The Dawn: Jan 23, 2015

Punjab Notes: Emergence of new heroes: mullah-II

Mushtaq Soofi 

Description: Illustration by Abro

Illustration by Abro

Mullah has been a part of our religious culture for more than one thousand years. Arab and Turkish intrusions from the South and the North from eighth century onwards gradually created conditions which helped a large chunk of Punjab’s population to convert to Islam which in theory upheld the ideals of human equality, social justice, and individual’s actions as criterion for judging his/her worth, a concept alien to previously dominant faiths loosely described under the category of Hinduism.

Mullah’s traditional function till early 1970s was generally twofold; imparting the basics of religious education and conducting of rituals. Mosque was the centre of his activities. He would lead the prayers and teach the children how to recite the Quran in Arabic. Space in the compound of mosque served as an open air classroom. Only a few mosques, usually the big ones, had community supported seminaries (Madressah) attached to them where regular students were given religious education with structured syllabi in an orthodox tradition.

Mullah’s presence was conspicuous at the religious rituals. He would be called in to whisper the prayer call into the ears of a newborn. He would solemnise the marriage ceremony with the recitation of sacred verses. He would lead the funeral prayer when someone died. Mullah’s task in brief was mosque’s upkeep and conducting of religious rituals. He was the traditional service provider in the matters of faith for the community that in return took care of his financial and social needs which were modest.

Religious figure was supposed to live simple life bereft of anything that displayed the signs of worldly luxuries, embodying the austere spirit of Islamic religious ideal. Mullah with all his religious bearings was generally tolerant and a man of peace and thus enjoyed the respect of the community. One could come across at times a certain type that would be edgy and jumpy in the superficial religious matters that at the best symbolised the sterile exterior of the faith such as dress and hairstyle etc. That’s why eternal bard of the Punjab, Waris Shah, called Mullah ‘a tinderbox of controversies’ who looking at the artistic persona of legendry Ranjha in the mosque flew into rage and declared him an ‘apostate’.

But normally the community, being his paymaster, kept him in check in social and cultural matters as one witnessed in the case of Ranjha who spent a night in the mosque as the Mullah acquiesced to his stay due to the community pressure.

The scene changed beyond recognition within a few years after the bigoted military dictator Ziaul Haq took over in 1977 toppling the Z.A. Bhutto’s popular government which had a fatal flaw of mixing politics with religion. He was the first leader to create Ministry of Religious Affairs. Coup led by Zia was an important element of a grand geo-political strategy cleverly crafted by the US to counter the expanding

communist influence in the region. After deposing King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan in 1973, Daoud Khan abolished monarchy. Declaring himself the president he installed a secular government of People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in an extremely conservative and tribal country. Two main factions of PDPA, Parcham and Khaliq, were led by pro Soviet communists. It was obvious to the discerning eye that the communists were poised to take over Afghanistan with the Soviet Union’s backing.

In anticipation of such a happening an overtly pro US military regime with visceral hatred for communist type of system was imposed on Pakistan. And the happening did happen. The Khaliq faction of PDPA after having developed serious differences with Daoud Khan captured power in a putsch in 1978. Due to the internal bickering and the resistance against the regime’s reforms by religious leaders and tribal chiefs, the half-baked communist system was about to collapse when Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan in December 1979. The time had come to muster all the forces in the name of religion in order to combat what was conceived as an infidel communist onslaught.

The Pentagon had already invented the concept of ‘political Islam’ which implied creating and organising the religiously motivated militants, a ruse for saving the Muslim lands from the avalanche of communism. Pakistan was declared a front line state. Money and arms started pouring in. Americans in a well thought out strategy to trap the ‘bear’ began arming and training the Mujahideen, the holy warriors. Saudi Arabia and Gulf states prompted by the US worked on the ideological front by opening up their coffers to the orthodox Sunni Mullahs who in a short period of time built a huge network of seminaries which inculcated new political notions of Islam and Jihad in young students.

Men and weapons are what wins a war at the end of the day. What else you need if you have absolutely committed men of faith and state-of-the-art weapons? Absolutely committed men of faith were recruited, taught and supplied by Mullah. It was Mullah reincarnated; loaded with money and politically empowered. Now armed to the teeth in violation of religious tradition he no longer serves the community. He dictates.

Over a period of time Mullah with his ineluctable links with religious orthodoxy, dictatorship and imperialism, has in fact developed into a monolith who doesn’t hesitate to declare war against the civil society, even the state if his literalist cum tribal religious worldview is argued against or resisted. He is a new religious hero on our social stage. He is neither a scholar nor a spiritualist. He is a warrior. What

delights a warrior is war not peace. And war in the words of a poet ultimately leaves one “like the man who took a brick to show how beautiful his house used once to be”.

Back to Mushtaq Soofi's  Page

Back to Column's Page