Religion and the Pakistan team

Finding Faith

Yousuf Youhana's conversion to Islam and a new identity - Mohammad Yousuf - illustrates the growing phenomenon of faith within the Pakistan team

Osman Samiuddin

September 23, 2005

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Mohammad Yousuf: a batsman by any other name... © Getty Images
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During India's tour to Pakistan last year, an Indian journalist asked an ex-player from the `80s with as much flippancy as seriousness why, in his time, Pakistan players didn't feel the urge to exhibit their faith as openly as current members did. Having been tickled by a stream of pre- and post-match comments littered with traditional Islamic salutations and on-field celebrations of landmarks with a sajda (kneeling down in Muslim prayer), the query was justified. Suitably, the reply was simultaneously glib and revealing: "Clearly we weren't good Muslims."

Certainly during his time and periods preceding it, public displays of religiosity at least (not its private practice) were absent. At one defining moment in its recent history, when Javed Miandad struck a leg-side full toss for six in Sharjah, Pakistan cricket had no overt religious commemoration of the event. Instead, Miandad and non-striker Tauseef Ahmed dashed off wildly, arms akimbo, as natural and impulsive a celebration as you could imagine.

Six years later, at arguably a greater epochal moment in Melbourne, a handful of players knelt in sajda and offered thanks for winning the World Cup. Today, if you talk to any cricketer, on or off the record, replies will begin with and be bookended by a bismillah ("In the name of Allah" - it is a traditional recitation at the start of any Muslim act) or inshallah ("God Willing"). And now, with Yousuf Youhana's conversion to Islam and a new identity - Mohammad Yousuf - the growing phenomenon of faith within the team finds its most intriguing example.

It is difficult to say with any certainty how or why this gradual change has come about. Superficially, we can pinpoint key actors and factors. Saeed Anwar, after the traumatic death of his young daughter, turned to religion and spirituality and took to the Tableeghi Jamaat (missionaries), who practise a stricter adherence to the codes of Islam than most. Anwar's influence spread among senior players such as Saqlain Mushtaq, Mushtaq Ahmed and Inzamam-ul-Haq and the group travel together regularly to Raiwind, a small town near Lahore, where the Tableeghis congregate for prayer and dialogue.

Yousuf's revelation that he had actually converted some time ago adds further credence to the theory that Anwar's role has been crucial. Three years ago, during the World Cup, there were persistent rumours that he had converted under Anwar's influence.

Maybe too, in the spectre of match-fixing, there lies a compulsion towards religion. Sharda Ugra, senior editor with India Today, suggested in an article on the subject last year during India's tour to Pakistan that "the post-match-fixing generation in Pakistan cricket is grappling with a `double burden'; as sportsmen not only are they under scrutiny for their professional conduct, they have also become characters in a public morality play, always vulnerable to being accused of match-fixing should they fail."

Tellingly, when Salim Malik was first accused by Rashid Latif and Basit Ali of match-fixing during the African jaunt of 1994-95, almost the first thing manager Intikhab Alam asked him to do was swear on the Quran that he wasn't guilty of any such deed.



Saeed Anwar turned to religion in the final phase of his career © Getty Images
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But for younger or newer members of the team, who haven't played with Anwar, scouring for the roots of their religiosity is a more difficult proposition. To an extent, conformism and peer pressure play a part. But a broad, not infallible, argument can also be drawn: as the socioeconomic and geographic composition of the team has altered so too has the inclination of the team towards religion.

Where once the national team was sourced in large part of players from the metropolises of Karachi and Lahore, and where the leading figures were urbane and rounded personalities such as Asif Iqbal, Majid Khan and Imran Khan, this is no longer the case. In Pakistan's last Test match, against the West Indies, only four members of the team were born in Lahore or Karachi.

There will be some who will argue that in smaller towns, such as Sialkot and Sheikhupura, religion perhaps holds a greater significance in people's lives than it does in Karachi or Lahore. Levels of education are poorer, fewer people are literate and because awareness is generally low, religious beliefs, orthodox and otherwise, assume an enhanced importance. Abdul Razzaq's mysterious illness and dizzy spells during last year's Australia tour is an example: apparently he was on a spinach-only diet that a pir (spiritual leader) had advised would make him stronger.

But this assumption can be, and often is, countered by some Pakistani sociologists who rightly point to the higher incidence of sectarian-fuelled violence in cities like Karachi and Lahore that suggests the opposite to be true. This indicates, they say, that the importance of religion has grown in urban, rather than rural, Pakistan over the last decade or so.

Maybe the development isn't linked so much to changing demography as it is to changing times. Many Pakistanis will tell you that the country as a whole has increasingly come to identify itself in religious terms. When Pakistan came into being it wasn't, after all, officially known as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, as it is now. The gradual Islamisation of the country began towards the end of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's premiership in the mid-'70s. Bhutto declared Ahmadis non-Muslim, banned alcohol, shut down nightclubs and changed the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday to appease the religious front.

The subsequent policies of General Zia-ul Haq - he brought in the Shariah law (the Islamic legal system) - and the pre-eminence of Islamic political parties such as the new religious alliance under the banner of the MMA have since enhanced the process. But even here, it can be argued with some justification that the right wing Jamaat-e-Islami party held sway over Karachi's politics through the '60s and '70s.

In recent months, two of the more heated domestic debates have been whether or not to retain a column that asks you to identify your faith in the Pakistani passport (after much debate, the column has been retained) and the impending implementation of a Hisba bill in the North-West Frontier Province. The bill essentially puts forth yet another parallel legal Islamic system, one which liberal circles decry as an act of Talibanisation, so strict are its moral codes.

Younger players in the current team are children of this era, unlike players such as Imran, Javed and even Akram. When Salman Butt says, as he did in a recent Wisden interview, "we are Muslims and we believe in Allah. We do whatever Islam says and we try to be what we are supposed to be. Religion is the complete code of life and we follow its guiding principles," it is but natural for someone born in 1984, at the peak of Zia's rule, to not just say it, but stress upon it.

Ultimately, of course, there isn't anything to suggest the trend really matters in terms of either performance or selection. It forms but an interesting aside in what is, intrinsically and traditionally, an interesting team.

Cynics have speculated that Yousuf's conversion was the derivative of the belief that being Christian would preclude his elevation to captaincy. Disregarding his credentials as captain, the more cynical would counter that having a Christian as captain of Pakistan, an Islamic country fighting a global war on terrorism and a domestic one on extremism, would in fact be an admirable international PR coup for the media-savvy President Musharraf, who also doubles as Patron-in-Chief of the PCB.

In any case, Yousuf has denied that his aspiration to captaincy had any link with his decision. In a matter as personal as this, we must go by his word and nothing else, not speculation, rumour or the displeasure expressed by his very vocal family on the subject.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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Osman SamiuddinClose
Osman Samiuddin Osman spent the first half of his life pretending he discovered reverse swing with a tennis ball half-covered with electrical tape. The second half of his life was spent trying, and failing, to find spiritual fulfillment in the world of Pakistani advertising and marketing. The third half of his life will be devoted to convincing people that he did discover reverse swing. And occasionally writing about cricket. And learning mathematics.
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