God and Mud in Pakistan

In July, deep in the heart of Pakistan’s flooded countryside, a miracle mosque was proclaimed: it was the only structure in the small village of Jinnah Colony that the savage waters spared. While the land was still a swamp, I went out to meet the people who had survived by crouching for days on its terrace.

Most of their mud houses had crumbled; those still standing had been destroyed from within. But the villagers were hopeful: I had brought food in a truck, and they had heard that the military was sending tents. As the water receded, they would return to the fields and start sowing winter crops.

Proudly they led me to their mosque, a squat white thing with three turquoise doors and a stump of a minaret — it was built on a platform, which had kept it above the water. The villagers said it had been given to them some years ago by a follower of the Ahl-e-Hadith sect, the Pakistani affiliate of Saudi Arabia’s prohibitive Wahhabi strand of Islam.

“Now,” said an old man with bright eyes, “we are all Ahl-e-Hadith here.”

It was a revelation. The Ahl-e-Hadith, who call themselves “nonconformists” but are called “fundamentalists” by outsiders, demand the removal of all human agents who claim to act as intermediaries between man and God. And in Pakistan, where the descendants of many Sufi saints have used their lineage over the centuries like a slow magic to acquire land and political power, the Ahl-e-Hadith doctrine, with its insistence on a direct and abstract relationship between humanity and the divine, has begun to look like a long-denied cause.

I remembered my own little childhood fantasy for Islam, one that did away with priests and pedigrees and gave everyone his or her own right to God. And I thought I saw its reality now in Jinnah Colony, with its devastated residents and their simple faith in their mosque.

After four months I went back to the village. The water had receded and the surrounding fields were lush with crops.

Naseem Bibi, a diminutive mother of eight who was squatting on the edge of the village, said she was poorer now than ever. “The next time a big man comes to ask for my vote,” she said, “I will pelt him with stones.”

Two young men tried to shut her up.

“This is what the big man does!” she cried. “He throws a little money at a poor man and buys him. He divides the village. We were promised sugar, wheat, money! And we got nothing!”

“Who promised you?” I asked.

She pointed to the mosque.

I thought she was referring to God. But she meant the men who looked after the mosque, the sons of the man who had donated it. They belonged to a mid-level caste, had inherited the small mustard fields around the village and worked as schoolteachers and crane operators in the town. They still claimed to be Ahl-e-Hadith. But in this anciently divided, ever-hierarchical land, these Ahl-e-Hadith, too, had been reduced to living as intermediaries. They had slightly bigger houses than the villagers, whose votes they collected for still-bigger intermediaries, negotiating in the meantime with callous notaries and bureaucrats for rationed food and money that, when it did arrive, was given only to their allies in the village, passing as it always has: from patron to client, man to man, hand to greased hand.

Ali Sethi, author of the novel The Wish Maker.

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