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Islam in context

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Sharia laws were introduced in the state in a way that transformed the nature of politics and society in Swat

By Rafi Ullah

Two major theories that explain the arrival of Islam in India are: 1) the religion of sword theory and, 2) the religion of persuasion. Each theory has its own advocates with abundant arguments in support of their viewpoint. It is, however, commonly agreed that Islam appeared in the Indian Sub-Continent long before the Arab military conquest of Sindh. In case of Swat, on the contrary, the introduction of Islam solely synchronises with Mehmud of Ghazni's sword.

The subsequent history of this new faith, Islam, in Swat is the story of contextualisation. Like other parts of central and south Asia, a Sufi form of Islam developed here. This process continued uninterrupted until the British encroachments on the Pakhtun land during the second half of the nineteenth century. After the demise of Akhund Abdul Ghafur alias Saidu Baba in 1877, some fundamentalist clergymen started to dominate the religious scene in the valley. One such legend, Sandakai Mulla, was violently engaged in anti-British as well as puritanical activities at the beginning of the 20th century. It is with him that the mystic form of Islam was disturbed in Swat for the first time.

The East is traditionally associated with spiritual consideration (mysticism) and Swat valley is no exception to this fact. Veneration of darveshs and shrines has been an envious attribute in the area. The personages of Shekh Milli and Akhund Abdul Ghaffur are an epitaph to this characteristic phenomenon of Swat society. On their part, such religious figures never interrupted the evolutionary pace of the society and Swat inherently continued towards progress and development. This natural evolutionary movement halted when Miangul Abdul Wadud, the grandson of the Akhund, assumed the mantle of power as spiritual-cum-temporal leader of the valley in 1917, under the title of Bacha (King). The Mianguls were, at that time, a secularised family with spiritual legacy. They needed to have secular credentials in relation with the British while, at the same time, in the native Swati socio-political context a hagio appearance was needed.

If Sandakai Mulla was associated with the wider programme of Islamic revivalism and reformation the Walis of Swat (1917-1969) proved instrumental in institutionalising religion in Swati politics. Religion was introduced into the politics of Swat with the consent of the Britishers. Only a hagiocracy could provide them a safer border in the region, especially in the face of the perceived Bolshevik threat. Bolshevism was officially declared as something anti-Islamic and loyalty to the British was simultaneously stressed upon. Thus, religion was prudently used in Swat state in the best interest of the British Empire.

Similarly, for ensuring internal peace the British wanted to reduce the influence of militant religious figures. And this problem was also ironed out with the cross-influence of the Mianguls. It is to be noted that this brand of Islam was acceptable and beneficial to both the colonial British and the Walis of Swat. The Walis also acted as religious out of the local political expediencies. Sharia laws were introduced in the state in a way that transformed the nature of politics and society in Swat, an act that helped the Mianguls gain legitimacy and state consolidation.

The judicial system was apparently painted as Islamic sharia. But, in fact, some parallel Codes of Conducts derived from and formulated in the light of customs were also in effect in Swat state. It is not a mare's nest that the establishment of two Dar-ul-Ulooms, in Saidu Sharif (Mingawara) and Charbagh, was a conscious effort towards gradual Islamisation of the judicial system obviously at the cost of the secular national culture of the Swat Pakhtuns (Pakhtunwali). Fetawa-Wadudia also seems to be compiled under this obsessive consideration.

Quite the reverse is the fact to which Ghulam Habib Khan, editor of Riwaj Nama-i-Swat, points out. He writes that though in some tehsils brief and scarce codes of conducts were available but no serious efforts were made in the compilation of Riwaj (customs). The Islamisation programme was not restricted to the legal system of the state alone rather it spread to adversely affect the cultural features of Swat. Historical names of many villages were substituted with Arabic ones, for instance Petai as Fateh Pur, Churrai as Madayan, Baranyal as Behrain and so on and so forth. This process of Islamisation was a conscious effort aimed at the centralisation of power and consolidation of the state authority. In this way, the Walis successfully consigned the powerful Swati Khans, a traditional-secular leadership, to oblivion.

The Walis are generally projected as progressive and secular rulers, especially as compared to the Nawabs of Dir. But there seems no point of comparison as the two had evolved in different contexts. The Nawabs, contemporary of the Walis, had inherited Dir from their forefathers. They were safe from any kind of internal challenge. On the contrary, the Walis' holy family was of no match to the Swati Khans. In this context, the Walis' efforts of modernisation as well as Islamisation seem to have been directed towards crippling the powers of the rival Khans.

The Walis of Swat can be, in a limited sense, compared to the enlightened despots of the mid-eighteenth century Europe. The latter were generous in developmental programme. They patronised enlightenment principles and instituted some rational reforms in realms of education, trade, commerce, and religion. Through their reform measures, the enlightened monarchs clearly looked at enhancing central government's power and thereby their own.

The Walis also shared their cynical disdain for all sorts of individual liberties and freedoms with the enlightened despots of Europe. The fact is substantiated by the persecution of Zardullah Khan, Sundiya Baba and Reful Ustad for their alleged connections with Abdul Ghaffar Khan's Khudai Khidmatgar Movement.

Similarly, Professor Sahar Yusufzai, a well-known Urdu-Pakhto literary figure, was removed from his position as professor at the Jahanzeb College, Mingawara. The professor was famous for instilling the use of reason and free-thinking in his students.

The general phenomenon of socio-political developments at the turn of the nineteenth century in Europe led to democratic values and institutions. But quite the opposite took place in Swat. The political ambience in the second half of the twentieth century, in Pakistan and Swat state, was conducive for the state-patronised religious obscurantism. It is, thus, to be safely inferred that the Walis, the sole policy makers-cum-rulers, were instrumental in the gradual Islamisation of state and society in Swat.

The writer is lecturer at the Taxila Institute of Asian Civilisations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad

Courtesy: The News International