The month of Ramzan, in Pakistan, is flush with religious sentimentality. Religious scholars grace our televisions screens all day and naat-khawa’n dazzle the nights with some of our most favourite tunes from across the ages. Office work is slow; living-room exchanges are tepid. And, throughout the day, overt references to religious ideas punctuate almost every conversation.

Ramzan, in many ways, underscores the importance of religious sentimentality and practice in our everyday lives. However, in the same breath, it also elucidates the disparity in practice of religion, amidst believers of different sects of Islam in Pakistan. While some people flock to the mosque, each night, to perform namaz-e-tarawi, others skip tarawi and spend their evenings at the local shrine. Some listen to dars and tableegh throughout the day, while others flock to the Imam-bargah for a series of Majalis, leading up to the 19th and 21st of Ramzan – Shahadat of Hazrat Ali (A.S.).

While most Pakistanis are tolerant of these differences in the practice of their faith, there are also those who spew hatred and propagate violence in the name of religious differences – even during the sacred month of Ramzan. In fact, just a few days back, this religious intolerance perpetrated itself as a bomb explosion outside the shrine of Hazrat Ali Hajveri (R.A.), claiming the life of five police officers, while injuring dozens of others. A few weeks earlier, we all witnessed the atrocities (committed in the name of religion) against the Shia Hazara community of Quetta, who are still searching for some measure of redemption for decades of unprovoked bloodshed.

Sadly, such atrocious events take up no more than momentary space in our (religious) narrative, but no longer have a heart-wrenching impact on our national conscience. And those among us who have the ability to voice bereavement against such events are either too immune, or too afraid, to heed the voices within.

Why have intra-faith religious differences been ionized to the point of violence, in Pakistan? Does it really matter so much that a few people wear black turbans, while others wear green ones, while others still wear no turban at all? Are minor deviations in the practice of faith really so significant as to forget the overarching message of peace and tolerance? And why is our system of justice (law-enforcement as well as the judiciary) impotent against such atrocities? Have we, perhaps, institutionalized a specific brand of religion in our constitutional framework to the extent that difference of religious interpretations can now warrant one side spilling the blood of another? Each of these issues requires a deeper analysis.

The first set of questions can probably be answered in one word: Yes. We, as a society, have grown increasingly intolerant of religious differences and theological biases. And as a result, a fraction among us (albeit on the fringes of the spectrum of belief) have resorted to violence against anyone who disagrees with their particular brand of religious practice or interpretation.

A comprehensive discussion on the reasons for intra-faith religious intolerance is beyond the scope of this piece, and falls within the sociological sphere of our society’s analysis. For the present purposes, however, it is pertinent to ask whether our Constitutional paradigm, as a whole, is structured in a manner that institutionalizes one brand of Islam over all others. This is not the same as saying that our Constitution prefers Islam over other religions – of course it does. But, is our Constitution drafted in a manner that gives preference to a particular interpretation of Islam over other competing ones – in essence creating de facto minorities out of certain factions of ‘other’ Muslims (making them an easy target for persecution and violence).

To this end, it is pertinent to point out that the Preamble of our Constitution (text of which has been made a substantive part thereof through Article 2-A) declares the supremacy of Quran and Sunnah over all other things. This actually works well in a country where over 95% of the people claim to be Muslims, and where Article 2 of the Constitution clearly declares, “Islam shall be the State religion of Pakistan”. Furthermore, Article 19 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and press, prohibits the exercise of such freedoms in a manner that, inter alia, hurts the glory of Islam (as subjectively interpreted by any individual).

But the real influence of subjective interpretation of religion comes into play in Article 203-A through 203-J (which establishes the Federal Shariat Court, and gives it the power to declare any law “repugnant to the Injunctions of Islam.”), and in Part IX of the Constitution (Islamic Provisions) which endeavors to bring all laws “in conformity with the Injunctions of Islam”. For this purpose, Article 228 establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology, with up to twenty members. Benevolently, Article 228(3) of the Constitution stipulates that “so far as practicable various schools of thought [shall be] represented in the Council”, and that “at least one member [shall be] a woman”. The interpretation given by this Council, along with the Federal Shariat Court, for all Constitutional purposes, is the declarative interpretation of the injunctions of Islam in our country.

To begin with, one of the problems with this structure has been that for large periods of our history, no woman has served on this Council. For a country with 52% women population, and aspirations of becoming a progressive nation in world, this fact is extremely discouraging and increasingly leads to (binding) interpretations of Islamic law that are biased against the female gender. Additionally, a cursory look at the members of this Council would reveal that just a minimal number of schools of Islamic thought have been represented on this Council, making their interpretation of the injunctions of Islam to be bent in favour of certain sects of Islam and against others. Now while it is perfectly acceptable for an individual to pick one interpretation of the religion over the other, it hardly seems reasonable that the State should deem one interpretation of Islam preferable to all others.

This systematic bias in our constitutional structure, when read together with the provisions of law that make injunctions of Islam (as subjectively interpreted) to be superior to all other laws, opens the door for preferential treatment of certain Muslims above others. This argument, carried to its logical conclusion, reveals that the law sanctifies certain schools of Islamic thought, while ostracizing others.

In the circumstances, can we really blame certain extremist elements in our society, if their brand of Islam (or some diluted version of it) gains legal legitimacy and Constitutional cover? Should the State be in the business of telling an individual that he or she is less Muslim than the other? Can Shias, or followers of Ahmed bin Hanbal, Muhammad Idrees Shafi or Malik bin Anas feel as protected in their religious beliefs and practices if the Constitution does not prescribe to their interpretation of the religion?

This is not to say that equal representation in the Islamic Ideology Council or the Federal Shariat Court would suddenly rid our country of the extremism problem. The extremist elements would have to be fought, on their turf, through the intellectual, ideological and physical ammunition in our arsenal. However, in the meantime, what we must not do is to enable a Constitutional mechanism that prefers one school of Islamic thought over the others… making certain (legitimately held) religious views and practices to be religious abberations.

A rethinking of religion in our Constitutional framework is required. And the debate must start yesterday.