A delicate balance

By Sarah Malik

In Muslim countries, most children are taught to read the Arabic Qur’an. In the villages, the madrassahs where Qur’an is taught are sometimes the only available venue for learning and literacy. In Pakistan, minorities are of such small number that they use Islamic greetings and phrases like Assalamu’alaiqum (peace be upon you) and Insha’allah (God willing) when interacting with Muslims. Though I was around Christians frequently growing up in Pakistan, I never felt their differences as they had assimilated into the dominant culture so smoothly. Likewise, the crosses in convent schools never struck us as heretical or weird and pious Muslim families often sent their children to these convent grammar schools, which offered a better education.

My Qur’an teacher, in the fluid mango-scented days of the early 1990s in Riwalpindi, was toothless. Her cheeks withdrew into the cavity of her mouth and initially us children took great care not to say anything funny; laughing, her mouth opened to reveal rotten teeth stained crimson red from the betel leaves she constantly chewed.

Our Qur’an “school” was opposite our house. Coming home from school, we hurried through our food, and still smelling of parathay, achaar and sweat, ran through the blue wooden backdoor with books in hand, over the mound of trash that was dumped and periodically burned in the alley between our houses, and bounded solemnly into the clean tree-crowded, betel-scented world that was dadi amma’s home and the madrassah.

Her house had the biggest verandah in the neighborhood, but we were taught Islam, Arabic and the Qur’an in a long narrow room adjacent to the courtyard. Across from where I sat near the door, I could see pink, blue and green-dyed chicks on the cemented verandah. In this dark and cool world, Islam became mystical and mysterious, much like my teacher. I knew nothing about her except that she was Indian (a fascinating fact in the rabidly anti-Indian Pakistan), that her granddaughter was beautiful and that I hated the RevRiaN and sweet betel treats she gave us whenever we read particularly well.

In a centuries-old tradition, we learned to write Arabic on thin wooden slates called takhtiaN. Calligraphy–an important Islamic artistic aesthetic–was practiced using large pens whose nibs had to be regularly cut to make sure the edges were sharp; the delicate loops and sweeps of the Arabic letters could not be perfect otherwise. In what became ritualistic actions to us, we dipped our pens into glass wells of black ink and bent over our takhti. Later we washed the slates clean with a white chalky detergent and leaned them against the walls to dry.

More than a decade has passed, but things were still the same when I visited a madrassah in Pakistan recently. Children still–as we and our parents did so long ago–sit on straw mats on the hard floor, their Qur’an before them, moving rhythmically back and forth as they read the fourteen-hundred year old words. To this day, I cannot memorize anything unless I sway. The sensations the action evokes are similar to the spirituality and solitude the Sufi dervish probably feels as he whirls across the floor in devotion.

Islam has become so much a part of life that it has ceased to be merely a religion originating with a prophet that only spoke and understood Arabic and never travelled to the Indian subcontinent. Instead, Islam’s stories and injunctions become allegories; when my aunt was backbiting, we chastised her by pointing out that she was eating her dead brother’s flesh as it says in a hadeeth. The demons (jinns) in the Islamic religion are woven into scary stories. When the shutters creaked with the night wind, we screeched and giggled under the covers, “A jinn has come!”

In anticipation of the big Eid, a crowd of us rode to the market, crammed a goat into the back of our car, drove it home and gently extracted my hair from its mouth. A week later, on the morning of Eid, we cut its jugular, strung the well-fattened animal upside down from a tree limb in our verandah and ate fresh, juicy meat.

We fasted, opened the roza when the sirens noised the city, but were never religious–not as religion is portrayed on Western televisions today. Islam and culture existed in such balance that one rarely trumped the other, despite the great influence of Hinduism on Pakistani culture, traditions and customs. Leila Ahmed, an Arab professor at Harvard, explains it well: “Islam, as I got… was gentle, generous, pacifist, inclusive, somewhat mystical.”

The populations of the north-west frontier province and Balochistan are ethnically unique in Pakistan. For these peoples, culture is often held in higher esteem than religion. To be simplistic, this explains why honour killings–the murder of a woman that has been shamed, such as when she is raped–are accepted culturally even though Islam abhors the action. Walking around in Peshawar, the women in burqas aren’t hooded and veiled for religious reasons; rather, it is culture that explains male nature and perscribes the qualities important in a woman: chastity and innocence. Tribes in these regions follow the rules of the loya jirga and the jirga in turn appeals to the values of community, kinship and tribal loyalty when adjudicating.

Since 9/11, it has been heart- breaking to watch the madrassahs come under suspicion and the destruction of the delicate balance between religion and culture in Pakistan.

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