As a child in Karachi, I remember my father used to take us to see the procession of Youm-e-Ashour. I belonged to a Sunni family. The main participants of the procession were Shi‘a, but on this day our love of the Prophet and his family brought all Muslims together. Among the cries of ‘Ya Hussain! Ya Hussain!’, a shirtless group of mourners would beat their chests red in rhythm; some would whip themselves, while others used more dangerous and sharper instruments that led them to bleed as a result of the injuries they sustained. Then there was always at least one group that struck their heads with their hands. The rest, making less extreme gestures, slapped their chests gently with one hand in sync with the crowd.
As I have observed that the ritual was a means of catharsis, of dissipating the unbearable pain felt by the Shi‘a community as they remembered the tragic death of Imam Hussain and his supporters. Everyone wore black. At every corner a sabeel was set up to distribute cold sherbet to those present, whether they were there to mourn or not, or even if they were not thirsty or were only hanging around in the hope of receiving a free cold drink. We watched the lavishly decorated horse called zuljanah striding through the centre of the procession, called the tazia, alluding to the agonising final journey of Imam Hussain. After, the spectacle moved off the streets, our families would sit in front of the TV, gathered together to watch elegies sung in melancholy lament, railing against the cruel events that define the Shi‘a experience. Finally, the gathering of Shaam-e-Ghareeban (eve of the strangers) would bring this sombre spectacle to a climax by meticulously recounting the final hours of Imam Hussain and his family’s travails through the eyes of various narrators. This was a ritual that took place every year. It was a fixture in our lives, played out in innocence amid an atmosphere of cultural cohesion, respect and tolerance. Not for a moment did we ever consider it to be anything other than a fascinating family day out and a reflection of the diversity of the Pakistan in which we lived.
What for me was a fun annual experience to look forward to was in fact a powerful display of veneration of the Prophet. But it also symbolised the way in which extreme love for the Prophet can prove divisive. On the 10th of the Islamic month of Muharram Muslims worldwide, particularly Shi‘a Muslims, mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of Muhammad. Hussain entered the grounds of Karbala on 2nd Muharram 680 with his family. His intention was to challenge the caliphate of Yazid, son of Muawiya. His brother Hasan had chosen to revoke any claim in favour of Muawiya – a senior companion of the Prophet – in order to bring peace amongst Muslims who had been fighting for many years on the issue of ‘right to rule’, which was the main reason for the split between Sunni and Shi‘a Muslims. After a long siege by Yazid’s army, Hussain was finally martyred on the 10th. It was a defining moment in Islamic history that made the Shi‘a-Sunni fault-line a permanent one.
Both the Shi‘a and Sunni communities ostensibly demonstrate their love of the Prophet and his family. The Shi‘as insist on the primacy of the Prophet’s family far more than Sunnis and regard only members of his family as legitimate rulers of the Muslim community. Sunnis, however, defend Abu Bakr, who succeeded the Prophet, championing his love and loyal companionship of the Prophet. For Sunnis, the Prophet died with his head on the lap of his wife, Abu Bakr’s daughter, Aisha. The Shi‘a claim he died with his head on the shoulders of his cousin Ali. But both sects agree that the Prophet loved his grandsons Hasan and Hussain. He is reported to have said: ‘O Allah, I love them, so love them.’ Just as he loved his family and companions, his followers of both the Shi‘a and Sunni tradition loved them, passionately, extremely, as they loved him.
But it is a strange kind of love. During my adolescence, I frequently heard the words ‘Kaafir Kaafir, Shi‘a Kaafir. Jo Na Maanay Woh Bhi Kaafir’ (Disbeliever, disbeliever, Shi‘as are disbelievers. Whosoever doesn’t accept that is also a disbeliever). So one group that claimed to love the Prophet was denouncing another group that also loved the Prophet in the harshest terms. Not only a whole community labelled Kaafir but also the non-Shi‘as who joined the throng at the Shi‘a processions of Youm-e-Ashour were denounced as infidels. Suddenly, it was unacceptable to share the grief of my Shi‘a brothers and sisters. These hard-line sentiments, with no time for compassion or empathy, were gaining currency throughout Pakistan.
It is not just the Sunni and Shi‘a schism that illustrates extreme love for the Prophet. I have always found the inner mystical connection with the divine love that Sufism strives for fascinating. The source of their love is, of course, the Prophet Muhammad. Could it have an intricate link with the Shi‘a-Sunni conflict? Three out of four popular Sufi orders start their chain from Ali and one from Abu Bakr. They are Sunni but take the Shi‘a Imams as their leaders. For example, Abdul Qadir Gilani was a Hanbali scholar as well as the founder of the Qadiriyya order. It seems to me that Sufis created a middle-ground between the bitter divide of Sunnis and Shi‘as by taking from both and extending the ideas to include various practices, grades and honours. However, in certain Sufi groups the love of the Prophet is taken to an extreme dimension. The Prophet becomes the centre of elaborate narratives of creation, which are popular amongst sects with mystical leanings. These stories put the Prophet not just at the centre of the formation of the universe but even before creation. One particular narrative I have heard quite often, said to be based on hadith, echoes the design of the universe in the following words:
It is related that Jābir ibn ‘Abd Allāh (r) said to the Prophet (s), ‘O Messenger of Allāh, may my father and mother be sacrificed for you, tell me of the first thing Allāh created before all things.’ He said: O Jābir, the first thing Allāh created was the light of your Prophet from His light, and that light remained in the midst of His Power for as long as He wished, and there was not, at that time, a Tablet or a Pen or a Paradise or a Fire or an angel or a heaven or an earth. And when Allāh wished to create creation, he divided that Light into four parts and from the first made the Pen, from the second the Tablet, from the third the Throne, then He divided the fourth into four parts (and from them created everything else)
This account has absolutely no support in the Qur’an. The hadith refers to a concept called Mohammadan reality or light. The Qur’an contains the words ‘there has come to you from Allah a light and a clear Book’ (5.15), which is used as proof that the word light refers to the Prophet. The famous ‘verse of the light’ is also interpreted in the same vein to mean that ‘light upon light’ refers to the Prophet:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. (24.35)
But in the Qur’an the use of the word light is much broader than the hadith. We can possibly draw a parallel with the Christian trinity where the father and the son are essentially of the same substance. It is possible that in an effort to raise the Prophet’s stature in competition with Christian beliefs the idea of Muhammadan Light was invented. In the Qur’an, initially the word light refers to previous scriptures in the same way it refers to the Qur’an. So, we read, ‘indeed, We sent down the Torah, in which was guidance and light’ (5.44) and ‘We gave him the Gospel, in which was guidance and light’ (5.46). Light and darkness become themes in the Qur’an symbolising the dichotomy of being guided or lost: the role of the prophets is to bring people from darkness to light. Of the Prophet himself it is pronounced: ‘this is a Book which We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], that you might bring mankind out of darkness into the light by permission of their Lord’ (14.1); and the same for Moses, ‘We certainly sent Moses with Our signs, [saying], “bring out your people from darkness into the light and remind them of the days of Allah”’ (14.5). The individual who accepts the guidance is the ‘one whose breast Allah has expanded to [accept] Islam and he is upon a light from his Lord’ (39.22). The individual ‘did not know what is the Book or [what is] faith, but We have made it a light by which We guide whom We will of Our servants’ (42.52). Thus, those who have accepted the guidance then also possess the light, which suggests that it is about goodness and truth.
Another popular narration that gives the Prophet an entirely different status with regard to order and purpose of creation reports that after Adam had made his mistake and wanted to ask for forgiveness he said, ‘O my Lord, I am asking you to forgive me for the sake of Muhammad.’ To which Allah replies how did you know? Adam said that he saw the name of Prophet Muhammad written on his throne, so he knew Allah loved him. Allah said, ‘O Adam, I have forgiven you, and were it not for Muhammad I would not have created you.’
Once again, there is no evidence of this in the Qur’an. The words used by Adam to ask for forgiveness are mentioned in the Qur’an but there is no suggestion that Adam knew of Muhammad. Sufi theology relies heavily on such weak narrations to build up the idea that the universe culminated in the love of the Prophet. What could be more extreme than to suggest that were it not for the Prophet, God would not have created anything?
I am reminded of the story of al-Busiri, whose poem I used to hear frequently in my childhood. Born in the thirteenth century, al-Busiri was a Sufi poet of the Shadili order, and lived in Egypt. He suffered paralysis on one side of his body. In this time of darkness and despair he wept and prayed and composed a poem in praise of the Prophet. He prayed for the Prophet to intercede on his behalf and ask Allah to relieve his suffering. He repeatedly sang this poem until he went to sleep. That night, we are told, the Prophet appeared in his dream, wiped his face and put his own mantle (burdah) over Busiri’s paralysed body.
When he awoke he found his paralysis was cured and he could walk again. He left his house to go out and came across another Sufi. The Sufi asked him about the poem he had written about the Prophet during his sickness, which surprised him because he had not yet told anyone about it. The Sufi told him that in his dream he saw him recite that poem to the Prophet, who was pleased with it and wrapped his mantle around him curing his sickness. So Busiri gave him the poem and the events were related to others. The poem reached Bahauddin, vizier of King Tahir. His viceroy, Saaduddin was going blind and he came to hear of this poem. When he placed it on his eyes it cured his blindness.
The poem is appropriately called Qasida Burda or the ‘Poem of the mantle’. It is well-known across the Muslim world and has been translated from Persian to Chinese. I grew up listening to different versions and developed a fond affection for the composition. I was captivated by the many virtues and benefits attributed to the poem. Recitation of the poem promised to bestow long life or wealth or a much-coveted male child. It is believed to alleviate droughts and hardships. It can protect from calamities, disease, possession and robbery. Success is promised in whatever heart’s desire it is recited. The words are beautiful and it is mesmerisingly sung in all its versions and manifestations. It begins with salutation to the Prophet: Mawla Ya Salli Wa Sallam Daiiman Abadan. This excerpt is a good illustration of its flavour:
For had it not been for him this world would not have come out of non-existence. Muhammad is the leader of both worlds and both creations (man and jinn).
And of both groups, Arabs and non Arabs.
Our Prophet, the one who commands good, forbids evil.
There is none More truthful than him in saying ‘No’ or ‘Yes’.
He is (Allah’s) most beloved, whose intercession is hoped for.
For every fear (and distress) that is going to come (on the day) of agony (and fears).
He called (people) towards Allah, so those who cling to him.
Cling to a rope which will never snap.
He transcends all the Prophets, physically and in (noble) character.
And (the other Prophets) cannot come near his in knowledge and noble nature kindness.
They all obtained from Rasulullah (Muhammad) (Like a) handful (of water) from the ocean or (a few) sips from continuous rains.
Sufism intrigued me, but during my university days I had an opportunity to spend some time with a quite different Islamic movement – Tablighi Jamat. The Jamat was created over a hundred years ago and has become a global organisation, now boasting millions of followers around the world. It started in the area of Mewat in India and was called the ‘Kalima’ party because member became known for teaching people the basic declaration of Islamic faith. The story goes that the founder, Maulana Ilyas despaired of his neighbours. He noticed that although they were Muslim by faith, their cultural practises betrayed a strong Hindu influence. He would cry and pray to God for guidance on how to make them better Muslims. It was this desire to save their souls that inspired him to set up Tablighi Jamat.
My over-riding memory of the Jamat is their preponderance of the beard. The most conspicuous and identifying symbol of a Muslim man is particularly close to Tablighi Jamat’s heart. The Tablighis are strict in following the Sunnah, a word interchangeably used with the word hadith in traditional Sunni schools. Sunnah is defined as everything that the Prophet said, did or approved of. The Tablighis argue that the Sunnah provides a lived example of the revelation of the Qur’an. Thus, it too is revelation of a different type and is equally obligatory as the Qur’anic injunctions. The beard is considered a Sunnah purely because the Prophet had it and he is believed to have said, ‘trim your moustaches and let your beards grow’. In their gatherings I observed them obsessing over the minutiae of beard etiquette. Each of my friends who had become committed to the Jamat began by growing their beard long. They urge you to grow it to what they consider to be the proper Sharia length. I have witnessed grown men cry because a Muslim brother had shaved his beard. They say that the Sunnah of the Prophet is being flushed down the drain and it pains them immensely because they love him so utterly.
The Sunnah of the beard has always confused me. According to hadith, the Prophet was known to dye his beard. This is a popular practice among the Barelvi sect, particularly in the Indian sub-continent where men will use henna to dye their (often greying) beard. In another hadith it is said that he warned, ‘Jews and Christians do not dye’, and asked Muslims to ‘act differently from them’. In a number of narrations mention of trimming the moustache and leaving the beard has been listed as an element of fitrah or nature. It seems to me that this is not an obligation but an attempt by a budding community to differentiate itself from those who are already established. To identify themselves clearly so that others would know their numbers and in a confrontation, of which there were many, their unique appearance may serve a purpose.
There was a major transformation amongst my peers after 9/11. There was an upsurge in the inclination towards religiosity and it was expressed primarily through the Sunnah of the beard as an expression of love for and emulation of the Prophet. A community under stress almost naturally and predictably reverts to symbolism and self-identification as an act of defiance, solidarity and preservation.
Extreme love for the Prophet extends beyond the beard and is disproportionately concerned with what one must not do. During Friday prayers, I have often heard these words in the sermon: ‘the worst of things are those that are newly invented; every newly-invented thing is an innovation and every innovation is going astray, and every going astray is in the Fire’. One might say that those who hold views closer to the Salafi point of view assert such statements in an attempt to remind those who they consider to have invented unacceptable methods of showing love for the Prophet, such as celebrating his birth. The concept of innovation in Islam is labelled bid’a. This stick is often used to beat those who may be of Sufi or unorthodox inclination as there are multiple practices – such as pleading for intercession, visiting graves, performing dhikr (remembrance) in solitary or at gatherings whether this involves sitting silently to singing and dancing – that characterise these communities and which the Salafis find insufferable.
I was still young when I became aware of these oppositional ways of expressing love for the Prophet. My father had put me in a madrasa to learn the Qur’an. It was located in a busy market street and every afternoon, after school, I walked from the building where I lived through this road. It was crowded with shops on the sides and shacks and stalls that encroached on the road. There was no space for cars to pass so mostly it was used by people walking or motorcycles weaving their way through the pedestrians. This madrasa was part of a Barelvi mosque, known for their Sufi inclinations. Almost immediately opposite was a Salafi mosque.
Friday afternoons would turn into a sermon match on loudspeakers. The targets of both were the sellers and buyers on the street. The Barelvi mosque would blast invocations and praises of the Prophet as justifications for all their ‘innovative’ practices. It would decry the Salafis for being devoid of love for the Prophet. The Salafi mosque on the other hand would roundly condemn them for bid’a. They would reel off a list of all the practices they considered un-Islamic and attack them. Their favourite retort was to remind their rivals across the street and anyone else within earshot of the Prophet’s words ‘the worst of things are those that are newly invented’. All kinds of accusations would fly back and forth.
I usually prayed at the mosque where I studied. When I walked in I would be met with large and looming framed posters telling me the reasoning behind practices such as keeping the hands at waist level during prayers and kissing the backs of both thumbs and wiping them over one’s eyes, as a sign of respect, whenever the name of the Prophet was spoken during the call of the muezzin. I also had the opportunity to pray at the Salafi mosque across the road and they too had corresponding posters, which asked the worshippers to keep their hands at chest level while praying and raising the hands to their ears every time the words Allahu Akbar were said during prayers. Their timing for the late afternoon prayer was also slightly different, which I found occasionally convenient. It would be difficult to say who loved the Prophet more but both claimed to display the greater devotion to him. I don’t doubt the sincerity of either but I do wonder whether the Prophet would be happy to see his followers competing over his love like this.
The Salafis and the Sufis are a stark example of the ways in which ardent love for the Prophet can be so contradictory. But there are others. In the Qur’an the words ‘khatamun nabiyyin’ are usually understood to mean the ‘last of prophets’. It forms the foundation of the belief held by the majority of Muslims. That is, except for the Ahmadis, who believe that these words do not represent the closing of the door of prophet-hood but its pinnacle. According to this interpretation the words are taken to mean ‘seal of prophets’. Ahmadis are followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who was born in India in 1835. He was a scholar of Islam and was renowned for his debates with Christian missionaries on theological matters. The issue of interpretation in the Qur’an would have remained academic until it was claimed that he was the promised Messiah and Mahdi and a non-law bearing prophet. Such an idea challenged the ‘finality of prophet-hood’ of the Prophet Muhammad and exploded into accusations of apostasy, blasphemy and subsequent threats and acts of violence.
Pakistan is perhaps the only country to have declared the Ahmadi to be non-Muslim on the basis of this. Although there are irrevocable differences between Sunni and Shi‘a and Salafi and Sufi sects of Islam, and they routinely brand each other as disbelievers, but there has been no successful attempt to declare them non-Muslim at an official or constitutional level. The Ahmadis were, however, considered beyond the pale and in 1974, an amendment to the Pakistani constitution declared them to be non-Muslim, thanks to the pressure from conservative religious groups. What inevitably followed was an environment of persecution where Ahmadis were not permitted to self-identify as Muslims. They were barred from building mosques and, if they persevered, were told that their place of worship should not have any outward resemblance to a ‘typical’ mosque. They were forbidden to ‘pose’ as Muslims and official documentation such as ID Card or Passport required either the endorsement of the ‘finality of prophet-hood’ or declaring oneself as a non-Muslim. Non-Muslims are also not allowed to enter the two holy sites, Mecca and Medina, hence an Ahmadi holding a Pakistani passport would be unable to perform the pilgrimage, Hajj. Over the years, Ahmadi mosques have been burnt, and thousands of them have been killed and persecuted – not just in Pakistan, but also in Bangladesh and Indonesia.
A childhood friend of mine is an Ahmadi. It had never occurred to me to screen people according to their religious persuasion or sectarian beliefs before deciding whether or not I got along with them, which is why I have friends who are Sunni and Shi‘a, Salafi and Sufi, Muslim and non-Muslim, believer and atheist. I have never been of the disposition that their beliefs or lack thereof are any threat to my own. We vigorously debate issues, get worked up and frustrated but, after all that, go back to being friends because we enjoy each other’s company. Through this particular friend, I came to understand the difficulty of being an Ahmadi in Pakistan. But I only fully realised the intensity of prejudice harboured by others first-hand when another ex-classmate made a veiled threat against his life on an alumni mailing list. I had studied with these people and I did not know them to be this extreme. In fact, I had travelled with the one who actually made the threat and he seemed to be an ordinary young man whose interests included video games and girls. His conversion to this level of vitriol was eye-opening. This too is a post 9/11 incident and all these instances of extremism make me wonder how the psyche of the average Muslim has been altered by that atrocity.
I feel certain that 9/11 was a watershed moment for Muslims, but there have been others. During the Danish cartoons debacle I heard the story of Ilam Din on a local Pakistani television channel. Ilam Din was born in Lahore before the partition of India under British rule. In 1923 a pamphlet called Rangila Rasul (roughly translated as Colourful Prophet) was published by Mahashe Rajpal. It contained a salacious poem about the Prophet and referred to his many wives and his private life, contrasting this with Hindu saints who led more hermetic lives. There was uproar amongst the Muslim community. According to the legend, Ilam Din was passing by the Wazir Khan mosque and saw a crowd raising slogans against the publisher. He decided to kill Rajpal for his blasphemy. He obtained a dagger, entered his shop and stabbed him to death. He was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to death. In the Pakistani context this story has become the stuff of folklore as the defendant’s lawyer was none other than Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the nation. (Although I learned later that he was not the original lawyer but was brought in for the appeal.) He claimed that Ilam Din was overcome by feelings of veneration of the Prophet and reacted emotionally. This same defence was used during the trail of the horrific murder of Farkhanda in March 2015. A conservative Muslim sympathetic to the Salafi version of Islam, she was lynched and set on fire by a mob in the centre of Kabul after an argument with a Sufi mystic, or pir, escalated into baseless accusations that she had burned a copy of the Qur’an. In Ilam Din’s case, Jinnah could not save him and he was later sentenced to death but he acquired the status of a martyr for having given his life to protect the honour of the Prophet. But the atrocity committed against Farkhanda is not an isolated example. From the Rushdie to Charlie Hebdo affairs people have been killed for the love of the Prophet. Extreme love of the Prophet leads Muslims to become irrational and paranoid.
Indeed, the very idea that you can blaspheme the Prophet seems rather absurd. Those who do not believe in Islam have no reason to be sensitive about the honour of Islamic personalities, particularly when, it seems to me, the same courtesy is not always extended to figures revered by other faiths. I had a similar conversation with a few friends on Facebook where I raised the proposition that blasphemy cannot make sense because every emerging religion is inevitably seen by the adherents of the established ones as blasphemous. All new religions rely on denying the validity of the beliefs of previous religions and demoting their sacred personalities from whatever elevated position they occupy. The reaction of my friends was of denial. They claimed they did not blaspheme against the Jews or Christians and respect all their ‘prophets’. But that was the point, they were still looking at them through the lens of Islam and whatever personalities and history we shared was the criteria for respecting ‘their religion’. I felt compelled to raise the case of gods and idols in Hinduism. In my experience there is little respect for those who are dismissed as ‘idol-worshippers’, denounced for their misled beliefs as kuffar (infidels) and mushrikeen (those who associate, idolators). We even have names for them. The tags may just mean deniers of Islam and polytheists but the feeling that they evoke in the mind of a Muslim is not neutral by any means.
The Quran’s advice on the issue is ‘do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge’. The verse continues to clarify the issue of difference between religions by saying, ‘we have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord is their return and He will inform them of what they used to do’ (6.108). Followers of Islam seem to have dispensed with this advice. The burning alive of a Christian couple in Pakistan, who were accused of blasphemy, is symbolic. If one believes that God has reserved the right to punish or reward, how can impatient Muslims appoint themselves the arbiters of justice? They encroach on not only God’s rights but also assume, while on earth, the role of God on the day of judgement. I asked my friends, ‘Isn’t that blasphemy in itself?’
The extreme love for the Prophet that renders some followers of Islam judgemental and inflexible directly contradicts the many documented examples of the Prophet’s humanity, forgiveness and humility. The kindness, patience, humility, forgiveness, and affection for others and nature, he reportedly exemplified, is not part of this love. Indeed, the art of being human personified by the Prophet has been forgotten by many Muslims. As they clamour to profess ever louder their extreme love for the Prophet, they are busy calling each other out, thrashing each other with absurd books of theology, and even killing those who dishonour their Prophet. This is extremism in love ‘of’ the Prophet. But also complete absence of the love that he radiated. This extreme love, instead of facilitating empowerment and generosity of spirit, has bred insecurity, belligerence and paranoia. It is akin to growing a tree in a glass box. There is insufficient room to grow. The tree starts to bend and twist in an effort to find space. It ends up distorted and ugly instead of an example of the beauty of nature. More importantly, it is unable to serve as shade or shelter for anyone. It needs to be brought out of its box.