Of Actuaries and Iftars | Daanish Mustafa’s Blog

Aug 2013

Do not speak to me my friend, for I am keeping the fast
We may get into an argument, for I am keeping the fast

My fast is a favour to all
Garland me with Jasmin for I am keeping the fast

I have written on the margins of the files all in all
I cannot work today, because I am keeping the fast
– Zamir Jaffry

Given the attitude of most people who are fasting in Pakistan, one would think that indeed God, society and sinful individuals like myself owe them, for their immense sacrifice of fasting. Of the many manifestation of this supercilious attitude that I frequently witness in Pakistan, my experience on a PIA flight around Iftar time from Karachi to Islamabad, last week merits mention.

It appeared that on the 6:00 pm flight everybody was fasting, or at least pretending to, like me—never mind that one is exempt from fasting when traveling. Surely God awards bonus nekis (good deeds) for such extra credit piety of fasting when traveling, driving or even operating an aircraft. Iftar pack was distributed as soon as the plane took off, with the plea that Iftar in Islamabad is at 7:16 pm, when the plane will be descending for landing, and therefore they could not serve meals at that time. Naturally safety protocols of tray tables folded are not relevant in the face of the fasters’ glorious right to break fast. As 7:16 pm rolled around and I started eating the person next to me warned me that the sun was still visible and perhaps I had jumped the gun with the breaking of the fast. Of course the sun is going to be visible at 35,000 feet a lot longer than on the ground! An open debate in the flight cabin ensued with people openly debating the propriety of breaking fast when the sun is visible, even if it is time on the ground!

In an earlier flight to Kathmandu, I noticed that a couple of pilots hitching a ride on the plane did not partake of the breakfast being served. Seemingly they were fasting too, and were most likely going to operate an aircraft soon after they landed in Kathmandu. On a PIA flight from London a PIA flight attendant admitted to me, with some pious pride that he was fasting and that he thought so was the captain and the second officer. It was documented by Carey Schofield—without any irony, that in her experience most pilots flying army aviation sorties during the Kashmir earthquake were fasting too.

A couple of issues arise here—one, of the balance between the societal imperative and individual salvation, and the second, about people’s understanding of Islamic law. First, the former: One would think that individual salvation would be mediated by the social imperative. Or is it possible to achieve individual salvation without the mediation of the social imperative? The answer of the religious right, Tablighi Jamaat and the neo-liberal Islamists to this question would be an unequivocal: Yes. Individual salvation is a matter of an individual’s communion with God, unmediated by duniyadari (social demands). They even have an entire actuarial science of counting and tallying nekies (good deeds) and gunahs (bads) that accrue from assorted action when done sequentially or in tandem—much like the infernal actuaries in the contemporary neo-liberal world.

In this neo-liberal moment many are enthralled by western consumerism and more so by the intellectual tenets of free market economy and neoliberalism. Those neoliberal ethos are spawning an entire generation of Pakistanis who just give you blank looks anytime one points out that they may have an obligation towards the weak and the dispossessed. That we are not a sum of our possessions or that the job of government is to protect the weak against the strong and not to facilitate individual wealth generation, are bizarre incantations of some weird religious cult to these votaries of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI).

In this moment what seems strangely immoral, takes a turn for the surreal. The religious right, with the Tablighi Jamaat in the front starts echoing the exact same set of values and ethos in the spiritual realm. The God almighty is like a primary school teacher in rural Punjab, or a small shop keeper. You are 1 minute early opening your fast—no sawab for you! Oh so you brushed your teeth whilst fasting and tasted the toothpaste—no sawab for you! Oh so you had camel milk for sehri—double sawab for you! For heavens sake! God doesn’t know or care about your intentions? God did not know that we would have air travel and therefore made a mistake with allowing exemption from fast when traveling? God is so keen on you starving yourself that He would approve of you endangering everybody else’s life by fasting while driving or flying an airplane? Or is God or his angels really like actuaries sitting in the basement of the Habib Bank tallying up your nekies and gunahs?

It seems to me that personal salvation has to be mediated by the social imperative. After all, if there is no social, there is no religion. Religion is predicated upon the social. There is no point in being a Muslim if one is the only one left in the world. And there is no Islam if there are no humans—after all goats or rabbits can’t really follow any religion. Religion cannot be experienced or practiced in a social vacuum. If a religion starts being irrelevant or even antithetical to the social good, it goes extinct. World’s history is full of such extinctions. So if a religion induces its followers to crash airplanes or cars because of dehydration, then I can assure you that that is the true symptom of its crisis.

On the second question of understanding of Islamic law, I have to quote one of my favourite scholars of Islamic law. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a distinguished professor of Islamic law at University of California Los Angeles, who speaks of the sources of Islamic law, thus:

In formulating Islam law, it has become common in the modern age to use the authority of the Author (God) to justify the despotism of the reader. In effect, by claiming that the only relevant consideration is the Will of the Author, the reader is able to displace the Author and set himself as the sole voice of authority: the reader [in committing the ultimate shirq (blasphemy)] becomes God, as it were. The replacement of God’s authority with that of the reader is an act of despotism and a corruption of the logic of Islamic law.

Islamic law is founded on the logic of a Principal who guides through the instructions set out in the texts. . . . Searching out for the instructions is a core value in itself–regardless of the results, searching is a moral virtue. This is not because the instructions are pointless, but because the instructions must remain vibrant, dynamic, open and relevant. It is impossible for a human being to represent God’s Truth–a human being can only represent his or her efforts in search of this truth. The ultimate and unwavering value in the relationship between human beings and God is summarized in the Islamic statement, “And God knows best”

But in case of contemporary Islamic societies like Pakistan, it is not God but the Mullah who knows best. Claiming to know God’s will and supporting and in case of some, even crossing the ultimate moral barrier of taking a human life is a supreme act of moral certainty to which, only God and then perhaps His prophets are entitled. In Pakistan, however, seems like verbal declarations of prophethood are tantamount to apostasy, but actions proclaiming de facto prophethood and even divinity by standing in as the final interlocutor for God’s Will and hence God is a symptom of piety!

Abu al Fadl, again reminds us that, God’s sovereignty is no escape from the burdens and responsibilities of human free will. Maybe God does not seek to regulate all human affairs. In Quranic discourse God commanded all creation to honor humans for their intellect and free will. Perhaps God wants to leave humans considerable latitude as long as they observe minimum moral standards towards each other and the non-human world. And this free will almost certainly includes judgment to decide when it is and it is not in the societal interest to fast, and when might God approve of you breaking the fast between 0° and 90° latitude, or between 0 and 35,000 feet.

P.S. I almost never do air travel in Pakistan during Ramadhan and neither should you. The pilots could be fasting and you don’t want to be fodder for their salvation.

P.P.S. The highest numbers of traffic accidents in Karachi are recorded in the hour before Iftar, according to a Karachi city administrator, when people drive like maniacs. My suggestion: Stay in the hour before Iftar, so that you don’t get in the way of rozadars (fasters) and their iftar.

Daanish Mustafa is a Reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. He spends his time contesting the despostism of the reader over the message of the Author.


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