Posts Tagged ‘ Persian ’

Pakistan is a Nation at Odds With Itself, U.S.

By Stephen Magagnini for The Sacremento Bee

KARACHI, Pakistan — On a moonlit Thursday night in February, a television network executive hosted an elegant affair for journalists and diplomats at his villa above the Arabian Sea.

Karachi’s privileged dined on lamb, shrimp, chicken, mutton and fettuccine in mushroom sauce, and were surprised by a quartet of wandering minstrels, soulful Sufi poets who serenade for their supper, uncorking ballads about love.

On the south side of this city of 18 million, a group of Afghan refugees, who scrape out a living collecting cardboard and other recyclables in a slum straddling a swamp of open sewage, were mopping up gravy with roti – Pakistani bread.

About 900 Afghans live in this fetid slum, down the street from poor Pakistanis and water buffalo. They earn about $60 a month and survive on bottled water, chewing tobacco and roti.

“We’re happy in Pakistan,” said 33-year-old Shaezhad, leader of a cardboard collection station. “We get food and respect.”

At the party across town, talk-show hosts and other Pakistani elites blew cigarette smoke into the faces of U.S. journalists, criticizing U.S. foreign policy and the toll the war in Afghanistan has taken on their country.

Many Pakistanis resent American aggression in the region and want more respect from U.S. policymakers, but they don’t hold individual Americans responsible. Yet everywhere we went, we were held to answer for U.S. wars and Americans’ deep misunderstanding of Pakistan.

“You are arrogant, playing video games with our lives,” Abdul Moiz Jaferii, political analyst for CNBC Pakistan, said over lunch one day in Karachi. He was referring to U.S. drone attacks that have killed Pakistani and Afghan civilians.

“And we hate America because the U.S. has always been the biggest, closest ally of the military dictators. You have done nothing to help democracy.”

The impact of the war in Afghanistan has permeated nearly every pore of this country of 180 million. More than 2 million Afghan refugees have fled to Pakistan, and some have brought a culture of violence. Since 9/11, 35,000 Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist attacks by suicide bombers and other war-related violence, according to Pakistan’s intelligence agency. The victims include 6,000 soldiers and 29,000 civilians.

The unpredictable violence and the kidnapping of foreign workers have created a climate of fear in this country. We weren’t allowed to visit villages outside urban areas, where 40 percent of Pakistanis live. Two shotgun-wielding security guards protected our buses in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. We entered our hotels through metal detectors and were rarely allowed to interact with average citizens in public places.

Pakistan – strategically located between Afghanistan, India, China and Iran and influenced by Saudi Arabia – remains an enigma to many Americans, who aren’t sure whether it’s friend or foe, democracy or military dictatorship.

Pakistan has provided critical support to NATO troops in the Afghan war – drones are launched from here, NATO supplies are sent through this country, and Pakistani troops have helped recapture terrorist strongholds along the volatile Afghan border.

But distrust of the United States in the wake of deadly drone attacks and the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border battle in November is such that rather than calling for more U.S. aid to build needed power plants, schools and hospitals, a growing number of Pakistanis want nothing to do with the United States. The government of Punjab – Pakistan’s most powerful state with about 90 million people – has decided to reject U.S. aid.

The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs in Abbottabad in the heart of this country embarrassed and angered the Pakistan military and made Americans question why bin Laden was allowed to live in essentially a resort town. Some U.S. politicians have called for an end to the $18 billion in financial aid pledged since 9/11.

An Islamic republic?

Some of the world’s largest, most beautiful mosques are here, and to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday on Feb. 4, 10,000 people named Muhammad gathered in prayer in Karachi.

We saw few women wearing hijabs, or head coverings, except those at Islamabad’s Faisal Mosque, which can hold 10,000 people for Juma, or Friday prayer.

Professional women drive cars, dress like their counterparts in U.S. cities and run government ministries, clinics and newsrooms. Women, who constitute 52 percent of the population, are increasingly getting advanced degrees. There’s a Pakistani proverb: “Every girl who goes to university gets a husband.”

Despite Islam’s ban on liquor, at a party in Islamabad guests of both sexes repaired to a speakeasy in the basement to drink wine or Johnny Walker Black and smoke cigars.

Though most marriages are still arranged, as many as 20 percent are “love marriages,” said Samina Parvez, director general of the government’s external publicity agency. “The divorce rate is also increasing – it’s about 10 or 15 percent,” Parvez said. “The majority of us are not practicing Muslims.”

Kamoran Sani, sales and marketing director for the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi, declared, “What you’ve heard about the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s a big farce. There are orgies, voyeurs’ lounges, raves.”

A diverse nation

Pakistan didn’t become a nation until the British sliced India into Muslim and Hindu majority states in 1947. Pakistan – an Urdu acronym for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh province and Baluchistan (“stan” means nation) – varies wildly from region to region.

“There is no such thing as Pakistan,” Jaferii said. “First comes your family, then your clan, third your region, fourth your province – the nation comes a distant fifth.”

Much of rural Pakistan is a feudal society dating back to the 13th century. Mullahs, or religious leaders, still invoke blasphemy laws exacting punishment against those accused of insulting Islam. Last year, the governor of Punjab was killed by his bodyguard for criticizing the law as he sought a pardon for a Christian woman sentenced to death.

But Pakistan has tremendous religious and ethnic diversity. Muslims include Sunnis, Shiites, Ismaelis, Ahmadis and Sufis – each practicing their own brand of Islam. At Lahore University of Management Sciences, I chatted with Muslims, Hindus and Christians who were all friends.

From the Sufi love poems to Pashtun folk songs about social justice, music plays a key role in Pakistani identity.

In the center of Karachi there’s a Catholic church – St. Patrick’s Cathedral, built by the Jesuits in 1931. There’s a Jewish cemetery. Sikhs worship throughout Pakistan. The ancient city of Taxila was occupied by Alexander the Great and reflects Persian, Moghul, Buddhist and Christian traditions.

Pakistan’s future

Sixty percent of Pakistan’s population is under age 30; half is under age 20. Half the kids haven’t been to school, and fifth-grade students are reading at a second-grade level, said Nadeem ul-Haq, deputy chairman of the government’s planning commission.

“We have 2 million kids a year entering the labor force. What are these kids going to do?” ul-Haq said. There is no building boom to provide jobs, and foreign investments have been scared away by terrorism.

“Entrepreneurship is the key thing we need to focus on,” he said. “Overseas Pakistanis have been very entrepreneurial, sending back $13 billion a year to their poorer relatives.”

From 7-Elevens to Silicon Valley firms and venture capital funds, ex-pat Pakistanis are thriving in the United States. The 500,000 Pakistanis in the United States, including 100,000 in California, send $100 million a year to charities in Pakistan, said Ahson Rabbani, CEO of I-Care, which connects donors with 30 nonprofits.

In Northern California, Pakistanis raised more than $100,000 for Pakistani flood relief efforts spearheaded by cricket star Imran Khan, who may lead the country if his party wins the next election. Khan has gained credibility by building a cancer hospital for the poor in honor of his late mother. His party includes a women’s wing that has direct access to him.

Philanthropy is playing a growing role in Pakistan, financing schools in poor villages and slums. The Citizens Foundation is educating 100,000 students.

“I mentored six girls,” said Karachi journalist Samia Saleem. “One was 13 and said she didn’t want to get married – she wants to be a teacher.”

Ali Shah Haider, 17, wants to be a commercial pilot. “I sleep from 2 p.m. until 4:30 p.m., then go to work at the textile factory from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. to support my family – there are 12 of us. I do my homework between shifts.”

A nation’s dreams

Though life seems cheap in Pakistan, the people are upbeat survivors who often describe life as bo hat acha, which means “great!” in Urdu, their main language.

Last year 1,575 people were killed in Karachi, where 2 million weapons are in circulation, said Francisco Quinones of Arcis International Security. A doctor was killed in Karachi the day before we landed. Violence has been blamed on the Taliban, rival political gangs, Sunni and Shia militants, rogue security forces, and Afghan refugees.

Some refugees have been recruited by the Taliban. Others like Shaezhad, who collects recyclables in the slums of Karachi, are glad to be alive under the green and white crescent flag of this country.

Still, he wants to go home to Afghanistan. “We want our land back, we want to live with respect and we want employment.”

Azhar Abbas, the managing director of Geo TV news who hosted the party in Karachi, said that “democracy is taking hold” in his Pakistan despite the violence many here believe followed the U.S. war on terror.

The business editor of daily newspaper the News, Amir Zia, said the United States can still play a positive role in Pakistan. “If Americans pull out without getting the job done, the Islamic extremists will say it’s a victory and will become much more organized.”

But at the National Defense University, business and technology expert Bilal Munshi called Pakistan “a psychologically scarred nation suffering from a mass form of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”

If the 4 million young people entering the workforce each year get jobs, “we will be a power … but if they don’t see a future they’re going to pick up the gun, and you’re going to be in real trouble.”

The U.S. can help develop Pakistani schools, Bilal said, “but don’t interfere in our internal affairs – let us do things our way.”

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Seeking Solace in Sufism

By Renuka Deshpande for Daily News & Analysis

The city’s metamorphosis from a sleepy town to a metropolis has left most of us long for peace and contentment. This is why Punekars are taking to Sufism as a quest for harmony and the need to seek refuge in the promise of hope and love.

Sufism or Tasawwuf, the mystical arm of Islam, which is inwardly directed, deals with the soul’s relationship with god. It advocates oneness with god and urges that everything men do, be driven by one sole motivation — the love of god. The word Sufi means ‘clothed in wool’, reveals Dr Zubair Fattani in his article The Meaning of Tasawwuf, and is metaphoric of the inwardness of Islam wrapped in its exterior expressions.

Over the centuries, it has found expression in the ecstatic and reflective poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, Baba Bulleh Shah, Hafiz, Rabia and Moinuddin Chisti and others, which is increasingly popular in the city.

Bookshelves laden with books on Sufism and its various expressions in poetry, music and dance are a common sight, as are the collections featuring Sufi music maestros like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Kailash Kher and the Sabri brothers, among many illustrious others.

Jyoti Mate, a city Sufi music and dance therapist, uses this mystical dimension to heal all those who seek solace in it. The whirling dervishes, the most iconic symbol of Sufism, are the basic element of Sufi dance and represent the earth rotating around the sun, also symbolic of the universe.

“Sufi dance helps stir pent-up and suppressed emotions within oneself. The hands are outspread while whirling and the head is thrown off-centre. A lot is metaphorical in Sufism, dance being no exception. The raising of the right hand and facing it skyward indicates absorption of knowledge from the heavens and the left hand which is pointed downwards, palm-down, passes it on to others.The head thrown off-centre is an urge to be non-egocentric, so that the ego doesn’t grow further. The cap used by Sufis is made of camel hair and is of a specific height, again symbolising the curtailing of the ego,” she says.

Mate adds that response to her therapy sessions has steadily grown since she first started in June 2008 and people often break into tears after the session is over.

On the music front, there is Ruhaniyat, the all-India Sufi and mystic music festival presented by Banyan Tree, which has been coming to Pune for the past eight years. The seven-city festival brings with it Baul musicians from West Bengal, comprising Sufi Muslims and Vaishnav Hindus, the Manganiars from Rajasthan singing Sufi folk music from the state, qawwals like the Sabri brothers and Turkish Sufi musician Latif Bolat, among others. Nandini Mukesh, director of Banyan Tree, who also emcees Ruhaniyat, says that the festival has elicited phenomenal response in the city.

“Last year, our attendance read around 1,800 people. We found ourselves continually adding chairs,” she says adding that the audience in Pune is very evolved and sophisticated and comes with an understanding of the music played at the festival.

Speaking of the musical response she receives at Ruhaniyat, Nandini says, “Baul songs are incredibly symbolic and metaphorical and touch a chord within people. Qawwalis comprise incredibly powerful musical compositions and progressions, but the Hindi and Urdu lyrics are simple to understand. Beyond a point, however, words cease to matter and the musical experience turns mystical and takes precedence.”

The popularity of Sufi rock bands like Junoon from Pakistan, along with Coke Studio, has also led to the emergence of Sufi rock bands like Chakra in the city, which does a lot of covers of Pakistani Sufi music songs, along with some original compositions featuring dohas of Baba Bulleh Shah and Kabir.

The Osho Meditation Resort in Koregaon Park, has whirling meditation sessions every Wednesday. Ma Amrit Sadhana of the resort, says the eyes are kept open and unfocused while whirling, which forms the first stage of the meditation technique, the second being rest.

“The response to these sessions is great. Watching so many people be a part of the session, and the sight of them totally engrossed in whirling is beautiful,” she adds.

Sheetal Sanghvi of The Urban Ashram, which hosts many Sufi music and dance workshops, is bringing Sheikha Khadija to Pune in November for a whirling meditation workshop. Khadija is a Sheikha in the Mevlevi Order of America.

“Sufism promotes unity and love and the response to our Sufi workshops is really growing. This is because orthodox systems of religious beliefs sometimes don’t narrate to the soul as well as they should. Sufism, with its teachings, gives hope to people,” he adds.

Islamic scholar Anees Chishti, who isn’t a Sufi but has studied it, is skeptical of this current trend of what he feels is pop-Sufism.

“Sufism requires penance and meditation. Sufi rock and dances are nothing but a Western concept. They call the whirling movements dervishes, but the term, is durvesh, dur meaning pearl and vesh meaning hanging, in Persian. So the composite means ‘hanging like a pearl’. In Turkey, during the time of Rumi, the head of the khanqah or mystic hall, was a durvesh. When he played the daf and sang mystical poetry, people listening to him would go in a trance and start whirling. So ‘durvesh’ refers to a person and not a bodily movement. All this pageantry is a marketing tactic,” he says.

Opinions on the topic are many and varied, but most will agree that Sufism in its numerous interpretations in literature, music and dance does feel divine.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note– Amongst literally hundreds of favorite Rumi quotes, one of our top one sums up life very well when he said: “All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”

Islam: A Religion of Love

By William C Chittick for The Huffington Post

In the field of religious studies, the word “religion” is commonly understood to designate a worldview along with the various cultural phenomena that embody it, such as doctrine, ritual and art. In this broad sense of the term, everyone has a “religion,” whether acknowledged or not.

By studying the religions of others we can hope to gain a bit of distance from the unquestioned worldviews that underlie our own thinking. Such study is much like learning a new language — we gradually come to see the strengths and weaknesses of our own way of talking and writing. So also each religion, including the atheistic versions, has its own genius and its own limitations.

It seems fairly clear that most thoughtful people nowadays think that we live in interesting times. Some look to other worldviews precisely to gain insight into their own lives. This is a major factor in the great popularity of religious studies in North American universities. The fact that Rumi has become a household name points in the same direction.

Part of Islam’s intellectual heritage is a vast literature exploring and elucidating the nature of love, that most precious of human experiences. Now that I have been offered this forum and told to write about anything I feel like, well, I feel like talking about love. My two previous posts and the responses to them have highlighted the fact that most people have already made up their minds as to the nature of “true Islam.” So let me turn to something that most people, Muslim or not, typically leave out of their understanding of Islam, not least because of their obsession with the world of politics and catastrophes.

Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya was a famous theologian from Baghdad who died in 1350. Part of his fame lies in the fact that he was the leading disciple of one of the most cantankerous theologians of Islamic history, Ibn Taymiyya, a favorite of Sunni ideologues. Surprisingly for those who think that people of this ilk were narrow-minded bigots, Ibn Qayyim dedicated a large part of his prolific output to love, compassion, forgiveness and other such mild-mannered themes.

In one of his many books, written late in life — Ighathat al-lahfan, “Aid for the Sorrowful” — Ibn Qayyim says that the root of Islam is “love for God, intimacy with Him, and yearning to encounter Him.” He also says, “The revealed books of God, from the first to the last, revolve around the commandment to love.”

Remember that Muslim scholars traditionally spoke of “124,000 prophets,” beginning with Adam and ending with Muhammad. What Ibn Qayyim is trying to say is that every true religion — that is, all the religions established by the 124,000 prophets — are founded on love. It makes no difference who these prophets were or where they lived. When Muslims settled down in China, for example, they soon recognized that Confucius had been a prophet.

Claiming that “love” is the heart of Islam or of religion generally is not unusual in the Islamic context. Another example is provided by the major Sunni scholar Rashid al-Din Maybudi, who completed the longest pre-modern Persian commentary on the Quran in 1126. In explaining why the Quran calls itself “a book from God” (verse 2:89), he says that the book deserves to be titled “the eternal love” and that its content is “the story of love and lovers.”

One hundred years after Maybudi and as many years before Ibn Qayyim, Rumi’s famous teacher, Shams-i Tabrizi (who disappeared in the year 1247), said that the Quran is “a book of love,” or “a love letter” from God. He explained that if lawyers, philosophers and theologians fail to see it this way, that is because they are too preoccupied with their own specialties. First, you need to love God rather than law or theology or philosophy (or politics). Then, you should read the book. It is worth noting here that Shams, despite his reputation as an unlearned rascal of spirituality, was a professional Quran-teacher.

No one is surprised to hear that Rumi saw the Quran as a book of love, but most seem to think that Rumi was out of kilter with the Islamic mainstream. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is no accident that his six-volume epic poem in celebration of love, the Mathnawi, has often been called “the Quran in the Persian language.”

Shams al-Din Muhammad, the greatest and most beloved of Persian poets, provides another example. He is known by his chosen pen name, “Hafiz,” a word that designates someone who has memorized the Quran. Anyone familiar with his poetry knows that it is permeated with love and beauty, so much so that native-speakers can become intoxicated simply by listening to it. Hafiz holds that all religion and indeed, all human striving, is rooted in love. One verse will have to suffice:

Everyone, sober or drunk, is seeking a beloved,
everywhere, mosque or synagogue, is the house of love.

Muslim scholars who talk about love as the heart of Islam and of religion generally take the position that God’s love and compassion motivated him to create human beings so that they could love him in return. The goal of creation is to bring lovers into existence, and the goal of lovers — that is, you, me and everyone else — is to escape false loves and return to what we really love. This, for them, is the key message of the Quran, “the story of love and lovers.”

William C. Chittick, is a Professor of Religious Studies, Department of Asian and Asian American Studies, State University of New York, Stony Brook. For a survey of the role of love in religion generally, including his essay on Islam, see the volume edited by Jeff Levin and Stephen G. Post, Divine Love: Perspectives from the World’s Religious Traditions.

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