How to be a Shia in Pakistan

When you hesitate while writing this, hesitate while publishing this, you must do it anyway.
Published September 11, 2019

Stare into space as your Islamiyat teacher announces to a room full of eight-year-olds that your namaz will never be valid as long as your arms hang to the sides. Remember when your qari sahib dictated that real Muslims must end namaz by turning their heads to the right first and then to the left.

In both cases, pretend as if you are not one of the apostates under debate. Nod convincingly even if no one is watching. Risk no eye contact.

Think back to your mother’s hanging arms and convey to her when you get home that day, and then repeatedly for a week, that she does not know how to pray. Resist the urge to fold her hands on her chest. Watch her take you from the shoulders and eventually shout, “This is how we pray, you understand me?” Nod — this time from fear of a different audience — as you hold back your tears.

Enter the fold of this ‘we’ your mother is a part of, and has now invited you into. Resolve to never listen to your Islamiyat teacher again — it won’t be until later, many years later — that you understand that mere placement of arms in submission to Allah has a certain politics to it and that you will always be at the wrong end of it.

In school, offer yourself up for constant interrogation to bite-size humans like yourself. Answer their questions. Over and over and over again. Look to the other Shia kids for help when you’re called a kafir. Over and over and over again.

Never complain or get angry — it means you have something to hide, something to be ashamed of. Rage anyway. Call them names, even-out the damage. Fight, fight, fight. Learn that “they started it” means nothing against the implicit bias of teachers. Learn that teachers don’t entirely disagree that you deserve to be humiliated in this way — that if they wanted this to stop, they would step in, at least in ways that mattered.

Instead, learn to fight your fights. Act like nothing they say matters to you. Laugh when they ask you about drinking piss, laugh when they ask you if you worship idols and flags, laugh when they ask you if you’d beat yourself to death.

Say yes to spite them, scare them, shock them. Never tell them that your death is, in fact, too likely for this to be a joke, and delivered straight to the doorstep by the likes of them — that it is far easier a task than the labour of beating one’s self to unconsciousness.

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Inside Imambargah Azakhana-e-Zehra in Saddar, Karachi | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Inside Imambargah Azakhana-e-Zehra in Saddar, Karachi | Arif Mahmood, White Star

Voicing this truth would obviously mean you’re lumping together these harmless, curious bearers of questions with actual hate-mongers, and how dare you forget that not all Sunni Muslims are anti-Shia, that they are complex and varied individuals?

When your six- and eight-year-old cousins narrate the same things happening to them, mourn that nothing seems to be changing even with all the years put between you, mourn that you have conceded to this being a rite of passage of surviving in this world.

When you hear the question “Are you Shia?” learn to parse out whether the tone is accusatory or confirmatory. Whether there is danger lurking behind a not-so-innocent query, how much judgement is carried in the tone of who’s asking, quickly gauge whether you are at risk of harm and how much — emotional, physical, psychological.

Say yes, anyway, because saying no would mean you’re afraid. And afraid you are, but of a different kind of judgement, never theirs. Put a sticker on your car that says Ya Ali, that says Labaik Ya Hussain in the biggest font, in bold reds, melting, underlined by the Zulfiqar. When the rear windshield of your car is smashed on a random day, buy another sticker before your glass is fixed.

At majlis, raise both your hands for Naray Haideri and answer with Ya Ali. Stand up in the congregation and beseech the audience with a Naray Haideri longer and louder than the last one. When Labaik Ya Hussain is offered to the crowd, sense the stillness in the air as everyone answers back Labaik Ya Hussain.

Keep chanting for what feels like an eternity, bask in this feeling of unity and closeness to your people and to your faith. Put your head down when the masaib come on; cry as your mothers would as you grow older, as you understand better.

In these spaces, beat your chest hard, with both hands, to the rhythm of nohas. Recite as loud as you can. As kids, compare your chests with your cousins. Feel proud if your skin burns a pink deeper than the rest; semi-circles for the girls wearing oval necklines and a butterfly-shaped red smear on the boys’ chests.

In these spaces, recite the poetry of your great aunts and uncles, passed down to you generation after generation. Harmonise with your cousins and form your own reciting group; fight over who gets to lead which paragraph. On your way back home, blast nohas in your car day after day.

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Preparations for Muharram underway at Bodla Bahar’s shrine in Sehwan | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Preparations for Muharram underway at Bodla Bahar’s shrine in Sehwan | Arif Mahmood, White Star

When you spot a Zuljinah trotting on the streets of Lahore, slow down your car. Make sure you maneuver your arms out the window to pat it. When it makes its weekly rounds at your grandmother’s place, make sure you have apples to feed it. On the fifth of Muharram, go to the imambargah earlier than usual just for the Zuljinah to come.

When it’s finally time for majlis, sit on the stairs as you watch the elders adorn the Zuljinah with ornamented armour and a freshly red-stained white chadar. When they tie the imama on the saddle to mark the Imam’s presence, recite salawat with everyone.

At the end of the masaib, watch throngs of men wailing as the Zuljinah makes its way through the crowds. When it’s out of your sight, run to the women’s side to be with your aunts, for you know they will recite a noha as they do every year.

When the Zuljinah comes to the women’s side, the sound of lament is deafening. Such is the air of grief that you can’t help but think of when the Zuljinah returned to the khemagahs at Karbala and the women and children knew Imam Hussain was no more.

Know it is that helplessness and sorrow that you honour. With every thump to the chest, say Hussain as loud as you can as the ziyarat of the Zuljinah completes its rounds and returns to be concluded for the night.

Year after year, watch some of your uncles return on Ashura with their white kurta shalwar drenched in blood. Watch your aunts as they tend to the wounds. Listen closely when they tell you it is a way of embodying the pain of those holy people they hold dearly, that it is only one way of mourning and exhibiting faith.

When people ask “churian maartay ho?” — Do you knife yourself? — tell them you would never, your family isn’t like those other crazies. Laugh with them when they laugh. Don’t let them find out you’re one of the crazy Shias because, of course, their graciousness can only accommodate you as long as you are willing to practise on their terms.

Be ashamed of yourself that in dodging the labels of fanatic and kafir, you have undermined the tenacity and complexity of people’s faiths. Over the years, learn to embrace these words with grace and defend to death their choices and decisions. When people tell you they don’t “understand”, retort that it’s because they haven’t made an attempt to.

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Mourners at a Muharram procession near Nisar Haveli, Lahore | M Arif, White Star
Mourners at a Muharram procession near Nisar Haveli, Lahore | M Arif, White Star

Once or twice in a few years, rush to the phone calls of those, mostly relatives, graced by a mojza, a miracle — occurrences that, by definition, outlaw the application of conventional logic. A miracle is that which is not humanly possible; this is exactly the crux of it.

Sit in dargahs and watch the tasbeehs turn red, take in the indescribable scent that reigns over the room, watch red stains appear on the Hands of Fatima that line the walls. When the hosts cry, know it’s because they feel they have been selected into a special order, their faith and devotion joining the ranks of those held among as true believers, their house a space considered worthy of holiness.

Remember the magic of the night at your khala’s house on the occasion of a mojza when you find her sobbing in her dargah, surrounded by her family. That when she points you towards the beads of the tasbeeh, they are red in places and dark brown in others, like dried up blood, and pearl white elsewhere.

With time, understand that the scene of the mojza is a space where an alternate, sensory knowledge prevails — not lesser or greater, just different — and those entering it submit to its profundity. The faculties of sight and smell confirm what your mind has hesitations accepting. "How is this possible?" you ask yourself, never making your nay saying tendencies vocal. Know that those around you lead from a different truth; how is it not possible?

Although you never broach the subject with your friends, when it comes up on a random day, sit in silence as your best friend proclaims, quite messiah-like, that she thinks there are no differences. “Shia, Sunni — what matters, yaar, is that we’re all Muslims.” Smile because you know she means it in good faith. Smile because the erasure of difference is always the only point of engagement — perhaps because it is easy and portable.

When you decide that it is, in fact, worth it, begin to argue that difference is necessary. That it is the site where all meaning is produced. Fail to get through to them. When someone you meet tells you they "don’t identify as Sunni, just Muslim," lightly smirk — of course you don’t — behind the rim of your teacup.

Fall in love with a Sunni and have them tell you it would never work out. That it’s just “different”. That it’s not them, it’s their family. Have a Sunni fall in love with you and tell them the most you can ever be is friends. In a parallel universe, both of you wouldn’t care, but this is the world you live in, a world where you have to rule out certain possibilities, that even if you somehow make it happen, it just won’t be worth the hassle. Save the tears for later.

Watch your brother date someone for four years as he struggles with the what ifs of a Shia-Sunni partnership. Sit next to him while he finally tells her it won’t work out. Watch him convince himself it’s not because of the Shia-Sunni thing. Say nothing.

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Pocession in Islamabad on Monday. — AP
Pocession in Islamabad on Monday. — AP

At college, be surprised when your Muslim Students Association has sajdagahs and identify that what is actually surprising to you is… inclusion. Mourn over the state of things, your ability to expect and demand so little of those in power, that the smallest kindnesses and recognitions somehow seem monumental.

Look up to those pushing the envelope for greater inclusion even as some of them are much younger than you. Watch them slowly burn out for demanding better and more with no guarantee on results.

Carry the burden of your ‘too Shia’ name. When enough of your people are murdered, run someplace far away. Anywhere that will take you. Apply for a visit visa at first. Pack up your entire life in two suitcases since anything more would be suspicious.

Claim political asylum. Wait till the red tape determines how unwanted you are. Have the authorities question the urgency of the threat to your body, your life, your beliefs. Let them decide whether or not your life is “actually in danger.” Begin to question it yourself. Call it due diligence and move on with your life.

Instead of commemorating grief in the month of mourning, lament indefinitely. The Imam was Gareeb ul Watan, and now you are too. Build new imambargahs and communities to fill them with. Rent marquees and halls to host majalis. Lobby the authorities to allow jaloos. Keep saying Labaik Ya Hussain on the streets.

Always practise a latent fear of congregations. Concerts, lecture halls, conferences, subways — always be prepared to give up your right to life. Think of death as something with too high a probability even when you move far away from the country.

Tell yourself it’s not fear, only practical thought. Don’t trace your fears back to jaloos or majalis because that means you aren’t as brave as those who march on the streets year after year, checking their fear at the police check-posts, consciously entering the fold of visibility, making themselves available to harm, unbothered and unafraid.

So when you hesitate while writing this, hesitate while publishing this, you must do it anyway. Your silence will never protect you — Bibi Zainab taught you that before Audre Lorde — for it is a luxury you never felt entitled to.

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