The Truth About Prophet Muhammad’s Marriages

The incendiary comments of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders about the Prophet Muhammad mark a new low in their anti-Muslim rhetoric but essentially echo medieval crusade chroniclers’ distortions  

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

For crusade chroniclers in the Middle Ages, writes historian John Tolan, the Prophet Muhammad was either ‘a golden idol that the “Saracens” [Muslims] adored or a shrewd heresiarch who had worked false miracles to seduce the Arabs away from Christianity.’ Tolan notes the depictions made the Prophet ‘the root of Saracen error and implicitly justified the crusade to wrest the Holy Land’ from Muslim control. The crusades were not just wars but a divinely argued bid to eliminate Islam and Islamic civilisation, which arose in the seventh century and made pivotal contributions to literature, learning, thought, and science. An estimated 40,000 Jews and Muslims were killed in the first crusade in the 11th century on Pope Urban II’s call.

The misrepresentations of the chroniclers persisted in modified forms in the European discourse. They have been used to justify the colonization of Muslim lands and to promote missionary activities since Europe overcame its inferiority to the much intellectually advanced Islamic world by becoming capable of original science, which Muslims dominated for over 600 years. The distortions gained a fresh currency beyond the western world in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks as demagogues globally sought to tap into Islamophobia to disenfranchise Muslims and delegitimize their genuine aspirations and grievances.

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Distortions about the Prophet and character assassination related to his marriages have been an important part of the ideas these misrepresentations shaped. Much of this has centered around his polygamy and betrothal to Aisha. The incendiary comments of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, who are known for their deep antipathy towards Muslims, about the Prophet Muhammad have put a spotlight on these distortions. They mark a new low in their anti-Muslim rhetoric but essentially echo medieval crusade chroniclers’ distortions amid a shrinking space for Muslims with the emergence of the BJP as a hegemon in Indian politics.  

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The Prophet in reality lived mostly a monogamous life. He was 25 at the time of his first marriage to his employer, Khadija, who had been married twice before and had children. The union lasted for over 25 years. In a society where polygamy was a norm, Khadijah remained his only wife until her death. After Khadijah’s passing, a woman named Khawlah bint Hakim is reported to have suggested to the Prophet to either marry Aisha, who was unmarried, or Sawdah, a divorcee, to look after his daughters as he was busy with preaching.

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When Hakim proceeded following the Prophet’s go-ahead, both proposals were accepted. Since they were made on his behalf, he could not have backed out as per tradition. He married both but only consummated the marriage with Sawdah, who was of the Prophet’s age. Aisha came to the Prophet’s home years later at her father’s insistence. In his book No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Reza Aslan notes the Prophet’s union with nine-year-old Aisha was just a betrothal. The marriage was not consummated until after she reached puberty and became eligible for marriage as per norms in Arabia.

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Islamic theologian Javed Ahmad Ghamidi has argued that the Prophet agreed to send the proposal for marriage when he learnt Aisha’s parents were looking for a match for her and that they would not have been doing so if she had been just nine-year-old. He has maintained she was aged around 20. Ghamidi notes the Prophet spent almost 25 prime years of his life in the companionship of a single wife, Khadijah, and never thought of having a second wife and remarried only when his first wife died. The Prophet’s second wife was a 50-year-old widow. According to Ghamidi, the Prophet delayed bringing Aisha home for years so that his older wife taking care of his household did not complain of any lack of attention.

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For Ghamidi, only someone with a sick mind can think that at 55, the Prophet suddenly became obsessed with multiple marriages. He argues in the last eight years of his life, the Prophet married eight more women for the sole reason of taking care of the widows of those killed in the battles of Badr and Uhud:

… [it] became a collective issue faced by the small state of Medina. The Quran, therefore, stated that if the relatives and guardians of these orphans thought that they would not be able to take care…since it was no easy a task to be able to do it alone, they should marry the mothers of the orphans. This appeal was made by God…. It was but natural that the Prophet…take the lead in responding to it.

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The Prophet married further to honour women, who were held as captives in military campaigns, and to lead by example in liberating enslaved people. In his book, Aslan notes wars resulted in hundreds of widows and orphans who had to be provided for and protected by the community even as the Quran calls monogamy the preferred model of marriage. The Quran says ‘no matter how you try, you will never be able to treat your wives equally.’

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Aslan argues the community that Muhammad was trying to build in Yathrib, following his flight from Mecca, would have been doomed without polygyny.  He writes Muhammad married nine women in the course of 10 years in Yathrib mostly for political reasons. ‘…as Shaykh of the Ummah, it was Muhammad’s responsibility to forge links within and beyond his community through the only means at his disposal: marriage.’ He married Umm Salamah to forge a relationship with the Makhzum, a powerful Meccan clan. ‘His union with Sawdah—by all accounts an unattractive widow long past the age of marriage—served as an example to the Ummah to marry those women in need of financial support,’ writes Aslan.

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Aslan notes that Jewish patriarchs Abraham and Jacob; the prophets Moses and Hosea; the Israelite kings Saul, David, and Solomon; and nearly all of the Christian/Byzantine and Zoroastrian/ Sasanian monarchs, all Shaykhs in Arabia had either multiple wives, multiple concubines, or both. In the seventh century Arabia, a Shaykh’s power and authority were largely determined by the size of his harem. Aslan writes the most shocking aspect of Muhammad’s marriages is not his 10 years of polygamy in Yathrib, but 25-year monogamy in Mecca, which was almost unheard of at the time. Yet medieval Popes of the crusades, the European Enlightenment philosophers, and American evangelical preachers alike have subjected the Prophet to vicious attacks over hundreds of years over his marriages, especially with Aisha.

The distortions are a legacy of the Dark Ages when Europeans languished in the intellectual darkness mired in barbarism after squandering ancient Greece and Rome’s achievements while the Muslim world carried the light of learning, which eventually paved the way for the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It is high time that they are dispensed with for a more inclusive world when Abrahamic religions in particular have more that unites rather than divides them.

Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

How Hindu Statue, Temple Became Emblems Of Pluralism In Malaysia

Murugan’s statue and temple at Batu Caves are key emblems of multiculturalism and pluralism in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where Indians (eighth percent) are the third largest ethnic group

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Batu Caves, a major tourist attraction outside the Malaysian capital of Kaula Lumpur in Selangor, were little-known except to the locals until American naturalist William Temple Hornaday came to know about them during a hunting trip in 1878. Hornaday drew the attention of western archaeologists to the hitherto obscure but important site. He discovered the locals would catch bats in the caves within a limestone outcropping dating back to prehistoric times, and retreat into them when wild animals overran the woods. The caves’ popularity grew after British explorers found aboriginal drawings made of charcoal, which have since disappeared, at their entrance.

Over a century and a half after Hornaday popularised the Batu Caves, they are better known for a Hindu temple built there in 1891 and the 140-feet high gold-painted statue of the chief Tamil deity Murugan. The world’s largest Murugan statue and sixth tallest Hindu sculpture is located near the base of a 272-step flight to the entrance to the largest of the Batu Caves, where Tamil trader K Thamboosamy Pillay built the temple. Pillay chose the site to build the temple after finding a similarity between the shape of the entrance of the caves to the tip of vel, the spear Murugan wielded. He is said to have dreamt of the Hindu Goddess Sakti requesting him to build the shrine for her son, Murugan.

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In 1888, Pillay placed a vel before a consecrated idol of Murugan was installed at Batu Caves. The Thaipusam festival, commemorating Murugan’s victory over the demon Surapadman with his vel and the deity’s birth, was first celebrated at Batu Caves in 1892. The Hindus continued praying there until the British rulers stopped the prayers in 1916 and ordered the vel’s removal. The vel was reinstalled and the Hindus were allowed to resume prayers at Batu Caves after a court ruled in their favour.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Malaysian prime minister after independence, visited Batu Caves during Thaipusam in 1959. His successor Tun Abdul Razak Hussein followed suit in 1971 to recognise Thaipusam as a national festival. When Tun Hussein Onn, Malaysia’s third prime minister, visited the shrine in 1978, he advised the temple management to take legal action against the companies involved in quarrying activities at Batu Caves. The quarrying continued until Indian-origin Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu became Malaysia’s works minister. Vellu ordered an end to the quarrying activities and relocated them to an alternative site with the help of the Selangor state government. 

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Murugan’s statue, the centrepiece at the site, was added at the foot of the stairs to the caves in 2006 as the world’s tallest statue of the Hindu deity in Muslim-majority Malaysia. One of the caves lined at the site with dioramas, representing scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, is known as Ramayana Cave. The cave’s entrance is marked with a statue of Lord Hanuman, one of the heroes of the epic. 

Hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims annually visit the site. The main celebrations of Thaipusam in Malaysia are held at the Batu Caves. Hindu devotees from all over the country, carrying kavadis or symbolic burdens including body piercings, pay annual homage to Lord Murugan after climbing the 272 steps to his temple.

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Murugan’s statue and Hindu shrine at Batu Caves are key emblems of multiculturalism and pluralism in Malaysia, where Indians (eighth percent) are the third largest ethnic group after the majority Malays and the Chinese (26 percent), the dominant economic force. Tamils account for a bulk of the Indians, mostly Hindus, in the country—81 percent—numbering about 1.5 million. They trace their roots to the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and began arriving in the region in the 15th century mostly as textile and spice traders. The British rule in Malaysia accelerated their migration in the 18th century when Tamil labourers were brought to the region to build roads, and railways and to work on plantations. Other Indians in Malaysia include a sprinkling of Sindhis, Bengalis, Telugus, Gujaratis, and Malayalis.

Malaysian Indians, who otherwise lag behind other communities, have risen and held key positions in the country. They have served in the Malaysia Cabinet since independence with Vellu being one of the longest-serving ministers from 1979 to 2008. Vellu was appointed as the special envoy on infrastructure to India and South Asia after demitting office. Gobind Singh Deo became Malaysia’s first Sikh Cabinet minister when he was named as the communications and multimedia minister in Mahathir Mohamad’s government in 2018.

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Kulasegaran Murugeson (human resources) and Xavier Jayakumar (water, land, and natural resources), Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy (national unity and social well-being), and Sivarasa Rasiah were other ministers of Indian origin to serve in Mahathir’s seventh Cabinet. Saravanan Murugan, another Indian-origin minister, succeeded Murugeson as the human resources minister in 2020. Edmund Santhara Kumar Ramanaidu is the second minister of Indian origin in the current Prime Minister Muhyiddin bin Mohamad Yassin’s government.

Tunku Abdul Rahman-led Malaysian ruling alliance set the tone for an inclusive system in the country. He ensured representation to all ethnic communities including Indians as nation-building overshadowed divisions. His rule coincided with harmony and political freedoms in the country, where the Constitution’s Article 3 guarantees the freedom of religion. Rahman’s United Malays National Organisation worked with Chinese and Indian political parties and formed a national coalition, which later expanded and was renamed National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN). The interethnic coalition, which included the Malaysian Indian Congress, governed the country from 1957 to 2018 when BN, which delivered robust economic growth, lost power for the first time.

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There was a rupture in Malaysia after 1969 when the alliance lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time. The racial riots and the 18-month emergency rule that followed led to a rise in Malay nationalism. In 1971, the government launched New Economic Policy as an affirmative action plan favouring Malays as the democratic space narrowed and sparked ethnic tensions. Over a decade later the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism was established in 1983 to promote harmony among Malaysians. There have since been efforts to address Malaysia’s polarisation and to adopt an inclusive Malaysian national identity with civil society groups playing a key role in bridging differences through dialogues among different faiths and ethnic groups. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Indonesia: Beacon Of Hope In Times Of Bigotry 

The Indonesian state promotes the coexistence and diversity needed to keep together a country of multiple languages, geographies, and faiths

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

From a backwater to one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, Indonesia’s westernmost Island of Bali has come a long way over the last four decades. It is also no longer just a beach destination for around 20 million tourists, who visit the island annually. Bali has emerged as a lifestyle destination; a gourmet getaway with an array of gastronomic delights. Babi guling, traditionally served on special occasions such as weddings, is among the most sought-after dishes at open-air restaurants dotting Bali. Literally meaning ‘turning pig’, babi guling is the roasted suckling pig dish made with garlic, ginger, and turmeric. Tender and juicy, the delicacy is cooked on a hand-turned skewer over the fire.

Foodies relishing the pork dish is a rare sight in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally. Pork is forbidden in Islam and Muslims consider pigs unclean. But Muslim dietary restrictions are not applicable in Bali, a Hindu enclave. Hindus account for Indonesia’s two percent population. Around 90 percent of them or around 3.4 million Hindus are concentrated in Bali. Virtually every street has a temple dedicated to Hindu gods in Bali, which is among Indonesia’s most developed parts with just under five percent of the people below the poverty line compared to 12 percent nationally.

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The world’s tallest Hindu statue of the God Vishnu sitting astride the mythical bird Garuda, said to be his companion and vessel, is also located in Bali and is one of the region’s centrepieces. The 75m high sculpture is known as Garuda Vishnu Kencana. Atop Ungasan Hill in the Garuda Vishnu Kencana Cultural Park, it is the world’s largest copper statue and the third tallest. With a wingspan of 65m, it stands on a pedestal, making its total height (121m) 30m taller than the Statue of Liberty. The statue showcases Vishnu, who is believed to be the preserver and protector of the universal equilibrium, in a meditative state, riding on Garuda’s back with his eyes half closed. 

President Joko Widodo inaugurated the sculpture in September 2018 at a gathering of thousands of people including the country’s top leaders and one of his predecessors, Megawati Soekarnoputri. Traditional dancers performed and fireworks lit up the night sky in a grand celebration of Indonesian multi-culturalism at the inauguration ceremony of the statue. Widodo, in his address at the event, called the statue a masterpiece and a source of Indonesia’s pride. He said the statue shows his country has not only inherited extraordinary masterpieces such as ninth-century Buddhist temple complex Borobudur and Hindu temple complex Prambanan. Widodi said they are capable of creating cultural masterpieces such as Garuda Vishnu Kencana. He called the statue, which took over 28 years for its completion, a historical footprint of Indonesia.

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Hindus in Indonesia also include converts who adopted Hinduism in the 1960s and 1970s on the neighbouring Java island and over 100,000-strong Indian Hindu diaspora community, mostly Tamils and Sindhis, in places such as the capital Jakarta and Sumatra’s Medan. In the Muslim-majority island of Lombok, both Hindus and Muslims, adhering to the Waktu Telu tradition, pray at the Pura Lingsar Temple complex. Built in 1714, the complex nestled in rice fields is a multi-denominational site for Hindus and the followers of Waktu Telu and includes a lily-covered pond devoted to Lord Vishnu.

Indonesia, where the national airline Garuda is named after the Hindu god Vishnu’s vehicle and the country’s currency notes carry another deity Ganesh’s picture, promotes the coexistence and diversity needed to keep together a country of multiple languages, geographies, and faiths. Its moderate and syncretic approach to religion complements its belief in Islam. The ceremony for the installation of a white and gold statue of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of learning and wisdom, to honour the country’s Hindu population on the premises of the Indonesian embassy in Washington in 2013 illustrated this. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presided over the ceremony on the Jewish New Year. He made blessings of Saraswati ‘in the name of Allah, the most benevolent,’ and spoke about religious tolerance. 

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Hindus account for Indonesia’s two percent population with around 90 percent of them or around 3.4 million Hindus concentrated in Bali. Alamy Stock Photo

Yudhoyono also participated in the ceremony for the statute’s purification. Mayor Anak Agung Gde Agung from Bali’s Badung and the sculptors of the statue performed the ritual for it. They burnt incense and offered palm leaves and fruits to the deity. The holy water needed for the ritual was transported on Yudhoyono’s plane from Bali to avoid restrictions on carrying liquids on regular flights. Agung sprinkled the statue at the ceremony, where Yudhoyono underlined Islam as a religion of peace while denouncing the so-called Islamic State and calling for ‘more love, tolerance, and knowledge.’

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Dino Patti Djalal, the then Indonesian Ambassador to the US, told news website that the 16-feet high statue atop a lotus in front of the embassy of the country with the largest Muslim population says a lot about the religious freedom in Indonesia. Sculptors were flown from Bali to carve the statue on-site of the goddess worshipped on Basant Panchami as the embodiment of learning. Yellow is Saraswati’s favourite colour. Basant Panchami is celebrated at the onset of spring when yellow flowers of the mustard crop bloom.

Basant Panchami is celebrated as Hari Raya Saraswati (the great day of Saraswati) in Bali, marking the beginning of the Pawukon calendar. Prayers are organised at homes, educational institutions, and public places to mark the festival. Teachers and students dressed in brightly coloured clothes carry cakes and fruits to schools for temple offerings. 

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The installation of the statue was not decided on religious grounds alone but more for what it symbolised. The Hindu goddesses represent education, creativity, and music. A swan and a peacock flanking Saraswati represent beauty and pride sans ego and vanity. Saraswati idol holds a book depicting learning. A stringed instrument (veena) of the goddess represents the harmonising of mind and body. Prayer beads of Saraswati depict spiritual knowledge. Saraswati represents simplicity and elegance. She is depicted wearing a white dress representing knowledge for overcoming darkness and ignorance.

The statue was installed over a decade and a half after the 9/11 attacks globally sparked a virulent form of Islamophobia. Indonesia remains a beacon of hope as state-sponsored bigotry tears apart large parts of the world with Muslims being mostly at its receiving end. The statue is among its best reminders. Djalal told that the goal of installing it was to have the sculpture as a symbol of religious tolerance. Busts of national heroes and flags otherwise adorn the embassies in Washington’s Embassy Row. Sculptures of Winston Churchill, the UK’s Prime Minister in the 1940s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish secular republic, and Mahatma Gandhi, in loincloth and sandals, adorn the British, Turkish, and Indian missions nearby.

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At the Saraswati statue installation ceremony, long sleeve blouses and headscarves of observant Muslims contrasted with the brightly colored strapless and tight sarongs of Balinese dancers at the event. In its report on the ceremony, the Huffington Post noted this and added that there were some moments during the celebration, where the faiths abutted but did not clash, and in essence summed up what Indonesia is about.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Babylon Brigade: Christian Militia That Fought ISIS On Muslim Cleric’s Call

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistanis fatwa urging able-bodied men to assist Iraqi forces in fighting ISIS was a turning point in the war on ISIS

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 91-year-old head of Iraq’s clerical establishment Hawza, is known to be reclusive. He mainly issues messages through his representatives and rarely appears in the public, on the television, or receives visitors. Sistani, however, made an exception when he hosted Pope Francis at his modest home on Najaf’s Rasool Street. Sistani stood outside his austere meeting room to greet the pope when Francis walked a few hundred meters to meet the ayatollah for the 40-minute meeting in March 2021. Francis, the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, took off his shoes before white doves symbolizing peace were released when the pontiff entered the doorway. He cradled Sistani’s hands during the meeting as the two discussed ways of stopping violence in the name of religion.

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Sistani told Francis that Iraq’s Christians deserve to ‘live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights’ as Francis thanked the ayatollah for raising ‘his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted.’ The meeting came amid increasing acknowledgment of Sistani’s role in unifying Iraq, which helped it defeat the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the terrorist group masquerading as Caliphate, in July 2017.

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Sistani’s fatwa urging able-bodied men to assist Iraqi forces in fighting ISIS was a turning point in the war on ISIS. It encouraged thousands of volunteers to sign up for Popular Mobilization Forces better known by its Arabic acronym Hashd to fight the group. ISIS controlled a bigger territory than Austria and 40% of Iraq and a third of Syria at its peak when the Iraqi state almost collapsed when its American-trained forces fled Mosul in June 2014 and allowed the terrorist group to overrun the city.

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Francis’s visit would not have been possible without the bridge-building Sistani played a key role in and helped unify the country to take on ISIS effectively. ISIS’s brutality triggered a sense of urgency that helped Iraqis rise above regional, ethnic and sectarian divides to help defeat it. Rayan al-Kildani’s Christian Babylon Brigade militia was among those who fought ISIS under the Hashd umbrella. A resident of a predominantly Christian village in a mountain range with crosses even taller than lampposts every 100m near Mosul, Kildani described to BBC in 2016 how they fought side by side with the Muslim militias. Kildani added they have really good defense forces now and no one is ‘going to do anything bad to the Christians’ and that their suffering is over.

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Francis echoed Kildani when the pontiff visited Mosul as the Iraqi government rolled out a red carpet for him. Children in festive dresses lined the streets and waved Iraqi flags to welcome Francis as he arrived at Mosul’s Hosh al-Bieaa Church Square years after the city was virtually reduced to rubble in the fighting against ISIS. He said Christians received assistance from Muslims when they returned to the town. Francis underlined the need for reaffirming their conviction ‘that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than death, that peace more powerful than war.’ His audience held olive branches as Francis led prayers in Mosul.

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The pontiff led the first prayers at the renovated Church of the Holy Immaculate Conception, which was damaged during the war, in the Christian town of Qaraqosh, where Christians trace their roots back to almost as far as Jesus’s lifetime. He visited Mosul as a pilgrim for peace and said terrorism and death never have the last word. The pope said even amid the ravages of terrorism, they can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death. He referred to Iraq’s history of pluralism and hoped its legacy would be ensured. Francis called religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity ‘a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia.’ He said it is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated.

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A cross made from wooden chairs from churches across the region was also erected in Mosul’s Church Square in the honour of Francis, who visited Erbil in northern Iraq to express his gratitude to the local community for offering refuge to Christians during the war on ISIS.

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Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier welcomed Francis when he arrived in Baghdad. A choir was also arranged for the pope when he entered the airport. Crowds waved Iraqi and Vatican flags as Francis left for a welcome at the presidential palace. Traffic circles en route were decorated with the Vatican’s yellow and white flags. At the presidential reception, the pope spoke about Iraq’s diversity, which he said is to be treasured. He addressed leaders of several denominations at the cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad and held a mass at the Chaldean Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph.

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The papal visit was a major boost to inter-faith harmony in Iraq as it emerges from terrorism, dictatorship, occupation, and the civil war. As the New York Times rightly emphasized: ‘[…] in some ways [Sistani is] an ideal interlocutor for Francis: holy, credible and powerful. His decisions carry weight.’ Theirs was a meeting of the minds. It was a step towards realizing unity among the world’s major faiths. The pope made a case for it at a multi-faith gathering he addressed during the same trip in Iraq’s Ur, which is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, whom Muslims, Christians, and Jews trace their roots to. Francis quoted a passage in the Bible in which God asks Abraham to look at the stars and imagine how countless his offspring will be. He emphasized Abraham saw the promise of his progeny in the stars. ‘[…] he saw us,’ Francis said, referring to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The pope urged his audience to see in the stars a message of unity while underlining they illuminate the darkest nights because they shine together.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

More Unites Than Divides Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity, Judaism

Ur in Iraq is among myriad examples of how Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which trace their roots to and revere Abraham, are intertwined

Pope Francis listens as Mufti Rahmi Yaran reads verses from the Quran at the Blue Mosque in Turkey in November 2014. Getty Images

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

At a March 2021 multi-faith gathering in Iraq, Pope Francis quoted a passage from Genesis, the Bible’s first book, in which God asks Abraham to look at the stars and imagine how countless his progeny will be. For Francis, Abraham saw the promise of his descendants—Muslims, Christians, and Jews—in the stars. ‘[…] he saw us,’ Francis told the gathering in Ur, which is believed to be Abraham’s birthplace. The pontiff urged his audience to see in the stars a message of unity. They, the Pontiff underlined, illuminate the darkest nights because they shine together as he appealed for unity. The Pope called Ur ‘the land of our father Abraham’ where faith was born. ‘[…] from [Ur], let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters.’ He called hostility, extremism, and violence betrayals of religion, which are not born of a religious heart.

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The Pope’s call for unity was in consonance with shared traditions of the world’s three major religions, which have more that unites rather than what divides them. Ur is among myriad examples of how Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which trace their roots to and revere Abraham, are intertwined. It is in Ur that their spiritual forefather, Abraham, whose followers account for over 50 per cent of the world’s population, is believed to have first heard the voice of God. Ur is mentioned in the Quran and Christian scriptures as Abraham’s homeland, which he is believed to have left on God’s command to found a new nation in Canaan spanning Palestine and Syria to become the founder of monotheism. God is believed to have promised Abraham that his ‘seed’—Jews, Muslims and Christians—would inherit the land. The Prophet Muhammad traced his lineage to Abraham’s first son Ishmael. Jews and Jesus are believed to be the descenders of Abraham’s younger son, Isaac.

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Around 300 km from Abraham’s birthplace, biblical prophet Ezekiel’s tomb in Kifl with Hebrew carvings is another example of shared veneration for Abrahamic religious figures. Ezekiel is known as Dhul Kifl in the Islamic tradition and Kilf, which is located at the centre of routes to Muslim pilgrimage cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Mecca, gets its name from that. A synagogue and a mosque surround the tomb of Ezekiel, who preached in modern-day Iraq in the sixth century BC and is believed to have seen God’s visions there. Mentioned twice in the Quran, both Muslims and Jews revere him. In July 2016, Kilf was designated as a Unesco World Heritage site years after the restoration work centred on Ezekiel’s tomb began in 2009. The outer courtyard of the shrine has a mosque and the inner sanctum retains the Hebrew markings to protect its Jewish heritage.

In 2010, the tomb’s Muslim caretaker, Sheik Aqil, told journalist Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times that they take care of both the Islamic and the Jewish sections of the shrine as they are both part of Iraq’s history. ‘It’s a Muslim’s duty to protect it,’ Aqil told Myers. In 2019, writer Alex Shams wrote Ezekiel’s Tomb ‘is one of those rare, beautiful places where Arabic and Hebrew flow freely into each other.’ The Arabic calligraphy on Ezekiel’s tomb wishes peace upon him. Shams wrote the shared veneration for Abrahamic religious figures is common across the region, citing examples of Daniel’s tomb in Shush and Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan (Iran). The reverence is rooted in Muslim beliefs perhaps best reflected in the 13th-century Persian poet Saadi’s poem which likened Adam’s children to valuable limbs of one body:

When the world gives pain to one member, the other members find no rest. Thou who are indifferent to the sufferings of others does not deserve to be called a man. 

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Muslims have considered Jews and Christians as allies since the days of the Prophet. When Muslims faced persecution in Mecca, the Ethiopian Christian kingdom offered asylum to them. Christians from Najran (modern-day Saudi Arabia) were allowed worship in his mosque when the Prophet ruled Medina. The Prophet signed the Charter in Mount Sinai in 628 pledging the freedom of worship, movement, and protection during war for Christians. The prophet promised ‘there shall be no interference with the practice of their faith. … No bishop will be removed from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, no priest from his parish.’ This was in line with the Quranic mandate, which says God protects ‘monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.’ The Quran, which calls Jews and Christians the ‘People of the Book’ 31 times, also refers to them as alladhīna ūtū al-kitāb (those who have received the Book), ahl al-dhikr (the people of remembrance). The Quran also addresses the Christians as ahl al-Injīl (the People of the Gospel), and mentions the Jewish holy book Torah 18 times as a true revelation and source of guidance and wisdom.

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Medina Charter, which was adopted when the Prophet Muhammad founded the first Muslim state in the seventh century and is considered its constitution, sought to end conflicts and maintain peace among Muslims, Jews, Christians, and pagans. It underlined ‘a believer will not kill another believer for the sake of an un-believer.’ The charter outlined the political rights and duties of all inhabitants of Medina, which is also the Prophet’s final resting place, irrespective of their faith. Medina was governed under the principles of socio-political justice enshrined in the charter.

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The charter, which is perhaps the first such document to have incorporated religious and political rights, provided for means for conflict resolution by promoting mutual respect, tolerance, and pluralism. Based on the commitment to human lives and religious minorities, it drew inspiration from the Quran, which mandates Muslims to respect all previous messengers, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and to honour their followers. The charter, which said ‘no Jews will be wronged for being an unbeliever,’ recognised equality to all residents, their rights to peaceful coexistence. It gave all tribal, religious and ethnic groups protection and the right to live as per their beliefs. The charter’s Article 30 said ‘the Jews will be treated as one community with the believers.’

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When Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab conquered Jerusalem in 637, he offered security for Christian possessions, churches, and crosses as the commander of the faithful. He declared the churches ‘shall not be taken for residence and shall not be demolished … nor shall their crosses be removed.’ Umar declined Jerusalem patriarch Sophronius’s invitation to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher saying he did not want Muslims to use this as an excuse later to lay claims over the holiest Christian shrine. 

It has, however, been a slippery slope since the Crusades sought to eradicate Islam in the name of religion. But there have been attempts to revive the spirit of the Medina Charter to end the violence for political ends in the name of religion, which has created havoc since the West brazenly used it in the 1980s to defeat the USSR. In January 2016, Muslim scholars put their heads together at a conference in Morocco and reaffirmed the values of the charter. Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who hosted the gathering, recalled the charter affirmed unity by promoting pluralism and religious freedom while seeking the revival of its spirit for a peaceful and inclusive world. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Guru Nanak: Eternal Unifier, Guiding Light As Bigotry Becomes Order Of Day

Nanak’s relevance has grown more than ever before as he preached against religious prejudices and founded Sikhism as a monotheistic religion and a synthesis between Islam and Hinduism

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In August 2019, tensions escalated between India and Pakistan when New Delhi stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status to take full control of the Himalayan region, which the two countries have claimed in full since the end of the British colonial rule in 1947. Islamabad reacted to the change in the Muslim-majority region’s constitutional status by downgrading diplomatic ties with India amid a lockdown and a communications blackout to prevent protests over the sweeping changes and sweeping restrictions. The ties between the two countries deteriorated months after they were on the verge of another war in February 2019 when Islamabad retaliated against an Indian airstrike in Pakistan following a car bomb attack in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama. 

Meanwhile, the construction of a corridor to provide visa-free access for Indian pilgrims to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib built at the last resting place of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, in Pakistan continued unhindered. It was finished and inaugurated within a year ahead of Nanak’s birth anniversary in November 2019. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, participated in the inauguration ceremonies of the corridor on either side of the border as the two countries, which have fought four wars, found a rare common ground amid fraught relations.    

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Nanak remained a unifier even as ties between India and Pakistan were at their lowest ebb. High-ranking officials of the two countries, who had been avoiding each other like plague, rubbed shoulders with each other at the inauguration of the corridor on the premises of the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib on the Pakistani side. Centuries after he passed away, Nanak remained an uniter. Nothing symbolises it more than the gurdwara, which stands at the place where Hindus and Muslims, who revered Nanak equally, are believed to have found flowers under a white sheet when they arrived for Nanak’s last rites. Muslims buried a part of the sheet and flowers and built a mausoleum in Nanak’s memory. Hindus put their share in an urn and interred it. 

Nanak’s relevance has grown more than ever before as he preached against religious prejudices and founded Sikhism as a monotheistic religion and a synthesis between Islam and Hinduism. The composite culture Nanak contributed significantly to is being torn apart with Muslims at the receiving end of bigotry passed off as nationalism for their erasure with full state patronage. Nanak’s family was Hindu and his association with Muslims was much deeper than is widely known. His teacher was a Muslim and the first to understand his spiritual prowess. He called Nanak a blessed and gifted child and attributed his superior intelligence to it.

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Rai Bular, a Muslim landlord, was the one to prevail upon Nanak’s father and his employee, Mehta Kalu, to allow Nanak’s otherworldly pursuits. While Nanak wandered with holy men, Kalu wanted him to focus on his education. Bular was also the first to report miracles which indicated Nanak’s holiness. Bular, who became Nanak’s first devotee outside his family, is said to have witnessed a hooded cobra shielding the Guru from the sun while he was sleeping under the open sky. He saw this as a sign of Nanak’s spiritualism. Bular also reported how the shade of a tree remained on Nanak even when the position of the sun changed while he slept. He rushed to tell Kalu Nanak was an exalted person upon seeing this. 

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Bular was totally devoted to Nanak and convinced Kalu that his son was a man of God. He dedicated much of his land to the Guru. Gurdwara Janam Asthan, which stands at the place of Nanak’s birth, and much of the city around it is located on the land Bular bequeathed to the Sikhism’s founder. Rai Hadayat, a 17th-generation descendant of Bular, led Nanak’s 500th birth celebration. Bular’s family has continued a tradition of leading annual processions to celebrate Nanak’s anniversaries in Nankana Sahib in what is now Pakistan. Bular’s descendants are the custodians of the bequeathed land, whose revenues are spent on the welfare of the Sikh community and the maintenance of their places of worship in Nankana Sahib. Sikh emperor Maharaja Ranjit Singh bestowed the Rai Bahadur title on Bular’s descendant, Rai Issa Khan, a fellow Bhatti Rajput, and made him a revenue collector in recognition of his family’s contributions to Sikhism. 

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In May 2018, the Shiromani Gurdwara ParbandhakCommittee (SGPC), which manages Sikh places of worship, acknowledged Bular’s ‘immense contribution’ to the Sikh history and erected his portrait at Amritsar’s Central Sikh Museum. The SGPC unveiled another Muslim Nawab Rai Kahla’s portrait at the museum in July 2017 for sheltering Nanak’s spiritual successor, Guru Gobind Singh, in 1705. Kahla ruled a small principality in Punjab when he offered Guru Gobind refuge in defiance of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb’s decree. Guru Gobind gave Kahla a holy pitcher known as Ganga Sagar, which holds water despite its asymmetrical holes and a sword as a token of gratitude. Kahla’s descendants have preserved the relic, which they took to Pakistan in 1947 after they were uprooted from the Indian side of Punjab at the time of the Partition in 1947. It has remained in the custody of Rai Azizullah Khan, a former Pakistani lawmaker, since 1975.

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The courage Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan, the ruler of Malerkotla in what is now the Indian side of Punjab, showed in speaking out against the execution of Guru Gobind’s sons, Zorawar and Fateh, in 1705, ensured his kingdom remained untouched in 1947 when the subcontinent’s division triggered violence. The violence left around a million dead and triggered a virtual exchange of populations between the Indian and Pakistani sides of Punjab. It damaged the centuries-old coexistence and continues to cast a long shadow. But Malerkotla has remained untouched by the upheavals. It remained the Indian Punjab’s only Muslim pocket while the rest of the region was emptied of Muslims in 1947. It continues to be an exception even amid the fresh wave of violence against Muslims thanks to what is seen as Guru Gobind’s blessings to Malerkotla. Guru Gobind is believed to have blessed the nawab that ‘his roots shall forever remain green’ when he learnt about his stand against Zorawar and Fateh’s execution.

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Baba Bulleh Shah, a Muslim saint and direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, also spoke out against the Mughal highhandedness. He was a friend of the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur and hailed Tegh Bahadur as a ‘holy warrior’ when he was executed. The saint earlier dissuaded the guru from seeking revenge on Muslims for Aurangzeb’s attitude towards the Sikhs. He followed in Nanak’s footsteps and promoted inter-religious harmony. Nanak in fact travelled to Arabia in the 16th-century with his Muslim companion, Mardana, for inter-religious dialogue, which provided him deep insights into Islam. In Baghdad, Nanak stayed with a Muslim saint. A courtyard at the tomb of the saint in Baghdad commemorates Nanak’s stay in the city. 

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The Muslim descendants of Mardana, known as rubabis, performed kirtans or devotional songs at Amritsar’s Golden Temple for generations before partition ended the tradition. They began the practice at the instance of the ninth Sikh Guru Guru Tegh Bahadur as Mardana played a musical instrument called rubab as Guru Nanak sang his poetry. Baptized Sikhs alone have since 1947 been doing kirtans as partition trore about Punjab’s syncretic culture. But syncretism remains integral to Sikhism, whose scripture Guru Granth Sahib includes the writing of Muslims including Baba Farid. Guru Arjan, who compiled the first edition of the scripture and had it installed in 1604 at the Golden Temple, is widely believed to have invited Mian Mir, a Muslim saint, to lay the shrine’s foundation in Amritsar. 

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Muslim holy men such as Farid, whose picture adorns the entrance of Gurdwara Janamasthan and are among revered Muslim figures in Sikhism, also made vital literary contributions. Waris Shah gave full shape to Heer-Ranjha and contributed to Punjab’s syncretic culture until the revivalism in the 19th-century weakened it. But Nanak has remained a guiding light, who in poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s words ‘awakened India from a deep slumber.’ Iqbal hailed Nanak as ‘mard-e kaamil [perfect]’ in a poem about him. Iqbal lamented ‘our people paid no heed to the message of Gautam [Buddha]’; did not recognise the worth of that ‘jewel of supreme wisdom’. In another poem, Iqbal paired Nanak with Muslim saint Moinuddin Chishti and wrote: ‘The land [India] in which Chishti delivered the message of truth; the garden in which Nanak sang the song of oneness that homeland is mine, that homeland is mine.’

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Imperial Past Drives Russia, China’s Territorial Claims in Ukraine, Taiwan

Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have invoked nostalgia for Russia and China’s imperial past to justify their expansionism

Beijing’s rise has given it leverage to isolate Taiwan. Photo courtesy

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Beijing has threatened to reunite Taiwan with the Chinese mainland since the nationalists relocated their government to the Pacific Ocean Island after losing to the communists, who established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The spotlight was back on Taiwan when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Parallels have been drawn between Russia and China’s territorial claims amid fears that Beijing could be encouraged to forcibly reunite ‘the rebel region’ of Taiwan it has claimed sovereignty over since the 1950s.

Russian nationalists believe people who speak their language as well as ethnic Russians in Ukraine, which was a part of the USSR and where separatists seek to be part of Russia, are under threat. Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, sees Ukrainians and Russians as ‘one people’ and Ukraine as an extension of Russia. Imperial Russia considered Ukrainians as Little Russians and Russia as Great Russians. Mainland Chinese similarly consider Taiwan as part of China; their languages overlap, and they are also culturally similar. China ceded Taiwan, which has emerged as a major Asian economy and a top producer of technology worldwide, to Japan after the 1894-95 war. It got the territory back decades later following the Second World War in the 1940s.

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Both Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, and Putin have invoked nostalgia for Russia and China’s imperial past to justify their expansionism. Days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, China reiterated its commitment to ‘resolving the Taiwan question.’ According to the New York Times, Xi appeared more concerned about Taiwan’s fate than the war in Ukraine in a call with his American counterpart, Joe Biden, about the Russian invasion.

The US made it clear it has no intentions of intervening militarily in Ukraine. This came as Russia and China appear to have sensed an opportunity to assert themselves amid a void left on the world stage as a result of the West’s pullback after its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taiwan, which has faced diplomatic isolation as China opposes its recognition and has regular relations with a handful of countries, has for long counted the US as its most important partner and protector. The US and Taiwan, an island of 24 million inhabitants which allows same-sex marriages, are liberal democracies, unlike authoritarian China. Taiwan may have built a modern economy, but its military of about 88,000 million ground troops is no match that of China— about a million.

Unlike its clear stand on refraining from intervening in Ukraine directly, the US has taken a vague line on Taiwan. It is expected to deter China from attacking Taiwan. Status quo also benefits China, which has made most of relative global peace over the decades. Its position as an economic power in an increasingly integrated world could be at stake in the event of a conflict. This could possibly prevent Chinese aggression against Taiwan as well. A lack of progress in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has lessons for China and could help maintain the status quo in the Pacific region.

Beijing’s rise has ensured it has the leverage to isolate Taiwan, which occupied China’s UN seat till the 1970s over two decades after Mao Zedong-led Communists captured power from the nationalists. Generalissimo Chiang Kai‐shek, the President of Nationalist China, fled to Taiwan with his forces and led a government there in exile for 25 years. He was also recognized as China’s legitimate ruler before the communists began to assert themselves globally. Chiang dreamt of recapturing the mainland until he died in 1975. In his political testament published hours after his death, he urged his supporters to fulfill his dream and restore China’s national culture.

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Chiang, who received military training in Japan, participated in the uprising that overthrew the Qing Dynasty and led to the formation of the Chinese republic. Chiang would became a Chinese Nationalist Party member and build its army. He spearheaded the reunification of much of China and suppressed the communists. Chaing would become one of the Big Four leaders of the Allies in the Second World War against Germany, Italy, and Japan along with US President Franklin D Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. While his global stature increased, his position weakened at home with communists overthrowing him after the three-year Chinese civil war, which broke out in 1946. He would spend the rest of his life in Taiwan with his dream of reclaiming mainland China unfulfilled.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Budapest: City Of Belonging In Bookshops, Longing

We kept discovering bookstores often returning for the memories they carried of a lost world

The Hungarian Parliament and the Chains Bridge in Budapest at sunset. Getty Images

By Anwesha Rana

In October 2018, my friend SB, a travel companion and observer extraordinaire, and I managed to make a longish travel plan by the standards of millennials such as us. The plan was essentially about roaming across three countries on a tight budget. We were happy to forego the comfort of renowned airlines and the luxury of European hotels. The money saved, we agreed without arguments, would be better spent on the cost of tickets to museums, eating seven times a day just because we wanted to, and buying countless things we decided at a glance were made for this friend of ours or that.

We travelled from New Delhi to Vienna via Kyiv and then moved to Budapest and Bratislava. Our experiences in each city were intriguing but Budapest captivated me. Budapest is a city of belonging in bookshops and longing reflected in what Yurii Andrukhovych wrote in ‘Nothing but Budapest’:

I could even wash the locomotives at Keleti station – just to be nearer Buda with her green hills. Not to say a word to sit and listen, as everyone around me talks about something in Hungarian.

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My good friend AD, now a seasoned traveller in Europe, always insisted Budapest is the most beautiful of European cities and that I would certainly appreciate it as much as he does. Having been enchanted beyond measure by London, which was the first city I had seen away from my own country, I was wary of his claim. Could anything surpass the beauty of London? AD, wizening under the European sun for years, was right once again. Travelling in Budapest captured my mind inextricably and I have been planning to revisit its comfort from the moment we left it.

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The beauty of Budapest lies in its casual and at once intense embrace of the scores of bookshops and makeshift bookstalls scattered across the city. I have learnt from my father to read and understand a city through its bookstores and habits of reading. Budapest has stores, shops, carts, and other interesting kinds of temporary stalls to sell books. The charm is furthered once you look around deeper within the narrow lanes in an old shop and discover dusty shelves stocked with old photographs, postcards, and maps from the Soviet era.

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We walked around the city on all days we were there and kept discovering more bookstores each day, often returning to the same one because of a particular scent it had, or for the memories it carried of a lost world. These shops and carts carry books old and new, small and large; ancient greeting cards, sometimes even keepsakes, all placed together in jumbles and mostly in no particular order.

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There are Hungarian translations of all kinds of books–from Harry Potter to Balzac to Roald Dahl, even Bridget Jones! In these stores, the books and memorabilia come together to form a curiously lovely smell–one that warms both your body and your soul and is so insistently inviting that you want to nestle into a corner and never leave the comfort they offer.

We stumbled upon a number of books from Soviet publishing, and despite some of them being in Hungarian, we could not resist buying them for the compelling sake of history and the need to relearn a lost world order. We stuffed our bags with all books on Hungarian folktales, history, and poems by Hungarian poets.

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There is much to learn from spending time in these corners of the city. The lane of our hostel housed a bookstore–Atlantisz Könyvsziget–complete with beautiful Hungarian artwork postcards, stationery, and prints, besides a spellbinding collection of books. This store became more interesting to us once we had a conversation with the staff managing it.

We were intrigued by a poster on the wall that said the bookstore encourages reading and studying translated works and books in English, and that should readers want a particular book, they only had to place a request for it and Atlantisz would have it brought to them, even if it included costs of post and shipping, which Atlantisz would bear. In a cynical world, there are few things that bring hope and joy. I felt this was one such. A bookstore willing to bring you any book you want, for no reason other than the fact that you want to read it, is nothing if not astoundingly sincere.

Lack Of Ideological Fidelity Helped Imran Khan’s Rivals Oust him

Most political parties in the united opposition have been defined largely by political expediency, which made it easier for them to come together

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Shehbaz Sharif, 70, is all set to be elected as Pakistan’s next Prime Minister following Imran Khan’s ouster. A three-time chief minister of the most populous Punjab province, Shehbaz Sharif is the younger brother of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was allowed to go to the UK in 2019 for treatment but has not since returned to serve his prison term for corruption. Shehbaz Sharif, who also faces serious graft cases, is the joint opposition’s prime ministerial candidate. He was nominated for the post since his brother and his political heir, Maryam Nawaz, are ineligible for the post because of their disqualification following conviction of corruption. Shehbaz Sharif’s son, Hamza Shehbaz, too faces corruption charges. He is expected to take over as Punjab’s chief minister. 

Shehbaz Sharif was asked to take on the mantle of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML (N), the second-biggest party in the national assembly, when his brother was disqualified over corruption charges linked to the leaked documents that showed his children owned properties in London. An investigation into the Sharifs’ assets followed. It emerged Nawaz Sharif also withheld his Dubai-based employment in the nomination papers for the 2013 elections.

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In an article in the Independent following Sharif’s ouster in 2017, Kunwar Khuldune Shahid noted it ‘could bolster a culture of accountability and uproot the dynastic politics epitomized by the Sharif family.’ But another return of the Sharifs has proved dynastic politics has deep roots in Pakistan, where no political party actually has any real commitment to ideology. Most political leaders have shown little ideological commitment. They mostly inherit leadership and end up passing it on to their children. Kinship and patronage networks have more salience. The Sharifs have been in and out of power since the 1980s and have repeatedly survived thanks to a mastery of these networks, which permeate every aspect of society. Kinship plays an important role in voting patterns. A Gallup survey in 2008 showed that 37 percent of rural and 27 percent of urban voters attended community meetings to decide whom to vote for.

The Sharifs belong to the influential Amritsari-Kashmiri community. They have built their alliances with other communities such as the Arains. The Arain-Kashmiri alliance has been so formidable that except for two, all mayors of Lahore since 1947 have been from these two communities. The Sharifs have also stitched other similar alliances. They also have a business empire and base among traders in Punjab, where around 60 percent of the country’s population is concentrated.

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In a 2012 article, Pakistani journalist Amir Mateen wrote that the Amritsari Kashmiris virtually run Lahore and their political influence extends even farther. He wrote that Sharif’s family has encouraged pockets of Amritsari Kashmiri power in every major city of central Punjab. Kashmiris have always held key Cabinet posts in Sharif’s government. His move to name fellow Kashmiri Ziauddin Butt precipitated the coup that cut short his second term in power in 1999. The deep pockets and business empire of the Sharifs allow them to nurture kinship and patronage networks for an assured base, which has helped them make repeated comebacks.

The ideological flexibility of the Sharifs has also helped them. Nawaz Sharif started as a protégé of military leader Zia-ul-Haq, whose conservatism makes him the most hated ruler among the liberals. Nawaz Sharif has transformed from the darlings of the conservatives three decades back to that of liberals now. He has cultivated a favourable image among the liberals including through his continuous advocacy for better ties with India and supporting the minority rights.

In 2017, Nawaz Sharif chose a Hindu temple complex in Punjab’s Katas Raj to warn hardliners against preaching animosity while calling hate-mongering unlawful. He promised the welfare of minorities and reaffirmed his belief in equal citizenship at a function following a Hindu ritual at the centuries-old complex associated with Shiva. In December 2016, Sharif re-named a centre at Pakistan’s best-known university after Nobel laureate Abdus Salam from the Ahmadiyya community, which has been persecuted in the country. Sharif’s government got the Hindu Marriage Bill passed in September 2016. In November 2015, Sharif attended a Diwali function that began with the recitation of Hindu and Muslim prayers and promised Hindus he will support them even if their oppressors were Muslims. Sharif’s government also executed Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer over alleged blasphemy.

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Sharif is known as an infrastructure-obsessed and pragmatic businessman-politician, who has given Pakistan perhaps the best network of motorways in the region. He liberalised Pakistan’s economy in the 1990s. Sharif’s pragmatism had him join hands with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) despite a bitter history of adversarial politics in the 1990s.

Former President Asif Ali Zardari, who now helms PPP, has been known as ‘Mr Ten Percent’ for the deals he cut for contracts when his wife Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister. He defines the idea of politics as an art of the possible. Zardari has been jailed over corruption, smuggling, and murder charges. But he has also continued to remain relevant thanks to a separate set of kinship alliancesThese ties favour traditional parties. They are stacked against politicians such as Imran Khan, who has commanded little sway in villages, where kinships are a bigger factor. Against this backdrop, the Pakistani polity is largely bereft of any real ideology with power the end for most political parties and means for making money. Nawaz Sharif continued denying owning flats in London but has been staying in one of them since 2019.

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Zardari, who played a key role in stitching together the alliance against Imran Khan and has also been accused of offshore assets, was handed over PPP’s leadership on the basis of the will Benazir Bhutto is believed to have left before her assassination. Their son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is most likely to be PPP’s prime ministerial candidate for the next elections. He will be the third Prime Minister from his family if he is able to get the post.

Khan’s obsession with holding traditional politicians accountable had almost all political parties, including PML (N) and PPP, close ranks to bring him down. The united opposition of assorted parties even included Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, which has been accused of being funded by foreign intelligence agencies to orchestrate unrest in Pakistan’s northwest. Most political parties in the alliance have been defined largely by political expediency and that is why it was easier for these parties to coalesce despite identifying themselves as conservatives, secularists, centrists, leftists, etc.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of Pakistan’s biggest conservative party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), best exemplifies this expediency that helped him remain part of the power structure for over two decades despite a limited base. Imran Khan’s ascension pushed him into the political wilderness in 2018. Rehman earned the ‘Maulana Diesel’ sobriquet in the 1990s when he cut a diesel franchise deal with Benazir Bhutto in return for support after an ugly campaign to prevent her from becoming the Prime Minister in the name of Islam. He stoked anti-American sentiments but in private lobbied US envoy Anne Patterson for American support for his prime ministerial ambitions. At a dinner Rehman hosted for Patterson in November 2007, an aide of his told the envoy that all ‘important parties in Pakistan had to get the [American] approval.’

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In a leaked 2007 cable, Patterson wrote Rehman is known for ‘wily political skills.’ She added she was told Rehman’s ‘still significant numbers of votes are up for sale.’ Patterson wrote Rehman enjoys ‘being courted by both [military ruler Pervez] Musharraf and [Benazir] Bhutto and sees himself increasingly in the lucrative position of being kingmaker’, if not the Prime Minister. Patterson added Rehman wanted to be ‘more engaged with the US’ and to lobby the Congress and American think tanks. She wrote Rehman appeared worried about whether the US would deal with him if he became the Prime Minister. He cautioned Patterson ‘not to put all the eggs’ in Bhutto’s basket. Months later, Rehman got his brother a lucrative ministry in the PPP government that was formed in 2008.

Given the track record of his opponents, Khan’s allegations of an American plot to oust him will have resonance and keep him in contention for a comeback despite his governance failures and mismanagement of the economy.  

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

From Rubber-stamping Coups To Activism: Highs & Lows Of Pakistani Judiciary

Pakistan’s judiciary has over the decades managed to stand out by exerting a check on the executive and the military establishment

Picture courtesy Usman Ghani (Wikipedia)

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Like much of the non-western world, Pakistan’s experiment with democracy has been deeply flawed. A lack of separation of powers, the lifeblood of any real democratic set up, has been among the reasons for it. Yet Pakistan’s judiciary has over the decades managed to stand out by exerting a check on the executive, the military establishment and filling another crucial gap in the basic democratic spirit—protection of minority rights. It covered itself in glory again when the Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s dissolution of the parliament was unconstitutional. The ruling came days after Pakistani national assembly’s deputy speaker cited an alleged US-backed attempt to oust Khan and stalled a non-confidence motion, which he was set to lose in the face of a united opposition.

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The deputy speaker’s move helped Khan recommend the dissolution of the assembly and call for fresh polls. It has been widely seen as an attempt to prevent Khan’s opponents from taking power to roll back measures such as online balloting rights to overseas Pakistanis, who are mostly seen as Khan’s supporters. Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial overruled the moves and scheduled the voting on the no-confidence motion for Saturday. He called Khan’s advice for the dissolution of the assembly contrary to the Constitution and ruled it has no legal effect. If Khan loses the no-confidence vote, the opposition is expected to nominate Shehbaz Sharif as the prime minister. Khan’s successor can hold power until August 2023. The opposition has backed early elections but said it will do so after passing legislation to undo changes such as the introduction of electronic voting machines for the next polls.

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Pakistan’s judiciary has had an unenviable record of legitimizing military rulers under the ‘doctrine of necessity’, which was not considered when the Supreme Court ruled against the blocking of the no-trust vote against Khan. The opposition welcomed the verdict saying it buried the doctrine, which has been blamed for harming democracy in Pakistan. Courts have relied on the doctrine to legitimize governments under the essentially invalidated constitution. According to Mark M Stavsky, a professor emeritus at New York University School of Law, the doctrine ‘provides a justification for otherwise illegal government actions taken during an emergency. …courts argue that any constitution implicitly recognizes the necessity defense. Consequently, the courts may legitimize even the most extreme measures on the ground that they are necessary to save the state.’

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Pakistan’s judiciary earlier played a key role in military ruler Pervez Musharraf’s removal from power when he clashed with it in 2007 after sacking chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The sacking triggered protracted lawyers’ protests, which prompted Musharraf to suspend the constitution and impose a state of emergency in November 2007. Dozens of top judges were placed under house arrest before the constitution was restored in December 2007. Three months earlier, Justice Rana Bhagwandas, who went on to become Pakistan’s first Hindu and second non-Muslim chief justice, was among the three dissenting judges who asked Musharraf to relinquish his army chief’s post when he was allowed to contest the presidential election.

In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled the imposition of the emergency was illegal after Musharraf was forced to step down. Four years later, he was charged with high treason for imposing the emergency before a special court in 2019 found Musharraf guilty and sentenced him to death for subverting the constitution while he lived in Dubai. In an analysis, Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the American think tank Brookings, noted the sentence was unlikely to be carried out even if it was upheld. She nevertheless called it an unprecedented ruling against a former army chief. ‘…it serves as an unmistakable blow to Pakistan’s powerful military,’ she wrote. Musharraf was earlier banned from leaving the country before receiving permission to travel abroad on medical grounds in 2016. He has not returned to Pakistan since.

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Chief Justice Asif Khosa in early 2019 allowed the special court to go ahead with Musharraf’s trial without his presence and paved the way for his conviction. The special court censured Musharraf for delaying, retracting, and evading the trial. The Pakistani military reacted strongly to the verdict, which was expected to work as a deterrent against the military coups. It said it stands by Musharraf. It expressed ‘pain and anguish’ and added a former Army chief, the head of the Joint Chief of Staff Committee, and the President, who has served the country for over four decades and fought wars for the country’s defense, can never be a traitor. The military maintained the trial was concluded ‘in haste’ and without Musharraf’s presence.

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A month before Musharraf was sentenced, the Supreme Court suspended army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa’s extension with chief justice Khosa noting: ‘Howsoever high you may be; the law is above you.’ The remark was seen as a dig at the military. Afzal noted there was little question that Khosa, who retired days later, was aiming to assert power. She added it was continuing a trend of ‘an activist, powerful judiciary in Pakistan, but one that is meaningfully pushing back and taking on the military in this way for the first time.’ The verdict in Bajwa’s case forced Imran Khan’s government to amend the law to grant the extension. 

In October 2012, the Supreme Court dealt the military another blow when it ordered criminal proceedings against another former Army chief General Aslam Beg and Lieutenant General Asad Durrani. This came years after former Pakistan Air Force Chief Air Marshal Asghar Khan moved the court in 1996 against spy agency ISI for illegally financing a campaign to influence the 1990 election that allegedly tilted the scales in favour of an alliance against Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Durrani, the then ISI chief, admitted to spending millions to influence the election, which brought Nawaz Sharif to power. He confessed to doing so at the behest of the then army chief, Beg.

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The 2012 verdict came when the country’s military was facing its worst crisis since 1971 following its failure to detect Osama bin Laden’s presence right under its nose near Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst in Abbottabad, where military officers are trained. American commandos took bin Laden in a raid deep into Pakistan territory on 2 May 2011. Amid all this, ISI found itself caught in a flurry of cases. The Supreme Court ordered it in February 2012 to produce seven suspected militants in its captivity since 2010. The agency had a tough time explaining the custodial deaths of four detainees. The court refused to accept the detainees were terrorists and demanded an explanation.

Even in the darkest chapter of Pakistan’s judicial history related to former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution following a questionable trial on trumped-up charges, three of the seven Supreme Court judges dissented from the confirmation of the death sentence. The three, including Justice Dorab Patel, a Parsi, argued the prosecution failed to corroborate the testimony of its chief witness and that there was nothing in the evidence regarding Bhutto’s conduct that would not be ‘reasonably capable of an interpretation of innocence.’

Alvin Robert Cornelius, a Christian who went on to become the fourth and one of the longest-serving chief justices of Pakistan (1960-1968), similarly showed the courage by swimming against the tide in 1954. He was the sole dissenting judge when the Supreme Court upheld Governor-General Ghulam Mohammad’s 1954 dismissal of the Constituent Assembly. The verdict is seen to have altered the course of Pakistan’s history and sealed the fate of democracy by marking the beginning of military’s role in politics.

Pakistani judiciary’s pushback began decades later in May 1993 when the Supreme Court overturned President Ghulam Ishaq Khan’s move to dismiss Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government on corruption charges. The court ruled the dismissal and dissolution of the national assembly were ‘illegal and unconstitutional.’ It ordered the restoration of both the government and the legislative branch. The Washington Post called the decision historic, noting the court has never before decided against Pakistan’s ruling establishment. Chief Justice Nasim Hasan Shah, who turned down a request to appeal the decision, noted he believed the president, who was seen to be close to the military, acted “in a fit of anger” when he dissolved the government. The court’s 10 to one ruling was seen as a major boost for Pakistan’s democracy when the President had the power to dismiss elected governments.

In January 2021, the Supreme Court intervened when a mob burnt a Hindu shrine in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It directed authorities to reconstruct the century-old Samadhi of saint Shri Param Hans Ji Maharaj. Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed earlier took notice of the attack in December 2020 and ordered top officials to visit the shrine and submit a report. He also directed the removal of encroachments from temples across the country and action against officials involved in them.

The court’s intervention ensured 109 people involved in the arson were arrested and 92 police personnel, including top officers, were suspended for ‘cowardice and negligence’ in preventing the attack. Ahmed pulled up the authorities and said ‘suspension was not enough’ while ordering the recovery of damage from the arsonists. In 2012, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry took note of a newspaper column highlighting the problems of Pakistani Hindus in the absence of a Hindu marriage registration law and paved the way for the passage of a law for it. The law enshrined conditions for valid marriages and specified documentation to be used to verify marital status. It made valid consent of adults aged above 18 must for registration of Hindu marriages and banned polygamy. The law has a clause that allows termination of marriages if one of the partners converts to another religion.

The Peshawar high court In 2011 ordered the reopening of the 160-year-old Gorakhnath temple ahead of Diwali. The court said stopping religious activities at a place of worship was against all laws decades after a bulk of Hindus left Peshawar for India following Pakistan’s creation in 1947.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan