LAHORE: I grew up in Lahore. The religion I practised was traditional. I learnt much of it from my home as well as the local mosque whose maulvi also taught me how to read the Holy Quran. However, I had the surprise of my life when I went abroad for the first time. I observed Islam being practised quite differently in some Arab countries where I lived on assignments for the UN.
However, my first exposure to the Arab way of observing Eidul Fitr was not in any Middle Eastern country but in Washington DC, in the mid-1950s.
I was staying in Washington as a member of Pakistan’s water delegation. We were holding talks with Indian engineers on a canal water dispute under the good offices of the World Bank. A few days before the beginning of Ramazan, we received from our embassy a printed calendar prepared by the naval observatory of a Middle Eastern country. It had the date printed for the Eid day and made no reference to the sighting of the new moon, something that we Pakistanis found surprising. On the day mentioned in the calendar, we went for Eid prayers at the Islamic Centre. It was a beautiful new building on Massachusetts Avenue. It had been financed by Saudi Arabia and inaugurated by President Dwight Eisenhower a couple of months earlier.
At that time, Muslims who came for Eid prayers belonged to embassies of Islamic countries in Washington. There was no real influx of Muslim immigrants as such in America’s capital city. Eid prayers began a little behind schedule since the tape recorder on which the qirat (recitation) had been recorded developed a technical hitch.
After the prayers, we — myself and two other Pakistanis — went forward to shake hands with the Imam as per tradition there. But instead of a traditional maulvi, we came across a clean-shaven man, wearing a three-piece suit with a matching neck tie. Later we learnt that he was from Syria and had a doctorate in Islamiat from Cairo’s Al Azhar University.
Our astonishment had not yet abated when on the way out we saw rows of ladies sitting behind the men, most of them wearing skirts and blouses and a few with headscarves. I thought they were local Americans who out of curiosity had, perhaps, come to see how Muslims offered their prayers. But I was wrong. They were wives of Muslim diplomats from Middle Eastern countries who had come with their husbands to offer Eid prayers.
A couple of my colleagues were worried and asked whether the Eid prayers led by a non-traditional maulvi and with women in skirts in the room present, were even ‘jaiiz’ (legitimate)? One of my colleagues later told me that when he returned to the hotel, he said his Eid prayers all over again!
Bashir A Malik
Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2012.
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