In the first of this two-part series, I argued that Pakistani people are becoming rootless social orphans. Our hiraeth for a non-existent Islamic utopia has compelled us to abdicate our organic connection to our land and to abandon our links to our past. In this part I shall carry the argument forward to various facets of our social existence.
The South Asian Subcontinent is home of two glorious civilizations based in the areas that constitute Pakistan. The Indus Valley culture started in Mohenjo-daro and Harappa before it spread to the Gangetic valley. And the Gandhara culture flourished along the river valleys between the Margalla Hills and the Hindu Kush Mountains. The earliest fossils of cotton were found at Mehrgarh near the Bolan Pass; a site that is dated to between 7000-2500 BC and is a precursor of the Indus Valley culture. The other signs of earliest cotton were found at Rakhigarhi, a town in Haryana, where the Indus culture had spread along the now extinct Ghaggar River that may have been either an independent sister stream of the Indus or, as the sand samples suggest, may have changed course to become the Sutlej River. It was the Indus and not the Gangetic people that gave cotton to the world and the earliest civilization to the Subcontinent.
And yet we, the Muslims of the Subcontinent, are unique in the Islamic world in that when we converted to Islam, we changed our names from Indian names to Persian, Turkish and Arabic names.
There are, in reality, no Islamic names. When the Arabs converted to Islam, they retained their pre-Islamic names. There was a time in those early days when some persons with popular names as Amr, Hisham, Zainab and Abdullah were Muslims while others were non-Muslims. The Prophet (PBUH), too, did not specify any particular names to be used for Muslims. Similarly, pre-Islamic Turkish and Persian names became “Islamic” when people converted in these lands. Islamic scholars, too, agree on this issue but we the Indian Muslims have always changed our names on conversion.
My 8th ancestor, who converted from Hinduism to Islam after his migration from the Kashmir Valley to Amritsar in the early 19th century, also became Saddique Sheikh from whatever was his original name. He didn’t have to. On a personal note, I have always been partial to the name Sukhdev since my childhood. It’s a beautiful flowing name with elegant, humanitarian meanings. The equivalent word in Arabic and Persian is “Paikar-e-Rahat”. If our society had been a little tolerant, I would have added this as a suffix to my name. I find nothing wrong in being called “embodiment of happiness/comfort” in my own language.
Mir Taqi Mir in one of his long poems writes that Holi was the Nauroz of India. Nazir Akbarabadi wrote a poem on the festival
We also seem to have blurred the lines between culture and religion. It seems at times that every cultural festival with Indian roots has been labelled as un-Islamic. Muslims in other parts of Islamic lands have not shed their seasonal festivities. Iranian and Central Asians had been celebrating Nowruz as the spring festival for over a thousand years before the advent of Islam; at a time when they were overwhelmingly Zoroastrians. They continue to do so, to this day. Arabs didn’t celebrate the festival and they don’t do it now, perhaps because in the desert environment there is no meaningful spring season. In our time, Arabized Pakistani extremists raise vocal and physical resentment against the festival but they fail to realize that it has nothing to do with religion.
A number of Islamic festivals themselves have their roots in pre-Islamic celebrations. This may be said of the two Eids, too. And our Islamic greeting of As-Salam Alilkum and tbe response Wa-Alikum Salam come straight from the Jewish Semitic greetings of Shalom Alechem and its response Alechem Shalom, implying that it there are some events and traditions that are regional and cultural rather than religious.
With this background of a continuation of seasonal and cultural traditions even within Islam, it is strange that we have given up Holi as un-Islamic. It is a spring festival – much like Basant is in the Central Punjab or as Mela Charaghan (Festival of Lights) is in Lahore. Holi is a folk celebration of our land and not necessarily a religious festival. Common local Muslims celebrated this festival till the beginning of the previous century. Mir Taqi Mir in one of his long poems writes that Holi was the Nauroz of India. Nazir Akbarabadi wrote a poem on the festival. Its opening verse is:
Miyan tu hamse na rakh kuchh ghubaar Holi mein
Ki roothe milte hain aapas mein yaar Holi mein
He means that we should clear our hearts of resentments during Holi because even estranged friends greet each other on this day.
Holi, as the festival of colours, is becoming a worldwide phenomenon. It has been celebrated in UAE for some years now and was allowed in Saudi Arabia as well this year – where Saudis themselves participated while spraying colours on each other. A modified version in the shape of ‘Run for Colours’ is held in most parts of the world. I myself took part in one such run in Australia where organizers had placed colour spray guns at several places along the 3-kilometre route of the run/walk. It was great fun, with hundreds of people of every nationality participating in the festival and going back home in rainbow colours. We in Pakistan seem to be the only ones who have shunned it, though we the people of north Indian Punjab, Rajasthan, UP and adjoining states may be the originators of this festival!
Basant has now been officially banned due to safety reasons but it had been facing stiff resistance from religious extremists in the country, along with the beautiful marriage festival of Mahndi and the solemn Qul day after a death. The tragedy of our times is that for a large section of our society, everything is either “Islamic” or “heretic”. That is a very unhealthy social attitude.
This state of disorientation has become so acute that the Sindhi and Southern Punjab culture of joining hands to wish someone and show respect, or touching of feet or knees of an elder, is dubbed as “un-Islamic” by many people in Northern Punjab and KP – as if the peaceful and loving people belonging to the lands of the Sufis need a lesson in Islam from the people of the north!
The consequence of a violent divorced from our land and our past, and of making ourselves cultural and historical orphans, are not emphasized nearly enough in Pakistan.
Consider this: since 1947 we have produced two Nobel laureate Pakistanis but a very large majority of us do not own either of them. We had a world respected philanthropist in Edhi, yet many elements of our religious leadership considered him misguided at best or heretic at worst, because he rose in compassion to serve humanity rather than Muslims.
We have five Nobel laureates affiliated with Lahore itself: Rudyard Kipling whose Kim is set in Lahore, Arthur Compton who taught Chemistry in Punjab University, Har Gobind Khorana who was born in the city and studied in Punjab University, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar who was born in Lahore and Abdus Salam who was educated and taught at Government College Lahore. There are not many cities in the world that can boast of such scholarship attached to them, yet we honour none of them publicly (on religious grounds?) nor have we set them as role models for our students. Any other city would have erected monuments to them. A large majority of Lahoris, even old residents with historical roots in the city, would be astonished to learn of this glory.
Can we name any other country where scholarship is accepted or rejected on religious grounds?
We should take notice that some of the equally religious and devout peoples in the Muslim world cling to their past without any qualms. Egyptians are proud of their civilization with no loathing for deities such as Ra the sun god, Thoth the god of wisdom or Hathor the goddess of fertility/motherhood. This, despite the fact that a large percentage of Egyptians is either of Arab stock or, in case of ancient section of population, has completely Arabized and are collectively considered – and perhaps some in Pakistan may not not like this – actually better practising Muslims than us. Our western neighbour Iran, who themselves are now officially more devout than us, have pride in their imperial past from the Achaemenids (the dynasty that was terminated by Alexander) to the Sassanids (the dynasty that was liquidated by Muslim Arabs).
Our land has been a centre of spirituality. Sufism started its journey in Baghdad, Spain and Khorasan, but it found perhaps its most ardent followers in the entire length and breadth of the Indian Subcontinent, as evidenced by the presence of innumerable khanqahs throughout the land. Even one poet of the calibre of Bulleh Shah, Shah Inayat, Shah Abdul Latif, Sachal Sarmast, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Shah Inayatullah, Shaikh Ayaz, Mian Muhammad Bakhsh, Waris Shah, Sultan Bahu, Shah Hussain, etc would be the pride of any other nation.
We have five Nobel laureates affiliated with Lahore itself
We have a rich tradition in this genre of literature as well as in its musical rendering.
Punjab has given birth to one religion as well – and contains most of the sites considered holy by its adherents. We must recognize that despite a lot of historical bad blood between Muslims and Sikhs, the latter religion has survived for the last five hundred years and is still flourishing today. Its followers have gained a well-earned respect the world over. They admire our saints almost as much as most of the Muslims do. Let’s rejoice in our brand of spirituality and not give it up for alien austere attitudes towards culture.
On a final note, I would like to emphasize that a good gauge for who we are is “how others see us” In my travels abroad, I have found that my wife, attired in the traditional shalwar-qameez and dupatta, was called a Hindi in Saudi Arabia or an Indian Sikh in the West. Even when corrected that we are Pakistanis, some people continue to insist “OK. But Indian.”
We don’t like it, of course, but to them, that’s what we are: Indians. Let’s remember that we shall never be accepted as Arabs or Persians or Turks, whatever prefix or suffix our names may stress.
We have a bountiful land in terms of culture and history. Our history goes back to the earliest times of antiquity. We are inheritors of two different civilizations. We have rich traditions of poetry, traditions and seasonal festivals. We need to develop a sense of belonging to and taking pride in this land. Only then we can truly love this country and become one nation, and be thankful for what the Almighty has granted us.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org