The Riddle of Power

My op-ed article published in The News on 7 September 2012. (Readers will recognize that this based on a previous blogpost.)

The Riddle of Power

There is a famous riddle about the dynamics of power in the TV series Game of Thrones based on George R R Martin’s fantasy novels. Let me briefly quote it for the benefit of those who are unaware:

“Power is a curious thing, my lord. Are you fond of riddles? Three great men sit in a room; a king, a priest and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies?” “Depends on the sellsword.” “Does it? He has neither crown, nor gold, nor the favour of the gods.” “He has a sword, the power of life and death.” “But if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? ... Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

The conclusion is startling, despite being so very obvious. Power resides where men believe it resides. This applies not just to political power, but to power dynamics of other sorts as well. The one which is in my mind at the moment is that of religion: The power of who gets to decide what God ordains.

Imagine a Muslim man in anguish; he has uttered the three baneful words ‘talaq, talaq, talaq’ (I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you) in a burst of anger. He is now full of regret and seeks council. Before him are three scholars. The first one tells him ‘Your marriage is null and void. Leave your wife instantly.’ The second one tells him ‘Your marriage is intact. You said the words three times together but they will still count as one.’ The third one tells him ‘Your words are inconsequential. Your marriage was a written pact. It can only be broken in writing.’

Which of these three speaks the law of God? Who decides whether his marriage is valid or not? No doubt, all three of these scholars will present arguments for their statements, and these arguments will rely further on differing religious sources, whose authoritative power is a matter of faith. Just like in the riddle, it all eventually depends on the man. The man will decide on whom to confer religious authority... and yet he is just a man, without knowledge of law or revelation.

This becomes acutely relevant when we ponder over the question of reform in religion. Liberal versions of theology are not terribly difficult to come up with in theory. If we consider Islam, there are numerous scholars who have worked out a number of different approaches. We have the example of Sudanese scholar Mahmud Muhammad Taha who was keenly aware of Islam’s clash with modernity and suggested that Medinan verses dealing with the legal and political issues were intended to be an application of Islam core essence (revealed in Meccan verses) to the society as it existed in Prophet’s time and place. It is only the essence that is to be followed and the socio-political applicability has to be reconstructed according to the needs of time.

One need not even go so far, as our own Allama Iqbal believed that hadiths of legal nature are context dependent, and may not be applicable given the altered conditions of modern life. Yet, all that work remains academic with little acceptance and following at large. Religious authority resides where men believe it resides. No attempt at reformation will succeed in practice until men believe it to be true. In this fact lies the practical success or failure of religious reform.

The writer is a doctor. Email: Tweets @awaisaftab