Recently a reader sent me a link to a YouTube video titled ‘Disco Molvi.’ The video showed some members of the ritualistic Sunni Barelvi sub-sect indulging in some kind of a highly animated dance. It was a fascinating sight. Nevertheless, the dance is not what really whetted my curiosity. It was the title of the video, ‘Disco Molvi’ that the reader used to define the spiritual boogie that caught my attention. This term is not a new one at all. It’s been around for quite a while now. According to Shaukat Nasir, a former student of the University of Karachi (between 1975 and 1979), ‘Disco Molvi’ was a tongue-in-cheek expression that was first coined by progressive 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 also had girlfriends. They would dress in western clothes and listen to modern pop and Indian music, but were still committed to propagate Jamat-i-Islami’s philosophy. We began calling such IJT activists Disco Molvies!’ Shaukat added, smiling widely. The term is also believed to have been a spin-off of a sarcastic phrase ‘Maulana Whiskey’ that was 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 Lahore’s Government 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, in an interview that he gave to India Today in 1989, prolific author and former left-wing student activist, Tariq Ali, claimed that this term was actually coined by Z A. Bhutto himself. “Kausar Niazi was called Maulana Whiskey by Bhutto in the 70s,” Ali told India Today, while talking about how Niazi abandoned Bhutto in 1977 and began taking part in the anti-Bhutto movement headed by right-wing religious parties. “He (Niazi) was either drunk or surrounded by dancing girls and then began masquerading as the guardian of Islam,” Ali chuckled. 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 when he decided to quit the PPP and join the JI’s protests against Bhutto sahib’s government in 1977.” 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 ridiculed through satire and jokes. Between the emergence of the term ‘Maulana Whiskey’ (in the early 1970s) and ‘Disco Molvi’ (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 hippies 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, peace, communal living, anti-war activism, etc. – made their way into Pakistan as well.
Raheel Nawaz, 57, today 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 the west in the 1970s. Many young men like me also began dressing like them, keeping long hair, thick sideburns, big metallic ‘peace’ signs around our necks … and hashish smoking too became very popular among middle-class young people.” “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 Molvis!’ 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, Ibn-i-Safi, ‘Maulana Hippie’ was actually the pseudonym of film producer, Muhammad Hissain 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 (man or a woman) who was liberated from middle-class morality constrains but at the same time he or she was in tune with their spiritual sides. However, soon Maulana Hippie and Maulana Whiskey gave way to Disco Molvi. The phrase ‘Disco Molvi’ 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 wear baggy disco shirts, tight pants and those pointy disco shoes! That’s when we began calling them Disco Molvies.” 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 left-wing Sindhi nationalist student 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 rich 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 Molvis!”
It now seems the term Disco Molvi 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).
Of beards and then some
Sometimes even when the title of ‘Maulana’ has been used for some people in a more respectable manner, they have scoffed.
In his biography, ‘Mirror to the Blind,’ Abdul Sattar Edhi complains how he detests being called a ‘Maulana’. “Mine was never a religious beard,” he writes. “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 exploitation.”
Showing me photos of political rallies of the late 1960s, a former student leader, Naushad Hussain, challenged me to point out ten men with beards among the hundreds that stood listening to Asghar Khan in the photos. I couldn’t.
“Look closely,” he smiled. “There are only three.” “What about the ‘revolutionary beards’?” I asked.
“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. Even the staunchest members of the right-wing Islami 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.”
Beards, especially heavy stubbles, also became popular as an expression of creativity and artistic disposition.
Mahboobullah, a former graduate of the famous NCA, 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!”
Karamat Hamid a former student at the Dow Medical College in Karachi (in an email to me) explained that by 1976 almost all leading Pakistani TV actors had ‘artistic’ beards: “Talat Hussain, Rahat Kazmi, Shafi Muhammad, all had beards. It became a global fashion. Cricketers like Dennis Lillie, Wasim Raja, Ian Chappel, rock musicians, Hollywood actors and film directors, painters, college boys and even university professors all over the world had beards,” Karamat wrote. “It was a fashion expressing creativity, intellect and manhood.”
So when exactly did beards stop being a liberal/leftist aesthetic and start becoming a ‘religious symbol’?“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. Then 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. “It became a symbol of piety. Everyone from mujahids to smugglers to traders grew a so-called religious beard,” he said.
But according to Talha, the real beard explosion 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?”
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.
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