Are Traditions Sacred?

Posted on June 7, 2009 by


by Mubarak Ali

DAWN – Sunday, 07 Jun, 2009


Whenever a girl is murdered in the name of karo kari or honour killing, it is justified as being part of tribal and feudal traditions and those who commit the crime are eulogised as heroes. This raises the question that why people regard their obsolete traditions as sacred and unchangeable? In Pakistan, we still have a strong tribal and feudal culture. The continuity of it assures the people that the traditions which are a product of this culture are permanent and one should not only observe them but take pride in them.

During the early period of history when the institution of the state was either non-existent or was weak, socio-cultural traditions evolved within the community to maintain unity and cohesiveness among the members. They were based on social ties, economic relations, and environment, climate and gender differences. Shared social customs were transmitted from generation to generation, which provided an unbroken channel of continuity with the past. Customs and traditions gave the impression of a community being organised.

History tells us that social practices are mundane and basically pragmatic. A society, by keeping its customs and traditions alive, produces and sustains primary values, benefits, attitudes and motivation. However, some of the customs and traditions subjugate lower classes and castes; like in most cultures men dominate at the expense of women.

Socio-cultural practices have more appeal for the people than religious customs or laws. For example, Ibbetson writes in Glossary of tribes and castes of the Punjab that “The Musalman Rajput, Gujjar, or Jat, is for all social, tribal, political and administrative purposes exactly as much a Rajput, Gujjar or Jat as his Hindu brother. His social customs are unaltered, his tribal restrictions are unrelated, and his values of marriage and inheritance are unchanged… The fact is that the people are bound by social and tribal customs far more than any rules of religion”. Sometimes a compromise is made to amalgamate religious ceremonies and symbols in socio-cultural customs. In other words, customs and religions interact and reproduce each other.

It should remain clear that there is a difference between customs and laws. Customs and traditions originate within a community and the whole community participates in their formation. They evolve within a society through social activity of the people.

Laws, whether divine or secular, need an authority to implement them, and the implementation often relies on coercive methods. Laws also vary from government to government, whereas customs and traditions are formed over a period of centuries and are thus enduring. Hence, customs and traditions have more power, influence and respect among the people than laws. If anybody raises a voice against them, he/she is boycotted, expelled and excommunicated.

In the Medieval period it was a serious crime to question a custom, and rendered the member defenceless against all odds. Survival of the individual without the help of the community would be difficult.

History shows that laws had little effect on social practices. For example, when Akbar passed the law against the custom of sati, it remained ineffective. However, the Brahmo Samaj movement against sati in Bengal, led by Raj Ram Mohanroy, succeeded in abolishing the custom and hence made the law passed by the British government against sati effective.

As a result of the evolution of customs and traditions a system takes shape and is solidified, which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, laws, and habits. It becomes obligatory for every member to follow this system. They are part of the identity process. Shahida Latif in her book Muslim women in India observes that “most religious and cultural systems in the world endeavour to control men and women’s lives and activities in order to ensure the continuity of a society.”

However, history tells us that traditions are created in a certain situation and circumstance to suit the need of the time. With changing time, there is always a need to develop new traditions and values to respond to the challenges of the period.

The problem is that those who believe in the sacredness of traditions argue that they were put together by the past generations and have survived all vicissitude of time; therefore, they have wisdom and experience of the past and are in a position to sustain the modern challenges. Those who are interested in keeping the old customs and traditions alive are those whose status and privileges are attached to them; they believe in status quo and are not in favour of any change.

We find this attitude in our tribal leaders, especially where women are concerned, to continue the old custom of honour killing on the basis of the past. They try to legitimise it on the plea that they want to conserve these customs and traditions in the name of tribal or family honour, not realising that the world is changing and to continue the old system is no longer possible. However, when there is any violation of these traditions, they resort to violence in order to preserve them and terrorise those who attempt to deviate from them. It is the verdict of history that the societies which stick to the obsolete customs and traditions become stagnant and remain backward. Those who are ready to accept change and develop new values and traditions to suit the need of time progress and contribute to world civilisation.

Posted in: Gender, History, Society