It is said that those who migrate, live in a time warp. They see their past in their present and use it to define their future as well. This distortion allows them to continue to live with the people they left behind and to bring into their lives events from another period.
Although illusionary, living in a time warp can also be a blessing. This is how we felt on the evening we gathered at the tavern to celebrate Eid-e-Milad.
We decided we will do it the old-fashioned way, the way it was when we were young. So we spread a white sheet on the floor, placed cushions along the walls and requested people to wear traditional dresses for the occasion.
We even had agar-battis and gulab-pash, a little container used for sprinkling scented water on the audience.
Near the entrance, we placed little bottles of traditional perfumes, extracts of flowers we left behind, champa, chambeli, gulab. No, we did not call them jasmine or roses, not that evening.
In the middle, we placed a red, hand-woven carpet with more cushions and a rahal, which we used in the maktab while learning to recite the Holy Quran.
There were no supersize cakes, no motorised devices, no sticks, no swords and no shooting in the air.
After recitals from the holy book by a sister-brother duo, we invited some older kids to recite na’at. And here too, we stuck to the tradition. Instead of going for modern poems composed on popular tunes, we selected three, one each by poets Hali, Zafar Ali Khan and Allama Iqbal.
Then we asked one of our members, who is associated with a local Sufi circle and is widely respected in the community for his moderate views, to “read the milad.”
He started with a tale that we often heard at milads in our days, which now seem like another age.
“God, where are you? I want to become your servant. Mend your battered shoes. Comb your hair. Wash your clothes. Kill the lice and fleas. I would bring you fresh milk,” said the shepherd.
“I wish to kiss your hand. Rub your feet. I would sweep your bedroom clean and keep it neat. And prepare your bed when you are sleepy. I’d sacrifice my herd of goats for you. Give away my life for you and those of my sons.
“If you get sick, I will look after you, better than I look after myself.”
Prophet Moses, who was walking by, heard the shepherd’s supplication, and asked him: “What’s that I hear you say?”
“I am speaking to my Creator,” said the shepherd.
“You’ve truly lost your mind,” said Moses. “You’ve given up the faith and gone astray.”
Then Moses explained that God does not have feet, so he needs no shoes. He does not have hair, so needs no combing. He does not dress up like people, so there are no clothes to wash. He does not sleep, so has no bed.
“Stop your mad babbling and go seek His forgiveness,” said Moses.
“Your words have struck me dumb. Regret now burns my soul,” replied the shepherd, breathed a heavy sigh, ripped his cloak and wandered away into the desert, sobbing.
As the shepherd disappeared, God spoke to Moses: “You have just turned a slave away from me. I sent you to bring people to me, not to do otherwise.”
God said: “I’ve given each one a special way and a unique expression. This is how I intended the shepherd to pray. I don’t look at words and tongues. I look into hearts and moods. I know when a man’s heart has humility. I’m tired of fancy terms and metaphors. I seek a soul which burns with my love.”
When Moses received this message, he went to the desert, looking for the shepherd and found him, still sobbing.
Moses said to the shepherd: “I bring you God’s decree. Don’t bother with good manners and rites. What you say from the core of your heart is dearer to God. So, pray as you will.”
Since it was very cold and snowing outside, we deviated a little from the tradition. As the speaker paused, we served tea. And then we invited the four dervishes of our tavern (named after a 13th century book, “The Tale of the Four Dervishes”) to discuss the story.
“I came across this tale many years ago while learning to read Maulana Rumi’s masnavi in Farsi,” said the senior dervish.
“It brought tears to my eyes but other mundane stories pushed it away from my memory. Now, I always keep it with me, see,” he said, showing a copy of the masnavi with Urdu translation. “It reminds me that religion is about love and mercy, and not violence and hate as we see today.”
Then he also showed us the print of a recent newspaper story about Pakistan’s ambassador in the United States being tried for an alleged act of blasphemy that she says she never committed.
“But it is not just Ambassador Sherry Rehman that I am worried about. She is a powerful woman and has many sympathisers. I am more concerned about other helpless victims,” said the dervish.
“The man in Dadu, Sindh, who was burned alive by a mob, another in Gujranwala who also was killed by a mob and his body dragged through the streets, the poor Christian girl forced to leave the country, and countless others languishing in jails for a crime they did not commit,” said the dervish.
“Imagine, Rumi writing this story now,” said the second dervish. “A mob would raid his home and set him on fire along with his books even before the poem is published.”
“Don’t you remember what they did to Iqbal when he wrote his famous poem, Shikwah (Complaint)?” asked the third dervish. “They burned his books in the streets of Lahore and declared him a kafir.”
“And the violence we witness today is done in the name of the Prophet (peace be upon him) who is described in the Holy Quran as a “mercy to the worlds,” who forgave even those who did physical harm to him and his companions,” said the fourth dervish.
When we resumed, the speaker explained to us the concept of Rahmatul Lil Aalameen or “the mercy to the world.”
“This is how the Sufis elucidate the inner meanings of this title for the Holy Prophet (pbuh),” he said.
“One day, angel Jibraeel visited the holy Prophet and found him in a state of sadness. When the angel asked why, the Prophet said he was grieved at the violence and falsehood of infidels.
“Shall I show you how the God Almighty has subjected all things to you? Do you wish to know in what estimation the Most High holds you?
“Then Jibraeel and other angels explained to the Prophet how they can punish the infidels if he desired so and cause them to disappear from the face of the earth.
“The Messenger of Allah raised his blessed face towards heaven and said: ‘I am not sent to inflict judgment but enjoined to be the Mercy of the Universe.’ And he forgave all, even those who had caused him physical harm’”
The speaker told several other stories to elucidate his point.
“One of the Prophet’s enemies was a woman who lived above a street he used to pass daily. She would litter the streets with garbage as he walked past.
“One morning, the Prophet (pbuh) did not find the woman on the roof with her basket. This worried him. So he knocked at the door and asked if he could come in.
“When permitted, Muhammad (pbuh) entered the house and told the woman that not finding her on the roof had worried him. So he came to inquire about her health. On finding out how ill she was, he gently asked if she needed any help.
“This made her feel guilty and she apologised for her mean behaviour. He forgave her and came to her house every day to clean it, to feed her and to pray for her, till she was on her feet again.
“The prisoners captured at the battle of Badr included some of his bitterest enemies. Still, the Prophet made sure that they were given the best of treatment.
“Among them was Suhayl bin ‘Amr who was still denouncing the Prophet (pbuh). Hazrat Umar suggested that two of his lower teeth be pulled out to silence him. The Prophet (pbuh) replied: “Were I to do this, Allah would disfigure me on the Day of Judgement, despite the fact that I am His messenger.”
“The stories of the prophet praying for his enemies and responding to insults and provocations with love and grace, need to be repeated again and again,” said the speaker.
“Every generation should know them by heart so that they are not misled,” he added and ended his lecture.
We then distributed sweets among the participants, as was done back home in our days. And we were happy that we lived in a time warp.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.