Meaning and Practice

Meaning and Practice

Islam represents a potentially unifying symbolic system which offsets thedivisiveness that frequently rises from the existence of a deep pride in triballoyalties and an abounding sense of personal and family honor found inmultitribal and multiethnic societies such as Afghanistan.

Islam is a central, pervasive influence throughout Afghan society; religiousobservances punctuate the rythmn of each day and season. In addition to acentral Friday mosque for weekly communal prayers which are not obligatory butgenerally attended, smaller community-maintained mosques stand at the center ofvillages, as well as town and city neighborhoods. Mosques serve not only asplaces of worship, but for a multitude of functions, including shelter forguests, places to meet and gossip, the focus of social religious festivities andschools. Almost every Afghan has at one time during his youth studied at amosque school; for many this is the only formal education they receive.

Because Islam is a total way of life and functions as a comprehensive code ofsocial behavior regulating all human relationships, individual and family statusdepends on the proper observance of the society's value system based on conceptsdefined in Islam. These are characterized by honesty, frugality, generosity,virtuousness, piousness, fairness, truthfulness, tolerance and respect forothers. To uphold family honor, elders also control the behavior of theirchildren according to these same Islamic prescriptions. At times, evencompetitive relations between tribal or ethnic groups are expressed in termsclaiming religious superiority. In short, Islam structures day-to-dayinteractions of all members of the community.

The religious establishment consists of several levels. Any Muslim can leadinformal groups in prayer. Mullahs who officiate at mosques are normallyappointed by the government after consultation with their communities and,although partially financed by the government, mullahs are largely dependent fortheir livelihood on community contributions including shelter and a portion ofthe harvest. Supposedly versed in the Quran, Sunnah, Hadith and Shariah, theymust ensure that their communities are knowledgeable in the fundamentals ofIslamic ritual and behavior. This qualifies them to arbitrate disputes overreligious interpretation. Often they function as paid teachers responsible forreligious education classes held in mosques where children learn basic moralvalues and correct ritual practices. Their role has additional social aspectsfor they officiate on the occasion of life crisis rituals associated withbirths, marriages and deaths.

But rural mullahs are not part of an institutionalized hierarchy of clergy.Most are part-time mullahs working also as farmers or craftsmen. Some are barelyliterate, or only slightly more educated than the people they serve. Often, butby no means always, they are men of minimal wealth and, because they depend fortheir livelihood on the community that appoints them, they have little authorityeven within their own social boundaries. They are often treated with scantrespect and are the butt of a vast body of jokes making fun of their arroganceand ignorance. Yet their role as religious arbiters forces them to takepositions on issues that have political ramifications and since mullahs oftendisagree with one another, pitting one community against the other, they arefrequently perceived as disruptive elements within their communities.

Other religious figures include the muezzin who calls thecongregation to prayer and the khadim, the mosque caretakers. Qariare experts at reciting the Quran; hafiz know it by heart. Hafiz areoften blind and associated with brotherhoods at important shrines. Qazi,religious judges, are part of the government judicial system responsible for theapplication of Shariah laws.

Ulama is the term that describes the body of scholars who haveacquired ilm or religious learning. As such they are seen as thetransmitters of religious texts, doctrines and values, as well as interpretersof the Shariah. Maulana and Mawlawi are titles givento members of the ulama and religious dignitaries. Sayyids among both Sunni andShia refer to descendants of the Prophet Mohammad who enjoy social and religiousprestige throughout the Muslim world.

Within Sufi networks there are a host of religious personalities in additionto pirs. Among these are various types of mendicants such as malangswho renounce the impermanence of this world and embrace poverty in order todetach themselves from the chains of materialism so as to better realize thedivine. Some malang attach themselves to, or swear loyalty to, a particularbrotherhood, but others wander alone, often garbed in colorful creativeclothing. Some, like faqirs, claim to have been given a Divine missionand miraculous powers. They eschew home, family and worldly goods, sleeping inmosques or graveyards, especially those attached to shrines of saints. In aculture where family and kin are basic to individual psychological and economicidentity, anyone who voluntarily relinquishes these ties is considered to havebeen favored by God with a special mission. As a result, they are respectfullytolerated and often given alms.

Veneration of saints and shrines (mazar, ziarat) is notencouraged in Islam and is actively suppressed by some groups. Nevertheless,Afghanistan's landscape is liberally strewn with shrines honoring saints of alldescriptions. Many of Afghanistan's oldest villages and towns grew up aroundshrines of considerable antiquity. Some are used as sanctuaries by fugitives.

Shrines vary in form from simple mounds of earth or stones marked by pennantsto lavishly ornamented complexes surrounding a central domed tomb. These largeestablishments are controlled by prominent religious and secular leaders.Shrines may mark the final resting place of a fallen hero (shahid), avenerated religious teacher, a renowned Sufi poet, or relics, such as a hair ofthe Prophet Mohammad or a piece of his cloak (khirqah). A great manycommemorate legends about the miraculous exploits of Ali, the first Imam of ShiaIslam, believed to be buried at the nation's most elaborate shrine located inthe heart of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Exalted Shrine. Hazrat Ali is reveredthroughout Afghanistan for his role as an intermediary in the face of tyranny.

Festive annual fairs celebrated at shrines attract thousands of pilgrims andbring together all sections of communities. Pilgrims also visit shrines to seekthe intercession of the saint for special favors, be it a cure for illness orthe birth of a son. Women are particularly devoted to activities associated withshrines. These visits may be short or last several days and many pilgrims carryaway specially blessed curative and protective amulets (tawiz) to wardoff the evil eye, assure loving relationships between husbands and wives andmany other forms of solace.

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