By Mehvish Muneera Ismail
February 27, 2016
I recently went for Friday prayers in the Foggy Bottom neighbourhood of Washington DC. The Khutba preceding the prayer was remarkable and noteworthy. It was a sermon as different as could be from what you would hear in the vast majority of the mosques in Pakistan, but the content of which was exactly what they need to be imparting. The Khateeb spoke about our responsibility as Muslims, but his message extended beyond the obligations of prayers and reading the Holy Quran. He spoke of abstaining from backbiting, being polite towards all you come across, to greet strangers with a smile – though not to creep them out (prompting brief laughter from the audience), to respect women – all women, not only the ones related to you — and stressed the importance of guarding one’s modesty as men, and not just as women. This Khutba made me realise that in Pakistan, we have effectively forgotten to talk about an entire aspect of Islam – that it goes beyond rituals and is a way of life.
For example, I have yet to hear a Khateeb talk about social etiquette – an oversight that I am reminded of every Friday in Pakistan when it is time for afternoon prayers. Road ethics in particular must be imparted to those attending mosques. In many of our cities, such as Karachi, come time for Friday prayers, there is general pandemonium within a street’s radius on all four sides of the mosque. Cars will be parked in a manner that effectively blocks roads, or the drive through and entrance of houses or offices. In short, houses around mosques, people living or working in close vicinity of it, or passers-by will be affected in terms of mobility every Friday during prayer timings because the faithful assume that their sole responsibility is to make sure they attend the weekly prayer. To ensure timely attendance, many of these people would have sped to the mosque, putting their own lives and those of others at risk by disregarding driving ethics and traffic signals on the way. Almost everyone attending Friday prayers is aware of this issue, but few would have thought it through. What if someone living two houses down from the mosque has a medical emergency and needs to go to the hospital or requires an ambulance? Will they be able to leave the house or will an ambulance be able to make it to their door step, given the entire street has been effectively blocked by prayer goers. What if there is a fire? Would a fire brigade be able to come to the rescue?
Do we really think that we will not be judged on those actions that inconvenience others around us? Surely not! Isn’t it about time we realised that Huqooq-ul-Ibaad are just as important. Our Maulanas and Khateebs should be encouraged to use the opportunity every week brings to help cultivate civic sense in our masses, to impart knowledge about matters such as, the etiquettes of attending prayers, following traffic rules, keeping our roads clean, fairness and equality among men of all economic stature, respect for all religions, protecting our environment, of conservation of natural resources such as water or energy, and basic regard for all living things – animals and plants included.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan, the way we practice religion now revolves around the ‘actions’ associated with piety or religious practice. Gone are the days when religious teachers, grandparents, and parents spoke to children about Islam’s teaching on how to live our everyday lives. Discipline, punctuality, politeness, honesty and respect for all, irrespective of their socio-economic standing, tolerance, and a list of countless other things that are an integral part of our faith, but have been cast aside. What matters today is how much money you have, what car you drive, how you dress and if you are a person of importance, and therefore someone one should care to know or respect. All of which is of the least importance in our religion.
It’s about time that we started reclaiming our mosques and our religious centres. We must ask our religious teachers and scholars to use the teachings of Islam to help us become better human beings — to use religion as a means of bringing about unity in our ethnically divided communities, rather than sprouting hatred and distrust between sects and schools of thought. Why limit the indicators of religious piety to the number of Hajj, Umrahs, sacrifices and prayers? Let’s extend it and use it as a way to improve society. The onus is on us – will we change your conversation about religion? Will you or I talk about this to our local Khateeb?
Mehvish Muneera Ismail is a lawyer with a post-graduate degree from the University of Cambridge, UK. She is recipient of the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust Award and the Noon Educational Foundation Award.