The thin green line


May 17, 2010

KARACHI: From the outside, the mosque is non-descript and unremarkable. Yet this house of worship in Clifton, an upscale neighbourhood in Karachi, straddles the very fine line between faith and dogma, between spirituality and insanity and between conservatism and extremism.

It has played a role in the personal transformation of several of Pakistan’s most urbane and upwardly- mobile youths, some of whom have gone from party-going trend-setters to prayer-leading preachers. Yet, the mosque is not actively evangelical, meaning it does not seek to preach to those who do not actively come to them for spiritual guidance. So how does it do it? And what do these lost souls come looking for?

For Hamid, not his real name, it was a chance encounter. Hamid had been a carefree teenager in high school. He was popular among the ladies, had a string of girlfriends, partied every weekend and was not above the occasional joint. He did not despise religion; he just did not have time for it. An avid cricket fan, he went to a Tableeghi Jamaat gathering at the mosque only because a friend told him Saeed Anwar was there. The experience turned out to be a life-changing event.

“The way he spoke, with sincerity, made me realise there was something missing in my life,” says Hamid when recounting that experience.

When probed deeper, however, it is evident that Saeed Anwar’s inspiring talk may not have been the only contributing factor in his transformation. It seems that, despite appearances, all was not quite well in Hamid’s life at the time.

He had been doing badly in school, with a disastrous result in his first year of A Levels. Added to a lacklustre performance in his SATs, Hamid’s dreams of going to an Ivy League college in the US were in ruins.

He started coming to the mosque more regularly, at first only to the evening lectures on the Quran. He was struck by the unimpeachably polite mannerisms of the people there, particularly the imam and the teachers at the seminary that was attached to the mosque. Even the students were extraordinarily reverent, both of each other and especially of their teachers. More importantly, they were able to do so while still retaining the ability to laugh and poke fun at each other, shattering the stereotype of the stern mullah.

They had an almost beatific aura to them, always conscious of doing the right thing. For instance, even when sitting on the floor, they would never spread their legs in the direction of the bookshelf “because books contain knowledge and all knowledge is sacred”.

And in this environment, they welcomed him, knowing his past, acknowledging his moral and ethical failures and stretching out a hand to help him overcome them. They seemed at peace with themselves and with the world. He wanted to be a part of it. The restlessness inside him craved what they had and so he kept coming, eventually enrolling in the seminary.

“We acknowledge our powerlessness in front of God and in doing so become powerful in front of the rest of the world,” said Mufti Abdurrahman in one of the first lessons Hamid attended. “If you completely submit your will to that of God, your will and God’s will become the same and since the universe operates on God’s will, you become powerful.”

That was an important lesson. For Hamid, this lesson meant acquiring an ability to acknowledge his weaknesses to God, acquiring a spiritual humility, while retaining an outward appearance of confidence that now had a more solid foundation. He grew a beard, started wearing trousers that stopped above his ankle and started wearing a cap everywhere he went, acquiring the outwardly manifestations of the inner transformation.

Despite the spiritual peace that Hamid was able to find, he acknowledges that it was a long process that required patience. Others are not quite as willing to wait.

“We cannot become perfect overnight. All we can do is open ourselves to Allah and pray for His guidance,” says Maulana Ghafoor, another teacher at the seminary. Maulana Ghafoor does not readily acknowledge the link between terrorism and Islam. But when pressed, he eventually does say that the people who kill others and themselves in the name of God are sometimes just looking for a faster road to redemption.

“Jihad is about service to Allah,” says Maulana G h a f o o r , himself a veteran of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

“But somet i m e s , people begin abusing it to obtain power and justify it by saying that they are following the commands of their Creator.”

The path to power through powerlessness, that Mufti Abdurrahman taught Hamid, is taken as a different route by these people. Instead of submitting their will to God’s, they begin confusing their own desires with God’s commands. Instead of inculcating humility, their spirituality mutates into arrogance, the kind of supreme hubris that gives them the feeling that they have the right to speak in the name of God and kill.

In essence, the difference between men like Hamid and men like Faisal Shahzad seems to be patience. Hamid was willing to give his spiritual transformation time. Faisal, it seems, was looking for a fast track to heaven and found enough so-called teachers who were willing to grant him their blessing.

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