The Faithful Scribe
A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War
Shahan Mufti's family grow up in Lahore, in what was to become West Pakistan. But his father, after being educated as a doctor, was invited to teach at a medical school in Ohio, where, on his second visit there, Shahan was born. Thus born in him was the divide: one attuned to American ways, completely at home in English, but, too, a child of Pakistan --- part of the language and culture that is now the separate Muslim state of Pakistan.
Mufti points out that Pakistan is not all that different from Israel, for both are newly formed states built on one unity among a diverse people. For Israel is both a democracy with a hegemony of Jews from all over the world. And Pakistan is a democracy as well as a union of Muslims from everywhere. For both countries, this dual system brings immense pride, and immense pain.
A fair portion of The Faithful Scribe is given over to Mufti tracing his family's roots --- in his case, back forty generations. He claims that in the genealogy of his mother, we will find "the Quraishi-Faruqi family," and it will lead us directly back to "The leader of the faithful, Umar."
In the 8th Century, Umar was a follower and, it is said, one of the few confidants of "The Master, the Messenger, Respected Muhammed, Prophet of Allah." Thus Mufti has the pride of such a lofty lineage. But he also has --- as a reporter --- come to be intimately knowledgeable about the other side: that he is one from two countries where extremists have taken their religious teachings to horrifying levels.
The writer manages in this book not only to tell us about his own dual roots but, at the same time, gives the reader a comprehensive view of the roots of Pakistan: the ecstasy of its origin in 1947 with the departure of the British, and the partition. But he acknowledges that it was less like a birth and more like a civil war, for too many people died in the race of the Hindus to leave the new country, and the Muslims to escape the newly independent India.
"All in all, " he reports, "it is estimated that nearly two million people were killed during the partition." [For an elegant overview of that hideously mismanaged partition, you should read Perry Anderson's concise analysis that appeared in The London Review of Books, 19 July 2012].
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Mufti is no apologist for some of extremist acts of the government in Pakistan. For instance, when the government of General Zia-ul-Haq took over in 1979, he instituted the "Hudood Ordinance," specifically punishments for extramarital sex, theft, and alcohol consumption,
which were considered crimes beyond the realm of humans and thus "crimes against God." The punishments for these crimes had been described in the Quran: whiplashes for drinking alcohol, stoning to death for adultery, and cutting off the hands for theft.
As Mufti notes, "It was in these days that my parents first began talking about leaving the country."
But the writer has a beef against those in Washington who describe Pakistan as a "Failed State?" (the phrase came from a 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs.) And yet, he points out, in the same year a World Bank report on the business outlook in Asia called Pakistan "the top performer in the region."
Pakistan was the second largest producer of milk in the world; it harvested the fifth-largest crop of onions and eight-largest crop of wheat, along with being one of the world's fastest growing cellular phone markets.
"Its national wealth, which ranked as the twenty-eighth largest in the world that year, was 50 percent higher than all the wealth of all the other nine 'failed states' combined."
Mufti --- like Pakistan itself --- is a mass of contradictions, and we find ourselves not a little befuddled when he turns to a personal note, the marriage of his mother and father. It was an arranged marriage.
His father Shahzad studied medicine at Case Reserve Western University, lived there for years, but, when it was time for him to marry, decided that "any woman who could impress his mother and sisters, seven women all at once, was surely good enough for him."
His wife-to-be, Saadia, was as well-educated, having a master's degree from Lahore College. "He would not see his wife until the day of their wedding," the author writes, and even then, her face was covered by a red dupatta draped over her head. "Neither of my parents had the courage to turn their head to look at the other's face ... He would speak his first words to her inside [his new] white Volkswagen" as they left the ceremony.
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I think Mufti is at his best when he is grappling with the Big Questions. With all its natural advantages, why is there so much disruption, squalor, injustice, and tangled bureaucracy in Pakistan? Why have once-gorgeous parts of the country --- such as the wonderfully named Swat Valley --- become so encumbered with violence, brutal laws and brutal law-keepers? What are the roots of the harsh fighting between Muslims and Hindus, those who --- until the middle of the 20th Century --- lived so peaceably together.
Can it all be laid on the shoulders of the Raj, or even the influential Muhammad Ali Jinnah who, in the years leading up to the departure of the British, demanded a separate state for the Muslims? He said that "Muslims stuck together, Muslims were different; Muslims were a nation; the Muslims' interest must be protected."
But this cant of so long ago was fatally flawed. By dividing a once-peaceful nation in two, murdering 2,000,000 in the process, these nationalists apparently could rule no better (nor worse) than the colonialists who went abroad and, in their own economic interests, drew lines on maps and said "This part is for England; that for Portugal; that for France; that for Germany."
Through such arbitrary (and selfish) interests, a whole nation would be forced into endless bloody squabbling that was tragically unnecessary.
The conflict of East vs. West is built into The Faithful Scribe, as it is built into Shahan Mufti's soul. He spends three hundred pages trying to resolve this split. At times the writing goes astray: his extended exegesis on searching for his family's 14th Century-old connection to Islam can wamble.
But in his searching, he has constructed an insightful introduction his culture, and its very splitting (within and without) creates a worthy narrative. The worst failing --- not in his book but in his culture --- is, as he concedes, the lack of balance. "After six long decades, the state that had been built as a refuge for the nation of Muslims had failed to deliver for most of its people."
The work of dogged visionaries and hard-nosed politicians had, decades ago, succeeded in bringing together millions of Muslims of different races, languages, and cultures as a nation, but then the promise of a modern democratic Islamic political society had sputtered and stalled one too many times.
"Pakistan was supposed to be the worlds most advanced laboratory of Islam and democracy, but the experiment of mixing the tradition of Islam with a modern nation-state had not found the right balance."--- Richard Saturday