Posts Tagged ‘ Islam ’

OMG! It’s Muhammad’s footprint

Pervez Hoodbhoy in New Humanist:

The sudden appearance of the Prophet Muhammad’s alleged footprint in the sleepy village of Dharabi near Chakwal has sent a wave of religious excitement across Pakistan. At a three-hour drive from Islamabad, Dharabi is now attracting tens of thousands of visitors from Swat to Karachi. They seek blessings, spiritual enlightenment, miracle cures and relief from life’s other stresses. A road that is sparsely travelled in normal times is now clogged with traffic, vendors of food and drink are having a field day, new businesses selling pictures and holy paraphernalia have sprouted, and a permanent shrine is under construction. The village could not have hoped for better.

My encounter with this phenomenon was accidental and preceded the heavy rush that came in subsequent weeks. While on the way to Chakwal, I became curious about the heavy police presence. Upon inquiring, I was told of a recent momentous event – a giant footprint was said to have suddenly appeared, which the local Muslim scholars promptly declared to belong to the Holy Prophet. But this had ignited a fierce war of words between various religious factions in the larger Chakwal area. Some believers insist that the Prophet had left the earthly world once and for ever, while others contend that he revisits it periodically to remind followers of his presence. The police had been called to prevent physical violence.

Several weeks later the story hit the national press. And when I spoke villagers I had met in Dharabi I discovered that new embellishments and inventions are being added to the original narration of events. Village sceptics, on the other hand, are being silenced and speak only on condition of anonymity.

The story begins on 12th Rabi-ul-Awwal (the 12th day of the third month of Pakistan’s lunar calendar), the Prophet’s birthday, when celebrations were held as is village custom. This involves cooking sooji ka halwa (a sweet dish of semolina and almonds) in large flat iron dishes called karahis. Since there are no stoves large enough for the purpose, shallow holes are dug and then filled with twigs, charcoal or other flammable material. After the cooking is done and the fires have dimmed, the holes are filled with loose earth. On that particular evening there was a heavy rain shower.

That evening a woman looked out into her backyard and saw a glow that appeared to move. In her excitement, she summoned her mother-in-law, who says she saw it too. It appeared very briefly and was not seen subsequently (although a six-week-later version is that it lasted for three days and was so bright that the house did not need electric lights). The women also claimed that the glow was accompanied by a sweet smell. In the morning, the cooking area was discovered to have a mysterious ground impression: a huge footprint.

What scientific explanation exists for this phenomenon? If you Google the ‘Dharabi miracle’ you will see countless photographs and hastily made celebratory videos of the miracle. By straining the imagination, some may be able to see a footprint. But its enormous size – three to four feet long – would indicate that it belongs to the long-sought mythical Himalayan Yeti rather than any human (or human-sized divinity). The shape of the impression can be more plausibly explained as that of loose earth, brought together by rainwater, from two adjacent irregularly rounded cooking holes. It could also be the water-distorted image of two heavy round karahis of different sizes placed on the soft earth. Or it could simply be deliberate fraud.

Assuming that the women had their wits about them, and had not been overpowered by the devotional intensity of the day’s celebrations, the softly glowing ephemeral light could have multiple explanations. First, it is possible that a swarm of phosphorescent insects was somehow attracted to the cooking area. Bioluminescence in insects is a well-known phenomenon. As in the common firefly known as jugnoo, ‘cold light’ is produced via chemiluminescence.

It could also be that the organic matter buried in the holes, assisted by the heat of imperfectly quenched coals or twigs, could have converted into methane and phosphine gases. The latter is known to oxidize spontaneously upon coming into contact with air and can burn at a low temperature causing glowing light. Apparitions in western folklore, such as Jack-o’-the-Lantern or Will-o’-the-Wisp, have been traced by scientists to various flammable gases and insects.

A detailed investigation would involve looking at the soil composition, local entomology and recorded statements of different witnesses. It seems, however, that the Dharabi event will be ignored by Pakistan’s scientific institutions, of which there are well over two dozen. With exorbitant budgets but zero or little scientific output, some are housed in shiny new buildings on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue. These include the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, the Committee on Science and Technology in the Islamic World (COMSTECH), the Pakistan Science Foundation and the Pakistan Council on Science and Technology.

Unfortunately not one of the above or, for that matter, any other Pakistani scientific institute has ever debunked the unreasonable and anti-scientific attitudes that prevail in this increasingly devout country. For example, after the October 2005 earthquake killed nearly 100,000, none challenged the view in the public media that this tragedy was a consequence of our bad deeds, such as watching television or allowing unveiled women to go out of the house.

To be sure, superstitious beliefs exist in other countries as well. One recalls the hysteria in 1995 following the discovery that Lord Ganesh, the Elephant God, would ‘drink’ milk if a spoon of milk was held up to his trunk. Even minor temples in India overflowed with superstitious devotees. So great was the rush that a traffic gridlock resulted in New Delhi and sales of milk jumped by 30 per cent.

Fortunately for India an independent body, the Indian Rationalist Association, was quick to show that Ganesh’s milk drinking had a physical explanation. It was shown to be simple capillary action – which everyone learns about in school. The surface tension of the milk was pulling the liquid up and out of the spoon, before gravity caused it to run down the front of the statue. To its credit, India’s Ministry of Science and Technology confirmed the explanation and the country’s religious craziness slowly abated.

With such precedents, surely it is time for Pakistan’s Ministry of Science and Technology to investigate the so-called Chakwal miracle, as well as the many similar superstitions that delude our people.

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Veiled Threats?

Martha Nussbaum in The New York Times:

In Spain earlier this month, the Catalonian assembly narrowly rejected a proposed ban on the Muslim burqa in all public places — reversing a vote the week before in the country’s upper house of parliament supporting a ban. Similar proposals may soon become national law in France and Belgium.  Even the headscarf often causes trouble.  In France, girls may not wear it in school.  In Germany (as in parts of Belgium and the Netherlands) some regions forbid public school teachers to wear it on the job, although nuns and priests are permitted to teach in full habit.  What does political philosophy have to say about these developments?   As it turns out, a long philosophical and legal tradition has reflected about similar matters.

Let’s start with an assumption that is widely shared: that all human beings are equal bearers of human dignity.  It is widely agreed that government must treat that dignity with equal respect.   But what is it to treat people with equal respect in areas touching on religious belief and observance?

We now add a further premise: that the faculty with which people search for life’s ultimate meaning — frequently called “conscience” ─  is a very important part of people, closely related to their dignity.   And we add one further premise, which we might call the vulnerability premise: this faculty can be seriously damaged by bad worldly conditions.  It can be stopped from becoming active, and it can even be violated or damaged within.  (The first sort of damage, which the 17th-century American philosopher Roger Williams compared to imprisonment, happens when people are prevented from outward observances required by their beliefs.  The second sort, which Williams called “soul rape,” occurs when people are forced to affirm convictions that they may not hold, or to give assent to orthodoxies they don’t support.)

The vulnerability premise shows us that giving equal respect to conscience requires tailoring worldly conditions so as to protect both freedom of belief and freedom of expression and practice.  Thus the framers of the United States Constitution concluded that protecting equal rights of conscience requires “free exercise” for all on a basis of equality.  What does that really mean, and what limits might reasonably be placed upon religious activities in a pluralistic society?  The philosophical architects of our legal tradition could easily see that when peace and safety are at stake, or the equal rights of others, some reasonable limits might be imposed on what people do in the name of religion.  But they grasped after a deeper and more principled rationale for these limits and protections.

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Spiritual malaria?

Nadeem F. Paracha in Dawn:

A recent fatwa from a ‘Saudi Council of Muftis’ has this advice for fellow Muslims: Do not say [or write] ‘mosque.’ Always say ‘masjid’ because mosque may mean mosquito. Another myopic case of Saudi malaria perhaps?

Certainly.  But that’s not all. The grand fatwa goes on to suggest that Muslims should not write ‘Mecca’ but Makkah, because Mecca may mean ‘house of wines.’  I am serious. But then so are the Muftis. They certainly need to get a life.

But I’m not all that surprised by such fatwas that usually emanate from Saudi Arabia. While vicious reactionary literature originating in totalitarian puritanical Muslim states impact and mutate the political bearings of various religious parties and groups in Pakistan, ‘social fatwas’  like the one mentioned above also began appearing in the early 1980s to influence the more apolitical sections of Muslim societies.

Reactionary literature generated by the Saudi propaganda machine started being distributed in Pakistan from 1979 onwards, mostly in the shape of pamphlets and books.

Duly translated into Urdu, they glorify and propagate violent action (jihad) not only against non-Muslims (or infidels) but also against those Muslims who fail to follow the thorny dictates of a certain puritanical strain of the faith.

What’s more, there was nothing so clandestine about the whole process. Because along with mainstream religious parties and jihadi groups during the so-called ‘anti-Soviet Afghan jihad,’ the state of Pakistan also encouraged the unchecked proliferation of this arrogant, myopic and hate-spouting literature.

To the Pakistani state (during the ‘Afghan jihad’) such literature and propaganda were essential to introduce and expand a kind of ‘Islam’ that was historically alien to the religious ethos of Pakistan’s majority Muslim population.

It was alien because for centuries, the political and cultural dynamics of the subcontinent had been such that for survival and posterity’s sake, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and other religious groups of the region, had to adapt and tolerate each other’s religious convictions and rituals. Such a process eschewed religious Puritanism and repulsed any attempt (Hindu or Muslim) to impose a hegemonic social strain of their respective faiths.

The extreme strains in this respect remained on the fringe, both Hindu and Muslim.

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Fear and silence

Mohsin Hamid in Dawn:

Why are Ahmadis persecuted so ferociously in Pakistan?

The reason can’t be that their large numbers pose some sort of ‘threat from within’. After all, Ahmadis are a relatively small minority in Pakistan. They make up somewhere between 0.25 per cent (according to the last census) and 2.5 per cent (according to the Economist) of our population.

Nor can the reason be that Ahmadis are non-Muslims. Pakistani Christians and Pakistani Hindus are non-Muslims, and similar in numbers to Pakistani Ahmadis. Yet Christians and Hindus, while undeniably discriminated against, face nothing like the vitriol directed towards Ahmadis in our country.

To understand what the persecution of Ahmadis achieves, we have to see how it works. Its first step is to say that Ahmadis are non-Muslims. And its second is to say that Ahmadis are not just non-Muslims, but apostates: non-Muslims who claim to be Muslims. These two steps are easy to take: any individual Pakistani citizen has the right to believe whatever they want about Ahmadis and their faith.

But the process goes further. Step three is to say that because Ahmadis are apostates, they should be victimised, or even killed. We are now beyond the realm of personal opinion. We are in the realm of group punishment and incitement to murder. Nor does it stop here. There is a fourth step. And step four is this: any Muslim who says Ahmadis should not be victimised or killed, should themselves be victimised or killed.

In other words, even if they are not themselves Ahmadi, any policeman, doctor, politician, or passerby who tries to prevent, or just publicly opposes, the killing of an Ahmadi, deserves to die. Why? Because anyone who defends an apostate is themselves an apostate.

Aha.

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Letter From Karachi

The Facebook Fiasco and the Future of Free Speech in Pakistan

Madiha R. Tahir writing for Foreign Affairs Magazine:

More than 30 people have been murdered across Karachi this week in politically motivated violence between Mohajirs and Pashtuns, but it is Facebook — or rather the controversy raging over its ban in Pakistan — that draws a crowd. When Facebook hosted a page encouraging users to submit cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in mid-May, many Pakistanis reacted by denouncing the Web site as blasphemous on the grounds that Islam prohibits images of Muhammad as part of a wider edict against idolatry. Some have taken to the streets.

On May 20, my rickshaw puttered alongside a large rally organized by the religious party Jamaat-e-Islami. Hundreds of young male protesters moved in knots behind an overstuffed bus adorned with a banner reading: “To protect our Prophet against blasphemy, we will even sacrifice our lives!” In other times, these young men might have protested the countrywide ban on Facebook, which lasted from May 19 to 31, but last week they were marching resolutely in support of blocking the site. For them, Facebook had insulted their religion and community; for the country’s leaders,the ban was political currency. Even as five bomb blasts shook Lahoreand U.S. drones attacked the Federally Administered Tribal Areas last week, Pakistan’s Islamist organizations pressed ahead with demonstrations against Facebook.

The Jamaat-e-Islami rally came to a halt outside the gates of the Karachi Press Club. Inside, a press conference was getting rowdy. “Contempt of court!” shouted a rotund reporter interrupting Awab Alvi, a dentist known in the Pakistani blogosphere as Teeth Maestro. Alvi was one of four speakers attempting to reframe the debate about the ban as a question of free speech rather than of blasphemy, but the reporters shouted him down.

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Science ends here

Nadeem F. Paracha in Dawn:

Ever since the late French physician, Maurice Bucaille — on a hefty payroll of the Saudi royal family in Riyadh — wrote Islam, Bible & Science (1976), many believe that ‘proving’ scientific truths from holy books has been the exclusive domain of Muslims. However, in spite of being impressed by the holy book’s ‘scientific wonders’, Bucaille remained a committed Christian.

Very few of my wide-eyed brethren know that long before Muslims, certain Hindu and Christian theologians had already laid claim to the practice of defining their respective holy books as metaphoric prophecies of scientifically proven phenomenon. They began doing so between the 18th and 19th centuries, whereas Muslims got into the act only in the 20th century.

Johannes Heinrich’s Scientific vindication of Christianity (1887) is one example, while Mohan Roy’s Vedic Physics: Scientific Origin of Hinduism (1999) is a good way of observing how this thought has evolved among followers of other faiths. It is interesting to note how a number of Muslim ‘scientists’ have laboured hard to come up with convoluted interpretations of certain scriptures. Ironically, their ancient counterparts, especially between the 8th and 13th centuries in Baghdad and Persia, had put all effort in trying to understand natural phenomena and the human body and mind through hardcore science and philosophy.

Those great men of Islamic antiquity weren’t over-reading into divine texts for scientific answers; instead, to them God’s command to reflect on nature and the world around them was enough to inspire them to become dedicated rational scientists and philosophers. They were celebrated not only by Muslims, but humanity at large for their scientific prowess.

But, alas, beginning around the early 1970s, with the collapse of a secular nationalist mindset in the Muslim world, and the rise in influence of totalitarian oil-rich puritanical monarchies, Muslim polities and mindset began to suspect science as a tool of western and communist social engineering and imperialism.

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Whose turn next?

Irfan Husain in DAWN:

I was going to write about something else this week, but when I read the reaction of sundry clerics to Nawaz Sharif’s statement that “Ahmadis were my brothers and sisters and were assets to Pakistan”, I thought I should salute him for his political courage.

Showing solidarity for the oppressed is a sign of decency, a commodity in short supply in today’s Pakistan.

Among other things, the spokesman for the Wafaqul Madaris asked the Muslim League leader not to “defy religion for petty political gains”. Some Deobandi clerics said that the recent Lahore attack on Ahmadis was a plot to undo anti-Ahmadi laws. So are they accusing some Ahmadis of killing their own people?

In many cases, police have found a link between various terrorist groups and mosques, but we are never told if the mullahs in charge have been interrogated. It is all too possible, however, that the police back off due to the connections these clerics have with religious groups and parties.

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