Aug 28, 2012 - published work, religion    1 Comment

Who gets to define the Muslim way?

Pakistan has many kinds of Muslims; not only there are many sects but there are also multiple factions within these sects. Though not many but some have started to question the Wahabi ideology in connection with the rise of the militant Islam, however, not many people are questioning the social impact of such an ideology and how it is affecting our collective behavior.
The past couple of decade has witnessed an increasing number of middle-class and upper class urban Pakistani women actively turning towards this brand of Islam – through schools like Al Huda – and they influence their families and their circle of friends to this particular religious framework that they work towards actively constructing a particular kind of culture in Pakistan which they say is the pure Islam – free of all the foreign influences or bida’at. The bida’at could range from wedding festivities to Sufism to co-education among other things.
The question that should become part of popular discourse in Pakistan but has not been given due attention is who gets to define what is local and organic and what is foreign and intrusive?
The Wahabi interpretation shuns something as simple as a birthday celebration as foreign concept or a mehndi function which is deemed un Islamic and bida’at and a legacy of living with Hindus.  Basant is a festival indigenous to Punjab marking the advent of spring. It dates back 3,000 years and has traditionally been celebrated by people of all the religions in Punjab. Though local and organic, it is erroneously linked with Hinduism, and disowned as both un Islamic and foreign. However, adoption of abaya, which is clearly a Saudi import, is not considered foreign at all. Sub continental women observing purdah have traditionally used a big chador, in fact women in urban Khyber Pakhtunkhwah still prefer a chador over an abaya, however an abaya never faced the same hostility as that of the festival of basant.

The curriculum has helped this discourse in Pakistan, the history books that say “when we came or ruled the subcontinent,” they provide factually incorrect information. Barring a few who are the descendents of the armies of Mohammed Bin Qasim or the Mughals, most of the people of Pakistan are descendants of those who were already living in the subcontinent. Negating centuries old civilization for an identity that is still in evolution is not only untrue, but can have catastrophic consequences for the society.  The elimination of local practices on the basis of their being un Islamic and foreign reflects the adherence to a particular interpretation of Islam and people upholding this interpretation as the truth are not only negating the religious experiences of different kinds of Muslims, but also the history of the land, creating a culture based on beliefs and practices that originate from outside the land.

Another term that needs to be academically and socially questioned is the use of the term ‘Muslim way’. Can there be just one way to be a Muslim when Muslims are as geographically diverse as they are – from Indonesia to Nigeria and beyond? Can one live with a sole primary identity? Is the primary identity of being a Muslim is so exclusionary that it leaves no space for other competing identities, be they region based or ethnicity based? Must a cultural identity be mutually exclusive with that of a religious identity?  Aren’t human beings complex beings who are supposed to have layered identities? 
Originally written for Express Tribune, though they chopped the last paragraph away. 
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1 Comment

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