Reflections of an American Muslim

(Shahid Athar , M. D.)

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I cannot resist the temptation to record my observations and express my feelings on visiting Pakistan after an absence of many years. Muslims living in a Muslim country are fully conversant with Islamic teachings and are also aware of the un-Islamic customs and traditions they are following, but they have become so used to them, rather immune to them, so much so that they have accepted them as a way of life. When a Muslim, living in a western country, visits a Muslim country or a native Muslim visits his or her own country, after a lapse of some years, he or she encounters unpleasant surprises and severe disappointment of great variety. I wish my people to share my observations and experiences of my visit to Pakistan after several years of stay in the U.S. Whatever I observed and experienced in my brief visit may not be true for the whole of Pakistan or all other Muslim countries I visited. It I offend anyone, I offer my sincere apologies in advance.


I wrote earlier that Muslims living in a non-Muslim country are living in a spiritual and social vacuum. Here, on the surface, Islam is every where, on the radio, on the television, in crowded mosques (crowded for Friday prescribed congregational prayer only, vacant other days) and in the newspapers. When one turns on the television, it starts with the recitaion of the Holy Quran, commentary, and gives the call to the prescribed prayer at the time of the prescribed prayer (to which few people respond) and it ends with the same. The same is true of other media. Islam is there and obvious in appearance. It is not seen being practiced by the majority in day to day life. In a given family, though everyone listens to the call to the prescribed prayer, few, one or two old people, perform prescribed prayer as if others are exempt from it. Similarly, during Ramadan, mostly old people and some young men keep fast. Many do not keep fast for the fear of becoming weak. Fasting is best that they do in Ramadan. Even when they do it, only few pray daily except for the Friday prescribed congregational prayer. Few people read the Quran on a daily basis.

Talking about the Quran, it can be said that it is considered a sacred book kept on the highest shelf with lots of dust on the cover. No one bothers to consult it for guidance on day to day matters of life, as if it is not a book showing the right way of life. People invite other Muslims to read the Quran in a group upon the occasions of death, birth, and buying a new house just for the purpose of blessings. Only a few of them know the meanings and interpretations of the commands of God Almighty and it has been left to those who have a monopoly on religious knowledge. However, everyone loves to criticize scholars like Maududi, Khomeini, and Syed Qutb without bothering to check with the Quran or Traditions whether the saying or teachings of them are true or not. I believe most Muslims in Muslim countries take being Muslim for granted and feel that they don't have to read the Quran daily, interpret it and follow its teachings in their lives. Some of them may not know or believe that the Quran is the actual words of God and is the source of all knowledge and is a guide for everyone who believes in it and seeks guidance from it. The Quran is the Truth for the present and so it is forever, as it was fourteen hundred years ago.


Some Islamic laws have been imposed by the government The poor- due (zakat) is being collected from saving accounts; since Shias and Qadianis, as well as Christians are exempted, according to a banker friend of mine, people are filling false documents about their religious beliefs. Harsh Islamic punishments exist and are given to offenders on account of adultery, theft, etc. It's done in public or on the streets. If the crimes are comniitted in the four walls of high society, they are acceptable. Serving alcohol is forbidden to Muslims in public, but not within the four walls of the houses, or in a hotel room. Islamic laws and punishment have not eliminated rape, abduction, theft, and murder. This is not unexpected when the observance of law is forced from above (without practical example) rather than accepted by people themselves. The concept of repentance and piety is not there in the purest form.

In Pakistan, the first known case of heroin addiction was recorded in 1980. In 1981, there were only 25 cases recorded. By 1986, there were half-a-million cases. Now it is estimated that there are between one and one-and-a-half million cases in a population of 95 million. The rate of growth of narcotic addiction in Pakistan is higher than that of the U.S. In addition to heroin addicts, there are about one million opium and hashish users and 300,000 tranquilizer abusers. The actual number of alcoholics is hard to determine, since they usually don't seek treatment. There are only 26 rehabilitation centers and 10,000 trained social workers.

It seems that the Islamic Law is meant for the poor only. The rich and privileged are all above the law. Even at the level of common people, the observance of Islam is forced upon from the top, whether it is being accepted willingly by the people or not. People are made to hear the call to the prescribed prayer on the radio, loudspeaker, and television, and asked to close hotels in Ramadan. A sick person or a foreigner who does not have a home can hardly find a place outside to eat.


One would expect that in an Islamic country where Islamic Law is enforced, that the government would operate on lines somewhat similar to that of the Companion of the Prophet and second rightly-guided caliph, Umar. It is an ideal which could hardly be achieved by modem Muslim rulers. What grieves us is the lack of enthusiasm to emulate him. On the contrary, bribery is to be found on every level. Nothing moves in Pakistan, whether at the airport, customs, offices, or telephone department without bribery. To get work done, you have to give some bribes. in these departments, clerks whose salary is 1500 rupees are actually making 5000 rupees from other sources. Interest is banned but it has been given a new name called, "profit." The poor-due is collected from the saving accounts of the poor, widows, orphans and even old people depending on remittances from their relatives in the Middle East. Very few folks really work in the government offices. Officers reach offices late and after working half an hour, they go for a tea break and then there is lunchtime. They come back at 1:30 for a few minutes and leave at 2:00 again. The peon misbehaves with the visitors and takes his tip before giving an appointment with the boss.


One would expect that the dealings of peoples among themselves would be according to the commands of God Almighty as given on many instances in the Quran, especially in Surah Al-Hujurat and as shown by the example of the Prophet [PBUH]. To the contrary, rudeness, cheating, telling lies, backbiting, arrogance, ridicule of others, etc., became their second nature and is apparent when they talk, walk, or behave in society. The basic positive moral values and negative moral values are common to all religions. Even non-religious societies appreciate positive values and denounce negative values. Therefore, good virtues are part of humanbehavior and the lack of them naturally creates doubt in our minds about a person being called a human being in the true sense. So to be a good Muslim, one should be a good human being first.


A non-Muslim is accountable to the lawmakers, law-enforcing agencies, and to the state. A Muslim is not only responsible to the above agencies, but also to the Creator, the Ultimate Lawmaker. As a result, a non-Muslim can hide away or try to escape after committing a crime; while, a Muslim knows that there is no escape for him. He will be caught in the hereafter. He cannot escape punishment. Even if no man or woman has seen him committing a crime, God is watching and is aware of it. This fear of God Almighty or piety is the key to the regulation of Muslim's moral code of conduct. The fact that in practice, in Muslim countries, people are showing all abnormal deviant moral character as listed in the beginning, tells me that such offenders of arrogance, falsehood, rudeness, cheating, bribery, theft, and backbiting either are not aware of God's Almighty's Omnipresence, or His commands, or they do not believe in them or they believe that no one is watching them and recording their misdeeds or will take them into account. In a society where Muslims are not practicing Islam, the imposition of Islamic Law is not appropriate. For example, if a person is hungry and is not taken care of either by the state or his neighbors, and if he commits theft to feed his hungry children, cutting off his hand is not appropriate or Islamic, because in a true Islamic welfare state, no one should be allowed to remain hungry and unattend ed. We have the example of Caliph Umar to follow.


The importance of education is obvious from the fact that the command of God Almighty to mankind is "recite." "Recite in the name of God who created you from a mere clot." On the subject of education and its purpose, there are many verses in the Quran and also in the sayings of the Holy Prophet. They are usually on display on beautiful boards on every comer of the Karachi roads, so I will not reiterate. However, in practice, this is not true. Children read not to seek knowledge but to pass examinations so that they get a job or can get out of Pakistan to the the Middle East for the better job prospects It is the fashion of the day for a young Muslim to either quote, misquote, or denounce Islamic scholars like Maududi, Khomeini, Syed Qutb, and others without checking into facts, without verifying what is true and what is not. Everyone loves to quote and discuss the teachings of Islam, quoting someone else, but his own knowledge and study is negligible. If you take into account whatever little knowledge they have and how far they translate it into their actions, it is nothing at all. The children in a famous television program (Suhail Rana's) seem to be very knowledgeable, but average children that I met knew nothing of Islam as expected of them at their age level. When it comes to practice, say for example, prescribed prayer, mostly old folks offer prescribed prayer five times a day. The knowledge is there but its acceptance and translation into action is not.


One of my friends, who is a U.S. citizen, recently moved back to Pakistan. When asked why, he said, "It is not for money, since in Pakistan I will be making less money, it is not for religion since I am not a religious person, it is for the sole purpose of my culture which I missed very much in the U.S."

I will try to define what is or what should be an Islamic culture. However, I will just narrate my observations of Pakistani culture. In a given marriage, every night song sessions will start when all the girls of the house, their neighborhood friends and brothers, assemble and start with typical marriage songs which will quickly change to film songs and then to English western songs. Then dancing will start with the boys and girls dancing together to the tune of the Luddi dance and again quickly changing into the Twist and Disco dances. The music is relayed by loud speakers to the distress of the whole neighborhood until 3:00 a.m.

Similarly, a display of culture in public is fascinating, whether in terms of a public show, a local movie, or a marriage party. Nothing is related to Islamic Law and practices, for example, lighting candles around the bride, throwing money over the couple's head. The highest Islamic practices are kissing and keeping over the head a copy of the Quran. And one friend commented, "If the people are given any book in Arabic, they will even kiss that, and keep it on the highest shelf, since they cannot tell the difference." They hardly open the book or try to read it. Fashion is at its peak. Young girls try to be a model with artificial eyebrows, lipstick, and other foreign cosmetics. Rich housewives spend a couple of hours and several hundred rupees in a beauty parlor before going to a party. Pakistan is one of the poorest countries in the U.N. directory, but it appears a lie if you are attending an upper class wedding party. In an average party estimated women are wearing at least ten million rupees worth of gold. At least forty such parties go on every day and there are many cities.


If one visits any of the so-called non-aligned, underdeveloped nations of Asia, Africa, or Latin America, one will observe that criticizing the policies of the U.S., in the press or in high society gatherings, is the fashion of the day. Even the so-called leftists, who never stop shouting against the imperialistic, satanic U.S. and her evil designs, actually practice just the opposite. If American policies are bad and the U.S. is worth hating;, everything which the U.S. makes is in highest demand and is being sought? This applies not only to automobiles, toothpaste, food items, medicines, and machinery, etc., it extends even to copying the American accent and American pop songs and dances. Pakistanis just talk about their hate for America, but in practice, everything that America can produce, promote, or stand for is lovable and indispensable for them. They call America a land of infidels (kafirs) There is a lot of alcoholism, drug abuse, violence and pornography in the U.S., but not in American Muslims.


Most of today's Pakistani youth do not know how Pakistan was created and how many lives of their ancestors were lost in the struggle for an independent Muslim homeland. To be specific, about one million Muslims of the subcontinent were killed in the Hindu-Muslim-Sikh riots and nearly ten million displaced. But all that is a fact of history now. With the fervor, the Pakistanis love Indian music, Indian movies, Indian dances and clothes and other Indian products, their acceptance of the dominance of Hindu culture is exposed. Through culture and wedding rituals, Hinduism is befriending Pakistani society. Now, how can we ever fight someone whose values are so dear to us? Thus, by allowing India to divide Pakistan into Bangladesh and Pakistan, we have proved that One- Nation theory for Muslims of India was just a dream. It is these linguis- tic and ethnic ties which have weakened the One-Nation theory. Pathans and Punjabi Muslims who were the Soldiers of Islam in India before 1947 now think of themselves as Soldiers of their province only.


The descendants of the torch-bearers of the glorious civilizations, when Europe was in the dark ages, are now themselves living in filth and crowded slums, except a few. Transportation is horrible. The people ride in buses hanging by the door (and they sometimes fall off). The rich travel in air-conditioned foreign cars. The access to good medical facilities is the right of the rich. The rich and the influential can get the best care available locally or be taken to the U.K. or the U.S. for better medical treatment. The poor have a choice of whether to accept the minimum offered to them (like an out-dated aspirin) or die on the street or die while waiting in the emergency room of a crowded hospital. What a contrast, and what a concept of Islamic welfare state. Food adulteration is common and is seen at all levels openly. Muslims in the U.S. are concerned if there is lard in certain items; poor Muslims of Pakistan who are (without this knowledge) are made to eat meat of dead cow, buffalo, goat, horse or even dogs, adulterated milk, shortening and spices. Merchants never think that there is someone watching them and who will ask them questions on the Day of Judgment. They believe that doing some charity or worshipping one night in a year, or the recommendation of their Prophet will save them.


In brief, if a new Muslim or "born again" Muslim from the West visits a Muslim country, he will be shocked to see the dichotomy and hypocrisy in the preaching and practicing of Islam. So he should keep his expectations low and keep his mouth shut and his eyes closed, and ears plugged; otherwise, he will lose his peace of mind.