An Open Letter to Pakistani Muslims

06/22/2015 04:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2016

Ramadan has begun, and with it Muslims seek to unite themselves not just with each other, by abstaining from food and drink during the day, but with all of humanity, trying to minimize class differences and empathize with the poor and needy by being hungry and thirsty in the same way. Everyone who is observing, all over the world, is doing the same thing - they eat when the sun rises and abstain until the sun sets. It is a primordial ritual that begins with the sight of the new moon. Even in this age of smart phones and apps that can tell us when and where to best see the moon, we are still, at the end of the night, looking at the same moon, just as the ancients did. But just as Muslims are united by the universality of aligning their prayer times with the five major positions of the sun, and their months with the movements of the moon, they are different in the myriad ways they commemorate this month, and each year the Huffington Post and other publications honor these differences with photo essays displaying the varying ways Muslims celebrate. There is, unfortunately, a sudden preoccupation amongst Pakistanis (and I suspect other Muslim populations as well, even in the U.S.), to change the way they congratulate each other on the start of the month. Ramadan greetings are increasingly consolidated, and that consolidation is taking a particular form - it's becoming Arabized. Instead of the traditional Pakistani 'Ramzan Mubarak', Pakistanis are starting to say 'Ramadan Kareem', which is simply how Arabs say the same thing. Ramzan with a 'z' sound is just a pronunciation deviance. An error, if you want to be technical, but one of pronunciation only. Mubarak is an Arabic word too, but putting the two words together as congratulations is a typically Persian and Urdu tradition, while putting the word 'Ramadan' with 'Kareem' is a typically Arab tradition. So preferring one over the other has no real linguistic nor religious significance - it's only a way to appear more Arab. (One could argue that 'Ramadan' is used because of its increased use in English/American greetings but regardless, putting it with 'Kareem' explicitly means copying an Arab tradition).

This Arabization is also happening in fashion, where the niqab, the black fabric that covers the nose and mouth and leaves only the eyes on display, is becoming fashionable amongst the female religious set. But the niqab was traditionally only worn by the Prophet's wives, and this for their protection when they moved about publicly, in marketplaces and on caravans. The niqab was contained to the Gulf region of the Middle East, as it developed into a Bedouin tradition. The fact that I see it on streets in urban Karachi, and on the campus of the university where I teach is, surprising, to say the least. Muslim women in Syria wear the manto, a buttoned, trench coat-like covering with a hijab, and Pakistanis have traditionally worn a shalwar kameez with a long scarf to cover. So like fasting: covering is the universal, the specifics are left to cultural habit. Pakistanis have also started correcting each other in their greeting and leaving habits. The traditional Khuda hafiz (God be with you) will nowadays be answered not with a similar blessing, nor even gratitude, but with a correction: "Allah hafiz!" with the speaker admonishing you for using the beautiful Persian word Khuda for God. These are all sad testaments to the assumption that Arab = authentic. It would behoove such etiquette experts to remember that there are 99 names for God in the Quran, and that the Prophet was called many different things, from Muhammad, to Taha, to Mustafa, to Abu Qassim, as is the Arab tradition.

It might seem like this isn't a big deal at all. But nitpicking on religious language in Pakistan and elsewhere actually has much broader implications than it may seem. It displays an underlying insecurity with one's religiosity, with one's Muslimness. Insecurity with one's degree of religiosity almost always leads to an obsession with literalism. With literalism comes the unfortunate binary of us/them, and it is precisely this us/them mentality that has lead to all the horrific attacks we've seen from there - Pakistani Muslims killing each other over differences in religiosity, from Malala to the Peshawar school attacks to the bus shootings to Sabeen Mahmud's targeted killing.

It is also worth noting that many of the Pakistanis who adopt these Arabic linguistic preferences are the same ones expressing frustration when the us/them binary is used on them in American governmental rhetoric, foreign policy, visa preference and extra airport security screening.

There are, for sure, reasons when it is useful to nitpick about religious language. But this pertains to specific instances, which all basically boil down to pronunciation when reading the Quran, either in prayer or as recitation. And this is because Arabic, in its absolute beauty and utterly logical, mathematical way, can change the meaning of a word by just one diacritical mark (basically saying 'a' when you should be saying 'ee'). But even that is forgivable when pronounced in error or because of ignorance in prayer and recitation, unless one is issuing a fatwa (and if one is doing that, one should certainly not only know Arabic, but specialize in the Arabic that was spoken 1, 436 years ago).

So the next time you correct someone's Ramzan Mubarak greetings, or admonish someone for using Khuda or any other name to denote God, consider the indignation you feel when a Christian in the U.S. wants to exterminate Muslims because the latter believe in Allah instead of God. Obsession with literal language outside of certain specific domains has far-reaching, catastrophic consequences for everyone.