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Citizen Voices

Are Religious ‘Entrepreneurs’ Selling Faith For A Paltry Price?

A new music video was released by Peace Studio, a channel that caters to the preferences of the religiously devout through hymns and other devotional content. Within a day of its release, the video gathered over 58,000 views. The video titled “Main Bhi Shaadi Karonga” (I will also get married) features someone who uses the title Hafiz, which usually signifies that the person has memorised the Qur’an. The marketing of this video close to Valentine’s Day is noteworthy. However, to me, the most disturbing aspect of the song is its apparent disregard for the Qur’anic verse which warns: “Do not sell My verses for a paltry price” (2:41).

A Hafiz is entrusted with the heavy responsibility of memorising the Qur’an, so as to keep alive the oral transmission of the text from one generation to the next. However, one finds that despite their great undertaking, Huffaz often do not reflect upon the texts and sometimes overlook the elements in their own conduct on which the Qur’an has passed scathing judgments. For example, they forget the bearing that verses like 9:31 should have on Muslims. The verse describes Jews and Christians as having taken their scholars and monks as lords besides Allah. Such verses obviously have an instructive component, and cannot simply be taken as mere descriptions of a people who are other than us.

Sociologists and anthropologists write about how Pakistani religious groups have rebranded and marketed themselves to stay relevant to the masses. This narrative goes all the way back to the decline of the Mughal Empire in India. Initially the religiously devout wanted to resuscitate the Caliphate and rejected the parliamentary democratic system as a western import. They also staunchly opposed Jinnah and the Pakistan movement. Over time, they accepted the idea of a nation built on democratic values and rebranded themselves as major stakeholders in the state of Pakistan. Such shifts in religious discourse are ubiquitous, as much as the devout may like to claim that they are part of an eternal never-changing tradition.

We don’t have to exhume old examples like the shift from the ban on the translation of the Qur’an and the lifting of the prohibition of using loudspeakers for adhan; we need only look at the 1980s to find a strict prohibition on taking photographs except for the dire necessity of passports. A whole generation, currently in their 40s and above, was taught that drawing pictures or taking photographs would have Allah demanding that you put life in those pictures at your reckoning on Judgment Day. Similarly, for music: many popular singers like Cat Stevens (later Yusuf Islam), the late Junaid Jamshed and at one point Ali Haider, gave up musical instruments, owing to the understanding that music is prohibited in Islam.

Yet, time and again, religious groups have pushed back at ideas that put them at a disadvantage through successful rebranding and marketing. Notwithstanding the history of the prohibition on photographs, many religious folks today promote their events on posters and social media with pictures of bearded celebrities that indulge in devotional music and hymns. The prohibition on pictures was quietly and conveniently set aside and all the texts used for the prohibition argument were quietly sidelined in religious discourse. In a similar fashion, where some religious folks like the late Junaid Jamshed looked for acapella substitutes to circumvent the supposed ban on music, others like Ali Haider returned to music after a hiatus. Some like Sami Yusuf refuse to engage in the jurisprudential nitty-gritty and simply assert that music is beyond jurisprudence. The point here is that the horror evoked from the supposed prohibition is gradually replaced by more permissible positions when the interests of religious groups are themselves tied to a supposedly prohibited practice or when the prohibition is deemed too onerous that it surpasses the optimal level of religious strictness.

Coming back to the latest devotional song by the young Hafiz, both prohibitions on music and taking pictures have been masterfully circumvented. Additionally, the positioning and marketing of this video on social media around Valentine’s Day bears the mark of shrewd entrepreneurship. In other words, religious entrepreneurs and organisations know their market well and cater to the preferences of their market base. They also seek to increase their market share by ever-expanding proselytising efforts that influence and shape consumer preferences. In other words, their business model is self-sustaining, that is, such videos bring in customers by influencing their preferences, which then feeds into their drive to make more of such videos.

The video itself is gaudy. It follows fashion trends with flashy clothes, fancy background and fabulous body language and facial expressions by the young Hafiz. Whereas movies and music are generally put down for fahashi (lewdness), it offers a “halal” version of all that glitter, pomp and show. It’s perhaps similar to the creation of tofu-based imitation pork or rather halal meat where animals are poorly treated in suffocating cages and kept in abysmal living conditions but all of that gets washed away by the recitation of the kalima at the time of slaughter.

Finally, another issue that arises from the video is the positioning of Muslim ethics against loose morals. This is relevant in religious places that impose an undue burden through a prohibition on masturbation. A whole generation of Pakistani men has grown up imbibing intense guilt to the point that they have qualms well into their 40s and 50s on a very private individual act. Indeed, there are Pakistani men who struggle to get married soon to avoid the guilt that arises from this private act, as no other act, not even eating non-halal jhatka (non-ritually slaughtered) meat, elicits the same level of OCD behaviour, guilt and shame as the act of masturbation.

Yet, such guilt is unwarranted as there are juristic opinions by Ibn Hanbal (d. 855) that treats the act casually as akin to bloodletting or by Ibn Hazm (d. 1064) who referenced the opinions of several Companions and the tabiun (successors) that showed no issues with it or even advised youth to use it as a deterrent to committing fornication. In contemporary times, even if Pakistanis, with all their prejudice and contempt, ignore the opinion of Ghamidi who linguistically shows that the hifz furuj (protection of private parts) in verses 23:5-6 have no bearing on the permissibility of masturbation, they have to contend with the Arab scholar al-Turayri, who states that guilt and distaste cannot be used as evidence for prohibition. Additionally, Imam Habeeb Alli’s book Intimacy and the Sacred upholds the same permissibility position. But it seems, given the emphasis on an anti-West narrative, especially on the sexual mores front, the time is still not ripe for Pakistanis to overthrow the prohibition narrative on this act. Therefore, the usual quack businesses that prey on guilt-ridden youth and men based on their posters on “jawaani ki ghalatiyan” (indiscretions of youth) may continue to flourish unabated.

In a nutshell, religious groups and organisations are like any other corporate entities where material gains and not “piety” drive their actions and narratives. The gaudy video by the young Hafiz is only a small addition in a long line of similar materialistic endeavours that rest less on Islamic values and more on offering an “Islamic” version of the flashy, trendy and the gaudy. In this regard, an interesting investigation would allow one to highlight the net worth of popular televangelists and religious organisations as they amass tremendous material benefits by catering to the insecurities of the masses. To echo the Qur’an, for YouTube likes, shares and gains, the religious entrepreneurs are only abasing and selling Islam for a paltry price.


1 Comment

  1. Rev. Audrey Brooks February 16, 2021

    Everything you say is based on the fact that religious beliefs can and will be rationalized and compromised once
    there is a dollar to be made by doing so. It was ever thus. I finally ploughed through Rushdie’s book, after putting it
    away several times, because I knew it was important to slog through ,to see where it led. I won’t say more on that,; the Gordian Knot of belief systems require a certain navigation- which this Hafiz has worked to his own benefit. Hugs, Audrey


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