Muslim Village Intellectuals: Life of Mind in Northern Pakistan :: Khyber.ORG

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Muslim Village Intellectuals - Life of the Mind in Northern Pakistan

Magnus Marsden

Anthropology Today, Vol 21 No 1, Feb 2005

View of Markaz, the administrative centre of Chitral district (Inset) Cover of a DVD featuring one of Chitral' s best known musical groups

Today more than ever before, there is a need for sophisticated anthropological insight into the forms of individual and collective self transformation for which the problematic term 'Islamization' has come to be widely used. Among both academics and popular commentators, the 'Islamizing' process is often represented as a matter of irresistible pressures to embrace a single, all powerful model of moral and spiritual perfection based on behavioural codes derived either from Qur'anic texts or from the teachings of Islamic jurists and other authorities. So called village Muslims are often said to be either straightforwardly resistant or meekly submissive and uncritical in their responses to the calls of self styled Islamic purists and reformers. In this article I present a very different account of the processes of Islamization in Chitral, a region of northern Pakistan which has been profoundly affected by movements of both local and global Islamic activism, including the rise and fall of the Taliban regime in nearby Afghanistan, and the effects of regional conflict involving the region's majority Sunni and Shia Ismaili sectarian communities.[1]

For the last seven years my fieldwork among the Khowar speaking people of this remote and beautiful mountain area has taken me to exuberant week long polo tournaments played out on dusty poplar lined polo grounds, and to night time male-only public musical programmes at which delighted crowds have cheered touring performers combining exquisite Persianate verse with penetrating contemporary satire. Above all, on the road in crowded minibuses with long distance travellers, and in local homes and teashops, I have taken part in endless hours of conversation with my Chitrali friends, all of whom spend their days and nights in continual exploration of the arts of conversation, interpersonal debate and public verbal exposition. They are people who value verbal skill and emotional refinement to a very high degree. They are also people who think, react and question when they are called upon to change their ways or conform to new standards of spirituality and behaviour. Their reactions to the demands of so called Islamizers are not necessarily dismissive or hostile. What they do believe is that an individual wishing to live well and in tune with divine will must cultivate his or her mental faculties, exercising critical thought and what an anthropologist would call emotional intelligence on an everyday basis.

Everything I saw and experienced in Chitral made me realize that the best recent studies of life and thought in the Muslim world have been right to insist on the complexity and diversity of what it means to live a Muslim life. Anthropological work on, for instance, veiling practices (Brenner 1996) and the impact of new media on Muslim thought and identity (e.g. Eickelman and Anderson 1999) has furnished insights into Muslim life that contest models which seek to explain the homogenization and 'perfection' of Muslim thought and identity in the contemporary world. What is scarce in specialist academic writing, however, is rich ethnographic insight into the ways in which Islamizing messages are received by village Muslims. So when I attended musical programmes in Chitral at which the most requested performance entailed a local poet imitating one of the region's most powerful pro Taliban mullahs, did this mean that the Chitral region was simply an eccentric holdout in an otherwise Islamized world, or could the daily lives of Chitral people furnish broader insights into the thought and experience of Muslims living in rural regions of the contemporary Muslim world?

Flying coaches: Chitral and the frontier

Chitral is Pakistan's northernmost administrative district, and a part of the North West Frontier province. It is a poor and relatively remote region; in winter all roads to the region are blocked by snow. Chitral is different in many ways from other regions of the Frontier. The Frontier is dominated politically and numerically by Pashto speaking Pukhtuns, who have been the focus of sustained research in anthropology. [2] Yet most if not all Chitral people, who call themselves Chitrali or Kho, are proud to assert that they are different in profoundly important ways from their Pashtun neighbours. [3] The main language spoken in Chitral, Khowar, is an Indo Aryan language unintelligible to both Pashto and Urdu speakers. [4] Moreover, unlike other districts of the Frontier province, there is a substantial population of Shia Ismailis, who are also Chitrali Khowar speakers, in the region. Many Sunni Muslims in Chitral and elsewhere in Pakistan hold that the Ismaili Islamic tradition is a deviation from pure Islam. [5] There have, indeed, been episodes of violent conflict between Sunni and Ismaili Muslims in Chitral, yet they continue to live together largely peacefully in many of the region's villages.

The Chitral Police special branch attend the annual Shandur Pass Polo tournament

Whilst Chitral is different in important ways from other regions of the Frontier, Chitral people are conscious and informed about what they call 'down Pakistan' and the 'outside world'. One topic of discussion for many Chitral people is the nature and impact on their own lives of religious education as currently taught in Pakistan's Islamic seminaries (madrassahs). Madrassahs are an important dimension of life for many Chitral people: attending religious seminaries has been a major form of education for people in the region for at least the last 50 years, yet since the mid 1980s, the number of young Chitrali boys studying in ethnically diverse but largely Pukhtun dominated Deobandi madrassahs has increased considerably. [6]

The impact of messages emerging from radical Islamic religious seminaries (madrassahs), both in Pakistan's Frontier province and elsewhere, on the thought processes of Muslims is now a focus of attention among many academic and popular commentators. Yet much of this work takes as self evident that these messages are homogeneous and that their reception is uncontested, especially in poor and geographically remote regions of the Muslim world where madrassahs are often assumed to be a focus of enthusiastic allegiance and even armed militancy. There are, however, few detailed ethnographic studies of this process of reception. More general models tend to represent the village Muslims' reception of 'reformist Islam' either as reflecting an ignorance of normative Islamic doctrines in rural settings, or in terms of straightforward resistance or meek submission to forms of religious authority originating from sophisticated urban centres. [7]

However, I found such approaches unhelpful in coming to an appreciation of the complexity of the ways in which Chitral people tackle the task of being Muslim in a world where both madrassahs and an array of religious political movements connected to them (including the Taliban) are powerful and influential. This is not to say that Chitral is untouched by radical Muslim teachings about contentious issues such as the veiling of the women and the supposedly un-Islamic nature of both local customs and the Western media: both of these concerns are the topic of addresses made from the pulpits of the region's mosques, and small explosive devices have been used to destroy the satellite dishes which beam both Indian and Western television channels into the region's relatively wealthier houses and tea shops. Yet there was a very wide range of responses to such messages. This range included Muslims who professed ardent allegiance to the most vigorous kinds of Islamist positions, others who were critical but appreciative of Islamizing messages, and yet others who were publicly outspoken in their opposition and criticism. In a region in which two contrasting Islamic doctrinal traditions co exist, this diversity makes living a Muslim life in Chitral even more complex and fraught, and the relationship between Chitral people who respond in diverse ways to radical Islamizing messages is the source of much discussion in the region's villages and small towns. Yet what is striking is that whilst in some cases such relations result in moments of open and even aggressive conflict, in other situations the debate is heated but nevertheless considered intellectually stimulating and of inherent value to those involved.

Playing Polo in Chitral's Administrative Headquarters

Chitrali religious students (talib-e ilm) bring back to the region the teachings they have learned in madrassahs elsewhere in Pakistan: when they return to their villages for their summer holidays, wearing 'down country' style prayer caps, they often try to persuade their Sunni friends and family members that their Ismaili neighbours are non Muslim infidels; they may attempt to stop their brothers from playing music with friends in the village, and throw away the bottles of home brewed red wine they find hidden beneath their fathers' beds. Yet Chitral people do not unthinkingly defer to the pronouncements of their 'little brothers' (phuk brargini) who have studied in the madrassahs of 'down Pakistan'. One place where the vibrant nature of the engagement between the talib-e ilm and Chitral people less inclined towards the puritanical Islamic lifestyle they preach is most clearly evident is in the convoys of minibuses that make the 14 hour journey between the headquarters of the Frontier, Peshawar city, and Markaz, the region's administrative centre. The journey for all passengers - for the most part Chitral people, with the occasional group of Punjabi tourists, Afghan refugees and religious preachers from 'down Pakistan' - is uncomfortable, hot and tiring. Yet it can also be full of laughter and joking: Chitrali students put much energy into persuading the Pukhtun bus drivers to play cassettes of their favourite Chitrali love songs, and they click their fingers to the sound of the drivers' favourite Indian music hits. Since October 2002, when a coalition of religious parties was elected to government in the Frontier's Provincial Assembly, the police have also been instructed to ensure that music is not played in public transport on the region's roads. Most drivers claim, however, that the mullahs have no power to prevent them deciding what to listen to in the confines of their minibuses. 'What power do the mullahs have to beat my backside? If I want music, I play music,' was the response of many Chitral drivers I spoke to.

More worrying than the holders of authority and morality outside the bus, however, are their less influential but equally fervent supporters within. Playing music in the confined space of the minibus is a great source of irritation to the young madrassah students who, fingering their rosary beads and stroking their newly sprouting beards, plead with the driver (ustaz, literally 'teacher') to turn off the music and play a Qur'anic recitation cassette instead. Such disputes are rarely completely resolved, but the drivers, mostly Chitrali and Pashtun men, leaning over the wheel of their vehicle, smoking cigarettes and hashish out of the window, and periodically stuffing chewing tobacco (naswar) into their mouths, often tell the aspiring mullahs that if the music is turned off they will crash into the deep ravine below. These young religious men are, then, seen as having the capacity to silence Chitral people, stop them from engaging in free and intelligent discussion, and, critically, transform their emotional states by preventing them from experiencing 'open' (kulao) and 'happy' (khoshan) moods, making them, instead, 'frightened' and 'bored'. In spite of these pressures, however, many Chitral people are prepared to engage volubly and critically both in their presence and with the young scholars themselves; acting against the 'little taliban's' religious injunctions also offers Chitral men a chance to display masculine bravado.

Polite gatherings

Despite the severe difficulties of life in their 'homeland' (watan), most Chitral people breathe a sigh of relief when they disembark from the minibuses that have carried them home from Peshawar and other 'down country' Pakistani cities. Many say that there is greater 'peace' (scoon) in the villages of Chitral, and that they are saved from the 'speed' (tezie) of city life. Yet at the same time, they also speak of their lives as being full of tension (tensien) and anxiety (pereshani): unemployment, loans, and the unfriendly behaviour of neighbours who should ideally be affectionate and loving are all enough to send most sensitive (ihsaz korak) Chitral people into periods of tensien. In this setting of sadness and anxiety one way in which many Chitral people seek enjoyment in their daily lives is through the shared experience of music and dance. During my stay in Chitral a great deal of my time was spent attending musical programmes at which local musicians, poets and comedians perform. Indeed, the sound of music was an ever present feature of life in the region: cassettes of local Khowar music were constantly playing in the region's houses, jeeps and shops, and my friends and I often travelled along dark mountain roads in search of musical entertainment for the evening.

Chitrali women and their children emerging from a wedding feast

There is a diverse tradition of musical performance in Chitral - the musical programmes I explore here are known as gatherings, or the mahfil, and are characterized by their almost tea party like politeness. We would gather in the early evening for a meal of roast meats and rice in a friend's house; importantly, the hosts as well as the guests included both Ismaili and Sunni Muslims. [8] In the host's house my friends and I would always have to be on best behaviour: we would stand when someone entered or left the room, deferentially offer glasses of water, and address our friends as the 'veins of our heart' (hardio batin). Depending on the company we were in, sometimes before we ate or started to listen to the musicians perform we would share a bottle of home brewed mulberry spirit, and on other occasions in more pious company prayers were offered before the entertainments began. Wine (sharab), my more 'free' friends would often tell me, is supposed to 'clean the heart' and stimulate engaging and meaningful conversation, unlike hashish (bong), which has the capacity to make clean minds dirty and generate sexual and immoral thoughts. When my friends did drink, however, they did so looking over their shoulder, and mostly behind locked doors: the region's religious authorities were not averse to naming 'drunkards' from the villages, declaring them infidels, and shaming them in their addresses in the region's mosques.

The expert musicians who attended these musical programmes were amateur performers: they did not accept payment for their music, but played, rather, for the sake of interest (shauq) and a love of music. When not playing in the houses of their friends, the musicians worked as shopkeepers, medical assistants, forestry officers, telephone exchange operators and in the police force, but they were also local celebrities in the region. Like those in attendance, the members of the musical group were also a mix of Ismailis and Sunnis - indeed, their lead singer was an Ismaili man in his mid 20s. The instruments they played included the local four stringed Chitral sitar, the jeer can (an empty petrol can used as a drum), a large daff (tambourine), and twin kettle drums, or damama. The musicians would accompany the voice of the lead singer of the group, and he would sing, mostly, modern Khowar love songs written by local poets. One popular song composed by a Sunni man in his mid 30s and often recited was 'If the heart is not troubled, then who will write the love song? If there is no dew on the green mountain pasture then who will write the love song?'

The songs performed, whilst recently composed by Chitral poets, drew upon older traditions of Persianate Sufi poetry: many of them described the pain of the heart (hardio dard) caused by separation from a lover, compared the broken heart to the shards of glass from a smashed bottle of wine, and described how love had made the 'intellect astonished, but the heart compelled' ('aql hairan magam hardi majboor)'. These love songs, then, were reflections on the possibility of losing control of the intellect through the experience of heightened emotional states induced by love. Indeed, many of the musicians and poets told me that their work was deeply influenced by the real life experience of love relationships. The emphasis on losing control of the conventions of daily polite behaviour increased as the evenings progressed: the melancholic music speeded up, men who liked to dance stood and performed, and they were given encouragement by clapping and whoops of laughter and hisses of joy. Dancing with their arms outstretched, feet gently moving to the beat of their drum, men threw their heads back, looked skywards, and span to the rhythm of the music. Many of the mahfil goers also commented that only someone with a deep knowledge of the music could ever experience its effects to their full extent. These Chitral people made clear connections about the interconnectedness of emotional and intellectual processes, and emphasized the desirability of these for their daily lives.

Afghan butchers from the Panjsher Valley in their shop in a Chitral Village

These programmes are loved for more than just their music and dance, however. During the middle stage of a musical programme of this type, men in the room who were known to be excellent impersonators would stand up and imitate people: one of the favourite impersonations during my stay in the region was of a religious scholar from the region who was a known supporter of the Taliban. The man who performed this impersonation, Mufti, was a well known love poet, though he also claimed to be a supporter of the Islamist Jama'at-e Islami party - an important Islamist political party powerful in Pakistan and known for supporting the introduction of a strict shari'a legal code. [9] Yet in the setting of the mahfil Mufti sat with his legs crossed, pointed his finger in the air, and gave comic fatwas (religious edicts) concerning what was and was not permissible for Muslims. Men would 'lose' their 'senses' laughing as they saw Mufti reincarnated as a well known Chitrali religious scholar telling the audience that so long as there was no woman in the room then, for Muslims, anything was permissible. However, Mufti had also caught the attention of the region's religious authorities: they told him that he had committed blasphemy in his love songs, and was acting in an un-Islamic way by imitating one of the region's most famous and respected 'bearded ones'. And there were even some followers of the musical group itself who claimed that Mufti overstepped the mark in his imitations of the mullah, and was on the verge of apostasy.

The diversity of opinions and attitudes among Muslims in Chitral does not reflect any simple division between those in the region who are unaware of Islamic doctrinal norms and those who have been informed about such standards and have subsequently altered their behaviour in order to become 'true Muslims'. Neither can these performers be categorized simply as traditionalists resisting reform minded Muslims - many of them are themselves supporters of parties and movements promoting Islamic reform and purification. Rather, what is visible in Mufti's imitation of the mullah is that Chitral Muslims not only have diverse opinions about living a Muslim life, but also actively handle this diversity by continually exploring and discussing it; they are involved in relations founded upon dynamic and sometimes argumentative engagement about issues of great importance for them. The enjoyment of the mahfil, then, is not only about the experience of altered emotional states: a significant component of its fun (mazah) is the display of critical and creative intellectual prowess.

A Chitrali Village Elder

Local philosophers

It is not, however, only in the ecstatic moments of shared joy in music and dance that Chitral people act in ways that challenge both the pronouncements of the region's ulama and dominant Western stereotypes about the state of Muslim thought and identity in the contemporary world. There is also a tradition of critical debate and discussion that is an active, valued and ongoing feature of everyday life in the villages of Chitral. In the village in which I mostly stayed, the most significant way of passing the time was discussion and, sometimes, acrimonious debate with one's fellow villagers. Moreover, where we might expect the discussions of village Muslims in a remote region of Pakistan to be narrowly confined either to the discussion of Islamic doctrine and practice or to concerns of family honour and reputation, the intellectual life of the village Muslims with whom I lived broached sensitive issues that are important in the present day, and they see the village as both having and needing to sustain an intellectual life.

Chitral people distinguish between mindless gossip (faltu mashkulgik) and mindful discussion and debate (bhas korik): the former is often viewed as being bad for both individual health and village morality, the latter as an important way of relieving the boredom of village life, and improving the standards of failing village morality. Furthermore, it is not only the village's male, educated and wealthy few who engage in such discussions: while some of the people engaged in it were men who were well educated by local standards, less well educated men and, strikingly, women also often played an important part in these discussions. Moreover, even illiterate folk in the region were recognized as having the ability to contribute in thoughtful and critical ways to conversations about an array of interconnecting themes important for the villagers: they are known by their fellow villagers as 'local philosophers' (watani falsafa).

Chitrali village school girls picnicking on a day out in the mountain pastures in spring

My friends were, they often told me, eager to discuss complex and abstract ideas, and we would spend long afternoons sitting on metal garden chairs in the orchard of a friend, drinking tea, eating mulberries, apricots and apples, and enjoying conversation and debate. In these discussions one theme of great importance for my friends was the nature of the act and experience of thought. I was often told that 'true' thought flies high and free, is the sign of a good and intelligent person, and that free thinkers appear happy and fat. Yet many villagers also had great anxieties about thought. I was often told that those who became lost in thought soon became thin and weak: thinking too much alone, unlike thought allowed to pour out in a sociable exchange of ideas, was dangerous and to be avoided at all cost. Chitral villagers, then, see thought as something that has positive and negative dimensions, and understand it as being intimately connected to both bodily and mental well being.

Teachers from a Chitral village school on their annual picnic trip

One of my friends, Aftab, a Sunni man in his early 30s, had Master's degrees in both international relations and political science. His father and mother were both uneducated, and he was unemployed: despite his high levels of educational achievement he had found it impossible to realize his dream, which was to work in Pakistan's prestigious civil service. As a beneficiary of a Master's level education, Aftab was not in any sense an atypical villager: most of his friends in the village had studied for Master's degrees in subjects such as Urdu literature, sociology and political science. According to many analyses of contemporary Islam this is exactly the type of Muslim whom we would expect to become a supporter of one of the many Islamist parties now powerful in Pakistan - full with the passion of education, schooled in the teachings of Islam, and angered by his inability to enter a lucrative position in the state of Pakistan, Aftab could easily be assumed to have turned to anti state, anti Western, and jihad oriented forms of Islamism. [10] Indeed, Aftab was a one time supporter of Pakistan's Islamist Jama'at-e Islami party, and many of his friends told me that whilst at college he was very religious: he had prayed regularly and made friends with religious scholars and teachers. Yet Aftab had now cultivated a reputation for being something of a thinker (soorch korak) in his village - this was something of which he was proud, especially when his friends and neighbours called him kabil (intelligent), a philosopher (falsafa), and, perhaps most importantly of all, 'a man with an open mind' (kulao dimargho mosh).

Aftab loved nothing more than voicing provocative statements before gatherings of the village's youth (juanan) and sometimes, even, the respected elders (lilotan). On one occasion, while sitting in the orchard of a Sunni friend who had married that day, he said loudly to a gathering of about ten young Sunni and Ismaili men that if they wanted to live a truly Islamic life of purity and honesty then instead of kissing their girlfriends in secret behind the darkened bushes by the river, they should embrace them openly in the village's alleys and lanes: 'honesty and openness', he declared, 'should be even more important for Muslims than shari'a' (the Islamic legal code). Aftab went on to tell one of his friends sitting with him, Majid, a Sunni man of about 30 who had a Master's degree in sociology and who claimed to support the Taliban, that his dream of a utopian Islamic government was a false one: such a form of government, Aftab declared, would simply push more things under the surface and make the system and people's minds more hypocritical even than now. For Aftab, it was openness that Pakistan and its people needed, not secrecy (koashteik). Some of the boys listening to the conversation were now giggling into their handkerchiefs, and some of Aftab's more Islamist inclined friends did say they thought he had gone mad (gaderi). Aftab himself once told me that one of the village elders had told him that it 'had reached his ears' that Aftab's once impeccable Islamic standards had slipped, and he was reported to be saying things against Islam and the 'bearded ones'. Aftab was clearly upset by this gossip, yet he was also proud of the reputation he had earned as 'open minded', and was considered by most if not all villagers as a greatly valued feature of village life.

Gaining a reputation for being a 'local intellectual' or 'open minded', then, is not easy; nor does such a reputation come without its fair share of stress and anxiety. For not only are the standards that villagers set for 'open minded' thought and behaviour complex and subtle, so too there are many forces in the village that work to constrain the degree to which people can think and behave 'freely'. What is critical, however, is that the constant struggle to demonstrate the possibility of generating independent intellectual ideas and standards, and taking an individual stand on matters of great personal significance, is one that is recognized as having the potential of unleashing unsettling anxieties - yet despite these dangers, is considered good, valuable and worthy of personal sacrifice.

A Chitrali shool boy


The diversity of opinion about how to live a Muslim life in Chitral is not merely the product of competition between divergent Islamic doctrinal traditions. Nor should it be understood as a manifestation of 'ethnicized' religious and cultural values in the region. What I have sought to show in this article is that in both village and urban settings, Chitral people have found creative and distinctive ways of living together. They do not always do so peaceably or even sociably, and they are certainly not immune to the sectarian differences and other sources of tension which generate violent conflict in their own and other Muslim societies. Nevertheless, in almost everything they do both within and beyond the private spaces of the household and hamlet, the Chitralis I know manifest a continual recognition that the life of a good Muslim is a mindful life, in which the play of refined and emotionally sensitive thought processes is and should be a critical element of everyday human interaction. These are convictions which both the women and men I know bring to bear on their engagement with authority and their sense of their own individuality, and they are enacted above all in their reflective and energetic engagement in a world of often painful and disturbing change and unpredictability.

Magnus Marsden is Graduate Officer in Research at the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, and a Research Fellow at Trinity College. His research focuses on Muslim life in the Chitral region of northern Pakistan: his book Muslim religious experience in northern Pakistan is to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2005.

The findings reported in this article would not have been possible without the help and support of many people in Chitral. Fieldwork in Chitral was conducted with the generous support of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, an ESRC research studentship, and a grant from the British Academy Society for South Asian Studies. It has also benefited from sustained and insightful criticism from Dr Susan Bayly, and from four anonymous AT reviewers. Pseudonyms are used for places and people throughout the text.


  1. I first lived Chitral as a school leaver in 1995 and made three subsequent visits before conducting a 20 month period of 'formal' anthropological fieldwork in the region between April 2000 and October 2001. This period of fieldwork was followed up by three further shorter stays
  2. The most detailed studies of Pukhtun society are Barth 1959, Ahmed 1983, Lindholm 1982 and Banerjee 2000
  3. There are a number of colonial accounts by British soldier scholars of Chitral: see, especially, Robertson 1899 and O'Brien 1895. On the region's history, see Parkes 2001.
  4. Many Chitral people do, however, understand and speak Urdu; those educated beyond the age of 16 are often also competent in English, and Chitral people who have lived in other regions of the Frontier are often fluent Pashto speakers.
  5. On sectarian conflict in Pakistan, see Nasr 2000.
  6. The number of religious seminaries in Pakistan's Frontier Province has increased greatly over the last 20 years; most of these are affiliated to the reformist Deobandi school, and Chitral is a major centre for the recruitment of students for these seminaries (see Malik 1996). On the history and development of Pakistan's madrassah network, see Zaman 2002.
  7. In both academic and popular literature, reform minded Muslims of many different doctrinal traditions are widely referred to as fundamentalists and Islamists. While it is important not to oversimplify, I will employ the term reformist to describe the wide range of 'bearded ones' (rigisweni) whom Chitrali villagers and townsfolk see as adherents of strict, reform minded Qur'anic forms of Islam. Such folk are also referred to as 'hardened' (saht), 'preachers' (tablighi) and 'extremists' (imtihai pasand).
  8. Women never attended this mahfil type of musical programme. Whilst women and girls did enjoy listening to local Khowar language music in the privacy of their own homes, they also often told me that they preferred the more 'modern' and lively Hindi film cassettes their male relatives bought in the bazaar for them.
  9. On the Jama'at-e Islami, see Nasr 1994.
  10. See Kepel 2002.


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