Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Qissa Khawani Bazar: The Story of Good & Bad Religion

Qissa Khawani Bazar, 1930

Nanda Ghosh is a fictitious character of indefinite origin in Bengali folk lore who is humorously seen as the root cause of all vices in the world. It’s said, “Joto dosh, Nanda Ghosh”, which implies, whatever be the problem, it’s always Nanda Ghosh who’s to be blamed!

Whenever it comes to things like Taliban, or Al-Qaida and presently the ISIS, US always makes for an easy Nanda Ghosh. It’s not that US has no role in the whole scheme of things, nevertheless, making them the Nanda Ghosh, always, smacks of something else, which is very well understandable. That it’s rather uneasy to talk about or accept certain things publicly has sort of legitimized the hypocrisy of always holding the US – add to it the terms like Western Power, the West, etc. – responsible for everything.

Yes my friends, I’m directly referring to the terrorism, in the name of religion, that has been a grave problem for quite some time. I would rather refrain from calling it an Islamic Terrorism. To be politically, historically, factually and theologically correct, it may be logical to call it “a bad interpretation of religion”, which for the sake of brevity may be referred to as “Bad Religion”. Applying the same logic, when we say “Good Religion”, we mean the good interpretation of religion. The definition of good and bad are relative things. But few things have been known to be good and bad universally. Killing innocent people is seen as bad in any culture and loving people is always good, whatever school of thought you may espouse. Our definition of good bad is also as simple as these universal concepts.

Before coming to the point I would rather like to retell a story, which would create a good premise. It’s the story of the Qissa Khawani Bazar, the Story Tellers’ Market of Peshawar. Not many people would know that it’s perhaps one of the oldest surviving markets in the world, having existed at the same place for at least two millennia, since the times of the Emperor Kanishka, in almost the same way it exists now.

It’s an irony that the Story Tellers’ Market has survived to tell the story of Good and also the Bad Religion.

Lately, Peshawar has been in the news for all the bad reasons. Interestingly Peshawar, the capital of the erstwhile North West Frontier Province, presently Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Indian subcontinent, with a very strong legacy in art, culture and religion that transcends the boundaries of Pakistan and India. Peshawar, and that entire region, also happens to be the karmabhoomi of Bacha (Badshah) Khan, the legendary Pashto leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, an apostle of nonviolence and a close aid of Mahatma Gandhi.

Bacha Khan with Gandhi

The history of Peshawar, and especially that of Bacha Khan, who lends his name to the University where a recent attack happened, don’t seem to go hand in hand with the present state the entire region has got into. The glorious past and the legacy left behind by Bacha Khan were all indigenous to the region. It was not something that any external agency had created for them, unlike the thousand legacies left behind by the British on India. The cultural heritage of that region is very much rooted there, not anywhere else. So it shocks more when we see what it has degenerated into now. The most striking thing of that place is indeed Bacha Khan’s tryst with nonviolence, something the towering personality had started preaching and practicing totally independent of Gandhi. It could very well be a case study in itself, when seen in the context of Islam, or rather the Islam he believed in. It’s intriguing why his interpretations of Islam, which he used to justify his faith in nonviolence, doesn’t find any resonance now.

It’s paradoxical that, at a time when certain interpretations of Islam have been fuelling a sort of violence and terrorism not seen before, no one wants to talk about Bacha Khan’s nonviolence. It’s as though, the moment you talk about that, you indirectly accept Islam can also be interpreted in a different way, and thus, you would accept this too that the other interpretation is questionable, or rather wrong. That is where the problem lies – no one is ready say that the king is naked.
Let us go back and look into the history a bit. Peshawar had a famous dagaba (dhatu-garbha in Sanskrit meaning a receptacle for sacred ashes or relics) enshrining the begging pot of the Buddha. It was constructed by the Kushana Emperor Kanishka in the 2nd century AD. The sacred relic was taken to Vaishali, and then to Kandahar, where it’s still believed to be preserved and revered by the Muslims.
When the Chinese monk and traveler Fah Hien passed through the province in the 5th century he describes the dagaba at Peshawar as “more than 470 ft. in height, and decorated with every sort of precious substance, so that all who passed by, and saw the exquisite beauty and graceful proportions of the tower and the temple attached to it, exclaimed in delight that it was incomparable for beauty”. He adds, “Tradition says this was the highest tower in Jambudwipa.”
When Hiuen Tsang passed that way more than 200 years later, he reports the tower as having been 400 ft. high, but it was then ruined. It doesn’t exist now.
Kanishka is represented as a Buddhist, beyond all doubt. He held a convocation at which Nagarjuna was apparently the presiding genius. From about that time the Tibetans, Burmese, and Chinese date the first introduction of Buddhism into their countries. Nagarjuna essentially spread Buddhism, from Peshawar, over the whole of central and eastern Asia. It was precisely analogous to the revolution that took place in the Christian Church, about the same time after the death of its founder. Six hundred years after Christ, Gregory the Great established the hierarchical Roman Catholic system.
So the Sanskrit Purushapura, which Akbar Persianized to Peshawar, the Frontier Town, happens to be an epicenter for Buddhism. At Jamalgarhi, 36 miles NE of Peshawar, and Takht-i-Bahai, 8 miles further westward, the ancient monasteries exist till date.
Charsadda, where a recent attack happened, is identified with the ancient Pushkalavati, another important Buddhist site.
Peshawar stood at an important crossroad in the ancient Silk Route that connected India with China and the Europe through the Central Asia. Peshawar stands at a point from where, if you went to the east you would enter into India-proper, if you went north you would go to China and if you went to the west you would cross the Central Asia, finally leading to the European lands. It’s not for nothing that the qafilas have been bringing the Afghans, Persians, Turkomans, Uzbeks, Russians and many others from round the world to this place, for two thousand years, since the time of the great Kanishki Namworr, as was the Kushan Emperor Kanishka often referred to in the old inscriptions.

Peshawar still has the Qissa Khawani Bazar, the Story Teller’s Market. Everyone who came here had a story to share and that’s how this market came to be known as the Qissa Khawani Bazar, the Story Tellers’ Market. For thousands of years the people have listened to these stories of the world. If you went to the market, you might realize not much would have changed in the past so many years. The narrow lanes and by-lanes of the vibrant market would be bustling with activity the same way it perhaps did during the times of Kanishka. You might maneuver carefully through a crowd that would have always looked the same. The big bundle you might be carrying on your back would bump against the people, camels, horses and mules, all that have come from places near and far to this market. Making your way through the horde of men and animals and somehow managing not to get run over by the carts of various shapes and sizes, spilling with bazar paraphernalia and vying for space in the packed streets, you could very well dash against the counter of a shop and the colorful pyramids of figs, apricots and pomegranates could come crumbling down, scattering the fruits on the ground. A kid would run away in scare and collide with a man with an end of a pole on his shoulder, carrying wooden cages of squawking chickens. The pole could dislodge from his shoulder, throwing the cages on the ground. The cackling chickens, freed from the broken cages, would run helter-skelter all over the street. A commotion would ensue, overwhelming everyone with the series of comical acts. In the melee a baffled camel pulling an overloaded cart could start racing, running the cart over the feet of some people and throwing many others off the street…

Time seems to have stopped at this place.

Here, the followers of Bacha Khan created their own story on 23rd April, 1930. It was the story of the honesty and truthfulness of the Pashtuns, the story of sacrificing their wealth, life and comfort for the liberty of Hindustan, the story of their lives in accordance with the principles of adam tashaddud, nonviolence, preached by their leader, Bacha Khan.

With his affable but stupefying personality, as towering as his tall height, and the earnestness in his speech, Bacha Khan had hypnotized many young minds. Sometime back, he had given a mesmerizing speech at Utmanzai, his birthplace, not very far from Peshawar.
I’m going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you’re not aware of it. That weapon is sabr, patience, renunciation of all violent retaliation and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it. When you go back to villages, tell your brethren that there is an army of God, and its weapon is sabr. Ask your brethren to join the army of God. Endure all hardships. If you exercise sabr, victory will be yours…”

Bacha Khan had formed the Khudai Khidmadgar, Servants of God, the previous year. Such was the popularity of Abdul Gaffar Khan, anointed as Badshah Khan, the King of Khans, that even his reference would augur a feeling of reverence among his people. Such a level of acceptance among the Pashtuns was perhaps because he had instilled new vigor and honor into Pashtunwali, the Pashtun way of life, giving the violent people a new meaning to their lives which had been relegated to bad blood and savage killings.

He would say, “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca and it has since been followed by all those who wanted to throw off an oppressor’s yoke. A Muslim never hurts anyone by word or deed. Islam is amal, yakeen, muhabat, work and faith and love…”

Bacha Khan was essentially interpreting the 250th verse of the 2nd chapter of Quran. Rabbana, afrigh alayna sabran, Lord, pour sabr on us. Wa-thabbit aqdamana, and make firm our qadm, the steps we take. Wa-unsurna ala al-qawami al-kafirana, and help us against the people who are kafir, infidels. What’s interesting here is his interpretation of “kafir” which most commonly is taken as non-believers in Islam. But Bacha Khan interpreted that as enemies, the Angrez in his case. He decided to support the Peshawar Congress and participate in the Civil Disobedience Movement.

A picketing was planned at the Qissa Khawani Bazar on 23rd April, 1930, which soon turned out to be another Jallianwala Bagh. The police from the nearby Kabuli Thana fired indiscriminately at the nonviolent Pashtuns who ran for their lives in the narrow streets of the market and died, not even one turning violent.
What exactly happened on 23rd April may be well understood from the following two poems, one in Urdu and the other in Pashto.

Malakul maut ko khatir mein na lene wale
Goliyan taney huye seeno pe khane wale
Qabr tak sabr ko sehte huye jane wale
Sabat ka mujiza dunya ko dikhane wale
Not paying any heed to the Angel of Death,
Taking the bullets valiantly on their chest,
Till they go to their graves enduring the patience,
Showing the world the wonder of perseverance…
Dasey toye karhi hecha nadi da chargano winey
Laka toye karhi di angrez da mazlumano winey
Zaka likaley de Santis April harcha pa wino
Che pa de wradz bande werhia we da khwarano winey
Qissa Khana qasab-khana wah pa nazar da khalqo
Che ye bazar ke bahedalay da khwarano winey
 No one has shed the blood of the chickens in the way
The Angrez shed the blood of the oppressed, that day.
“Santis April” all have written in letters bloody red –
The day saw easy blood as the poor died and bled.
Qissa Khana became a slaughter’s house before our eyes;
In the bazar the poor’s blood was scattered under the sky.
It’s ironic that the Story Tellers’ Market survives to tell a totally different story now.
It’s very important now to talk about Bacha Khan and his “good” interpretation of Islam. It’s important to highlight his teachings, not only to inspire people, but also to point out that there indeed is a big issue in the way Islam can be interpreted otherwise.

Consider this: An ISIS manual available in the internet says, “You should rape the female captive. Allah the almighty said: Successful are the believers who guard their chastity, except from their wives or the captives that their right hands possess, for they are free from blame…

It is actually referring to the 5th verse of 23rd chapter to Quran, which says, “Wa-alladhina hum lifurujihim hafizunaAnd they who abstain from sex, except with their spouses or captives whom their right hands possess, are not to be blamed…”

Scanning the ISIS documents, it’s not hard to tumble upon the following quotes from the Quran which are being used rampantly to legitimize most of the atrocities ISIS have been involved in.

2nd verse from 191st chapter: Wa-uq’ tuluhum, and kill them, haythu thaqif’ tumuhum, wherever you find them, wa-akhrijuhum, and drive them out, min haythu akhrajukum, from wherever they drove you out, wal-fit’natu ashaddu mina al-qatli, and Fitna is worse than al-qatli, the killing… Fa-in qatalukum, then if they fight you, fa-uq’tuluhum, then kill them. Kadhalika jazau al-kafirina, such is the reward, jazau, of the non-believers, kafirs.

Yusuf Ali translates the verse as: And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; For tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter.

2nd verse of 193rd chapter: Waqatiluhum hatta la takuna fit’natun, and fight them until not there is Fitna, wayakuna al-dinu lillahi, and [everything] becomes the religion for Allah.

3rd verse of 56th chapter: Fa-amma alladhina kafaru, then as for those who disbelieve, the kafirs, fa-u`adhibuhum, then I will punish them, `adhaban shadidan fi al-dun’ya wal-akhirati, a punishment, severe in the world and Hereafter.

8th verse of 12th chapter:  Sa-ul’qi fi qulubi, I’ll cast in hearts, alladhina kafaru, of those who disbelieved, the kafirs, al-ru`’ba, the terror. Fa-id’ribu, so strike, fawqa al-a`naqi, above the necks, wa-id’ribu min’hum kulla bananin, and strike from them every fingertip.

There are many more. This is nothing by “Bad Religion”.

Often it’s said that Hitler was a Christian and Pol Pot was raised as a Buddhist and that they have killed more people than what the ISIS and Taliban and the Al-Qaida would have killed collectively. But what such a stupid reasoning always misses is that neither Hitler nor Pol Pot justified their atrocities or rather legitimized them, citing verses from the Bible or the Dhammapadas. But ISIS or the Taliban and Al-Qaida always use the “Bad Religion” to legitimize everything.

Problems do creep into the interpretation of every religion. It crept into Hinduism even 600 years before the birth of Christ. That was when Buddha emerged and re-interpreted Hinduism. What the Tagore family et-al tried to do, as late as 150 years ago, was to re-interpret Hinduism, perhaps for the last time. In between, in the two thousand years that have elapsed, a lot of people and movements have emerged to re-align Hinduism with the need of the time. A similar thing is totally missing in Islam.

What’s really curious is why no one wants to talk openly about the need to reorient Islam. All religions have gone through phases of revival and reorientation from time to time.  There’s nothing wrong or bad or sad about it. In turning a blind eye to it, the academia, media and intellectuals are actually doing more harm than good. That’s why Bacha Khan is important now because he did something that any religion needs from time to time – reinterpretation and reorientation.

The Qissa Khawani Bazar stands to tell the stories of both the Good and Bad Religion.

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