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Stories of faith and devotion

Published Jul 12, 2012 06:17pm

-Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan.

I have been lucky to be a witness to a number of major events in the politics of Pakistan, first as the son of a journalist, then as a student activist and finally as a journalist myself.

Even though the memory of witnessing many of these events remains as fresh in my mind as ever, I must confess it is the recollection of certain minor episodes along the way which, I believe, has helped me understand the many turning points in the larger scheme of things in Pakistan.

I have never been a very religious person. But I’ve always been a firm believer. And ironically, over the decades as the intellectual credence and credibility of secularism has continued to grow in my eyes (now more than ever), so has my fascination with religion, especially with the way it is indulged in by my fellow countrymen and women, or for that matter, by me.

I was a child of the 1970s, an era in the sociology of Pakistan that began to seem rather alien when I entered my teens in the 1980s.

One of the major triggers in this respect was, of course, the mushrooming of exhibitionistic religiosity, preliminarily initiated by the state, and then eventually undertaken by large sections of the society as a whole.

I see this process as a kind of self-hypnosis, partaken to not only project religious exhibitionism as some sort of a reflection to define (or redefine) one’s identity as a Pakistani or Muslim, but also (on a more cynical level), understand it as something that attracts economic and political benefits.

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Before the deluge

As I mentioned earlier, my childhood memories of a more tolerant Pakistan in the 1970s now seem squarely alien to the Pakistan I entered as a teen in the 1980s and to the Pakistan I live in today.

One such memory has me accompanying my father and grandfather for Eid prayers on Eidul Azha (‘Bakra Eid’) to a local mosque in our ancestral village in the Attock district in North Punjab.

I don’t remember the exact year (I think it was 1974), but I do remember it was a hot morning.

The mosque was small and just outside it was a dozen or so goats and sheep that were to be sacrificed after the prayers.

Usually, Eidul Azha prayers are of a short duration so that the men can go back home and make preparations for sacrificing their goats, sheep or camels in the way of God and distribute portions of the resultant meat among the poor.

But the molvie of this particular mosque just went on and on. My father later told me that the molvie was actually angry at the people of the village who kept cracking jokes about him.

Cracking jokes about molvies, especially about their figurative liking for sweetmeat and marrying more than once, were almost like a tradition in Pakistan.

Molvie jokes are still common, but in 1980 reactionary military dictator, General Ziaul Haq, actually tried to address this ‘serious and grave concern.’

His information ministry fired an ‘advise’ to the state media (PTV, Pakistan Radio) that molvies were not be made fun of anymore. Also, they were to be called ‘ulema’ (religious scholars) instead of mullahs.

Anyway, this molvie at that small mosque in Attock in 1974 just went on and on. A point came when the men began to sweat profusely and waited patiently for him to recite the words signaling that they could all bend and go down on their knees as prescribed by the sunnah.

But this just wasn’t happening … until one of the goats tied outside the mosque baa-ed. And lo and behold! At the sound of the baa, each and every man in the mosque, except the molvie, went straight down!

All I remember was seeing the men first blushing, then getting back up and eventually beginning to giggle like little children.

So what happened next? Nothing.

The molvie didn’t get the goat killed (it was to be scarified anyway), and nor was the goat’s owner admonished (or burned by a mob).

The men just laughed about it and went home. End of story.

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Change changing places

To me, if one is to pick a year from where Pakistan’s political and cultural slide towards a curious faith-based neurosis (and ultimately a socio-political nervous breakdown) began, that year is bound to be 1979.

A number of some interesting political events of that year can be elaborated to back the claim, but here I shall relate another more minor and personal memory.

Like a majority of Pakistanis, till the early 1980s, much of the Paracha clan that I belong to were adherents of what is loosely called the ‘Barelvi school of Islam.’

It is an indigenous, 200-year-old strain of the faith exclusive to the Indian subcontinent.

It emerged sometime in the 19th century as a reaction against various Islamic reformist movements in the region after the fall of the Muslim empire in India and the arrival of British imperialism.

There were two main poles of the reformist movements, but both emerged after critiquing the status of Islam among the Muslims of the region after the fall of the Mughal Empire.

One pole of the reformists castigated the mullahs and the pirs for keeping the Muslims of the region superstitious and away from modern knowledge.

They advocated the symbolic and ‘rational understanding of the Quran’ and also the acquiring of modern ‘secular schooling’ and science introduced by the British.

The other pole, inspired by the puritanical ‘Wahabi movement’ that had broken out in the then Ottoman-held Arab peninsula (later named Saudi Arabia), blamed the Mughals for allowing Islam to be ‘adulterated’ by allowing ‘Hindu influences’ to seep in.

To this batch of reformists, Indian Muslims had lost their empire because they had stopped following the ‘true version’ of the faith.

They advocated a more literal reading of the holy book and for Islam to become an important (political) part of any future Islamic empire in the region.

Many of such reformists were called ‘Wahabis,’ Aehl-e-Hadidh, Salafi and ‘Deobandis.’

All of these were not only against the rationalists and western education, they were also extremely critical of the tradition of visiting Sufi shrines and venerating the graves of Sufi saints. They called the practice ‘shirk’ (gravely un-Islamic).

The Barelvi movement was mainly a reaction against the above. Though not opposed to the teaching of ‘Western secular knowledge,’ it did react strongly against those criticising the act of visiting shrines and indulging in related rituals as ‘shirk.’

As such, the Barelvi movement did not offer anything new to Islamic philosophy. On the contrary, it was an attempt to simply organise and safeguard the centuries-old traditions of Indian Muslims.

It was the reassuring enshrinement of the traditional hybrid-Sufism that prevailed among the Muslims due to the long periods of interaction between Sufi Islam and Hinduism.

Though idea of Pakistan was mainly conceived by the ‘Islamic modernists’ (and initially rejected by the puritans), it was ‘Barelvism’ that rose to become the folk religion of the rural peasants, the urban proletariat and the petty-bourgeoisie of the country.

It incorporated the anti-clergy elements of Sufism, the jurisprudence doctrines of the more flexible Sunni Hanafi fiqh and, as had been the traditional practice of popular folk Islam of the region, fused these with the concept of overt religious reverence of divine concepts and people, and the accommodating forms of worship found in various shades of the religions practiced in the sub-continent.

The result was an Indian/Pakistani Muslim populace repulsed by the dogma of the puritanical strains of the religion; open to the idea of modern education; competitively permissive in its sociology; and largely non-political in essence (until the cosmetic rise of Barelvi militancy from the 1990s onwards).

But at the same time, Barlevi Islam is also criticised for being willingly embroiled in superstition and doctrinal ‘innovations.’

I remember, till the 1970s, a religious Pakistani mainly meant a person who made regular visits to Sufi shrines, offered ‘Niaz’ (special food offerings) and illuminated their homes during the Prophet’s birthday and loved listening to Qawalis and naats

The more ‘enlightened, modern Muslims’ thought such people as superstitious but they never judged them as being ‘flawed Muslims’ – such a thing was just not done.

My paternal grandparents were religious in the above context. But then so were most of my relatives and yet, just like one of my father’s favorite maternal uncles, they played cards, chess, loved watching movies, smoked, intermingled with the opposite sex, danced to the beat of the dhol at shrines, etc.

The favorite uncle’s two sons who were about 5 or 6 years older than I was, used to visit our home every weekend to play cricket. One of them was a huge fan of Pakistani film actor Nadeem and as far as I remember he was the first guy I saw who got into disco music that invaded Pakistan with the entry of recorded cassettes and vinyl LPs of Donna Summers, Boney M and the Bee Gees in the late 1970s.

One 1979 summer day, the two lads did not turn up for cricket. In fact I saw the disco fan two years later in 1981. He had completely changed. He had a longish beard, a skull-cap and refused to wear any western clothes.

What had happened was this: Sometime between 1978 and 1979, the puritanical Tableeghi Jamat (TJ) had managed to recruit a busload of Parachas.

TJ was/is a puritanical Deobandi evangelical movement that’s been around since the 1920s. But it began being patronised by the state as soon as the Ziaul Haq dictatorship took over in July 1977.

Though, mostly popular among urban and semi-urban lower-middle-classes in the Punjab and Pakhtunkhwa provinces, TJ (from 1979) began angling for the richer lot as well.

By the 1990s, a number of well-t0-do businessmen, military personnel, politicians, sportsmen, and music and TV personalities were its members.

TJ is not a political outfit. Its puritanism is more a sociological and cultural event, in which it allows its members to continue striving for martial wellbeing but only if they strictly follow certain religious ritualism.

A beard (or a certain size of a beard on men), and a particular style of wearing ones clothes are a must. Modern ‘distractions’ like TV, radio, music and films are to be discarded. ‘Spreading Islam’ through persuasion and preaching is advocated as a member’s leading duty.

So not only did my father’s disco-loving cousin join TJ, he helped it to bag dozens of more Parachas. For example, as a kid I was perplexed when all of a sudden some of my female cousins were not allowed anymore to play with their male counterparts.

Of course, I also saw all those ‘un-Islamic’ activities of distributing Niaz, lighting firecrackers (on Shab-e-Barat), visiting the shrines, et al go out the window.

My grandparents never fell for this completely, though. And my grandmother was most surprised when one of her brothers (my father’s favorite uncle) too joined the TJ.

He was my favorite character as well. Full of life, jolly, a terrific singer and lover of music, he also loved to play cards and cricket. But his son got him to throw out the TV and the radio from their house.

As an angry young teenager in the 1980s, I asked my grandmother to ask all these guys why they were behaving as if they had become better Muslims than her, and why they were acting as if they are embarrassed of what they were before they supposedly saw the light.

My grandmother thought they had found solace and that she should respect their new-found beliefs, even if she disagreed with them.

I sure wished they were as tolerant as well.

But the uncle, though now with a beard and without a TV or any chance of ever playing a round or two of rummy or flush, remained jovial.

Even though he wasn’t the same man, I continued enjoying his company in spite of him telling me that I should go and settle in the Soviet Union because he was convinced I was a communist.

I met him many years later in October 2009 at my father’s funeral. He stayed with us for a couple of days.

During one such day when (male) family members were lazing about remembering my father, I got up and strolled out for a smoke.

Standing there with a cigarette in hand, looking at the sun go down, I felt someone tapping me with a finger on the back.

I turned to find my father’s uncle. I cringed, thinking this most certainly was not the right time for him to give me that token TJ lecture. But before I could tell him this, he asked whether I had seen his son.

I said no, I hadn’t. He looked around (as if to make sure the son was not in the vicinity), and after making sure we were alone, he cracked a light smile, then while scratching one side of his head said (in Punjabi): ‘Nadeem, lend me a cigarette.’

I didn’t know what triggered it, but in that fleeting moment, I saw three decades of the Tableeghi Jamat conditioning crumble like a dry cookie.

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Cuts both ways

                                                                          Cartoon: Sabir Nazar

During the 1988 New Years Eve, some friends and I got ourselves a bottle of Murree Vodka. After finishing half of it in my room, we decided to go to one of Karachi’s finest and cheapest foodie areas, the Burns Road, for dinner.

We also decided to take the bottle along and finish it at one of the many restaurants at Burn’s Road that still allowed one to enjoy their booze on their premises.

At one such (door-less) restaurant, we got ourselves a table and ordered some kebabs. Seeing the bottle, the waiter at once got us a few glasses, three bottles of 7-Up and some ice cubes.

As we were making our respective drinks, one of my friends noticed a small sticker on the wall right behind him. It said (in Urdu): ‘Bombing dance parties (sic), whipping drunkards and killing dancers was the duty of every Muslim.’

Taken-aback a bit but tipsy, we decided to ask the waiter about the sticker.

Bhai jaan, will you flog us?’ One of my friends asked the waiter in jest.

Jee? (What?)’ The waiter asked, confused.

My friend pointed at the sticker: ‘Did you put that on the wall?’

‘Oh, that. No, no,’ the waiter smiled. ‘That was put by some guys belonging to some party who were having food here a while ago.’

By the mid and late 1980s, radical Islamist and sectarian organisations had begun to mushroom and proliferate across the country, especially now that the anti-Soviet ‘Afghan jihad’ was reaching a climax.

‘Are those guys (who put up the sticker) still here?’ I asked.

‘No. They left. Don’t worry. You can enjoy your drink,’ said the waiter.

Then, as he started to go get another order, he stopped a bit at an empty table near ours and while quickly running a cloth over it he mumbled: ‘Even if they were here, so what?’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked, startled.

Bhai jan,’ said the waiter, ‘woh aap sey bhi ziada tun thay! (Brother, they were a lot drunk than you guys!).

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Thicker than water

It was 2007. My apartment building had run out of water. I accompanied the building’s President to check the situation. The President called the chowkidar, saying, “Yaar, ever since you have come, we have started to have this water problem.”

The President then turned towards me and in all seriousness announced: “Nadeem sahib, this chowkidar of ours does not pray regularly.”

I nodded, nonchalantly.

“You know,” the President continued in all earnest, “the chowkidar we had before him used to pray right here over the water-tank and ma’shallah we used to get tons of water in the pipeline!”

Yani ke Aab-i-zam-zam?” I asked, jokingly.

But the President remained serious: “I tell you, Nadeem sahib, this guy should start praying here! As the last one did. On the tank and near the pipeline!”

“Right!” said I, slightly irritated.

Then turning towards the embarrassed chowkidar, I told him: “You better start praying over the water tank, mister. Who knows, this time we might actually strike oil!”


Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.