On a wing and a prayer

Wonder what is going through my friend’s mind. But should I wonder? Like millions and billions of other faithful of all religions, he would never connect the dots to see the larger picture. He will see the trees but not the forest.

(Daily Times, 4 September 2014)

Over two decades ago, I was waiting in line for check-in at Karachi airport for a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight to a European destination. As the line was long, I got into a chat with the passenger in front of me. He turned out to be a Malaysian Muslim who, to my surprise, had deliberately chosen to fly the Pakistani flag-carrier.

When asked why, he explained that he chose PIA because its flights always commenced with an Islamic prayer for a safe journey. I couldn’t resist reminding him that these prayers had not prevented a few PIA planes from crashing, most recently when one had hit a mountainside in Kathmandu at landing in 1992, killing all 167 passengers and crew.

The only reason I didn’t get punched in the nose for my comment was because he was a Malay, who are known to be a genial people, unless they run amok. Many readers may not know that amok is a loan word from Malay.

Shortly thereafter PIA must have lost this valued patron not on account of my unhelpful comment but because Malaysia Airlines (MAS) caught up with PIA insofar as the prayer is concerned. PIA’s loss would have been MAS’s gain.

But, again, the prayer which sent off every MAS flight did not save MH-370 from vanishing into thin air on March 8 over the Gulf of Thailand with 239 passengers and crew on board and another (MH-17) from being shot down over Ukraine four months later, killing 298 passengers and crew. Wonder what is going through my friend’s mind.

But I shouldn’t wonder. Like millions and billions of other faithful of all religions, he would never connect the dots to see the larger picture. He will see the trees but not the forest.

Faced by the uncertainties of life and confronted by adversities and calamities, most people find comfort and solace, if not safety, in praying to the one who they believe can save them. The reality, however, belies any claims in support of a connection between a prayer and a positive outcome.

Airline safety is no exception. According to one rating website, Qantas, Emirates, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines rank among the world’s safest airlines (getting 7 stars out of 7), none of which commence their flights with any prayer of any kind. One flies Eritrean Airlines (2/7) and Nepal Airlines (1/7) at one’s own peril.  Both PIA and Air India don’t do badly in the safety rankings (5/7), while Bangladesh Biman is a star below (4/7).

Pakistani highways are littered with the wreckages of vehicles with Islamic prayers and incantations dangling from their rear-view mirrors and the blood of the dead and injured splattered around like a coat of paint. It is the same on highways in India, Thailand and the Philippines, except that hanging from their rear-view mirrors are, respectively, statuettes of Hindu gods, Buddha or Jesus-on-the-cross. 

Prayers in mosques, churches, synagogues, temples and shrines, prayers in homes, for everything from better health, healing from diseases, promotion at jobs, success in exams, business and court cases, victory in battles, prayers for rains or to ward off cyclones – you name it and someone or another, often large groups of people, entire communities and whole countries have been praying for something or another.

Some people even claim to be able to work miracles on another’s behalf, for a payment, of course. I have in my possession two flyers, one from a Muslim and the other from a Hindu, both advertising their ability to work miracles in Sydney, Australia. I reproduce both below exactly as they are printed, except for the format and their contact details:

“Mr Shiekh Fadil, international clairvoyant/spiritual healer, the man you can trust with his natural god-gifted power of second sight, successfully helping desperate people for the past 25 years. Specialist in relationship, bringing back loved one, marriage and family problem, master of removing all black magic and spell, etc, sexual difficulties, success in business, court cases, good luck, 100% guaranteed, astonishing result in 24 hours.”

“Pandit Tulsi Das, skilled in all kinds of astrology, panditji knowing about your past, present and future, by palm, face and photo reading to get permanent solutions to all your problems, business problems, money problems, family arguments, childless couples, lucky lotto, love problems, enemy problems, jealousy, marriage problems, spiritual problems, sexual problems, property, house problems, worried about loved ones, husband wife problems, removes black magic, 100% guaranteed.”

While the guarantee of 100% success in both advertisements is impressive, the reference to black magic is ominous, but of that in a moment.

In a world of adversities, accidents, ailments, violence, natural calamities, oppression, destitution and cruelty, pirs and fakirs, swamis and sadhus, soothsayers, clairvoyants, astrologers, palmists, fortune-tellers, exorcists and witchdoctors – charlatans of all hues and kinds – are doing brisk business. This is one line of business where only fools fail, but in which the likes of the above-mentioned Sheikh and Panditji treat the rest of us as fools. And thanks to a lot of gullible people, they thrive.

Superstitious beliefs result in crippling injuries and deaths (from lack of timely and sustained medical intervention) as well as acute mental diseases and suicides (from lack of psychological counselling and psychiatric treatment).

It gets worse.  In many parts of the world, particularly Africa, South America and some parts of Asia, the belief in black magic, witchcraft and sorcery leads to torture and murder of innocent people, especially women.

A 2009 report by Karen Stollznow in the Skeptical Inquirer carried this chilling news of a recent spate of witchcraft-related murders in rural Papua New Guinea:

“A young woman was stripped naked, bound and gagged, tied to a log, and set on fire by a band of villagers. She burned to death in the blaze. Local authorities believe she was suspected of being a witch. Within days, a man was accused of using magic to kill another villager. Pronounced guilty by an ad hoc court, the man was slashed to death with bush knives by an angry mob.”

What kind of a world do we live in!  One such incident anywhere in the world is one too many. The truth is, a veil of secrecy surrounds such incidents and what gets reported is a small fraction of the actual numbers.

Witch-hunting and witch-burning are not a separate category from superstition, but rather they flow from it. If praying for one’s well-being is the most elementary and benign expression of superstition, witch-hunting is its most extreme, malignant and dangerous form.

By Razi Azmi


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4 Responses to On a wing and a prayer

  1. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Razi, a fine piece indeed.

  2. Tony says:

    Hi Razi. A somewhat muted response from your claquers this time. I can only assume that this is because the question of the power of prayer is really beyond dispute.

  3. Carl Pletsch says:

    I wonder if chanting – the Buddhist way – falls into the category of prayers.

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