July 30, 2015 By Ali Ahsan

Book Review of Living Islam. Muslim Religious Experience in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier

living islam

Author: Magnus Marsden

United Kingdom

Cambridge University Press, New York, United States of America

Date Published 2005

First Edition

What does it mean to be a Muslim in Pakistan? The question is of much significance given that Islam is the founding basis of the nation. And yet, it is surprisingly under-studied,as it is not an easy question to answer. The problem is compounded by the fact that research has to be based on a large Muslim populated area in one of the most turbulent regions of the Muslim world. A reflection of our own lives tells us how Islam incorporates diverse beliefs and practices. The perceptions of Islam vary depending on class, region, gender and educational backgrounds.

The complexity and variation within Islam is not recognised in academic or popular literature. The book under review, which narrates Islam as experienced by people in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province focuses on two localities in Chitral, a village and a small town. The chief concern of the book is the commitment shown by the Chitral Muslims to their intellectually vibrant and emotionally significant lives. The book seeks to illuminate aspects of Muslim life by documenting the critical dimension of their everyday lives.

Media representation of Pakistan dwells on how a conservative process of ‘Islamization’ has engulfed Pakistani society. The book casts the case off downright. Chitral people value verbal skill and emotional refinement. They are people who think and react when they are called upon to conform to new standards of spirituality and behaviour. This is laudable considering that this comes in the face of attempts made by Islamising Muslim reformers and revivalists from different parts of the world.

Magnus explores how people in Chitral understand Islam and try to live a good Muslim life. Marsden is an anthropologist by training and is currently affiliated with Cambridge University’s Trinity college and Centre of South Asian studies. His first visit to Rowshan village at Chitral at the age of 18. He taught at a school for an year and mastered the local Khowar language during successive visits. He was now a part of the lives of the villagers in NWFP.

The author with this work hopes to contribute to the anthropology of Islam in the contemporary world and tries to bring about a connection between the anthropology of Islam and debates in anthropology concerning intellectual creativity, emotional modes, ethics and morality. One would assume that Chitral would be fundamentalist in its religious sensibility. The place is just 50 miles from the Afghan border and a twelve hour drive from the renowned Madrasas that are associated with the Taliban. The image that has been brandished around Malala Yousafzai and her global campaign on girls education shows only one side of the story. The villagers are aware of the kind of impression that the fundamentalists make. But nothing is farther from reality.

The author here is of the opinion that there are aspects of Muslim life that are only partially explored. Though the Chitralis in Rowshan village and Markaz town are deeply concerned about religious life and movements, they hold fiercely independent views and live and practice an emotionally and vibrant Muslim life.

The book provides a fascinating account of how the villagers work hard to achieve this sense of independence through their everyday experiences. For the people, living a religious life is not just about scriptural learning and ritual practice, but rather of sustained engagement with the creative forces of poetry, music, dance and critical debate. Practices such as these are highly valued as they bring about spiritual and intellectual refinement. Cultivating healthy emotions are also equally important. Possessing love and affection is considered an important aspect of Muslim life while greed, jealousy and over-zealousness weaken individual faith and intellect. Marsden in this book, shows several anecdotes to show how affection and balanced emotion are of immense intellectual significance for Chitrali villagers.

Hence, religious identity is much more than piety or conforming to social norms. Being a Muslim has to be reflected upon, discussed and debated. This is one of the recurrent topics of discussion as to which Islamic ritual needs to be practiced and why. This brings about people from all sectarian, educational and class divides. The preaching’s of reformist Islam is thus contested passionately.

One of the best aspects of the book is its insistence on not  dividing  the Muslims based on sectarian lines. The Muslims in many parts of the world have this uncanny ability to divide themselves into splinter groups. They are known by their types too – the narrow minded and the open minded, the Ulama and Sufi and so on. It becomes problematic because there are also Jama’at-e-Islami supporters with deep knowledge of Sufi poetry, there are deeply religious people who enjoy poetry, music, dance and impersonation of the Ulama. There are educated people who are liberal when it comes to ‘women’s education’ but not so tolerant of other religious views. The author’s focus on the multidimensional elements of religious living is original and refreshing.

The sensitive account of the lives of the villagers makes the book a memorable read. The author having lived with the villagers understands their deepest fears including personal details that need to be kept hidden from the others, about honour and gender, poverty and sectarian relations. The book with its engaging and lucid writing makes it all the more accessible. Marsden’s academic background does not hurt its theoretical credentials.

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