Ostentatious piety: all ritual, nil spiritual

Note from author:

The following two columns were first published in 2007 in the Daily Times.  I reproduce them here because some readers of my recent columns have accused me of not criticizing Muslims. In any case, I think the points made here are still valid.

Ostentatious piety

(Published in Daily Times, 18 January 2007)

Anyone who has lived long enough to be able to contrast the post-Zia “Islamified” Islamic Republic of Pakistan with its pre-Zia predecessor, a normal country inhabited by Muslims, or anyone who is sufficiently traveled to be in a position to compare today’s Pakistan with other countries (including most Muslim countries) cannot but notice that the public display of piety in this country has reached gargantuan – if not comical – proportions. 

Indeed, piety in Pakistan has acquired a touch of abnormality about it.  It has moved from the realm of the spiritual to that of drama and visual art.  The increasing and unusually high ratio of burqa-wearing women and bearded men in the population represents only a part of that transformation.

Recently I had the experience of traveling by train from Karachi to Islamabad, on the much publicized and supposedly modern “Burraq Express”, the name itself being symptomatic of the times.  More often than not, there was no water in the compartments, for no sooner was the overhead tank filled with water than it was consumed in a frenzy of ablution (wazu) by the pious preparing themselves for prayer. 

As long as there was water flowing from the tap, one could see the namazis emerging from the toilet dripping with water, from their elbows, fingertips, beards (or chins) and ankles.  As a result, rarely there was water for brushing one’s teeth, or, what was worse, even to keep one’s “underpinnings” clean, to borrow a word from Ejaz Haider.  Bottled mineral water, always available at a cost, had to be used to wash our behinds.  Who says Pakistan is a poor country!

Common sense tells me that a train’s water tank is just big enough to cater for the basic toilet needs of passengers.  As presently designed, it does not take into account the ablution needs of a large number of namazis.  Therefore, either the government of the pious should order especially large water tanks or have some kind of fatwa issued exempting passengers from the need to use water for ablution. 

Islam does allow for ablution without water, but only when it is not available.  A fatwa should clarify the matter further, specifically mentioning train journeys, for the minds of the pious are not tuned to understand nuances, to use deductive or inductive logic or be innovative.  For them, matters must be made plain in black and white, so to speak, by a fatwa-wielding mullah.  And even that may not be enough.

On another occasion, I heard a relative saying to another that he always offered his night (isha) prayers in a particular mosque in Karachi quite far from his home.  When I asked him the reason, he said he liked that particular imam, for he always said good or nice things (achchhi baaten), which is why he was going there almost continuously for over a year.  Another person present duly confirmed the truth of the statement about the imam.  

When I asked him if he could give me “one example” of a “achchhi baat which he had learned directly from the imam and had not known already from his knowledge of Islam or could not have deduced using common sense, he couldn’t give me any.  Despite my clarification that I was not being facetious but would be pleased to be enlightened, I was met with a befuddled smile and silence.  Later, someone told me that, achcchi baaten notwithstanding, many admirers of the imam had become jihadists. 

Watching the wonderful television documentaries on animals, I have often asked myself whether a “good Muslim” of the type that is now ubiquitous and dominant can ever create one such himself.  (The Taliban types, of course, are opposed to documentaries and images anyway.)  Making any good documentary, particularly one on animals, takes not only commitment and dedication, but often requires shooting on location for hours on end.  And it may go on for not just weeks and months, but sometimes years.  In other words, it is a 24/7 job, often quite literally so. Taking a break for prayer, as today’s “good Muslims” must do at least five times every day, might mean losing the opportunity for possibly some of the best shots.

That brings me to the subject of “prayer breaks” (“Piously Uncivil”, Daily Times, 7th January).  Office hours in Pakistan are rather short, in practice if not in theory.  Government offices practically don’t become functional until 9:30 or 10:00 and close for business about 2:30 or so.  This five-hour working day is further reduced by an extended “prayer break” or waqfa barae namaz.  During this break, the pious pray, others socialize or just loaf around.  Not surprisingly, some clients who are inconvenienced or not served at all, ironically refer to this break as namaz barae waqfa.

I am told of instances when groups of holies have commenced congregational prayer (bajamaat namaz) in the aisles of planes as they prepare for landing.  In some cases, even cabin crew have made themselves incommunicado from passengers by drawing curtains with the notice “prayer break”.

Then there is the increasing trend of multiple umra and haj, sometimes at official expense.  Islam enjoins upon believers but one haj, contingent upon the person’s financial ability.  Now it is fashionable to perform haj repeatedly and boast about it.  Although haj at public expense has neither religious nor moral sanction, governments use it to reward friends and bribe opponents.

Returning hajis are received at airports and railway stations by throngs of relatives and friends as if they have just rendered some great community or social service or achieved something to make the nation proud.  Indeed, their reception resembles that of baaraat seen at weddings, complete with garlands and all, and causes great inconvenience to other arriving passengers. 

The haj ought to be a deeply personal undertaking, leading to humility, introspection and reflection.  Instead, it attracts massive publicity, congratulatory messages and invitations to dinner.  Few of these hajis ever show any generosity of spirit when it comes to helping the poor and needy even in their own neighbourhoods, let alone around the country and the world.  In most cases, the only lasting result of haj is a flowing beard.  One of my relatives, a fine man, refuses to be photographed since returning from the haj.  No matter that the haj itself is telecast live.

Morality has become synonymous with, and reduced to, a dress code for women, preferably the veil.  Human rights, good customer service, politeness in public, adherence to contractual obligations, facilities for the handicapped, public toilets, voluntary work, donations to secular charities and equality before the law are not considered worthy objectives, and are conspicuous by their absence in Muslim countries.

As Irshad Manji laments in her controversial but thought-provoking and extremely readable book, Muslims have divested religion of spirituality to such an extent that the two do not coexist in Muslim societies.  It is as if one can only be a Muslim or spiritual but never both at the same time. 

Islam as practiced today is all about rituals surrounded by pomp and publicity and has little to do with humanity, compassion and humility.  Ritualism has replaced spirituality and form has displaced substance in the lives of Muslims, personal as well as collective.  Ostentatious piety has become a substitute for social responsibility.

By Razi Azmi

All ritual, nil spiritual

(Published in Daily Times, 25 January 2007)

My last week’s column (“Ostentatious Piety”, 18th January) was one of the least thought out, being written on the spur of the moment, that spur being Ejaz Haider’s “Piously Uncivil” (7th January).  However, it has attracted some very serious comments, a couple of which I feel I should share with readers.

Here’s one from a New Yorker:  “Thank you for putting in print something I’ve been saying to my family and friends for years.  I’m an American-born Muslim woman of Pakistani descent.  My parents come from the pre-Zia generation of which you speak, and they’ve managed to hang on to much of the open-mindedness of that time.  My life as a professional and independent woman is a testament to their willingness to be open-minded by not stifling my aspirations though they disagreed with the path I chose at many points.

“Having said that though, they are not immune to the affects of the all-ritual version of Islam that everyone seems to practice.  This is also reinforced through a divide in my own generation of siblings/ cousins of whom some are very ritual-focused (though still worldly in most aspects).  The result is a long series of debates on rituals vs spirituality/ ‘doing good work’.  Unfortunately, there is very little popular and accessible interpretation or literature to support the spirituality/ good work side of the argument.

A Muslim from Indonesia has written that, in his country, blood supplies run critically low during the fasting month of Ramazan.  As a result, the Red Cross is constrained to appeal to non-Muslims in churches and temples to attract donors.  In the holy month which should be characterized by compassion and humanity, Muslims choose to conserve rather than donate their blood to save human lives.  As to abstinence during the fasting month, we all know that overall consumption of foodstuff increases in this month throughout the Muslim world.

The same writer also complains that, in the town where he lives, there is a hospital called Islamic Hospital, where only male nurses serve male patients.  Often, there are no nurses to serve the patients as they disappear for their five daily prayers or the Friday prayers.  “No one dares to question such predicaments as here the excuse is based on religion, everyone bears this silently and patiently.”  He asks, “Does Islam teach this behaviour? As a layman I am really at a loss”.

Speaking of rituals vs spirituality and “good work”, the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) deserves particular mention, as it puts the greatest emphasis on rituals in the thin garb of spirituality. TJ propagates and emphasizes little more than a highly ritualistic application of Islam. After all, there is nothing spiritual about repetitive group discussions on the importance of faith and such of its manifestations as the correct way to pray, fast, eat, etc.

By far the most poignant example of a ritualistic – and thoughtless – application of Islam today is to be seen on Eid-ul-Azha.  The columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee writes from his native and beloved Karachi (Dawn, 7th January):

“Since we cannot escape the live show of a city converted into one vast slaughterhouse, one wonders why sections of the press show photographs of animals in their death throes, and of rows of dead animals lined up along the inner city streets?  Is it to amuse and entertain, or to shock, to make us think and do something about it?” The Eid-ul-Azha has been reduced to a great gaeand-bakra (cow and goat)show.  On this occasion, an animal must be sacrificed, whether the other stipulations of Islam are followed or not, in either letter or spirit, and whether or not one can really afford it.  The higher one’s status in society, real or claimed, the bigger and more handsome the sacrificial animal ought to be.  It must be paraded before envious neighbours for as long as possible before the butcher gets down to business.  Newspapers publish photos of the most expensive animals, which are colourfully decorated.

The “sacrifice” accomplished, a part of the meat is distributed among relatives, neighbours and friends, nearly all of whom have ample supplies of their own anyway.  Mostly it is a case of meat being exchanged. Every home, save those of the very poor, resembles a butcher’s shop.  The poor and the needy get some handouts too on this day, but they come last in terms of both the quantity and the quality of the cuts received.

One reader of my last column has drawn my attention to surah Al-Ma’un (Alms: 107) in the Quran: “Have you thought of him that denies the Last Judgement? It is he who turns away the orphan and has no urge to feed the destitute. Woe betide those who pray but are heedless in their prayer; who make a show of piety and forbid almsgiving” (translation by N.J. Dawood).

Pakistanis are extremely generous with their money when it comes to the building of mosques and madrassas, but very tightfisted in making donations for schools and clinics, funding scholarships or promoting research.  They supply mounds of food to feed professional parasites at religious shrines, but care little about the shelters operated by NGOs for the handicapped, the poor and the victims of domestic violence.

Pakistan’s best-known social worker, Abdus Sattar Edhi, writes in his autobiography that, speaking to a group of Pakistanis in the US who had invited him to inaugurate a newly-constructed mosque, he said: “You have spent four and a half million dollars towards a mosque when another stands just one and a half kilometers away. Reevaluate your priorities and your responsibilities”.                      

It is increasingly common these days for parents to throw lavish parties when their children commence the reading of the Quran and again when they finish (Bismillah and Ameen).  Many a woman’s very scarce spare time after endless household chores is consumed in attending milads and Quran reading-cum-prayer sessions for any number of reasons, from curing the sick to wishing paradise for the dead.

Every spoken sentence must now be interspersed with insha’Allah, masha’Allah, alhamd-o-lillah, subhan Allah, etc.  Woe to anyone who says to another as a compliment: “you live in a nice house”, or “you got a beautiful child”, or “that’s a fine car you bought” without a reference to Allah.  It is feared that such a grave omission on the part of the admirer will invite Allah’s wrath, not on him but on the object of his or her compliment. A good example of this trend is any press conference by our cricket captain, the inimitable Inzamam-ul Haque.  

In Russia in the second half of the 17th century, certain innovations in rituals and practices introduced by officials led to a schism in the Orthodox Church.  Many Russians refused to accept these innovations, calling them heretical.  Known as Old Believers, they faced persecution, and many fled to the forests.  The new practices to which they objected so strongly were the introduction of three fingers for the cross (instead of the traditional two), direction of procession (counter-sunwise instead of sunwise), the chanting of halleluja three times (instead of two) and the slightly altered spelling (in Russian) of Jesus.

Many Muslims of today only physically exist in the 21st century.  Mentally, they belong to the 17th century or earlier, putting ritual before spiritual and form before substance in matters concerning religion.

 By Razi Azmi

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