Thursday, 23 February 2017

Poetry as an act of resistance

Recalling Pablo Neruda and Mehmoud Darwish in Khayal’s Kashmir
When all appears dark in Kashmir and you have nowhere to look to for light and one stares at immense futility and tragic waste, what remains there to goad us on, to keep hoping and dreaming? It is faith for some but poetry for all including those who don’t know how to pray. Today we ask Mehmoud Darwish and Pablo Neruda about this sacred and prophetic mission of poets and then read few verses from our own G. N. Khayal’s new book of resistance poetry Shabnum Ka Aatesh Qada.
      Poets are those saintly alchemists who transmute our saddest thoughts and pains into songs that console, uplift and illuminate. As Neruda says,“give me all the pain of everyone, I'm going to turn it into hope.” Powerless against the sting of death as we earthly creatures are, what do we do when even life seems to sting and one envies dead in their graves? Neruda answers that “at least love should save us from life.”  We know that poetry is the revelation from the God of Love. The poet’s rather secular version of  scriptural statement that man is created for worshipping God is expressed by Neruda: “I just want to never stop loving like there is nothing else to do, because what else is there to do?”  The poetry’s way to fight barbarity is, in Darwish’s words,“by confirming its attachment to human fragility like a blade of grass growing on a wall while armies march by.” And in fact, every beautiful poem itself  constitutes “an act of resistance,” and a brick for the Home for those rendered homeless. Against the world marred by violence and war, the poet constructs an invincible fortress of words “that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace ... with life.” Peep into the hearts of violent people, criminals and war mongers and you will find battered hearts who have failed to make peace with life – its weal and woe and its wild jokes.
      In a scenario where our more important poets have chosen silence or highly veiled mode of writing for understandable reasons, researcher, translator, journalist, author of some highly useful works including the first one of its kind from Kashmir Gashik Minar that introduces major writers of the Western world, G. N. Khayal is one of the very few wide ranging, multilingual  and highly  informed poets who has now come up with his slim volume of what is mostly resistance poetry. Khayal has lived through, as a witness and even participant, of post-1947 Kashmir’s intellectual and literary history.
      We encounter a different Khayal in this volume – one who is best described as a rebel and who sings of a way of redemption by martyrdom, whose heroes are not mainstream leaders but counter-stream resistance leaders. At times the poet in him disappears and is replaced by an ideologue.
      This slim volume though impressive only in patches (one finds rather direct, less imaginative, didactic, clichéd and too explicitly ideological content in many poems) is a significant news for Kashmiris whose political tragedy hasn’t found due representation in great imaginative representation in poetry. Although we have poets of diverse hues from Mushtaq Kashmiri to Agha Shahid attempting to transmute Kashmir’s pain into poetry and we do find occasional expression in almost all better known poets from Rahi to our very  promising young poets, it remains a fact that Kashmir has no Faiz or Mehmoud Darwish. Khayal’s work seeks to atone for this silence or neglect. While it does give us some remarkable pieces but one feels the best will be forthcoming in future from his pen and it will inspire other poets to speak. Poetry mayn’t change the world but it does change the poet as Darwish has noted and it indeed is the case in Khayal. We have now a Khayal who seems to have found new youth or rebirth. He surprises us, almost shocks at times, with his new found celebration of resilience, hope and passion. With poets around, Kashmir needn’t despair. Leaders need to read them in order to understand  the role of memory and desire and the imperative to be authentically oneself. However, poets aren’t political leaders but messengers and singers of people’s dreams and hopes; they can’t be taken at face value. Transposing what Mehmood Darwish said about Palestine, we can say that the metaphor of Kashmir has more reality than the reality of Kashmir. Poets’ metaphors shouldn’t be read in the manner political slogans are read. Khayal’s love is now Kashmir with all its beauty and tragedy and the project has epic dimensions – to redeem the bride or Sita called Kashmir from the horde of Ravans who are difficult to identify or isolate. Our resistance and mainstream leaders who seem now to be short of ideas might profit  by taking note of poets who sing of those things that our politician ordinarily or often ignore. It is poets who are in the most intimate touch with people at ground level – they know their hearts and dreams and take note of their silent prayers. Poets are better guides as they are required to have escaped from identification with the projects of ego and ideally have no communal or ideological axes to grind.
      Dedicated to Maqbool Bhat and “Khon-i- Shaheeedan sae jo khilae un veeranu kae naam/Is Kashmir pae mitnae walae deewanu kae naam” and singing of what one could call the phases of innocence (pre-Mughal and also pre-1989 and of Kashmir’s beauty or unsullied love) and experience (post-Mughal, also especially post-1989)  but  not consistently succeeding in converting the later part into poetry, we have here  a  call to action and not resignation or lamentation only. “Bekasu ki qasm/Kah-o-khoon ki qasm/Is jinoo ki qasm/Ab to shadaan hoga yeh apna wattan/Khul uthae ga dobara yeh veeran chamen.”
      Especially two poems that Kashmir lovers and analysts would find interesting are “Jeng” and “Shaheed-i-Kashmir sae Khataab.”  The first one recalls Kashmir of 90s when wild enthusiasm of mad heart could sing without inhibitions and there was no disillusionment with violence as a mode of resistance and the second one is important because the beloved of the poet has changed signifying change of qibla of Kashmiris from Delhi to Srinagar. It is a tribute to Maqbool  Bhat though it was originally written in honour of Shaikh Abdullah but with whom the poet, after 1975 when he is perceived to have sold his people cheaply, is disillusioned.
      This slim volume has some poems that talk of love (such as “Tumharae Naam”) and Kashmir that can be read by everyone, of all ideological persuasions. Here the poet has succeeded best both in form and content and has given us some memorable verses that recall earlier Khayal who was intoxicated with Persian masters such as Khayam and Hafiz. But what should interest conflict torn Kashmiris more is the later part of the book. Here the poet asks the stars to light up the dark night with tears to light up the graves of martyrs and laments that we have somewhere lost sight and stumbled, got blind and concludes with a prayer asking for forgiveness and light.
      I conclude with reflections on what poets can offer to Kashmiris today. When time seems to be out of joint, how poetry helps or heals? By making whole, by uniting opposites, by noticing hidden harmony, by lifting us some distance above the earth so that souls don’t bleed even if bodies will continue to be part of the deadly bloody ritual. As Neruda said: “I intend to confuse things, to unite them, make them new-born intermingle them, undress them, until the light of the world has the unity of the ocean, a generous wholeness, a fragrance alive and crackling.” This light shines there even in the darkness of Tihar jail and curfewed nights. Who can snatch the company of the moon and the stars, memories of near and dear ones – Khayal eloquently sings of them – strange joy of suffering for truth, infinite lightness and healing silence of our being and company of the great poets whom we can summon any moment to help us build a heavenly mansion of our own in the sanctuary of our souls.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

A Letter to the Conscience of the State

Recalling Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter on J & K PSC

Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.
(Potter Stewart)

When I heard some have been accused and counter-accused of moral failure and failure of wits for both appearing and not appearing in the PSC exam on 6th Feb, I recalled Hawtthorne’s great novel The scarlet Letter’s heroine Hester Prynne, a young woman, who is found guilty of adultery and a crowd gathers to witness punishment. She is sentenced to wear a scarlet "A" ("A" standing for adulteress) on her dress to shame her. She refuses to lose her dignity on the scaffold. When demanded and cajoled to name the father of her child, Hester refuses. “Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.”  Here is brewing up a similar story that might grow into a tale of shame and despair for hundreds or thousands of innocent people and might ultimately shame the State institutions.
     If credibility of an institution is suspect in the eyes of large number of scientists including employed and unemployed vets and if it has deeper repercussions for the moral health of the State, I think we all need to give a hearing to the case. The State has so far refused to take cognizance of an issue that hasn’t perhaps been well presented to its caretakers. Today I seek to present a case in the court of conscience and my immediate addressees are four important personalities – Chief Minister, Finance Minister, Education Minister and Animal Husbandry  Minister – whose mandate is to guard the sacredness of key State institutions.
      The crisis I am referring to resembles a moral crisis that would arise if all the members of any political party jointly – through their elected bodies – decide  to boycott  (for good or bad reasons, that isn’t the issue) an election on some ground and then a few members betray and join the show at the last moment and win unelected. The boycott of PSC examination by vets resembles more a call for collective hunger strike till death that is supposed to fail if some members break off the strike. And the strange justice demands that those who resisted temptations to break the strike should be shot or allowed to die of hunger and those who breached the trust should rule the roost.
       If at the very beginning of entry, a scandalous thing has occurred – breach of trust, opportunism, unfair representation, playing over smart and letting the other go down the drain – doesn’t it make one’s case for an employment questionable? And doesn’t it, at least, call for investigation on moral grounds? The bodies of the unemployed vets decided to boycott the examination to protest against State apathy towards the livestock sector, conversion of veterinary colleges into unemployment mills, countless leaks in the delivery of vet care services for want of qualified vets etc. And some vets choose to betray the decision and they include a good chunk of those who won’t perhaps ordinarily qualify if normal competition were held. Only few of those who took exam were really unscrupulous as they took the lead and others  joined fearing there is now point when even one entered the examination hall.  If this account is correct and if there has not been vocal opposition to decision of boycott beforehand and betrayal was premeditated and not because of confusion at the last moment, this amounts to a serious moral lapse that recruiting agencies who are required to take note of character certificates must take into account. It isn’t the question of law but of ethics. If this is not considered, it means PSC is above ethics and we know ethics precedes law. Moral qualifications are not directly relevant for any job, so goes the logic of PSC. But employees must produce character certificate which isn’t/shouldn’t be, legally, merely a piece of paper that can ordinarily be got by anyone. What if there is a demonstrable breach of integrity of character and the recruiting agency takes no note? Legally it isn’t to be taken into account, so goes the rule book. But if there is such a thing as conscience from which law ultimately derives its foundation and States too must face the trial of it, the verdict is very clear. What happened on 6th Feb is disgraceful from the moral point of view. If ethics has a role, the whole incident must be investigated and till then the examination should stand – in fact it already stands so – stayed in the court of conscience of the state/PSC. In the battle between law and ethics, letter and spirit, if the former wins, people are doomed.
      If we cared more for character than smartness (read as opportunism)  we would reward those more meritorious vets who displayed an exemplary moral heroism by sacrificing their reasonable chance of securing their job and stand with those who out of desperation or frustration or genuine reformist mindset decided to boycott without going deep into the wisdom or repercussions of such a decision. Once I heard someone remark that if posts are advertised for jobs in hell, there would be many applications. Given such a scenario, how much courage must one have to live by principles or on one’s own terms?
      It isn’t that all those who didn’t boycott betrayed but a few who engineered the show. And it isn’t that all meritorious students have boycotted; some have taken the exam. So it isn’t the question of judging those who sat in examination, some of whom could perhaps face the tribunal of conscience. What is the issue is that nobody was happy and nobody is entirely sure of being guilt free both for sitting in the exam and boycotting it. A solution out of all this is revisiting the ethics part of the whole issue, talk to the candidates and seek a solution that is both ethically and legally sound. The status on date is that it is ethically a scandal that costs souls of those who sat in the exam and killing regret of those who boycotted. Let us not make our best hundreds of our professionals/scientists regret or curse the system or themselves for battling a desperation or ill-advised move.
      6th February may be celebrated as a black day by vets every year and stage protests against those who don’t consider ethical argument relevant for recruitment. This day will haunt all the vets who even if they deserved job throughout their lives. It will mark them a sort of "A" we find in the collar of Hawthorne’s heroine and that A in fact condemns the State and society more than the wearer. Out of extreme job insecurity or apprehension of crossing age bar, some candidates decide to say yes to the posts in hell, so to speak. They need to be sympathized with rather than condemned on moral grounds which we know are difficult to apply in certain situations. What everyone can unhesitatingly condemn is a system that creates army of unemployed scientists in the first place. Many unemployed vets are scientists with higher degrees from accredited institutions. And the State has no room for them! What for are you scientists?
      Most of those who appeared in exams have been judged “A” by themselves and fellow vets who didn’t and will be by the society afterwards. Who will take care of them, their souls or their dignity? Who will take care of the health of veterinary profession? How do we see veterinarian’s oath being openly flouted by vets? How does the State take care of the canker in its recruitment system that has no points for moral qualifications? It is a moral conflict and one can’t afford neutrality. How can CM and cabinet stand as mute spectator?
PostScript: The State’s greatest success story has been crossbreeding programme that radically transformed livestock sector and generated and sustains thousands of jobs till date for which the State should be eternally grateful to every field and farm worker. Dozens of costly animals are saved on daily basis and production of thousands greased daily thanks to vets/paravets. Boycott vetcare – A.I, vaccination, dosing, treatment of only few problems like mastitis, hypocalcaemia and dystokia – for a season and it will be a disaster for the farmers and a loss of many more crores than are spent on the salary bill of vets,(don’t forget that a significant fraction of this salary is eaten by taxes and pumped back into the system that makes economy grow instead of draining it). Livestock sector has been improved a lot thanks to Animal and Sheep Husbandry Departments and there are countless heroic tales that our planners should have known that made it possible. How difficult it has been to cross breed, fight diseases, maintain people’s faith in new developmental programmes is known to field vets and paravets, our legendary doctors and directors. The great miracle has been crafted by staggering feat of prostylization, night vigils, hard climbing of mountains, putting families of employees at risk.  Failure to acknowledge immense contribution of vets is not only a moral failure but a case of cognitive dissonance as well. Just check the State’s own planning documents and statistics of contributions from various departments and we see lion’s share of animal husbandry.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Insight and Blindness in Modern Science

Schuon offered a devastating criticism of modern priests of science such as Freud, Dawkins, Hawking on a very different plane.
Few are aware that the science that claimed to oust God, to explain everything in principle without reference to the First Principle/Absolute, to dissolve mystery and to usher in an age of universal happiness has been discredited not only by postmodern philosophers and certain developments at the edge of modern science itself but also by our great metaphysicians such as Coomaraswamy and Guenon who were also trained as scientists. Lyotard famously pointed out that modern science as a grand narrative (grand overarching explanatory paradigm) is no longer credible in our age. Feyerbend and others have reiterated the thesis that modern science has been dogmatic and power-inflected and thus can’t arbitrate or monopolize truth. However, criticizing science’s big ideological claims alone doesn’t suffice; what we need is arguing for an alternative epistemology and metaphysics that puts science in perspective, recognizes its boundaries and transcends religion-science quarrels in a manner that the best minds wouldn’t feel any need to betray either reason (mind, ratio) or heart/intellect. This task has been admirably performed by another great metaphysician Frithjof Schuon. He shows why we can’t buy the sermons (as distinguished from cogent philosophical arguments that one sees deployed in greater minds like Wittgenstein and Whitehead who span both science and religion) of great priests of modern science such as Freud, Dawkins, Hawking and others who would have us believe that we have no other light to guide us than modern science and seek to throw away religion and philosophy.
      On the metanarrative of modern science - its absolutistic, universalistic and imperialistic claims that
  • negate existence and knowledge claims of revelation and intuition,
  • pretend to provide the Theory of Everything,
  • seek to enclose all Existence in a set of mathematical formulae,
  • boost to discover the Mind of God, as Hawking in true Faustian spirit asserts, or to determine how much freedom God had in creating the world as Einstein, in Promethean spirit that characterizes modern project, would say.
      Schuon observes that the foundations of modem science are false because
  • it replaces Intellect (a supraindividual supramental faculty of which reason is a reflection at mental plane) and Revelation by reason and experiment,
  • lays claim to totality on an empirical basis,
  • replaces the universal Substance by matter alone,
  • denies transcendence.
      Modern science’s impotence in explaining many phenomena is attributed to its ignorance of higher modes of consciousness and objective reality:
      In view of the fact that modern science is unaware of the degrees of reality, it is consequently null and inoperative as regards everything that can be explained only by them, whether it be a case of magic or of spirituality or indeed of any belief or practice of any people; it is in particular incapable of accounting for human or other phenomena of the historic or prehistoric past, the nature of which and the key to which are totally unknown to it as a matter of principle.
      He declares that it is a most pernicious abuse of language to call modern scientists sages because they ignore everything that transcends the physical world and so everything that constitutes wisdom.
      There is certainly no reason to admire a science which counts insects and atoms but is ignorant of God; which makes an avowal of not knowing Him and yet claims omniscience by principle. It should be noted that the scientist, like every other rationalist, does not base himself on reason in itself; he calls “reason” his lack of imagination and knowledge, and his ignorance are for him the “data” of reason.
      He sarcastically remarks that “too many “believers” consider that it is time that religion  should shake off “the dust of the centuries”, which amounts its “liberation” from its very essence and from everything which manifests that essence.” Weinberg receives a fitting reply. To quote him:
  • One of the effects of modern science has been to give religion a mortal wound, by posing in concrete terms problems which only esoterism can resolve; but these problems remain unresolved, because esoterism is not listened to, and is listened to less now than ever. Faced by these new problems, religion is disarmed, and it borrows clumsily and gropingly the arguments of the enemy; it is thus compelled to falsify by imperceptible degrees its own perspective, and more and more to disavow itself.
  • ….There is close relationship between rationalism and modern science; the latter is at fault not in concerning itself solely with the finite, but in seeking to reduce the Infinite to the finite, and consequently in taking no account of Revelation, an attitude which is, strictly speaking, inhuman; our quarrel with modern science is that it is inhuman, or infra-human, and not that it is ignorant of the facts which it studies, even though through prejudice it ignores certain of their modalities... .And what is to be said of the pretentiousness which sets out to “discover” the ultimate causes of existence, or of the intellectual bankruptcy of those who seek to subject their philosophy to the results of scientific research? A science of the finite cannot legitimately occur outside a spiritual tradition, for intelligence is prior to its objects, and God is prior to man; an experiment which ignores the spiritual link characterizing man no longer has anything human about it; it is thus in the final analysis as contrary to our interests as it is to our nature; and “ye shall know them by their fruits.”
      He denies the claim that scientist has greater share of intelligence. He points out the singularities that scientistic rationalism encounters at deeper levels because of its crass ignorance of transcendence or the sacred, due to its a priori rejection of everything that transcends reason. Scientists like Weinberg assert that the more the universe becomes comprehensible the more it seems pointless. This statement is incomprehensible or simply absurd from the traditionalist perspective as it also reflects utter failure of scientific intelligence to know “one thing needful.” Meaning comes only from above, from transcendence and modern science’s attempt to find it at the level of sensory world or the world of Maya is doomed. Science encounters only darkness at the end as Stace and Russell have pointed out as it chooses to be blind to God, the Light of the World.
      Schuon points out that modern science does not know what man is, life is or Existence is. It knows nothing of the Origin and the End, of the Principles or Substance.
      Modern science, which is rationalist as to its subject and materialist as to its object, can describe our situation physically and approximately, but it can tell us nothing about our extra-spatial situation in the total and real Universe…. Profane science, in seeking to pierce to its depth the mystery of the things that contain - space, time, matter, energy - forget the mystery of the things that are contained: it tries to explain the quintessential properties of our bodies and the intimate functioning of our souls, but it does not know what intelligence and existence are; consequently, seeing what its “principles” are, it cannot be otherwise than ignorant of what man is.
      The science of our time knows how to measure galaxies and split atoms, but it is incapable of the least investigation beyond the sensible world, so much so that outside its self-imposed but unrecognized limits it remains more ignorant than the most rudimentary magic.
      Schuon in his great works like Logic and Transcendence, Light on the Ancient World and others has argued, with great force and persuasion, what modern science misses and misses in principle due to its methodological naturalism that informs its philosophical abuse and ignorance of symbolism and divorce from the Science of First Principles. Ultimately he seeks to warn about limitations of modern science without arguing against its great strides and use in its limited domain.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

(Dis)Solving the Controversy

Religionists may lack intellectuality and scientists may lack, and abuse intelligence.
It is said that once an atheist and a theist debated the question of belief in God and after they finished, the atheist became a theist and the theist an atheist – showing pointlessness of usual debates on God. Buddha when asked about God responded by silence and is also by making seemingly opposite statements depending upon the questioner’s obsession with theism or atheism. To an atheist he said that only God meaning non-self/Absolute/pure Being really is and you are nothing and to the other one that there is no God as he imagined. The Bible says that only a fool denies God and the Quran implies  that there is no possibility of entertaining doubt regarding God. How are we to understand heated debate on God between atheistic/agnostic scientists and believers of world religions including Islam? How come we can assert people like Russell, Hawking, Dawkins are fools if they deny God? How come we can contradict the Word of God which leaves no doubt entertainable and calls those who deny God fools? Leaving aside subjective claims, who has reason, evidence and plain common sense on his side? Has science somehow made atheism more rational choice for modern man? Answering these questions requires clarifying the terms of the debate. Here, at some risk of oversimplification, I attempt it.
      Major world religions are not dependent on the view that God exists – Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, Confucianism, Hinduism, all are largely compatible with silence regarding personal God – and mystical traditions talk about Godhead (Absolute/Void) rather than God that is usually contested by atheists. All the religions are wedded to a metaphysics accessible to Intellect all potentially share that affirms what is dimly intuitively known by all regarding Being/Consciousness/Intelligence. What is or may be contested in the name of reason and science by atheist scientists and philosophers is mostly:

  • The God of popular religion or exoteric theology.
  • One model of the Divine that posits a cosmic policeman or voyeuristic vindictive deity who threatens instead of complementing my freedom.
  • A God who fills the blanks in scientific explanation, a being who intervenes from outside and encounters the world as other.
  • An abstraction which one could dispute about and not feel emotive/existential bonding with.
  • A King who primarily operates from otherworld or directs afterlife film, a God who has to contend with Satan as an adversary (as if Satan isn’t His left hand or his agent in a way),
  • A being among other beings, who isn’t my very being/Self.
Let us ask if any atheist would fail to appreciate, in certain sense at least, the God of:
  • Abraham who grounds ordinarily unalterable natural “laws” – Allah’s unalterable sunnah – such as rising of the sun in the East.
  • Moses who is “I am that I am” or the witnessing consciousness we all know we are when we see without judging or identifying with any phenomena.
  • Jesus who is Love something of which is experienced by all of us and in more intense manner by every mother and good spouse.
  • Poets (which is Imagination of which Blake speaks) and creativity and celebration (which Hafiz and Rumi sing).
  • Mystical philosophers like Simone Weil (“attention without distraction” which we, for brief moments at least, are all capable of realizing), Levinas (encountered in the face of the Other) and Stace (who is Mystery of existence or the Sacred experienced in “the sense of mysterious” as Einstein would put it or as Haldane emphasized in his statement that the universe is not just queer but queerer than we can imagine).
  • Plato (who is Beauty and Truth and felt as attractiveness of the Good by every good person) of  lover of beautiful things or faces).
  • Upanisads (for the sake of whom all things or anything is loved, who is non-different from Me, who is Bliss we dimly know in joy or in another expression of a mystic-philosopher “sweetness of all sweet things” and “Isness of things” and “Being of being”)
  • Scholastic thinkers like Aquinas (who is “What Is”)
  • Scientists who try to understand how “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible,” what grounds Truth and requires passion for truth and weighing evidence and
  • Who/what is  experienced in the depths of ourselves, where we are silent and free of ego, or in and through nature/art/moral and aesthetic dimension of the self we are endowed with that evokes wonder, irresistibly attracts, transports us to ecstasy, moves us to tears or makes us bow as in presence of saints, makes us lose ourselves in dance or contemplation or an object of work.
  • Modern theologians like Tillich’s “power to be”  and “ultimate concern” or whatever concerns us ultimately, and Bonhoeffer’s “the beyond in our midst.”
  • God has not been denied and can’t be denied in principle by any scientist or philosopher in one or more of these senses.
      Neither atheists nor their critics usually deny the imperative to be moral or fail to appreciate loftiness of Socratic principle that virtue is its own reward and knowledge is virtue. Who doesn’t in principle agree that our self has a moral dimension that asserts itself in care for the other/neighbor/stranger/posterity/environment? Who doesn’t affirm, in practice at least, need for certain degree of accountability of deeds in some plane here if not elsewhere and what is the crux of scriptural demand for ethical behavior, as far as it is applied on earth, if not this? Whether we believe in survival of personality after death or not or only in some mystical/philosophical doctrine of immortality that posits survival of suprapersonal intelligence (intellect) only, none denies summon from the court of conscience and that is what is essentially required from humans for living well. What is incompatible with religion is assertion, from some pseudoscientific or less intelligent scientists or dogmatic scientism of intelligence/consciousness being dispensable for or merely incidental/ad hoc/accidental to life/universe/existence/Being and this ultimately denies logic and rationality whose champion science is supposedly, and also an assertion of absolute denial of mystery for the sake of narrowly defined rationality and thus sacred and thus the rejection of the attitude of humility and receptivity towards phenomena in all their depth/height and this results in closure of mind characteristic of dogmatic scientism. Both religion and science are to be tested in the laboratory of Life (grounded or implicated in God’ s name Al-Hayy) and whatever diminishes life and its potential to creativity, beauty, joy, wonder, celebrate, adventure in outer and inner (higher) worlds, closes channels and modalities of newer expression of human personality and let us not forget that God is the ideal pole of man and another name of what is held intrinsically valuable or good or beautiful or true.
      Since religion is for saving people and not truth as such which is the prerogative of metaphysics and accessible to intellect and religion is filtered truth for consoling people  that has to give concessions to different individualities and emotions of believers, the more truly intellectual we are, lesser is the scope for religious point of view (which is fall from the intellectual constant as Guenon would put it) – religions use, for instance, the term God where metaphysics uses Being and to equate the two is an error. Science if committed to truth and nothing but truth would be more comfortable with esotericism and metaphysics – many great 20th century scientists including Plank, Einstein, Pauli, Heisenberg etc. have been strongly mystically oriented. Let us accept science’s passion for truth wholeheartedly, transpose religious language back into original esoteric and metaphysical language, recognize that metaphysics and individual sciences have very strictly delimited jurisdiction and can be autonomous as Guenon noted. Scientism and fundamentalism are both united in restricting rationality and abusing intelligence.
      What the Quran requires is right use of intelligence, transcending prejudices of all kinds, bringing evidence for what one believes even if it is  one’s paganism or shirk, affirming unity of reality as one witnesses it, being true to our own self – ethical self and the self that seeks company of stars and beyond that is in principle accessible “empirically”  or one can witness/enjoy/taste. No scientists qua being a scientist will have problems with these demands.  As far as modern science lacks or abuses intelligence (“science doesn’t think” remarked Heidegger) it deserves a thrashing and that is the key thing in the critique of Heidegger, Jaspers, Schuon, Burckhardt, Wilber and many other brilliant thinkers against philosophical abuse of science or scientism. Those scientists who:

  • trapped in literalist reading and ignorant of ta’wil fail to find scriptures as keys to treasures of being,
  • or who imagine man to be at bottom only a clay as Satan did,
  • or reduce consciousness and intelligence to what is neither conscious nor intelligible,
  • deny man intellect (nous) by reducing it to reason (ratio) and the intellect access to certainty of the Absolute by virtue of very definition or constitution
 are not pursuing science but a particular philosophy that may be critiqued on philosophical grounds and rightly charged with ultimately impoverishing man, emasculating culture, refusing noetic aspect of beauty and attractive power of truth that deliver us from ego or samsara. Both theism and atheism need to be transcended (“all propositions about God, including “God is” and “God isn’t” are false. For all propositions operate through concepts. And all propositions are the work of logical intellect”) and believers and their critics can agree on dignity of man thanks to intelligence that applied to moral sphere means conscience and to cognitive and aesthetic spheres means pursuit of truth (ilm, irfan) and beauty (ihsan). Man qua man is born neither theist nor atheist but a playful spirit or consciousness that seeks creative expression, knowledge, joy, love, freedom, beauty, truth, goodness. Maintaining lofty human state in this sense requires strength of critical intelligence and lofty character and this is what all great thinkers and religions ultimately demand. How true we are to this challenge is the question and not badly phrased theology of less gifted minds or anti-theology in the names of religion or science respectively. Theology needs to be taught as autology (science of Self) and we bring otherwise warring camps of science and religion closer.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Decoding Wisdom Traditions of the World

Here is the basis for ethics on which all traditions are united; transcendence of lower self to subsist in the divine self.

Why are prophets sent? To perfect ethics: "I was sent to perfect your ethics," the Prophet (SAW) said. As has been remarked “Not other things, only morality. He doesn't say 'your education, your medicine, your technology.’” Ethics is said to be the First Philosophy by philosophers from Socrates to Levinas. Hikmah may be understood as philosophy if this moral dimension link is kept in view. The end of art also converges with that of ethics.
      How are sacred scriptures, wisdom traditions and ethics linked? How many books and commentaries on sacred texts should be read for right knowledge? What is the right path? Can’t we state it in clear terms and stop wrangling over niceties of doctrine? How to know the most important kernel of the Quran and Sunnah or of other traditions? Iqbal says that “Qalandar juz do harfi la illa kuch nahi rakhta/Tu qaroon huwa hae lugat haayi hijazi ka.” The kalima of Islam, like Upanisadic Great sayings (Mahvakyas) is simple and short. The Prophet (S.A.W) used to answer in one or two sentences the Companions who asked what will ensure their salvation. So what is that kernel, the heart of religion, the essence of wisdom traditions of the world? This is disciplining the desiring self. This is the sum and substance of Sufism as of Plato or other traditional philosophers from China to India to Muslim world. It is the commandment of religion. The following passage sums up essential Ibn ‘Arabî and the central message of all integral traditions as Isa Nuruddin and Abdul Wahid Yaha and other masters of Tradition formulate it. Here is the basis for ethics on which all traditions are united i.e., transcendence of lower self to subsist in the divine self. Here is his formulation of the theory and objective of mystical discipline. Here is also a manifesto for coexistence of traditions or plurality of modes of experiencing or relating to the divine.
,     Now you must know that if a human being (al-insān) renounces their (own personal) aims, takes a loathing to  their animal self (nafs) and instead prefers their Sustainer/Teacher (Rabb), then the Real will give (that human being) a form of divine guidance in exchange for the form of their carnal self... so that they walk in garments of Light. And (this form) is the sharī‘a of their prophet and the Message of their messenger. Thus that (human being) receives from their Lord what contains their happiness – and some people see (this divine guidance) in the form of their prophet, while some see it in the form of their (spiritual) state.
      Ibn ‘Arabî says in The Kernel of the Kernel: “You will be all when you make nothing of yourself.” This is the golden rule that allows to know all truths and achieve all perfections and absolute certainty. Sheikh Nuruddin has stated this succinctly: “Desire is like the knotted wood of the forest/It cannot be made into planks, beams or into cradles;/He who cut and felled it, /Will burn it into ashes.” The desiring self or soul is worthless hard twisted piece of wood which needs to be burnt by self discipline of sha’riah. It is a dog which doesn’t leave oneself. It is like unchained mad elephant. It is hell.  It deserves sword. “Nothing is burnt in the hell except the self will” as mystics say and that explains the Prophetic tradition that if an iota of pride is in one’s heart he can’t enter paradise.
      Ibn Arabi’s or Sheikh Nuruddin’s advocacy of sha’riah is often perplexing for those who are committed to syncretism and attribute the same to the Masters. However this rests on a mistaken view of the object of sha’riah. Law is all for disciplining the self which is the royal road to God. What law condemns as sin is essentially an assertion of self will and thus creation of an obstruction in the Path. As Underhill explains in her masterpiece Practical Mysticism:
"Seven Deadly Sins of Pride, Anger, Envy, Avarice, Sloth, Gluttony, and Lust. Perhaps you would rather call them–as indeed they are– the seven common forms of egotism. They represent the natural reactions to life of the self centred human consciousness, enslaved by the "world of multiplicity"; and constitute absolute barriers to its attainment of Reality. So long as these dispositions govern character we can never see or feel things as they are; but only as they affect ourselves, our family, our party, our business, our church, our empire–the I, the Me, the Mine, in its narrower or wider manifestations."
      Underhill further explains why self must be killed:
"Only the detached and purified heart can view all things–the irrational cruelty of circumstance, the tortures of war, the apparent injustice of life, the acts and beliefs of enemy and friend–in true proportion; and reckon with calm mind the sum of evil and good. Therefore the mystics tell us perpetually that ”selfhood must be killed” before Reality can be attained. When the I, the Me, and the Mine are dead, the work of the Lord is done,” says Kabir. The substance of that wrongness of act and relation which constitutes ”sin” is the separation of the individual spirit from the whole; the ridiculous megalomania which makes each man the centre of his universe.
      So it is disinterestedness, the saint’s and poet’s love of things for their own sakes, the vision of the charitable heart, which is the secret of union with Reality and the condition of all real knowledge.
      Mysticism is nothing but self discovery and there is no mystery mongering in this arduous journey that demands strict discipline and going within. Neither ritual nor mere mindless repetitions of certain formulae or mental gymnastics can do the trick for the seeker. God is not sold in the market places, in shrines or in music parties.
      Remembrance of God is the royal road to mystical heaven or beatitude Zikri haq par zev dith tales/Dev raz henz yi zales kun. (Remember God by joining tongue and palate/Perhaps the King would unveil Himself). Finding God needs perfection of ethical discipline and this is what is lacking in most of the would be travelers on the path. For finding God nothing is needed except attending to the basics, purifying heart, watching breath and keeping watchful eye over the desiring self. The Sheikh denies, in his reply to Bum Sad, that he had any formal guru and says that he only read kalima and took care of five prayers – a point that modern and Salafi critics of Sufism would be delighted to note. He realized the meaning of the fundamental doctrine of faith after sacrificing the self for the Existence, the non-self. “La illah ill llah sahee korum/wahee korum panun pan/wujood travith mojood sorum/hrmokh wuchum panun pan.” (I practized the shahadah/ Burnt myself/Abandoned the self (subject) to realize the Existent/ And everywhere I saw myself.)

       We can thus sum up essential or highest common denominator of teachings of prophets, artists or poets, sage-philosophers and saints: Perfect your ethics. The rest – ecstasy, illumination, heaven, beatific vision, God’s rule on earth or Sacred centric world order – would follow. And here we all fall short. And the paradox is that one must never cease to cultivate humility to be true the demands of ethics and who claims to be holier than thou only betrays his/her ethical self.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Is Modern Man Religious?

Beshara Movement: Responding to the Mess in Responses to Religion Today.
The West has its own way of engaging with religion and spirituality, and a lot of New Religious Movements find their home there. Neo-Sufism, in its New Age dress, has especially making new converts amongst the intellectual elite. Beshara, a New Age Religious movement, seeking to express the most universal and modern aspects of Sufism, has been a presence to contend with. It has made use of Sufism without Sha’riah or religious framework. It has irritated traditionalists, mainstream Sufis and advocates of those who have been suspicious of Sufism for its vulnerability to such a reading. However, there are other ways of approaching Beshara, learning from it and critically engaging with it. Isn’t it puzzling that people, often speaking, fail – and have failed - to follow Sha’riah, as usually understood? If we go by the sermons in the mosque, over 95% Muslims can be tried in Sha’riah courts or by morality police of a strict Islamic State. How come we find, on mass scale, in almost all Muslim regions (to take a specific instance of religion on which the book focuses), missing obligatory five prayers, missing fasts, passion for smoking and recourse to mood altering substances, violating norms for interaction with the other sex or violating norms in sexual ethic, at least in dreams or day dreams if not in practice (whose eye/mind is strictly chaste?). And this applies to traditional Kashmir as well before modernity impacted. Everywhere we find weak sinning creatures and can’t claim to be virtuous, especially in the sense demanded by religious scholars. And in modern times there have occurred, for a host of reasons, further and almost irreversible change in sensibility that makes one less and less strict in observing Sha’riah as usually understood. And there are all kinds of what might be called excuses and less restrictive new interpretations offered for non-compliance. However, non-compliance in the sphere of belief is much greater. In the heart of hearts, most of us aren’t ready to grant that over 6 billion people who follow other religions than Islam are going to be used as fuel for hamam called hell. Accusations of compromising strict Tawhid are widely heard. Sufis, artists, actors and dozen other professions invite censoring. Modern science and some currents of rational thought have sowed the seeds of doubt and if you scratch slightly deeper we find confusion, suppressed doubt, and even unacknowledged heresy or atheism. Apostasy of various orders (if we go by fiqh manuals and see the list of things or notions that imply one’s virtual expulsion from definition of proper Muslim) is too common to raise eyebrows now. Thanks to mobiles and internet, we are bombarded – and wish to be bombarded – by all kinds of sinful transgressive stuff. Much of what we surf, what we read, what we think or imagine are all objectionable. It is not uncommon to find deadly guilt (both warranted and unwarranted), depression, violent calls for reform and protest for suppression of perceived deviations.
      Explaining – to be distinguished from accommodating – these “standard deviations” from the mean of Norm is a test for one’s theology and philosophy of religion. How can one maintain that angelic skepticism regarding Adam’s project has been discredited if we see disappointing moral record of man? How can we “exonerate” God for creating a world whose jewel Man fails, in most cases, in his spiritual test to win salvation and prove worthy of his human state? How do we posit coming of the Mahdi and Jesus who heal the wounds in life for a very short period and after a long long waiting and much suffering? How do we propose to understand this situation considering the received understand of unfolding of aakher zamani (end times)? Given our reportedly bad record, is there a scope for mercy? Isn’t it the case that during end times one is only required to follow one tenth of religion for qualifying for salvation? Why is it that the world’s major religions continue to live and conversion into one religion earnestly desired by many isn’t happening on a scale that we can imagine any religion dying? People sin, suffer, invoke mercy, sin again and the cycle goes on. Our fight against Satan seems to exhaust us and who wins, in most cases, we all know. Why are prophets generally not heeded and laughed away?
      To all these questions New Religious Movements including Beshara attempt to respond. These NRMs have been significantly impacting the scenario of religion. Religious establishments have resisted them but it seems they had a point even though they had their own limitations. Somehow they are here to stay. And our job is to try to understand them first. The book of the week Beshara and Ibn Arabi: A Movement for Sufi Spirituality (Kitab Mahal, Srinagar reprint) asks difficult questions and suggests more difficult answers. The question is not if we can take these answers seriously but how do we propose to address these issues if we aren’t merely content with fatwas of dismissal or the policy of indifference.
      The book rigourously defends a position upheld by many poets and some mystics and a few philosophers (and seeks to show that mainstream mystics like Rumi and Ibn Arabi who upheld both the inner and the outer aspects of Religion can be read for this cause – a daring hermeneutic move that fails to convince at times and implies a lot that needs detailed critical discussion at some other time) that the real thing is love and knowledge and the rest is a means – dispensable one – to these ends. Since God can’t allow destruction of souls on such a large scale on which we witness transgression against what is perceived/accepted to be the Norm (a limited stay in hell is not destruction of souls but is, for believers, as great Mawlana Thanwi puts it, like a bath in rather excessively hot water that does cause some distress but not too much and its heat is required for purification), we can’t dismiss the ultimate motivation of Mercy/Love centric ontology that Beshara extrapolates from. Piety complex and legalism get a thrashing from the best minds in all ages and Beshara – echoing many new theologies that developed in the twentieth century as theology itself became less credible – seeks to construct a theology underlying this critique.
      This book gives voice to all those people who invoke either Sufism or libertine thought currents  in the modern world for their lax views that they advocate both in theory and practice and most of ordinary mortals denounce in theory but not in practice. It speaks for those who have been nonconformists in secret and struggling with what can be called a hypocritical ethic in public. It gives sympathetic account of those like Ghalib who feel, despite best attempts on their part, unable to follow stricter received understanding of religion (Maloom hae sawab-e tayet-o-zuhd/Per tabeeyet idher nahi jati). It is a treat for our hearts that are attracted to the best or essence though are tempted by comforts even at the cost of higher things. We are in a fix, caught between fear and hope, and our minds  - and the policing self  - and hearts – and the carefree Spirit – and our actions often belie our convictions or beliefs. And God, let us not forget, has taken a rather lenient view of our weaknesses and  warns us not to boost of our moral uprightness.
      The central argument of the book is that in these last days God wants more of the inner or esoteric religion and less of the outer or exoteric or formal codified religion that Shariah ordinarily represents. It interprets certain traditional religious views to this effect and selectively reads both Ibn Arabi and Rumi to buttress its viewpoint.  The central issues in defense of Law that Ibn Arabi raised by claiming Sha’riah is Haqiqah and discrediting esotericism contradicting exoteric Law and by his acknowledged status as the Master of secrets of Sha’riah can’t be explained away as marginal or of temporal significance. However, his thrust against rigid legalism and against privileging of theological viewpoint compared to metaphysical one, is to be given due weight that mainstream Sufi scholarship hasn’t given so far. Beshara school has given us great scholarly works and it has decisively impacted on Ibn Arabi reception. However  its position regarding the role of Sha’riah in the wake of modernity and postmodernity calls for more debate. I am inclined to apply salvation/falah centric theology and Wittgenstein’s caution to examine language closely and seek to show, in upcoming articles, that the disagreement with mainstream Muslim and Sufi scholarship extends to only a very few issues in practice and we need to extend conceptual resources and revisit standardized terminology for the debate on the supposed (in)dispensability of Sha’riah issue. And we wouldn’t find much to wrangle about.
      I wish to conclude on the note that the book calls for a response and not a reaction as it presents what  is the case for majority in practice in these trying times when the sacred has been largely exiled from our lives. God can’t be absent but how He chooses to reveal Himself when He is denied normal channels of communication by Promethean-Faustian sensibility of the moderns remains a difficult question that may have diverse answers, all equally orthodox.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Mourning our culture illiteracy

Do we have a culture now?

What is culture and what is civilization, and the difference between the two? Even our better educated class is conscious of the difference between the two and what this means for quality of life we live. Broadly speaking we have been pursuing a march to civilization at the cost of culture and don’t know the middle point that marries both of them – this is the mandate Islam has proposed for itself. This thesis has been brilliantly argued in a classic work Islam between East and West by former Bosnian President Alija Izatbegovic, one of the really great scholar-intellectual-statesmen of the Muslim world.
      Culture signifies everything that relates to man as something more than merely biological or material entity. It is poles apart from what is called civilization and is an expression of religious or spiritual self of man. Everything cultural ultimately has its grounding in man’s yearning for what transcends man as biological creature or individual ego – non-self, Divine, Spirit. Culture illiteracy is a sin that costs us impoverished living here (we must surround ourselves with beauty and pursue whatever we do with perfection as far as possible) and exile from the Paradise reserved for the cultured people conscious of human dignity embodied in pursuit of perfection. In this sense and in the more popular sense of language, arts, crafts and other refined expressions of human imagination, culture literacy is waning fast in Jammu and Kashmir. It has been inversely proportional to what is called rise of literacy rate.
      We are not aware of what our heritage is and thus the question of preserving it doesn’t arise. Our educational system has been a huge failure. We have yet to evolve, as a community, a sense and sensitivity towards the vital question of our heritage that define, sustain and ennoble any living culture. We are already passing through severe moral-spiritual and socio-economic crises and are at the brink of a disaster. The key is addressing overall orientation of our education that has so far lacked philosophical basis. Our cultural heritage can’t be understood without a sound understanding of its philosophical basis in different religious-mystical systems prevalent in Kashmir.
      What is our literary, philosophical and religious heritage? To whom should we approach to enlighten us regarding the question of logic and transcendence in Nagarguna’s Mahayana system, or symbolism of Saivist-Buiddhist architecture, or ancient art, or arguments for affirmative transcendence in Tantraloka or aesthetic route to moksha in Abhinavbhrati, or unraveling the little explored religion of beauty that our tradition has sustained? Who will authoritatively speak on the doctrine of apocatastasis in Buddhist, Saivist or Islamic tradition? Who can speak on Ibn Arabi’s Fusus which once upon a time made great impact on our local Sufi thought and found able expounders? How many of us have read Gani Kashmiri and can talk about the mystical symbolism of even very familiar verses of Hubbi or Rusul Mir?
      How many, amongst the newer generation, know that we have the greatest literary critic and aesthetician and exponent and synthesizer of a great tradition in Indian history, if not world history, in the form of Abhinavgupta? How many of us can really appreciate the fact that Kashmir Saivism and Sufism have conceptual resources to postmortem and appropriate the most influential philosophical or literary movements of the modern world and why studies on Abhinavgupta and Ibn Arabi – the great thinkers who have greatly impacted on our tradition and have been appropriated in Sufi poetry – have become such a craze in the Western academia?
      We are teaching criticism in Kashmiri, Urdu, English and other disciplines but keep students largely ignorant of the great treasury of insight into literature and its relationship to other aspects of culture and religion that was bequeathed to us by Abhinavgupta. How conscious we are regarding our traditional heritage can be gauged from the fact that our greatest literary, religious, philosophical masterpieces are either in Sanskrit or Persian or complex ill-comprehended Kashmiri such as that of Sheikh Nurudddin or Lalla. Thus we are, generally speaking, quite ignorant and incapable of overcoming this ignorance as well. There has been no campaign for introducing Persian or Sanskrit at primary or secondary level to the extent that all students attain working knowledge of these languages. We have the optional languages but in practices it means no option or unattractive option for most of students.

Comparing competition for Persian and Sanskrit courses in University entrance examination speaks volumes about death of a great culture brought about by the callous indifference of policy makers towards such a vital question of language learning. We have no language policy and tragically enough most of our students fail to excel in English as well alienating them from the cultural mainstream globally.
      How Islam has been such a great cultural force and in fact has “conquered” the world – Rumi, Hafiz, Ghalib, Ibn Sina, Ibn Arabi, Khayam are world phenomena – needs to be understood at a time when the question of Muslimness has been more ideologically or politically framed. Culture literacy will counter fundamentalism on the one hand and nihilism that lurks in secularization project on the other. Here in Kashmir mainstream and resistant leadership is united in ignoring the question of culture illiteracy. But why should they bother? Culture isn’t a political capital so may be left alone to its fate. The question is do we bother and if yes how?

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Invitation to Hearts Journey

Most of us have travelled far from our houses or towns but who can claim that he or she has journeyed within?
I once imagined an angel in charge of Heart’s Embassy complaining God that he be retired as he has no or only very occasional applicants to attend to. The answer from God  was “Don’t be impatient; every person is your client. I have directed another angel to make them restless for visiting the farthest though nearest placeless spaces through trackless paths.” And that has indeed been the case. We are all restless, hankering after love or love’s celestial mansions that are innumerable. Cupid has struck us all and fortunate are those who have been struck so hard that they have dropped dead like moths. All education that the school of life offers us unasked is variation on the theme of perfecting the art and science of love. Learning to love unconditionally, love everything as the Friend in disguise, transcend the lust that wants to possess and not give away everything one has claim to, is what we are supposed to learn through weal and woe, through humiliations suffered, through betrayals and through ingratitude of those we love. How love conquers us all and how our supreme achievement is to be sold as slaves of the Beloved is what wisdom traditions teach us. And it is to this journey of the heart to which prophets, saints , sages, poets and even philosophers and scientists as great human being invite us. And our book of the week talks about this journey in a compelling manner by arranging our conversation with the great Masters. On our return journey to the King we find some signposts that are manned by Lalla, Lao Tzu and Mulla Nasruddin and we can spot most of the great names in the history of  religion and spirituality hovering around in the background lighting up the path. Rumi,of course, is an old companion in the tavern. And the host for us is Gabriel Iqbal who has distilled some choicest wines from the mystic wine shop for us to sip. One recalls lines sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan “Chal meray dil khula hae maikhana...”
      Most of us have travelled far from our houses or towns but who can claim that he or she has journeyed within? Who has valid passport to the city of the heart? And without this document we are stranded for life, caught up in Kaafkasque nightmarish world, summoned before the Law of Love and we have no option but to keep knocking at the door of the King. This is the advice from the Masters and we read from one of them:

A life without love is of no account
Don’t ask yourself what kind
of love you should seek,
spiritual or material, divine or mundane…
Love has no labels, no definitions
It is what it is, pure and simple.
Try to find a lover who knows only love and you have found the Master.
      As Syed Abdullah has noted, here on this side of the universe, it is all dark. There is, however, one exit from this cave and that is, for want of a better term and somewhat misleadingly called mysticism. It is to mystic element at their core or what is called illuminative experience that religions owes their fire, philosophy its promise and attraction and poetry its grand claim as an opening up or vision of the essence of life. And if you want to have, in a slim volume, by a Kashmiri writer, an illuminating encounter with this greatest of adventures that man is capable of, a lucid and provocative and forceful summary of what Sufi and other mystics essentially are upto, read Gabriel Iqbal’s Heart Journey. And if you are in a hurry read its first chapter at least, that, in the form of imaginative dialogue between man and God, takes care of almost all the important questions that you would ever ask regarding God, heaven and hell, ethics and metaethical transcendence and meaning of life and suffering. Here our author is at his best in giving voice to the wisdom traditions of the world. And never forget it is Rumi who is the presiding genius in this work. How Rumi speaks to a modern Kashmiri professional and helps him devise novel ways to engage with the problems of “management of life.”
      The author has not given us a well written fictional piece or tightly argued non-fictional philosophical work but something that still speaks and succeeds in winning us to the point Love makes through its great spokespersons. Love’s constituency is all the 7.5 billion people of this earth. We should in vain look for the magic and beauty of such well known works The Prophet, The Book of Mirdad, Siddartha and Alchemist and Forty Rules of Love in these reflections loosely structured around its central character Alpha’s frantic fanaticism ending up, thanks to alchemy of love, in the secret chambers of his heart and finding  there the King. And the journey requires surrender, equanimity, waiting and holy confusion and the ecstasy of wonder. It isn’t clear how the author invokes Lalla and Lao Tzu and Nasruddin as three central figures and how distinctively they contribute to transformation of Alpha, the hero of the book whose spiritual and intellectual journey is the subject of it.  In the chapter on Lalla, it is mystic fraternity of the world that speaks and in the chapter on Lao Tzu it is zen mystics rather than the Taoist Masters that speak. However it is Rumi who is indeed the presence one encounters almost throughout. However, what is important to note is that the author invokes, generally speaking, traditionally revered names in spiritual firmament and hits on target. His hero is transformed and we can’t resist the impact of encounter with those who indeed were touched by the Holy Spirit. The book succeeds in anthologizing some of the best treasures from wisdom traditions.
      Let us read snippets of Gabriel’s own rendering of timeless wisdom:

  • “God, what is greatness?” “Greatness is an incremental value of how small you are.”
  • “God, what is that you want of me?” “Nothing you don’t want for yourself.”
  • “God, what do you want  me to be?” “Yourself.”
  • “God, why is there a heaven and a hell?” “This isn’t my doing; You guys create your own heaven or hell.”
  • “God, if you ask us not to judge/then why do you judge us? “I don’t, you will be judged by/your own conscience/Please leave me out of it.”
  • “God,I want to love you, but I don’t know how?” “Love yourself, your neighbours,/ that tree, this dog/ Love especially your enemies/And this way you shall learn to love me.”
  • “God, who is in charge?” “Nobody and everybody!”
      Gabriel makes some statements that most Muslims would make only in silence for fear of being charged with heresy. For instance, “Idol worshippers essentially pray towards the spirit not the idol and on the contrary, some monotheists might have created a conceptual idol in spirit and not in stone.”
      Gabriel invites us all – sinners, nonconformists, believers and “nonbelievers” – to the Heart’s journey that passes through the valley of holy confusion or wonder that is the end of philosophy and fruit of science as well. Fundamentalist fanatic that Alpha is at the beginning who wants clear cut divisions and answers and behaves as if PA of God and is full of hatred and all kinds of simplistic judgments against the other, is transformed into a lover, a witness and a mirror who reflects without exclusion or distortion what is. And learn the lesson that God is “What is.”  What gives him eternal youth is ecstatic awe and a keen eye for beauty: “Confusion is a joyful and mystical state, it is enchanting like the freshness we feel when we first fall in love. The pontiffs of this world will make you feel otherwise with their rules and regulations.”
      The author has not chosen to focus on the narrative technique and ends up giving us more a beautiful mosaic of great quotations and not an organic work. He makes Buddha a believer in Creator on the basis of one of his sayings while as the Buddhist tradition and many great modern scholars of religions have made it amply clear that he is silent about God the Creator though affirms the absolute or the non-self. Institutional religion is given no marks although the Masters he quotes have mostly been nurtured in institutional frameworks that they have experienced as channels of grace. Exoteric frameworks of religions are shells required for soul’s transformation though they need to be transcended – and not negated – in the end. Some parables, especially those of the author’s own, are not written in the classic style in which we know parables to be written. However content wise they make their points admirably well. Some discretion in choosing and quoting different traditional teachers  whose hierarchy is granted by respective spiritual and faith communities would have further added to the book’s appeal. Authorial voice impresses at certain points but at other places, one wishes it too had been consumed in the voice of the Masters. An occasional misquotation could have been avoided.
      Thank you Gabriel for your invitation to heart journey. We thank you, along with your father Dr Javid Iqbal who has invested so much in his wide ranging writings and in you, for giving us, in capsule form, a wonderful selection of teachings of mystics. Today let me thank Gulshan Publishers also for a book that  has very few typographical or other errors and introduces an author who doesn’t repeat or merely quote, but has something to say or share.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Reading Shahab Ahmad

Reorienting certain debates on the meaning and constructions of Islam today.
Sectarianism in Muslims is mostly a product of ignorance and vested interests. How far it is a product of ignorance is documented by Shahab Ahmed in his What is Islam, one of  the really great works on Islam that is destined to be influential and help reorient certain debates on the meaning and constructions of Islam today. First a few remarks on the author and the book.
      Shahab Ahmad knew 15 languages including the most important classical languages in which Islamic tradition is expressed. He is extremely careful with regard to sources he quotes and usually deals with original sources and classical authorities to build his arguments. There is little by way of his own interpretation and much by way of letting authorities and little noticed scholars speak in their own words. He asks questions after piling huge mass of facts and marginalized scholars. Let us read him, as he reads others, respectfully and critically. Some of his interpretative manoeuvres can be questioned without, however, failing to derive benefit from his massive eye-opening scholarship.
      I think it is best to let author and the sources he quotes or appropriates speak on the question.
      He quotes preeminent expert on religions, W. C. Smith, “It is a mistake to think of the Islamic as one of the several ways of being religious. Rather, for fourteen centuries the Islamic has been one of the salient ways of being human.”
      He asks a question that Muslim scholars usually identified with jurists or Molvis/Mawlanas of well defined contours must take cognizance: “What, for example, is there, on this accounting, to prevent the classification of philosophy, Sufism, and art as Muslim—that is, “bad” or “one step removed from ideal Islam,” and of law and theology as (authentically) Islamic” He refers to the Brethren of Purity for the forgotten description of ideal Muslim: “the learned, worthy, intelligent, pious, insightful man, a Persian in origin, an Arab in dīn [the Arabic word usually translated as “religion”], a Ḥanīfī in Islam, an ʿIrāqī in education, a Hebrew in astuteness, a disciple of Christ in conduct, a Damascene in piety, a Greek in the sciences, an Indian in expressiveness, a Sufi in subtleties.” (“Ḥanīfī” refers to the pre-Muḥammadan state of being Muslim ascribed by the Qur’ān to the Prophet Ibrāhīm). How Muslims have been tackling diversity is stated thus: "Muslims have, in other words, been dealing with difference, diversity and disagreement for fourteen centuries. Muslims have long been well aware that they are not all the same; they have long been aware that their identity as components of universal Islam includes diverse experiences, agreement, disagreement, problems, dilemmas, and predicaments; that they mostly agree to disagree and to be different. One might say that the community of Islam is a community of disagreement— or rather, it is the community of a particular disagreement; it is a community that constitutes and is constituted by its disagreement over the question What is Islam.” He refers to John Walbridge’s “The Islamic Art of Asking Questions: ʿIlm al-ikhtilāf and the Institutionalization of Disagreement,” about  “the institutionalization of disagreement” in Islam, although he confines his treatment to scholarly discourses; see John Walbridge, Abdul Wahab Shirani, a great jurist cum Sufi, Ibn Rushd, a great jurist cum philosopher and Ibn Arabi a great metaphysician who insightfully wrote on fiqh as well, besides Tusi and other authorities on Maslaeh of sharia could be today invoked to help develop a new understanding that could tackle many problems that modernity has posed with regard to uunderstanding and application of Islam. Shahab refers to another brilliant modern scholar Ebrahim Moosa who has observed in this regard: “Each one of us . . . articulates a version of ‘Islam.’...In other words what we really have are multiple representations of being Muslim, embodied by concrete individuals and communities.”
      Antidotes to sectarianism have been philosophers, poets and mystics and Shahab tries to show how they have been central to the self understanding of Islamic culture throughout centuries. He asks six questions to all readers who would reduce Islam to their sectarian understanding that excludes them in principle in the name of return to pristine Islam of classical age. He shows how naive it is to invoke such catagorization while claiming to represent Islam in all its depth and breadth. One of these question he phrases as “In other words, mainstream Islamic theology (Sunnī and Shīʿī) in the millennium- long age of the madrasah conceptualized God on a philosophical foundation whose logic and epistemology had led its acknowledged progenitor, the philosopher, Ibn Sina—whom we can legitimately call “the man who effectively defined God for Muslims”—to conclusions that were condemned as exemplary Unbelief. How is this Islamic?”
      He quotes Mulla Sadra “This art of ḥikmah is that sought and requested by the Master of the Messengers—preservation and peace be upon him and his family—in his supplication ‘O My Lord, show us things as they are!" and quotes another passage from a different source and  then proceeds to build  his case for philosophy in Islam. “This passage highlights the philosophers’ conception of their project as directly related to Prophethood and to knowledge of God: the Prophet himself seeks from God precisely the art of ḥikmah... In other words, a prophet is an über- philosopher—which, in turn, implies that all philosophers are, for all conceptual and practical purposes, engaged in the same project as are prophets: that of ḥikmah, or seeking to know universal truth- as- it- Really- is through the perfection of pure reason (on these terms, one might almost say, upon beholding a great philosopher: “There, but for grace of God, goes a prophet!”).

      Sectarianism is linked to such premises as Islam we know about is Truth as such and not an interpretation of Truth (as if history, language, culture and other factors affecting hermeneutics could be bypassed in any attempt to invoke authority of Islam), this particular sect alone will go to heaven ( ignoring salvation or felicity is explicitly linked to use of intellect, moral development and faith rather than elaborate creedal structures or belief systems in the Quran), we represent the prophet and Companions best and guidance is located there (this ignores that there are multiple understandings of the guidance Prophet and Companions stood for or embodied). Poets, philosophers, mystics bring something from the infinite riches of divine wisdom and we are better off taking note of them. After reading Rumi, Hafiz, Ibn Sina, Suharwardi, Bedil, Mulla Sadra, Ghalib, Iqbal – to name only few of mystics, philosophers and poets – one emerges transformed, more humble and more respectful towards the theological other. After reading Shahab Ahmed one wonders how poor have been our conceptual theological lenses with which to measure or judge the whole world – other schools, traditions, sects – as other. Taking Mansoor’s cross as jurist’s rival is poverty of imagination and absorbing the whole universe of possibilities or diversities is the mark of a real Muslim (as Iqbal said) who submits to Truth and acknowledges that this Truth has infinite faces and can always evade and is ceaselessly involved in newer and newer manifestations or works. The world is a dark alley and prophets are fundamentally interested in the first and last points of our journey and their work is complemented by poets, scientists, mystics and philosophers who lighten up our path to certain extent.

      However let us not, for the sake of pseudo-tolerance, forget that there is such thing as heresy (zandaqa) and orthodoxy and that the Quran is also furqan which differentiates truth
from falsehood. And self-righteousness, tendency to think mine is the best, holier than thou attitude are all unanimously condemned in Islamic tradition and we find “God knows best” (“wallahu aalmau bissawab”) as a qualifying clause to all exegetical/interpretative endeavours. It is not an abstract idea or truth but the extent to which it is realized in us that saves and it requires moral qualifications and who can claim that he has acquired such and such a degree in moral development? In line with Quranic spirit, philosophy, art and poetry and mysticism all exhort us to be humble towards the Real or Truth in order to receive it (Truth can’t be possessed but received and this needs opening up and removing obstructions that ego creates), to eschew stubborn dogmatic attitude, to listen more and speak less, to let the Other or Love dictate terms rather than dictate to them, to forego attempt to solve problem of religious divergence here and leave it to God there, to resist attempts at meaning closure or finality of interpretation, to attend to life with all its mystery, uncertainty, inexhaustible richness and beauty. To identify a sectarian ideologue one can apply a golden test “Empty vessels make much noise.” Truth overpowers us and makes one dumb. “Ripeness is all.” “The rest is silence."