I wanted to learn what it meant to know Islam in Pakistan and why this knowing was so easily brushed aside.
Naveeda Khan’s book Muslim Becoming is a welcome addition to the rather scant literature on Islam, identity and Muslimness in contemporary Pakistan. Khan begins by presenting a debate between four librarians of differing religious persuasions. Deep within the stacks of the Provincial Assembly Library, four men take part in a discussion that highlights the marked differences in their belief systems. Of the four, one is a Shia and the other three Sunni. Among the Sunnis, one identifies himself as a Deobandi, one as a follower of Ahl-e-Hadis sect, and the third as a Barelvi. Akbar, the follower of Ahl-e-Hadis school of thought, speaks at length of the superiority of their mosques as ‘they allowed laymen to give sermons and encouraged women’s participation in congregational prayer’. Despite his reverence for mosque culture, Akbar is derisive of the thought of praying at the Prophet’s mosque in Medina.
It is commendable to pray at the Prophet’s mosque, but it isn’t necessary. Some among us have made it into a requirement by saying such things as, the Prophet is alive there, he can hear your prayers and he can grant you your wishes. Such claims are bid’a. One cannot pray there until such time as this bid’a has been vanquished… Naz, the Barelvi, challenges this notion with his claim of having ‘seen’ the Prophet in a dream, the first any of them has heard of such a thing from him. Khan quickly adds, ‘Perhaps Naz’s previous silence on the matter was explained by the fact that to speak about such an experience in contemporary Pakistan was to risk people’s jealousy or suspicion that one was being a munafiq (hypocrite).’ Naz’s vision also leads to the claim that the Prophet is alive in his grave, and manifests himself to believers of his own volition, and not solely at God’s will. Such a claim is written off by the Ahl-e-Hadis instantly and likened to the Shia belief in the missing imam —a clear insult to Naz.
Naveeda interjects here with a query regarding the body of the martyr, which is believed to remain preserved in death and arise in the state it died in on the Day of Judgment. At this, the gathering takes on a dark, suspicious tone and the librarians disperse, unwilling to partake in such dangerous talk. Upon their departure, two clean-shaven observers of the discussion offer an explanation: ‘These people are jahil (ignorant).’ This sets the tone for a most valuable study to have been published on this sensitive topic of diversity within Pakistani ‘Islam’. In fact this is what the next six chapters do—trace the historical and contemporary dimensions of Muslimness in Pakistan and indicate how scepticisim between sects and variants of Islamic faith is accompanied by aspiration. The book also looks at how ‘aspiration’ for deepening faith carries within its fold a capacity for violence.
The book captures the overall quality of the restlessness of religious striving, which is informed both by disappointment with the present and by the pleasure taken in feeling bound to Islam. The ‘Muslim aspiration’, entwined with scepticism is presented by the author after careful study of Pakistan’s colonial legacy, the workings of the postcolonial state (‘..the signature of its colonial past and the disorder of the postcolony.’), major historical actors and events, along with the specificity of everyday life and the public culture of Lahore. The book therefore presents the argument that the creation of Pakistan gave rise to the need to strive to be Muslim. Khan also traces the philosophy of Iqbal in conjunction with the early constitution makers of the country to highlight their intention of maintaining an open future to enable striving and experimentation on the self. In a rather candid statement, Khan states: ‘…while Iqbal’s influence was quite widespread within Pakistan, it was not always for the nation’s good and the working out of his thinking might have depleted its capaciousness.’ The construction and maintenance of mosques sets the scene for such experimentations, as do the theological arguments that are a part of everyday life. Khan uses the example of the Ahmaddiya community of Pakistan to present the broad scope and potential for distaste that lies within the journey of aspiration (‘I explore how the state’s constitutional and legislative treatment of Ahmadis both upheld an Iqbal-inflected aspiration and produced conditions of possibility for a proliferation of scepticism in relation to others within everyday life in Lahore.’) An unavoidable aspect of Muslim becoming in Pakistan are the surprises that come up, unsettling established scholarly notions as well as social theory. Theological disputes and mosque-related struggles are examples of such ‘surprises’. The state’s relationship with both religion and daily life is also touched upon in the book. Khan argues that there has been a consistency in the state’s efforts to exert itself over Islam. Furthermore, daily life is relegated to the margins of state as it continues to meddle in the administration of mosques. Khan goes on to argue in defence of the hated ‘mulla’, saying there hasn’t been sufficient attention paid to the ways in which ‘they retain their vitality for Pakistan through their diagnostic attentiveness to everyday life in its complexity’. Khan also delves into the popular culture and looks at fiction, political cartoons and other sources to showcase how mullas and mullahism are viewed by different segments of Pakistani society. While Khan appears to be a neutral researcher, the attempts to empathize with the clerics become a little problematic at times. The truth is that today’s Pakistan is hostage to the over-imaginations of Pakistanis and Islamists often played out through violence. In a country where polio workers and girl students are being shot dead the discourse on religion has perhaps overstepped the theological boundaries and entered into the domain of power wielded through power. In fact the book’s perhaps not deliberate omission is the state’s subcontracting of its monopoly of violence to certain religious groups and factions that require a different kind of study.
In terms of the current state of affairs in Pakistan and its rocky future, the author hopes that her work becomes a means to understand how inhabiting Pakistan can mean allowing Muslims opportunities to re-inhabit their tradition, make it newly perfect, and learn to live with doubts and scepticism. This is the most powerful message that emerges after a reading of this well researched book. The book is a must read for all scholars, researchers and lay readers alike.
Raza Rumi is a writer, editor and public policy specialist based in Islamabad. He is the author of Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller (HarperCollins India, 2013). His writings are archived at www.razarumi.com