Friday, 26 May 2017

How Great Minds Read Great Minds

Understanding neo-orthodoxy ans modernity of Imam Anwar Shah Kashmiri; a peep into the lectures of Imam Kashmiri.
One reason for loving the fact of being a Kashmiri and within Kashmir North Kashmir is it has produced Imam Anwar Shah Kashmiri. If one were given only one hour in life to meet the most important Kashmiri in the twentieth century, one would, arguably, choose to meet Shah Saheb. Our misfortune is that there are few, if any, in Kashmir today who are competent enough to comprehend and critically engage with a lot of things that Anwar Shah wrote including his notes on time, eschatology and ontology. He has been Kashmir’s greatest contribution to Islamic intellectualism. He suffered bitterly during his life time at the hands of lesser mortals and today he is suffering from oblivion. His legacy has been partly continued in Pakistan where some of his earlier students went after partition. He respectfully disagreed with almost all the great names of the past on certain issues – from Imam Bukhari to Shah Waliullah. He criticized Ibn Taymiyyah for invoking rather crude logic, for not duly listening to the other and for extremism. He defended the great Sufi figures dear to modern man. For Hafiz he used the term aarif and appreciated his credentials as a Quran exegete (referring to his great hashiya on Kashaf). Rumi and his modern disciple Iqbal fascinated him. He complained he didn’t find even one good audience. Moderns like Iqbal got more benefit from some of his contributions than any Molvi could as he himself said. He read philosophers thoroughly. Aristotle, he claimed, reached him from three sources as against Ibn Sina to whom only one source was accessible. To us now Aristotle and other thinkers are more accessible than they were to Shah Saheb himself and may revise some points in Muslim Ulema’s and philosphers’ reading of the Greeks. He had great praise for Ibn Rushd’s legal works and was not unimpressed by his knowledge of Greeks although he sided with Ghazzali in the controversy between the two. He was dissatisfied with inadequate attention given to the problem of meaning or we can say hermeneutics in classical Muslim thought. It is here that newer developments in hermeneutics including those in the perennialist camp become important for our consideration. He didn’t think that last three centuries produced any faqih that he would count and this evaluation resembles Iqbal’s. He pointed out limitations of Abdul Haq Muhaddis – there is only one new thing in him – and Shah Waliullah. Reminding us of classical giants, he knew music, raml, jafr, medicine as well. He thought that this ummat hasn’t cleared debt to the Quran. It means the Quran  remains inadequately read by classical scholarship. Iqbal would have agreed as would have many great modern scholars struggling with sublime heights and depths of the Quran vis-a-vis modern thought. Imam Kashmiri’s standards were so high that he would only occasionally quote any scholar from last few centuries. He often complained of not being understood and his inability to stoop too low to make himself comprehensible. One could say that he recognized the innate dignified station of intelligence and wasn’t ready to oversimplify.
      He had no hesitation in saying that Mulla Sadra, a Shiite, was a muhaqqiq. He made great use of Sufis in his classes and would, like Abu Nasr Zayd, take even Ibn Arabi to task on certain points, especially those that constituted his unique views. Iqbal thought he would be the person along with himself to help reconstruct fiqh today. He made good use of humour that is especially favoured modern tool in teaching. He was basically a great teacher like Heidegger and Whitehead but caught up in a set up where Harvard or Frieburg style lecturing was not in vogue though he did seek to develop it in his own way as has been pointed out by one of his students. He was critical of deductive logic of certain theologians and didn’t reject logic per se although it isn’t clear if he had given enough attention to the underlying “laws of thought” that one is condemned to use even while criticizing them and appreciate ultimately metaphysical or ontological roots of logic in the First Principle. He put Hanafi fiqh on a sound footing that even generations of Ahle-Hadees scholars  would find challenging. (For next hundred years Hanafi fiqh would be safe, he claimed and  this has been largely vindicated.) His critique of Imam Bukhari for downplaying Imam Abu Hanifa is a masterly work so nuanced and meticulous that one wonders if there is living any scholar from the rival camp who has the resources and patience for critically engaging with it. He displayed loyalty to Islam’s intelligence centric salvific model of faith in his critique of Imam Bukhari’s overemphasis on will vis-a- vis iman.  His treatment of faith only question vis-à-vis salvation/falah is seconded in most of modern theological thought. He picked up Hebrew and English but, unfortunately for Muslim community and its tradition of hikmah, forgot the later. He has given us one of the most convincing accounts of eschatology in which key insight defended is that it is actions themselves that appear in the otherworld in the form of pleasures and pains; no bargaining, no arbitrary will negotiates what to be done and what not. He demonstrates how “man is punished by his sins, not for his sins” and how this world and otherworld are essentially one. And hell and heaven exist today (of course, posthumously as well) and we can peep into them, so to speak. Against rationalists and logicians he found Sufis heart touching. In fact it is Sufi metaphysicians which are echoed in his work and he should be read as a contributor to their project. His metaphysics needs to be explored now. One could build on certain of his insights, especially in certain difficult theological matters including those that have an eschatological dimension and build neo-orthodox theology that could be quite rewarding and influential for modern audience.
      Since he didn’t have access to much of last few centuries of works on world religions and comparative theology and mysticism in Western languages, he upheld rather exclusivist views on certain issues that we can’t sustain now. Not that his analysis is to be faulted but limited access to the data to be analyzed.
      A careful selection of works from such stalwarts as Imamadullah Muhajir Makki, Allama Kashmiri, Maulana Thanvi (who greatly admired Allama Kashmiri) Manazir Ahsan Gilani (author of a classic Ad-Dee-ul-Qayyim and translator of Asfar-i-Arbaea) and one of his disciples and co-translator of his Answer to Modernism, Hasan Askari on theological, spiritual and metaphysical questions would contribute to the task of guiding the perplexed modern Muslim in his admittedly difficult task of engaging with modernity while preserving his commitment to the Tradition of which Islam is the latest historical expression. Regarding the many questions of fiqh, I think Iqbal, Fazlur Rahman, Abdullahi Naimi, Soroush and others will have to be engaged with before proposing to appropriate Maulana Thanvi and Shah Saheb too uncritically. He was quite open to revisiting certain old rulings from his predecessors that are still taboo for some. For instance, he held that women can travel without Muharam for Hajj if security is ensured as is in modern times quite adequately, generally speaking. He also held that modern philosophy and science are closer to Islam than ancient Greek counterparts. And he pointed out that all prophetic traditions are derived from the Quran. Building on last two points one could resolve much of mistrust of much of modern scholarship on comparative philosophy and hadees studies.
      Where can we find such towering scholars now who could discuss Bukhari, Ibn Rushd, Sadra, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Arabi,Hafiz, Ghazzali, Shah Waliullah with authority, respect and critical distance and who reminded us of our great Masters who were simultaneously poets, sages, scholars of traditions, knew a host of traditional and modern sciences besides displaying exemplary moral and spiritual credentials?
      Allma Anwar Shah (Allama is now a day s applied to street scholars – Ilm being taken from inferior minds is according to a hadees, a symptom of approaching Doomsday)  had second thoughts regarding his life work spent in defending fiqh of a certain kind – his enormous resources could perhaps have been better spent in developing Muslim philosophy, especially Sadrean and Iqbalian streaks, with both of which he shared much. Had he not forgotten English language and had he an opportunity to spend some time in leading Western universities interacting with such contemporary  great modern philosophers as Heidegger and modern theologians like Barth and Tillich and Maritain and great scientist-philosophers like Whitehead, he would, quite probably, have given us something for which the whole world would have been indebted. He somehow didn’t find time or environment to develop his great insights to help reorient fiqh for meeting many contemporary challenges. His most original or best is contained in brief notes or remarks or scattered in certain passages in his great lectures. To get a feel of who is Imam Kashmiri and appreciate one’s woeful ignorance of depths and heights of Islamic intellectual Tradition a general reader may  approach Nawadrati Imam Kashmiri  and some  lectures from his commentary on Bukhari Anwarul Bari and let us hope we build on scattered insights therein to build resources for addressing modern confused and disoriented age.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Why not Consider Inferior Minds?

Whom one reads indicates what one is.

We are born with a love for perfection and it is against human dignity to settle for mediocrity and not to pursue the best – the most beautiful. Ihsan – doing everything in a style – is the universally acknowledged human prerogative. Let us ask today how we apply this  in approaching religion and literature. Thanks to modern education there are now many people who want to understand and create the best to satisfy their intellectual and creative yearnings but few are ready to pass through the ordeal of mastering the required sciences. This doesn’t necessarily mean  formal learning but requires what the Quran calls tafakkur – thinking. And what is called thinking? It is philosophers like Ibn Sina and Heidegger who are needed to explain it. The Quran's charge against most humans is they don’t think. Do we care to know what is called thinking? Who can claim access to required disciplining of attention?
      Whom one reads determines or indicates what one is. In traditional cultures it is divine teachers or prophets and those who continue their Book/Knowledge centric, tazkiyyah centric and hikmah centric legacy – in more popular parlance ulama-i- haqq /sages – that constitute the best guides. In Islamic tradition the best teachers of the Book of Wisdom (Quran-i-Hakeem) are to be sought if one doesn’t want to stoop low and get infection from inferior minds. There are few colossal intellects in every tradition which constitute the nerve centre of respective traditions. Not that they are infallible but they are rooted in Tradition and creatively add to it in meeting newer challenges. These figures are key to the tajdeed  project that has divine approval in Islamic tradition. Major figures in Islamic intellectual tradition are distinguished by their comprehensive review of existing state of art affairs, ability to invoke the First Principles, keen insight on zeitgeist of their age and great moral-spiritual credentials. They are ultimately valued not in themselves but in leading us or connecting us to the Fountainhead of ilm/gnosis. Popular writers/preachers may often suffer from certain ideological prejudices and don’t command requisite qualifications to make accessible the best of the legacy of Elders. It is sin against intelligence to debate and regurgitate what is cheaply or popularly available. Likes of Ibn Sina, Mulla Sadra, Anwar Shah, Heidegger, Whitehead are not/can’t be popular. The challenge of climbing Everest attracts few. It has been remarked that in a century there are one or two geniuses and the rest have only talent. The task is to catch hold these exceptional minds whom God has chosen to safeguard and disseminate the Tradition. The Tradition has been defined as what connects one to Revelation.
      Let us probe psychological and other factors that contribute to our horror of the truly sublime or the best and temptation to mediocrity. Upton Sinclair, himself a writer of considerable prowess, wrote: “It’s hard to make a man understand something when his job depends on him not understanding it.” Victor Hugo, one of the greatest French writers, explains another reason for the rule of mediocrity: “There is a sacred horror about everything grand. It is easy to admire mediocrity and hills; but whatever is too lofty, a genius as well as a mountain, an assembly as well as a masterpiece, seen too near, is appalling.”
      Learning the art of fana fil ilm allows us to receive. The test of how far one is straying from the best is how self effacing one is in presence of the Masters. For Traditional cultures including the Islamic one the Truth has been said and well said and all that is required is to unearth it, recall it and express it in the idiom of the times one lives in or in language people can understand. That is what Mujadids do.
      Great artists are people “who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike,” as Margot Fonteyn has noted. It is life’s task to overcome ego’s trap of pretension and it requires humility to learn and say, with the Masters, that God is the only Guide or they have let the Muse write through them. Our task is to give our best in learning to receive. Lonergen, a great theologian/philosopher has noted: “To learn thoroughly is a vast undertaking that calls for relentless perseverance. To strike out on a new line and become more than a week-end celebrity calls for years in which one's living is more or less constantly absorbed in the effort to understand.
      Another reason that the best or classics are not heeded is perception of difficulty. Whitehead, one of the greatest figures in the twentieth century science and philosophy,  has rightly pointed out “Whenever a text-book is written of real educational worth, you may be quite certain that some reviewer will say that it will be difficult to teach from it. Of course it will be difficult to teach from it. If it were easy, the book ought to be burned.” And “...the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity to be found on the far side of complexity.” Marcel Proust, another giant of world literature, has noted: “To allow only the kind of art that the average man understands is the worst small-mindedness and the murder of mind and spirit. It is my conviction that the intellect can be certain that in doing what most disconcerts the crowd, in pursuing the most daring, unconventional advances and explorations, it will in some highly indirect fashion serve man - and in the long run, all men.” Goethe says in his letters:"When one thinks differently from great minds, it generally is a sign of a small mind...." Voltaire was not able to do any harm to Shakspere: no smaller spirit will vanquish a greater. Of great men no one should speak but one who is as great as they, so as to be able to see all round them. A small man. if he stands too near, sees single portions well, but nothing of the whole, and if he will survey the whole must stand too far off, where his eyes do not reach to details.”
      Today the most important writers of traditional authorities are, generally speaking, not easy reads. Who can claim that the Scriptures are easy reads for all and sundry? Mushkilatul Quran constitutes a great subject where our best minds keep struggling. The Quran has layers and layers of meaning that are inexhaustible and one must say after trying one’s best to approach it, God knows best. Similarly Hadees study demands the best minds and one can see in the pages of Ibn Hajr and Anwar Shah Kashmiri, for instance, how comprehensive must be one’s understanding to authoritatively explicate the sayings of the one whose objective was to teach hikmah.  Logic and its connection to First Principles demand exceptional skills to master. A really sound scholar trained in Madrassah must have an aptitude for hikmah and mantiq and it is rare to find due attention given to them.
      If one has to choose between a Master who has great intellectual and one who has great spiritual prowess select the first, explicitly recommends a sage. Islamic tradition has also greatly emphasized dangers of half knowledgeable and thus of those who aren’t intellectually that much gifted as Satan can trap them easily.
      Islamic tradition has emphasized intelligence so much so that one’s otherworldly prospects are linked to its use. Over every aalim is another aalim, says the Quran implying greater the scholar, lesser the pretension and self bragging. The best don’t seek to be popular though they would try to avoid needless obscurity. Read any great sage/poet/philosopher/commentator and you find an elevated style that isn’t the cup of all and sundry. They don’t compromise with language as they know the adab of God who taught bayan and expressed Himself through a language. Grammatical errors are normally unimaginable in their case.
      For the best minds “A clash of doctrine is not a disaster, it is an opportunity.” They aren’t slaves of rationalistic dialectical framework that can’t transcend apparent contradictions. One can dissolve problems created by this dialectical method of exoteric theologians by asking for need to open eyes, getting better informed about history and about basic terms used by Masters in very specific or technical sense.

A writer’s or critic’s role isn’t to express himself or invite people to his own private realm of truth but, by being open to the Muse or mirror of the Real, to connect the reader to the Teachers/Masters. Ultimately God is the only Teacher. Prophets and saints embody the Logos and our act of understanding is a participation in that Logos. At the deepest level you see the pure light (Noor) that is God and not the divergent colours. Traditions can’t enter into a proper dialogue at rational theological or human plane but at intellectual transcendent divine plane where it is God who sees and not man with his limiting egoity.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

God’s Invitation for Hajj

All the important stations of spiritual path, of which Sufis are said to be specialists, are necessarily to be tasted by a pilgrim.

All distinctions between humans (such as believers and nonbelievers, kings and paupers) dissolve in certain moments such as making love/celebrating relationships, encountering silence and death, being moved to tears and smiles and getting transported by great art, sublime sights and sacred spaces. Similarly, the distinction between Sufis and non-Sufis, khosh-aetiqad and badd-aeiqad, secular and traditional Muslims seems to dissolve when they are hosted by the Friend during Hajj. A pilgrim is a pilgrim – alone with the Alone. Here it is the alchemy of love at work. And one sees a sea of people hurled here and there who have at least temporarily divorced their egos, embraced the desert of abyss – their poverty – and felt something of That which makes one dumb and one knows no language except that of tears. In exchange for water from Zamzam, pilgrims dig a Zamzam of tears and that heals and saves them. As long as these tears will be shed, we must believe faith is still alive. Sinners and saints, so-called secular Muslims or so-called badaetiqaed Muslims, all are in tears.
      All the important stations of spiritual path including Tawba, Wara', Zuhd, Faqr, Ṣabr, Tawakkul, and Riḍā, of which Sufis are said to be specialists, are necessarily to be tasted by a pilgrim – they constitute God’s offer/ choicest dishes to his guests in special five days of Zilhajj. A pilgrim is required to journey within to the sanctum sanctorum (heart) – and a thorough knowledge of symbolism of rites and sites in hajj is important here. Pilgrimage is a marriage that is to be consummated in new birth. Few are born anew – few pilgrimages are accepted by God. For those chosen few the ego’s business is over and they willn’t keep account of kith and kin who did or didn’t come to congratulate them. They can’t look down upon anyone and they will never like to claim they are Hajis. Hajj is an opportunity to face one’s own nothingness and have a glimpse of the vast desert or abyss of Divine Nothingness that is our real being or home. Many are called and few are chosen to be consumed in Hajj. To be a Haji is to have consented to be nothing. It is then one gets Divine robes and those who are draped in them aren’t recognizable as grown up humans. They have unlearnt many games growing up people play (involving dualism of  mine and thine) and become children again. One can’t be hurt as the ego that is hurt by slang, by ingratitude, by disrespect, is gone. One gains one’s childhood which is heaven.
      There is a hajj one never finishes performing or one ever seeks to recreate and keeps recreating in imagination. Some keep visiting the sacred cities in secret ways by adopting astral travel and some by the power of prayer. Mecca and Medina constitute maternal home for all Muslims and no wonder they ever aspire to be there, time and again.
      There is a great scene in a great work of art on Yusuf Payamber (Iranian Television series directed by Salahshoor) when Hazrat Yusuf (AS) meets his father. The father is unable to move, tries and stumbles, falls again and again and almost loses consciousness as Yusuf comes nearer. Every Haji worth the name feels something similar on approaching twin cities in search of Yusuf (Soul) they have long parted with or apparently lost.
      A helpful review of important Hajj travelogues from a more literary than theological viewpoint by Anwar Sadeed may be helpful to choose for oneself which one to read. Two books may at least be read and after returning one needs to bear witness to their content and that is a reliable sign that Hajj has been accepted. First for an idea of what spiritual/mystical heights are accessible, at least partly for lesser mortals like us/how sages perform hajj, read Fuyuz-ul-Harmaen by Shah Waliullah. Then for more accessible existential, sociopolitical and other meanings one might participate in, read Ali Shariati’s Hajj. Until one visits there and to counter apprehensions of hardships some verses from Iqbal’s imaginary journey  to Mecca and Medina may be read. I quote a few:

 At morn I told the camel to take it easy,
For the rider is old and sick;
But it goes on merrily as if,
The sand under its hooves is silk.
Let the traveller's suffering be more delightful,
And his lamentation even more frenzied;
Take a longer route thou camel-driver,
And make the fire of separation burn stronger.

      One recalls Maulana Ali Mian’s impassioned explication of it. “The sand under his feet appears to him to be softer than silk; every particle of it seems to have turned into a heart, beating, throbbing and pulsating. To the camel-driver he tells to be mindful of these tiny hearts and move slowly.” “Iqbal rejoices in the hardships of the journey, and exhaustion and loss of sleep are a source of comfort to him.”
      Blessed are those who have gone for hajj there but perhaps not less blessed are those who are eagerly waiting and their fire of separation is burning bright.
      We have hundreds of Hajj travelogues. Few pass to the next generation. It is difficult to write one that will be enjoyed as literature by diverse readership. Kashmiri writers have largely ignored this subgenre. I recently came across one travelogue Yaeti Noori-sier Arz-o-Sama (Here the Illumined Earth and Heaven) by Abdul Ahad Hajini. The book has a few pages/passages that airlift us high above the mountains. One may be quoted: “Yepaer nazr paewaan t’aepaer noori nor grayi maraan yimo wato pakan mai to mohabbet chaendyi karan qadm qadm pakan ti mynzil baydi naeran. Hen hen ti eng eng talbeeh waeran. Talbeeh hound graze man’i sodres graek khaelith chaeti mar naavan.” What distinguishes this travelogue is combination of theological, juristic and poetic approaches that make a delightful read, at least in parts. A writer or poet does Hajj in a more poetic way. Compared to dry juristic manuals, this one would seep deeper. However one feels many details could have been omitted and at times third person narration should have been adopted. One recalls significance of a sentence from Zinsser’s  On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction: “As a writer you must keep a tight rein on your subjective self—the traveler touched by new sights and sounds and smells—and keep an objective eye on the reader.” Nothing of significance for a Haji seems to have been missed. One misses, however, scholarly and insightful observations about  this or that aspect of land and people, market and politics and other aspects of life that we find in many influential travelogues. It seems that the author has restricted himself to description of a seeker, a zayir and he has succeeded in this. The ending is rather prosaic and it is in the opening pages especially that we find elevated, intensely passionate and poetic language that behooves the lofty subject.  Hajini has a rich Kashmiri vocabulary (almost untranslatable for most modern educated Kashmiris) at his command and that contributes to the usefulness of his essays including neglected but in many respects valuable work on lesser known and waning cultural heritage and his timely contribution to Hasan studies.
      I wish every Haji should attempt writing at least a page about the soul shattering encounter and every year Hajj committee along with Academy of Art, Culture and Language publish a selections from such accounts. A few excerpts from better known travelogues:

  • “You keep your belief, but it is the question of my life. Allow me to cure my heart-burn by kissing it” (On being prevented to kiss the lattice surrounding Roza-i-Rasool  by the guard on duty. (Quoted in Saelani’s travelogue) 
  • “That circumambulation was Abrahmic Sunna and my first dance of freedom.” (Abul Khair Kashfi, Watan sae Watan tek.)
  • “Only two things are now Arab in Jeddah- language and azan. On the rest is an imprint of Europe.”
  • “Every nook and corner of Mecca is historical, but what isn’t preserved is history itself.” (From Shab Jayae ki Men Boodem by Shoorish Kashmiri),
      Approaching the resting place of the Prophet(SAWW) is like an encounter with death that humbles us, strips us bare of all pretensions of holiness and one knows what a mess we have made our life and how unworthy we are to for the audience being granted. One trembles even from a distance. And then one doesn’t move of one’s own accord. One is moved.  A few lines, by way of conclusion, from Ayaz Nazki’s  poem composed after one such experience:
 “Teth rozes paeth
kith ken woatus
kith ken beuthus
qadmen menz
wuni chum basan
zen oas khawb.”

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Does God Mind?

What is often missing in Sermons and Fatwas on Sins?

We often assume God is worried or concerned about our sins and we have a long list of them. And the funny – and tragic – part is that we keep thinking more about what God doesn’t mind. God does mind certain things that we mostly don’t mind. Let us ask if God minds about all or some percentage of around a million questions asked to jurists on daily basis by Muslims – one can find them on sites on Islam or fiqh manuals. Let us also ask that even if God minds are we advised to mind what He minds in others’ lives.  Some think God is worried about our dressing room routine – burqas/hijabs/length of shalwars/hair style. Some want to help God in managing certain issues they think He takes cognizance of and these include such things as women employment, personal aesthetic in grooming, music, festivals/birthdays/anniversaries celebrated in traditional or folk style, all kinds of “idolatrous” or “pagan” beliefs and practices, myths and tales and what not. So let us investigate if God cares/not cares and pray “Teach us to care/and not to care.”
      The issue may be rephrased as: What is it that obstructs our falah(felicity) here and hereafter and especially hereafter as that is invoked here by those who think either way. The test that one is required to pass is, in Islamic terms, holding fast to Ad-Deen – Deen-ul-Qayyim.
      Now what actions obstruct our road to felicity? Primarily, major sins, according to the Islamic tradition. Now who isn’t guilty of major sins if their number is stretched to hundreds as some jurists have listed them or thousands if we go by listing all the influential fatwas? However, we need to note wide divergence amongst jurists on this issue and can consider the view defended by major figures that restricts (or classifies/derives from) them to seven or even lesser number (longer list is deductively – and at times problematically – derived from them). However, let us focus on those sins amongst them that we are often charged with or we charge our fellow believers with.
      We note that there is no debate on those sins as they are considered, universally across traditions, grave moral failures. What are mostly debated in juristic manuals and cause most of anxiety and guilt are not moral failures but perceived deviations from some arbitrarily set standard or norm that God doesn’t seem to be interested in to warrant deep anguish regarding their fulfillment.
      It is often forgotten by legists who make certain legal opinions  as if a matter of life and death and resent picking and choosing the most convenient opinion from across schools in a given case, that hell only punishes gross violation of moral law and that moral law is essentially shared by Semitic religions ( and, in their own ways, by non-Semitic ones as well) and arguably, to a remarkable extent, by secular circles as well (as far as its tenets affect this worldly social equilibrium). A review of eschatological corpus of Islam reveals mostly silence on the issues – or God’s non-interest – that are vehemently advocated by legists and one wonders whom to make responsible for unnecessary guilt, hardship and mostly unpopular moral policing by the State. Issues that divide Muslim legal schools or “modernists” and “traditionalists” mostly make little or no difference to one’s otherworldly prospects and as such should have been less rigidly taken or the other position more empathized with by either camp.
      Much of the legal corpus sustains varied orthodox readings and there is “dissent between the various schools on almost all questions of law” implying certain neutrality/wide latitude in terms of otherworldly implications. Since the widely agreed list of actions (major sins) that need to be publicly cognized/punished by the State and/or have primarily otherworldly costs are very few (and mostly recognized as crimes by secular laws elsewhere as well), we should be able to settle most of significant controversies between Islamists and their critics or reformists. Gender justice, for instance, could be squarely faced from this felicity centric perspective as divergent interpretations upheld by more liberal or “feminist” camp don’t entail otherworldly danger.
      Middle Path to which both philosopher-sages (Aristotle, Nagarjuna and Confucius) and the scripture of Islam invite, means, in its deeper understanding as can be had from classics of ethical philosophy and metaphysics, steering clear of any position that has tendency to become absolutist. Sermons and fatwas often fall prey to absolutism, absolutizing legal opinions which are human interpretations or fallible attempts to capture the Divine Norm. Prayer that is ultimately demanded or saves is not 5 times ritual prayer but the prayer that defines the essence of religio-mystical consciousness, is established (“aqeemus-salat”) rather than recited/read/performed in certain mechanical routine manner, makes one participate in mi’raj, is offered in any circumstances (sitting, standing, driving, in the state of war or in disease or stress) with or without routine formal features, is ultimately geared to maintaining attention or awareness of breath /the present moment – and this is perpetual obligation (farzi-dayim) on every human being. (It doesn’t mean ritual prayer isn’t a sanctified means to achieve the end but that its form is relative and its unchangeable kernel and end – zikr – needs to be guarded) For missing ritual fasting no otherworldly punishment is indicated in the tradition. But let us not forget attachment to stomach, to lusts is a major sin. Modesty as an expression of human dignity and negation of pride/indulgence can’t be unconnected to Felicity and thus emphasized. And modesty will be understood by different cultures differently. Even the same person appropriates the ideal of modesty differently based on climate and conditions. The same applies to sama/music debate. The harmonious use of sounds  leading to God-consciousness/Felicity is good. Such issues as legitimacy of certain arts, role of philosophy, Sufism, jobs in corporate sector including banking, length of shalwar etc. can be resolved in the cool and clear understanding of what constitutes the Divine Measure/Limit  and its link to Felicity.
      After we have learnt to care and not to care, we find a still point that is God that finally dissolves our question or worry. So it boils down to finding/tasting God rather than worrying about Him. We need to worry how far we are from the still point of our existence, the serenity of the witnessing self that watches the play rather than judges it, the verdant freshness, freedom and innocence of Spirit that is incorruptible by sin. The highway to this destination is littered by small cares that really matter – having contempt for no person as person (judging their ideologies is another matter), treating the other as if He/she is God in disguise, not inventing excuses to refuse helping the other (even in such “trivial” matters as offering lift), not thinking of oneself as better than anyone we ever meet, ever keeping smiling, not taking affairs of life too seriously but rather playfully, joking or laughing our way through this sorrowful odyssey that life is, doing everything in a style caring for beauty at every level, finding joy or something to be grateful for in every little thing/event, doing anything we like provided we have love in our hearts as motivation (Augustine) and don’t hurt anyone (Hafiz) and don’t forget what ultimately determines our end: right use of intelligence in practical sphere (we call it ethics), in cognitive sphere (we call it wisdom). In simpler terms we can say that all life’s blessings here and hereafter have been linked to right understanding and that in turn in linked to our openness to love.  Whenever one is in doubt regarding certain issue consider the golden test of asking conscience that the Prophet (SAW) suggested besides what Augustine formulated in his seminal work De Doctrina Christiana: validity of any interpretation rests on its furtherance of love of God and love of neighbour which are the first two commandments. Let us keep asking religious scholars of highest eminence only (who know tradition intimately including maqasid and can interpret received wisdom in contemporary postmodern idiom) and then let us not ignore the clarification of many related issues in the works of sages/hukama. And then one tastes something of inexhaustible Divine Mercy and sees how indeed religion is not hard to practise but a joy that has been revealed according to our request, so to speak. With every morsel one enjoys saying alhamdullilah, sweet angels wake one up gently at Tahajjud, nimaz is a mi’raj and sin is not attractive but hateful and sin, not sinners are judged negatively.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Kashmir in search of itself

Is Kashmir University coming of age?

Amidst almost all the bad news about Kashmir from September 2014 till date, we have now one good news that should be celebrated by every Kashmiri. It is opening up of Philosophy, Anthropology and Archeology departments in Kashmir University, thanks to the efforts of Vice Chancellor, Dean Academics (who has especially been keen to see Philosophy department and thus has earned, as his innings is ending, life time achievement award in the eyes of posterity), Academic Council and the State. This is an effort towards Kashmir’s self discovery. There have been reasons to deplore academic environment of Kashmir University due to absence of watchdog called critical reason that Philosophy institutionalizes forcing more bright students to contemplate choosing other universities outside the State and now, one important disqualification, has been overcome. Humanities have especially been in bad shape due to exile of the Queen called Philosophy. One can now hope for KU Renaissance. How important some department/institution can be may be known by recalling epochal contribution of  Aristotle’s Academy and of Bayt-al-Hikmah in the history of Western and Islamic civilizations. How long have great souls of Kashmir who engineered small but significant change in the course of intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual history of mankind by development of philosophical schools in Kashmir been turning in their graves to see their flame being lit elsewhere but not in their own land. Now the spirit that breathed fire in Reshis/Sufis has been kindled again. Now we can understand symbolism of names of main gates in KU. Sir Syed is critical reason, Rumi illumined reason.
      What a misfortune it has been that one couldn’t meet good scholars of the most important minds of human intellectual history – who mostly happen to be philosopher-mystics – (from Plato to Nagarjuna to Sankara to Abhinavgupta to Ibn Sina to Aquinas to Lao Tzu) in a land that defines itself as Shardapaeth/Pir-Waer/land of Saraswati. Isn’t it scandalous that Kashmiris including its university professors have been denied access to the best that is produced in the modern intellectual world in a number of disciplines due to non-availability of intellectual and human spaces that philosophy nurtures? Now, we have reasons to believe, we might be able to script our own history. Now I see no reason why KU can’t realize the aim of being amongst the best in the subcontinent in few years and truly come of age. Philosophy requires and fosters excellence on both moral and intellectual planes. Being a professor in love of wisdom is the highest station available to man and visiting a university full of such professors is like visiting a great shrine populated by a host of abdals and qutbs. We owe almost all great things in the modern world to the faculty of critical reason that philosophers from Descartes to Bacon to Kant to Hume to Leibnitz to Spinoza to Wittgenstein to Whitehead to Popper helped to fructify.
      Those who don’t think can’t be called human and those who don’t know/live something of philosophy which is the art of thinking can’t be said to be properly human (one recalls Mehjoor “yem shakli mat mendchaywtem, zaen hond mes chawtem”). We are all born philosophers and display it by our love of knowing about the world, curiosity, wonder, questioning and it is schools or life’s other sorrows that make us unlearn it. Religions are there to invite us to use our intelligence in the proper manner, least influenced by passions/egoic constructions. Art lives or does philosophy be abolishing the distance between knowing and being. The syllabus of philosophy is life in all its hues – its depths and heights, smiles and tears, hopes and dreams, grandeur and misery, sin and redemption. We have no choice but to engage with philosophy though not necessarily in its very technical or formal sense but as love of wisdom. Wisdom needs no formal schooling. We are born to love it. Since with or without proper orientation to philosophy, we are condemned to build or invoke some form of philosophizing in routine life.  It has been well said that the choice is not to take or leave philosophy but choose between good and bad philosophy. One can’t say “I have no philosophy” as that is itself a (bad?) philosophy. An unexamined life isn’t worth living, said Socrates. The first question that will be asked on the Judgment Day concerns what we did with our lives. And if we have only lived life mechanically, or just vegetated, bred, ate and slept and never cared to examine life, we are lost. The tragedy is that so far without due attention to philosophy in our academic institutions and schools at every level, we have, generally speaking, failed in the primary task of life. Now great writers apply philosophy in their works and if one reads great novels or poetry, the task is done. Every craftsman in love with one’s craft to an extent that it gives meaning to his life has been heeding the call  to wisdom. Philosophy seeks to transform us and gives us new eyes, expands our breast/heart and opens it up to the life giving Mystery/ Other/love/beauty/joy/wonder that give meaning to our lives. Knowledge is virtue, said Socrates and if we have been cultivating virtues we have been true to our love for wisdom which is  philosophy. Philosophy paves way or helps in the mission of the Prophet who called us to wisdom (hikmah) and tazkiya so that we achieve ihsan – life of perfection or beauty. Traditional Philosophers/sages/artists all are allies in the Prophetic mission. Scripture yields its deepest treasures only when critical reason functions and intellect is actualized and here the authorities are philosophers/mystics/sages. To be a good human being, a good Muslim, a good scientist one needs philosophy in some sense. It is to the singular credit of philosophers that faith has been salvaged from challenges from different quarters. One recalls five sages from five traditions – Nagarjuna, Sankara, Aquinas, Ghazzali and Maimonides. For the Greeks it is sages like Phythagoras, Socrates and Plato that have stood for the light of wisdom borrowed from the niche of prophecy. And in the fog of the modern world it is the “modern sages” like Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Jaspers, Whitehead and Levinas who bear, in their own ways, dimly though, witness to the truth and wisdom that Prophets stood for.
      Another discipline that has been missing in our universities is the discipline that studies man qua man– other disciplines study things around man or parts of man. The question “Who is a Kashmiri?” is first of all an anthropological question that hasn’t been truly researched. The problem of Kashmiri character is also best approached in anthropological terms. Anthropology may better explain leadership failure/betrayal in Kashmir. It is anthropology that can better analyze our love for good food, hospitality, cracking jokes, calling names, suspecting almost everything, love of more contemplative or jnanic pursuits and more or less mystical orientation and thus resistance to violent fundamentalism and shallow legalism. Without reading the likes of Frazer and Levi Strauss we can’t make sense of Kashmir’s myths and folklore. Anthropology will help explain, among many other things, Kashmir’s “lax” religiosity, appropriation of the realm of unreason (embodied in “mad,” majzoob, chars-i-moyt etc.), half understood local narratives and the distrust of politics and especially the politics of exclusion. So far we have been mostly only speculating regarding such issues. Now we will have proper science.

Facing the key challenge of modernity is impossible without knowing anthropology across cultures. Anthropologcal approach to religion and culture can’t be ignored in any comprehensive study of them.
      All nations and cultures search for their roots and it is archeology that is considered an important tool in this connection. Destinies of nations are linked and criss-cross historically. Without a professional appreciation of Kashmir’s stone age legacy and later periods and serious attempt to unearth dozens of secrets that only archeology can unravel, our understanding of Kashmir and Kashmiri mind and especially its sacred geography will be limited.
      Squeezed space for philosophy is linked with various problems in our part of the world. Drug culture, corruption, betrayal of one’s party/parents/friends, gluttony, laziness, lack of work culture, obsession with big houses and lavish parties, family feuds, domestic violence, oppression of women, sectarianism, fundamentalism, promotion of mediocrity, largely irrelevant ritualistic seminar culture, stinking paper manufacturing industry, lobbying for leg pulling of colleagues – all are fundamentally problems of ignorance or spiritual myopia or intelligence being denied its proper role.

Every university teacher must take some course in philosophy or at least take a look at introductory works in philosophy. If nothing, certain selections from philosophers – one might begin with googling “goodreads” – are required if one doesn’t want to die an ignoramus despite one’s specialized knowledge which is knowing more and more about less and less and missing life in the very process. No discipline in arts and social sciences or humanities can be mastered without familiarity with philosophy. Philosophy gives depth and breadth besides inspiring love for the subject one studies. One shouldn’t offer funeral prayers of a teacher who didn’t care about philosophy as he has been guilty of a suicide (of mind/heart). On the gates of all academic institutions should be written: No entry without love of wisdom. It is life’s task to perfect this love of wisdom – and it doesn’t come to the proud, complacent and lazy people – but its fruit is the love of subject, of students, of learning and teaching, of every life form, of the cosmos, of the Real and consequent serenity of spirit that is a gift from Heaven.

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.