By Sher Sultan
The Mullas are coming! They are coming in all hues and shades. All styles of facial hair are on display. With close cropped beard, to a totally unkempt one, with heavy moustache accompanying a beard, to a solo beard with clean shaven upper lip – these are not just random fashion statements. Every specific facial hair style represents a specific school of thought, commonly known as a FIRQA. The truth of the school is articulated not just through facial hair style, but through the apparel as well. The close cropped bearded one believes in all secular dresses, and partakes of all secular professions, becoming an engineer, a doctor, or a professor. One of them was teaching me at the Executive MBA classes at I.B.A., and never let go of any opportunity to ridicule modernity, highlight the great conspiracies of the USA, the Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission and curse the outspoken Salman Taseer, and appreciated his killer’s dare, likening him to Ghazi Ilm Din of pre-Pakistan days. He idealized the Brotherhood groups gaining electoral victories in Egypt and other Mid East countries during the Arab Spring, and seemed quite certain that the Pakistan fruit is ripe to fall into his lap very soon. Rest of the fashion spectrum includes black turban and tunic inspired by the famous Iranian fashion icon, white turban with white tunic, and a cheque scarf hung loosely on the left shoulder, green turban with a tail-piece hanging loose like a long pony tail, and a great variety of skull-caps. The interesting fact is that each one of these groups are trying very hard to look like Mohammad, the Prophet as he was described by his contemporaries in various accounts, as there is no picture of him to emulate.
The Mullas have left very little public space for seculars, whom they dub as LA-DEEN (atheists), and MAGHRIB-ZADA (westernized), conveniently forgetting that the nation’s Great Leader was secular, and westernized (in his education, his eating and drinking habits, his dress selection, and his personal choice of supporting no facial hair). The Mullas understand the reach of the tele, and so a number of cable channels have been occupied by them. Flipping through these channels one finds strange incantations on one, lectures on glory days of Islam couched in combative desires of bringing it back, on the other. Even the secular channels have great many time slots for the tele-mullas who are lecturing the lay people on how the solutions for today’s ills were clearly laid out in various books and accounts written over a millennium ago. People are calling into these programs for all kinds of personal questions, and the tele-mulla, lo and behold, has a solution to every problem, quoting the precedence from accounts written over a thousand years ago! I fail to understand how the post-industrial era social issues can be resolved by pondering over centuries old scriptures, instead of referring them to trained sociologists and psychologists.
You cannot get rid of the mulla effect at the workplace either. The lowly peon with a green turban (which he duly wears at work) would lecture his boss on the hazards faced in afterlife, when the secular Director is found trying to quietly gulp some tea and sandwiches during the month of Ramadan. There is absolutely no cafeteria allowed to sell any eatables during the month. The Director- poor fellow – is forced to bring some sandwiches from home and discretely consume these in his room when no one is watching.
Even one’s home is no refuge from the Mulla onslaught. My Mom who lives with me, never forgets to remind me when I am leaving for office in the morning on a Friday, not to forget doing my Juma prayers at the mosque that afternoon. On her insistence, I had to hire services of a Mulla to teach reciting of QURAN to my two young daughters at home, which is difficult because it has to be done in an alien language Arabic. It must be one of those freak cases when kids are forced to recite their religious book in an alien language. Again it’s the Mulla version that has been drummed into the whole society without questioning, that the religious book has to be initially taught to Muslim children in its original, Arabic language. Parents inflict the suffering on their young off spring as early as they are four or five year old. The more enthusiastic parents enroll their young ones at the neighborhood mosque, where the Mulla in charge tutors them to recite the whole religious book by heart through rote learning. The Mulla has managed to convince the laity that when a kid memorizes the Book, not only the kid himself (or herself) but his parents too are guaranteed eternal redemption. The few days a week the Mulla comes into my home to teach quranic recitation to my eleven and twelve year old girls, the girls have strange stories to tell about the teacher. Despite that the little girls modestly don a DUPATTA over their heads when learning the recitation, the Mullah warns them that wearing jeans is not permissible for Muslim girls. Despite my convincing the girls to the contrary, the young minds are a bit shaken and insist on changing into shalwar kameez just before their recitation class. The Mulla also chit chats with the girls during the classes about the futility of girls getting an education. When my little one asked me about this, I wanted to terminate the classes immediately, but my Mother would not budge. She insisted that the girls ignore such absurdities uttered by the Mulla and focus on learning the Arabic recitation. I wondered if that kind of selective learning was do-able for the tender young minds!
Then there are the dear relatives! A cousin of mine, who lives nearby, had been insistently inviting me over to his place for a ZIKR gathering for past several weeks. I had been making all sorts of excuses, and this time when he asked I felt pressured and could not design an excuse to decline the invitation. At the gathering that evening a Mulla was the key note speaker and the centre of all reverence from all present. Dressed in an all white shalwar kameez and a large white turban, he was in the middle of narrating the great things he saw when he visited Afghanistan during the Taliban reign. Wistfully he narrated the hospitality offered by the Taliban government officials to this large delegation of Pakistanis. The Taliban coordinating official while welcoming them expressed his hope that the Pakistani group would see for themselves a model Muslim governance set up in Afghanistan; and that inspired by what they see, the official hoped that the members of the visiting delegation who did not support a beard would be supporting one by the end of their visit! That shook me up from my indifferent near-slumber, as I met the eyes of the Mulla, who seemed to be looking around at his attentive audience with a victorious, paternalistic smirk on his face. Unable to withstand the cocky self-assuredness, I blurted out something to the effect that supporting a beard was not mandatory for a Muslim. As the charismatic Mulla turned his eyes towards me, his manners questioning my audacity to challenge him within his personal domain – the monopoly of knowledge of what a Muslim must or must not look like! A group of youthful Mullas – hangers on to the senior Mulla – also turned their scolding eyes towards me. The Mulla told me with a cold smile that wearing a beard was mandatory for a Muslim. I tried to argue that supporting a beard was optional and not mandatory, but he dismissively brushed me aside and asked me to read one particular book by a tenth century scholar. Of course, since I had never heard about the book, as I was busy with my secular pursuits of working for a living, I could not pull out any ‘holy’ account from history to support my argument. I noticed that my host was also shifting uneasily in his respectfully, seated posture on the carpet flooring. I wanted to shout back at the Mulla that he had also not read Mills’s On Liberty or Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, but held back with great difficulty. Needless to say that that was my last outing to the ZIKR gathering at my cousin’s place.
As a secular Muslim, who works hard to make an honest living but goes to the NAMAZ only twice a year on the two Eids, or as a cultural Muslim – enjoying the land’s poetry and music, and interacting and learning from the world outside – I feel under siege, unable to live and speak freely and rationally lest I be declared a heretic or a social outcast and an agent of the godless west. Islamic color is but just one of the many layers of identity I possess. The Mulla is after me with a big stick determined to strip me of all my identities except the arid Islamic one!
Wait a minute; did I say… The Mullas are coming? Must correct myself…the Mullas have arrived! Does anybody reading this share my predicament? Give me a shout, if you do!!