due to the way he kept refusing patronage from various governments. His magnum-opus, Taddabur-i-Quran, is still hard to find in local bookstores, unlike the books by various other Islamic scholars most of who did accept patronage from governments and the state.

I asked a student of Peshawar University (on Facebook Messenger) whether any books by Amin Islahi were on display at the book fair. His response: ‘Who’s Amin Islahi?’

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