By Naqib Hamid
February 18, 2013
The pamphlet by the TI about Valentine’s Day presents a host of religious and historical arguments
Valentine’s Day was celebrated enthusiastically in Pakistan recently. From a sociological perspective, it was quite interesting to analyse the celebrations, contradictions and cultural confusion that surrounds the event. While observing the festivities and elaborate preparations for the occasion across the city, it was interesting to come across a pamphlet published and distributed by the Islamist organisation Tanzeem-e-Islami (TI) strongly condemning the day as a “pagan and Christian ritual” and asking God-fearing Muslims to stay away from it. This article in the sociology of religion seeks to present an analysis of the publication that carries interesting, interweaved aspects of religious, historical, social and political thought processes.
The TI was founded by the Qur’anic scholar the late Dr Israr Ahmed in 1975. According to its official website it is a ‘revolutionary organisation’ working to inculcate firm belief in Muslims, propagating Islam and committed to establishing ‘the ascendancy of Islam over all man-made systems of life’. In this regard, it seeks the global domination of Islam and the re-establishment of the Muslim Caliphate, firstly in Pakistan, and eventually in the whole world. Its movement revolves around the idea that it is not enough to practise Islam in one’s individual life but rather Islam has to be enforced in its totality in the social, cultural, juristic, political and economic spheres of life.
The pamphlet by the TI about Valentine’s Day presents a host of religious and historical arguments. The religious, theoretical base that underpins the arguments is a tradition of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in which he is reported to have expressed concern about his followers ‘copying the ways’ of the Jews and Christians. The wording is, “You will certainly follow the ways of those who came before you, span by span, cubit by cubit, until even if they were to enter a lizard’s hole, you would follow them.” We said, “O Messenger of Allah, (do you mean) the Jews and Christians?” He said, “Who else?” This tradition has been reported by Bukhari and Muslim. Similarly, another tradition of the Prophet (PBUH) is, “Whoever imitates a people (nation), he is one of them.” Therefore, the theme of imitation of Jews and Christians and following other nations is central in this discourse.
The historical narrative in the publication states that this day originated initially somewhere in pre-Christian, pagan Rome as the ‘Feast of Lupercalius in honour of the gods Lupercalius and Pan and goddess Juno. Every February 15 there used to be a grand feast to please these Roman gods and goddesses. A draw was held on the occasion through which boys were randomly assigned girls who could be their sexual companions, exchanging gifts as a sign of affection and mutual love. Later, under the influence of Christianity, the publication states, this feast was Christianised to something more in line with Christian ethics and morality. Ultimately February 14 was chosen as a day for remembrance of the sacrifice of an Italian Christian bishop named Saint Valentine, who was sentenced to jail and execution by Roman Emperor Claudius II in the year 270 AD for conducting secret marriages of men serving in the military, something that was forbidden at that time owing to the continuous need for young men in the army to defend Rome. The narrative states that while in jail, Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. This was actually objectionable since Christian doctrine forbade priests and religious monks to have marital or love relations. However, when given the tempting offer by the Roman emperor to be saved from punishment and become his son-in-law if he left Christianity and joined the Roman pagan religion, Valentine refused. Therefore he was executed on February 14, 270 AD. While preparing for death, the priest wrote a letter to his love, the jailer’s daughter, with the closing words “From your Valentine”, an expression of love that has become popular since then. Sometime after Rome had embraced Christianity, in 496 AD the Pope officially decreed to celebrate Valentine’s Day on February 14 each year in the memory of this Christian martyr Saint Valentine. The historical narrative itself, as given in the TI write-up, might be sketchy but its intended message is clear: ‘Save yourself from such a pagan, un-Islamic celebration.’
In these turbulent times of late modernity, Islamist organisations like the TI find themselves in a perplexing situation where the ideal-types of Muslim ‘purity’ and western social ‘progress’ are estranged bedfellows. At the heart of the pamphlet’s discourse is the apprehension being experienced, a feeling that the Muslim concept of modesty is under threat in a world that increasingly enjoys liberal social and sexual lifestyles. This is also evident from the emphasis of the organisation on fulfilling the obligation of ‘amr bil ma’ruf wa nahi anil munkar (prescribing right and forbidding wrong) and its works including messages on billboards that state, “Say no to Valentine’s Day: This tradition reflects our insensitivity, indignity and ignorance of Islam,” quoting the words of the Prophet (PBUH), “If you do not have Haya [modesty] in you, then you are free to do whatever you like.”
After condemning matters like flirting and propagation of indecency, lastly, the pamphlet draws a striking analogy between the characteristic red colour found in Valentine’s Day celebrations and the bloodshed of Muslims in Kashmir, Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq, showing how religion and geo-politics are essentially connected in TI’s discourse. Quite interestingly, the organisation called for a suspension of mobile phone services on Valentine’s Day too. “Rehman Malik suspends mobile phone service on petty issues [in the name of terrorism]. He should close down mobile service on Valentine’s Day to save Pakistan’s people from the moral terrorism of the west,” stated the press release. This is an intricate statement, showing how the organisation perceives the western cultural onslaught to be ripping apart Muslim values; it is destructive and dangerous.
In an age increasingly defined by the culture-ideology of consumerism, where we not only find the religious marketplace but commodified love too, and where metanarratives of existence are increasingly breaking down, Islamist organisations like the Tanzeem-e-Islami face the uphill task of convincing the world about their views about God, Caliphate and Valentine’s Day. Somehow, one feels that finding ‘total modesty’ in a fast changing; globalising world may be quite difficult.
Naqib Hamid teaches Sociology at the University College Lahore (UCL).