Marmaduke William Pickthall was an English scholar who translated the Holy Quran into English while being employed by the Nizam of Hyderabad. His translation of the sacred text was so good that even Al Azhar University in Cairo praised it. Judging by just the name it would seem that Mr Pickhtall should be a Christian as he quintessentially had Christian names. However, while he was born a Christian, he converted to Islam in 1917 and became one of the greatest Western scholars of Islam. It is clear he thought that his ‘Western’ sounding name had no bearing upon him being a Muslim. He was Muslim but he was also English and so kept his original name, using the prefix ‘Mohammad’ whenever he wanted to emphasise his Islamic credentials. His retention of a ‘Western’ name was also symbolically important since it showed that there could be English Muslims, just as there are Arab Muslims, Indian Muslims, etc.
The recent case of Asif Mahmood, a Christian member of the Punjab provincial assembly, and the row over the record of his religion in NADRA reminded me of Pickthall. As reported in the press, Mr Mahmood asserts that he has always been a Christian but that NADRA erroneously recorded his religion as ‘Islam’. Even after repeated requests, NADRA has refused to rectify the mistake, claiming that once the religion of a person is recorded as ‘Islam,’ it cannot be changed.
If Mr Mehmood claims that he is a Christian, NADRA should accept it at face value. The state should not venture into deciding a person’s religion.
However, this issue raises an even deeper issue. When asked, a NADRA official claimed that the mistake was perhaps the result of the fact that Mr Mahmood had a ‘Muslim-sounding name.’ Should names of people be distinguishable according to religion? And if this is not done, should people be considered members of a religion based on their name ‘sounding like’ it is from that religion? If this should be the case, then poor Mr Pickthall should have been considered a Christian throughout his life, unless he changed his name to something Arabic, which is considered to be ‘more Muslim’. This also means that, somehow, English Muslims must Arab-ise since being English is simply being Christian. Obviously, a lot of us would object to linking Islam to a particular race since it is a religion for the whole world, equally for Arabs as well as the English.
Further, in the context of Christianity, the issue of a different name is even more complicated. After all, Musa, Ilyas, Daud, Suleman are common names in Christianity, Islam and, of course, Judaism. In the context of Pakistan, almost all Christians in the country are descendants of Muslims or Hindus in the region and, therefore, reflect their ancestry. Thus, a Christian ‘Hussain’ or a Christian ‘Ali’ is not unheard of, just as a Christian ‘Shanti’ or a Christian ‘Bimla’ is not impossible either. People choose names from their culture and/or ancestry.
There are many among us who are only comfortable, if a Christian is called ‘Michael’, ‘John’, or ‘James.’ One explanation could be that these people perceive Christians to be ‘outsiders’ and so they must have names which are in a different language. Finding an Asif, Rashid, or Bashir among Christians makes them uneasy and blurs the distinctions they want to maintain. All Christians in Pakistan have been in the region for centuries and are not ‘foreign’. We should also not forget that Christianity came to India –– in what is now the Taxila region in Pakistan –– in the 2nd century, hundreds of years before Islam came to the region.
Beginning from Jinnah himself, every leader of Pakistan has maintained that they want the religious minorities to feel comfortable in the country and work towards their betterment as full citizens. So why should we want to perpetuate conditions which create further divisions between the people of Pakistan? We should be proud that Christians in Pakistan want to be ‘Pakistani Christians’ and not create hurdles for them.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2012.
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