Of Children and Jinn: An Inquiry into an Unexpected Friendship during Uncertain Times

Essay Excerpt

Within this landscape of ambiguity, I argue that everyday life is a necessary frame for understanding the reach and scope of sectarianism in Pakistan. Long- standing religious differences between Shi’is and Sunnis have been variously and violently mobilized at different moments in history with deleterious outcomes for life in both its biological and social senses. More recently, denominational differences among South Asian Sunnis have also taken on violent tendencies in Pakistan. What I explore in this article is how the dynamic of conflict between Shi’i and Sunni becomes reprised within divides among Sunnis as a standing archive of stereotypes and slights. On the basis of the stories I heard and had a hard time assimilating into available narratives on sectarianism (see Ahmad 1998; Ali 2000; Jaffrelot 2002; Nasr 2000), I suggest that religious differences both rest on everyday life while also informing it and that, as analysts, we ought to move away from a purely negative casting of sectarianism to see how religious differences imply both threat and possibility for Pakistanis.1 The ways in which malevolence and generosity rub up against one another within a family suggest how religious differences get worked into the weave of domesticity. In arguing that family, domesticity, and selfhood bear a relation to sectarianism, I am striving to work beyond the exclusive focus on the public sphere that implicitly informs much literature on sectarianism in Pakistan.2 At the same time, we capture something of the trancelike quality of everyday life in the tensions embedded within familial relations that animate religious differences in unanticipated ways.3 Finally, such an exploration will show how differences come to be internal to being. In other words, an exploration of such differences within everyday life may provide a different picture of the pious self than that recently espoused by anthropologists of Islam and Muslim societies.4

In this article, I explore the extended encounter of a Sunni family with a jinni (genii, pl. jinn) to show how their stories about this relationship are laced with a certain repulsion of the other, in particular the Shi’i other, which threatens the fragility of familial balances. Yet if one were to think how this repulsion opens up a place for a child to build conviviality with a creature made of smokeless fire and for a father to attend to the truths mediated by the child that come from another place, one cannot but acknowledge how malevolence and a certain generosity go together or how difficult it is to name something as sectarianism and to wish it away, as the Pakistani state would like to do. It is akin to saying that sectarianism gives voice. Here I am utilizing Veena Das’s (1995) conceptualization of “voice” as not coinciding with “speech” but with a certain movement beyond an impasse, a movement that she charts through the modality of “hearing.”5 Unless we can hear the maelstrom out of which this voice arises and acknowledge the economy of gestures that comprises this voice, that is to say, to that which sectarianism gives expression, I fear that it will be hard to imagine how war and peace are equally possible within everyday life in Lahore.6  (Khan, 234-235)

About the Author

Naveeda Khan is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.  She received her bachelors in history from Vassar College in 1992 and her masters in anthropology from the New School for Social Research in 1995.  She completed her doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University in 2003, writing her dissertation on how sectarian violence is folded into Muslim everyday life through processes of mosque construction and violent seizures in Lahore, Pakistan.  She was a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University between 2003 and 2006.  She has received several research and conference grants from foundations such as the SSRC, Fulbright, NSF and the American Institute of Pakistan Studies.  Naveeda has also worked at BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, Bangladesh), UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Bangladesh), and the Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago). 

Naveeda has edited Beyond Crisis: Reevaluating Pakistan (Routledge India 2010) whose articles bring together some of the most empirical and theoretically ambitious recent research on Pakistan.  Her book manuscript titled The Library of Becoming: Pakistan under Aspiration and Skepticism, based on her doctoral and postdoctoral research, is forthcoming from Duke University Press.  The book proposes a different mode of re-attending to the history and present of religiosity in Pakistan, that is, through the twin concepts of aspiration and skepticism in order to see excess rather than lack therein.  This shift in perspective is to draw into view the potential or the realm of the virtual that accompanies the actual in everyday Islam in Pakistan. 

With funding from the American Philosophical Society, Wenner-Gren Foundation and the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies, Naveeda has begun a new long-term research project on the effects of climate change on the riparian landscape and society in Bangladesh.  In addition Naveeda has written on town planning in colonial India, the concept-affect dyad of security in U.S. politics, roads in Pakistan, the discursive politics of the military in Pakistan, number in the Islamic imagination, and architecture in the era of cold war in Bangladesh.  These writing projects were broadly conceived as part of her interest in temporality and emergent rationalities in the U.S. and South Asia.

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