Lahore: Conservation and Religion

Conservation and religion
By Ahmad Rafay Alam
(The News)

Just a few months ago, in the shadow of the archaeology department’s devolution to the provincial government, a minaret in the Lahore Fort collapsed, revealing to all just how effective official conservation measures are. A decade ago, citizens of Lahore stood flabbergasted as construction workers felled hundred-year-old trees to bring the shoulder of the G T Road within inches of the entrance of Shalimar Gardens. In the intervening years, the only notable bit of urban conservation was the restoration of the Tolington Market, where, as an illustration of the quality of restoration work, only a few weeks ago, anxious NCA students exhibiting their thesis feared exposure and dripping rain would ruin their work. The PHA’s “new” billboard policy – ostensibly for the beauty of the city – can only find 12 sites of historical importance worth protecting from the ugliness of its advertising hoardings. This in a historically and culturally rich city over a millennium old.

It isn’t just Mughal Lahore that needs to be, and isn’t, properly conserved. Colonial Lahore is also fast fading from view. Behind the mosque next to Fortress Stadium in the Cantonment lies a memorial in honour of the commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment who lost their lives in Lahore just before World War I. The monument is now surrounded by dust and is passed by an un-metalled road. The 19th century buildings that once lined the nearby road, all splendid examples of the architecture of the period, have been brought down to make way for a “General’s Colony” housing scheme. Only one barracks remains, dating back to 1864. The Civil and Military Gazette, where a galaxy of writers and intellectuals interned after Partition, and where Rudyard Kipling – one of Lahore’s two Nobel laureates – cut his teeth, was razed to the ground in the 1960s and turned into a shopping mall, Panorama Centre – Lahore’s first, incidentally.

While no sense of conservation or nostalgia appears to exist for these pre-Partition examples of our built heritage, the same is true for the efforts of our architects and builders after Partition. It is surprising that popular culture fails to recognise post-Partition structures that merit conservation (and the hideously ugly Minar-e-Pakistan doesn’t count). In fact, the conservation gene is hard to find in these parts. There must be some reason for this.

In an article published by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Algerian academic Mohammad Arkoun traces the origins of cultural rehabilitation, restoration and conservation to the 16th Century humanist movement in Western Europe. This sought to look back to the Greek and Roman cultures and traditions and, by treating them as ideal, replicating them, learning from them and conserving the architecture, urban planning, philosophy, law and sciences of those periods. From this ethic grew a sense of conservation. It wasn’t until World War II and the destruction of many European cities that this conservation ethic grew until it finally formed itself into UNESCO.

In contrast, conservation in Muslim societies, started soon after the death of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Great efforts were made to compile and preserve the Quran, the biography of the Holy Prophet, the Hadiths and traditions and the teaching of the Companions. Thus, explains Arkoun, the big difference is that, in the Western tradition, conservation is mainly of theological and mythical importance while in Muslim societies it is of historical importance, with evidence recorded and kept in written documents.

The great trouble of a rich tradition of culture and conservation preserved by the written word, especially in a country like Pakistan, is that a popular culture diffident towards literacy and an elite programmed by Western ideals is excluded from this great written tradition. In place of a society receptive to its past, we have a society with alien sensibilities or, alternatively, a total lack of appreciation of our built heritage. The fact I write in English is an indictment.

But there’s more. One must remain receptive to other influences that inform our sensibilities. Little is made public of the destruction of historically important sites in the holy city of Mecca. In the past, construction work uncovering pre-Islamic Jewish settlements near the desert oasis fed by the water of the Zamzam well was immediately put to a stop. It was cemented over. Other sites, including the house in which the Holy Prophet was born, the house of Hazrat Khadijah (AS) and of many of the Companions have been sealed on discovery. Some are now the foundations of parking lots or multi-billion-dollar development projects. Even the cave on Mount Hira is now slated to become part of a housing complex geared to accommodate the city’s ever growing annual wave of Haj pilgrims.

Dr Sami Angawi, a Saudi architect and conservation activist, has spent the past two decades protesting the gradual but systematic destruction of historical sites in the Holy City. According to him, it’s less the pressure of urban development and the logistics of the Haj and more a case of Wahhabiism. For Angawai, “the root of the problem is Wahhabiism” and its fear that places of historical and religious interest could give rise to idolatry or polytheism. When the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) birthplace was discovered more than 50 years ago, Wahhabists tried to lobby King Abdul Aziz to raze the structure. The king, however, was persuaded to keep the remains of the site under a library to be constructed over it. New plans to “update” the library include cementing over the historically important portion of the site.

Could it be that the Wahhabiism creeping into Pakistani culture is also partly responsible for the lack of a conservation ethic? It is extremely possible, as we have been known to import Wahhabi practices wholesale. Witness that Pakistan is one of two Islamic countries where wedding expenditure is regulated. The other is Saudi Arabia. We adopted our first extravagant expenditure legislation during Nawaz Sharif’s first stab at premiership, only two years after the House of Saud had done the same. And has anyone noticed how Khuda Hafiz is gradually being replaced with Allah Hafiz? And we already have road signs in Lahore in the same colour and font as in Dubai. Perhaps this influence has crept into the official psyche and has put conservation of the built environment on some back burner. After all, like in Mecca, the destruction of our urban heritage is spun as “development.”

Whatever the reasons for the lack of conservation, this aspect of urban planning reveals much about us. Our attitudes to the past, and the extent of our desire to protect our heritage, are a window to our divisions as a society – whether such divisions be on the lines of class or religion. Imagine, for instance, popular reaction to a plan to knock down a part of Data Darbar to make way for a road-widening project. Our attitude towards conservation is also a lesson to learn from. If there is any hope for an appreciation of our built heritage, it can only be done by making our history relevant and non-exclusive. Only if we can see the relevance of Colonial buildings, for example, will they ever stand a chance of being preserved. And only if the histories of the Mughals are made part of popular culture will their buildings once again stand a chance of reminding us of our heritage.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning.

3 responses to “Lahore: Conservation and Religion

  1. Has any one ever wondered about the following:

    If a book (the Qur’an in this situation) is meant to be from God/Allah, why do two individuals of equivalent intelligence always come up with different interpretations of the text?

    There are many contradictions in the Quran; the only people unable to see them are those completely brainwashed and have lost the ability to think rationally. They come up with all sorts of historical/non-historical justifications for these such as the arabic language/literary peculiarities etc. nothing substantial or scientific; perhaps they are not aware of this concept.

    There are literally billions ans billions of galaxies and star systems in our “known” universe; supposedly we are talking about a creator that is well beyond the confines of any material boundaries; why would such a “person” even care about what goes on in individual hearts and minds on a teeny weeny planet! Why would he be upset about, for example, a woman showing off a bit of skin or someone not observing some ritual exactly how it was prescribed (when there are literally hundreds of such, very contradictory, rituals in Islam amongst the sects; not to quote countless other similar examples.

    If the “Loh-e-Mahfouz” was the first thing created with the deeds of all living things and their fate already prescribed, what the hell is the meaning of “the free will”?!

    If a ruler of my country wanted me to abide by ceratin rules, I would expect them to be laid down explicitly and clearly for all to understand. Otherwise, I would think they were unjust in prosecuting me for misgivings; why are there so many ambiguities as to what the “true Islam” is; that definition is certainly not unanimous by anyone’s standards as we ll know; the interpretations are so varied and far apart at times that it is mind boggling!

    According to the Quran, Allah gave his blessings to the Bani Israel but they betrayed his trust many a times, so he went off them completely and chose a different people for revival of his “Only and True Message”! Are we thinking that an omniscient and omnipotent God, with the inherent knowledge of everything, transcendent through the confines of time, made a mistake!! Then he tried to correct it by chosing arabia for his chosen messanger! How odd!!

    Prayer is such a contradictory term, don’t you think. If all is already decided, does God change his mind if we were to grovel before him and grants us our desires as a reward; very confusing!!

    The only answers I ever got for these as a child, and many other similar questions, was that we CANNOT work out God’s will and he is the only one who does; what the hell are we doing with our assess up in the air five times a day then!!

    All of the above seem to be the desires of the needy and not fullfilled “persona” (to quote Al-Razi); Is it that we have created this “persona” is OUR OWN IMAGE rather than the other way around?

    Is our “conflict” with the rest of the world sheer paranoia “they are out to get us”!! and the only reason we cannot accept this is our inherent “sense of pride” so deeply indoctrinated that we cannot listen to reason.

    The reason I am talking about the Islamic context here is because that is my background and I wish to discuss the very foundations of this faith. It is all very well to hide behind the “good aspects” of Islamic history and ignore the other “less desirable” aspects, but the question is what it is all based on; without foundation, there is nothing left. I criticise any dogma based on “faith” and th other so-called faiths are no exception to this; however, I prefer people from those cultures to comment on their own cultural heritages.

    Problem with being “moderate” is that moderation, whatever it might mean, harbours and nurtures extremist elemnts. Extremists to me mean people who are trying to follow their “faiths” down to the last letter. This Sufism etc have nothing to do with what Islam actually is; it is a digression from the mainstream. Sufis were always at the fringes of mainstream society and their ideas of “Sulha-e-kul” etc have nothing to do with the message of Islam; though I do admit it can make Islam a bit more palatable!

    If we had all the “knowledge/Ilm” in the Quran, why would we strive for more; the whole idea of “the completeness” of “Deen/way of life” is not compatible with modernity of any kind, however that is defined. Of course we can cherry pick and find quotes to justify absolutely anything that WE WANT TO; that itself is the biggest weakness of religious dogma; interpretable with vast differences of opinions between individuals of equivalent intelligence!

    Surely they can’t ALL be true!!!!

  2. These are the same issues and questions that I have thought about for many years and have reached the same conclusions. Absolute dogmatism should not have a place in any belief system.
    These religions have and can impart ethical and moral overtones to our existance but nothing more. Centuries ago religions filled a vacumn when organized systems did not exist. As civilizations advanced and complex systems of governance and life managment evolved, the specific canonic codes that religions gave lost their relevance. I do not need religion to tell me how to deal with fellow humans, how to dress, how to work, which side of the road to drive on and so on so forth. Our life is the product of centuries of shared human experience. It cannot be static and driven by the specific codes developed in ancient times. I detest the use of terms like Muslim or Judeo Christian values. These are shared human values.

  3. and let me add some more questions by explaining some information described in Quran,

    1-if ibrahin tell a lie to his clan or father or emperor, just for the cause to destroy Idols, then its ok for God and our muslims but if any out of the clan do so then….?
    2-if yousaf hide something in his brothers lagauge (cheating openly mentioned in Quran) to get his father to him, blah blah blah….. but if others do so then….?
    3-look at the comparison of angels and adam, adam is superior becuase he knows all the names of those things that asked him and angels didn’t tell and said, God we know as much as you told us…… look at these verses, you would find adam was also not aware of these names of those asked things but God tell him before tell, I mean as angels didn’t know, adam was also not aware, the difference is God told to adam not to angels just to approve that adam intelligent than angel…..

    everything mentioned above taken from Quran, the information I mentioned here might be slightly different but essence is Same:
    Tum karo to paap, Hum karain to pun….

    and one more thing, just think about the concept of “Dowa”
    someone authorise to ask from God for those things or matters that he/she can’t meet on merit, Like “O God!, please let me pass my exam” whether I prepare my exam or not, ….

    I mean lot of things that need answers from our Mullah ……..

    Here I admit the religions are necessity for those societies who have corrupt folk, ignorant peoples etc because they have a fear of day of judgement at some extent but if they got to be aware that there is nothing to ask them after life they would become more worsen and harmful for the human societies,,,,, so respect to the religions is favorable for our intellectual persons or groups and let these ignorant to follow the good things that any religion demand from them,

    I mean, nothing is wrong if a religion ask not to tell lie, be honest, be punctual, be just etc. these things are always better for those have the mission to work for the world but not just for particular class……..

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