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The word of God?

May 19, 2013

Is religious literature good for the bottom line as well as the soul? Sabina Qazi finds out.

A young woman is sifting through the books in the children’s section at a popular bookshop. After a long, hard search she finally decides on one that contains stories from Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) life and another one that explains what Eid is. “My sons have questions that I have no answers for anymore,” she explains. A man buying religion-made-easy type books for his children says that they have started enjoying reading such books because now they are bright and entertaining, no different from regular storybooks; they become more special when the children find out that the stories are true.

This apparent rise in the awareness of what religion is or what it means to ‘follow religion’ is not just limited to storybooks for children; the trend is evident in literature for adults too. Da’wah Books, a non-profit initiative, sells books which are mostly printed in the US and the UK, and also Saudi Arabia. It sells everything from books for children to the Quran Sharif but what sells most are topic specific booklets, says the manager of the store, Muhammad Amin Jawed. “No one wants to read thick books,” he says, admitting to the fact that over the last four to five years he has observed a burgeoning consciousness of religion.

Indeed, Munnazza Alvi who writes most of these booklets and conducts courses at Al-ilM, an institution that imparts religious education, says that these booklets can be read in 10 to 15 minutes, providing information on the spot. She also says that people, especially during the wedding seasons and at funerals, order these booklets in the hundreds, either to familiarise themselves with the ‘correct’ way of doing things or to distribute amongst other people. Anam Jawad, a collector of all kinds of religious books, says that at her mother’s death last year, her brothers ordered booklets on all the prayers that were to be read at the funeral. “They even wanted something on life after death to make it less morbid.”

The head of an academic institution in Karachi that caters to Islamic education agrees with the fact that the last five years have witnessed a rise in the sale of religious literature but believes that the sale of books is seasonal. They sell a lot more in Ramazan, and around events such as weddings and especially deaths. “Last December a number of people called me, asking about the ‘right’ way of having a wedding,” shares a budding religious scholar.

Whether this trend is indicative of a rise in sales is hard to ascertain, though. While smaller bookshops enthusiastically say yes, larger book stores such as Liberty Books and Paramount do not endorse this trend. Francis D’souza, a senior manager at Liberty Books, Lahore, says that over the years, the only time sales peaked was after 9/11; since then there has been a very insubstantial increase in Islamic book purchases. “Controversial books are not stocked,” he adds. People come and ask for the books they want to read so on popular demand these books are ordered. Also, popular writers are imported. The most popular books right now, he adds, are Lesley Hazleton’s After the Prophet, a bestseller and Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Islam, another bestseller. Ibn-i-Khaldoon’s Muqadma, an expensive volume and one for serious readers has recently been greatly appreciated.

Raza Waseem, the media manager at Paramount, says they have a limited collection of Islamic books. “We keep generic books on the Quran and hadiths but none related to any sects to avoid controversies, considering the conditions in the country right now.” Paramount also imports most of its books from Malaysia.

“I have seen a regular rather than a sharp increase in our year-to-year sales. Readership overall has decreased, and because people are not buying books as much, since online reading has replaced general reading, book purchase has dwindled.” In a similar vein, many small bookshop owners also says that in Pakistan bookstores have stopped stocking anything that could spark religious controversy, especially sectarian books.

That the books are checked before being put up for sale is something all agree with. D’souza says books are read to avoid any untoward instances and Jawed adds that Da’wah has a panel that goes through the books. Ali, a small bookseller at Urdu Bazaar says he and his brother sell second-hand books and they too go through everything because they fear attacks by different religious groups. They prefer to keep English books because they sell more and are less controversial. Jawed also agrees, saying that it is the English books that sell more and that are often more authentic.

On a less personal note, these days it is not just women who come to buy books but men too, asking for something that will help them with their business. Alvi says they have a male customer who orders their pamphlets in thousands. Be it Urdu or English, a book or a booklet, the situation is, as Movin Pereira at Liberty Books, Karachi, puts it; “The more things get difficult in the country, the more people turn towards religion.”