Exploring Muslim Society in Pakistan
Title: Islam and Society in Pakistan: Anthropological Perspectives Edited by: Magnus Marsden and Ali Khan Publisher: Oxford University Press, Pakistan (December 2010) Pages: 496, Hardback Price: PKR 995 ISBN: 9780195479577
An overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan belong to the Sunni Hanafi sect of Islam. However, non-muslims and people belonging to several minority sects of Islam also inhabit the country. The book under review, ‘ Islam and Society in Pakistan,’ describes the origins of some of these minority sects and their role in the current socio-political situation in Pakistan. The book is a collection of seventeen different articles each describing a religious sect or activity related to religion in Pakistan and connecting it with the socio-political developments in the country.
According to the Editor of the anthology, the objective was to bring together ‘as diverse an array of literature on Islam and Muslim life in Pakistan as possible.’ He feels that the book serves as a valuable resource on learning ‘the complex ways in which Pakistan’s cultural heterogeneity is played out and contested in the realm of religious life.’
The essays deal with both minority sects and the ‘reformist’ movements within the majority religion in Pakistan. On the one hand, minuscule sects like the Zikris of Balochistan and the ‘Wahhabi Shias’ of Punjab
During British colonial rule, reforms were undertaken to include in the curriculum what was regarded as ‘useful learning’ by the government and private reformists.
have been discussed and on the other, Sunni madrassas preaching jihad and the Al-huda institution, which successfully seeks the promotion of conservative notions regarding the place of women in society, have also been examined. Besides these, the role of Sufism and gatherings at various shrines in the socio-political developments in Pakistan has also been analyzed.
Though Sufism and visits to shrines are discouraged by the reformist forces in Pakistan, such customs continue to flourish in the country. The objectives for adhering to such practices vary considerably from one group to the other. Businessmen and professionals, who are highly educated and often possess a long exposure to Western ideas, are devotees of saints because it plays an important role in ‘ strengthening ties between colleagues and business associates.’
Dancing and singing symbolizes the annual gathering at the shrine of Madho Lal Hussain in Lahore. The prostitutes of Hira Mandi regard him as their ‘patron saint’ while those advocating the promotion of the Punjabi language find it to be a convenient platform for propagating their cause. According to the book, saints and their shrines in Sindh have previously been used by politicians like Z.A. Bhutto and G.M. Syed for achieving political objectives.
The madrassas in Pakistan have been under reform during pre-independence and post-independence periods. During British colonial rule, reforms were undertaken to include in the curriculum what was regarded as ‘ useful learning’ by the government and private reformists. After Independence, two major attempts were made to reform madrassa education: one in 1962 and the other in 1979. The 1962 reforms aimed at restoring the ‘purity’ of religious learning and introducing essential non-religious disciplines. The 1979 reforms were a part of the ‘Islamization’ campaign launched by Gen Zia-ul-haq. These reforms offered financial assistance to the madrassas and the students and guaranteed recognition of degrees that would qualify students for government employment. However, the reform was opposed by the ulema because it directly challenged their autonomy.
After the overthrow of monarchy in Iran, a new element of foreign involvement penetrated madrassas as well as the various religious groups in Pakistan. While the Shia educational institutions and activist groups received generous financial assistance from Iran, similar Sunni institutions and groups were the beneficiaries of such generosity from Saudi Arabia. This development intensified further sectarian violence in a country like Pakistan.
Sadaf Ahmad conducted an interesting study regarding the Al-huda institution, which is now established in several major cities of Pakistan. The author is of the view that Al-huda is now a social movement aimed at the Islamization of upper and uppermiddle class women. She points out that Al-huda has been successful in attracting this ‘educated female elite’ where institutions of other religious groups, such as the Jamaat-e-islami, have failed to do so.
Discussing the causes of Al-huda’s success, the author observes that at other institutions, clerics and maulvis tend to dominate. As a result, those who harbor ‘modern’ outlooks consider such clerics ignorant and back- ward. On the contrary, the founder of Al-huda, Farhat Hashmi, is well educated and holds a PHD from a university in the UK. At Al-huda, Quranic verses are interpreted in simple language and in a manner that make them understandable and relevant to the lives of the students. At these sessions, no one is compelled to adopt Islamic behavior such as wearing the Abaya or the headscarf. Teachers often make use of science and its theories to explain Islamic injunctions. Instructions are imparted in both, Urdu and English but those being taught in English are greatly outnumbered by those receiving instructions in Urdu.
Though the book is extensive and incorporates varying perspectives on the issue of Islam in the Pakistani society, it can make for a difficult read. The articles in the book are written in a scholarly language and carry a large number of references and footnotes, which hinder smooth reading by an average reader. It seems almost as if the writings are catered to researchers or students who intend to take up research on the aforementioned subjects in the future.