Celebrating religious diversity in Pakistan

Celebrating this diversity at the social and political level will open up avenues for the growth of material and intellectual culture in the society, while posing no danger to religious beliefs of the majority population.

By Umer Farooq

While working as an Islamabad-based correspondent for the country’s leading political magazine between 2006 and 2016, I had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the country to cover socio-political developments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. So, normally, I would spend my time meeting people from all walks of life; ordinary folks like farmers, shopkeepers, laborers, policemen, lawyers, and clerics among others. .

Apart from talking to these people about the political developments and security situation in their areas, I also had the opportunity to acquire knowledge about these people’s beliefs systems along with cultural and religious practices. I developed a layman’s understanding of how these people view the world around them, just by talking to them about ordinary things. But it was not an expert’s understanding as I lacked sociological understanding of intricacies of the social, cultural and religious life in these remote areas of Pakistan.

However, after all these years, I developed an understanding that the narrative of religious orthodoxy that the Pakistani state has imposed on us is an incomplete picture of the reality on ground. Our society is very diverse as far as religious belief systems are concerned and even more diverse as far as religious practices are concerned. And that the narrative of uniformity and orthodoxy imposed on us by the state, using media as a tool, is not the true or a complete picture of the Pakistani society.

If orthodoxy is not the complete picture of Pakistani society then what was the true situation here? I had no clue. I was kind of a lost. But I didn’t  have to wait for long. One day searching for a good book to read in one of Islamabad’s bookshops, I found a book by the name of, “In search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan”. The author was a young man, Haroon Khalid, an anthropologist and a teacher by profession. This book filled the gap in my knowledge about diversity of religious practices and belief systems in the society.

The book took me away from the world of uniformity and orthodoxy as depicted by the Pakistani media (both newspapers and TV channels), whose only sense of diversity begins and ends with short news clips showing Christmas services in Churches on December 25 every year. The book took me on a tour of the world where there were sacred trees and animals with vast followings in the localities where these shrines were located.

I found myself in the world, which finds expression “in shrines of phallic offering”. And this world existed in the sea of ruthless orthodox Mullahs, who do not desist from preaching violence to their followers at the slightest hint of any practices and beliefs, which cross the circle of orthodoxy as defined by religious authorities. These diverse religious practices and belief systems are not an innovation or an aberration in the neat and clean world of orthodoxy. Rather this world of religious diversity has existed for hundreds and thousands of years in this land of pure. And those practicing this diversity have not come from the outside. They are sons of the soil.

So what to do with this diversity? One option is to make an attempt to Islamise this diversity and disallow any diverse practice or belief system, by using coercive machinery of the state. This would amount to destroying the very social fabric and any iota of tolerance in the society. For hundreds and thousands of years, people in this part of the world have lived side by side, despite their diverse religious practices and belief systems that they believe in. Allowing a law ministry babu (official)  or a local Thanaidar (SHO of a police station) to destroy this culture of tolerance and diversity with the coercive power bestowed on them by the modern state would be highly unfair.

The other option is to celebrate this diversity. Human history is witness to the fact that only those societies have progressed in material culture where diverse opinions and religious and secular philosophies are allowed to flourish. Uniformity of opinions and belief systems kills progress of intellect and material culture. Any one disagreeing with this axiom needs a little lesson in human history and Islamic Intellectual tradition. First there is no concept of orthodoxy in classical Islamic intellectual tradition, and, second, even the traditional Religious scholars agree among themselves that Islamic scriptures do not envisage a society of uniformity of religious beliefs.

We have to realize that we are not talking about any unusable theological point which is devoid of any practical political implications. Our decision to curb or celebrate this religious diversity would have practical implications for our political system. Celebrating this diversity at the social and political level will open up avenues for the growth of material and intellectual culture in the society, while posing no danger to religious beliefs of the majority population. On the other hand, curbing religious diversity will cause more violence in the society.


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