Desktop version

Home arrow Religion

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

The production of Muslim space: Mohalla life and Milad celebrations in Lahore

Amen Jaffer and Hajra Cheema


For most visitors, Sanda is a rather unremarkable place with little to distinguish it from many other working-class localities in Pakistan’s cities.1 Located on the north-western edge of Lahore, until a few decades ago it was a village surrounded by agricultural land and fruit orchards. Today, as you approach it via Sanda Road, you will be greeted by a busy commercial strip dotted with single- and doublestorey buildings occupied by cramped shops and offices, small-scale manufacturing enterprises and storage facilities. These markets are awash with signage and advertisements in a variety of sizes, colours and designs that announce the many wares and services sold here. The commercial activity spills onto the road in the form of extended shops, makeshift stalls and carts. If you turn away from this usually grid-locked road into one of the many side lanes, the landscape shifts to a dense residential zone traversed by narrow, crooked lanes. It overflows with drab buildings of varying heights and sizes draped by exposed gas and water pipelines, with hundreds of jumbled up electricity, telephone and cable TV wires filling up the air between them. At the ground level, narrow and poorly lit lanes are dotted by potholes and leaking gutters, while small heaps of garbage accumulate on street corners.

Residents also find little to note in the spatial layout, design or aesthetic of Sanda. If anything, they speak about it in terms of decline - a forgotten neighbourhood marked by poverty, filth, decaying infrastrucnire and broken public services. However, every year on the 12th day of Rabi-ul-Awal, the third month of the Islamic calendar, the neighbourhood of Sanda, like hundreds of other localities in Lahore, is completely transformed. This is Eid Milad-un-Nabi,- the day of the birth of the Prophet of Islam and the occasion for the largest annual celebration of Sanda. Unlike most religious or national celebrations that are carried out in particular landmarks of the city or restricted to private family gatherings inside homes, Milad celebrations are very much a mohalla (neighbourhood) affair in Lahore that turn ordinary, mundane space of everyday life into a dreamscape, a space straight out of fantasy.

In these localities, teams of teenage boys and young men decorate their streets using mostly funds they have collected from their neighbourhood. They use

The production of Muslim space 73 buntings, fabric, lights and other colourful materials to construct decorative structures that cover the walls of the buildings and hang in the air as high as the first storey to form a canopy. The ground is covered by paharis - imaginative sculpture models that use a variety of material, including toys and household items, to depict various settings ranging from a market to iconic Islamic architecture. In 2016, when I first witnessed Milad celebrations in Sanda, I was struck by how each block presented a unique and unreal landscape. One intersection was dominated by a decorative motif with a massive purple chandelier hanging in its centre and strands of multi-coloured fabric - blue, magenta, green, yellow, white, red, orange - stretching outwards from it and joined to a string of shimmering silver paper cut up into hundreds of ribbons that formed a square border around the entire piece. A few strategically placed light bulbs illuminated this aerial edifice. It was complemented by two giant metal arches on the ground below that had been moulded into a heart shape covered by strings of multi-coloured Christmas lights. A few blocks away, a middle-aged man, known as Haji sahib, and his two sons had constnicted a hut of mud and straw in the middle of their street. Inspired by Nativity representations, this structure represented Punjabi village life with charpoys, hookahs, a wooden spinning wheel and a tray full of cattle feed. The two goats, calf and rooster roaming about the space lent it further authenticity. Wearing a white Arab dress and perched atop the charpoy in the middle of the hut was Haji sahib himself, very much a key prop in this arrangement.

Even though there is an unreal quality to these decorative arrangements, they are very much a fixture of this mohalla. Enacted every year, they are a source of immense pride for the residents of Sanda, many of whom speak of Milad as the most important annual event in their lives. In this chapter, we argue that the celebration of Milad in Lahore’s mohallas is not merely a religious event but is quite central to the production of space in the city. Through participation in this event, residents are not just expressing their love for the Prophet but are also actively making and giving meaning to their neighbourhoods. They are engaged in a process of defining these spaces and enveloping them in a web of social relationships. Milad celebrations offer a unique opportunity for neighbours to work together and let their imaginations transform the spaces they inhabit into realms of fantasy. By doing so, they are giving meaning to Islam and their relationship to it. Using their creative talents, they give physical form to religious sentiments. The ordinary and often dilapidated spaces of their neighbourhood are rendered into a canvas on which the sacred is creatively illustrated. Besides decorating neighbourhoods and markets, Lahoris also distribute food and drink and organise processions and religious gatherings during Milad. While these activities also play significant roles in transforming space, this chapter focuses on aesthetic interventions in mohallas to understand the production of space during Milad.

Contestations in the production of space

Milad celebrations have historically been a part of the religious and cultural calendar of Lahore but have dramatically grown in size, scope and significance over the last decade. One explanation for this expansion is their significance for publicly showcasing a Barelvi-Sunni identity centred on devotion to Prophet Muhammad. Since the 21st century, a number of Barelvi groups have been publicly asserting their sectarian identity in Pakistan. The formation and rapid rise of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a Barelvi movement ostensibly created to protect the honour of Islam's Prophet, is the latest example of the muscularisation of Barelvi politics. By mobilizing massive, sometimes violent, street protests and other pressure tactics they have sought punishment for alleged blasphemy against the Prophet. While TLP represents the violent side of Barelvi politics, celebrating the Prophet’s birth can be viewed as a cultural articulation and consolidation of this identity. Such an explanation, however, reduces this event to a narrow sectarian logic and ignores its importance for the neighbourhood itself. It fails to account for the many locally grounded motivations and sensibilities - exhibition of status, wealth and masculinity; spirit of competition among neighbourhoods; creation of beauty and spectacle; joy of public gathering; etc. - that are quite important in driving these celebrations.

Appadurai (2005: 198) argues that in the contemporary world, the inherently fragile production of locality in neighbourhoods has become even more of a struggle, because it is not only fighting the corrosion of its own context but also competing with the context produced by more complex, hierarchical organisations, especially the modern nation-state. Another contradiction in Milad celebrations emerges from the paradoxical power relations that structure all festivals. On the one hand, their temporary suspension of the social order promotes the letting out of frustrations resulting from an oppressive social order (Marriott 2010), and on the other, this loosening of social boundaries allows ruling elites to display their dominance through conspicuous displays of wealth and generosity (Picard 2016). Milad celebrations are also characterised by such contestations because even though they allow for an expression of sentiments from below, they also display, dramatise and reproduce the status and power of influential interests located both inside and outside the neighbourhood. Even though they allow residents to inscribe local relations onto the material space of their neighbourhood, a number of outside concerns - those of the Pakistani state and Sunni sectarian organisations, for example - also colour these celebrations.

Milad-ul-Nabi: traditions of celebrating the Prophet

Despite scholarly consensus that this celebration only began in the 12th century, some five centuries after the death of Prophet Muhammad, Milad or Mawlid is now celebrated almost everywhere in the Muslim world and diasporic Muslim communities3 (Akhtar 2014). Kaptein (1993) has convincingly demonstrated that the tradition actually began as a state occasion in the Fatimid dynasty of Egypt under the patronage of Shii Ismaili rulers. Within a century, the celebration had expanded eastwards into Sunni empires and became a popular Muslim celebration (Grunebaum 1992). As it spread around the Muslim world, Milad developed as a flexible ritual that emerged from "the slow coalescence of a constellation of devotional narratives and practices” (Katz 2009: 208).

Schussman (1998) argues that despite this increasing popularity, Muslim jurists and theologians have maintained a hesitant and equivocal stance towards the Milad. Even though they widely view it as biddat, or innovation, in Islam, many still consider it an acceptable innovation and therefore legitimate as an Islamic celebration. However, this does not mean that it is not rooted in Islamic tradition.

Katz (2009), for one, demonstrates that some of the common practices of this celebration, such as hosting and feeding guests, are based upon ideals of mutuality and generosity that have deep Islamic roots (102). Furthermore, Milad participants understand this celebration as a key occasion for publicly expressing their love, joy and reverence for Prophet Muhammad and thereby cultivating a normative Islamic piety. It is these emotional expressions that confer the greatest legitimacy on this practice because it enables adherents to establish emotional bonds with the Prophet (Katz 2009).

The disagreement between supporters and critics of Milad-un-Nabi is therefore not with regard to the Islamic values upon which it is based, but rather about which behaviours can be considered as proper expressions of those values. While critics only consider specific behaviours that can be traced to the Prophet and early Muslims as acceptable, supporters claim that religiously valid sentiments can be expressed through many different behaviours (Katz 2009: 140). These different positions on Milad-un-Nabi celebrations are also found among mohalla residents in Lahore. For some, such as Zubair from Mazang, the occasion is a licence to showcase their love and passion for the Prophet, and the joy of his presence and a variety of behaviours, which can include dancing to music or extravagant decorations, can serve as reminders of these sentiments. Rashid from the same neighbourhood, however, rejects most public Milad practices as inappropriate and recommends spending the night in prayer. Mehr Fayaz of Sanda falls somewhere in between these positions, as he only considers certain Milad practices, such as lighting lamps or distribution of food, as legitimate and rejects many of the decorative arrangements as well as music and dancing because he believes that they have no relation to Islam. Clearly, celebrating Milad is a much debated and contentious public celebration in Pakistan.

Another recurring theme in scholarship on contemporary practices of Milad/ Mawlid is that of gender. Scholars of Islam in Yemen have pointed out that the Mawlid is understood as women’s Islam in the country (Katz 2008; Meneley 1996). However, there are important generational differences, as the event has been largely reduced to older Yemeni women, while younger women view it as an old-fashioned tradition that they associate with their mothers' uncritical acceptance of tradition in the name of Islam (Pandya 2009). The trend in the U.K. appears completely opposite, as Akhtar’s (2014) research on Pakistani-origin migrant women finds a surge in women’s participation in Milad activities since 2009. While younger women understand it as a source of emancipation from cultural restrictions, it is a new understanding of Milad, shared across generations, as a community activity which encourages social participation that really explains its increasing popularity. While women's celebrations in Yemen and the U.K. are mostly conducted inside homes, Milad in Pakistan is very much a public festival enacted in neighbourhood streets. They are by and large dominated by boys and young men and women are mostly reduced to a supporting role or that of spectators. As we will demonstrate in the section on giving meanings to Milad, this particular gender dynamic plays a key role in defining this event. It is important to note though that the publicness of Milad celebrations and a number of other religious festivals is itself a relatively recent phenomenon that emerges in colonial India. In the next section, we trace the historical context in which religion assumes such public importance and the political significance of this publicness in contemporary South Asia.

Public religion in South Asia and beyond

Eickelman and Salvatore (2002) define the public sphere as a site for contestations over defining the common good and for the virtues, obligations and rights required by members of society to realise that good (94). Notice that this definition challenges the secular Habermasian version of the public sphere by focusing attention on the common good rather than on the rational-critical discourse that Habermas (2014) considered crucial to the political impact of the bourgeois public sphere in 19th-century Europe. Eickelman and Salvatore's version of the public sphere is explicitly designed to include religion, and a number of scholars of Islam, such as Eickelman and Anderson (2003), Hefner (2000), Hoexter et al. (2002) and Salvatore and Levine (2005), have demonstrated the importance of religion for the formation of public spheres in Muslim societies, van der Veer (2002) claims that much scholarship considers religion to be a defining element in the politics of belonging and identity in modern South Asia. The answer to why this is the case has been sought in the policies of the British colonial state, which forced mass politics into religious publics because they were one of the few mass gatherings permissible under colonial rule (Hansen 2001). An example is Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s circumvention of colonial laws that forbade political gatherings by using the Ganapati festival in Maharashtra to disseminate his nationalist political views (Kaur 2001, 2002: 72-73). Freitag (1989) uses the concept of public arenas to characterise symbolic behaviour, such as religious festivals, that foster community identities beyond the immediate locale and define their boundaries. In this new nationalism, religion came to serve as the basis of imagined group identity (van der Veer 1994: 22).

While the trend of using religious events to publicly create and sharpen communal identities began in the late 19th-century milieu of colonial India, some of these processes continued and even gathered greater force in the postcolonial states of South Asia. An illustrative example is the shift in Muharram rituals in Pakistan. Commemorating the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussain, Muharram rituals and processions in pre-Partition India are widely portrayed as an example of India's composite culture in which Shias, Sunnis and Hindus participated together. However, by the late 19th century, Muharram had already begun to be associated with a sectarian Shia consciousness, which really took root in the increasingly sectarian atmosphere of 1980s Pakistan (Zahab 2008). Today, Muharram processions have become a vehicle for asserting and mobilising an exclusively Shia identity (Zahab 2008: 108). As a Shia interlocutor asserts, it is only Muharram rituals that make him a Shia and differentiate him from Sunnis (Pinault 2003: 56).

Parvez (2014) extends this argument for the politicisation of religious events by demonstrating the reinvention of Milad in the city of Hyderabad as a public event invested with new meanings and politics. Specifically, she locates these new public celebrations in the domain of ethno-nationalist politics and understands it as a Muslim strategy to demand education, employment, public space and identity representation from the state.4

In the case of Lahore, evidence suggests that influential political actors are attempting to use Milad events to advance their own political ambitions and interests, but this rapidly expanding public event continues to defy exclusive control by any political or religious authority. Especially in neighbourhoods, Milad still offers an opportunity for “ordinary” residents to write themselves into an Islamic celebration. Through decorating their neighbourhoods and constnicting miniature models, these residents enter the debate on defining the contours of Islam. They present Islamic sensibilities, showcase Islamic aesthetics and conunent on the values Islam should uphold. Milad is thus not only about shaping a Muslim or Sunni identity from above but also an opportunity for creating a Muslim geography from below. This production of a Muslim landscape is also important for giving creative meaning to spaces of everyday life. By focusing on the localness of Milad celebrations and situating them within neighbourhood sociality rather than religious nationalism, we diverge from scholarship on public religion in South Asia. However, we also complement it by illuminating another register, that of neighbourhood life, at which religion operates publicly. This analysis not only reveals the specificities of Milad as an Islamic celebration in Pakistan but also demonstrates the similarities in the organisation of religious events, whether it is Milad, Holi or Dussehra, in mohallas across South Asian cities.

Organisation matters: behind the scenes of Milad

In analysing religious rituals and events, the mundane practical details of actually putting these festivals together are often overlooked in scholarly analyses. However, in our conversations on the subject of Milad-un-Nabi, our interlocutors kept referring to logistical details - explaining different models for organising participants and activities and clarifying the process of collecting funds. As mentioned earlier, Milad celebrations in Lahore are collectively organised by groups of boys and young men that go by different names - some call themselves a team, others use the more official-sounding “committee” and yet others refer to themselves as simply a group. Each represents their neighbourhood and competes with other groups in a masculine rivalry over which neighbourhood has the most elaborate Milad decorations. They collect funds from fellow residents for purchasing decoration material and then collectively design and install these decorations. Beginning on the evening and continuing long into the night of Milad, they display their creations to the public. Even though the basic structure and functioning of these groups may appear quite similar to the casual observer, there are important variations not only in the scale and scope of their activities but also in their internal organisation, which reflect the specific social organisation and culture of different neighbourhoods in the city. This section explores these various organisational forms and the relations that define them through examining the activities, strategies and discussions involved in collectively decorating neighbourhoods for Milad.

Every year for the last seven years, Haider Ali’s team of cousins have been participating in Milad celebrations. They started on a small scale by pooling a little money to build a few small models in their residential street in Sanda. In a few years’ time, the scale of their decorations had expanded to a nearby market on Captain Jamal Road and was attracting contributions of thousands of rupees from a number of shopkeepers and residents of the area. Now, the team creates highly elaborate decorations over a 400-metre section of this market. They divide up this space into 13 quadrants and decorate each in a different style and pattern. On the aerial level, they hang strings of multicoloured fairy lights, shiny streamers, colourful fabric, paper cut into various designs and other decorative elements to enclose this space. Inside this canopy, they exhibit various sculpture models on the ground. These can be of sacred Islamic sites such as the Kaaba or Prophet Muhammad's mosque in Medina but also include non-religious motifs such as a model of a railway station or a mountainous landscape.

Haider is in his late twenties and has lived his entire life in Sanda. He also works in the area in a small family business of repairing and selling used machine parts. Haider comes across as someone steeped in his neighbourhood. He identifies closely with this world, claiming that it is the only place he really knows. The fact that his extended family and clan are also based in this area adds to his pride in belonging to it. Muhammad Jamil, a shopkeeper in this neighbourhood, informed me that Haider’s family is part of the Mahatam clan, a Punjabi subcaste of low social standing that is traditionally associated with the profession of weaving charpoys. There are a number of Mahatam households in Sanda, and Haider’s extended family is mostly settled here. While connected through family relations, all members of Haider’s Milad team also live in this neighbourhood. It is thus not family or clan ties alone that explain the workings of this team, but also the ties they have developed by living in the same locality. Haider recounts that the idea of making this team emerged from seeing other neighbourhoods in Sanda that were lavishly decorated for Milad. The cousins felt inspired to do something similar for their own neighbourhood.5 Milad celebrations are thus a source of both neighbourhood and clan pride for this team.

Initially, the team members, all young boys at the time, consulted a professional model-maker in the Walled City of Lahore. They received a few tips and basic technical know-how about model building from him but performed all the labour themselves. Haider describes the team as non-hierarchical and informal but also quite serious, determined and organised. They start planning decorations a month in advance by holding meetings to exchange ideas and sketch out designs. Haider explains that their design inspirations come from a number of sources, including photos and patterns that they find on the internet. When they have to make decisions on designs and their execution, they do so through consultation. Whosoever is able to convince the others usually carries the day. When probed about handling disagreements, Haider brushed aside my concerns by asserting that it was not really difficult for the team to reach agreement. “We know each other quite well,” he elaborated, "and are quite open and blunt with each other so decisions are made quite quickly and smoothly.” Haider suggests that it is almost as if the power of the design itself compels the team to select it.

One of the distinctive qualities of Haider’s Milad team is their fund collection strategy. Haider explained that around 18 shopkeepers in their neighbourhood give them regular donations for purchasing decorations. The system that they have worked out is to collect funds every day of the year. Each day a team member approaches the shopkeepers with a collection box and they usually contribute Rs. 10 to it. The team takes this fund collection quite seriously and are very disciplined in making their daily rounds. Haider joked that he was even collecting these funds on the day of his wedding. Initially, a young shopkeeper vouched for them, but once the team's Milad decorations began to attract a sizeable audience, shopkeepers donated quite willingly. Now these donations have become such an entrenched part of this market's culture that even new shopkeepers contribute without any fuss. Haider’s team is an example of a highly successful Milad team. Jamil estimates that upwards of 10,000 visitors flocked to their decorations in the 2017 Milad. Their finances are in very good shape as well. The regular funding that they receive from shopkeepers is supplemented by contributions from area residents if they face any shortfall. Quite a few spectators also offer some token cash if they like a particular model. In 2017, Haider's team ended up saving Rs. 10,000 from their funds and set them aside for next year's decorations.

Zubair's group, on the other hand, is in a crisis because they are unable to raise enough funds for purchasing decorations. Members of this group live in a dead-end residential lane off the Main Bazaar in Mazang. Even though they are in close proximity to a large and growing market of hundreds of small shops, Zubair and his group fail to get any sizeable donation from them. In fact, Zubair was quite dismissive of the shopkeepers, describing them as outsiders to the area with little connection to the locality or its people, hence their lack of interest in beautifying it for Milad. This group raises funds by setting up a collection box in the middle of the street a few days before the Milad and asking passersby for donations. While this strategy is common in a number of neighbourhoods of Lahore, it is nowhere as efficient or profitable as that of Haider’s team.

In fact, Zubair’s group were unable to raise enough funds in 2017 and decided against doing any decorations at all.

Like many other residents of his street and its Milad group, Zubair was born and raised in this neighbourhood. However, unlike Haider’s team, which is going from strength to strength, Zubair’s group is on the decline. Wistfully, Zubair recalls the yesteryears in which his group would participate with a lot of passion and excitement and really got into the spirit of Milad. He feels that his group members have become too busy in their own lives and no longer value their friendships with each other. In fact, Milad is now one of the few occasions when these friends actually spend extended time with each other. The deteriorating performance of this Milad group reflects the coming together of declining neighbourhood relations among the young men with a lack of interest by shopkeepers in funding them. Zubair understands both trends as resulting from a growing individualism; his friends and the shopkeepers are more interested in their own homes and shops than in the shared space of their mohalla.

Another group type that is more formal in its structure is what I call the committee model, with members holding specific designations and defined roles. Mian Abdur Rehman occupies the position of Sarparast-e-Aalah (the first leader) in one such committee that decorates the Chah Pichwara neighbourhood in Mazang. Mian, who is in his early thirties, formed this committee with some of the younger boys in the area around four years ago. He claims that they revived the long-dormant tradition of Milad decorations in his neighbourhood. Differently from the other groups discussed thus far, this committee has a number of hierarchically ordered positions. Besides the first leader at the top, there is a chairman, vice-chairman. president, vice-president, general secretary and committee secretary. Despite these designated roles, Mian relates that he ends up performing a lot of the work and taking much of the responsibility for Milad arrangements. For example, if there is a shortfall in funds, he is usually the one to make up for it. Mian admits though that he enjoys considerable power over the activities of this committee.

Muhammad Naeem. a resident of this mohalla, informs that this particular committee also has strong links with a major political party. In fact, a former elected representative of this constituency, Majid Zahoor. visits this neighbourhood on Milad - at the committee’s invitation - and shows his support for their efforts. Committee members also actively participate in political gatherings and events organised by Zahoor's party and work for it during elections and other campaigns. These political links and the formal organisation of this committee reveals the political ambitions of its members. It also hints at the political appropriation of Milad celebrations.

In concluding this section, we want to iterate that the organisation of Milad activities reflects the social organisation and power dynamics of the neighbourhoods in which they take place. Relations among neighbours, the structure of caste or clan networks, and political affiliations all play key roles in the organisation of these celebrations. While I agree with Zubair’s observation that economic resources fuel Milad celebrations, it is the social and political relations in which residents are embedded that hold the key to unlocking whatever resources are

The production of Muslim space 81 available in their neighbourhood. This festival is also quite important for determining the social boundaries of mohallas. Who identifies with it? Who is considered part of it? What are its borders? The answers to these questions become apparent during Milad when the composition of groups and the area they end up decorating clearly demarcate the socio-spatial limits of the mohalla. In the next section, we explore the meanings given to these transformed spaces by their residents.

The symbolic register of Milad: giving meaning to space

It had already been a long day in December 2016 when we followed Hassan Abrar, an avid Milad decorator, around a street corner in Sanda. The slightly chilly night had taken hill hold and we were beginning to feel at home amid the thousands of spectators gathered to experience the fantasy worlds created by residents to celebrate Milad. A friend accompanying us commented that she felt like she was on a film set. The sets, however, kept changing every few hundred metres, and suddenly we came across a highly elaborate pahari depicting the Lahore Metro Bus Line, Pakistan’s first rapid transit service, in shimmering silver that had attracted quite a crowd. Partly elevated and partly running on the level of the road, this mega infrastructure with its modem design and gleaming red buses quickly achieved the status of a landmark in the city when it was opened to the public in 2014. Ahsan. who appeared to be in his mid-teens, was seated on a plastic stool next to the model he had constructed. Beaming from ear to ear, he was basking in the attention and praise getting showered on him and his model by the growing audience. When we inquired about the making of the model, he proudly replied, "I made this. I made the whole thing myself. It took me three days and three nights. First I made a sketch for it, then I started building it.” There was a section in the pahari where he had shown the ongoing construction of the Orange Line Metro Train, Pakistan’s first metro train line. Someone from behind us quipped, “Your model may be accurate for years to come! The High Court has issued a stay order for this construction.” Ahsan laughingly responded to the banter by expressing his hope that the construction gets underway again since he plans to build a new model for the next Milad anyway.

A few feet from Ahsan, three boys, who appeared around ten, were milling around another pahari that displayed a toy plane crashed into the side of a small mountain. On inquiry, they responded in unison that this was the aeroplane of Junaid Jamshed, a pop star who had died in a plane crash near Islamabad a few days earlier. In the same pahari, one of us noticed a grave with the name Modi written on a cardboard tombstone. Aplastic snake was slithering atop the grave and a few toy soldiers were stationed around it. The boys explained that they got the ideas for their pahari from watching television news shows. They learnt that Narendra Modi was an enemy of Pakistan and hence depicted a sorry ending for him.

In the next lane over, we ran into the biggest audience of the night thus far. The crowd was so thick that it took us several minutes to squirm through it and locate the source of the excitement. It turned out to be a massive replica of an English town replete with houses, roads, cars, traffic lights, electricity poles, a market and even a town hall. A number of small cash bills had been showered on this model as a token of appreciation for its creators. Seated in a strategic spot behind the model, a middle-aged man kept an eye on proceedings. We discovered that he had migrated to England some two decades ago and this was a replica of the English town in which he now lives. Wanting to show something of his new life to the people of Lahore, he purchased all the construction material back in England, travelled to Lahore especially for Milad and recruited his nephews and other young men of this neighbourhood to construct this model.

There were thousands of other paharis in Sanda and all around Lahore this night that creatively interpreted scenes from everyday life and beyond. While there is a particular genre of Milad models that depicts sacred Islamic sites, many do not attempt any overt reference to Islam. Instead, they depict the reality experienced by mohalla-dwelling boys and men of the city. One can pose a number of questions to these representations. Why do they choose to make the objects and scenes that they do? What are the meanings that they imbue them with and what are the aspirations and values reflected in them? While it is beyond the scope of this chapter to explore the many answers to these queries, we want to focus on how these models speak to and radically reimagine the mohalla's location and spatial relations in the world. The neighbourhood transforms from the obscurity of a quotidian space ignored by the outside world to a magical fantasy that folds the world into itself. Glitzy road infrastructures weave through it, newsworthy events happen in it and faraway architecture springs up in it. The lighting and decoration suspended above creates the aura of a magical enclosure in which anything becomes possible. Events and objects that appear far removed from each other are convincingly juxtaposed and imaginatively linked in visual narratives.

One way to think about this Muslim space is in terms of Foucault and Miskowiec’s (1986) concept of heterotopia - a space that mirrors reality but also contests and inverts it. Paharis, for example, do not offer an otherworldly utopia but represent an inverted reality by radically challenging the production of space. Objects that are not meant to be in mohallas are scattered all over them. Spaces reserved for capitalist exchange under state control are transformed into the playgrounds of young boys. Events portrayed as national tragedies are casually recreated by a group of ten-year-olds, and matters of foreign policy and security operations are toyed with. Besides the disconnect between the location and content of this reality, it is being authored by writers whose voices are rarely heard. Most of the boys and young men who create these models have few opportunities for public recognition of their creative skills and expression. In fact, we found a general sense of powerlessness and lack of control over their life among many of these individuals. However, Milad is a rare occasion when such despondency is shoved aside and the city sits up and takes notice of their imagination.

Despite their seeming popularity, a number of Sanda residents are critical of paharis. Mehr Fayaz argues that they have no relation with Milad or Islam. This is a question that we have also wondered. How does a coterie of barbie dolls and toy soldiers on a dirt mound relate to the Prophet's birth? Those constructing such paharis, however, understand their creations to be very much in the spirit of Milad. They affirm an Islamic logic by presenting paharis as an expression of passion, love and joy for the Prophet. Even if the form and aesthetics of the pahari may not be identifiable as Islamic, the work that went into it is driven by religious motivations. Another Islamic aspect of paharis is premised on the assumption that Prophet Muhammad is not an ordinary being but is made of light. Therefore, lighting and decorating space and making paharis is understood in terms of creating beauty to invite his blessings.

Along with their sacred meanings, the symbolic register of Milad decorations also speaks to the politics of neighbourhood life, as the display of decorative artefacts is an effective strategy for demonstrating power and wealth to residents and visitors. The labour and financial resources expended in these decorations is also a legitimate method to claim religious capital as individuals become associated with Milad celebrations in particular localities. Muhammad Tahir, a resident and shopkeeper of Sanda, mentioned Babar and Faisal, two wealthy residents who contribute significant funds to Milad activities in his locality. Similarly, Jamil stressed the financial support of a resident who owned an electronics business as crucial to making Sanda's name as an important centre for Milad celebrations in the city. Naeem described a similar pattern in Mazang, where a number of wealthy and politically connected locals play leading roles in sponsoring activities and overseeing Milad affairs.

For the young creators of Milad decorations, their primary concern is not with displaying wealth and/or enhancing their religious credentials but with getting recognition for their efforts. The pride with which they speak about their creations reflects the sense of achievement they feel in this activity. The recognition that comes with making a popular pahari or decoration is not just an acknowledgement of their religious passion but also a testament to their creative abilities. But it is also much more: it serves to enhance their respect and status within the neighbourhood. The importance of such recognition can be judged by the energy and commitment that these boys and young men bring to this activity and their investment in presenting their creations to the audience. Unsurprisingly, the process of decorating and presenting one's creations is characterised by a spirit of competitive masculinity. The boys and young men involved in these activities seek to outdo each other and view their creations as a matter of masculine pride, even though dominant gender understandings locate aesthetics and beauty in the feminine domain. However, the act of constructing objects in public is very much a masculine affair. As Haider Ali confided, his group does occasionally turn to their female relatives for help with embroidery, etc., but these contributions are rarely acknowledged. Instead, they highlight the technical challenges of construction, the solving of which elicits masculine power. Haider proudly gave the example of his team's successful installation of a motor that created an effect of chopping animal fodder in a Punjabi village model. Haider's nonchalant mention of such feats gave the impression that such tasks were not a big deal for his team. He even added that they were school dropouts and did not have much formal education but knew how to work with tools and machines. However, this very casualness indicated the masculine stakes of these decorations.


We have analysed Milad celebrations in Lahore to demonstrate that the production of spaces and objects in this event is co-imbricated with the creation of religious feelings and desires as grey, narrow spaces are transformed into shiny, colourfill and spectacular fantasies of another world. Yet it is a world that constantly refers to and interprets everyday reality. This study also demonstrates that the imagination of locality is made up of many “elsewheres” in Lahore's working-class neighbourhoods. These include widely recognised Islamic symbols but also modem technology and violent nationalist narratives. In the contestations over permissible forms of expressing feelings for the Prophet, the creators of Milad decorations and their audiences offer their celebrations as an expression of an Islamic sensibility. However, rather than submitting to Islam or any other national or global discourse, residents imbue these creations with their own local concerns. For example, the cardboard model of a small English town in Sanda does not just represent a globally dominant style of urban planning but also communicates the personal success story of a working-class migrant from Sanda to his neighbours. It also comments on the highly politicised debate on urban infrastructure by expressing the demand for a well-functioning infrastructure and public services, which is a central claim of citizenship in working-class neighbourhoods of Pakistan (Jaffer 2017).

Finally, Milad celebrations have important implications for public life in South Asia. The event is an example of the vibrant, collective public life of workingclass neighbourhoods in Lahore, albeit one that is dominated by men. However, a visible tension runs through this process of space making. If, on the one hand, it is an opportunity for those lacking power to publicly make status claims, then, on the other, it is also an occasion to demonstrate status for the relatively more privileged. Milad thus serves both to reproduce the social hierarchies of the locality and to offer a liminal opening to display a different imagination.


  • 1 This article is based on field visits and interviews conducted in Lahore over the 2016-2018 period.
  • 2 We refer to Eid Milad-un-Nabi as Milad in this chapter. However, Milad also has other meanings in Islamic contexts. For example, it refers to religious gatherings for reciting the Prophet’s praises.
  • 3 Exceptions include Saudi Arabia and Muslim communities that subscribe to the Salafi sect.
  • 4 Also see Bourmaud (2009) for nationalist appropriations of Milad.
  • 5 Muhammad Jamil, another lifelong resident of Captain Jamal Road, recounts that a couple of decades ago this neighbourhood was renowned for its Milad celebrations. Then a fight broke out between two families of the Mahatam clan, which brought an abrupt end to the celebrations. Janiil credits Haider’s team for reviving Milad in this locality. It should be clear from this brief history that the fall and rise of Milad celebrations here are very much connected to the local Mahatam community.


Akhtar, P. (2014) “ ‘We Were Muslims, but We Didn't Know Islam': Migration, Pakistani Muslim Women and Changing Religious Practices in the UK.” Women’s Studies International Forum 47 (B): 232-238.

Appadurai, A. (2005) Modernity’ at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bourmaud, P. (2009) “The Political and Religious Dynamics of the Mawlid al-nabawi in Mandatory Palestine.” Archiv Oriental™ 77: 317-329.

Eickelman, D. and J. W. Anderson (eds) (2003) New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Eickelman, D. and A. Salvatore (2002) “The Public Sphere and Muslim Identities.” European Journal of Sociology’ 43 (1): 92-115.

Foucault, M. and J. Miskowiec (1986) “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics 16 (1): 22-27.

Freitag, S. B. (1989) Collective Action and Community: Public Arenas and the Emergence of Communalism in North India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Grunebaum, G. (1992) Muhammadan Festivals. London: Curzon.

Habermas, J. (2014) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge: Polity.

Hansen T. B. (2001). Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity’ in Postcolonial Bombay. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hefner, R. W. (2000) Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hoexter, M., S. N. Eisenstadt and N. Levtzion (eds) (2002) The Public Sphere in Muslim Societies. Albany: SUNY Press.

Jaffer, A. (2017) “Sociology from Pakistan: The Politics of Infrastructure.” Global Dialogue 7 (2): 15-16.

Kaptein, N. J. G. (1993) Muhammad's Birthday Festival: Early History in the Central Muslim Lands and Development in the Muslim West Until the 10th/16th Century. Leiden: Brill.

Katz, M. H. (2008) “Women’s Mawlid Performances in Sanaa and the Construction of ‘Popular Islam’.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 40 (3): 467-484.

-------. (2009) The Birth of the Prophet Muhammad: Devotional Piety’ in Sunni Islam. London: Routledge.

Kaur, R. (2001) “Rethinking the Pubhc Sphere: The Ganapati Festival and Media Competitions in Mumbai.” South Asia Research 21 (1): 23-50.

-------. (2002) “Martial Imagery in Western India: The Changing Face of Ganapati Since the 1890s.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 25 (1): 69-96.

Marriott, M. (2010) “The Feast of Love.” In D. P. Mines and S. E. Lamb (eds) Everyday Life in South Asia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 238-249.

Meneley, A. (1996) Tournaments of Value: Sociability’ and Hierarchy in a Yemeni Town. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Pandya, S. (2009) “Religious Change Among Yemeni Women: The New Popularity of Amr Khaled.” Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 5 (1): 50-79.

Parvez. Z. F. (2014) “Celebrating the Prophet: Religious Nationalism and the Politics of Milad- un-Nabi Festivals in India." Nations and Nationalism 20 (2): 218-238.

Picard, D. (2016) “The Festive Frame: Festivals as Mediators for Social Change.” Ethnos 81 (4): 600-616.

Pinault, D. (2003) “Shia-Sunni Relations in Contemporary Pakistan.” Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 26 (3): 62-84.

Salvatore, A. and M. Levine (eds) (2005) Religion, Social Practice, and Contested Hegemonies: Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schussman, A. (1998) “The Legitimacy and Nature of Mawlid al-Nabl: Analysis of a Fatwa.” Islamic Law and Society 5 (2): 214-234.

van der Veer, P. (1994) Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

-------. (2002) "Religion in South Asia.”.Review of Anthropology M (1): 173-187.

Zahab, M. A. (2008) “ ‘Yeh matam kayse ruk jae?' [‘How Could This Matam Ever Cease?’]: Muharram Processions in Pakistani Punjab.” In K. A. Jacobsen (ed) South Asian Religion on Display: Religious Processions in South Asia and in the Diaspora. Abingdon, New York: Routledge, pp. 104-114.

7 The boundary within

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics