A reader sent me a link to a video titled ‘Disco Mullah.’ The video showed some members of a ritualistic Muslimi sub-sect, indulging in some kind of a highly animated trance dance.
It was a fascinating sight. Nevertheless, the dance is not what really whetted my curiosity. It was the title of the video, ‘Disco Mullah’ that the reader used to define the spiritual boogie that caught my attention.
This term is not a new one. It’s been around for quite a while now. Or at least a variation of it.
According to Shaukat Nasir, a former student of the University of Karachi (between 1975 and 1979), a similar term, ‘Disco Molvie’ was doing the rounds decades ago.
It was a tongue-in-cheek expression that was first coined by leftist/liberal student activists at the University of Karachi (KU) sometime in the late 1970s.
It was mockingly used to describe the more modernly attired and beardless members of the right-wing Islami Jamiat-i-Taleba (IJT).
“In those days,” says Shaukat, “even some Jamati members would dress in western clothes and listen to music, but were still committed to propagate Jamat-i-Islami’s philosophy. We began calling such IJT activists Disco Molvies!” Shaukat added, smiling.
In turn, the term is believed to have been a spin-off of yet another similar label, ‘Maulana Whiskey’ - a term coined by IJT members in the Punjab to describe the allegedly whiskey loving former Jamat-i-Islami (JI) leader, Maulana Kausar Niazi.
According to Bilal Kidwai, a former member of the IJT (in the late 1970s) at a Lahore college, it was members of IJT at the Punjab University who coined the term ‘Maulana Whiskey’ for Niazi when (in 1969) he decided to quit JI and join Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s socialist/secular Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
However, prolific author and former left-wing student activist, Tariq Ali, in an interview that he gave to India Today in 1989, claimed that the term was actually coined by Z A. Bhutto himself.
“Kausar Niazi was called Maulana Whiskey by Bhutto ,” Ali told India Today, while talking about how Niazi abandoned Bhutto in 1978.
“He (Niazi) was either drunk or surrounded by dancing girls and then began masquerading as the guardian of Islam,” Ali had added.
But Shaukat Nasir is not sure who came up with the term, Maulana Whiskey: “I personally think it were the Jamaties who after being incensed by Maulana Kausar Niazi’s decision to quit JI and join PPP, taunted him with this title. But it is also true that Bhutto sahib started calling Niazi, Maulana Whiskey.”
Interestingly, the term, even if coined by the IJT members alone, eventually became part of the still on-going tradition in Pakistan where clerics are mocked through satire and jokes.
Niazi was a staunch member of the JI and passionately followed the party’s anti-Socialist line. However, when in 1967, Z A. Bhutto formed the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Niazi became attracted to what the party’s largely Marxist ideologues were attempting to do.
PPP ideologues like J A. Rahim, Shiekh Mohammad Rashid, Hanif Ramay, Meraj Mohammad Khan and Dr. Mubasher Hassan (all committed leftists), were working on an ideological fusion that tried to compliment the Qu’ranic ideas of compassion, justice and equality with the economic and social doctrines of Socialism and Marxism. They called it ‘Islamic Socialism.’
In 1969, Niazi quit JI and joined the PPP. The party’s ideologues opposed his entry, but Bhutto reasoned that the presence of a former JI man in the PPP would suit the party in its propaganda war against the religious parties.
When the PPP swept the 1970 elections in the two largest provinces of West Pakistan (Punjab and Sindh), Niazi won his National Assembly seat in Sialkot by getting over 90,000 votes!
Running on a PPP ticket, Niazi was up against some stiff opposition. But ironically, though he had followed JI’s anti-Ahmadi line when he was in that party, as a PPP candidate in 1970, he courted the Ahmadi community of Sialkot and promised it that the PPP was committed to continue recognising the Ahmadis as a legitimate Islamic sect.
The Ahmadis of the area voted for him in droves and he was able to defeat his rivals with a huge margin.
Niazi was made Minister of Religious Affairs by Bhutto when he took power in 1972. But in spite of the fact that Niazi’s growing liking for alcohol attracted taunts from JI, it was Niazi who convinced a reluctant Bhutto to agree to the religious parties’ demand of deeming the Ahmadis a minority and a non-Muslim community.
Then, when religious parties were agitating against the Bhutto regime in 1977, Niazi advised Bhutto to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages, nightclubs and bars so that the religious parties could be brought to the negotiating table.
After General Ziaul Haq toppled the regime in July 1977, some surviving founding members of the PPP accused Niazi of ‘taking Bhutto for a ride.’
Niazi quit the party in 1978 and formed his own party. But as a politician, his career was as good as over and he returned to being an Islamic orator. He passed away in 1993.
Between the emergence of the term ‘Maulana Whiskey’ (in the early 1970s) and ‘Disco Moulvi’ (possibly in 1977), another term in this context became popular. It was ‘Maulana Hippie.’
Hippies – a freewheeling cultural phenomenon that emerged in the West in the 1960s – spread out in the rest of the world when young Western men and women began travelling to non-western countries to look for the kind of ‘spiritualism’ that they believed their post-industrial societies had eschewed.
Hippie trends and fashions – long hair, colourful, ‘non-bourgeois’ clothing, ‘mind expansion’ (mainly through hallucinogenic drugs), free-form music, communal living, anti-war activism, etc. – made their way into Pakistan as well.
Raheel Nawaz, 57, who today is a successful businessman, claims he was a ‘Pakistani hippie’ as a young man in Karachi: “There used to be so many hippies visiting Pakistan and India from Europe and the US in the 1970s. Many young men like me also began dressing like them, keeping long hair, thick sideburns, and wearing big, metallic ‘peace’ signs around our necks.”
“During the 1970s,” Raheel added, “even middle-class young men like me began visiting shrines of Muslim saints. We began mixing Marxism with Sufism and intrigued by the way we looked and talked, regular working-class shrine visitors began calling young people like me Hippie Moulvies,” Raheel laughed.
The term caught on and eventually entered the mainstream media.
According to a recent article on Pakistan’s eccentric best-selling Urdu mystery novelist, late Ibn-i-Safi, ‘Maulana Hippie’ was actually the pseudonym of film producer, Muhammad Hussain Talpur.
Talpur first used this term (in 1972) when he made an Urdu film, ‘Dhamaka’ that was scripted by Safi. Raheel agrees: ‘Yes, it was Talpur who used this term on the screen, but it was inspired by what I just told you. He too must have picked it up from the shrines.’
Maulana Hippie connoted a hip Pakistani male who was liberated from the social constrains of ‘middle-class morality’ but at the same time he or she was in tune with their ‘inner spiritual side.’
However, soon the terms Maulana Hippie and Maulana Whiskey gave way to Disco Moulvi.
The phrase ‘Disco Moulvi’ was inspired by the arrival and popularity of disco music (in the late 1970s).
The American disco music genre had begun making inroads into the Pakistani music market, especially with the arrival of albums (LPs and cassettes) of famous disco outfits like Boney-M, Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer and Eruption. Their music also became a favorite of students residing in hostels.
“Some IJT members also became fans of disco, especially Donna Summer and Boney-M,” Shaukat Nasir explained. “I knew a few Jamatis at KU (in 1979) who used to fight with progressive student groups, but wore baggy disco shirts, tight pants and those pointy disco shoes! That’s when we began calling them Disco Moulvies.”
By the early 1980s the term began being associated with those westernised industrialists and white-collar professionals who were supporting the reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship (1977-88).
Mujahid Qureshi, a former activist with the Sindhi nationalist outfit, Sindh Shagird Tehreek (in the early 1980s) says: “During the 1983 MRD (Movement for the Restoration of Democracy) agitation against Zia in Sindh, we used to visit Karachi (from Sukker) to collect funds from men who had sympathies with the PPP and other anti-Zia outfits. But sometimes we came across these very modern-looking and English-speaking factory-owners and businessmen, who scorned at us for trying to not only break Pakistan but hurt Islam as well. That made us laugh and we started calling them Disco Moulvis!”
It now seems the term Disco Moulvi has survived, though it is now mostly used to mock ‘modern looking’ Islamic televangelists and/or colourful rightist television/political personalities (such as Aamir Liaquat, Zaid Hamid and sometimes, even Imran Khan).
What’s in a beard?
Sometimes even when the title of ‘Maulana’ has been used for some people in a more respectable manner, they have scoffed.
In his biography (written by Tehmina Durrani), ‘Mirror to the Blind,’ renowned Pakistani philanthropist, Abdul Sattar Edhi complains how he detests being called a ‘Maulana’.
“Mine was never a religious beard,” he tells his biographer. “It was always a revolutionary beard.”
In the book he also says that hardly any man in Pakistan used to have a beard in the 1950s.
A senior journalist, Ghulam Farooq, agrees: “In the 1950s and 1960s, no self-respecting Pakistani from any class would have liked to be seen with a long beard, apart from the mullahs. All this stuff about the beard having any religious significance played absolutely no role in the lives of Pakistanis. In fact, the beard was seen as a symbol of religious hypocrisy.”
Showing me photos of political rallies of the late 1960s, a former student leader, Naushad Hussain, challenged me to point out 10 men with beards among the hundreds that stood listening to former politician, Asghar Khan, in the photos. I couldn’t.
“Look closely,” he smiled. “There are only three.”
“What about the ‘revolutionary beards’?” I asked.
He laughed: “Revolutionary beards became famous in the West after Castro and Che Guevara’s revolution in Cuba,” Naushad explained. “But long hair and revolutionary beards (in Pakistan) really became popular from 1970 onwards.”
Abul Kabir, another former student leader (at KU in 1973-74), suggests that very few male students had beards even in the 1970s: “Ironically, only the most radical Marxists on campus went around with beards, looking like Che.” He explained.
He then added: “Even the staunchest members of the right-wing Islamic Jamiat Taleba (IJT) were clean-shaven. Being young and having a beard (and long hair) in those days meant that one was a radical leftist.”
Between the mid and late 1970s, beards, especially heavy stubbles, also became popular as an expression of creativity and intellectual disposition.
Mahboobullah, a former graduate of the famous National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, remembers that (in the 1970s), coffee houses were full of long-haired and bearded young men sipping tea and beer and chain smoking: “A young man with a neglected stubble or a beard, talking reflectively with a cigarette in his hand became a trendy pose in those days,” Mahboobullah chuckled. “Women loved it!”
By 1976 almost all leading Pakistani TV actors had ‘artistic’ beards: Talat Hussain, Rahat Kazmi, Shafi Muhammad.
Karamat Hussain, a former student of Karachi’s Dow Medical College (in the late 1970s) and someone who auditioned a number of times at PTV’s Karachi Centre to become an actor agrees: “It became a global fashion. Cricketers like Dennis Lillie, Wasim Raja, Ian Chappell, rock musicians, Hollywood actors and film directors, painters, college boys and even university professors all over the world began growing beards and stubbles. It was a fashion expressing creativity, passion, intellect and manhood.”
So when exactly did beards stop being a liberal/leftist political/aesthetic statement and start becoming a symbol of religiosity’?
“I believe the trend started in the 1980s,” says Sharib, a former member of IJT (who later joined the MQM).
“I remember a lot of us were very impressed by the looks of the Afghan Mujahideen. So we started keeping beards like them,” he explained.
“Beards (in the 1980s) started emerging on the most unlikely of men,” laughs Talha Naqvi, head of an NGO in Karachi. “It became a symbol of piety. Everyone from mujahids to smugglers to traders grew a so-called religious beard,” he said.
So, the beard had evolved from being a political statement of the revolutionary left (in the early 1970s) to becoming an intellectual/artistic statement (in the late 1970s) to becoming a sign of Islamic militancy (in the 1980s)?
“In a way yes,” says, Naqvi. “But like I said that was not all. During a time when Pakistan was being ruled by a reactionary military dictator, beards also became to be understood as being a sign of piety. Young Sunni Muslims saw Afghan Mujahideen and how they were being romanticised by the state media, whereas the Shia Muslims of the country began supporting beards made famous by Iranian Islamists after the 1979 Islamic Revolution there.”
But according to Talha, the real beard explosion actually happened in the 1990s: “This was the time when we first started hearing about people going around and asking young men to grow beards because it was an Islamic tradition. I used to say, if this was a tradition, then so was riding a camel, so why not follow such traditions as well. Why travel in a car?” He smiled.
Famous Pakistani psychiatrist, Dr. Haroon Ahmed, once told me that the’ social engineering’ of society that took place during the Ziaul Haq dictatorship (in the 1980s) left a lot of Pakistani men wearing their religion on their sleeves.
“This was a time when piety beards started to become popular with the middle-classes,” he had added.
As the majority of urban middle and lower-middle-class, Pakistanis began settling to the changing cultural and political paradigm during the Zia regime, questions of social morality that they were now facing in an era of outward exhibition of religious piety coupled itself with a behind-the-scene dash for the sudden opening in widespread materialistic opportunities of the time.
After the folding of the decade of ‘socialism’, populism and ideological tussles (in the 1970s), in the 1980s urban Pakistan saw itself embracing an anarchic form of capitalism enjoined (and justified) by a convoluted strain of puritanical Islam and a somewhat contradictory sense of moralism.
The contradictions in this context were consciously repressed, with much of the urban society preferring large degrees of pragmatism to deal with the changing scenario, convincing itself that its material survival now depended on its active engagement with the emerging system, no matter how contradictory or morally repulsive it might have been to the urban society’s former, more progressive middle-class sensibilities.
“Till even about the mid-1980s, nobody from the urban classes ever wanted to be called a mullah because of his looks,” remembers Ghulam Farooq. ‘In literature, on TV and in films mullahs were a mocked breed, denounced for being backward, narrow-minded and agents of myopia.”
However, beginning in 1980, the Zia regime ‘advised’ PTV to discourage the practice of showing the mullah the way he’d been perceived by a bulk of Pakistanis.
From then on, the mullah in PTV teleplays not only became a recurring character, but he suddenly became a wise old man with a white beard, praying beads in hand and blessed with a soft and empathic disposition.
To take the mantra of Jihad and ‘Islamisation’ to the middle-classes, PTV, apart from using the symbol of the wise and polite mullah in its plays, began introducing Islamic televangelists who could also punctuate their sermons with English words.
The impression being given was that a preacher who can use and understand English is ‘educated’ and ‘civilised,’ even though the content of these preachers remained to be highly conservative, and, of course, in line with Zia’s Islamisation discourse.
The number of middle-class audiences at lectures given by English-knowing (if not entirely speaking), preachers steadily grew.
But just as acts of public displays of piety rose, so did the nature and intensity of the dichotomy between public piety and what went on in the secular social space.
The rising number of Pakistani men having beards for religious reasons became even more ubiquitous after the tragic 9/11 episode. A practice that is set to grow (pun not intended) even further and last longer (pun intended).
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com
He tweets @NadeemfParacha
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.