Don’t Fire Until You See the Whites of the Moon:  Or, the Secrets of Pakistani Nuclear Strategy Revealed.

Irfan Khawaja

An old joke plays on the fractious nature of Jewish theological disputes: “Two Jews, three views.” If Muslims had a sense of humor, they would have similar jokes about the characteristically Muslim inability to predict the arrival-date of Eid, or the Muslim holy day. (Unsurprisingly, there are no such jokes.) The Muslim calendar operates on the lunar principle, and because it does, there are Muslims who insist on sighting the moon visually in order to determine when Eid (or Ramadan, or whatever) has—or will, or can with high Bayesian probability be expected—to arrive. This usually takes on a comic air as one gets closer to the expected date, and various Islamic authorities proclaim that Eid will fall on Tuesday, while other equally eminent authorities insist on Monday or Wednesday, and so on. “We follow Al Azhar, and Imam Abdullah bin Qasim bin Nur ul Haq bin Talal bin (etc.) says that Eid is on Monday, and anyone who says otherwise is a kaffir.” “Oh, well we follow the Saudis, and the Keeper of the Holy Shrines and All They Contain and Also a Few Choice Oil Fields says Tuesday.” And so on. All in good fun.

It ceases to be funny, however, when one reads an item like the following, published in the Daily Times of Lahore, Pakistan. I quote just the first few passages:

PESHAWAR: There were conflicting claims about the observance of Eidul Fitr in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) on Tuesday despite the provincial Ruet-e-Hilal Committee’s announcement on Monday night to celebrate the feast on November 25.

People in Peshawar, Nowshera, Charsadda, Mardan, Swabi, Kohat, Bannu, Lakki Marwat, Dera Ismail Khan, Karak, Hangu, Upper and Lower Dir, Haripur, Abbottabad and Swat districts partially celebrated Eid. Chief Minister Akram Durrani celebrated Eid in his hometown Bannu, while Governor Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah will celebrate Eid today according to the decision of the Central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee in his hometown Kohat.

In Peshawar, Shias and people belonging to Ahl-e-Hadith and Ahl-e-Sunnat did not celebrate Eid while people belonging to the Deobandi sect celebrated Eid yesterday. 

Sounds like one of those puzzles you encounter on the analytical reasoning section of the Graduate Record Exam, doesn’t it?

This being the Islamic Republic of Pakistan—ruled in its northwest region by the fundamentalist MMA alliance—the venerable ‘Kis din per Eid araha ha?’ controversy (“When is Eid coming?”) became a matter of political friction and of course, political edict. Reading further in the excerpted article, one discovers (well, one discovers it if one has a solid grip on the internecine workings of MMA politics) that the Shias of Peshawar tended to agree with the ahl-e-sunnat and ahl-e-hadith Sunnis (of Peshawar), but disagreed violently with Peshawari Deobandis—the disagreement centering on the old contentious Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday issue. (The Deobandis were for Eid-on-Tuesday, but not the Shias or the other Sunnis; I am not quite sure whether the latter were opting for Monday-Eid or Wednesday-Eid, or perhaps just opting out of Eid altogether; I’ll have to get back to you on that one.) At this point, of course, the JUP-Noorani faction began to quarrel with the majority MMA faction on the matter. And you know what that sort of quarrel leads to. Well, ma’ shallah, they had to call out the scholars to decide the issue, that’s what. And then, Maulana Ghulam Ali Zahid, peace be upon him, said….

Forget Maulana Ghulam Ali Zahid for a minute. With all due respect for the doubtless learned man, I leave you, instead, with the following question. How is it that people who cannot manage to identify the precise date of Eid (and have never succeeded in 1400 years) are supposed to run a city, a province, or a whole country on twenty-first century lines? And what kind of suicidal stupidity induces a nation to give such people a 20% share in its parliament and complete control over a province that abuts the capital and more or less shares borders with all of the region’s hotspots—Iran, Afghanistan, Kashmir, India, China? How can such people be expected to perform any of the complex tasks required of a functioning government if they’re too bloody stupid to consult a calendar for long enough to figure out when their high holy days are supposed to take place? Or better yet: what kind of country is it where you can’t find a calendar that gives you the phases of the moon, and no one in its “purified” government can procure one, either?

If you think those questions boggle the mind, just remember that Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country with a capacity for producing thirty to fifty atomic weapons (nuclear weapons in dispersed and dismantled parts, by the way)—and that the MMA/JUP (etc.) imbeciles are the ones who desperately want to put their hands on the nuclear trigger, bismillah and fi sabil illah—in the name of God, and in the path of God. Bottom line: what this means is that at a certain level, God himself sets the targets, the launch codes, and the strategy, and gives the authorization for launch.. La illah ha illul lah, w’al hamdulillahi kathira, wa subhan-ullahi mukratawwa asila. As they say. But his advice tends to be lamentably non-specific, and great exertions are required to divine it, so to speak.

Now picture the Peshawari Shias arguing with the Peshawari Deobandis over God’s will vis-à-vis nuclear target selection-options. And then throw in some Lahori Brelvis for the hell of it. How would that debate go? Would they all have to sight the targets visually? Would the launch take place on the new moon or the crescent moon? Would the Brelvis have to hold zikr at the shrine of Data Ganj Baksh before reaching an answer? Would the iconoclastic Deobandis insist on preventing such a regression into idolatry and shirk? Would they have to settle that one by jihad before deciding whether to launch? To open things up a bit: do the ahl-e-sunna people conduct nuclear war by asking “What would Muhammad do?” And by the way, where does Maulana Ghulam Ali Zahid stand on first-strike/counter-force nuclear strategies?

For the life of me, I really don’t know. But then, I doubt anyone else does, either.

You have to laugh at the cosmic pretensions of “philosophers” like Hassan al Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and Abul Ala Mawdudi—the brilliant minds who got us into this mess. These were the people who told us that Islam is a seamless whole, from metaphysics to politics to toilet functions; it tells you how to pray, how to levy taxes, how to perform ablutions, how to keep the women down, how to wage war, etc. etc., soup to nuts. ‘Sub kuch iss may hah’ as they say of the Quran in Urdu: it contains everything. Everything, no less.

The problem is: their disciples turned out to be capable only of discharging every odd-numbered tasks. And so we have the mild paradox of Islamist “political” parties proficient at praying, ritual ablution, and the subjugation of women, but pathetically incapable of any sort of action requiring specifically political proficiency. You’d think that they would have learned from Khomeini’s notorious maxim about the Iranian Revolution: “I didn’t make the Revolution to worry about the price of melons,” the great man said, as the country began its decades-long descent into the politico-economic abyss. But no: learning is not apt to be the forte of people who have abdicated reason while claiming to possess a private line to the Omniscient One (and who oddly enough tends toward enigmatic reticence at crucial junctures in political decision-making).

While focusing our attention on “the Islamic threat,” we tend to underestimate the sheer stupidity of our adversary: always a cardinal mistake, but especially so in warfare. Islamist stupidity is not just a crucial weakness on the other side, but a potential source of mirth, once one manages to get the names of the factions straight.

You can’t get the names straight, you say? Hey, no problem. Let me explain: there’s MMA, which consists of JI, JUP, and JUI, all of which must be strictly distinguished from PML, PPP, and MQM. Of course, you wouldn’t want to lose the crucial distinction between PML-N and PML-Q, so keep that in mind, and then there are the various JUP and JUI factions—you know, JUP-Noorani and JUI-Fazl, and so on. Well, I’ll skip the Sunni/Shia distinction, because I’m sure you know all about that, and setting aside the Ismailis and the Ahmadis, who are politically irrelevant (if that), there is of course the Brevli/Deobandi distinction, and more narrowly, the Deobandi/Wahhabi distinction….And, of course, keep in mind that all of this varies by region….

Come on, you don’t find all this funny?

Zakir Hassnain, “Conflicting claims on Eid in NWFP,” Daily Times (Lahore, Pakistan), Nov. 26, 2003.


Irfan Khawaja is adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey and lecturer in politics at Princeton University.