Three vignettes revealing how religion really imbues the public sphere.
Ever since the 1980s, stickers asking people to pray have become a common sight, especially in buses, and on rickshaws. Of course, there is certainly nothing wrong in asking a person to say his prayers, just as there is nothing wrong if that person chooses not to heed this advice. It’s a matter between the individual and God, simple as that.
Of course, the latter part of this suggestion does not bode well with most of my fellow Muslims. Religious and sectarian plurality and diversity, though found in abundance in Pakistan, ironically remains to be one-way traffic. But thank heavens this country is not (and will never be) like Saudi Arabia where a ‘moral police’ ushers people like goats into mosques.
I do wonder, though, how they keep missing the ‘there is no compulsion in faith’ part in the Quran. Or do they?
Anyway, back to the stickers. Recently I saw two (one in an elevator and the other on a taxi).
The one in the elevator read, “Namaz parho, iss sey phelay tumari namaz pari jai” (say your prayers, before your (funeral) prayers are offered). The other sticker, on a taxi, had the following text: “Namaaz paro! Ho sakta hai yeh tumhari akhri namaz ho” (say your prayers! They may be your last!).
Now why on earth would one be so apocalyptic about a simple matter like praying?
My grandmother used to say that praying is one of the most peaceful and relaxing activities. Certainly, the celebrated author of the stickers has other ideas on the issue. I mean, he is issuing an indirect death sentence! In a round about manner, these messages are saying, ‘pray or die, you fool!’
This reminds me of a telling experience from 1988, when I was still at a college in Karachi. A friend and I were driving back from our college, when we got stuck in a traffic jam in Karachi’s Saddar area. In front of us was a battered bus whose driver was driving rather rashly, trying his best to run over anyone who dared venture their car or bike in front of his big bullying bus.
On the back of the bus was a poster-sized sticker that read: “Hairat hai, tumhein namaz parnay ki fursat nahi?” (Strange, that you don’t have time to say your prayers). By now thoroughly irritated by the way the bus driver was going about his business of harassing motorists, I lit myself a cigarette and fiddled with the car radio to see if Radio Pakistan was playing any old Mehdi Hasan songs.
But my friend who was at the wheel kept glaring at the bus that was now right in front of the car. He then started to read the sticker aloud. Then suddenly, during a red light, he found an opening and screeched right beside the bus where the driver sat (Gabbar Singh style): “Aray oh, Samba!”
The bus driver casually started back.
“Array oh, Samba,” my friend said again, “Peechay sticker tho bara bariya lagaya hooa hai,” (you have put a great sticker at the back of your bus). “Laiken bhai jan,” my friend continued, sarcastically, “heirat hai, tumhein bus chalaney ki tameez nahi!” (strange, that you have no manners when it comes to driving a bus).
A colleague of mine has this habit of cracking faith-based jokes. He’ll tell you Sikh jokes, he’ll crack Christian jokes, Hindu jokes, and Jewish jokes.
Late last week he approached me early in the morning and said that I must hear his brand new Hindu joke. The joke wasn’t all that funny, so he tried to make up for it by cracking a new Jewish joke. It made me smile, but as he waited for me to praise his wit, I asked him what would happen if we turned these jokes into Muslim jokes?
“What do you mean?” he inquired, sounding somewhat disappointed.
“Well,” said I, “I believe if the characteristics of these jokes are switched and made Muslim in context, they would still be relevant.”
“Why should I crack Muslim jokes?” he asked, all surprised.
“Why shouldn’t you?” I asked.
“Because I’m a Muslim,” he said, without any hint of irony.
“I see,” I said. “So being a Muslim gives you the right to make fun of all other religions?”
“Yaar Nadeem, why do you have to be a party-pooper?” he said, irritated but still smiling.
“Dude, all l I asked was how come you never crack any Muslim jokes?”
“And I told you why,” he replied.
“Yes, you did, but that’s such a hypocritical thing to do. Making fun of all other religions but your own,” I said.
“Okay, forget religion. I’ll tell you a fantastic new Pathan joke instead,” he announced.
“Okay,” I said smiling, “but after that I would like to hear a Punjabi joke, a Sindhi joke, a Balochi, and a Mohajir joke as well.”
“Never mind,” he replied, caustically. “I’ll tell you a sardar-ji joke instead.”
“No, tell me a Taliban joke first.” I said.
“What’s a Taliban joke?” he asked, in all earnest.
“Now that’s a joke,” I laughed.
“Ah,” he shot back, sarcastically. “The wonders of Marxist humour.”
“Marxist humour?” I laughed again. “If Marxists had any humour, Groucho Marx would‘ve been hailed as the finest Marxist!”
“Yeah, whatever that means,” he groaned.
“Cheer up, mate,” I said, patting him on the back. “Today’s jesters thrive on predictability, so I shall cheer you up with some predictability too.”
“Predictability?” he inquired.
“Yes,” I said, opening my gmail account on the computer. “Here. Look at these brand new Zardari jokes that were forwarded to me this morning.”
“Oh, I get it,” he said, giving a cynical sideways smile. “To you, Zardari jokes are equivalent to bad, predictable humour, right?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Oh, just because you are a PPP sympathiser… ”
“No,” I interrupted. “Just because I’d like to think of myself as a man with a fairly good and tasteful sense of humour.”
“What gibberish,” he said, all worked up. “You’re full of taunts about Aamir Liaquat, Zaid Hamid, mullahs and the jihadis!”
“Yes,” I smiled. “Like I said, I’d like to think myself as a man with a fairly good and tasteful sense of humour.”
“And you called me a hypocrite?” he said, mockingly.
“No, I called you predictable,” I replied.
“Well, you’re as predictable,” he said.
“Okay, let me tell you a brand new joke,” I said.
“I’m sure it’s about Osama, Zaid, or Zakir Naik,” he grumbled, nonchalantly,
“No. It’s about Muhammad Bin Qasim,” I announced.
“Right,” he said, agitated. “Mr Paracha cracks another joke about a Muslim leader. How predictable.”
“Okay, I’ll crack another new joke, then,” I said.
“About whom?” he asked.
“Another Muslim leader,” I announced.
“Sorry, not interested,” he shook his head.
“What? A patriotic Pakistani Muslim is not interested in a new Zardari joke?” I asked, smiling.
His sullen, half-angry expression returned: “Very funny.”
“Precisely,” I smiled. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
Ever get those strange emails most of which (thankfully) end up in the spam section?
Supposed wives of former African dictators asking you to make a massive fast buck by helping them get their quasi-cannibalistic dictator hubby’s stolen wealth into a bank account in Pakistan. Or emails about weird sounding ‘pharmaceutical’ companies advertising pills that can help enlarge certain external sensitive body parts of a man or a woman.
Such ‘pharma’ emails also have some amazing ‘before and after’ pictures in which the person in the before part looks perfectly normal, but turns into someone who’s just been injected with a diabolic cocktail of steroids concocted by a diminutive mad scientist!
What else? Oh, yes, sometimes in the spam I come across these colourful emails sent by cosmic reborn Christian organisations, one of which constantly asks the readers to stop listening to someone called Hannah Montanna (I’m not joking).
I had absolutely no clue who Hannah Montanna was until these emails made me ask one of my 14-year-old cousins. So I did try to listen to a few of her songs, but found them to be pretty awful (yes, yes, I know they are for preadolescents).
But since I grew up listening to all those ‘dangerous’ rock bands like Floyd, Zeppelin, Sabbath and Nirvana (and Beelzebub himself, i.e. Muhammad Rafi), I’d like to disagree with my cosmic Jesus Freak spam pals. Ms. Hannah is certainly not a devil worshipper; on the contrary, I think the devil is more likely to worship her! The pervert.
So there, I do not listen to Hannah Montanna. But then these emails also warn the readers to stay away from drugs like marijuana and LSD, not because they are bad for health, but because they were “spawned from (ahem), Satan’s sperm.” (By the way, why only marijuana and LSD? Why not also cocaine, heroin and crack? Whose sperm are they spawned from?)
Okay, then. On to some other spam stuff. How can I miss the ones that go on and on with pictures and formulas and lines from the Holy Scriptures about the ‘proof of modern scientific breakthroughs in the Quran’?
None of these ramblings make an iota of sense, but it’s a good way of telling young Muslims, “Hey, what are you guys doing studying all those useless school and college books on biology, chemistry and physics. All of it is already in the Quran, you fool.” Yep. Tune in, turn on, and drop out – only to end up in Farhat Hashmi’s study circle.
But I can imagine it must be great fun scribbling all this convoluted stuff; like writing an invigorating new episode of Star Trek in which the green-blooded Vulcan, Mr. Spock, converts to Islam when he discovers the enigmatic formula of time travel and Klingon crab soup in the text of these ancient emails floating for centuries in outer space.
Such emails try to persuade ‘modern, pro-science liberal Muslims’ (read: bad Muslims) when they realise that the usual ritualistic and traditionalist Tableeghi stuff wont cut much ice with these ‘pathless’ folks. So, use modern scientific terms and symbolism, only to conclude, it is all there in the Holy Book.
A brilliant book of guidance is thus turned into a pseudo-science manual. Why? It’s simple. If one ‘straightens’ an ignorant Muslim, paradise beckons. But if you bring an educated one ‘back on the path,’ Lord knows, some posh prime real state awaits in beautiful heaven.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.