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Rituals and values

The month of fasting has begun for Muslims. Fasting is perhaps the profoundest of rituals in spiritual terms as it is fundamentally about two things. First, learning to regulate our basic needs and control our desires. Second, becoming sensitive to the lives of those who are poor, hungry and dispossessed, and relate to them by remaining hungry and thirsty in the name of the creator. In Pakistan, Ramazan brings a lot of new religious fervour every year.

However, Ramazan or no Ramazan, Muharram or no Muharram, be it Shab-e-Meraj or Shab-e-Barat, we are told on a daily basis by our clergy from the pulpits of our mosques – irrespective of whichever school of thought runs them – imambargahs, jamatkhanas and religious study circles for women or men belonging to different Muslim sects, that the basis of all our plight, ills, failures and misfortune as individuals and as a nation is that we have grown distant from our religion.

Entertainers-cum-televangelists or full-time sermonisers who have invaded our living rooms, even artistes and performers who have little to do with proselytising otherwise and a number of newspaper columnists and social commentators continue to lament the same fact. Our children are told the same thing over and over again by some of their teachers, not necessarily only by those teaching religious studies.

Of course, similar messages in even harsher tones are being imparted to students in madressahs. We are all told that we are fast turning into an immoral and profane society. Our people, non-literate or half-literate (who are far more confused than the former), are made to feel guilty and sinful all the time.

On the contrary, what one observes is that religiosity in Pakistan and the overt display of personal observance of religious rites and rituals in public has increased over the past couple of decades. It is now comparable to very few countries in the world, certainly among the highest if not the highest in the Muslim world.

You begin the day in a normal Pakistani household, urban or semi-urban particularly, with either all, some members of the family or at least an individual saying the prayers at the dawn. As the day progresses, you see most elderly women and quite a few retired men doing nothing but saying their prayers, reading from religious texts and murmuring and counting some divine words or prayers on rosary beads.

Your siblings and cousins, who observe all rituals with fervour, more so if they are a part of a certain denomination, try to preach to others in the family whenever they get a chance. Such relatives dominate the proceedings if there is a family congregation, particularly if there is a death in the family.

The day begins in all schools with holy verses, prayers and religious teachings read out in the morning assembly or, in case of small private schools where there is no space for all children to gather at the same time, in classrooms. Every subject they learn is taught to them in a certain way. Urdu and English language textbooks at various levels and Pakistan Studies (since we are fearful of teaching history and civics to our children they have been replaced with something with this name for a few decades now) textbooks all carry lessons developed around or containing religious teachings.

This is not restricted to the subject of Islamiat only. Madressahs are religious schools anyway and hundreds of thousands of our children attend these across Pakistan.

In offices, a familiar sound you hear as the afternoon arrives is from the floor of the corridors where walloping wet slippers announce that people have just come out of the common washroom after ablution. With pantaloons rolled up the ankles, cuffs folded up the wrists and drops of water dripping down their hair, men leave for the corner mosque. Women in the same offices, even if they don’t cover their heads, have big sheets of cloth lying in their drawers which are taken out to wrap them up and get them ready for the afternoon and late afternoon prayers.

With the demise of real industrial development in Pakistan and indifference to modern development shown by agriculturists, the country is increasingly run by traders, transporters, indenters and shopkeepers. These people not only get mosques built wherever possible and donate heavily to run madressahs, they publicise their observance of personal and collective rituals. Many of these people massively fund religious outfits, communities of preachers and organise for religious congregations. They and their families go for Umrah or Hajj pilgrimage on a regular basis.

A large part of the youth from the emerging middle class, educated and trained in disciplines considered modern and scientific – like financial management, accounting, engineering, medicine, information technology and law – devoutly observes all rituals. Not only that, they do not make any qualms about following a certain religious preacher, a certain belief system, a spiritual leader or an organisation – and they invite their fellow workers and friends to join them. Their opinions against people holding different views are laced with huge amounts of self-righteousness.

When it comes to the media, in many countries there are dedicated channels for religious programmes. But as far as mainstream channels on television and radio or newspapers and magazines, which are supposed to provide news, analysis and information, Pakistan is one of the very few countries where on every religious occasion, for the whole month of Ramazan and for at least ten days in Muharram, religious programmes are aired into our homes, work places and public spaces.

There is a competition, as it were, between different media houses on getting the most verbose clerics to participate in their shows. As far as the weak regulatory authority for electronic media is concerned, its weakness does not hold it back from penalising mainstream channels on overstepping their domain. They, however, can never think of regulating dedicated channels for religious preaching and programming.

Why then we are told that all our ills are due to us being distant from our religion? Ours is a highly religious society. Not only that more people practice religion on a daily basis than most other societies, Muslim or non-Muslim, the beliefs we espouse are professed and preached by most. Individually and collectively, we take pride in being on the right path as well, almost considering ourselves special and chosen.

Most of our people are taught by clerics and they eventually tend to believe that all other nations and the religious communities in the world are misguided, misled, sinful and immoral. To the extent that we find it hard to accept anyone who is different from us.

But there is an interesting contradiction one notes sometimes in the sermons and observations that we receive from our clerics and commentators. While people are told regularly that we are suffering as a nation because we have gone astray from the right path, they are told in the same breath that the profane world has ganged up against us as a community of the faithful because we are ethically and morally superior to them.

On the one hand, our people at large are reminded of their spiritual weaknesses and moral sins, and on the other hand, the whole world is out to destroy us because they are scared of our spiritual and moral power. There is little intellectual or technological power we possess anyway but being ethically and spiritually superior to others is questionable as well.

Therefore, as the holy month begins, Pakistani Muslims may try to find the real reasons for lagging behind other nations in all areas of human development. Maybe because flaunting religious beliefs is easier than being committed to practice universal human values clearly delineated in Islam? Or perhaps, it is far more difficult to be kind, egalitarian, just and fair in our dealings with other human beings than offering rites and rituals?

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad. Email: harris.khalique@gmail.com

Harris Khalique, "Rituals and values," The News. 2014-07-02.
Keywords: Social sciences , Electronic media , Religious rights , Religious society , Muslims-Pakistan , Theology , Muslims , Hajj , Ramazan , FAST , Pakistan