Islamabad:  Over the past few days, Pakistanis have been treated to the spectacle of politicians struggling to recite Quranic verses and answer questions about Islamic law as part of the scrutiny of nomination papers for the next month's general election.

In footage aired on television news channels, Returning Officers across the country were seen asking prospective candidates to recite specific Quranic verses from memory and to explain the method for offering the 'namaz'.

In one instance, a candidate from the Jamaat-e-Islami, a hardline religious party, struggled to recite a Quranic verse that is known to most Muslims. One candidate from a religious party in Sindh told the media that the Returning Officer had asked him if it was permitted to offer the namaz after wearing perfume.

The candidate cheekily replied that it was permissible if the perfume contained no alcohol. The persistent focus on such issues made the scrutiny process seem like a "religious studies exam", The Express Tribune said in a report.

In some cases, the questioning of candidates took a distinctly personal turn. In Lahore, candidate Tayyaba Sohail Cheema was told by Provincial Election Commissioner Anwar Mehboob that she didn't look her age.

"You don't seem to be 35, show your face to all around so that people can see that you seem much younger," Mehboob was quoted as saying by The Express Tribune Shahid Sohail, the husband of another candidate, Sadia Sohail, was given a lesson on marital life by Mehboob.

"When your wife will become (a parliamentarian or legislator), all the arrangements at your home will be ruined and no one will be there to attend to your children and they will be ruined," he said.

The Returning Officers have not spared even persons with powerful connections. Owais Muzaffar Tappi, a Pakistan People's Party candidate in Sindh and a close aide of President Asif Ali Zardari, was asked how many times Muslims have to pray every day.

In footage beamed on television, Tappi looked visibly uncomfortable as he took time to explain the method for offering Fajr or pre-dawn prayers. Much of the questioning is rooted in the Election Commission's efforts to implement a Supreme Court directive to conduct the scrutiny of candidates in line with two articles inserted in Pakistan's Constitution by military ruler Zia-ul-Haq as part of his Islamisation drive in the 1980s.

Article 62 states that a person will not be qualified to contest polls unless "he is of good character and... has adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings and practices obligatory duties prescribed by Islam as well as abstains from major sins".

The article further states all candidates must be "sagacious, righteous and non-profligate, honest and ameen (faithful)". Article 63 lays down the grounds on which a person can be disqualified as a member of parliament.

Political parties have protested against this addition to the scrutiny process but leaders are uncomfortable about speaking out openly as it involves sensitive religious issues.

On the other hand, the Election Commission has said the new measures are in line with constitutional requirements. Civil society groups have long called for the repeal of Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, saying the Election Commission's new process of scrutinising candidates amounts to "Zia-era vigilantism".

Bashir Jan, a senior leader of the secular Awami National Party, told the media that testing a candidate's faith in Islam by asking him to recite Quranic verses was not appropriate. "One can't reject any honest and upright candidate just because he has not learnt any Quranic verse by heart," Jan said. Besides religious issues, the questions from Returning Officers have focussed on issues that commentators have described as bizarre.

In Karachi, Sunni Tehrik candidate Zahid Ahmad faced embarrassment when he could not give the full form of the abbreviation LLB or spell the words "graduation" and "superintendent".


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