Visualise this. There is a guy with blood shot eyes, a kill-joy demeanor, a furrowing brow, wearing his shalwar nearly up to the knees and beard reaching down to the knees. You hear him say “haaza haraam” to everything while unnecessarily using a heavily-accented Arabic. He has more than one wife, probably, and multitudes of children; with no inkling about what’s happening in the world and living in a bubble (somewhat similar to how the Americans look at life, maybe?). He wears a suicide jacket or maybe only gives khutbas that endorse that ideology while carrying an invisible gun of hatred for the minorities. And to add to that, his hair has to be dripping with oil and he must burp loudly after every meal, praising Allah.
The above is a stereo-typical profile of what we call a “Mullah” in Pakistan. That is how we imagine a Mullah and expect a Mullah to be; more obnoxious maybe, but not less. ShoMan’s (Shoaib Mansoor) famous Lollywood flick “Bol” (which was more sermonic than any khutba and had scores of over-lapping social issues taken up in an over-dose) had the brilliant actor Manzar Sehbai in the role of the fundo-mullah “Hakeem Sahab”. With eyebrows that reminded one of curtains that flutter with a breeze, a despicable holier-than-thou attitude and the most bizarre interpretations of things, Hakeem Sahab was shown as the stereo-typical Mullah – he hated daughters and beat his wife and….the works!
Characters in movies and teleplays which give a stereo-typical image of the Mullah are abundant. One such play is on air as this blog goes into print – a play in which the religious man rushes to the mosque five times a day and also religiously ridicules and insults his wife at least five times a day.
Mullah bashing is our country’s intelligentsia’s favourite sport and now ours too after terrorism affected the future of cricket in Pakistan. It’s fun, it costs nothing (except that you have got be social media savvy-cum-troll to do this) doesn’t make you sweat or disrupt your couch potato routine. Plus it gives you a serious high! One umbrella term “Mullah” and you can get away with any kind of catharsis and venting, just like with the one term “Rumi” you can announce to the world that you are a spiritually evolved, deep being.
While not every symptom of the Mullah syndrome is exaggerated, many are. In a post-Zia reactionary Pakistan ‘Mullah’ is a bad word with a negative connotation. In reality, it is not so simplistic. To begin with, we have to carefully look who we term as a Mullah. Liberals (I have to use this term, reeking of compartmentalization only because it is most easily understood) will usually see a person with a certain outward signs of being a strictly practicing Muslim and often, if not always, assume a lot of what is written above. There is anger and bitterness against this breed which makes people pass comments like “Mullahs have high jacked Islam” and “Who are Mullahs to tell us what Islam is?”
Let us attempt to understand the two broad divisions of people that we usually tag as Mullahs. The first is the scholars, the preachers, the Imams and the teachers; people who have taken upon themselves the tough job of trying to keep religious knowledge alive. With an increased awareness about religion, a re-kindled curiosity in Islam and more readily available literary sources have made studying religion easy on a personal level. That in itself is a very positive attitude. Half-baked knowledge, however, is often more perilous than no knowledge at all. For this, each one of us wants to stop relying on the above mentioned group of Mullahs. We all wish to do our own ijtihaad and we think that following them and the varied interpretations of certain rulings of Islam is an insult to our intelligence and spirituality. Hence, each one of us wishes to be an aalim in our own right. We are willing to learn about every subject in the world from experts but not Islam. In that, we want to indulge into “self-medication”.
The reader should not misunderstand me here. I am cent per cent in favour of studying, discovering and understanding religion on our own. I am also aware that in this world of egoistic human beings, even men of faith and scholars fall into the dangerous pitfall of churning out fatwaas that have hidden agendas. Assuming that all Ulama (Islamic scholars) have hidden agendas therefore writing them all off and believing that we can figure out everything on our own seems to be an unnaturally simplistic and naïve attitude. In defense of this type of Mullahs, I would say that there are gems among these – wise and learned; both in religious sciences as well as in spirituality, genuine people who see religion as a tool that benefits humanity.
The second type of Mullah is of course the archetypical one. The village simpleton whose parents put him in amadrassa at age 7 where he grows up memorizing the Quran not out of love but compulsion, a regular victim of caning for every mistake. This Mullah, it is true, knows very little about the world outside his bubble. He has had very little exposure and is easily high-jacked by extremists if he is not one himself already. This is the one that we usually avoid but are dependent upon for nikaah or shrouding and burial rituals, simply because we, the intelligent Muslims, do not know enough duas and rites ourselves.
Among these, there are also the soft-hearted true worshippers of Allah whose soul is pure, and who impact lives in a positive way. We often quote the Mukhtar Mai incident when we talk about the patriarchal Mullah-driven women’s rights’ violations. However, we forget that it was the village Imam who supported Mukhtar. Many of Pakistan’s most credible charities are steered by men of God who may not be the most educated in a worldly way, but know enough to know that the quickest way to attain the pleasure of Allah is to serve humanity.
There is also a third type of Mullahs emerging these days. They are modern, tech-savvy and have probably studied in universities abroad. You will find them tweeting both fun things and religious things on their iPhones while combing through their beards with their fingers. They are pleasant, amiable and believe in peace and harmony. They have a tough job as they are somewhere in the middle, struggling with moderation.
Stereo-typing is a dangerous sport, as is Mullah-bashing when done in a non-discerning manner. To be gullible and absorb any and every narrative from the microphone of a mosque and everything coming from a podium is a crime. But so is to write off every good soul attempting to re-connect humanity’s weakened connection with the Creator. These are dangerous times. We have to make cautious and informed decisions. However, apathy towards religion and religious people is something we do not have the liberty of doing.
Originally published here: http://www.borderlinegreen.com/2012/09/26/in-defence-of-the-mullah-by-farahnaz-zahidi-moazzam/