Book Review

Pages 237

Blasphemy: (A Novel) Price Rs.295

Author: Tehmina Durrani

Publishers: Ferozesons (Pvt) Ltd., Lahore (1998)

To me, my husband was my son's murderer. He was also my daughter's molester. A parasite nibbling on the Holy Book, he was Lucifer, holding me by the throat and driving me to sin every night. He was Bhai's destroyer, Amma Sain's tormentor, Ma's humbler and the people's exploiter. He was the rapist of orphans and the fiend that fed on the weak. But over and above all this, he was known to be the man closest to Allah, the one who could reach Him and save us.

While the tantalizing title of this fiction inspired by the true story of a woman and about the debauchery of a Pir1 gives the impression of another attack on Islam by a 'feminist' on the lookout for easy fame, surprisingly the gripping novel itself has not any trace of either 'feminism' or disdain for religion. In fact, in many ways, it extols Islam and decries hypocrisy and declination from the Qur'an, especially when the deviation is justified in the name of this very religion. Indeed, not understanding the Qur'an, not allowing any attempt at understanding the Qur'an, is presented as an important reason for the dark ignorance of the people that gives the Pir his power. The only 'education' permitted to women in Pir Sain's household is Arabic recitation of the Qur'an, and the way the Pir's daughter, Guppi is conditioned when she asks her grandmother about the Qur'an says it all.

Guppi argued with her, 'But I don't understand Arabic. How can I commit myself to Allah without knowing what I commit to? How can I make a promise without knowing what to keep?

Guppi's mother, Heer, the main character of the novel is reminded of her spirit when she would ask her Baba.

'Did Allah reveal the Holy Book to gain sawab for reading? Was his aim not to instruct us? To give us direction? To tell us what to be?'

The grandmother's answer to Guppi? Very simple:

'It is a shame you don't listen. I will have to tell your father about this.'

And that threat made Gupi somersault. She promised to read only the Arabic version.

Heer chose to remain silent at this change even though she wished to tell Guppi that the Holy Book was 'dangerous'. 'It exposed those who exploited it.' And though Blasphemy gives no indication of how aware its author is of her religion, this is exactly what the novel does. It exposes those who exploit Islam. In that it does not give any clue to who the real Heer or the real Pir Sain are, it is not an expose. But it is very much an exposure. An exposure of our consciousness to reality, to the many real Heers and the many real Pir Sains in our society, to our own ignorance and indifference that, by affording the despots the 'Divine' right to oppress, are a significant reason for the perpetual oppression of the weak. It is our exposure to our failure. How miserably have we failed to understand the true Islam and to disseminate it! Indeed, there are moments in the reading of the novel where one feels like crying out 'This is not what Islam is. The fault is not in the religion but in those who misuse it.'

But then, it is not only Islam which has been misused. Many noble ideals have been 'used' by oppressors for justifying most ignoble of deeds. Peace has often been murdered in the name of peace. Freedom has been used many a time to enslave. Law has so many times in history been the instrument of injustice. The fault is not in the ideal. Not in Peace or Freedom or the Rule of Law -- or in Islam.

The way this religion has been misinterpreted is a story in itself. It is as Heer laments. All the oppression the Prophet (sws) came to end is now carried in the name of the religion he brought. Her wails accord with the Qur'an when it says:

At the time [O People!] when the sun shall cease to shine, and when the stars shall be dimmed, and when the mountains shall be set moving, and when camel, ten-months pregnant, shall be left untended, and when wild beasts shall be gathered together, and when the seas shall burst forth, and when [in that world] souls shall be grouped [according to their deeds], and when the buried alive child shall be asked for what sin was she killed…., then [O People! each] shall know what it has brought forward. (81:1-14)

This is the Qur'an which is used as a basis for the notion that in Islam the worth of a woman's testimony is half that of a man's, whereas at no place in the Qur'an except one even the question of a man's testimony as an 'evidence' in a court of law has been mentioned, let alone that of a woman's. That one exception pertains to the case of slander. The testimony of people guilty of this crime is not to be accepted in any court of law (see 24:5-4). As the context shows, verse 282 of the second surah of the Qur'an, which is usually quoted as a basis for the belief that a woman's testimony is half, is not a necessary condition for the validity of a contract. It is a social directive to ensure that the chances of any dispute later on become minimal. Furthermore, the verse is not even related to cases as murder, rape and theft where the victim does not have the choice of selecting his or her witnesses. It pertains to economic transactions where legal documentation can be done. Moreover, the words 'so that if the one forgets the other should remind her' clearly show that the objective is to help a typical lady, who, while not finding the court surroundings congenial, might forget facts in her state of mind. The words are not 'when she forgets the other should remind her', rather 'if she forgets….'. What if she doesn't forget? Should the other make her forget to remind her? Or should the court do the honours? It is obvious from the words of the Qur'an that if the first does not forget and testifies convincingly, the testimony of the second is not required. Clearly, the preference for male witnesses while one has the choice to choose is merely in consideration of the fact that typically ladies are less likely to prefer being involved in legal disputes and less likely to find the court-room congenial. (For further details see Shehzad Saleem, 'The Law of Evidence' and 'The Testimony of Women', Renaissance, January 1991 and November 1996).

Similarly, regarding Diyah (which is essentially a penalty rather than a compensation) verse 178 of the second surah clearly says that it is to be paid in accordance with Ma'ruf. Ma'ruf refers to the good conventions of society. For example, if by convention the Diyah for a man and a woman is the same in a society, then, in accordance with this verse, it is this convention which is to be followed. And the amount itself may change with a change in convention. Just as it may change in case of Mahr (the bridal gift paid by the groom as a token of his financial responsibility towards the bride), which again is to be paid in accordance with the conventions and in consideration of the status of the bride and of the bridegroom.

But these are only a few examples of misinterpretations. There are so many others. Issues regarding punishments for fornication and adultery2 , slavery in Islam3, marriages of the Prophet (sws)4, polygamy in Islam5, the procedure for divorce6, the Islamic dress code for men and women and social etiquette7, Wali's consent in marriage8, equality of man and woman9, and many others.

While there is no room in Islam for the kind of imported, western liberalism and modernity which is devoid of decency and modesty, the notion of a marginalised, confined, tormented animal that a woman is supposed to be is absolutely alien to this religion. In a truly Islamic society, 'Paradise is under her feet' when she is a mother, she is a means to entering the Kingdom of Heaven when she is a daughter, she is a companion, a sacred responsibility, an indispensable means to making the future generations members of the Prophet's Ummah10 when she is a wife, and she is her brother's honour and his pride. And after fulfilling her responsibility in these roles, she is someone who contributes to the society in battles and wars, in medicine and science, in education and learning, in commerce and trade and in law and legislature.

The irony is that actually in societies professing faith in the book which leaves no room for any further Divine directive in religion after the Prophet11 and which raised the cry of bi ayyi dhambin qutilat (for what sin was she murdered), self-proclaimed intercessors as Blasphemy's Pir Sain have the 'Divine' right to distort Islam in the name of Islam and to 'murder' all the rights that this religion gave to the Daughter of Eve.

Although, occasionally, the recurrent depiction of the Pir's morbid evildoing becomes rather repulsive for the reader, the skein of Heer's difficulties and the author's language, which at times reaches the level of brilliance, maintain the grip of the novel on the reader to the end. The impression that this book gives about the writer is of a woman who has gained maturity and sagacity with life and who certainly possesses a lot of talent.

It is hoped that Blasphemy will neither be the last nor the best of this Minto of her times, who basically neither disparages nor promotes religion in her novel. She, very powerfully and very skilfully, presents a reality which, despite being so pervasive, usually eludes our attention. She merely describes things as they are. But in doing so, impels her reader to cry out: This is not how things should be.