Published in The Express Tribune – cover art by Shafique Farooqi
For a Sufi mystic, the teachings of Shams Tabriz were quite clear, ‘There is no wisdom without love. Unless we love God’s creation, we can neither truly love nor truly know God.’
Pop fiction tells us the story of Shams is the story of love (there was also Rumi’s own adoration for his guide Shams, before the latter vanished in thin air, according to who you believe). Yet we are told on 14 February that love for God’s creation, and love for God Himself, stand in opposition.
It’s indeed a funny thing: Valentine’s Day in hot countries. Everyone has an opinion, even the mystery man in the Aiwan-i-Sadr. ‘Valentine’s Day has no connection with our culture,’ said the President of Pakistan, ‘and should be avoided.’
The world ran with it: the Times of India, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, the Independent, Al-Arabiya, Deutsche Welle, the Gulf Times, the Toronto Sun, even Radio New Zealand – more coverage than the president’s ever gotten. Years from now, Mamnoon Hussain will go down in history for spurning chocolates and scented candles.
But that’s neither here nor there. As with most hot countries, the President is the guiding light for the nation – we all obey his words, if with a caveat: by telling us what our culture is not, the president is obligated to tell us what our culture is.
Because, as with all culture, we may lose it. Respected sir, what is this culture you speak of?
We’re told that at the centre of every culture lies the hero. Yet we worship the dead, or those trained in the science of death: our saints are warlords; Ghaznavis whose armies spread fever and melt temples for gold.
So forget the hero then, we’ll revise it down: a culture comprises its events, its buildings, its history, its humanity. Yet when a state tries to kill its own culture – banning Basant, hunting the houbara, handing forest land to Bahria Town, razing ageless heritage sites for orange line trains – the people, too, will turn their eyes away. Because it makes their eyes burn.
The people, too, will buy heart-shaped helium balloons, because that culture is as alien as this one, with its al-Bakistan license plates. This is hard business; stopping people turning to other ideas, when we refuse to let them cherish their own. Yet it is their own that includes the lovestruck Ghalib, the lore of Anarkali, the tragic romance of Waris Shah’s Heer Ranjha. Their land is the land of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, whom preached a love so strong, the Sindh Assembly thought it would protect us from Cyclone Nilofar.
How, then, can spreading love in South Asia be un-Islamic, when Islam was spread via love in South Asia? The mystic you find at Data Darbar won’t be much moved by teddies and red ribbons – no doubt, those are Western bits and baubles – but his eyes will film over when speaking of Data Ganj Baksh, the great Sufi that brought his love for God from Khorasan to the subcontinent. Today, the press talks only of ISIS Khorasan Province.
For Data sahib, understanding of God was silent understanding – those that prayed louder got no closer to the Almighty. How he would have wept, then, to learn of these men in black, perhaps over their violence as much as their nihilism. It’s far easier to believe in nothing, than it is to build and live by a moral belief system.
In truth, all this fuss wouldn’t be so important, had matters of love not turned to matters of death: though Karachi gave us President Mamnoon Hussain, it also gave us Sabeen Mahmud. And Sabeen was holding up a sign not long ago: ‘Karachi says yes to love.’ But Karachi also gave us her killer, an IBA grad whose many and varying reasons for taking her life included affirming such love. ‘We shot her for holding a Valentine’s Day rally,’ said Saad Aziz, per his reported police confession.
Why? Through what sick chain of reasoning? We don’t know. The Jamaat-e-Islami tells us Valentine’s Day is a secular animal – yet the church remembers Valentine as a saint, tortured by Emperor Claudius for bucking a secular edict.
Regardless, the JI should wonder why it’s never reached the heights its brother parties have: the Brotherhood in Egypt and the AKP in Turkey. It should wonder why, in the words of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, another Don Juan, it only has enough men in parliament to shoulder its own funeral.
It’s not because Pakistanis are genetically disinclined to vote religiously. It’s because the JI never gave them reason – it never dug the drains AKP dug, never set up the Brotherhood’s vast welfare networks, never indulged in the rhetoric of hope. Put simply, the JI doesn’t do acts of love. But it’s great at launching Haya Days and slamming satellite dishes.
So here we are; love in the time of haya – yet haya here does not mean modesty, sirs; modesty complements love, it does not fight it. Haya, their haya, means joylessness. Obsessed as they are with death, our clerics have a winning formula: there’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive.
But we’re not the only hot place stewing in love and resentment. Says Indian journalist Ravish Kumar, ‘The hours you struggle simply to spend a few moments with your beloved transform you [into] activists. If I were a neta, I would have ensured a love park in every city and would have happily lost the next election. Clearly, society would not have approved of my plans.’
Society like the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha. The party’s Chandra Prakash Kaushik said his boys would fan out across Delhi convincing couples celebrating Valentine’s Day to marry according to Hindu tradition (Jamaat-Mahasabha bhai bhai at last).
Yet he is aping Valentine himself, murdered for encouraging young couples to marry via the church; Emperor Claudius thought unmarried men made for bolder soldiers.
In the end, Mr. Kaushik instructed volunteers not to resort to violence, but instead offer a white rose – a symbol of purity, if as much a symbol of death.
Perhaps Mr. Kaushik never drank from the well of Sufism, perhaps President Mamnoon never read Shams. Yet let them reflect on his words (if through the modern-day literary filter of Elif Shafak), ‘How we see God is a direct reflection of ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we.’
And as they say, the truth shall set you free.