Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Welcome to Karachi and the Power of Contrast

This past summer I spent five weeks in Karachi, Pakistan. This trip was significantly different from my previous trips to Karachi, partly due to developments in the city, and partly due to my changing perception and interpretation of experiences.

Karachi is Pakistan's largest city, with an estimated population of 15 million, but anecdotal evidence suggests a population of 25 million. Karachi is also Pakistan's financial hub, generating the majority of Pakistan's tax revenue. Contrary to foreign perception, Karachi's people are a conglomeration of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. Ethnic backgrounds include the native Sindhis, the muhajiroon (migrators) primarily from northern India, the Pashtuns from Afghanistan, the Punjabis, and Balochis. Religiously, there are a mix of Sunnis consisting of the 'Deobandis', Brelvis', ‘Ahle Hadis’, and 'Wahhabis'. There is also a notable Shia and Ismaili presence, and small Christian and Hindu populations.

Life in Karachi was obviously not the same as it is in my home town of Toronto.

My residence in Karachi was in a middle class family home that experienced multiple electrical outages totalling eight hours per day, at random times for random durations. Fortunately, the home had a fuel-based electrical generator that was sufficient to run fans and lights in the home. Water was usually - but not always available. The traffic here with all the rackety-sounding rickshaws, motorbikes, donkey-carts, ornamented buses and trucks, and expensive Japanese mid-sized cars made rush hour on Toronto's highways look like a walk in the park. The lack of proper garbage facilities, coupled with an indifference to littering and external cleanliness, offered little aesthetic appeal to the city. The heat was persistent and heavy, causing me to perspire profusely even as the Indian Ocean breeze offered some temporary respite. The blanket clouds veiled the blue sky while ignoring the earth's cry for rainwater.

Staying in Karachi made me realize how much we take security for granted in the west. Lack of law enforcement, poor government operations, the delicate geopolitical situation, poverty, and internal sectarian conflicts make life of the average person in Karachi unpredictable. Every day, news would come that 10, 15, or even more deaths had occurred during the day, all due to ethnically driven conflicts lead by political parties and groups. People leaving in the morning to work have to anticipate the possibility of getting mugged, kidnapped, or even shot.

In the west, we flaunt our gadgets, jewellery, clothes, accessories, etc, without flinching for a moment over the thought of being mugged. Here, in Karachi, getting mugged is commonplace. That’s why I made it a habit to look like a bum and carry nothing on me when going out – even when walking to the local masjid. Nevertheless, despite my Pakistani descent, I still stood out in my neighbourhood as a foreigner – something in my posture, subtle gestures, and facial expressions probably gave it away…

I was walking back home from the neighbourhood masjid with a relative after Isha prayer. It was fairly dark outside, and the path we were walking through was sheltered under a row of trees, which was blocking the little light being emitted from homes in the area. There was enough light to see a motorbike wobbling its way towards us, even though its headlights were not turned on. The rider, who stopped his bike beside us, was wearing a bike helmet so we couldn’t make out his face, other than his eyes. He asked us for directions to a certain location, claiming that he was lost. Then he asked us if we lived here, and if we were returning from the masjid, to which my relative replied to him with affirmatives. I remained silent because my accent would have revealed that I am a foreigner. But it didn’t matter.

He opened his jacket around the waist area a little, and then said, “See this gun I have here… I don’t have it for nothing. Pull out your cash and give me your phones”. He hand searched our bodies thoroughly. Fortunately, I didn’t have anything on me to give. However, my relative had eleven thousand rupees on him, which wasn’t his - he was holding it for someone else. The mugger obviously didn’t care whose money it was. After he took the cash and the phone, he told us to keep walking straight and to not look back as he drove away.


The purpose of my trip was to attend a wedding and spend time with some family. Thus, I had ample opportunity to interact and learn about the people. Generally, the people believe that the country is filled with intelligent individuals and with abundant natural resources. They also recognize the leverage Pakistan has through strategic alliances with various countries including China. Thus, they are aware of the great potential that Pakistan has to become a great nation, but feel trapped by the internal corruption and external influences. There have been some positive developments in the city, including the construction of several roads, bridges, and highways, the establishment of big box stores, and most importantly, a revived interest in Islam, at least in its outward sense.

On a positive note, I had the privilege of visiting the Dar ul ‘Uloom Karachi, Karachi’s prized institute of Islamic studies, which was founded by the former grand Mufti of Pakistan, Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani (may Allah have mercy on him). The campus was stunningly beautiful, with picturesque landscaping and modern architecture. I performed jumu’ah alongside thousands of others in the campus’s brand new masjid. Mufti Muhammad Shafi’s son, Mufti Muhammad Rafi Usmani, lead the prayer. The prayer was followed by a naat/nasheed gathering in praise of Allah and His Messenger.

I also had the fortune of praying behind Mufti Taqi Usmani (may Allah preserve him), one of the leading ‘ulama of our times, during both a jumu’ah prayer and during ‘eid ul-fitr prayer.  I tried to meet him after the jumu’ah prayer, but he was already surrounded by hundreds of others, and he was in a rush to perform a janazah prayer. People in the crowd were pushing and shoving to shake his hand, kiss him, or even just touch him. I squeezed into the crowd and attempted to shake his hand, but I only managed to touch his hand.

I had the opportunity to feed iftar (during the month of Ramadan) to under-privileged students at a run-down madrasah, in a very poor area – interestingly named, “Mujahid Colony”. Although both the staff and students were exceedingly poor, during the iftar they wore the best of their clothes as a gesture of appreciation and respect to the host. There were around sixty students, all between the ages of five and fifteen, and a staff of about ten teachers. The food consisted of fruits, fried snacks, drinks, biryani, some traditional sweets, and of course tea. I also brought my children to the iftar to expose my children to other impoverished children of their age.  AlhamduliLlah, it was an experience that has left a permanent on their memory, as it has left in mine.


What struck me, during my trip, was how the people there, despite all their problems, still put smiles on their faces, showed hospitality, and enjoyed their lives. How could they be happy? What is it that they derived their happiness from? The answer lies in one secret of happiness, which Anthony Robbins refers to as the power of contrast.

The power of contrast refers to the ability to interpret outcomes in relation to other potentially inferior outcomes, in order to elicit a positive response to the outcome. For example, the mugging incident I related above could have been interpreted at its face value: a loss of money. We could have moaned and groaned about how bad the situation is in Karachi, and remorsed over the loss of the money, Or, we could have used the power of contrast to generate an interpretation that would elicit a positive response – that at least our lives and health were intact. This interpretation helps to realize the value of life, and may aid in focussing on the important in things in life – such as preparation for the next world.

I would argue that people with less, such as those in Karachi, maintain not only their happiness, but also their sanity, through using the power of contrast – because they are able to develop a deeper appreciation for what they have, since they have so ‘little’ of it.

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him), also taught the power of contrast in the following hadith: "Look at those who stand at a lower level than you but don't look at those who stand at a higher level than you, for this would make the favours (conferred upon you by Allah) insignificant (in your eyes).” (Muslim)

As the above hadith alludes to, the (potential) problem with people of affluence such as some of us in the west, is that we (I’ll speak in the first person here) use the power of contrast in the wrong way – we use it to interpret outcomes in relation to other potentially superior outcomes. Such interpretations elicit negative responses. For example, if we receive a gift, we get upset that the gift didn’t meet our standards. Or if we are invited for dinner, we get upset over the poor quality of food.

To close – this post is getting quite long - the following incident illustrates how ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) accurately used the power of contrast in marriage:

A man approached the house of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with Him) to complain about his wife. On reaching the door of the house, the man heard 'Umar's wife shouting at him and reviling him. Seeing this, he was about to go back, thinking that 'Umar himself was in the same position and, therefore, could hardly suggest any solution for his problem. 'Umar (RA) saw the man turn back, so he called him and enquired about the purpose of his visit. He said that he had come with a complaint against his wife, but turned back on seeing the Caliph in the same position. 'Umar (RA) said, "Is it not true that she prepares food for me, washes clothes for me and suckles my children, thus saving me the expense of employing a cook, a cleaner and a nurse, though she is not legally obliged in any way to do any of these things? Besides, I enjoy peace of mind because of her and am kept away from indecent acts on account of her. I therefore tolerate all her excesses on account of these benefits. It is right that you should also adopt the same attitude."

By the way, for information on *premium* services and attractions in Karachi, I found the following directory to be quite useful:

The next destination of my trip after Karachi was Makkah and Madinah – during the last 15 nights of Ramadan. More on that in my next post, inshaAllah.


  1. OMG.. we've got a lot to talk about.. looks like you had a very eventful and productive trip.

    Thanks for sharing another great post.

  2. Love this post! Aren't you a great story teller... Although I'm shocked to hear that you got mugged!

  3. God trip jee!

    Did you eat any rotis?

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