Nadeem Farooq Paracha gets into another tricky conversation.
Recently I happened to meet a young man who was born and raised in Manchester, in the UK. He had returned to his parents' country with his siblings in 2006, some seven months after the dreadful 7/7 episode. He approached me while I was returning from the parking lot opposite my office building.
'Aslamalaikum!' he said, smiling widely and brightly.
'Walaikumaslam,' I replied, noticing a hint of that Manchester accent in his greeting.
'Brother, where can I find a mosque here?' he asked, that accent now all-to-prominent. I told him about the two mosques in the area and guided him how to get there from the place were we stood.
'Thank you, brother,' he said, smiling brightly again.
'My pleasure,' said I, making my way towards my office building. But long before I could reach it, I heard his voice again.
'Yes?' I turned around.
'Which of the two mosques should I go to?' he asked.
I shrugged my shoulders, thought for a moment and told him any of the two mosques should suffice.
'Oh, okay,' he said. 'But which one do you go to?' he asked.
'Err … none,' I replied.
'Do you go to any other mosque here if not these two?' he asked, politely enough for me to allow him an answer.
'No,' I said, with a vague smile. 'I haven't been to a mosque in a long time.'
'But why, brother?' He asked, still smiling brightly.
'Well, I … '
Before I could finish answering the question, he interrupted: 'Why don't you join me in prayers, brother?'
This got me interested. I walked towards him. 'You're not from here, are you?' I asked.
'No, brother, I was born and raised in England. My name is Ashfaq,' he said, shaking my hand.
I offered him a cigarette. 'No, brother, I do not smoke,' he said.
'Ashfaq, I am Nadeem. Do you mind if I smoke?'
'Not at all, brother.' He smiled.
I invited him to have a cup of tea with me at a nearby dhaba. He agreed. We both sat and ordered some tea and biscuits.
'For how long have you been here?' I asked.
'A year and half, now. I'm studying economics at a university in Karachi.'
'So, how has Pakistan been treating you so far?'
'It's nice. It's my country,' he proudly said.
'Yes,' I smiled. 'But very violent too.'
'Yes,' he said, laughing. 'I've gotten my cell phone stolen twice.'
'Haven't we all,' I said. 'The crime and violence have rocketed in the last many years.'
'Yes, I have heard some horror stories,' he said, shaking his head.
'And yet our mosques are always full of pious worshippers!' I said.
He started at me, then looked down at his cup of tea, finally cutting a knowing smile: 'Is that why you do not visit mosques?'
'Partly, yes.' I said.
'But, brother …'
'You can call me, Nadeem,' I politely interrupted.
'Alright,' he said. Then folding his arms in front of his chest he began: 'Brother Nadeem, praying is one of the most important pillars of Islam and …'
'Are you a part of the some preaching group?' I asked.
'Do you say this because of my beard or the way I speak?'
'Both,' said I.
'Is that a problem?' he inquired.
'Should it be?' I asked.
'You tell me,' he said.
'Brother Ashfaq,' I said, now folding my arms in front of my chest. 'Don't you think that had the Muslims spent more time philosophically and rationally determining and investigating the message of the Qu'ran instead of reducing the intellectual discourse in this regard to the matters of ritual and outdated dogma handed down to us by some rigid old men, the sight of full mosques could have then really meant something more than mere ritualism?'
Ashfaq unfolded his arms: 'Brother Nadeem, what do you mean by rational investigation? The Qu'ran does not need any investigation.'
'It needs a fresh interpretation,' I said. 'It needs to be interpreted according to the needs of Muslims in this day and age. It is full of metaphors and allegories. It is meant to be interpreted, isn't it? That's what most rational Islamic scholars have been trying to do for so long.'
He listened with utmost attention, then spoke: 'This still doesn't mean you stop going to the mosque, brother Nadeem.'
I laughed and that surprised him. 'What's so funny, brother?' he asked.
'Can't you see, Ashfaq?' I said. 'That's all that matters to you. Who is going to the mosque and who isn't. Then, when you do find someone who does visit a mosque your next question will be about the way he is praying, or if he is wearing the right praying clothes.… What about the more intellectual and philosophical debates within Islam? They need to be addressed a lot more urgently, don't you think?'
Ashfaq went into a thoughtful trance of sorts, running a finger around the tips of his cup of tea. Then he spoke, quietly, as if speaking to himself: 'But such ideas create confusion.'
'Confusion?' I inquired, genuinely surprised. 'I think what you mean is that such ideas create Muslims like me!' I smiled.
'How can you be a Muslim if you do not pray?' he asked.
'Volia!' I threw my arms in the air. 'My being or not being a Muslim begins and ends in my head. I am more concerned about the answers we Muslims are giving to those who are accusing us of violence and destruction. The state of Muslim intellectualism is the pits these days. We are collapsing inwards with outdated talk about laws constructed hundreds of years ago by inflexible men and their followers who would like to see Muslim societies turn into static totalitarian societies! What is our intellectual response to all this? Is it science, philosophy and reason, or is the response only about nice, brightly smiling Muslims like you who are only obsessed about cramping as many Muslims in a mosque as possible? The intellectual and political space in Islam is being filled by theological dogma, self-righteous antics and mere ritual. Wake up!'
Ashfaq smiled: 'Brother Nadeem, calm down. All I asked you was to come pray with me. Why so much anger?'
I smiled back: 'Tell me brother Ashfaq, how did you respond to the 7/7 event in Britain?'
'I prayed for the well being of all Muslims,' he said proudly.
'Of course, you did,' I said, with a smile of resignation. 'But, being a good Muslim, did you also pray for the non-Muslims who died in the suicide attacks?'
Ashfaq went into the trance mode once again. 'Brother Nadeem …are you by any chance a non-Sunni?'
I laughed out loud: 'Brother Ashfaq, are you by any chance an idiot?'
Ashfaq went all serious: 'You don't have to get offensive, brother.'
'Ashfaq, what sort of a question was that?' I said. 'Am from this sect or a that sect of Islam? I was talking about something a lot more meaningful than sectarian.'
'Doesn't matter,' he said. 'Islam is for all mankind.'
'Fine,' I replied, 'but how do you plan to prove this? Wouldn't you rather set a more reasonable and intellectual example in this respect rather than a ritualistic one, or worse, a violent one, like that of the fanatics?'
'I am not a fanatic,' he said, his eyes now ogling repressed anger.
I offered him a cigarette.
'I told you I don't smoke,' he said, politely pushing away the offer.
'You may as well now,' I said. 'You have already missed your prayers.'
He worriedly looked at his wrist watch: 'That's correct. I did.'
'Don't worry,' I smiled. 'You wont burn in hell for this.'
'You are right, brother, I wont …' he replied, and then in a quiet but foreboding tone, added: 'But you will.'