Letter from the Road #43

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


Pakistan: A Prayer in the Militant Mosque

The following letter by Elias – and the next ones to come by Elizabeth – were written from Pakistan, where Elias was invited to address a conference on “Sufism and Peace” sponsored by the Pakistan Academy of Letters. The experience described in this letter occurred toward the end of our stay.

The Mosque
The dawn call to prayer wakes me. It is still dark in Islamabad. Half dreaming I imagine the notes of the praying man’s song rise up through the neighborhood like a line of thin silver leaves, finding their way along the streets, brushing against closed doors, against windows, sliding through cracks into rooms, touching the skin of sleeping people like me, waking us if we are ready. Hayya ‘ala-salat! Come to pray!

While I am not formally a Muslim, I am not formally anything – and this gives me the chance to join praying people wherever they are. I get out of bed, dress, and leave the hotel. The sleepy guards at the gate with their submachine guns straighten up and nod to me as I go out.

There are no cars. An old turbaned street sweeper moves bits of paper along the gutter with his twig broom.

The Lal Masjid – the Red Mosque – is surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire, but the gate is wide open. I leave my shoes at the door.

An entry area opens onto a large, dimly lit prayer hall planted with columns; a few small lights break the shadows. Prayers are about to start. I join the line of about 50 men, shoulder to shoulder, waiting. One of the parts I like best about Muslim prayers is this line in which everyone is accepted equally – although I am obviously not Pakistani and look very different from everyone else, it doesn’t seem to matter in the least. I also love when we touch our foreheads to the ground – the thought-filled heads of us men grounded on the common earth like electrical wires, for this moment subdued.

After prayers half the men leave. Those who remain sit in a group listening to a lesson from a quiet-spoken teacher standing amidst them, or in the shadows praying by themselves, wrapped in their shawls like mounds of sand. The few lights are turned off and the hall becomes part of the dawn, the central dome brushed with blue-grey light. The soft sound of the teacher’s voice weaves with the voices of the men reciting their prayers in the corners. The place feels like one peaceful heart waking in the dawn.

The Battle
I sit listening. I try to hear the gunshots, the whiz of bullets glancing off these columns, the shouts, death cries and weeping that filled this mosque 2 ½ years ago when the Pakistan army attacked the ten thousand madrassa students and heavily armed militants who had barricaded themselves here.

The Red Mosque and its large compound had long been used by Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, as a station for organizing and training militants. Once trained, the militants were sent to Afghanistan to battle the Soviets, or to Kashmir as suicide bombers. The ISI continued to support this mosque and other Islamist training centers like it after the 9/11 attacks – on the one hand seeking to align themselves with the Taliban so they would have leverage against the increasing influence of India in Afghanistan, and on the other hand so they could continue receiving massive American military aid to counter the growing Taliban/al-Qaeda presence in the region. (Note: we will be writing more about this issue in future letters.)

But by 2007 this duplicitous strategy came back to bite them. The Red Mosque had become the center of Islamist militancy against the Pakistan state itself in the very heart of the capital. The ISI could no longer control what went on here, and ruefully could have said with Macbeth:

…that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor.

In July, 2007, the mullahs and talibs (militant students) in the mosque threatened civil war if Musharaff’s government did not accept Sharia law. The government, now eager to regain credibility in the eyes of the international community, reacted brutally. After the Pakistan army’s first assault on the mosque, several thousand talibs escaped; those who remained pledged to become martyrs. The final battle lasted three days and hundreds were killed. Many of the talibs who escaped vowed to become suicide bombers, and in the next three weeks Pakistan was hit by waves of retaliatory bombings and attacks killing 167 people.

The fall of the Red Mosque was a turning point for Pakistan. Extremists across Pakistan banded together, determined to destroy the government and establish an Islamic state. Al Qaeda, the Pakistan Taliban, and other terrorist groups turned their primary focus from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Since then the country has fallen ever deeper into an undeclared civil war, further destabilizing the region and provoking ever more violent responses from the Pakistan and U.S. military. This in turn has provoked an increasingly militant backlash from the population caught in the crossfire.

This particular sequence of events – a militant provocation is met with a brutal reaction from the state, which in turn causes more people to become militant, which leads to further polarization and destabilization – has been described as the basic Islamist terrorist strategy, and it is working.

The 9/11 attacks, as well as the attacks in Madrid, London, Mumbai, and dozens of other cities have succeeded in enlisting more recruits and polarizing the world. In this way the violent reactions of state powers to terrorist violence have played perfectly into the hands of the terrorists. Their long-term objective is to exhaust the will and resources of the state, creating opportunities for new Islamist regimes on local and ultimately national levels.

The Prayer
As I sit in the dawn light of the mosque, painfully aware of this dark drama and its consequences, I try to pray – but everything that comes to my mind feels trite. What words could be adequate to address the suffering that took place here? What prayer could encompass the experience of marginalization and oppression that provoked this rage in the first place, or the spread of fear and violence that resulted from it?

So I stop trying to pray and just sit still.

And then slowly, out of the stillness, I begin to sense something. What is it? Tenderness? Intimacy? Whatever it is, it is not complicated at all. It is utterly simple and somehow familiar in the same way my sense of being is familiar.

It feels to me somehow like the very heart of prayer – but prayer without any words, without even the sense of communication from the human world to the divine. I am not making this happen – it is here already – a simple and unmistakable sense of connection, an intimacy with everything all at once.

In this intimacy there is no sense of judgment about good or bad, right or wrong, no distance between things. Nothing is excluded – not the wounded and dying talibs in this mosque, not the cornered militants, or the frightened citizens in the locked-down city, or the politicians in their violent reactions, or the mullahs trying to be Allah’s heroes, or people around the world anxious for their lives. Nothing is excluded.

It is as if a silent sound – if such a thing were possible – pervades everything – a sound of what Muslims call the Merciful, the Compassionate – ir rahman ir rahim. Deep in the rock of this mosque, deep in the air between us all… for a moment I recognize that this intimate compassion is the constant background to everything that appears.


As I leave the mosque I hear my practical self ask: So? What good is it? What good is sensing this numinous compassion when the world is so full of hatred and violence? Don’t we need pragmatic policies that will liberate us from fear and the desire for dominance that poisons human history?

Yes, of course we do. But there is another pragmatism, and it feels to me that to realize and appreciate in this place the compassion and intimacy that connects everything is why I have come halfway around the world – why, unknown to myself, I got out of bed in the dark this morning to come here. For a few moments at least, the militancy and self-righteous fundamentalism of this place became transparent, and I became transparent with it – everything released its position – and our common intimacy was revealed.

To touch this prayer of our common heart, even briefly, may be the most pragmatic force of all.

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