From Watermarked: Voices of Pakistan, The Artistan Committee, London, 2011
A few years ago I found myself in a desert just outside Karachi. The Thar desert is not as inhospitable as other deserts I have been fortunate enough to encounter in places such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Perhaps that’s why it is called the ‘Friendly Desert’. You can detect the air becoming more arid as you drive towards Umerkot, the main town in this area of Sind, and it get hot but it is not unbearable. Every now and then, you can spot a patch of parched green. I remember standing at the edge of the desert, outside a small village, wondering what it’s like to live in an arid region such as this. With no river to supply fresh water, how do they cope? Look after their crops and herds? How far do poor women, earthen mudkas on their heads, had to travel to find water?
Then it occurred to me that I was not just looking at the Thar desert, located in a remote corner of Pakistan, well outside the Indus basin. Rather I was looking at Pakistan itself. In many respect Pakistan resembles the Thar desert – not too harsh but educationally and intellectually sterile, with odd patches of culture – gleaming like the colourful garments of Thari women – caught, like the region itself, between tradition and modernity.
Suddenly, it began to rain. It was as heavy as it was abrupt. Children started playing in the rain. Women ran hither and dither to catch and store the water. There was an unbridled sense of joy all around me. But, I wondered, how long before this jubilation turns into despair again? The greedy desert would soak up all the water. And when the monsoon moves on, aridity would inevitably return, just as the night follows the day.
The effect of rain on a desert environment is truly remarkable. The transformations it brings are immediate; one can witness the desert bloom, as if it has been sprinkled by some enchantment, before one’s perplexed gaze. The presence or absence of water shapes the daily lives of people of Thar just as much as it did the lives of early Muslim community in the ‘barren valley’ of Mecca, over fourteen hundred years ago. That’s why water plays such an important part in Islam, both practically and metaphorically.
Virtually all the major rituals of Muslims involve water. The believers gather water on their palms and splash it on their faces to perform absolution, a requisite for offering the five daily prayers. They refrain from drinking, and experience the hardship of thirst, when they fast during Ramadan. And during hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, running between the hills of Safa and Marwah, they enact Hagar’s desperate search for water. But the allegory of Prophet Abraham’s wife, Hagar, and the sudden emergence of the well of Zamzam, moves us from the practical to the metaphorical: it is as much about a spiritual quest as it is about survival. The pilgrims drink Zamzam water not because it is ‘holy’; indeed, it is rather brackish and not pleasant to drink. It is drunk metaphorically to quench a different kind of spiritual thirst.
The burial rituals of Muslims require bathing the body before it is buried. And, if God wills, our final destination is a well-watered garden otherwise known as paradise. The metaphor of garden is used around 130 times in the Qur’an; emphasising again and again that paradise is all about ‘fountains of gushing water’. domain links In the Hereafter it is located in a spiritual dimension; but it can be created, here on earth, by skilful management of water.
References to water are sprinkled throughout the Qur’an. Water is the source of all life: ‘We made every living thing out of water’ (21:30); a declaration that is repeated in 24:45 and again in 25:54. But this source comes in two different varieties: ‘He released the two bodies of fresh and salt water. They meet, yet there is a barrier between them they do not cross’ (55:19-20). Fresh water serves as a metaphor for gratitude. ‘Consider the water you drink – was it you who brought it down from the rain-cloud or We? If We wanted We could make it bitter: will you not be thankful’ (56:68-70). The satisfaction we feel at quenching our thirst should generate spontaneous gratitude, which is a combination of both humility and admiration. This fresh water is always kept separate from salty water even though the two meet continuously in the oceans. It re-emerges from the ocean in the cyclic transformation of water: its evaporation from the salty seas, leading to the formation of clouds, their condensation into rain and snow which feeds springs and rivers, and its return to the seas – a process that is described, for example, in 39:21. The two kinds of waters present us with an allegory of the gulf, as Muslim mystics have often argued, between our spiritual desires and worldly needs and passions, as well as enlightenment and deep ignorance.
As the people of Thar know so well, water, this essential source of life, can also be a potent force of destruction. In the Mecca of old flesh floods regularly brought sudden death. The floods of 2010 in Pakistan, truly of Biblical proportion, displaced some 20 million people and killed over 2000. Thus water demands respect. Gardens have to be conceived, designed, built and maintained; the journey to paradise requires some serious effort. Night follows day, the Qur’an tells us on a number of places, for a very specific reason: ‘so you know how to count the years and calculate’ (17:12). In other words, observation, measurement, calculations, the basis of empirical knowledge, are essential both for understanding and taming nature.
This was a message that classical Muslim cultures understood very well. Just imagine the calculations involved in building a classic Muslim city like Fez. The city is build by a river bank, water is taken upstream, delivered to the city through a sophisticated system of pipes and channels, and the used water is deposited downstream. You can tell the size of the family by observing the size of the channel that brings water to a house. The Ottomans had calculated that the Bosphorus Sea has a two tier current system. The upper layer flows from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara which is lower. But the lower layer flows in the opposite direction because there’s a difference in the density of the two seas: the Sea of Marmara has a higher salt content and therefore a higher density. So the entire drainage system of Istanbul was built on this observation; affluent from the city was deposited in the lower layer of the Sea of Marmara from where it ends up, via the Aegean, in the Mediterranean.
This sophisticated notion of water management, it may come as a surprise to some, emerged from the Shariah, supposedly the central ethical, moral and legal code of Islam. The very word Shariah means ‘a path to a watering hole’. A path is a method from getting one place to another. It is not the end goal as most people in Pakistan seem to think. The end goal is the ‘watering hole’, the place where we can drink physically and metaphorically. Shariah is nothing more or less than a problem solving methodology. And like most paths it has to be continuously renovated and rejuvenated. And the water in the ‘watering hole’ has constantly to be kept fresh and flowing so it can quench a thirst rather than enhance it.
Classical Shariah established two types of inviolate zones bordering around towns and water-courses. The haram zones, within which certain activities were forbidden, were maintained around wells, water sources and town and cities. Around wells a space was left to protect them from impairment, to provide room for their operation and maintenance, safeguard their water from pollution, and provide resting areas for livestock, and room for irrigation facilities. Around rivers and natural water courses, you could not carry out any activity that would pollute their water. Around towns and cities, one could not cut trees or forage or burn to ensure that wildlife and their habitat is protected and the carrying capacity of the town or city is not exceeded. The hima zones were set aside outside the cities specifically for the conservation of forests and wildlife.
But that was during a period when the Shariah was still a living methodology. Nowadays, it is nothing more than a body of outmoded laws, considered by the fool hearted as Divine, that lead not to a ‘watering hole’ but the ‘salty and bitter’ waters (25:53) of a polluted, poisonous lake. The path has not been maintained; the haram zones have been violated; the Shariah has not been constantly renovated and reformulated.
I was wrong. The joy in the village at the edge of Thor desert was not short lived. Experience had thought the villagers that they needed a method of storing water for the long term – for periods when it did not rain. The region itself offered a natural way of storing water: several basin-shaped plains among the hills. These ‘rock bowls’ were converted into reservoirs. The corners of the basin where the water could spill out were blocked by a series of micro-dams, designed by a local engineer, that the villagers built themselves. What seems like an impossible problem was solved with a little ingenuity and indigenous resources and labour. The desert was turned into a garden.
As I said: Pakistan is like the Thar desert. Like the villagers of Thor, it has all the resources it needs to transcend its present impasse. Pakistanis can define their own modernity. What they need is a little self-confidence, some inventiveness, and the will to improve things. With or without water, ‘God does not change the condition of people unless they change what is in themselves’ (13:11).