Hold on tight, here comes a comment which is Completely Blindingly Obvious: Pakistan is a very religious country.
Not much of a surprise, is it? Pakistan was the first Islamic state ever founded, carved out of British India by the iron will of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and set up as a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Muslims from across India moved here, fearing for their future in a Hindu-majority country, while Hindus and Sikhs living in what was about to become Pakistan flooded the other way. Right from the outset Pakistan’s identity was defined by the religious persuasion of the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants.
And this religious identity runs even deeper than that. Pakistan is a pretty loose-knit country, consisting of a range of ethnicities with not a whole lot in common: Punjabis, Pakhtuns, Baluchis, Sindhis, Kashmiris, people from the Northern Areas, and then a whole new group of Mohajirs – refugees who fled here from India and made a new life for themselves. In my experience these groups have only a few things in common: hospitality, the ability to cook amazingly good food, a distrust of India, and Islam. And even the Hindu and Christian minorities, about whom I will write in greater length another time, are deeply religious. Early on in our time here I tried to explain to someone that modern Britain is a mostly secular country – but trying to translate “atheist” into Urdu proved tricky; nobody really knew how to say it, so we ended up by using the word “pagan” which is not really the same.
See? Pakistan is a country which has no comprehension of the word “atheist”. It’s probably like trying to explain to a man living in the Gobi desert what snow is like.
This identity affects more or less every sphere of Pakistani life. The daily routine is punctuated by the call to prayer which echoes out at defined intervals. Friday, the holiest day, sees most shops shut. If you ask someone how they are they will probably respond “thanks to God, I am well”. Everything has religious names – shops might be called “Bismillah Drinks Stall” (Bismillah means In the Name of God) or “Praise God Chicken Shop”. I once bought some house plants from a guy in the bazaar who prefaced every single comment he made with the phrase “Insha’allah”, which made for a slightly odd conversation:
Me: How much is that one?
Salesman: God willing, it is two hundred rupees.
Me: And that other one?
Salesman: God willing, it is only one hundred and fifty.
Me: Ok, I’ll have that one and that one.
Salesman: God willing, that is ok.
Me: How much does it come to?
Salesman: God willing, three hundred and fifty rupees. But, God willing, as you are a guest, I will make it three hundred.
And so on.
There are two points I particularly want to make. Firstly, the vast majority of Muslims I meet here are charming and polite in the way they present their religion. Of course, there are different faces of Islam in Pakistan – there are groups who will murder Shi’a people because their interpretation of Islam differs from their own, for example – but every Muslim I have met has been polite, interested, and sincere. I’m a Christian, so they disagree with me, but they do so nicely.
And the second point is this: I like the religiosity of Pakistan. I like that religion is a big deal here, because it’s a big deal with me. I like the fact that I can walk into the bazaar and have a conversation about religion with just about any stranger I meet. Modern Britain is so aggressively secular that any mention of religion marks you out as some kind of weirdo; received wisdom is that religion is dangerous, warlike and retrograde. Over here, by contrast, everyone talks about religion, among most Pakistanis there is an ingrained respect for faith, and generally it is peaceable.
There are exceptions, of course. I’ll write about those later. But the broad picture is probably a lot more pleasant than you’d think from reading the Western media. As a Christian I much prefer a country which writes “Praise God” on its buses to one which writes “There is probably no God, so stop worrying”…