Religiosity in Pakistan

August 8, 2006 at 12:07 pm (Islam, Islamism, Pakistan, Personal, Religion, South Asia)

Religion (or, rather, religiosity) here is stifling. It is so pervasive. It is annoying and grating, especially for one who doesn’t buy into it.

Now, I am a religious and spiritual person. But even I think there should be a limit to religious ostentation. The levels to which people express and showcase their religiosity is ridiculous here.

Everywhere you go, there are religious billboards, signs, warnings, and exhortations. Ever so often there are large billboards which are nothing but pious blessings on Muhammad. (These are all expressions of Barelvi Hanafi Sunni Islam; Deobandi Hanafi Sunnis and Salafis (who are usually Hanbali) believe such displays are dangerously close to worship of Muhammad, which is forbidden.) One sees women in full niqabs everwhere. A burqah covers the head and body. A hijab covers the head. A nijab covers the whole body except for hands and eyes (although the portion covering the rest of the face can be lifted back; some cover even the eyes). One sees men in long beards, hardly any or no moustache, with headcoverings – obviously devout Muslim men.

I could go on and on, so I will.

There are mosques everywhere. In my opinion, there are way too many mosques. The smart thing would be to divide an area into sectors, build mosques accordingly, and have a jamaat mosque (for the community to gather in, especially for Friday and Eid prayers) at an accessible location. There is no need for a mosque every block or two, with new ones springing up as well. It’s an utter waste of time, effort, money, resources, and space. That same space, converted into a store or school or market or factory, would yield better advantages for the community than yet another mosque. It’s really quite annoying. One must realize that establishing a mosque is no easy task. It involves a lot of fund-raising for funds to build the edifice, and then continuing one’s solicitation of funds and donations to keep it running, improve it, pay the imam and other workers, et cetera. It’s an unnecessary drain on resources. If people were really so pious, they can walk (or drive to or be driven to) a few extra blocks to get to a mosque. Every block does not need its own mosque. Soliciting funds for mosques is actually not too difficult. People like to donate for the building or upkeep or improvement of a mosque because they believe it earns them points for good deeds (sawaab). Supporting a mosque or mosque-to-be is seen as a pious act, and it’s very, very simple for the fund-raiser to use Islamic rhetoric to get people to support his endeavor. (Hellfire is used far more in Islamic rhetoric than, from what I have noticed, in Christian rhetoric.)

As it is, there are small prayer areas everywhere in Karachi. They are not mosques: they are without roof or walls. The area is marked out with rocks, inside there may be mats or cheap carpets pointing towards Mecca, and often there is a small wall or other indication of the mihrab (which indicates the direction towards Mecca, and before which the imam leads the prayers).

I should talk about sawaab. Sawaab (from the Arabic ثواب, thawaab, “reward”) among South Asian Muslims refers to one’s tally of good deeds. Certain acts rewards one with certain amount of sawaabs. The goal is to accumulate as many sawaabs as possible. Certain ulema have this down to an almost mathematical art. People are obsessed with accumulating sawaabs. The opposite of sawaab is gunaah (from the Persian گناہ, gonaah, “sin”): certain acts makes one accumulate certain amounts of gunaah. The idea is that after death one’s sawaabs and gunaahs will be weighed on a scale, sawaabs on one side and gunaahs on the other side. If the sawaab side is heavier, the person goes to Heaven; if the gunaah side is heavier, the person will suffer in Hell (usually as a form of Purgatory: suffer for one’s sins and then be transferred to Heaven). It becomes quite ridiculous after some time, but people take this very seriously. Salvation, for some, is almost a mathematical exercise. (The basic assumption is that one is Muslim. Non-Muslims go to and stay in Hell for eternity.)

The New Testament says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12b). I understand this is not what it means, but it reminds me so much of South Asian Muslims, who are mortal fear of Hell. Hell is a very real place, not some symbolic or metaphysical place. There’s real fire and suffering and torment. Escaping Hell and getting into Heaven is no simple task in Islam. If one is a Muslim, one is obligated to be scrupulously faithful to the Five Pillars of Islam on penalty of punishment in Hell (as well as, of course, punishment by God’s wrath in this life). What with many, many rules surrounding nearly everything a Muslim is supposed to do, salvation becomes a very complicated issue. Some of this, in the popular cult, can be ameliorated by resorting to intercessors (Muhammad, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Fatima, Hassan, Hussayn, saints, wonderworkers, ascetics, Sufi masters, et cetera) for God’s mercy and blessings in this life and for the next life. This is created a widespread cult of devotion to various personages, particularly in South Asia. Popular saints are Abdullah Shah Ghazi (mausoleum in Karachi), Moinuddin Chishti (mausoleum in Ajmer, Rajasthan, India), Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai (mausoleum in Bhit Shah, Sindh, Pakistan), Salim Chisti (mausoleum in Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh, India). Of course, the more orthodox Muslims reject such resorting to intercession, some going so far as calling it shirk (شرک, violating monotheism) which would make those who resorted to such tactics guilty of kufr (کفر, “infidelity”; this consigns one automatically to Hell).

Some believe that as long as one does not commit kufr, one will be okay. This is especially buttressed by the belief that Muhammad will personally interceed for every Muslim. But then according to more orthodox and stringent ulema, committing kufr and/or shirk (both of which consign one to Hell) is very, very easy. It almost seems that if one is not scrupulously faithful to Islam’s commandments, one is committing shirk and/or kufr. Truly, Islam on the popular level is full of fear and trembling, particularly towards God, who is seen as just and merciful (mostly just, with hopes He will be merciful). Muslims are forbidden to view God in an intimate way: they are His slaves; He is their master; there is no informality between the two; there is none of this Heavenly Father business. (Which is interesting because the two monotheistic religions Islam ostensibly descends from make extensive use of the title of “Father” for God. Indeed, Jews pray a litany of sorts, on solemn says of fasting and repentence, called “Avinu Malkeinu,” which means “Our Father, Our King.”)

I need to be very careful what I say about religion while in Pakistan. I pretend to be pious (in that I value, support, and favor Islam) and would never, ever criticize Islam or even Muslims in public. Of course, making amateurish commentary is what everyone does (“Islam is such-and-such, so we should do/say such-and-such”), but I usually refrain from going on too long. Whenever someone brings up religion, I agree with them and even converse from their perspective, as if I belonged to it (a useful skill indeed). The reason is because people get very emotional about religion. Some may seem rational, but even they will be driven by emotion when push comes to shove. My father speaks out often against people’s religiosity to their faces, saying it plays no role and should play no role in what they’re talking about or doing (such as science and health), but he’s taking great risks in doing so. People do not take such criticism lightly; people are very swift to consider criticism as blasphemy or apostasy, and these are crimes the very accusation of which can ruin lives, let alone reputations. So one must suffering such idiocity in silence. Unless one wants to be silenced.

Furthermore, I don’t live here. I do not know what the acceptable boundaries of criticism and/or commentary are. Everyone criticizes and comments on other Muslims – either they’re not pious enough or they’re backwards – but there’s a limit everyone tacitly adheres to. Ignorant of this limit, I don’t want to endanger myself or those around me.

I dedicate this post to Sandy Burger (thanks!) and to Isaac Schrödinger, who was wise enough to escape.

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