Gems and Jewels: The Religions of Pakistan by Dr Amineh Ahmed Hoti and commissioned by Isphanyar M. Bhandara, former member of the National Assembly (who also writes the prologue), is a beautifully designed book. Each of its 10 chapters features one of the various religious groups in Pakistan, including Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsis), the Kalasha, Jews, Buddhists, Bahais, Sikhs, Christians, Hindus and Muslims.

The author — who informs us that she has trained as an anthropologist and holds a doctorate from the University of Cambridge — uses the metaphor of jewels to describe the people, culture, history and religion in different regions of Pakistan. The book, she states, is based on cross-cultural and ethnographic fieldwork conducted all over Pakistan. That may well have been so, but a thorough read turned up a number of issues.

Gems and Jewels begins with a chapter on Jains, which has been compiled from secondary sources, but the author does not duly reference or quote these sources. Dr Hoti explains that she went searching for Jains in Pakistan, but was not able to find even one as most had emigrated to India. However, there is a small number of Jains living in Sindh and one can find these communities in the region of Thar, and in the city of Karachi. The chapter consequently does not provide any new information and gives a very vague overview of Jainism.

Similarly, the chapter on Jews might have been more informative and factually correct. The author describes Messianic Jews as simply Jews when they are, in fact, members of a modern syncretic Christian movement that incorporates elements from Judaism and evangelical Christianity. The movement emerged in the 1960s from the Hebrew Christian movement and Baptist tradition. Her mention of Jews in Pakistan is very brief and refers only to inscriptions on gravestones of Karachi and that might have been more expanded, as in most of the chapters she writes from secondary sources.

The introduction states that Gems and Jewels is about interfaith dialogue, but nowhere in the text can one find such a dialogue. While the author does meet with people and talk with them about their religion, this does not qualify as either “interfaith” or “dialogue.” Interfaith dialogue means having conversations and discussions between the two different faith groups. However, such examples are missing from the text.

A handsome coffee table book about the various religions in Pakistan could have done with better attention to editorial and ethical issues and citing for the anthropological research

The book also raises some serious ethical concerns. For example, in their interviews, members of minority communities insist that they are true and patriotic Pakistanis despite not being Muslim; this gives a sense that these groups feel pressured to prove their loyalty and patriotism. When someone feels compelled to prove their loyalty that he or she really belongs to a certain nation, and especially if they are from a minority or marginalised group, it is an established fact that such encounters and descriptions are considered problematic from the ethical perspective in anthropological writing.

Later on, Dr Hoti mentions a Christian priest who refused to be interviewed and did not consent to engage with the project. According to a basic ethical code of anthropological research taught to social scientists, a participant has the right to opt out at any time. Their wishes must be respected and, in such cases, their names are never mentioned. However, the author of Gems and Jewels seems disappointed at having wasted her time with this person, and all details, such as his name and place of worship, are mentioned in the book along with a full telling of the encounter.

However, the major ethical concern is asking people direct questions at the initial meeting, without having built strong fieldwork relations with them first. We can see such examples when the author asks members of the Bahai faith what it means to be Pakistani. More examples can be found in the chapters on Sikhs, Hindus and Christians.

Ethnographic fieldwork demands a level of sanctity between participant and researcher and a single meeting cannot be considered ethnographic research. It was this very tendency to build hypotheses from simple observations and pre-existing beliefs that created the harmful tradition of Orientalism. Modern ethnographers must do better.

One also wishes the book followed some consistency in style and format. The author discusses events, stories and people and then suddenly switches to another topic without any context, leaving the reader struggling to follow. Chapters appear to move in their own direction without a central theme binding them all together. Much of it reads as though translated from Urdu to English — this is fairly evident from the style of writing — and these sections are juxtaposed with formal language from reports from non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Tighter editing could have eliminated the numerous repetitions, and crediting photographs is always a good idea.

Dr Hoti also frequently mentions her family members, and it’s unclear how these references connect to the overall narrative. For example, at several places she writes about the University of Cambridge, Aligarh Muslim University and about her family members who had been educated at these schools. These interruptions occur in the middle of other narratives, disrupting the flow and causing the reader to lose the thread.

Gems and Jewels is described as a coffee-table book and the author explains that it is not an academic tome, but rather something to be enjoyed by the common reader. Based on this description, it certainly is an attractive volume, but this does not quite excuse the editorial and ethical issues or the lack of provenance for the research, and I was left with many questions that might have been answered had the book gone through more review or critical analysis.

Despite these critical comments, one promising idea about this book is that it shows diverse religions being part of Pakistan’s cultural, social and historical legacy. I hope that the second edition will be more sophisticated, revised, and have more details for the readers. The author and her team are appreciated for embarking on this very daunting and challenging task.

The reviewer is assistant professor of anthropology at IBA, Karachi. He tweets @Jamshoro2

Gems and Jewels: The Religions of Pakistan
By Dr Amineh Ahmed Hoti
DP Edulji, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697120390
415pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 10th, 2021

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