Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ghani Khan, God, and the Mullah: The Mullah as an Ideology in Ghani Khan’s Poetry

Ghani Khan (1914-1996) was a Pashto poet, philosopher, politician, thinker, and artist. He is best known, however, for his poetry, which, with its immense power and wisdom, leaves us much to contemplate and discuss. While his poetry extends beyond his criticism of the mullah, a term that refers to a religious teacher often from the clergy, those familiar with Ghani’s poetry are much acquainted with the poet’s relationship with the mullah. In fact, one of the marks of Ghani’s poetry is his criticism of the mullah, his reference to the mullah’s hypocrisy, ignorance, and shallowness. What tends to be overlooked in the discussion on Ghani and the mullah, however, is a focus on the socio-religious milieu in which Ghani’s poetry emerges as a critical engagement with the mullah.

Ghani Khan’s relationship with God, which is itself another significant theme in his poetry, is one of love, depth, and devotion. It is full of a kind of humility that allows him to talk to God in his poetry, not just of Him. The God invoked in his poetry is a janan, a beloved. This understanding of God is rare in many Muslim societies, including the Pashtun society, but is popular in the Sufi tradition. In the Pashtun society, the wrath of God is emphasized to such an extent that many Pashtuns then become obsessed with fear from God, constantly wondering if what they are doing is haraam or halaal, forbidden or permissible, merely so that they can avoid hell. Prayer becomes a mundane ritual, an oppressive obligation, a dreaded moment; it is not a precious moment between humans and God in which humans humble themselves, submitting themselves utterly to God, overcome with God’s power and awe, and creates a sacred, intimate bond with God. Instead of serving as the human’s intimate friend and a loving janan, God becomes a menacing bao, a monster. 

Against the understanding of God as a janan, Ghani Khan faces the role and influence of the mullah, who sees God as no less than a bao and preaches this same concept of God to the people. Ghani uses these hollow teachings of the mullah to his benefit: They help him criticize restrictive religious practices and extremist forms of religion without implying that they are God’s teachings. They reinforce his reasons to criticize the clergy as well as the common oppressive practice of religion in the Pashtun society; when Ghani Khan criticizes a certain restrictive attitude towards religion, he is in fact criticizing the mullah’s version of religion, which is in fact what the term "mullah" itserlf means for Ghani. He often appeals to the mullah by using the phrase “the mullah says” instead of “God says,” even though what Ghani is commenting on is not just from the mullah but widely accepted truths according to many Muslims. For example, in his poem Mula Jaan Wayi Azal Ke (“According to the Mullah”), which is written to God, Ghani writes that according to the mullah, God has already determined everyone’s and everything’s fate since the beginning of time. The poem is a critique of the doctrine of pre-determination, shared by various schools of thought in all monotheistic religions. In other poems, in his conversations with the mullah, where the former asks the latter to define worship, Ghani’s frustration with the mullah and the mullah’s shallow understanding of God are eloquently illustrated. Ultimately, Ghani’s reference to the mullah is not only to the mullah but to an understanding of religion that deters a person from seeing God as a Friend, not just a merciful companion but the kind of friend with whom one can share her innermost thoughts and questions—and doubts—usually in humorous ways that strengthen the two friends’ relationship with each other. 

While Ghani Khan yearns to see his people move forward, he realizes that the mullah is a major obstacle to Pashtuns’ progression. As long as the mullah has power over Pashtuns, the society will remain obsessed with petty matters that ultimately prohibit them from moving forward, such as by becoming educated and thinking critically instead of submitting willfully to the mullah. The mullah, of course, often uneducated, teaches that his teachings are not his teachings but the teachings of God (saying otherwise would leave him with no audience). To obey the mullah, then, is to obey God, and to disobey the mullah is to disobey God; similarly, to criticize the mullah is to criticize God, which is popularly understood as blasphemy, and blasphemy is a sin according to many Muslims and is a crime in Pakistan punishable by death. Ghani’s fear was that the Pashtuns were being taught by illiterates and uneducated people called mullahs who were shoving Pashtuns into an abyss of ignorance and superficiality so that they would never become masters of their own mind, capable of thinking for themselves so that they might replace their reverence for the mullah with reverence for God. The mullah, it would seem clear, abuses his power over his audience to be obeyed himself, not quite so that God can be obeyed. He, in fact, becomes the god of the society that follows him, and the less educated they are kept, the longer they will continue worshiping him instead of God. 

Ghani Khan’s confrontation with the mullah in his poetry is a telling depiction of the mullah’s influence in some Muslim societies, specifically among Pashtuns. Ghani struggles to portray God as a Friend of humanity, a janan, while the mullah continues to teach that God is a powerful Being whose wrath overshadows His mercy—in fact, God’s mercy is rarely referenced in the mullah’s teachings. Essentially, then, the mullah comes to represent not merely the mullah as a religious teacher but the ideology that he teaches and preaches. 

Writer’s note: Readers unfamiliar with Ghani’s work may find the following links useful.

- Ghani Khan’s poems Mullah Jaan Wayi Azal Ke (roughly, “According to the Mullah”) and Janat au Dunya ("Heaven and Earth"), both with English translations
- Shazia Babar’s PhD dissertation on Ghani Khan (and John Keats)

This article was originally published at Pashtun Women Viewpoint.

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