January issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Maulvi Karim, who taught me to read the Quran and led prayers in our village mosque for 40 years, was one of the most powerless men in our community. The only power he assumed for himself was that of postman. The postman would deliver the mail to him and then he would walk from house to house distributing it. He would, of course, have to read the letters for a lot of families who couldn’t read.

He was also a dog lover.

I joined him a number of times as he played with his little Russian poodle outside his house, then walked to the mosque, did his ablutions and led the prayers. After prayers he would hang out at the door of the mosque exchanging gossip with regulars. There would be people loitering outside the mosque when he went in. They would still be around as he finished the prayers and came out. It never occurred to him to ask these people to join him. It never occurred to the people who hung outside the mosque to feel embarrassed about not joining the prayers. They all lived on the same streets, not always in harmony, but religion in any of its forms was not something they discussed on the street. What was there to discuss? Wasn’t faith a strictly private business? Something that happened between a man and his god and not something that had to be discussed in your living room.

A minority went regularly to the mosques, another minority opened a bottle of something in the evening, but most people had secular pastimes like watching soap operas on TV and placing small bets on cricket matches.

He may sound like a character from the early 20th century but Maulvi Karim died only about a decade ago, and till his last days he had not given up his routine. In the social hierarchy he was somewhere between the barber and the cobbler. His basic functions were limited to being present at births, death and weddings. If he had been alive today and watched an episode of Alim Online, I wonder what he would have made of it. I wonder if he would have felt envious of all the celebrity maulanas who have become a staple of satellite television programming. Not only do they crop up on every discussion on every topic on earth but now they have their own TV channels as well, where they can preach 24/7, interrupted only by adverts for other mullahs.

The mosque imam, who served an essential social function, has given way to another kind of mullah: the power mullah, who drives in a four-wheeler flanked by armed guards; the entertainer mullah, who hogs the airwaves; and the entrepreneur mullah, who builds networks of mosques and madrassas and spends his summer touring Europe. And then there is the much maligned mullah with his dreams of an eternal war and world domination.

Since “mullah,” when pronounced in a certain way, can be read as a derogatory term, and since we don’t want to offend them (because we all know that they do get very easily offended) we should call them evangelists or preachers.

Mullahs, maulvis, imamas, or ulema-i-karam as many of them prefer to call themselves, have never had the kind of influence or social standing that they enjoy now. A large part of Pakistan is enthralled by this new generation of evangelists. They are there on prime time TV, they thunder on FM radios between adverts for Pepsi and hair removing cream. In the past few years, they have established fancy websites with embedded videos; mobile phone companies offer their sermons for download right to your telephone. They come suited, they come dressed like characters out of the Thousand and One Nights, they are men and they are women. Some of them even dress like bankers and talk like property agents offering bargain deals in heaven.

I grew up during the time of General Zia, the first evangelist to occupy the presidency in Pakistan. But even he had the good sense to keep the beards away from prime time television. But the ruthless media barons of today have no such qualms. They have turned religion into a major money-spinner. Pakistan’s economy remains in its endless downwards spiral, but it certainly seems there is a lot of money still to be made in televised preaching.

They have also tailored their message to the aspiring middle classes. Recently on his show on Haq TV, Tahirul Qadri (and he has gone from being a maulana to Allama to Sheikh-ul-Islam) thundered that religion doesn’t stop us from adopting new fashions. You can change your furniture every few years, there is nothing wrong with getting the new car models, but it should all be done in good taste. The man could had have given his lecture on Fashion TV. “But you shall never question the basic tenets of religion,” he went on. The implication was clear: you shall never question what he has to say. The message is even clearer: make money, spend it and it’ll all turn out to be okay if you keep tuning in to my programme.

And the message is being taken seriously by the upper classes of Pakistan. I walked into a new super store in Karachi’s Clifton area and was pleasantly surprised to see what looked like a books section. It was a books section indeed, but it was called “Islamic Books Section” and all the books in it were about Islam.

I went to a Nike store, and it was no different from any Nike store in any part of the world: over-priced, shiny sneakers and branded football shirts. But in the background instead of the loud gym music, the hallmark of such stores, speakers played recitation from the Quran.

The multinational companies, sensing the mood of the people, have also joined the bandwagon. Mobile phone companies offer calls to prayers for ring tones, and Quranic recitations and religious sermons as free downloads. During the month of Ramadan a number of international banks were gifting their preferred clients fancy boxes containing rosaries, dates and miniature Qurans. It’s the perfect marriage between God and greed.

Traditionally, what a preacher needed was a pulpit. For the pulpit he needed a mosque, and to get to a mosque he needed to do a long apprenticeship in which he had to prove his worth to the community before he could be allowed to sit at that pulpit. With the arrival of satellite TV channels, evangelists provide the most cost-effective programming and, as a result, have found a pulpit in every living room.

Even the Sindhi and Seraiki language channels, which were known for their liberal political approach and sufi messages, have found their own evangelists to fill the slots.

And their influence has changed our social landscape beyond recognition. Twelve years ago, an old friend from school tried to recruit me into a militant anti-Shia organisation. After dropping out from high school, Zulfikar Ahmad had started a motorcycle garage and joined one of the sectarian organisations that were flourishing in the area. We had a heated discussion over his politics, and I reminded him of a number of common friends who were Shias and were as good or bad Muslims as any of our other classmates. Visibly unconvinced, Zulfikar gave up on me and wished me luck in my godless life.
Zulfikar’s attempt at converting me was one of the many signs of religious intolerance creeping into our lives. Taliban-ruled neighbouring Afghanistan and many middle class Pakistanis, while enjoying the relative freedoms of a fledgling democracy, hankered for a more puritanical, Taliban-style government. But these zealots, despite their high profile, remained marginal to society as religion was a personal affair, not something you discussed in your drawing room.

As I moved back to Pakistan a few months ago, I was overwhelmed by the all pervasive religious symbols in public spaces and theocratic debates raging in the independent media as well as in the drawing rooms of friends and relatives. The graffiti on the walls of Karachi, blood-curdling calls for jihad, adverts for luxury Umrahs are omnipresent. And for those who can’t afford to go all the way to Mecca, neighbourhood mosques offer regular lectures and special prayers sessions.

I spent the Eid holidays in my village in Punjab and attended prayers at the mosque, which Maulvi Karim used to run. My village folk are very wary of radical mullahs and have appointed an imam who is Maulvi Karim’s son and has spent most of his youth in Birmingham. His sermon was probably the most progressive I have ever heard. He advised his male congregation to share household work with their women. He gave examples from Prophet Mohammed’s life and said that he used to clean his own room even when he had more than one wife. “You must attend to your stock yourself. It doesn’t matter if you have servants, feed your buffaloes,” he said. I looked around in amusement, trying to imagine these men, steeped in centuries of male chauvinistic tradition, going home to do their dishes.

What puzzled me in the end was that his prayer included get-well-soon wishes for Baitullah Mehsud, who according to local TV channels, was ill. I couldn’t reconcile the imam’s message for equality of the sexes and his good will for Mehsud, whose crusade against women is as well known as his anti-American jihad.

For answers I turned to my old friend Zulfikar. He still sports a long, flowing beard but his conversation is peppered with Punjabi expletives which I found quite refreshing amidst the wall-to-wall piety in my hometown. “I have left all that jihad-against-Shias business behind,” he told me. “I have college-going daughters now. Bringing up children in these times is a full-time jihad.”

He told me that he was worried about the others. “I look as if I am a Taliban supporter but I am not. But these clean-shaven people you see here,” he pointed to some clients and workers at his garage, “inside they are all Taliban.” He explained that with Pakistan coming under repeated US attacks even people who have voted for moderate political parties are looking towards the Taliban for deliverance.

In Karachi, there are frequent warnings that the Taliban are headed this way. There are posters warning us about Talibanisation. Altaf Hussain thunders about them at every single opportunity. But nobody seems to warn us about the preachers who are already here: the ones wagging their fingers on TV always tend to precede the ones waving their guns, smashing those TVs and bombing poor barbers.

Preaching is also turning out to be an equal opportunity business. Driving my son to his new school one day, I listened to a woman talking with a posh Urdu accent on a local FM radio. With a generous smattering of English, she was trying to persuade her listeners to dress properly. “When you prepare for a party, how much do you fuss over a dress? You select a piece, then you find something matching, then you have second thoughts. All because you want to look your best at the party. You want to flatter your host. And do you prepare like this when you know that one day very soon you are going to go to the ultimate party, where your host will be Allah?”

The speech, we were told, was brought to us by al-Huda Trust, which is located in the upscale Defence Housing Authority and has its own website.

Later, I ran into a relative, a mother of two who was wearing jeans and a shirt, and who asked our opinion about her new hairdo. She was fasting, I was not. She quoted me some rules for fasting: situations in which one is allowed not to fast, along with some more injunctions for lapsed ones like myself. When are you going to start wearing the hijab? I asked her jokingly.

Probably never, she said. “The Book tells us only to wear something loose, not to draw attention, not to wear anything tight. There are so many rapes, abductions. We must not provoke.”

“How do you know all this religious stuff?” I asked her.

“I have read it in books,” she said nonchalantly, as if it was the most normal thing for a liberated working mother to pore over religious texts to decide the length of the hem of her skirt or the size of her blouse.

“Where does it say?” I challenged her. “In the Quran. I have read it myself.” She started another mini-lecture, which ended with these words: “The point is that Allah doesn’t want a woman to draw attention to her bosom.”

Listening to these preachers, people in Pakistan today seem to believe that God is some kind of lecherous old man who sits there worrying about the size of a woman’s blouse while American drones bomb the hell out of the Pashtuns in the North. You can blame the Pashtuns for many things, but no true Pashtun has ever been accused of wearing tight dresses.

Pakistan’s president, Asif Zardari, stumbling from one crisis to another, has been accused of many things, but nobody has ever accused him of having a political philosophy. He was asked about this a while ago in an interview, and he parroted some clichés about Sindhi Sufi poetry and world peace. “I am a great admirer of Sindhi Sufi poetry,” but I doubt Zardari would get very far reciting it to one of the thousands of evangelists unleashed on this hapless nation. Because if Zardari has read Sindhi Sufi poetry — or, for that matter, Punjabi, or Pushto Sufi poetry — he would know that it is full of more warnings about mullahs than all the CIA’s country reports lined end-to-end. Sometimes I am also puzzled at my own reactions to these preachers: why do these overt symbols of religion bother me when I myself grew up in a family where prayers, Quran, and rosaries were a part of our everyday life. One reason could be that the kind of religion I grew up with was never associated with suicide bombings and philosophies of world domination. Religion was something you practiced on your own, between meals and going to school. It didn’t involve blowing up schools, which seems to be the favourite pastime of Islamist militants in today’s Pakistan and something that our televangelists never talk about. Maybe people are just buying into the symbolism as a way of expressing their defiance towards the Pakistan government’s policies that many of them see as a mere extension of the US. Maybe, like many other expats, I just hanker for those good old days when saints and sinners, believers and sceptics and preachers and their bored victims could live side by side without killing each other.

Mohammed Hanif is the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

Muhammad Ziauddin is one of the senior most journalists in Pakistan. His career in journalism spans over 50 years. He has been associated to Dawn, The News and Express Tribune. He regularly contributes to Newsline.