Dur e Aziz Amna
This piece was sourced by Madeeha Maqbool, as part of her digital guest curation for March 2022, but she received it after her tenure. We publish it now, with many thanks to her.
It is the hour before Iftari, when we flit hungrily between the dining table and the TV, small bellies grown smaller from lack of food, their growls long past the point of embarrassment. Pakistan Television’s Ramzan transmission is airing content that we are tired of watching, having seen it every day of Ramzan for the entirety of our lives. We don’t know yet that the liberalisation of media will soon make this the stuff of nostalgia—Qari Waheed somberly singing praises of the Prophet, the 99 names of Allah zooming across the scene in the foreground of trippy psychedelic visuals, regular time checks showing how long before one might break the fast in Rawalpindi, or Quetta, or Peshawar—add ten excruciating minutes if you’re Shia.
The Qasidah Burdah comes on, and we call Abbu from the drawing room, where he is reading the Quran. We sit in silence as the iconic poem in praise of Muhammad is sung, first in the original Arabic, then in Farsi, Urdu, Saraiki, and then in the most South Asian English possible. We sway back and forth just the way we do in Quran class. The Qasidah Burdah ends. Abbu leaves the room, eyes wet. We look at his receding back in awe and pride. One day, we too hope to be moved this way, to contain the spiritual depth necessary for such tears.
The Qasidah Burdah is a poem popular throughout the Islamic world. It was written by Al Busiri, a Berber poet living in the 13th century. A debilitating illness had left him paralyzed, and he wrote the verses as a way of asking for forgiveness and blessings from the Prophet. That night, Muhammad appeared in his dream and draped him in a cloak. He woke up the next morning to the cloak covering him, his body able to move again. Hence, Qasidah Burdah—Poem of the Mantle.
The Quran class I mentioned above was another constant in our lives, although far less predictable than PTV’s transmission. We were enrolled as early as we could walk over to the neighbor’s house; every week, the children of the neighborhood congregated in a different drawing room and read the Quran under the auspices of a terrifying teacher prone to lashing out with sharp hands—I have never again been so intimately acquainted with another man’s knuckles—or his motorcycle keys.
After I had finished the Quran twice, it was decided that I, along with two boys about my age, would read the Quran in translation instead. Which is to say, we would finally read it in the language we understood. We would take turns reciting the original Arabic, and then the teacher would read aloud the Urdu and provide explanation. The fourth chapter we read was An-Nisa—The Women—and laid down laws and principles for dealing fairly with women. Men’s share in inheritance, we learned, was twice that of women. Qari sahab explained that this was due to the additional financial responsibilities that men shouldered. The money a man earned was his, his wife’s, and his children’s. The money a woman earned was hers alone.
Throughout, the two boys and I gave each other side-eyes, triumphant each time our respective gender was privileged by the holy book. Whose side are you on, God? we were asking. It took me years after to realise that I had lost even before I started playing. An-Nisa is a surah aimed at guiding the early Muslims of Medina as they went about creating a reformed life for themselves after the migration from Makkah. What a strange, heady time it must have been. The Islamic calendar starts the year of the migration; quite literally, it was the beginning of history. Hence, a lot of the Quran is directed towards Muhammad’s companions and the people he consorted with at the mosque and in public. The two boys in my Quran class won because, however gently the verses told Muslims to treat their wives, it was speaking to men. The medium’s not the message; the addressee is.
This Ramzan, I am also reading Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah, an account of his return home to Palestine after a 30-year exile following the 1967 war. The book contains some of the most haunting passages on exile, displacement, and the impossibility of return that I have ever read
This Ramzan, I am re-reading the Quran in English, entirely bypassing the Arabic. Surah An-Nisa doesn’t sting the way it did, partly because of Muhammad Asad’s intelligent and sensitive translation, but also because God, my God, I am not your child anymore. Or, I am not a child anymore. I understand the landscape of early Islam, I understand the practicalities of jurisprudence, I understand the address of history.
Of late, however, the Quran doesn’t appeal to me as much as poetic responses to it. There is a genre of poetry that I fondly refer to as ‘Man rage-dials God’. Iqbal’s ‘Shikvah’, in which he complains to Allah, angry at His indifference to the fate of 20th century Muslims. Khaled Mattawa’s response to Iqbal, in which he asks, “What will you do, dear God, without us? How/ will you fare, alone again in the empty vast, in the dark/of your creation, without us giving you your name?” Sheena Raza Faisal, whose complaint ends more practically: “still, i half-kneel and pray a half-prayer…still, there is no god but God/so i make do with this one.” I find that I am interested in the wound God leaves in us more than I am interested in God Himself.
Perhaps these are the games of a person bypassing real belief, giving in instead to the slipperiness of poetry, the fungibility of symbol.
Am I foolish, Father?
But even when we saw Abbu cry, it was not for God. I have rarely seen anyone cry at a hamd, the name for a poem written and recited in praise of God. It’s hard to cry specifically, solely, for God. As an aunt of mine has famously stated, “We’re no Wahabbis,” and so we sieve God through the Prophet, and reserve our tears for him.
When I was ten, my parents hired Asma, 14, to help cook and clean the house. Over the next six years, Asma and I forged a torrid friendship tainted by immense class difference and the general chaos of two young girls coming of age. Every month or so, our family spent a weekend in our hometown of Talagang, a burgeoning town two hours away from Pindi. For Asma and me, the trips were incomplete without a visit to the house of Shahana and Nafeesa, identical twin sisters loosely related to my family. They were a few years older than us, and we thought they were unsurpassably cool because they had beautiful voices and knew dozens of naats, poems written in the praise of Muhammad. Each time we visited, they would teach us a new one, both the lyrics and the melody. On the car ride back to Rawalpindi—the six of us squeezed into a Suzuki Potohar—Asma and I would silently, eagerly wait for someone to request the latest naat. If no invitation were forthcoming, we would proactively launch into song and verse. Abbu encouraged the recitations, enthusiastically voicing approval afterwards. Ammi sat in impatient and embarrassed silence, and sometimes cut us off if she sensed an impending encore. This stung at the time, although today I can empathise. So much of that poetry is intimate, baked into cultural and linguistic memory. There we were, belting out squeaky adolescent covers on the motorway.
This Ramzan, I am also reading Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah, an account of his return home to Palestine after a 30-year exile following the 1967 war. The book contains some of the most haunting passages on exile, displacement, and the impossibility of return that I have ever read, made even more resonant by Ahdaf Soueif’s translation, which allows me to read in English and immediately feel in Urdu the sensibilities of the original Arabic. In one of its most moving scenes, Barghouti walks the bridge over the Jordan River, and feels that he is surrounded by all the relatives he has lost in the years of exile—the grandmother who would improvise verses, his brother Mounif, his friend Ghassan Kanafani. Finally, he steps into Palestine. He writes, “I stand on the dust of this land. On the earth of this land. My country carries me…Here it is now, in front of you, you who are journeying toward it. Look at it well.”
A naat that Asma and I most eagerly recited, one that perhaps even Ammi did not mind listening to, was ‘Faslon ko Takalluf.’ Written by the Lucknow poet Sayad Iqbal Azeem, the poem is a desperate wish for a visit to the Prophet’s grave in Medina, emphasizing both the arduousness of the long journey and the joy of arriving by the green dome. The second to last couplet states:
“Ay Madinay ke za’ir khuda ke liye dastan-e-safar mujh ko yoon matt suna
Baat barh jaegi dil tarap jaega mere mohtat ansu chhalak jaenge”
(O visitor to Medina, do not recount your travels so beautifully
It will be too much; my heart will seize, these cautious tears of mine will fall)
I compare Barghouti’s words with Azeem’s not only because of the paralleling of the Beloved—the land, the Prophet—but also because secular literature aims to do what religion has always done. People will banally tell you that the best books exist outside of right and wrong; bury that thought. The greatest literature in the world is all exercises in morality.
Two years ago, we lost our grand-uncle, Chacha Jee, who was more than a grandfather to me, and whose words and shrill laughter wander daily inside my mind without the leash of death. As children, my brothers and I often spent weekends at his house. One of our favourite activities while there was to ask for the Karbala movie, a cassette that would be popped into the VCR and show images of an endless desert dotted with caravans of camels and hooded figures. The voiceover told the story of the Prophet’s family, including his grandson Hussain, cruelly massacred in the Battle of Karbala. Chacha Jee’s wife, Baji, sat with us each time, and each time, she wept till her dupatta was soaked.
In Intizar Hussain’s memoir Charaghon ka Dhuan, he remembers a friend lamenting how Islam doesn’t have a central myth, a core tragedy, the way Christianity does. Intizar sahib disagrees. The central mythology of Islam, of course, is Hussain.
Alongside Barghouti, I am reading Ali Shariati, the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution and one of the most fascinating Muslim intellectuals of the recent past. Shariati, at once a devoted Muslim, a charismatic leader, and a pragmatic thinker, advocated for red Shiism, an ideology that stemmed from Hussain’s legendary refusal to bow down to tyranny and injustice, but made it relevant to the Third World’s contemporary issues of bad governance and Western imperialism. Shariati rejected Marxism at its most materialistic, alleging that it ignored human intellect and desire; he disagreed with Frantz Fanon, who considered religion to be an obstruction to the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century. Religion, Shariati insisted, could be an empowering force for the people, but for that, it could not be “the Islam of the caliphate, of the palace and of the rulers,” but instead the Islam “of the exploited and of the poor.”
I read Shariati and curse the contours of history that introduced me to Marx and Gramsci in high school, but never to Shariati until today. And yet, I remember lessons from childhood that echo Shariati’s ideas. Even while we lived through one corrupt government after another, even as we slept every night in comfortable state-provided housing while orphanages and women’s shelters continued to fill up around us, we heard stories of Khalifa Omar perambulating the streets of Medina in disguise to make sure no destitution was kept hidden from him. We learned of Zakat, or the wealth tax. We repeated what Muhammad had said; “He is not a believer whose neighbor goes hungry.” We saw the tattered envelope tucked away in our father’s closet, which he took out on the 1st of each month to replenish. His jagged handwriting on it—‘Allah’s money’.
In 2008, I received a State Department funded scholarship to live with a Christian American family in rural Oregon. While there, I was asked by the local church to give a short presentation on Islam. I agreed to do it, and even trotted out in the nicest shalwar kameez I had brought with me. I’d read newspapers all my life, and just two months out of Pakistan, I felt the need to explain Islam in that cushy way that would resonate with the outsider. I think back to that day often. Me standing at the altar, facing the kind pastor Steve and his flock of Sunday worshippers, all nice, friendly people, and explaining Islam, and Ramzan, and Eid ul Fitr with the posture of the palatable, moderate Muslim. I think of that, and I also think that if someone asked me to do the same thing today, I would refuse without a second thought. I promise, I do not have anything against open-minded curiosity; may it be a blessing for you. It is simply that I am not the person who explains things. It is simply that it will take me all of this lifetime to make sense of other things: my father’s shoulders shaking as he kneels over the prayer mat at Maghrib, every Maghrib; the Azan washing over the family graveyard in Talagang, purple with flowers and fragrant with basil all summer long; the promises you made me, my God; the promises I made you.
Photo credits: Madeeha Maqbool
Dur e Aziz Amna grew up in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and now lives in Newark, USA. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Dawn, and Al Jazeera, and has won the 2021 Salam Award and the 2019 Financial Times/Bodley Head Essay Prize. She graduated from Yale College and the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan. Her debut novel, American Fever, is forthcoming in August 2022, and can be pre-ordered here.