Saturday, 22 April 2017

Grounding Religion in Mysticism

Reading Rashid Nazki’s Siriyyat
Religions have had a bad press for some reasons for last few centuries. It is perceived by critics of religions that they intimidate, they require belief without or even against evidence, build their case on fear or hope while despising intelligence, are ever on war with healthy instincts, side with the oppressors, make people sleep or daydream, require following so many laws that most fail to observe and cause unnecessary guilt, censure freedom of thought in the name of blasphemy laws, tell incredible stories if taken only literally, are vulnerable to violent, misogynist, fundamentalist readings and divide people. There is a famous essay “Why I am not a Christian?” by Russell and less famous (notorious) book Why I am not a Muslim? by Ibn Warraq (both to be read along with rejoinders from Warren Rachele and Pervez Manzoor respectively). A few other equivalents against other religious positions have also been published. We find on internet proliferating material on Ex-Muslims, Ex-Christians refuting equally proliferating stories of converts to Islam and Christianity. Given all these points and seemingly unending debates of new atheists and huge industry of polemical debates amongst religions or sects, more and more people are saying goodbye to religion. Education has been more or less secularized globally. More educated minds are less likely to be believers as modern education raises ten thousand doubts regarding narratives and practices associated with religions. Religious symbols from beards to scarfs are often suspect even in some Muslim countries, not to speak of secular West. Helpless God fearing parents are watching their children drop away from religions. And losing grip of religion other problems like lack of orientation or meaning and consequent trivialization of life, depression are not uncommon. And a desacralized world is dehumanizing. Is there a way out? Could religions be salvaged or people salvaged from the crisis of religions getting discredited? Is it possible to tackle secular critique of religions, calmly, unapologetically, convincingly? Could one be perfectly rational and best educated without losing one’s religion? Could one let go of certain accretions that have come to be associated with religion? Yes. By turning to the heart of religion which is mysticism and rejecting, for good, any claim that suspects esoteric/symbolist/metaphysical exegesis of religion or that makes religion the criterion of judging metaphysics and mysticism. The Prophet brought book and wisdom and perfected ethics. Mysticism and metaphysics are included and by definition have the priority in establishing the case and place of religion in life.
      Metaphysics/mysticism is the Sun that illuminates the moon called religion. Mysticism is the fragrance and fruit of a flower called religion. The inner religion of moral, intellectual and spiritual elite is called mysticism. Religion is marriage and mysticism is love that makes it a joy. Metaphysics is the fire of the burning bush and the Sun of truth that burns the weaker mortals who need screened, filtered soothing light of religion. Religion is the veil of a houri or bride called mysticism. Those who want to dispute this need to first attend to the very definitions of intellect, reason, hikmah, Haqq, felicity, virtue, wujud, firdous. Mysticism includes and transcends religion but doesn’t negate it. Esotericism is what satisfies our deepest moral, intellectual and spiritual longings and questions. It is illumination, ecstasy, joy, tasting, realization. What is noteworthy is that there is no such book as Why I am not a Mystic or Why I am an Ex.Mystic. We find major modern world writers and philosophers clearly stating their rejection of different religions. However almost all of them affirm  some commitment to what can loosely be called mystical dimension of religion/s. What is so attractive about mysticism that we find hardly any renegades though there are, by lesser minds, some criticisms of mystical position. Hegel, Bradley, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Whitehead, Derrida, Levinas – to name some of the most influential philosophers have all been characterized in more or less mystical terms. From Proust to Mann to Kazanzakis to Camus to Beckett to Lonesco we find advocacy of mysticism or some appropriation of it.  From Lucas to Benjamin to Zizek and Eagleton we find within Marxist/left leaning camp mysticism implicitly or sometimes explicitly in the background. Almost every great epic, love story, philosophy, na’t, hamd, art work, myth has a mystical element or symbolism that contributes to its perennial appeal.
      However, what is really troubling is that some people think mysticism is alien to religion – for instance, Sufism is alien to Islam. Some religions are mystically oriented or have a mystical dimension and other don’t. Mysticism is thought to lead to rejection of sacred law or respect for prophetic authority. Sufism is also blamed for Muslim decadence and political quietism. Now all these apprehensions and criticisms even though rehearsed by some famous names have been amply refuted by more careful scholarship recently. The books on Sufism by William Chittick, Titus Burckhardt, Annemarie Schimmel, S.H. Nasr, William Stoddart and some other scholars have now made obsolete these charges. If you find people still giving attention to old charges of Ibn Taymiyyah and others against key doctrines and practices of Sufism, it only shows they haven’t heard of new scholarship that has convincingly refuted exotericist and Orientalist charges regarding orthodoxy, authenticity, primordiality and essentially Islamic roots of Sufism. What remains living in Ulama’s critique of Sufism seems to have been mostly taken care of by mainstream Sufi authorities themselves. However, we must appreciate the dialectics of Urafa-Ulama conflict. Ulama have been doing a valuable service by alerting us to the dangers in many accounts of mysticism – in quietist, escapist, overly ascetic/indulgent, antinomian and sentimental appropriations of mysticism. Dr. G. Q. Lone’s scholarly work Mutalayae Tasawwuf underscores this point admirably. We should not underestimate some insights in the critical literature from Ibn-ul-Jowzi and Sirhindi to U.G. Krishnamurti to Steven Katz to Ken Wilber. In the hands of lesser or weaker mortals, mystic way is vulnerable to serious dangers from moral and social and biological viewpoints and we must thank providence for the serious critiques of certain elements in what goes by the name of mysticism or Sufism.
      It is heartening to note that Kashmir’s gifted poet and scholar (we have very few good scholars of mysticism in Kashmir and that accounts for popularity of long discredited notions in certain groups regarding Sufism) Prof. Rashid Nazki’s long awaited doctoral work on Mysticism titled Siriyyat (first part) is finally out. Its importance lies in summarizing much of the best scholarship on some of the above mentioned points and making a very strong case for Mysticism and its Islamic expression Sufism. It makes religion a subset of mysticism and its tone is not apologetic but bold and attacking. It is those who make sainthood and prophecy incompatible, trade legalism, fail to see the Prophet as the exemplary model of Sufis, turn blind eye to metaphysical and symbolic/esoteric dimensions of scripture, ignore ten thousand things in connection with philosophy of religion and lastly assume self righteous posture regarding their construction of Ad-Deen which need to be defensive. Nazki takes head on all the major theological critics of Sufism and refuses to buy any of their arguments. His is scholarly, though brief, introduction to mysticism in world religions with more detailed treatment of Sufism. Some more points that are not popularly known from this timely work include:

  • Sufis have been the voice of conscience and socio-political activism throughout. A great number of Sufis including Shahbuddin Suharwardi and Najmuddin Simnani took up arms against the Mongols. They fought excesses of Umayyids and Abassids and scholastic rationalism. They have been the true saviours of Islamic spirit. Nazki quotes Ghazzali’s famous declaration that Sufi path/approach is the best – an assertion seconded by almost all great philosophers and writers and majority of Ulama/religious scholars and hadees scholars in every age. Scholastic, juristic, rationalistic paths are denied lazzat-i-deedar/certainty and have an element of taqleed and intellectual-spiritual laziness.
  • Originally, after the death of Ali(RA) what was called Shiism, was really Sufism. He quotes Nasr: “From the Shiite point of view Shiism is the origin of what later came to be known as Sufism. But here by Shiism is meant the esoteric instructions of the Prophet. The Asrar which many Shiite authors have identified with the Shiite concealment ‘Taqiyyah.’” And adds that the doctrine of Imamism converges with the doctrine of Perfect Man in Sufism, and that Shiism and Sufism are united in their view of Noor-i-Muhammad and Maqami-Mehmood. However, later Shiism opposed Sufism (though it nurtured Irfan that is essentially Sufism’s more metaphysical and esoteric core) for making Imam dispensable.
  • It is Mu’tazilites who charged Sufism for now largely discredited view that wujudi Sufism compromizes distinction between Creator and creation.
  • Kharjites were the first critics of Sufism.
  • Three Imams of Fiqh – Abu Hanifa, Shafi and Ahmed Ibn Hanbal are also important figures in Sufi history. (No less a personality than Attar has defended this view)  (However some Sufis have questioned this appellation.)

       Although Nazki reads too much in wujoodi-shuhudi binary and takes the side of Shuhudi Sufism and seeks to interpret Abdul Qadir Jilani and many others in its terms, misconstrues Ibn Arabi’s position of superiority of sainthood as if implying underemphasizing prophetic station, fails to avoid old Orientalist genealogical view that emphasizes borrowings from alien traditions in mainstream Sufism, he succeeds in his larger aim of introducing and defending against detractors orthodoxy and perennity and Islamicity of Sufism. I hope this work, along with  Zikr-i-Habib is enough for his smooth posthumous journey. Nazki Saheb! Rest in peace. Kashmir remembers you.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Islam: The Battle Within

A solution that once came to their rescue could be tried today as well. It is heeding the best minds who know both tradition and modernity intimately.

Should we teach or not teach evolution to children in schools? Should traditional philosophy and some exposure to modern philosophy be allowed/encouraged or discouraged in our schools? Should all major schools of ilm-ul-kalam be taught along with the cutting edge debates on a host of issues we hardly imagine as part of public discourse? Should the meaning of Islamic art or art in general form integral part of curriculum for all? Should traditional Muslim view of Caliphate/Imamate, modern political Islam, democracy, new interpretations from new approaches to religions, social and natural sciences that avoid mentioning or taking sides on God as their methodological principle, world religions including archaic wisdom traditions and dozens of theological and philosophical schools that have developed in the history of Islamicate world be taught to students? Should we allow free discussion of such issues in classes as class/gender/ideology and how they inform our reading of canon? Should Islam or Islamic studies be taught to children? If Islam then what are the texts besides the Quran and hadith (both Sunni and Shia canon) in Kalam, in philosophy, in logic, in hermeneutics, in Quran exegesis both traditional and modern that should be taught to all? How come we teach ilm-ul-kalam today without properly knowing modern critics of theology or newer theological developments? Which of the traditional Islamic sciences that included some  sciences that are taboo today  be included in curriculum? Should Sufism be taught as its Masters presented it or as we frame it in certain ideological terms? What about things like Islamic/Muslim feminism or the academic studies of fundamentalism or such debates as Islam in the singular and plural or what is Islam raised by our modern scholars trained in both traditional and modern settings? What about those who claim to have copyright on teaching Islam but don’t allow proper engagement with primary sources (Intellect, reason, hikmah and many sciences such as history) for understanding primary sources (texts of Quran and prophetic traditions)? How come such naivety in asserting we don’t interpret but take first hand truth unmediated from the sources? What about those who wish to impose their interpretation without allowing one to ask how come that interpretation or selective hermeneutic itself was chosen as the standard one in highly charged atmosphere of political and theological rivalry? Should we teach truth and thus certain open ended inquiry or packaged truth  for others (of our theological/juristic school) and claim it is the truth? All these questions are live and important and mostly ignored in the Muslim world. And hence the crisis of two types of education in universities and madrasahs, political battles for/against “Islam,” accusations and counter-accusations of heresy and covert and covert threats of violence for one’s argued position, and the plague of taking inferior minds seriously as the best minds/sages aren’t heeded. Is there a way out?
       A solution that once came to their rescue could be tried today as well. It is heeding the best minds who know both tradition and modernity intimately. Our tragedy is that those who claim to know tradition or classical Islam in its original formulations stop at certain interpretation claimed to be the interpretation; they are trapped in juristic or theological approaches and certain simplistic view of history and language. They can’t explain to themselves such foundational elements as what is knowledge and how it saves or what is ihsan when applied to arts or how come we are asked to witness God’s unity when we don’t know it first hand or care to distinguish Muslim from Mu’min or Islam as metaphysical and existential state that all humans necessarily could bear witness to from Islam as expressed in certain contingent historical formulation or explain how come salvation is linked to grace or fazl and not actions necessarily or primarily and how we can show today that guides have been sent to all communities (including thousands of tribal communities, far off isolated places in China, in Africa, in polar regions etc.) who don’t know Book/Prophet centric religion as we know and some of whom can’t be ordinarily approached by any tableegi mission of any religion as they strongly resist strangers that might be deputed to convert them.
      In the traditional camp, it is the great traditional authorities such as Hazrat Jafar Sadiq, Abu Hanifa, Razi, Ghazzali, Ibn Taymiyyah, Shah Waliullah, Anwar Shah Kashmiri, Alama Tabatab’i  and others (all of them adopted/adapted what can be characterized as academic/intellectual/theo-philosophical approaches as against sermonizing polemical ideological one of more popular preachers/scholars)  and sages (as distinguished from mere ratiocinative philosophers) like Ibn Sina and Mulla Sadra who undertook almost comprehensive review of almost all traditional sciences and their great breadth of engagement saved Muslims from both complacent and defeatist mindsets. For understanding contemporary condition intimately one can’t bypass serious engagement with such thinkers as Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Whitehead, Foucault etc. and many exponents of a number of human and natural sciences. Regarding the encounter of tradition and modernity, within the Ulama camp, we can learn something from the likes of Manazir Ahsan Gilani (the author of much ignored modern classic of Muslim theology Ad-Deen-ul-Qayyim and translator of Mulla Sadra’s Asfar) and Murtaza Mutahhari. When experts of both the camps meet (as contemplated in joint work of Anwar Shah Kashmiri and Iqbal) or when extraordinary scholars who combine in themselves both these backgrounds – one quickly recalls some examples from Iran or originally trained in Iran – we can expect some great results.
      It is Urafa/Sages who deserve to be heard most earnestly on the question of reconstruction of theological thought as they are best capable of facing the challenge of tajdeed-i-deen in the age  dominated by philosophers. It is rare, very rare to find such nuanced and careful engagement with intellectual tradition of Islam in marketplace, in seminaries, in universities that we can indeed mourn about qaht-ur-rijal. We have great scholars in diverse fields but they can be, often, ridiculously misinformed or biased regarding other fields or what is called the other in one’s intellectual tradition. And Islam which connotes submission to truth, to whole truth and pursuit of perfection in every discipline that is not alien to being human (ihsan) is hard to come by in all its richness and comprehensiveness (we find elaborate lists of exclusions in most of the scholars we can name in the name of so-called pure Islam). What we find mostly is some fragments or ideologically filtered versions. Although the core of Islamic tradition is quite accessible today  what is worrisome is that most fail to locate where and pay heed to school teachers, “professors” polemicists, mere jurists/exoteric scholars. There are self styled Islamists who are ignorant about arts, Ulama who never assimilated texts of hikmah/logic in their curriculum and fiery preachers who treat every other theological/philosophical/mystical school of different persuasion as an other. Neither universities nor madrassahs have vibrant cross disciplinary spaces where Ulama and modern scholars could meet. Nudwa originally conceived  as facilitating such a space was almost aborted in the very inception and Shibli like people have been on margin ever since. Can we imagine today Prof. Jamal Khawja in conversation with top Deoband Ulama or Arkoun presenting a paper in a conference in Azhar or Fazlur Rahman giving extension lecture on annual conference of JeI or head of great seminary addressing annual philosophy or social science congress? Where are those prepared to learn and thus engage in proper dialogue with the other? If most of Muslims think they already have all the answers and thus needn’t think or learn or engage in a proper dialogue as Adonis notes, what can one do?

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Dialogue between Ulema and Modern Scholars

Reading Jamal Khawja on Islam in the Liberal World
Long back, Ulema in India including Kashmir had been approached to articulate and defend their understanding of Islam in philosophical idiom in order to facilitate dialogue between religions and with academicians. The questions asked included: what constituted reality  for them and how one knows it. It is another matter that the tersely formulated questionnaire was greeted with silence in Kashmir.  The idea was spearheaded, among others, by Prof. Jamal Khawja as Director of a project Philosophical Dialogue between Ulema and Modern Scholars sponsored  by Indian Council for Philosophical Research, New Delhi. Khwaja is one of the very few significant living Muslim philosophers India has produced. His Quest for Islam, Authenticity and Islamic Liberalism, Islam and Modernity and Living the Quran in Our Times constitute sustained meditations on the hard problem of being an authentic human being and authentic Muslim in the modern world. His  lucid, forceful, incisive, no non-sense prose, informed by his training in analytical philosophy, is an important addition to the world of Muslim thought in general and Muslim philosophy in particular.
      Although three decades have passed but there is no real progress on the issue of dialogue between Ulema and modern scholars. Ulema and modern scholars are hardly on talking terms. And gradual loss of Ulema’s grip over community and the new generation’s indifference to religion or drift towards atheism and fundamentalism are the consequences. Today we turn to a few of Khawja’s 18 theses that he has formulated for the consideration of educated Muslims and Ulema.  His basic addressees are “educated Muslims who value the essentials of the great Islamic heritage, but feel emotionally and intellectually ‘uneasy’ that many unjustifiable beliefs, attitudes and customs have become a part of the tradition, and that Muslims generally resist the idea of reform and growth in the Islamic value system.” He notes that Muslims “tend either to suppress their doubts or perplexities or explain them away by giving rather dubious reasons in defense of the traditional position.”
      Khawja’s 12th thesis states: “All religions stand for cultivating the attitude of wonder at the contemplation of the universe and of surrender to a mysterious Power, felt as sacred or holy, even though religions may differ in their respective theologies, symbols and rituals. This plurality does not negate the basic oneness of man’s religious consciousness: his basic state of mind and of feeling, termed ‘piety’ or ‘religious devotion’. Genuine spiritual sensitivity to the sense of ‘the Holy Mystery’, immanent in and transcending the world of matter, does not stand in the way of imaginatively enjoying diverse symbols and rites of other traditions, even as one appreciates works of art in different styles or in different media, while keeping one’s own special style or medium of aesthetic expression. Even the denial of a personal God does not necessarily amount to the denial of religious experience (conceptualized in a non-theistic frame of reference) or the denial of moral and spiritual values in their broad non-sectarian sense.”
      Now consider what this thesis implies. It implies that theological dogmas are not the primary thing we should worry about. Religion is more akin to philosophy and poetry in its insistence to cultivate wonder or radical innocence/submission before the unveilings of the Reality/Truth. Religion is not belief but faith and faith is not acceding to a propositional statement but certain attitude or direction of heart and mind. It is being open to Truth and the Truth escapes all pigeon holing attempts by fundamentalists and totalitarian ideologues. Religion is not an ideology. It is not to be reduced to theism or any one formulation. One could stick to one’s religion and should avoid both mixing of diverse religions and calling names to other religions. One doesn’t boost of one’s art style/language or claim a copyright to it.
      Khawja’s 13th thesis states: “Religious plurality does not produce any conflict, individual or social, so long as religion is treated as a means of spiritual growth rather than of political or economic power. Separating religion from politics, however does not amount to permitting the separation of morality from politics. In other words, the concept of secular politics does not logically imply amoral politics.” This implies that political Islam has an insight and a blindness and the mixed results are for all of us to see. Syed Moududi and Syed Qutb could be read as articulating this insight of inseparability of morality and politics and Abdal Razziq, Fazlur Rahman, Wahidudin Khan, Javed Ghamidi, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im providing the needed corrective for the blindness/danger that lurks in politicization of morality/religion. Religion should inform politics  as it does in philosophers from Plato to Al-Farabi to Voegelin but it isn’t reducible to a power structure. God has no political party.
      The thesis further states that “The religious attitude, by itself is not a panacea for human ills, or atheism the root cause of the strife and violence ever present in man’s history…. The solution to the human predicament lies, not in moralizing or spirituality alone, but in our giving effective help towards the establishment of social justice in the human family as a whole.” One recalls Hazrat Ali’s statement that a society based on kufur can survive but but a society based on injustice can’t.
      Khawja’s 14th thesis states: “Value oriented action or ethical conduct does not logically presuppose any particular theology or ontology over and above the true commitment to spiritual and moral values. A self-directing and mature person can habitually act ethically and responsibly, without fear of punishment or hope of reward. Nevertheless, most men, at some time or the other, do stand in need of faith in God or some metaphysical reality, as the invincible support and unfailing guarantor of the ultimate triumph of truth and justice in order to retain their moral courage and integrity of being in the face of the trials, temptations and tragedies of life.”
      One might remark that faith is “true commitment to spiritual and moral values” and the point that one upholds certain brand of theism or trans-theism is of little consequence. Faith is an existential issue and even if one isn’t religious in the usual sense, one can’t escape the prerogative to be ultimately concerned which is faith in God. God/Absolute is inescapable, irresistible as Love, Joy, Beauty immanent in life are sought by everyone.
      Khawja’s 15th thesis is: “The simple goodness of heart, spontaneous respect, kindliness and solicitude for all living creatures, as members of a large cosmic family, the habitual will to do the right and the just, for their own sake, the active aspiration to give one’s best to society, at large, seeking fulfillment through personal love and loyalty, and the struggle for social justice, the ceaseless search for truth and beauty, and finally, the joyful acceptance of suffering, decay and death, as the other side of life itself. These are the basic values that ought to be deemed the indispensable categorical imperatives for contemporary man. How or through what means; religious/theological, or extra-religious, extra theological; the individual comes to internalize and to live out the above values should be optional for each individual. Others, be they themselves religious or non-religious, need not worry about the route each individual takes to do so.”
      Thesis 16: Although modern science has discredited certain crude formulations of religious thesis, “A mature authentic faith, rooted in man’s response to the mystery of the universe, a faith purified from the crude mix of magic, myth and unexamined assumptions, a faith fully aware of the complexities of the human situation, a faith not, in the least, afraid aid of ceaseless enquiry and creativity of values – such a faith is still an open possibility.”
      Thesis 17: “The conflict, if any, between human reasoning and Divine revelation disappears when we review them as processes in history. The conflict between Humanism and Theism, or between man-centered religions and God-centered religions dissolves when we view God and man, not as totally alien to each other, but in an inscrutable relationship of the whole and the part, adumbrated in, but never captured, in the various analogies of the ocean and the drop, the sun and its rays, the sap and the plant, the self and the stream of consciousness, or in the distinction, if any, between Brahman and Atman.”
      Thesis 18: “The cardinal value for contemporary man is the quest for authentic being. Any religion or philosophy that denies or obstructs, directly or indirectly, man’s extremely slow and tortuous progress towards this ideal is misleading and false.”
      All these theses sum up a huge corpus of scholarship on philosophy of religion. One is invited to take them or leave them but can’t ignore them. One might formulate certain points in a better way, however. Terms like myth, value, morality, religion, faith, atheism etc. suffer from certain imprecision in modern treatment. One might read Glossary of Terms used by Frithjof Schuon for more precise and traditionally grounded treatment. However, Khawja is more lucid for most of modern educated people. One can only thank him for formulating these theses. He is bound to receive more attention if Muslims are to more creatively engage with modernity. Muslim world can’t bypass new developments in philosophy and such thinkers as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault if it is to come of age. Khawja presents one way of engaging with these developments.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Apartments in Hell: The Forgotten Art of House Design

Kashmir’s architecture recalled the glory of God and both dignity and humility of man.
The question of our attitude towards the Sacred is a question of life and death and if doesn’t figure anywhere with the seriousness it deserves in our dwellings or city planning, it is a choice of which all those who are thereby affected need to be informed about. How little do architects, not to speak of masons and carpenters and people that work for know about the significance of Symbolism and other largely forgotten aspects of traditional art of architecture say colours, directions, dimensions, is known to us all. Architecture is today mostly engineering and hardly art form. Ours is the ugliest age in history and our sense of beauty so impoverished, as those like AKC who are better qualified to talk about our standards of beauty would say.

Costs of forgetting God while building houses
      Traditionally, houses are to be built at the Centre of the world or should  so fix our orientation as has traditionally been the case across traditions. Houses are communication spaces with the higher world or are subject to a whole range of influences we would ordinarily not countenance for being too occult for our consideration. Traditionally houses are required to be, like mosques or temples, as Eliade notes in his first chapter of The Sacred and the Profane. The first thing the Prophet, upon whom be peace, that he sought to descend on us by our proper orientation to the higher cosmic rhythms, built was a mosque and philosophers like Heidegger remind us of his insistence to work himself for house construction, to visit graveyards – a space we wish were never mentioned in our presence and we know how badly managed our graveyards are compared to Christian ones –, openness to sky, and emphasis on our earthly origins and acceptance of our finitude as creatures. He didn’t allow mistreatment of Christian icons when pagan idols were cleared from the sanctuary of Mecca. He allowed even “alien” religious/secular art forms in his house cum mosque space.
      How forgetful of God/Sacred we are may be gleaned from our large scale ignorance of numbers, sacred geometry and its significance besides outright dismissal of traditional astrology and other sciences that seek to connect man to higher realms. We no longer talk about architects as priests. Architecture of houses, public spaces and much of what is covered under city excluding purely religious architecture is now a secular affair. It is hardly recognized that the responsibility of architecture to the sacred is, “truly solemn. Architecture interprets holiness and offers it to the people. Whether they choose to inhabit this category or not, perhaps all architects have the capacity to be priests, designing spaces that call for a meeting between earth and heaven.”
      Mircea Eliade’s classic study The Sacred and the Profane has been highly influential in these debates and we turn to it to explain what is the sacred dwelling and in its light we can well see how desacralized is our habitation today. To quote from Eliade: “Two methods of ritually transforming the dwelling place (whether the territory or the house) into cosmos, that is, of giving it the value of an imago mundi: (a) assimilating it to the cosmos by the projection of the four horizons from a central point (in the case of a village) or by the symbolic installation of the axis mundi (in the case of a house) ; (b) repeating, through a ritual of construction, the paradigmatic acts … by virtue of which the world came to birth...
In all traditional cultures, the habitation possesses a sacred aspect by the simple fact that it reflects the world.”
      We build houses but our forefathers built homes. What we miss in our dwellings is dwelling space/home as Heidegger pointed out.  A dwelling, he argued, is characterized by sparing and preserving – preserving relates to the “fourfold.” – “one lives on earth, under the sky, before the divinities, and belonging to men’s being with one another.” Everything in its free sphere is preserved. Since instrumental rationality and technological culture rule, we have houses and not homes. Now we miss art, poetry and mystery, otherworldly beauty, space for fellowship of spirit – a living space of inter-human, ecstasy, consciousness of human dignity and healing touch of life and death. We miss emotions, a symbolism, a sense of attachment and commitment to place/house, We miss profound touch with living traditions that our ancestors bequeathed us. To illustrate the costs to modern man, we may focus on those who have been most vocal about their faith and have tried to resist secularism at all fronts including the political. Muslims have lost:
  • Living connection with Islam. How many Muslim architects and engineers and ulama can appreciate and explain the following statements from Khaled Azzam’s descriptiion of Islam vis-a-vis architecture that mostly build on Burckhardt’s masterly explication of Islamic artistic tradition: “Architecture is central to Islam because it represents a formalization of virgin nature; it is symbolic of the highest place of worship created by God. Architecture is seen as the art of ordering space not only on a physical level but also on the metaphysical plane-placing man in the presence of God through the sacralization of space.”
  • Lessons in even the basics of house design and decorum of dwelling
  • The following, for instance, is Greek to most Muslims:… “although the architecture of the house is different from that of the mosque in terms of planning, it is similar in terms of style. The same rites that are performed in the mosque are also performed at home. This being the reason why the floor of a house is considered sacred and shoes are removed when entering, and why the rooms in the traditional Islamic house remain devoid of any fixed furniture.”
The Case of Kashmir
      Traditionally, in Kashmir, building a house was like an intention to marry – one married for life. One couldn’t imagine changing it under ordinary circumstances, not to speak of building for sale. Privacy was an objective but not an obsession or fashion. Obsession with privacy was not there for even young people and a room of one’s own wasn’t demanded even in well off households. Guardian angels had to be cared for. Before purchasing a land for house, it has to be determined if it is suitable, not haunted, not this or that. Cosmic signs would have to be read to see appropriate date and site. Sacrifices were offered at the times of beginning of house building and declaring it open. No important activity could be done without visiting sacred space first – mosque/shrine/graveyard. One couldn’t afford to leave a house empty – it was believed to be occupied by djinns. Shops were not part of houses, generally speaking. Market was usually a separate space. For the well-to-do exquisitely carved wood and meticulous attention to beauty in designing roofs of rooms, windows, doors etc. has been a hallmark of Kashmiri dwelling. One felt answerable for every action to local community, to priest and to God. The government came into picture only occasionally. In short one could say that God was consulted, neighbor taken into consideration and the elders of the community were part of the process of consecration of the dwelling place. Guests were almost never absent at a given time and some would stay for days and weeks. Now what suffices for almost all these reports from and sacrifices for Heaven are feasibility reports and court papers. Interestingly court papers or papers showing transference of land or ownership of house weren’t a concern in most cases. The classic case of large scale destruction of traditional spaces in comparatively a short span of time in Ladakh has been documented in a classic study Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World by Helena Norberg-Hodge.
      One needs to remark here that it is development ideology that wrecked havoc on traditional architecture. Time consuming, difficult to replace or sell, eco-friendly, indigenous, more attuned to the requirements of spirit, simple but graceful and elegant, consciously rooted in traditionally received symbolism, uniformity of style and antithesis of vainglorious Promethean sensibility that has made deep inroads recently, Kashmir’s architecture recalled the glory of God and both dignity and humility of man. Nothing was superfluous and nothing was out of harmony. There is certain “deficiency” of light but that seems to contribute to a sense of mystery. And one can’t keep out a strange aura flowing from the sacred ambience of the whole building. In contrast today it has one thing missing – sacred. 
      The question of the Sacred has to be asked while designing dwellings and cities. The sacred has its own way of speaking to us and our refusal to listen is our problem. And now that this problem is widely recognized and there is haunting nihilism – we are in hells of our own making – it remains a difficult question to see how we don’t fail in our response to the demands of the sacred. Walls between houses, invisible walls within houses, concrete jungles, conversion of housing into an industry that seeks to maximize profit at the cost of demands of the spirit or beauty, rejection of wilderness, forgetting of symbolism of gardens, courtyards, flora and fauna, colours and dimensions, orientation and landscaping – all need to be taken note of if we can call our city design responsible or sacred conscious – which imply one another.

Friday, 24 March 2017

The Art of Holy Indifference: Reading the Classics of Stoic Philosophy

The quest for wisdom never ends; every experience, every great artist/philosopher has something to teach us.
Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still.  (Eliot)

The purpose of life is to seek happiness, declare Chinese and many other sages from the world, including those from the Muslim world. And fortunately, all of us can find happiness: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.” And it depends upon our choice: “No man is happy who does not think himself so.” Tolstoy reported that he found the happiest people among Russian peasants. To master the art and science of happiness one needs to understand a few points noted especially by Stoic philosophers. And one can finish reading the masterpieces of Stoic philosophy – The Art of Living by Epictetus and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius in a day or two. And reflecting on gems there is enough insurance for life against all that may make us unhappy. Let us measure ourselves against the gold standard set by these Western sages and let us not forget that one was slave and another Emperor who had tasted extremes of life’s agonies, tensions, humiliations and challenges. Epictetus is a much easier read – even our good primary/secondary class students can read this masterpiece of philosophy without any previous exposure to philosophy. We today read a few things the Emperor said.
        Let us begin with what he suggests we should begin our day: “When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love ...” One recalls Tuesdays with Morie that tell us what a discovery it is to live after we are confronted with an event of imminent death. Imagine a blind man given eyes for one day how he would treasure every moment. Poets defamiliarize the world for us. Mystics teach us to see God everywhere and see with Gods eyes. and here we hardly ever live – we just vegetate. We, ordinarily, don’t see God when we see our gardens, streams, mountains because habit deadens us and we take the gift of sight for granted unlike his blind man who has been loaned it for one day only. But if we could see God before we saw anything, we would see everything in a new glory.
      His central insight concerns shunning absolutes in the world of relativities – what la illaha states: “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” We all know incorrigible sectarians and fundamentalists whom nothing can make change opinions because they love sects and words more than truth behind them. “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed.” And “You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can't control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.” The question is the difference between opinion and Truth and the tragic confounding of the two by zealots who play God as Judge. Souls have their own destinies to unfold and we being only one Spirit only judge ourselves when we judge others.      Have you ever been wronged by anyone? What then? “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” Are you conscious of having helped someone or sacrificed for someone? If yes, then you don’t know that there is no other whom you could oblige. Humans are only one soul. The universe is part of me or my projection. This is what Iqbal’s Asrar-i-Khudi begins expounding. It is only a vain or mean person who brags about his good doings or plays a victim complaining about everyone else.
     We can count on fingers persons who never indulge in backbiting because we can’t let go things and seek revenge. Here is a golden rule to help: “Whatever anyone does or says, I must be emerald and keep my colour.” “If any man despises me, that is his problem. My only concern is not doing or saying anything deserving of contempt.”

How to take on misfortune? “I was once a fortunate man but at some point fortune abandoned me. But true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions.” And “Misfortune nobly born is good fortune.” How? We all know that patience perfects us. About complaints we have of anyone including spouses, friends, bosses, children: “All men are made one for another: either then teach them better or bear with them.” 
     And those who trouble themselves about personal God’s/afterlife’s existence or non-existence  are thus advised: “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”  “What we do now echoes in eternity.” This is all what the doctrine of heaven and hell is about: our actions have permanent consequences, as Ramsay notes. What do we do now, let us ask. Grumble, worry about how many likes of our fb posts or speeches or who will go to hell, brag, play a sadistic boss, hate, backbite, anxiously guess what others say about us, wish the world were otherwise than it is, wish to avoid misfortune and continue slavery of the genie called ego that has taken possession of us? Or we enjoy good art works, listen to beautiful sounds, contemplate beautiful faces, read beautiful minds, praise God for the sunshine and the rain and all the dappled things, love, smile, joke, wonder, create, go to a walk, call a friend long forgotten and thank the Author of this great gift of life that has been granted to us for free, unasked. What we do for this week? Ten thousand things to make life a treat and forget its little woes.       “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.” Start counting your blessings or privileges – that you can read English in today’s world, have an interest in a piece on philosophy showing you intend to love wisdom which is such a “great blessing,” as the Quran says, enjoy leisure to read, had a good schooling and may be good job/families/friends that many hadn’t, are beautiful or at least have healthy taste of loving beauty, had ample resources to enjoy breakfast, presence of your kith and ken with sound senses – in fact the list is endless. Man needs only one prayer, I keep recalling Eckhart when Imams don’t let us go and prolong prayer sessions after nimaz/faitha, “God! Thank you for everything.” With a heart full of faith that connotes gratitude, you have no complaints, no grudges against anyone, no big wish lists. Given a world where it is, as Eliot said, torment to find unsatisfied love and greater torment to find love satisfied, lady fortune/fame/beauty unpredictable, people difficult to live with or to part from, isn’t it best to preserve raza or equanimity (samata, “radiant sameness.”)?
      There is an insight from Lacan that states that language is structured like unconscious and we don’t mean what we say. Neither does our critic or enemy. The reason is that we can’t fix or determine the meaning of words and it is meaning slips. None who abuses us through bad words means to abuse us. Have pity on his unconscious drives, his failed love, his inner turmoil. And one excuses people who are half conscious. As Marcus Aurelius puts it: “When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you.” Freud famously showed that we are never fully conscious. A genie called language says something and means something else that none controls ultimately. Wisdom lies in let go, in silence, in not taking others bad words seriously. And if we can be silent we are home, in Heaven. Let the chatter of thoughts and day dreams stop. Let us be ourselves and not thoughts. “Qul ya ayyuhel kafiroon/La aabudu ma tabudoon.” means, according to one reading of our Sufi, that kafiroon are thoughts that come and go and we should attempt to ward them off, be still, rooted in pure awareness. This is achieved by confining oneself to the present (wazeefa of farzi dayim helps achieve this), leaving past and future as territories of the Devil. Nine tenth of mysticism and religion is what is covered here by Marcus Aurelius: Tranquil heart by focus on the present that is necessarily joyful, let go, take easy, perfect the character. Stoicism is the beginning of wisdom and one should read The Five Great Philosophies of Life to move forward after one’s course with Stoic Masters. And one shouldn’t stop there either. The quest for wisdom never ends; every experience, every great artist/ philosopher has something to teach us.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Reconciling Islam with the Modern World

Reading Benazir’s Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West

There are some important books that Muslim world should have taken better note of. They have something important to say though certain things might be objected to on both religious and philosophical grounds. Some selections from them deserve serious consideration. Such works include works of almost all the authors approvingly quoted in the last chapter of Benazir Bhutto’s Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West. The problems that Benazir highlights are indeed noteworthy. She notes, for instance, that “now almost half the world’s Muslims are illiterate. The combined GDP of the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is about the same as that of France, a single European country. More books are translated annually from other languages into Spanish than have been translated into Arabic over the past one hundred years. The 15 million citizens of tiny Greece buy more books annually than do all Arabs put together.” Another problem she notes is subjugation of women in the Muslim world that she attributes not to Islam but to  “narrow interpretations of Sharia that deliberately promote subjugation” and to “political exploitation by ideological clerics.” She illustrates her case by alluding to ban on driving cars in Saudi Arabia and points out: “Automobiles did not exist when Islam dawned in A.D. 612. Therefore the prohibition on women driving cars is all the strange.”  She argues the case for economic independence of women stating: “My father encouraged his daughters to be as well educated as our brothers and also to be economically independent. A true measure of liberation from traditional roles and traditional subordination by men is the extent to which women are economically self-sufficient. If the Prophet’s wife could work outside the home, all Muslim women should be free to work. Economic independence brings political independence, and political independence within the family encourages pluralism and democratic expression and organization outside the family.”
      One might  see how chaotic and unresolved is the problem of women and women sensitive approach to Islam by recalling  the intense debate on permissibility of women leaders raised after her own election as PM (and previously by Syed Moududi’s support for Jinah’ sister) even though now many Muslim scholars have been defending pivotal role of women in politics and ingeniously explain the commonly cited tradition  against the leadership of women. Not to speak of many perceived issues in family law and restrictions in work and travel on her own, even her head covering has been so much debated that one can easily predict that it will take many decades for the dust to settle in most Muslim lands and till then what lies inside the head mayn’t get the due attention. Her dupatta, that partly (un)covered her hair, was criticized by “secularists” as concession to regressive or conservative elements (previously she didn’t cover her head and we see all significant Bhutoo women unveiled today) and by “Islamists” as mockery of Islamic hijab. In her public appearance she took care that she is not too homely or “modest” and she kept talking about something like “enlightened moderation” that became a buzzword with Pervaiz Musharraf later. She has been a vocal critic of Zia’s Islamization project and hudood ordinance citing  the reason that they contradicted both the spirit of Islam and human rights in modern democracy. She attempted to reconcile two conflicting paradigms – secularist and traditional – by making use of what we may call as Muslim feminist (as distinguished from “Islamic feminist”  and “secular feminist” interpretations) and inner radical interpretations of Islam.  She  had the gift of a writer as well and her Reconciliations sums up her attempt to broach two universes. I think she largely succeeds in her case for more respectful (and not necessarily uncritical) attitude towards such things as secular sciences, democracy, human rights discourse, Muslim feminism and she has brilliantly chosen some thinkers and relevant quotation to buttress her arguments. I reproduce some of these quotes from her book.
      She first quotes Iqbal (whose suggestion that elected Parliament should be able to complement Ulema’s work and exercise Ijtihad appears shockingly modernist).“The law revealed by the Prophet takes special notice of the habits, ways and peculiarities of the people to whom he is specifically sent. The sharia values [ahkam] are in a sense specific to that people; and since their observance is not an end in itself they cannot be strictly enforced in the case of future generations. Let the Muslim of today appreciate his position, reconstruct his social life in the light of ultimate principles, and evolve, out of the hitherto partially revealed purpose of Islam, that spiritual democracy which is the ultimate aim of Islam.”  She also approvingly quotes Fazlur Rahman, arguably Pakistan’s most influential modern philosopher, who has been such an inspiration for a host of new interpretations including feminist one in the Muslim world: “…no systematic attempt has ever been made to understand the Quran in the order in which it was revealed, that is by setting the specific cases of the shuan al-nuzul or occasions of revelation in some order in the general background that is other than the activity of the Prophet (the sunna in the proper sense) and its social environment.” And pleads for his new approach that consists in “studying the Quran in its total and specific background (and doing this study systematically in a historical order),” against what he called atomistic approach that is largely followed by Muslim scholars which consists in “studying it verse by verse or passage by passage with an isolated occasion of revelation.” All too familiar and ready chapter and verse citations in legal manuals and much of popular stuff are targeted by Fazlur Rahman for this atomistic approach.
      She then quotes one of the most brilliant contemporary Muslim philosophers Abdul Karim Soroush (whose The Expansion of Prophetic Experience is such a powerful work and a must read for any Muslim scholar tackling the problem of Islam and modernity and relevance of Sufism in our postmodern age) whose qualifications as a madrassah trained scholar are especially noteworthy : “Revealed religion itself may be true and free from contradictions, but the science of religion is not necessarily so. Religion may be perfect or comprehensive but not so for the science of religion. Religion is divine, but its interpretation is thoroughly human and this-worldly.The whole history of the sincere efforts of commentators to liberate Quranic commentary from the infiltration of external ideas has ended in one sharp and important result, namely, the practical unavoidability of such infiltration, together with its epistemological inevitability.”
      She brings Muhammad Arkoun, one of the pioneering postmodern Muslim philosophers and author of influential Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers, as well into the debate: “We need to create an intellectual and cultural framework in which all historical, sociological, anthropological, and psychological presentations of revealed religions could be integrated into a system of thought and evolving knowledge. We cannot abandon the problem of revelation as irrelevant to human and social studies and let it be monopolized by theological speculation.”
      Next important scholar from the subcontinent  in support of her pluralism she refers to is Maulana Wahidudin Khan who is however poles apart from Arkoun and Rahman or Soroush. She quotes from him: “Muslims mistakenly regard it as their duty to stop any visual depiction of Prophet Mohammad. This is untrue. It is the followers of Islam who are forbidden to do so in order to discourage idolatry. Moreover, Islam forbids imposing its beliefs on people of other faiths. Even in Muslim countries, Muslims cannot impose their laws or culture on others.”
      Arguing for more open attitude towards philosophy and science today, she refers to an insightful historical note from Muhammad Khalid Masud: “…the fact that a movement in favor of Greek sciences continued to flourish throughout the Islamic history is by itself an evidence of Islam’s cultural compatibility. This movement generated a controversy deep into the religious issues about the nature of the Quranic revelation and the role of reason. Opposition to this movement finally triumphed as orthodoxy, but not without recognizing the necessity of studying Greek secular sciences. The science of Kalam (roughly, Islamic theology) born out of the need to refute foreign ideas was regarded as the science of DaĆ¢wa and Jihad. This science relied heavily on Greek logic, rhetoric and metaphysics. No doubt, opposition in the Muslim community to rational sciences continued, but at the same time a considerable number of Greek texts or their Arabic adaptations on Astronomy, Geography, Calculus, Mechanics etc., became part of the Muslim religious curriculum.”
      Benazir’s credentials for writing on the question of Islam or its interpretation may be contested (by those who think that our primary problem is not in the domain of thinking and hermeneutics but in the domain of access to traditional texts) but what  can’t be contested is her right to read and quote from the wealth of highly relevant cutting edge scholarship. It seems she was well informed or well advised while preparing the book. She hasn’t quoted out of context. We can’t implement Islam in the modern world without first understanding the modern world and for this philosophers as diverse as Heidegger, Habermas, Whitehead and Voegelin  besides diverse Muslim philosophers from Iqbal to Nasr to Soroush may be given consideration. The question is: Are our  online eloquent youth and our daughters of the East (“Islamist” “Feminist” hijabi, bayhijabi), aware of extremely rich and sophisticated tradition of debate on issues that they seem to foreclose with all too ready opinions for and against from here and there?
Since one can critique modernism or any modern idea but can’t wish away the reality of modern world or ignore the signs of the times or God’s revelation in Time, there is no option of merely regurgitating old scholarship – a point Iqbal made in his Madras lectures. Without ignoring 14 centuries of history of engagement with sacred text we need to remember “Read the Quran as if revealed yesterday” as one important modern Muslim philosopher advised. Iqbal meant the same thing by pleading for descent of the Book in one’s conscience and recognizing the need of respectfully but critically approaching our predecessors by freely debating new approaches. We have to choose between resisting hegemony on thinking by reviving institution of consensus through communicative dialogue (as our best democrats like Habermas conceive it) that has been the essence of Ijmah or dying under dictatorships or imposed ideological States.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Honouring the Poet: Opening Heart’s Avenues

Poets master the art of presenting us to ourselves. Poets are the eyes with which we see a world as a semblance of paradise

Imagining a world without poets is like imagining the whole world as suddenly gone dumb. Poets master the art of presenting us to ourselves. Poets are the eyes with which we see a world as a semblance of paradise. When prophets leave us, the poets preserve their sacred aura for us. Imagine how poor religious life would be without  hymns and songs of poets. We can live without food for some time, without families, without priests, without scientists but we can’t live without poetry. Poets defend us against demons within and without and if we could heed them we wouldn’t need armies. When the last poet will pass away, the show we know as the world will be wrapped up as we know that it is a poet who preserves the light of faith in a world orphaned by God’s seeming withdrawal or absence. Let us read our own poet Ismail Aashna what are poets for. We shall focus on a few of his poems in his Heart’s Avenues:II.
      For our poet, the poet, like Abraham, drinks flames and unravels “mysteries of twisted destinies.” Indeed it is poet who can peep into the dark depths we contain and read the scripture of self and the abjed of dreams and then open “heart’s avenues” that helps us travel in the dense dark woods of life. He sweeps aside the snow from the rotten layers of leaves to “enable the deer to dance/ in the dense woods.”  He gives warmth to “Naked kids of helpless mothers/under the thatched roofs.” He wears shawls of golden beams for the widows whose head-gears have been torn. He makes “the aged laugh/ and walk upright fast." He gives eyes to the blind and food to the hungry.  He tears age-old nets, makes waves dance and announces arrival of spring. He accompanies “…the lazy pigeon/ to visit the skies/cajole the hatred-ridden hawk, /and tell the shivering birds/that beyond the dark clouds/there is neither frost nor fog/only sunshine and sunshine and sunshine.” Hiding within his “broken self/ All the pains” till he radiates dawn in every fragment, the poet plans to  construct “More than a thousand houses/For emotions, feelings, instincts/And their spouses/ With all amenities.” As with Persian poets, we find in Aashna the Mystery of being, the holy act of living that is salvific on its own. There is nowhere to go, nothing to achieve, no grand political goal to be reached.
      When our kith and ken leave us to attend to their woes, we have poetry to console us. The poets buy our sorrows and  transform them into flowers of joy. How? This is a strange secret of their alchemical art. Read the poem “Message” and see how it reconciles us to twisted destiny and we become hermits of a sort who are in love with their fate:

O gate keeper
I will give you my life
Be kind enough
O convey her after I am gone
That all the moments I had in my fists
Melted while I was waiting
For permission at the gate

      One might recall Kafka’s great story “Before the Law” to see how artist’s heaven is constituted from the bricks of hell. We strangely become soft and mellow and learn resignation after reading poetry that narrates tales of horror and tragic waste.
      The poet’s job is, as Akhter Shirani tells us, to see the beauty of life and show it to others. He may or may not help in curing life’s sores but that is not his primary mandate. The poet, in love with life, is unconquerable. He has no private mansion of self to guard and his “snow-like hanging self” finds salvation by radical innocence and being porous, open to sunbeams flying over mountain peaks. 
      The poet draws pictures from heaven and weaves “Lightening paths…across the pathless woods” and gathers “strange stars” and moons into “his folded skirt.” He  mourns “We could not  give ourselves upto the dancing/ sparks/…We chose for our portion mere smoke and soot/ Why recoil from our bodies seared and charred.” This echoes familiar imagery of fire and purgatory.
      The poet celebrates what he calls “pious” and “winged  passions.”  He sets ablaze “Dewy aspiration shrubs/Lying in wait for kisses/From sunshine glimpses.”  And here is the balm for the ordinary coward people enslaved by dead legalism who like “harnessed horses” have been “smothered under exhaustion.” Braving “ruthless rain falls/ and snow storms” the poet’s “travel addict feet” bring him to “inhospitable reaches” and he  takes flight, alone, in search of life giving “grains.” He can’t consent to the transience of life and accept the brevity of epiphanic moments– “Whatever we saw or heard/Was all that/Just on a moment’s lease?”  but  seeks eternity in the arms of the beloved. But this love too seems to desert him and at times he is indeed inconsolable. Even in “the blossoming seasons” his heart is desolate.  It is here we find difference between most poets and mystics/sage-poets. Mystics have no complaints from life and nothing can make them disconsolate. They can celebrate every facet of life. For them autumn is spring in more golden robes. Dancing Life’s sacred dance, they unconditionally love and affirm its tragic guise.
      In the dark and desolate world, what saves a poet is plunge to “receive a guest honourable and fair/Lightening, enlightening the infidel” and “She from being a lake/Grew into a shrine/ I, into a saint on a pilgrimage/Rotating around her with prayers on lips” and “assimilate/The Infinity of her strange beauty.” This is why poets are so dear to humankind – they teach us to dive into the ocean and be consumed by the waters that symbolize life. Recall Neruda’s address to poetry in his “Ode to Poetry”:

“you found me company, not just a woman, not just a man, but thousands, millions.” …
“ you raised me up to the glowing heights of ordinary men”
"…. while I went on using myself up
 you kept on unwinding your everlasting freshness.”

      Aashna’s beloved is poetry itself or the Holy Imagination. He seems to have tasted, at least at certain moments, fana fil shayri. What redeems his work is passionate commitment to beauty and thanks to the Muse he can find it almost everywhere.
      Lest we imagine poetry is apolitical, read Aashna: “By crossing the border without light/In bewildering darkness of this night/You will make yourself a refugee/To live on subsidy, relief and mercy…your identiy forever broken.” And “Guards, not gardeners/Guard our orchards/With machine guns” asking us to “prune our thoughts/Instead of pruning the branches.” “The pigeons will not be able/To come back/From the forlorn forests/Beyond the mountain peaks/With astrayed dreams/ In marshy eyes/Where they had gone/To gather glow worms.”
      Art has always offered ecstasy, sublimity. Art has celebrated epiphanic moments. Existence can be justified only in aesthetic terms, argued Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the greatest champion of prophetic view of artist and salvific view of art. “Far from the world, its clamours, frenzies, bitterness and dingy light” the poet, in Dionysian vein, consuming himself, reveals the supraindividual and thus immortal essence of man – “ I shall take birth at countless times.”  There are several images that recall art’s power to break the spell of individual autonomy and separation as Love/Being can unveil itself only in the flames of vaporized ego. The poet’s transcendental reason accessing the unmoulded, untamed, timeless essence of man, seeks, as Pater says, “ the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” And  “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” Often Aashna’s heart beats with Romantics and Aesthetes of the world:  “With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.” However his isn’t a vulgar aestheticism but a more sober and sorrowful vision that we, human, all-too-human  mortals, find more true to life’s ironies and tragic beauty.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Taking Immortality and Heaven Seriously

There are enough arguments to convince the best minds regarding the plausibility of immortality from a philosophical and not just religious viewpoint

Whitehead has referred to basic insights or initial intuitions or feelings of mankind calling for explanations or justifications. Our desire for immortality is one of these initial intuitions, or persistent dreams, or impulses. If we begin with this fundamental impulse of the human spirit, the question is not disputing their “truth” on this or that so-called scientific ground or explaining it away but how to express it. Believers and non-believers needn’t dispute the matter taking all or none position but may better have a dialogue regarding how far we have succeeded in defining or understanding it correctly.
      Taking affairs of life in a playful spirit – but not our assigned or chosen roles in that play – is taking Heaven seriously. Often, believers believe in Heaven but hardly mind it and it is so-called non-believers who take it seriously. How many people we know who are virtually living in heaven here and now or seeing them one recalls God/Heaven? If very few it means most people choose to dwell in hell. Darshan or deedar of a saint or prophet is a vision of Heaven. It is prophets, saints, sages,  artists – messengers of love and beauty – that invite us to exchange the hell of our own making for the Heaven. Heaven is accessible here and now, albeit partially, to all. And if we haven’t found a semblance of heaven here, we can’t get it there. It isn’t a deal with insurance company  that you pay premiums for life here and get returns there. Every moment is, to transpose Renan’s metaphor for nation, a plebiscite for heaven or hell. God has ordained self determination.
       There are enough arguments to convince the best minds (from Plato to Ibn Sina to Kant to Whitehead) regarding plausibility of immortality from a philosophical and not just religious viewpoint. Those who aren’t convinced  have a difficult task of avoiding despair or resignation that is tinged with sorrow. The problem – or grace – is  that, deep down, man refuses to believe his mortality. If both the desire and somewhat intuitive conviction and over a dozen rational arguments that cumulatively do mean a lot if not individually so compelling are corroborated by countless experiences men traditionally have had and even modern do have occasionally – one can go to YouTube and see hundreds of videos by not only gullible believers but former sceptics that seem to imply some sort of survival and good news from the yonderland, one has, a s a rational being, reason to believe essential immortality of intelligence that asks the question about its own mortality and thus seems to presuppose its own transcendental status as outside spatio-temporal frameworks. There is no harm in hoping for the best while preparing for the worst in any case. None of us can easily grant that love – whose very mention evokes supernatural or eternal aspect – can die, that beauty is merely natural phenomenon, that intelligence or that consciousness isn’t somehow primordial.
      History knows very few die hard consistent sceptics. However some doubt is widespread and occasionally infects most believers as well. However these doubts are only skin deep as could be gleaned by the fact that it is hard to find a person who would consent to a proposal that we throw our corpses to dogs in streets (if it is all dust, what is the problem?) convert all graveyards to tillable or other kind of land, destroy all shrines (where “dead” are honoured), do away with all kinds of acts that involve remembering/experiencing our ancestors as if they are with us. If theonomous conscience is a function of intellect and the later implies immortality, we may have to conclude that we have to say goodbye to conscience as well if we refuse to believe in immortality. We keep cherishing memories and what is faith in immortality but the same obsession for memories carried further forward. Civilizations have been built by ignorant dreamers and its greatest products are there thanks to delusions about immortality. Name dozens of wonders of the world and one can trace in most cases a connection to immortality. Imagine how one can conduct mourning to relatives of deceased friends  without funeral prayers or fatiha or Quran recitation or really consoling words. We don’t consent to throw away even our pets or domestic animals in graves. We don’t consent to close accounts of the dead. They keep us visiting in dreams – a two way traffic indeed.
      What a grace it is to believe in immortality  grounds for rationality of belief in immortality as it implies, as Schuon makes clear, that whatever experience we cherish – every trot in a garden, every smile from the loved one, beauty of our youth and vibrancy of childhood – is eternally etched or fixed for us and will be with us. Whitehead’s great contribution to immortality debate is to ground this insight more rationally. So those who believe in heaven have nothing to grieve for. Do you grieve for anything or passing things? If yes, you don’t believe in the Messengers who preach to us of Heaven, in the saints and sages who tell us how they saw some glimpses of it and the poets who travel with the holy wings of Imagination to Heaven and recreate for us a joy and beauty that we can keep invoking. Religion will always be man’s chief nourishment of soul and its chief dish to woo us is Heaven. Stay tuned.
      It is something evoking or invoking (or parasitic on) Eternity/Heaven or semblance of it in ordinary experiences such as sunshine and women and beaches and friends and music and wine that secular writers propose for our earthly salvation. Modern drug culture and alcoholism is ultimately linked to squeezing of spaces for cultivating safer and tested methods for tasting Heaven or securing our seat there. So the question of immortality is of great practical significance for governments and police is better equipped if it knows it. Daredevil driving that kills thousands annually is seeking shortcut to heaven here.
      None of us – not even among atheists – is ready to go for certain sins. It means all of us live lives with some consciousness of sin that costs us exile from heaven that is the serenity of spirit that accompanies clear conscience.
      Our greatest or most beautiful buildings are mosques/temples/cathedral or tombs and all are modelled on the other world or seek to evoke that. Taj Mahal’s design is copied from Quranic description and Ibn Arabi’s diagrams of heaven. Our houses, the sciences of vastu and its counterpart in Islamic tradition inform us, should be consecrated to God and be places where Heaven is felt. Heaven is a space to be cultivated – “Ad-dunya mazra’atul aakhira” – and unfortunately few succeed in the job. Every small act of gratitude and love and attention to beauty is nurturing this space.
      We have heard the good news but we have not paid heed. There is a great news broadcast in all scriptures, in the writings of saints, symbolized in great art works, hinted in virgin nature, dreamt in dreams or seen in visions, lived by children and simple minded, tasted by lovers, that is the Good News of Heaven. Heaven has been promised by God, His prophets, his saints. We haven’t just heard of it we have lived it, seen it through a veil. It is thanks to Heaven’s ecstasies that we continue to cherish life, sex, music, beauty. “Earth was Heaven's womb, Heaven's nursery, Heaven's dress rehearsal. Heaven was the meaning of the earth.” As Peter Kreeft says:

  • “The big, blazing, terrible truth about man is that he has a heaven-sized hole in his heart, and nothing else can fill it…
    Talk about heaven and you'll get sneers. But talk about a mysterious dissatisfaction with life even when things go well—especially when things go well—and you'll get a hearing from man's heart, even if his lips will not agree.
    No one longs for fluffy clouds and sexless cherubs, but everyone longs for heaven. No one longs for any of the heavens that we have ever imagined, but everyone longs for "something no eye has seen, no ear has heard, something that has not entered into the imagination of man, something God has prepared for those who love him."

      Isn’t life and our love of it something that commands us and we can’t do anything about it. This speaks we know something – are gripped – by that what is a gift. A sense of gratitude for this gift is life of faith that results in lightness of Spirit that is like travelling in the shade of trees in Heaven. The promised heaven awaits those who carry its image, its seeds in their hearts here.
      I conclude on this note “Once you go to Heaven, you don't live on earth any more.”