By M Zeb KhanSeptember 28, 2016Print : Opinion
Famous historians, Will and Ariel Durant, have explored the cultural history of England in their book, ‘The Age of Reason, 1961’ with its first chapter devoted to the era of Queen Elizabeth Tudor (1558-1648).
It was a period of great social transformation – heralding a new era in which reason would begin to challenge the prevailing myths and superstitions and would ultimately dictate every aspect of public life. I reproduce a few key points from chapter VII of the book as the basis for comparison with the state of affairs in Pakistan.
“Are people poor because they are ignorant or ignorant because they are poor? It is a question that divides political philosophers between conservatives stressing heredity (inborn inequalities of mental capacity) and reformers relying on environment (the power of education and opportunity). In societies where knowledge grows, superstition wanes! With the increase and distribution of wealth, people tend to discard outdated mode of living.
“And yet even in a widely prosperous country and especially among the harassed poor and the idle rich, thought has to live in a jungle of superstitions: astrology, numerology, palmistry, portents, the evil eye, witches, ghosts, demons, incantations, exorcisms, dream interpretations, oracles, quackery, and occult qualities in minerals, plants, and animals.
“Consider, then, the intellectual miasma poisoning the roots and wilting the flowers of science in a people whose wealth is scant or centred in a few. To the poor in body and mind superstition is a treasured element in the poetry of life, gilding dull days with exciting marvels, and redeeming misery with magic powers and mystic hopes.”
Doesn’t this passage actually depict today’s Pakistan in the way people believe in weird things? In other words, Pakistan today seems to be the England of the 16th century in terms of the myths and superstitions that characterise our society.
Popular superstitions are beyond number. Our ears burn when others speak of us; wounds can be cured by anointing the weapon with which they were inflicted; certain talismans guarantee good fortune; amulets can ward off impotence, the evil eye, and a chronic illness; every occurrence is a sign of God’s pleasure or wrath and, above all, events can be foretold by reading the lines of the hand or motions of the plants!
What intrigues many is the question of why people believe in myths. There are some good reasons. Myths satisfy our desire to surmount difficulties with the least possible trouble and effort. Most people in Pakistan look for shortcuts to succeed. That is true in education, healthcare, business, politics – everywhere. Going through natural processes in pursuit of success requires hard work, patience, and perseverance which, unfortunately, is a commodity always short in supply in this part of the world.
People also tend to create myths and believe in exotic explanations when they cannot understand complex social or natural phenomena logically. Because we rarely use the critical faculty of our mind to make sense of an unusual occurrence, the alternative becomes the development of a mythological explanation using supernatural beings or powers.
Compared to scientific explanations, myths offer a simple answer to complex problems. For example, some people still believe that individuals are possessed by demons when in reality they have psychological disorders.
Religion has generally been exploited by fake pirs (spiritual leaders) to deceive naïve people in astonishingly unique ways. These pirs claim to have tremendous divine powers. What can and should be done is to reform our education and socialisation systems.
Islam, as a religion, is against all forms of superstitions and cult worship. It encourages Muslims to use reason in understanding themselves and the universe. It asks them to play an active role in shaping their destiny through hard work rather than becoming stooges in the hands of imposters who come in different shapes and colours.
The writer teaches at the Sarhad University. Email: [email protected]