Pandemic reading

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I AM using the ‘work from home’ opportunity provided by Covid-19 for two delightful purposes — one, to get to know my wife and grandchildren (who cares about sons and daughters-in-law?) and, two, to swot up on my reading. The problem is the limited capacity of the two bookshelves I have. So books lie scattered everywhere, much to my wife’s spoken and unspoken annoyance, when she discovers them on drawing room sofas, under bedroom pillows or — the most provocative of all — on her dressing table. I love this tome chaos.

Lying on one of the tables and seeking my attention was a biography of Grand Mufti Amin Al-Husayni. Here is a sentence that shouldn’t surprise you: “A few months later, however, Winston Churchill approved a proposal to assassinate the Mufti.” The author is British, Philip Mattar.

The turn for reading the biography of this remarkable Palestinian came late because another book left me wondering how someone could be so critical of Pakistan’s powerful establishment to which he himself once belonged. The author of Diversity in Islamic Thought: Coming to Terms, retired rear admiral Zakaria Asghar, remains unrecognised because he is not a TV anchor. The book speaks the truth about our society and questions the establishment’s concept of “strategic assets”.

Pakistani society’s yardstick of morality, says author Asghar, “is either the length of one’s beard or the furrows made [… on] one’s forehead through prolonged prostration or by how far up the ankle one’s lower garment is hiked, all physical characteristics for a metaphysical condition.”

The Grand Mufti’s life seemed straight out of a James Bond novel.

The mariner turned author repudiates an absurd belief very popular among Pakistanis – that we need only the West’s technology, for morality is with us. Instead, Asghar writes what to many Pakistanis would be virtual blasphemy. The “parameters of morality”, he says, are “heavily tilted [… to] the West’s favour […]: openness, pursuit of knowledge, welfare orientation, adherence to truth, ethical behaviour, rule of law, human rights, and adherence to laws of the land.”

But back to the Mufti, whose life seems to come straight out of a James Bond novel, with the difference that he was a statesman and freedom fighter. Ignoring the book haunted me, because I had the honour of seeing him as a Class 8 student in Bahadur Yar Jang High School in Karachi. Aware of South Asian Muslims’ pan-Islamic sentiments, the Mufti had been in regular contact with their leaders since before partition. He met Muslim League leaders as they proceeded to London for the many round-table conferences and asked them to raise the Palestinian issue with the British. It was also the Mufti who prevailed upon Shaukat Ali to lay to rest his brother, Muhammad Ali, in Al Aqsa. The Khilafat movement leader died in 1931. Those were days when the Zionists were making every attempt to strip Jerusalem of its Arab-Islamic character.

The birth of Pakistan, decades later, had excited the Mufti, and there is no doubt he must have come with a great deal of expectations from a state that was then two years old. His visit to my school has remained etched in my memory. I remember his blue eyes, something that made Hitler, that mad epitome of racism, change his opinion of Arabs. Daring and brainy, the Mufti managed to escape many times to avoid certain death in Palestine and Lebanon and managed to flee pro-Allies Iraq to reach Iran, where Reza Shah Kabir granted him asylum. Suddenly there was a pro-Allies coup, with the Mufti seeking asylum in the Japanese embassy. Later, shaving off his beard and wearing a lounge suit, he made a dash to Turkey — a country he knew well as an officer in the Ottoman army in the First World War. The Turkish republic showed no enthusiasm for him, and the Palestinian leader moved to Bulgaria on the way to Italy and Germany.

After the war he was arrested by the French, but again managed to escape. The British were thinking of trying him, with their intelligence believing the Mufti was on board a ship dressed as Madame Shawwa, the French wife of a Saudi official. The British intercepted the SS Devonshire and found that Madame Shawwa turned out to be the real Madame Shawwa. The Mufti himself was in King Farouk’s Abdin palace.

He passed the last days of his life in Beirut. His beloved Palestine’s theft by the Zionists and the military reverses suffered by Arab armies must have broken his heart. But his death came in 1974. Which means he had the satisfaction of seeing the initial Arab victory in the 1973 Ramazan war and the crossing of the Suez canal by the Egyptian army. The Zionist propaganda machinery portrays him as a Nazi collaborator, forgetting the aphorism: the enemy’s enemy is a friend.

The writer is Dawn’s readers’ editor and an author.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2020