Private Portraits: The Birthday of the Prophet

Private Portraits: The Birthday of the Prophet

Rafia Zakaria: Private Portraits – The Birthday of the Prophet

This is the second post in Rafia Zakaria’s series at Dissent, “Private Portraits: A Pakistan Diary.? Read the first here.

February 4, 2012

It rained early this morning in Karachi, perfuming the city?s smog-sodden earth with the smells of spring, which always arrives in February. It is 11th Rabi-ul-Awwal on the Islamic calendar and the day before the Prophet?s birthday. As when I was younger, songs of praise for the Prophet Mohammad filter in from every open window in the house. They are being sung at the mosque down the street, where hundreds of men will spend the night in prayer to mark the upcoming birthday. Many private homes, including the one across the street from our house, are lit up with fairy lights as a public sign of allegiance to a particular school of religious thought.

It?s a controversial birthday, and in volatile Karachi, all controversies are bloody. What may appear to a Westerner as uniform religiosity in Pakistan is really a struggle between two distinct versions of Islam. At the Saudi-influenced Deobandi end, commemorating birthdays of the Prophet or anyone else is a form of heresy: unjustified, unnecessary, and wrong. On the Barelvi end, indigenous to the subcontinent, commemoration of the birthday referred to as Eid Milad un Nabi (or the Festival of the Prophet?s Birthday), with appropriate pomp and splendor, is a part of religious observance. Six years ago on Eid Milad, this difference in opinion produced a grisly massacre when the entire leadership of the Barelvis was killed as they sat on stage waiting to address a rally. Forty-seven people were killed and over eighty wounded. Despite the intensity of the attack, the prosecution in the case presented only a single witness before the anti-terrorism court.

Malik Ishaq, a leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (one of the organizations implicated in the attack), was released from Lahore?s Kot Lakhpat jail, where he had been held in custody, a week before the Prophet?s birthday this year. He attended a public rally on January 22. In this riven context, nearly six thousand police have been deployed in the streets and parks of Karachi to protect processions by Barelvi organizations such as the Sunni Tehreek, Jamaat e Ahle Sunnat, and others that will take place on Eid Milad.

Both the Barelvis and the Deobandis are united in the belief that no women should participate in these processions, commemorations, or protests denouncing the commemorations. In households with Barelvi leanings, large female-led gatherings known as Mehfil-e-milad will be held where women will sing songs about the Prophet Mohammad and his family. For those women not attending these gatherings in the days surrounding the birthday, there is always television. As I sit listening to the sounds filtering in from the mosque, one woman dominates the screen for hours. She is Fauzia Siddiqui, sister of Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of killing American military officers while in custody in Afghanistan. Demure in a black headscarf and with a special green wrap to commemorate the day, she guides the audience through devotional songs, weeping intermittently in the memory of her imprisoned sister. If the nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan is the emblem of Pakistani survival against imperialist overtures, the imprisoned Aafia is presented again and again as the symbol of how America has wronged Pakistani womanhood.

I watch this with my mother, who is privately irked, quite probably like many Pakistani women, that her favorite soaps have been discontinued for this onslaught of religious programming. My mother, who has never left Pakistan, is devout and prays five times a day. This evening of 11th Rabi-ul-Awwal she says she cares little about what Dr. Fouzia has to say–her exhortations to prayer, her tears, or her barbs against the United States. When I goad her she has this to say: women pray in this country to have some short, sparse periods of time for themselves, divinely granted moments where the duties and responsibilities to the humans that otherwise dominate their lives can be set aside. Prayer is permission for a few moments of silence, the right to an individual act in a thickly wound web of communal, collective existence that mostly serves others.

Read the third post: The Deaths of Women

Photo by Shoaib Ali Zahid, 2009, via Flickr creative commons