The Book of Allah - A Talib's Tale


And that I should recite the Qur’an (Wa an atluw’al-Qur’an) (Al-Naml 27:92)

Ever since I started studying with Maulana Daim’al-Haq in 1971, and continued studying with Maulana Zakariya and Maulana Khan Afzal in 1973, it was my dream to go and study with the teacher of my teachers: Shaykh’al-Qur’an Maulana Mohammad Tahir Panjpiri. In the month of Ramadan, 1973, I realized that dream. I went to Panjpir village for the annual study tour (daura) of the Holy Qur’an.

When you have heard much about a person you tend to build an angelic image in your mind. Often, when you see that person in real life, you might be disappointed that his appearance does not live up to one’s expectations. Not so Shaykh’al-Qur’an. He looked like a saint. He dressed simply. He wore a simple white cap; such as would normally be worn by any Pashtoon from the mountain valleys of Swat or Dir. No turban or anything ostentatious. His beard was like pure white silk. Not only was his appearance striking, his command of his native Pashto was total. He spoke the pure Pashto that people in the plains learn from their mothers. Pashto is a strange language. Generally, the more one becomes educated the worse one’s Pashto becomes since it becomes adulterated with English and Urdu words. This was not the case if one received one’s education at the feet of Maulana Mohammad Tahir. One’s Pashto became more colourful, richer, purer in the company of the Shaykh. Added to his colourful vocabulary was the fact that he spoke with the attractive lilt of his native Swabi—the district where the village of Panjpir is situated, on the banks of the River Indus.

People are often amazed at what they generously call the pure Pashto that I speak. ‘Where did you learn such Pashto?’ they ask me. They are even more amazed at my answer: ‘In madrasa.’ Generally, Pashtoon nationalists look at mullas and madrasas as the antithesis of Pashtoonwali. Be that as it may, it certainly was not the case with Shaykh’al-Quran. Quite apart from learning the Qur’an—of course Panjpir was the place where one could really explore the Book of Allah—by attending the madrasa in Panjpir one came to appreciate the Pashto language even more. The Panjpir maulana sahib was not only Shaykh’al-Quran. In the same way as Maulana Mahmud’al- Hasan was known as Shaykh’al-Hind—the shaykh of Indian nationalism—Maulana Mohammad Tahir also deserved to be called Shaykh’al-Pashto—the Master of Pashto. So great was Maulana Mohammad Tahir’s belief in the Pashto language that he did one extraordinary thing. He recited the Qur’an in Pashto. While his students kept their eyes fixed on the holy book and its Arabic text, he would be running through the Pashto translation without any reference to the original Arabic.

Read the holy book in Arabic, but understand it and preach it in Pashto, he seemed to be telling his students; as the Qur’an says, in the language of one’s people (bilasani qaumihi). (Ibrahim 14:4) So much for the Pashto and the person of the maulana, now we come to the Panjpiri part. As you will have gathered, rank- and while Pashtoons frowned on the name Panjpiri. ‘Panjpir’ means five pirs, a pir being a spiritual guide. That is what seemed suspicious to Pashtoons. It sounded as if the Panjpiris had five imams, instead of the four imams of Sunni Islam. ‘Where does the fifth pir come from?’ would be a typical comment against the Panjpiris. But in fact, Panjpir is the name of the village from where the Panjpir maulana hails. It is said in Panjpir village that the village got its name from five holy men—in other words pirs—who had lived in a cave on the mountain that dominates Panjpir village. It is strange how the name Panjpir crops up in different places. There are five pirs—known in Pashto as pinzuh peeran—buried in the village of Hazarkhanay, on the outskirts of Peshawar, regarding whom a famous song has been sung: Da khar puh khwa, khwa, khwa ke Pinzuh peeran dee year - Right next to the city, you know There are five pirs, my friend. So in fact there was nothing sinister about being a Panjpiri. All it meant was that one was associated with that particular village, either because one was from the village or because one had studied in the Panjpir madrasa.

At that time, however, it was tantamount to abuse to call someone a Panjpiri. The Panjpiris, for their part, far from shying away from a label that they realized irked others, revelled in it. Take the beginning of the chapter of the Qur’an entitled The Believers (al Mu’minun) which gives the qualities of true believers: they are humble in their prayer; they eschew frivolity; they give charity; they safeguard their chastity; and they keep their promises (al-Mu’minun 23:1-9). Five qualities? Panj pir! Shaykh’al- Qur’an would emphasize the point jokingly and point out that one had to be Panjpiri—one endowed with these five qualities—in order to be a good Muslim.

It was much the same with Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s Red Shirts, as the Khudai Khidmatgars were called by the British. The British pounced on the fact that they wore red shirts. In fact, the shirts that the Khudai Khidmatgars used to don were red because of the natural colour—derived from the root of the dwarf palm—in which their homespun cotton clothes were dyed. ‘The natural white colour of the homespun cotton used to become dirty very quickly, so we dyed them red,’ Ghaffar Khan’s son-in-law Yahya Jan explained to me. When it became clear to the Khudai Khidmatgars that the British government was seeking to malign them by dubbing them Red Shirts, then they also called themselves by the same name, sur posh, with pride and a good deal of relish. They took perverse pleasure in the fact that by using this name they were annoying the British. The moral of the story? Do not pick on faults of the Pashtoons that you object to: they will only accentuate those faults in order to annoy you.

A mountain and a river: that sums up the village of Panjpir. The village is nestled on the mountainside, but the madrasa of Panjpir lies on the banks of the river. Normally, the river is no more than a stream. In those days, in the early seventies, one had to cross the river by foot, there being no bridge across it. During the rainy season, when the floodwaters came down from the mountains to the north of Panjpir, the river turned into a torrent. Even the madrasa was prone to flooding at that time. At such times, one had to approach Panjpir from a roundabout route, through the neighbouring Zeda village.

I do not know the exact numbers, but there were a good 1,500 to 2,000 students in attendance when Shaykh’al-Qur’an gave his annual series of Qur’an lectures during Ramadan. Of these, 80 to 90 per cent would have been from Afghanistan. Most of the others were from Frontier districts bordering Afghanistan— Bajaur, some maybe from Dir, adjacent to the Swat valley. As the years unfolded, I was to realize that this preference, amongst Afghan Pashtoons in particular, for madrasa education had a lot to do with the manner in which secular education had been introduced in Afghanistan. Particularly during the time of Amir Amanullah Khan (1919–29), school education was introduced along very secular lines in Afghanistan, with girls who went to school being forced to take off their veils. Such acts of enforced secularization created a perception amongst sections of the rural population that school education corrupted the values of the youth, that it took them away from their traditions and made them less worthy Muslims and Pashtoons. While madrasa students distrust the school system of education, the opposite is also true. Amongst those educated in schools there is also a perception that madrasas are antiquated institutions that practice rote learning and produce mullas who are only good for the mosque or the madrasa and cannot make any meaningful contribution in mainstream life. This is not the case.

In fact, a madrasa education is akin to a classical education in the West. Old-fashioned it may be, in need of reform, definitely, but meaningful nonetheless. It was a great regret of mine that despite studying with the Jesuits in England I had not concentrated on a classical education. The Jesuits are masters of the classics. At Stonyhurst, where I went to school, some of the Jesuit priests would even talk to each other in Latin! I guess by immersing myself in a madrasa education, I compensated for my failing to pursue a classical education as a boy in England.

To my mind, a classical education is a good education. It is real education. It enlightens you in every walk of life. Philosophy, logic, science, drama, grammar, history, theology, sociology, literature, medicine, political theory—there is not a single field of learning that is untouched by a classical education. In the West, after receiving a classical education, you are able to advance in whichever walk of life you wish since you have become well versed in the basics. A legitimate criticism of a madrasa education might be that it is too tilted towards theology. It does not deal with other areas that classical works of Islam have covered. Madrasa students may graduate from madrasa without, for example, knowing anything about the ground-breaking work of Ibn Khaldun on the lessons of history, the causes of the rise and fall of empires.

Eminent figures such as Ibn Khaldun are more appreciated by Western orientalists than they are by the Islamic scholars who teach in madrasas. It is not as if the work of Ibn Khaldun is in any way profane. It can be seen as an elaboration and explanation of a verse of the Quran, ‘Say, “Lord, Sovereign of all sovereignty. You bestow sovereignty on whom You will and take it away from whom you please.”’ (al-Imran 3:26) Still, this does not make madrasa education any less worthwhile as classical education. A madrasa student can easily branch off into other areas of study, on the basis of his or her classical madrasa education. I cannot recall Shaykh’al-Qur’an delving into the works of Ibn Khaldun, but he did explore works that lie beyond the normal ambit of a madrasa curriculum. For example, the Life of Animals (Hayat’al-Haywan’al-Kubra) by Al-Damiri, a classical work on zoology. Its starting point is the verse of the Qur’an that points out that all animals and birds have their own communities, like human beings.1 One of Shaykh’al-Quran’s favourite books was the masterful work of Ibn Battuta, on the ‘marvel of travelling’, documenting his travels from his Morocco to India and China, from which Shaykh’al-Qur’an used to quote extensively. What Ibn Battuta did was nothing more than put into practice the stress that the Qur’an lays, in several places, on learning lessons from travelling in the land (al-sayr fi’l-ard).

There was a lot of emphasis on teaching the Qur’an to women in Panjpir and on the rights of women in the holy book. When introducing the Women Surah in the Qur’an (Surah an-Nisa), Shaykh’al-Qur’an used to narrate a novel interpretation of a saying of the Holy Prophet: I am fond of two things in this world, the Holy Prophet said: women and perfume. And my refreshment—the coolness of my eye—comes from prayer. What this Hadith meant, Shaykh’al-Qur’an used to explain, is that the Holy Prophet was devoted to promoting women’s rights. Shaykh’al-Qur’an dedicated many hours of his lectures to extolling the elevated role of women as guardians of the home. Madrasa students practice more repetition (takrar) than silent revision as is the practice in the West. This system of takrar in Panjpir was based on interaction. One student, who excelled in his studies, would repeat the lesson of the day to two or three other students who were in his revision group.

In these revision groups, there was more discussion of the content of classes than during the lecture itself, when students did not ask questions. Madrasa students liken the process of preparation for classes to a farmer tilling his field prior to planting a crop. This part of the process is done by the teacher, who prepares in advance for each class that he gives. It is the teacher also who then sows the crop. The teacher, after all, is the farmer. The next stage, of ensuring that the lesson sinks in, like the farmer levelling the ground after planting his crop, is takrar—the repetition of what one has learnt.

In the early 1970s, Maulvi Tayyib, the son of the Panjpir maulana, was too young to preside over these revision groups, but when I attended the Panjpir maulana’s Daurat’al-Qur’an in the late seventies, he was the one who was presiding over the main revision group. Maulvi Tayyib had by now inherited his father’s mantle and presided over the Panjpir madrasa. Just as he was the spitting image of his father physically and sounded like him when he spoke, so his lectures were almost complete reproductions of what his father used to say and that Tayyib used to repeat in his revision sessions at the end of each day. One area in which Tayyib fell short of his father is in his recitation of the Qur’an. Whereas Shaykh’al-Qur’an’s recitation, both in Arabic and Pashto, was extremely tuneful, Tayyib’s delivery of the Qur’an recitation and its Pashto translation was somewhat monotone by comparison.

For me, much of the beauty of Islam comes from practice of the Sunnah. A Sunnah is basically a practice of the Holy Prophet that we emulate in our lives, little things such as putting extra water in one’s soup in the evening so that there is enough to give to one’s neighbour. Visiting the sick is another Sunnah. ‘Inshallah, you are being purified by the virtue of your sickness.’ Muslims are encouraged to say to the sick person, or words to that effect: words of upliftment and encouragement. I have had many occasions to visit the sick and have witnessed with my own eyes the improvement in a person’s condition due to such a visit. Part of the etiquette (adab) of visiting the sick is that one should not stay for a long time, lest the sick person becomes tired. There are countless Sunnahs of this nature, covering the way one sleeps, the way one eats, the way one walks, the way one talks—every area of one’s life and dealings with others. By practising these Sunnahs, one’s bearing becomes imbued with Islamic beauty.

As Islam has become more politicized before my eyes over the last fifty years, the emphasis has been more and more on Shariah—Islamic law—as opposed to the Sunnah—the practice of the Prophet. This is nothing short of a tragedy. The Sunnah is a personal thing and can be practised by everyone individually. Shariah is the responsibility of society or the state: who is going to implement it? Who is going to practise it? Society and the state are nothing but a conglomeration of individuals. Unless everyone implements Sunnah on an individual level, how will shariah come into society? It can’t, hasn’t and never will, unless every individual works on him or herself.

With respect to political Islam, I would just like to quote one sentence uttered to me by a South African contemporary of mine in Deoband, Maulana Mohammad Afzal Afriqui. It was the most succinct critique of Islamism that I have ever heard. ‘Our politics should be Islamic,’ he said, ‘but our Islam should not be political.’ Political Islam is the ruination of Islam. It leads one to seek power in the name of Islam. It is the root cause of all the conflict that has raged in the Pashtoon areas over recent decades. Sadly, those who call themselves followers of Shaykh’al-Qur’an have played a major role in that conflict, even though the Shaykh himself was a dire opponent of political Islam. The political interpretation of Islam can be so beguiling. Perhaps Shaykh’al-Qur’an should have done more to dissect this political interpretation, as Maulana Wahiduddin Khan did in India. Had he done, his own students and followers would not have adopted this political philosophy in droves. But this politicization of the Panjpiri movement happened later.

In the early 1970s, when we were students in Panjpir, we were just thinking of becoming better versed in the Book of God, adhering better to the Sunnah of His Prophet and living in thoughts of Allah and His ways. Concepts such as establishing an Islamic state were complete anathema. ‘Destruction and rebellion all for the sake of gaining power,’ (‘At-takhreebu wa’l-baghawatu li tahseel’il-qudrati’) was Shaykh’al Qur’an’s damning definition of political Islam.

One thing happened to me in Panjpir that reinforced that Ramadan showed how much we were living in God’s world. The Qur’an lecture would finish at the time of early afternoon prayer. Then, having offered the afternoon prayer, most students would have an afternoon nap. It was Ramadan. It was also summer and the nights were short. One needed to catch up on one’s sleep. An afternoon nap was also an apt way to truncate the day, when the long hours of daytime fasting began to drag and the heat began to sap one’s energy. One afternoon, I had a particularly deep sleep. I woke up, thinking it was morning, as one often does when one has slept deeply during the day. Drowsily I went outside and relieved myself. Dawdling back to my quarters, I looked up towards the sun. Seeing that the sun was in the west—it was late afternoon by then—and still being under the impression that it was morning, I thought that the Hour had come: the sun had risen from the west! This had been mentioned by the Holy Prophet as being one of the final signs of the Last Day. I am pleased to say that the realization that it was the end of the world was not a cue for panic on my part. I was completely calm about the prospect. For several minutes, I remained convinced that the Last Day (Qiyamah) had arrived. I might even have been a little disappointed when it dawned on me that it was in fact afternoon, not morning, and that the advent of the Hour had been a false alarm.

I had already studied the third Surah of the Holy Qur’an (Surah al-Imran) with Maulana Khan Afzal in Tirah and knew how it dealt with Christian dogma and Muslim–Christian relations. I asked Shaykh’al-Qur’an to go into special detail in that Surah so that I could deeply imbibe the concepts it imparted. Shaykh’al-Qur’an obliged. He explained in the light of Surah Al ‘Imran how the word ‘son’, if indeed it did appear in the New Testament, did not literally mean ‘son’, but it meant one who was dear to God, as a son was dear to a father; how Jesus worked extraordinary miracles but this was not because of any intrinsic power on his part but because of miraculous powers that were bestowed on him by God. Right up to Shaykh’al-Quran’s passing in 1986, he recounted the story of how a young Muslim convert from England had asked him to go into great detail regarding Surah al-Imran. One thing really struck me about Surah al-Imran. It had been revealed when a delegation came to Medina from Najran. The aim of the delegation, which included eminent theologians, had been to preach Christianity to the Muslims. They might well have heard about Islam from their brethren across the Red Sea, in Abyssinia. They knew the Muslims well. A group of Muslims had migrated to Abyssinia from Mecca, prior to the emigration or hijrah to Medina. There was a lot of mutual respect between the two groups.

When the Holy Prophet received news of the death of the Negus, the king of Abyssinia, he offered funeral prayers in absentia on behalf of the king. And when the delegation came from Abyssinia to try and win the Muslims over to Christianity, the Prophet even allowed them inside the mosque of the Prophet in Medina. That is what happens when the Muslims feel confident in themselves and in their faith. Any attempt to win them over, far from being seen as a threat, is seen as an opportunity to put across their own faith and beliefs. When I returned from Deoband to study the Qur’an one last time with Shaykh’al-Qur’an, in 1978, I was a pre-eminent student of his. I would be seated on the Shaykh’s right-hand side during his lectures. His son Tayyib would be seated on his left-hand side.

Seated alongside the Shaykh, we would face the rows of students, thousands of them who had come from the furthest reaches of the Frontier and Afghanistan for the Shaykh’s lectures. The fact that I had come from the hallowed Darul Uloom in Deoband enhanced

the respect that was accorded me, not only by other students, but by the Shaykh himself. One day, after his Qur’an lecture, Shaykh’al-Qur’an turned to me from his floor-level lectern. ‘It is so good that you have gone to Deoband for your studies,’ he was clearly envious of my ability to pop effortlessly across the Indo–Pak border, as he had done in pre-Partition India when there was no border. I was able to do this, of course, by virtue of my British passport. At this time, indeed until 1984, British citizens did not need a visa to visit, or even to reside and study as I was in, either India or Pakistan. ‘Could you not try,’ Shaykh’al-Qur’an continued, ‘to acquire a visa for Tayyib, so that he can also study in Deoband?’

While I was able to travel between Deoband and the Frontier at will at this time, it was clearly beyond me to make arrangements for a Pakistan citizen such as Tayyib. One wonders how things might have panned out over ensuing decades if Tayyib had studied in multicultural, tolerant and cosmopolitan India, instead of in the relatively harsh and monolithic environment of the Frontier. Very differently, most probably.

This chapter is an excerpt from 'A Talib's Tale - The Life and Times of a Pashtoon Englishman'

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