Religious Life of Pashtoons

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Religious Life of Pashtoons, Azim Afridi
Published in Khyber.ORG on Monday, November 11 2002 (http://www.khyber.org)


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Religious Life of Pashtoons

Azim Afridi

Publishing Date: Monday, November 11 2002

By and large the Pukhtoons are deeply religious. The land of these highlanders has experienced the influence of religious leaders for a long time, who, after making their way into the mountains aroused the religious sentiments of the local people and rallied them under the banner of Islam against the enemies of their religion. Besides less known divines, who occasionally sprang up and played their short but spectacular part on the stormy stage of the Frontier, the names of Akhund of Swat, Hadda Mullah, Haji Sahib of Turangzai, Mullah Powindah, Faqeer of Ipi, Mullah Syed Akbar or Aka Khel Mullah, Gud Mullah, Lewaney (mad) Mullah, Karbogha Mullah, Faqir of Alingar and Chaknawar Mullah also figure prominently in the religio-political history of the Frontier. Saints and divines exercised immense spiritual and political influence over their minds and it was on account of their religious zeal and fervour that they proclaimed a holy war (Jehad) against infidels. They fought a number of battles against the Sikhs under the leadership of Syed Ahmed Barelvi Shaheed and Syed Ismael Shaheed and later under the influence of the above noted religious divines and stalwarts.

Owing to their strong religious feelings for their brethren-in-faith, the Turks, a large number of Pukhtoons, especially the Afridis, deserted in large number from British army in France, Mesopotamia and Egypt in the First World War. They were averse to fighting against their co-religionists and that was why the General Officer Commanding in Chief, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, was compelled in November, 1917 to repatriate three Indian officers and 202 other ranks and all Frontier Pukhtoons of 58th Rifles from Egypt and recommended ban on their recruitment on account of their "bad behaviour".

The Pukhtoons are punctilious in offering their daily prayers and observance of fast during the month of Ramazan. Writing about the devotion of Pukhtoons to their religion, Major H. B. Edwards says, "whatever occupation they might be engaged in, whether business or pleasure, it was always interrupted at the hour of prayers". He adds, "in my tent, which was always full of people concerned in some case or other, they would break off the conversation, and ask to be excused for a moment; then take a scarf and spreading it in the corner towards Mecca, devoutly commence their genuflections". Each Pukhtoon village has a mosque in which a Mullah or Pesh-Imam leads the daily prayers and imparts religious education to the village children. The Mullah is served free meals and he receives Zakat and alms from village folk. Alms giving and Zakat is common and Haj is performed by men of means. Alms giving is especially resorted during adversities and food is also served to the poor. On the occasion of Eid, Barawafat, Muharram, Shab-e-Barat and certain other religious day rich food is prepared to invoke the blessings of Allah.

The holy men, Saints, Sayyids and Mians are held in deep reverence. They give amulets and charms to the people which are considered to be antidote to illness, disease, calamity and evil influences. They are shown utmost respect and their hands are kissed in acknowledgement of their priety. The practice of Piri-Murid (Teacher-student relation in suphism) is also common. A Pir or religious preceptor guides his Murid or disciple in his spiritual progress. For this purpose he takes a Bai'at (affiliates himself) at the hands of the Pir who enjoys the reputation of holy man and has the ability to guide him in establishing commission with God. Sometimes lunatics and impostors are also mistaken for saintly persons. But the younger generation equipped with modern education and imbued with the spirit of enlightenment, is immune from such influences.

Shrines

Being orthodox Muslims with strong religious susceptibilities the Pukhtoons hold holy men and their shrines in high esteem. The devotees pay frequent visits to shrines and enter the presincts bare-footed and entreat the saint's blessings for the restoration of falling health, wealth and success in certain other ventures. The more a saint enjoys reputation, the more his tomb attracts devotees. Certain ziarats (shrines) have a special reputation for the cure of specific ailments and are credited with certain other virtues. For example prayers are offered for the birth of a male child at Ziarat Kaka Sahib and Pir Baba and visits to several other shrines are considered effective for curing of madness, rheumatism, dog bites, hysteria and certain other ailments. The visitors and devotees, particularly women bring back a handful of salt or gur which is believed to be a cure for illness. For Muslims, Friday is a sacred day and visits to the shrines are paid on Thursday or the night preceding Friday. Pukhtoons, like all good and devout Muslims, raise their hands and offer Fateha while passing by a graveyard.

Shrines are the safest places in tribal areas and the tribesmen keep their articles in them without any fear of pilfering. No one dares to lay hands on any article kept in a shrine due to the sanctity of the place and possible wrath of the buried saint. Reputable shrines are often under the charge of a care-taker (known as Munjawar in Pashto and Mutawali in Urdu) or a fakir who lives on the premises and collects donations both in cash and kind from the devotees to provide water and food to future visitors (langar). The trees around a shrine are never cut and the birds enjoy complete safety. The observance of Urs or annual festival at various Ziarats is also common. The devotees attend these gatherings annually for two days in large number and engage themselves in Zikar or religious meditation.

Eid-ul-Fitr (Kamkay Akhtar) and Eid-ul-Azha (Loe or Star Akhtar)

These are the two main festivals which are observed with great zeal. In some places a fair is held on the Eid day while at others on the day following the Eid. The boys make large bonfires called Katamirs and kindle them on a hill top in the evening, preceding the Eid Day. Young and old alike, wear new clothes on Eid Day, and the entire area wears a festive look just as Christmas is celebrated by the Christians.

Moharram and Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi or 'Bara Wafat' are also observed with deep reverence and due solemnity. Pious men among the Pukhtoons engage themselves in prayers particularly during Lailatul Qadar or "the night of power". On this night the Holy Quran was revealed to the Holy Prophet of Islam. The night of Lailatul Qadar has been described in the Holy Quran as better than a thousand months. Muslim jurists differ in their opinion regarding the date of its occurrence. Some of them are of the opinion that this night falls on 21st or 23rd of Ramadan while others believe that it falls on 27th or 29th. However, all the doctors of Mohammadan Law agree that Lailatul Qadar falls during the last ten days of the holy month of Ramazan and every prayer is accepted on this auspicious occasion.

Toba Westal

After a persistent dry spell when drought conditions prevail, the people of the villages headed by the Mullahs come out to the fields and offer prayers, at least for three consecutive days. This is called "Tobhay Westal" or supplicating God for rain. Besides, children of the village come out in streets and collect wheat, maize and barley from the houses of the village. While collecting grain the children chant in a chorus:-

Ka cha ra karruloo ghanam - Khudai ba war kerri sra zaman
Ka cha ra karraloo joowar, Khudai ba war karri war pa war
Ka cha ra Karreley Orbashey - Khudaya ta war Sara Kha shey

God in turn will give sons to anyone who gives wheat
God in turn will give sons one after another who gives maize
May God bless those who give us barley

After the collection of grain the children cook it and after serving it to the poor they pray for rains. They also go to the nearby graveyard and sprinkle water on graves.

Superstitions

Doud Dastoor or customs and traditions are in fact the product of historical, geographical and economic conditions. Evolved in process of time, social usages become the guiding principles of day to day life and all individuals living in a particular society feel bound to abide by them.

It is a common phenomenon that customary laws of the masses are not free from religious and even superstitious influences. In Pukhtoon customs at least some of them are also not immune from such influences. The use of amulets and talismans has already been mentioned. Besides, strange ways and means are devised by them to protect themselves from the evil eye and evil effects of Jinni and demons. Pukhtoon women believe that evil spirits cannot come near a newly born infant if a knife or a dagger is put near its pillow or at its head. Therefore, they always keep a sharp edged weapon besides the infant's pillow to ward off evil spirits. The child may be sick and suffering from diarrhoea, dyspepsia or any other malaise, but the old grandmother will ascribe it to the influence of some evil spirits. Instead of taking him to a doctor's clinic for treatment, she mutters charms and throws red hot metal in cold water to scare away the evil spirit or a possible evil eye. This, she believes, is the only remedy to cure the infant's illness. And if these charms do not work, she is convinced that the child is suffering from throat trouble. She takes him to some experienced man or woman of the locality for raising its uvula. This, in Pashto called is Jabai Porta Kawal.

The raising of uvula is common all over the tribal areas. Some raise it by putting the index finger inside the child's mouth while others put a handkerchief around child's neck and give him a few jolts after muttering of charms. Not contented with this the mother will put amulets (Tawiz) round the child's neck as a protection against the evil eye or Bad Nazar. The amulets written by a pious man and woven in a string are suspended round the child's neck. Some of these amulets are sewn in a cloth, some are wrapped in a leather or silver leaf inset with costly stones, depending on the financial position of the child's parents. Sometimes a black spot (Kalak) is put on the child's forehead in an attempt to protect him against the evil eye. In certain clans a child is deliberately kept dirty and ill clad for warding off the evil spirits. The claws of a leopard or a lion are also sometimes hung around their necks. The old grandmother also believes in charms. She takes a handful of wild rue (called Spailanay in Pashto) which is considered a panacea for warding off a malignant eye. She puts some wild rue on red hot coals and starts revolving the bowl round the ailing child while chanting some magical incantations. This is called "Nazar Matawal" or removing effects of the evil eye. After the wild rue is burnt it is kept in the door way of the house with smoke emitting from it. Sometimes an old woman takes a few red chillies, revolves them round a sick persons's head and then puts the pods in the fire. There is a famous maxim in Pashto that the Da ranz ranzoor raghaigee, Da stargo ranzoor na raghaigee", i.e. 'an ailing person may recover from illness but ailment caused by an evil eye cannot be cured'. On other occasions a goat or lamb is slaughtered and the blood of the sacrificed animal is sprinkled on the door or wall of the house to ward off possible natural calamities. But as a result of the general rise in education, the educated tribesmen no longer believe in such superstitions. They take their children straight to a doctor's clinic in case of illness.

When a baby is carried out of the house, a veil is placed over its face to protect it against the possible affect of an evil eye. Some men and women are notorious for a malignant or evil eye. It is generally believed that their looks can break even a hard stone into pieces. Similarly mothers desist from carrying infants while visiting a house where death has occurred because of fear of Bad Ghag or evil voice. They also have recourse to some other expedients to guard the child against evil spirits.

Besides this, several other superstitions are prevalent in Pukhtoon society. For example, the cawing of the crow on a house wall or top of a nearby tree is considered as a sign of the impending arrival of some guests. Similarly, falling of flour on the ground at the time of kneading is interpreted to mean that some guests or visitors can be expected. The howling of dogs at night is considered a bad omen, indicating the coming sickness or death of some one in the family.

The winking of the right eye lid is taken to mean a happy tiding and throbbing of a left eye lid as a bad omen. In case of a hiccup, it is generally believed that an absent friend or relative is remembering. While removing shoes, if perchance, one shoe lands on top of the other, it is thought that the person would undertake a journey in the near future. If the right palm starts itching, it is believed that money will come into his hands. On the contrary if the left hand itches it is generally believed that the person will lose some money. The crowing of a hen, which is quite un-usual, is considered a bad omen and it is killed the moment it crows.

The sight of a dirty man or a sweeper early in the morning is considered un-lucky. Similarly a distinction is made between fortunate and unfortunate days. Certain days are considered lucky for journeys while others are believed to be un-lucky. If a person dies at a place other than his village or home town, a black hen is slaughtered before the engine of a car or bus at the time of taking the corpse to its native place for burial. Similarly a black hen is slaughtered in between the fore-legs of the horse or mare of the tonga in which the corpse is carried. The tribal Pukhtoons refrain from incurring the ill-will of Pirs and Fakirs and even men possessed with an evil tongue called Tor Jabay. The speech of Tor Jabay is considered more deadly than a lethal weapon and his curses may become harbingers of misfortune.

The Pukhtoons generally rely on dreams. The sight of a white or green object, in a dream, is considered auspicious while black objects, fire and floods etc are considered inauspicious. They have a strong belief in destiny. Fate is considered as absolute and un-changeable.

Some strange notions are found among Pukhtoons about the "Whirlwind of dust which spins abut in autumn". It is generally believed that the whirlwind is caused by a jin. Similarly when a storm blows for two or three days, the Pukhtoons are heard saying that some innocent man might have been brutally assassinated somewhere. A child born feet first is called "Sakki". It is generally believed that "a few gentle kicks from one, so born", can relieve pain in the back. During the winter when it rains continuously for a week or so, the children erect dolls made of flour clay called "Ganjyan". The ganjyan are considered a means of stopping the rain. The taking of fal or omen from some religious book is commonly believed and practiced. On Shab-e-Barat the village women assemble in a house. Each woman puts a ring, comb or some other object in an empty pitcher and a small boy or girl is deputed to take them out one by one. At the time of taking out an article, a woman recites a few verses such as "Ma jagh kawa ma spara, Khudai ba dar karri pa tayyara" i.e. God will provide you with food even without ploughing fields. The better the verse in composition, the more it is considered auspicious. In matters pertaining to superstitions Pukhtoons now do not believe much in fabulous tales due to the general rise in education. But the illiterate, particularly those who live in inaccessible hilly tracts, are comparatively more superstitious than the people living in the plains. Charms and omens are generally believed in by the un-educated masses, especially the women.

Though there are several references to the existence of spirits in the Holy Quran and Ahadith, yet belief in genii is considered as a superstition by almost all the European writers. It would not be without interest for the readers to know some thing about Pukhtoon's belief in jins. The Pukhtoons believe in genii, evil spirits and Churail etc. The genii, it is believed, can assume the form of a human being, beast, animal or of anything they want to. The genii are stated to be of two kinds; believers and non-believers and good and bad. If a good tempered jin takes a fancy to a person, it will attend upon him like a faithful and devoted friend, ready to render him any service even at odd hours. The genii or fairies called Khapairay in Pashto are particularly known for their friendliness and there are innumerable tales of fairies sincerely devoted to their male friends. These creatures, which are described as resplendently handsome, help their friends in making fortunes. It has almost become proverbial about a poor man prospering in life that he has drunk a fairy's milk. Any person possessed by a Jin is believed to have the power of discovering stolen articles and predicting the future. When asked to give information about a certain object, he or she will excite himself or herself in a state of hysteria or induce a trance to make the predictions.

A man acting like a lunatic is believed to have been possessed by a Jin. It is a common belief that the Jin possesses the victim's tongue and controls all his actions. When it occurs, a Sayyid, Mian or a learned Mullah credited with the power of exorcising the evil spirits is immediately sent for. He recites a few verses from the Holy Quran and conjures the jin to depart. The exorcist addresses the jin in a threatening language to leave, if soft words and entreaty prove of no avail. When the battle of hot words does not produce the desired effect, then the exorcist writes a charm on a piece of paper and burns it under the afflicted man's nose. Recourse is also made to certain other methods to force the jin to depart. Sometimes the afflicted person's hand is held in a firm grip by a strong man. He presses it as hard as he can till the patient starts crying out in agony and pain and appeals for mercy. It is believed that the jin speaks through the patient's tongue. The exorcist, therefore, asks it to leave and swear by Prophet Sulaiman (Solomon), who is believed to be the king of all genii, not to come again. Sometimes short wooden sticks are put in between the patient's fingers and his hand is pressed hard. If this device also fails then the exorcist places a frying pan on the fire with some ghee (melted butter) in it and throws a charm in the boiling ghee to make the jin flee or die.

Chilla

It is a common belief that a man can obtain the services of genii by means of talismans or certain invocations. For this purpose he undergoes the rigours of a chilla for a period of forty days. Chilla is of two kinds; spiritual and temporal. The spiritual chilla is practiced for the purification of the soul whereas the temporal chilla aims at making wordily gains by means of controlling genii. During the period when anybody is undergoing the arduous task of chilla, he remains in a state of meditation, keeps himself aloof from the people and chooses an un-inhabited or deserted place, for self-mortification. He follows his Pir's instructions both in letter and spirit. By sitting within a circle ('Hisar') drawn around himself he remains vigilant and contents himself with little food and water barely able to sustain him. There is the possibility of his becoming mad, if he moves out of the circle contrary to his Pir's instructions or frightened out by the resisting jin. It is said that during the last few days of Chilla genii appear before the probationer in horribly hideous shapes to frighten and lure him out of the circle. If he, succeeds in completing the prescribed course without falling a prey to the genii's insidious temptations, he gains control over them and the leader of the genii appears in person before the man for carrying out his orders and all the genii, old and young alike, follow suit.

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Religious Life of Pashtoons, Azim Afridi
Published in Khyber.ORG on Monday, November 11 2002 (http://www.khyber.org)