Friday, 20 March 2015

Do We Need Exams to Test Students?

“School failed me, and I failed the school. It bored me. The teachers behaved like Feldwebel (sergeants). I wanted to learn what I wanted to know, but they wanted me to learn for the exam. What I hated most was the competitive system there, and especially sports. Because of this, I wasn’t worth anything, and several times they suggested I leave. This was a Catholic School in Munich. I felt that my thirst for knowledge was being strangled by my teachers; grades were their only measurement. How can a teacher understand youth with such a system? From the age of twelve I began to suspect authority and distrust teachers.”
The above quote from Einstein (the greatest scientist of the twentieth century whom school system almost killed) reproduced here should be enough to alert those who seek to change educational policy, especially academic session for facilitating examination oriented academic policy. Examinations, as currently held, are not defensible; they are causing gangrene to the soul of education. Open book and grading, instead of marks policy, that has been successfully adopted by advanced societies and has replaced memory based and mindless competition based system needs to be given a try, at least in selected schools and I am sure many private schools at least would volunteer if the government cooperates.
Today there is a debate on changing academic session. I think the only thing that was not wrong with the educational system in our state was winter session that is now under scanner for reasons hardly many understand. While I wish to argue separately how changing the session could prove academic disaster (something like the recent floods proved for Kashmir economy) I today seek to question only one key premise of the whole debate that is being manufactured to benefit one can guess whom. That premise is smooth or efficient conducting of exams. Although one can refute the “arguments” for changing academic session to March by dozens of arguments (every student and teacher knows a few and one needs to be briefed for quite some time for considering the possibility of “advantages” in March session) I think why not deconstruct the very edifice of the system that is sought to be made more efficient. Do we need exams? Do we need to shift the session because exams will be facilitated in some sense?
If we want to paralyze a nation and a generation, force its best minds to attend classes, where notes are dictated and regurgitated in exams, and then much of what has been taught is of no relevance and is forgotten, and then force some of them to waste few more years in doctoral degrees as they can’t do anything new and then recruit some of them into ReTs or teaching jobs where they are overqualified. Most of the theses are not worth the space they occupy in library shelves. Most of them are guilty of plagiarism. Excellence is not achieved in a system where classrooms are overcrowded. One of the reputed educationists once told in a big gathering that he went to Europe for some special course on deputation for one year. And one fine day he was informed that he would be conferred the certificate. To his utter surprise he was never examined and when he asked authorities how come he is getting certificate without any examination he was answered that our daily interactions in class and the fact that as teachers they were successful in maintaining his interest in classes were enough for them to confer the certificate!!
A good teacher would not bother about exams and attendance; he will have enough charisma to attract students to learn. When Iqbal or Rajneesh used to lecture, students from other faculties would also join the classes. When teachers dictate notes, students would like to photocopy them and not waste one hour in the class because it is not a class where discussion happens, where new things are explored. There are teachers who have nothing to teach except dictating notes directly copied from a book or two thus committing a sort of plagiarism. A teacher must paraphrase book content or ask students to directly read the book. And students be given choice to discuss what they can’t themselves understand from the books. As most of the subjects are not rocket science or tensors or subtleties of quantum mechanics, there is no need for more than 90% teachers or classes as average intelligence is enough to grasp lessons. It is an insult to human dignity to require one to memorize what is simply learnt, used and transcended if not “forgotten.” I can only understand need for examination in some sense when skills are at stake. Remembering procedure could well be a hindrance. The best learning happens unconsciously–see the drivers and hundreds of operations we perform effortlessly, automatically once we have learnt or interiorized the craft. If we keep written examination for giving a license rather than actual driving session, how would it sound? More absurd is memory based written/oral examinations students are subject to. A teacher is one who stimulates to think rather than to memorize, who guides rather than dictates copy paste information, who motivates students to study rather than threatens to fail or asks questions that he himself has no time.
Likes of Tagore and Einstein couldn’t easily clear exams and that only shows worthlessness of a system that examined them. Wittgenstein could not stand for a PhD viva and was allowed to discuss a few passages from his own book to clear it.
We must debate need and form of exams rather than make exams a basis for changing the sessions. Any time spent in preparing for exams is wasted. Winters are best spent learning something rather than preparing for exams.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Selling or Living Religion?

Why is today so much confusion about religion? Why anxiety to prove one’s sect or school the best? Why declare others somehow inferior, misguided? What is misguidance, anyway? Why use this as a whip to beat whatever we don’t like? Let me assert that the essence of religion, which saves, is simple to comprehend and universally known and agreed upon by the best minds of every tradition that what we need is to start action or following the well-known Way. No books, no complicated commentaries, no elaborate polemical theses are needed to be consulted before one convinces oneself regarding this essential point. What is this essence of religion, mysticism, traditional philosophies?
The following famous passage of Ibn Arabi is particularly detailed and important expression of this essential point. In this passage is summed up essential Ibn Arabî (I would claim, essential Rumi, essential Ghazzali, essential Ibn Taymiyyah, essential Sheikh-ul-Alam, essential Iqbal) and the central message of all integral traditions as great masters of traditions 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. Modern man, especially the academician, the philosopher of religion, the phenomenologist is more interested in speculation about Truth or God or neutral  “objective” idle inquiry than without being prepared to sell everything including the dearest self, as Jesus would say, or make nothing of himself for the sake of Truth. That explains why there is so much knowledge and so little wisdom today and why he is farther from God and nearer to dust. It is only by becoming nothing, by absolute detachment or poverty of spirit that one can attain the central point, the still centre of existence where lasting peace and felicity lie. The Friend doesn’t tolerate duality as Ibn Arabî reminds us and comes to live in the sanctuary of a perfectly polished mirror of the heart.
Ibn Arabi speaks for all men–nay for all creatures–as they stand, as he is an “unlimited mercifier.” He vindicates man qua man without feeling any need to qualify him with this or that attributes or predicate as he sees God vindicated and His plan being worked out this very moment by everyone. Addas aptly states the Akbarian view:
"Because all men worship God whether they know it or not, because it is the Sigh of the Merciful who has brought them into existence, because each of them bears within him the imprint of one of the infinitely multiple Faces of the One, it is to eternal bliss that they have been and are being guided from the beginning of eternity." (Addas 1993: 293)
Ibn Arabî  gives the most universal definition of Muhammadan where this becomes, in the words of Twinch, not a designation of a particular historical community but the very name of universality and perfection. It is the name of a station, theoretically available to everyone, attainable to the select few who travel on and on, perfectly realizing all stations until he arrives at the station of no station in which one has nothing of one’s own and therefore mirrors the Real most perfectly and is not defined by any particular divine name or attribute but brings together all standpoints or stations.
Realizing Muhammadan station of no-station, the station of faqr, sabr and raza is a life long struggle against all kinds of temptations and distractions that love of ego and world constitute. Here all of us fall short. We have no points to score against fellow believers but our guilt to proclaim, if we keep in mind the essence. It is right action that saves and confirms our real faith. Let us judge ourselves but not others in light of this. We will not get time for religious debate, for sectarian ideologies. We will begin to see why religion demands humility as the key virtue.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Choosing or not choosing to serve

Public perception, especially perception in educated class regarding animal husbandry is that is not the ideal choice even for a farmer, not to speak for a minister to choose as his profile. Farmers continue to be imagined as poor, ignorant, crude, uncouth. Animals are best when prepared for table but not when it is encountering them live with all the dung and bestiality associated with them. Another presumption is livestock sector is only of marginal importance to our economy.
Public perception may well be erroneous but as creatures who do care for reputation or perceived image we may be prone to escape reality. And reality must be faced.  Let us examine the facts.

Before I come to the status in our state I need to make an observation about a pathology of modernity called necrophilia – love for corpses which is Erich Fromn’s expression for our love for machine culture. Man has been created in divine image and this requires living with other species, seeing ourselves in them as sharing the gift of life. Nothing is more humanizing than contact with animals. One must understand why God required all prophets to rear animals, why machines are dehumanizing, why our greatest thinkers from Heidegger  (one may read his essay on technology before arrogantly dismissing that brilliant analysis to Iqbal (Ha dil kae liyae moat machinnoo ki hukoomat / Ahsasi murawwat ko kuchal daetey hae aalaat) to Gandhi (who required two hours manual labour from every citizens including ministers, CMs, PMs – in our context I would suggest working for two hours in animal rearing activities) to Wittgenstein (who said that modern western civilization is simply doomed) to Coomaraswamy (who identified machine culture with death of art, beauty and soul) identified machine culture with death of human culture, why technology and management of political dispensation in so-called democracies linked to particular ideological, personal and class interests today are fundamentally inhuman, anti-human. We need to be better aware of post-Renaissance modernity’s devilish attempt to escape creaturely limitations, to substitute machines for human hands, to take nature as It rather than as Thou, to be fooled by the idea of autonomous self who is there to use nature as resource rather than to flow with its cosmic rhythms, to understand reduction of Homo sapiens to Homo economicus and what Hemmingway put as “lusting, fighting, killing animal” to understand the genesis of public perception. We share with earth and animals our home, our kinship, our destiny. There is no option but to love animals as requirement of human nature. Using them for some end comes later.
If the idea is living with dignity and move toward achievable nationhood, animal husbandry sector should have been a privileged profile to serve. If our economy is vitally linked to livestock sector and agriculture constitutes our most important sector of economy to which not only jobs but social health is linked, why the perception in public regarding its untouchability for the “elite.” Share in GDP of livestock sector is more than most departments combined whose ministering has been seen as a privilege. If we want to serve people, identify with what serves people. If we talk about sustainable development or respecting rights of the environment, it is livestock sector rather than tourism and other “white collar” sectors that we need to focus. If we talk about sab ka saath, sab ka wikaas, agriculture and livestock sectors should have priority (and we saw how in recent Union budget it was rather ignored despite increasing number of farmer suicides and mass alienation among farmers). We need to understand our state is mountainous, landlocked, not ideal for heavy industry or irrigated crop culture but livestock industry. We need to understand that ignoring livestock sector, farmers, livestock by-product industries and host of crafts to which raw material could be made available through better attention to livestock sector, has been one important factor for poor economy and begging bowl syndrome Kashmiris have been victims of and our leadership is responsible for the same.
How is it possible that many developed countries including Australia, New Zeland and US have given great attention to livestock sector to boost their economies and here it is considered beneath one’s dignity by many educated people to serve in this sector? A minister reflects public perception and fighting that perception should be the question. But who will lead from the front? Leaders or public who live in the caves of public opinion and refuse to see the Truth outside the caves?
People do have the right to ask a ministerial candidate whether the ideals he has expressed in his document on achievable nationhood are compatible with displeasure at holding charge of a challenging but a promising sector. We all need to remind ourselves about Plato’s distinction between opinion based on unexamined perceptions (mostly expressed today in Facebook, Twitter etc.) and Truth one learns by examining in the cool light of reason one’s perceptions. Fraternity of vets and paravets were happy that a person who is articulate, bold, better grounded for understanding predicament of common man, has good knowledge of potential of the sector is rather young would better serve the Department.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Examination System: Let's Probe it!

It is a flood that comes annually, destroys generations and cripples minds
There is a flood that comes once in a century, destroys properties. But there is a flood that comes annually, destroys generations and cripples minds. And it is on a mass scale. And we are all its victims. And we don’t talk about it. It has claimed innumerable lives, destroyed creative spark in countless students. It costs us money, time, human resource and other resources. I mean Examination System prevailing here which needs examining, a thorough post-mortem. A preliminary post-mortem report follows. Detailed reports from different labs (intellectual, moral, social, psychological, political, religious) will hopefully follow in future.

The body is giving offensive smell. One can’t imagine how it functioned in its great days. Once upon a time there was instituted a system for preparing students for mastering crafts and skills they had shown promise by virtue of natural inclination, heredity etc. Students were properly initiated or baptized in the craft or profession they chose. Education was fully vocational and it simultaneously fashioned souls. Vocation was life’s wazeefa, worship. Skills, ethics, love for vocations were “tested.” Modernity uprooted hereditary, inclinational or traditional mode of education. And no wonder it results in abortions at mass scale. Somehow many get to the post primary level and then nature does her weaning at matriculation. More than 80% students feel compelled to pursue post-matric education and drop out percentage starts increasing with every next step in higher education. Meanwhile childhood and youth of countless millions has been destroyed and they have hardly learnt anything of significance or anything besides ability to read and write some preliminary things. Souls haven’t been fashioned. Anyway even those who complete PhDs don’t learn anything about the vocation of life. Meaning of life – which is the most important question education had to help sort – and ethics – which is the essence of philosophy and spirituality and part of religion – have not been in the syllabus. In fact these things are taught through education rather than by education in traditional cultures and that is why the talk about teaching values by including books on moral education has so little value really. What values can you teach? Values are imbibed from culture, through the vocation or craft. One’s job is ideally one’s dharma. Less than 1% people are not alienated from their jobs or blessed with the vocation that they have really chosen. That is why holidays, strikes are welcome always for working class. There is a universal baegaer (forced unpaid labour) in schools going on. Who says Maharaja is gone?

Now an artificial educational system has been imposed. And our souls and minds can’t accept it. Somehow we are forced to conform. And this requires violence to the mind, to the body, to the soul. And the system that successfully institutes this violence is called examination system. It requires a heap of mostly useless information. The mind somehow retains it for sometime till examination is cleared and then vomits it out. One vomits what can’t be digested and what one has really digested can hardly be known through this system. Academic terrorism that defines examination system is our greatest curse\– all terrorisms are parasitic on it. History can’t forgive those educationists who are hardly doing anything about it.

Of course there are some positives about the current system but its negatives far outweigh it and the reasoning that the Quran uses to reject wine, I apply here. In it is “great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit.”

Without denying need for certain evaluation system and the fact of difficulty of all serious learning, we are justified in asking who institutes for whom and why a given evaluation system. And does it deliver? And at what costs? No educationist or serious teacher is satisfied with the current system. There are dozens of reasons that make us sure about clinical death of the body called examination system. A few I mention today:

• All those who can’t clear the same exam they have cleared few months or years back

• Lessons are to be learnt rather than memorized to be forgotten after a particular time. We could read ten books and learn hundred new things during the time we compel our minds to memorize ten lessons

• Great teachers are least bothered about examination but focus on sharing knowledge and it is mostly less efficient teachers who are obsessed with exams. Almost all good teachers realize the point that exams are not true indicators of student’s worth. In fact examination system is required to make fools out of us.

• One must consent to read and reread the same notes not to miss a word or fill in the blank in exam. It requires desensitization and hatred of creativity. Even such “prestigious” exams as those of UPSC are linked to patience to mug mostly useless facts (one forgets most of them immediately after exams anyway). Most of the exams including entrance exams, UPSC exams involve something like prostitution of mind by mass of facts much of which is not of any use later in life or immediately after exams and are weeded out by our brain.

• The fact that most students would love copying if given any chance shows what a failure the system is. All such absurdities as craving for guess papers or other short cuts show that these corruptions are parasitic on a flawed system itself.

• Even memory that alone is tested by it, has been weakened ultimately by the current system. Our elders and ancients had far better memories.

• The developed world has almost done away with many suffocating features of the examination system we continue as a colonial legacy. It is not indigenous to our culture. We produced likes of Abhinavguptas without any examination system.

• Who can deny the fact that the dullest student can ask a question that the brightest professor may not be able to answer but who is such a fool that can assert that thereby professor should be judged? In fact in a system that primarily checks memory most teachers will fail the tests if students were to examine them. And if by some exigency student fails to have a last hour look at his notes, he may miserably fail as will the teacher who couldn’t properly prepare a lecture.

• Costs are too prohibitive to try resuscitating apparently a dead body. Assuming 5 lac students in our state and an exam of two hour duration taken after two days preparation days costs us 500000x50 hours. It means millions of men days in term of labour. What a cost! Nothing is learnt except that few pieces of information are processed for a sort of short term memory and following exams thrown into trashcan. We judge many to have failed and destroy their self confidence. Mediocrity primarily is promoted in a system that measures everything in two hours. For millennia in all cultures people have been taught wisdom and skills without this monstrous absurdity called examination.

• The best can’t be examined. It is no use examining the average stuff. Anyway they can’t win the competitive race. One must be a fool to think it is worth attempting to get 100% marks – competition forces students not to miss a comma, to be perfect photocopier or scanner who reproduces what is in the notes.

• Grammatically speaking, exams are taken, not given. But here exams are given taking our minds as ransom.

• The system has invited student alienation. Due to it we are producing so few good thinkers, scientists, philosophers.

• We are fighting for autonomy or self rule but refuse to give our youth opportunity to be themselves, to choose their vocation, to be creative, to convert prisons that our schools are perceived to into sanctuaries of learning. It is teacher’s/parent’s/community’s fault if student fails according to the best thinkers on education.

The day we revamp current exam system and replace it by more creative alternatives like assignments, presentations, credit seminars, group discussions, debates, open interactive sessions we would have moved one big step towards freedom. Post floods we could have spared mental trauma to students for one year but it seems mass promotion (to as many classes as possible) is being denied. If our State can’t give this much relief to people (and this will be service to students and people and State if we weigh carefully costs and benefits) what else can it give? Occasionally it is good to suspend some procedure to see if it is really needed.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

The important Question of Faith

Faith is the most important treasure of life, religions unanimously assert. Why? Because it helps us achieve our full potential or perfection as humans and makes us participate in all the joys, beauties, peace, blessings that life has to offer. Faith, as the opening verse of the Quran makes clear, opens up access to the God of Mercy. Faith is good news that we are somehow cared, that all things march toward perfection, that nothing is ultimately jarring. All is a symphony. It is a great festival of lights that the world is, to which faith invites us. There is no greater wine than the Wine of Love that God is for the faithful. Faith is an insurance against all despair, all anxieties, all disheartening things, all disasters that life could have in store for us. Faith and gnosis are the greatest goods we really crave for.
But the question is why is faith, genuine faith so rare today and thus we are bombarded by all kinds of existential, psychological, social and other problems. One reason is people are miseducated. They are more told about fear of hell than love of heaven that is here and now accessible to a large extent. They don’t know the extent of divine mercy that washes all sins. They are not told that God is Reality, not some person in the sky or cosmic policeman. Of the God as Beauty, as Love, as Joy, as Mercy they have only a vague idea. It is not told that God is everywhere, in all forms, for the seeing eye. God’s mercy has precedence over His wrath, the Quran so clearly states. All things beautiful and joyful that we seek including family life, natural beauty, innocent joys, creativity are real modes of worshipping God. Even enjoying tea is an act of worship. Jokes we crack, smiles we share, beautiful messages we exchange, greeting we exchange, all are activities in which and through which we celebrate God.  In fact God is the real Enjoyer in us. All life is a gift. And God grounds this understanding of gift. Friendship we cherish is sweet because God’s attractive power grounds it.

Great beauty of Islamic tradition is hidden from us because we don’t read and preach the great Masters, sages, saints, mystic poets and Muslim metaphysicians. Just a few quotes today from Ibn Arabi (whom we accuse of this or that without reading him) to give us a peep into the wonderful, beautiful, ecstatic experience of the God of Islam. They should be enough to address all apprehensions of growing number of atheists or agnostics in our youth camp. They, in principle, introduce a God who can’t be mocked, disbelieved. Invitation to Ibn Arabi is invitation to mercy, the God of Mercy and his mission was, in his own understanding, broadcasting far and wide the news about the Mercy of God. Ibn Arabi says:
If we gaze, it is upon Him; if we use our intelligence, it is toward Him; if we reflect, it is upon Him; if we know it is Him. For it is He who is revealed in every face, sought in every sign, worshipped in every object of worship, and pursued in the invisible and the visible. The whole world prays to Him, prostrates itself before Him and glorifies His praise; tongues speak of Him, hearts are enraptured by love for Him, minds are bewildered in Him.  (al-Futûhât al-makkiyya)
He says in The Kernel of the Kernel:
He is able to show His Being either within or without; that which is in the image of everything, that which is understandable in every intellect, the meaning that is in every heart, the thing heard in every ear, the eye that sees in every eye, is Him. . .   If He is manifest in this face he is also looking from the other.
In the poem at the beginning of the chapter on Hud in the Fusus al-Hikam Ibn ‘Arabi writes:
The Straight Path belongs to God (Allah).
It is manifest in all, not hidden.
He is present in the small and the great,
In those who are ignorant of how things are and those who know.
Because of this His mercy encompasses everything,
No matter how base or magnificent.”
Islam is invitation to submit to Truth, not to some cosmic or extra-cosmic entity we can speculate about or truth of this and that ideology or exclusive religion. Whosoever is ready to acknowledge truth in anything or experience unconditionally, is Muslim. And faith is submission to this truth. God is the movement toward virtue and beauty we are instinctively attracted to. And isn’t it a result of Divine Mercy we all seek and worship this God who is identified with beauty, truth and goodness in Plato whom Ibn Arabi rated highly?

Debating Muslim Contribution to Sciences

Let Muslim scholars write more universal histories, like Ibn Khaldun attempted, without anxiety to show Islam in the background or foreground.
Many spots on the moon are named after Muslim scientists. Over 500 stars have names originally Arabic as have Algebra, Chemistry and many instruments we routinely use. Muslims made homes for old and abandoned animals and used money from Awqaf to treat and feed them. Even cats whom we often despise had separate buildings. Muslim pioneered bird hatcheries. Muslims wrote over hundred books on horses alone. Muslims invented gunpowder, compass, many techniques in bee keeping, modern floriculture and made countless discoveries in sciences from gravitation to mechanism of vision. Discussing hundreds of such interesting things that most of us don’t know, and succeeding in further convincing (if someone doubted) us about our current decay and past glory, but only tangentially touching on deeper reasons, metaphysical or philosophical that made such glory possible and writing off significance of Greek or other influences that have been matter of contention for theological camp always, Qurooni Wusta kae Musalmanu kae Sainysi Karname (Contribution of Medieval Muslims to Science) is a wonderful read that has been published again after new additions.

How many book have been written by Kashmiris on religion or its history that we can assert with full confidence that they will continue to be read, at least for some time and are currently respectfully taken by scholarship in the given discipline? Perhaps we can count them on fingers. And Dr Ghulam Qadir Lone’s works, especially one on Sufism and current one under discussion taken, one can safely assert belong to this category. Although it is more a compilation than an original work but as a compilation it succeeds quite well to lucidly summarize and briefly review some important works in the history of the subject. The book gives an overview of Muslim contribution to sciences and important branches of humanities, mentioning and sometimes summarizing great number of original sources in a lively style. It narrates number of anecdotes showing great culture of learning, Muslims once had. Almost every reader would find something of interest in it though its main subject is now very well known and somewhat hackneyed, considering Mushtaq A Yusufi’s remark that if one tenth of the money and time spent on rehearsing “Musalamanoo kae science per ahsanaat” were devoted to teaching them sciences, “tou musalmanoo per bada ahsaan hoga.” The book avoids fashionable platitudes of popular preachers that read every new scientific discovery in the Quran and forget similar readings made regarding other scriptures and difficulties in literal defense of literal meaning of many so-called science related verses. The book vividly brings the glory of Muslims – it will take pages to just enumerate names of individual contributors and their contribution to almost every discipline including historiography, geography, mineralogy, botany, zoology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, mathematics, medicine and philosophy (to all of which separate chapters have been devoted). It does so in a charming free flowing prose).
Ironies in current Muslim attitude that proudly claim great contributions of Muslims to sciences include suspicion of philosophy and methodological naturalism of modern science. Dr Lone does well by including a chapter on philosophy as well. Muslim philosophers who were also scientists didn’t reject Greeks as pagans or aliens; they appropriated their work and moved ahead. We still keep debating harm done by Greeks to Islam while celebrate great scientist-philosophers who drew inspiration from Greeks.

The book promotes the current discourse that identifies pursuit of ilm with pursiuit of various sciences and takes a very literal interpretation of first revealed verses that mention God taught ilm by qalm (the fact that predominantly oral culture characterized most of great civilizations contests this simplistic reading ) to defend this position. The book repeats old charges against the West for plagiarism and hiding Muslim influence or contribution despite the fact that for decades the charges have been acknowledged and modern Western scholarship has been attempting to rewrite history. In fact a greater scandal has been to write off China which spearheaded march of civilization by inventing more than 70% of most used inventions in the modern world.

The book displays two interesting points. It is Western scholarship that is appropriated to highlight contribution of Muslims to various sciences and humanities. Many important books are missing. It leaves much of serious contemporary debate on metaphysical background and current implications of Islamic sciences and doesn’t note important contributors to the debate of situating development of sciences in larger framework. Bibliography mentions only secondary sources on Muslim philosophers except Ghazzali. Neither Nasr, nor Sardar, nor such authors as Osman Bakr, Muzaffar Iqbal or Hoodbuoy on history of Muslim contribution to sciences have been consulted. Neither postmodern nor Marxist historians of science and newer accounts of alternative sciences get a mention.

The publisher has rightly and gently corrected the author’s simplistic linking of modern idea of evolution to Muslim rendering of it in middle age. The author has read alchemy and astrology practiced by Muslims along the dismissive literalist lines of Orientalists, a reading challenged by traditionalist scholars like Nasr. Great divide between traditional Islamic and modern sciences on background metaphysical if not methodological grounds, has not been touched.

The book doesn’t seriously probe why Muslim contribution dwindled after middle ages and it seeks to blame colonialism and Muslim modernists and modernist rulers for failure of revival of the legacy thus conveniently forgetting that it is opposition to philosophy, to sciences from ultraconservative literalist mindset that has also its share of guilt for this state of affairs. The author is not ready to grant the possibility that yesterday it was India or China or Arab or Muslim lands that were leading the world in sciences and today it is the West and we identify certain common elements in collective character of nations that better promote cause of knowledge and needn’t connect it to any particular religion or culture. I wonder why we keep mourning Muslim decadence forgetting the possibility that the best of Islamic values have already penetrated modern Western institutions, and East-West or Islam-West binary is in many respects now obsolete way of seeing things as Hamid Dabashi has pointed out. I personally feel that the best in the modern world is collective heritage of humanity as is the best that was produced in the Islamic world to be owned as Islamic. I recommend reading Will Durant’s first volume Our Oriental Heritage of his monumental voluminous Story of Civilization to better place in perspective the question of relative contribution of various civilizations to advancement of sciences. Let Muslim scholars write more universal histories that our forefathers like Ibn Khaldun attempted without anxiety to show Islam in the background or foreground. If Islam promotes knowledge culture and modern world has largely appropriated it why not celebrate the Western minds as our own in the sense that Islam’s universalist claim is that it constitutes The Religion, the religion from Adam onwards rather than a particular religion that emerged from Arabia. I wish Muslim scholars write about Indian and Chinese contributions to sciences, to philosophy and religion the way Max Muller and Joseph Needham wrote and that will be in line with the approach great Muslim scientists and philosophers adopted in the middle ages. (Al-Farabi, for instance, wrote The Virtuous City on the pattern of Plato’s The Republic) Muslim youth are largely ignorant of not only Islamic past but of traditional past in general that grounds Islamic world. It is rightly impressed by the achievements of the West in last few centuries and we should have enough catholicity in outlook to celebrate them as well.

We need more knowledge, than pride over knowledge of ancestors and this can come by both cultivating humility to learn from world cultures, from Harvards and Oxfords that are incarnations of erstwhile great Muslim seats of learning that are themselves incarnations of great Greek or Chinese seats of learning. If we believe “ Wisdom is a believer’s lost treasure” as Dr Lone reminds us of the prophetic tradition, I see no reason for only focusing on Muslim history of contributions to sciences while ignoring both its background, Greek and Oriental wisdom, or its continuity, in the form of Wisdom of the (modern) West. We can’t carry ID of our great grandfathers in our pockets if it is our ID that is required to be presented. However, as Dr Lone emphasizes, we better know our forefathers to fashion our new identity. And that task – that our author doesn’t take up for consideration – will involve engaging with great modern thinkers.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Self versus Other in our politics

We all believe that khaesh (myself) comes first, then dervaish (the other, the stranger). We evaluate in terms of mine against thine. Love for possessions, for power, for status based on this primordial error. And this is the most fundamental basis for the politics that has destroyed the world. AAP(Aam Admi Party) privileged aap over mai or hum. That partly explains ecstatic welcome to its victory. Even ricksahwallas thought that they now participate in Chief Ministership. The question is can we put the other party, the other’s advantage or aap ki “interest” above one’s party or “interest.” To talk about one’s interest (to be differentiated from what Plato calls enlightened self interest or Iqbal calls Khudi) is a sin against God, against Holy Spirit, against all the prophets. Let me explain.
All traditions from Far Eastern to Indian, Judeo-Christian, Islamic, African and Native American unanimously privilege the other in relation to the self. In fact all traditional philosophers–including representative figures such as Lao Tzu, Nagarjuna, Plotinus, Shankara, Ibn Arabi, Meister Eckhart from six traditions–are unanimous in putting non-self at the centre stage and take supra-mental supra-individualist view of the Self. Salvation/enlightenment consists in transcendence of the illusory autonomous self. God/Godhead or equivalent term for the first principle can be understood as the non-self or the Other. All mystical philosophers agree that the thinking self or thought must be transcended to commune with the other, the Reality (Al-Haqq) because conceptual intellect divides and posits dualism of subject and object. The ego, which divides part from the whole, man from Existence or Divine Environment must be annihilated in the process of faana. Hell, as retreat into the cocoon of individuality, which accepts separation from the Real because of inability to love. Thus hell is refusal to open for dialogue – which might include total transformation of the self and taking divine robes. The problems–political, social, economic–over which modern world is in perpetual conflict arises from the wrong view of self and our vacation in the world. Religious, mystical and traditional philosophical traditions, demand loathing of the self and thus rejection of the received definition of man as homo economicus and individualist capitalist mindset. The traditionalist view is countered by the post-Enlightenment modern other negating worldview which may be characterized as individualist or subject/ego centred straightway paves way for the colonialist and ecocidal approach. In contrast for pre-modern traditions it is not soul but the supra-individual principle of Spirit, which is in us but not ours that is immortal and that gives man one identity and basis for loving one’s neighbour as oneself.
In light of this and other clear stipulations that Ghazzali lists in ‘Alchemy of Happiness and Revival of Religious Sciences’ regarding trials of self (nafs) and attachment to world  (that is really love for self projected in things) and the command of dying before death one may ask our politicians, their workers and their partners in alliances this:
Do you really believe that you serve people and not yourself or your party? Don’t you think that often interests of self/party and people may diverge? Don’t you think that putting the other before yourself/party would be in the long-term interests of people whom you seek to represent?  What if most people think Governor’s rule is transparent, less costly, people friendly and efficient? Would you think of letting it continue for some time at least so that encroachments are cleared and many such drives gain momentum? Why is it we need you or your party rule?  Do you believe you don’t covet power? Reading scriptures, philosophers like Plato, Farabi, Pascal, Voegelin and Kierkegaard one comes to understand costs of career in politics that spurns principles, makes and breaks alliances with any party or person for the sake of what you know better, suppresses voice of conscience ten times a day that sees how it is the interests of the powerful that politics is manipulated and party agendas set. Perhaps you are striving to do politics the way best of AAP politicians do it or Gandhi did it – I will not say like Hazrat Umar(r.a) did it as you might say gone is that age?
I wonder if it is possible to have a brain scan or RTI of motivations and intentions to help people know better what is precisely at stake in making certain decisions. But I am sobered by the reflection that we need not to scan minds or hearts but use simple common sense to see logic of games being played.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Question of Art and Religion

Opening up of the first Art Gallery in Kashmir is great news, not just for art lovers but also for all of us who believe art is an important aspect of education and life and none can claim to be literate who is ignorant of art. Many art forms are often assumed to be alien to Islam, a misperception forcefully dispelled by Mualana Abul Kalam Azad in the concluding lines of his great work Gubar-i-Khatir. Islam, like other traditions, has regulated expression of art and not banned it. In fact Islam employs art physics and theology by calling God Beauty or Beautiful and advocating love of beauty whether it is in nature, in souls of prophets and saints or in any object of utility made for consumption or object of art made for contemplation. Islam has cultivated rich tradition of art that is no less important than Fiqh and requires art education for spiritual development of every Muslim by emphasizing the principle of perfection – Ihsan. One can find emphasis on art in traditional calligraphy, in book designs, in Quran recitation, in Azan, in Na’t or poetic tradition, in architecture of all buildings and not just mosques. Art and worship are artfully woven together in Islam as in other traditions. One may well ask: Why not teach religion through art -Sufis have been doing this for centuries. Attend a mahfil-i-sama with proper etiquette as Al-Ghazzali and many other great saints have recommended and one leaves tasting something of the Beyond, the Other World. Who says toari kus aaw wuchith? Artists know the otherworld that art object evokes, that virgin nature evokes for the poets.
With Schuon we could say, “After morals, art—in the broadest sense of the word—is a natural and necessary dimension of the human condition. Plato said: “Beauty is the splendour of the true.” So let us say that art—including crafts—is a projection of truth and beauty in the world of forms.”
Art demands escape from personality. An artist has no self.  An artist is simply a medium through whom the Great Artificer expresses Himself. The Muse demands moral, intellectual and spiritual virtues in the artist.  A genuine artist may hardly care if anyone knows him or he is given any award or recognition, especially by the state’s institutions, which are often though not necessarily, tailored to promote a certain brand that doesn’t infringe on its power structures. The great rebel artists are exiled rather than recognized by the academies representing the state.
Abhinavgupta has been a key theorist who provided support for the thesis of art as fifth Veda. His metaphysics secures for artistic experience a privileged place that nearly identifies it with religious experience. Although he states clearly that Samadhis and other ecstatic experiences given to mystics or saints are a class apart and artists are not entitled to great fruits of such adventures of spirit he notes that for the laity the quickest means to transcendence is art. If we can teach art we are teaching values to people. So all this hinges to right understanding of what constitutes art. What we need is traditional literary or art critics who sift the chaff of modern culture industry from the grain of genuine art conducive to higher ends of man. We can revisit the heritage of Abhinavgupta as an art critic and we can take the help of Coomaraswamy and Schuon in this matter who have stated traditional theory of art in most strong and lucid terms. Beauty, as the attractive power of perfection is more noetic than aesthetic notion and satisfies that longing to know the reality or God, that eternal urge that moves all men.
Art is not for exhibition. Art is “for the glory of God and angels and sanctification of man.” Art brings God in the world. Artist copies the model in heaven. Music is the proof of Heaven promised by religions and witnessed by mystics and contemplated by artists.
Great Art requires escape from personality as Heidegger and Eliot emphasized and all values are actualized by a soul capable of transcending passion and ego. As Heidegger argued, art lets truth in the things manifest.  It is the poet that shows the path of fugitive gods or the track of the holy in an age that deems transcendence to be otherwise inaccessible. Thought art can’t supplant religion but it does complement it. It has been one of the languages of worship. It points beyond itself to the Most Holy. In an age that deems itself post death of God age or post theological, art is still able to communicate something from the Beyond. Art can help revert the postmodern man to theomorphic being he is.
We need to note tragic divorce between art and life in our lives, works and work environment if we are to be saved and find meaning through beauty in our lives.

Mourning our Art Illiteracy

I think two things explain this: Woeful art illiteracy of the people in general and philosophy of art illiteracy in most of the artists
Our artist friends complain that they don’t receive proper recognition, and hardly anyone is interested in visiting art gallery recently opened in Srinagar.  Visitors, or masses, complain that the art works of contemporary artists don’t speak to them, or they fail to comprehend them. Why this disconnect? I think two things explain this: Woeful art illiteracy of people in general and philosophy of art illiteracy in most of artists. People hardly know anything about art (we don’t teach art in schools, generally speaking) and can be classified with colour blind or beauty blind  group. Those artists who think art is a profession and art works need to be exhibited, or sold, or personality of artist be expressed or art needn’t imitate archetypes or communicate well to all who are interested are ignorant of First Principles art exemplifies. They fail to understand Plato’s (and tradition’s or Islam’s) rejection of  such ideas as art as expression of personality, aestheticism, naturalist art, distinction between fine and applied artists, art as mere ornament, and of taste as criterion for judging art. (Post)Modernist secular art theory or academy doesn’t wish to understand how art is “for the glory of God and angels and sanctification of man.”  I state a few points about traditional or Islamic art theory today.
What AAP victory today brought forth is, among other things, ecstasy of democratization of power. I argue for the democratization of art, an idea that has been affirmed in traditions everywhere and may be stated in terms of the manifesto “Everyman is an artist.” Like politics, art shouldn’t be an elite business. Art is basically science of doing well a given task, thus perfecting or making lovable any given work. Art is what more familiar term ihsan suggests – doing everything in the best way it should be done. Plato, as AKC notes,  includes in artists “not only poets, painters, and musicians, but also archers, weavers,  embroiderers,  potters,  carpenters,  sculptors,  farmers,  doctors, hunters,  and  above  all  those  whose  art  is  government,  only  making  a distinction between creation and mere labor, art  and  artless  industry.”  But we have restricted the term for those who sell arts like painting or make strange art works that are not intelligible or beautiful as they don’t imitate eternal or divine model but appearances and seek more pleasure than perfection. Art is skillful making of all things, activities, not  just what we see in galleries. And in galleries what we see today is mostly the art that has no place in Ideal City of Plato or Augustine or Farabi. It is absurdity pretending to be called art work even if it is merely cerebral or psychological reaction of the “artist” that he or she has depicted. All arts are imitative and ideally imitate archetypes, divine perfection and require moral and intellectual virtues to contemplate. Art requires not assertion of will but its surrender before the Beauty.

Art is not an absurd or occult game of abstractions or private symbols that “non-artists” don’t comprehend and even fellow “artists” keep guessing. Art is for everyone. Art is not for sale as art (a painting sells for crores and art has become a commodity instead of adding beauty to things or representing beauty in art works like paintings) but art objects are objects we require like utensils, clothes. Great art works recall God and celebrate or imitate Divine Beauty. They are ideally not signed as individual is not to be advertised or seen as producer of art work as individual. Artists are not separate professional class who make portraits to get money, who make paintings that are either ugly or too ambiguous or incomprehensible or obscene that fall short of moral, intellectual or spiritual perfection or betray sickness of the soul of the artist. We need art to live, to beautify our environment, to help contemplate God, to love, to celebrate. Art education should be for everyone. Even cavemen were great artists, better than most modern artists. The great film Aguntuk by philosophically inclined Satyaji Raye presents aspects of traditional view of art and meditates on the secret of perfection in cavemen’s paintings.

There is so much confusion, so much misinformation, so much elitism, so much hollow halo around art that I think Coomaraswamy’s The Christian and Oriental, or True Philosophy of Art is a must read. Art is too easily reduced to ideology or made to serve interests of entertainment industry that we need to read Adorno and Horkheimer’s great critique of it in their famous work Dialectics of Enlightenment in the chapter  “Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Art in Islamic tradition has been the life work of Titus Burckhardt (Art of Islam: Language and Meaning). Nasr’s book Islamic Art and Spirituality is  also of help for general reader and professional Muslim artist who wants to be informed about deeper meaning and metaphysical principles of Islamic art.
Now that sermons don’t touch as they once did but crisis of values is deepening what do we do? Abhinavgupta long back suggested turning to art to get education in values and help in the ultimate journey of life – quest for transcendence. Mathew Arnold long back saw in art a substitute for religious instinct and many postmodern thinkers, following Nietzsche, have already been championing certain version of artistic or aesthetic route to get meaning back into our lives in an age when theologies aren’t so impactful or credible for some. Many may today dispute conventional proofs of existence
of God but none can deny the proof from beauty that art makes so dazzlingly available for us. Islamic metaphysic of beauty that defines God as Beauty can’t be questioned by anyone who has healthy instinct for beauty intact. Atheism may be defined as impoverished taste for beauty or jaundiced eye for beauty.

What a great news it is that art lovers have finally got some space in the capital of the State to sit, to research, to deliberate, to dialogue on art, the language of the Self. God speaks to us through many languages, but none is more easily understandable  or pleasing than that of art. That explains central place of art in Islamic spirituality. Without artistic sense houses, clothes, gardens, articles for daily usage, all those things that crafts produce, can’t be made the way God or our theomorphic nature requires. In fact one can say all that is not made in conformity with artistic principles enunciated by traditions is cursed. Art is a question of our religion, our higher life of spirit. It is absolutely central to culture and identity. We need to see art as ritual for purification and discipline and thus support to contemplation leading to the vision of essences and delivery of man from samsara or his reconciliation to the ground of existence

Tail Piece:

 What artist community has seen opening of the Gallery One as a grand shrine of art lovers as
they can refresh their souls by visiting it, others pass by as if it is of no account. Students for excursions or educational tours should preferably visit such spaces to acquaint themselves about their unknown dimension that gives us peep into the Heaven here and now. We are all artists in the sense defined by Greeks and other traditions as makers of objects who need beauty to live better lives but only few know this. Let us discover the artist in us. Let us learn what ails modern art industry and have dialogue with our artists, reorient the museum culture or art exhibition culture towards that end that characterized traditional cultures including the Kashmir of Shah-i-Hamdan –a sanctuary of crafts – and help them to retrieve our great heritage in art and carry it forward.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Pir Parasti or Spirituality? Understanding Our Mystical Culture

Kashmiris are famously charged with Pir parasti. And this Pir parasti is associated with a host of beliefs and practices that we need to take into account. The question is how do we understand or engage with local narrative.  Our dismissive rejection or wholesale embracing of this narrative is what we are often supposed to choose while living in Kashmir. Given ideological polarization and often huge costs hidden in these choices we need to be better informed about what exactly constitutes local narratives and how far one can wish it away if one chooses to. Salafis and others who find some problems with local narrative need to come up with informed critique of a culture deeply informed by this narrative. Such an informed analysis of this local narrative has not been made by our historians or culture experts. And this means a lot for people searching for self-identity in the times that find identities politically problematic and seek to fracture such attempts at self-definition. Here are few points about our local narrative we need to note for critical engagement with it.
Local mystics are consulted by rulers and many life’s decisions are not taken without consulting family mystic. (There are family mystics as there are family doctors elsewhere in Kashmir, especially rural Kashmir.) Mystics can enter any home and are received warmly and reverentially although in this guise many charlatans and insane people are also carving a space or livelihood for themselves. Some of the popular phrases or proverbs like “In Adam’s skin are hidden great secrets” are often invoked while the question of dismissing a claimant of mystical powers arises. Mystics’ residences or shrines are thronged by all and sundry including the educated elite and ruling class. Almost every other day there is some celebration commemorating some local mystic’s anniversary called Urs. Many people claim to be in touch with their dead Masters. And every Thursday there is Mahfil-i- Sama in many places. The most visited spots happen to be shrines. And many people before coming to courts to attend hearing of their cases visit shrines as they believe cases are decided here. Almost every person has a story to narrate of an encounter with a realized soul or powerful mystic. Here mystics are seen roaming naked in the freezing temperature of winter and some are seen with a fire pot in the midst of hot summer. Some have been noted to take food so frugally that people are led to believe that God feeds them. And some are believed to share food with some otherworldly beings.  Childless couples seek the help of mystics and everywhere there are some success stories narrated! And some children are well known in localities to be begotten by mystics’ prayer and almost consecrated to his memory and they receive special treatment. Mystics have been seen publicly predicting downfall of a government and result of new elections and key figures of all ruling parties seek appointment with them at key moments. And I have seen some mystics drawing maps of roads they are yet to be built and claiming that we are making master plans and these will be the future road links. People invoke traditional Sufi belief in the hierarchy of power that is occupied by saints of different categories. The belief in the authority of a mystic is so popular that all kinds of charlatans disguising themselves as mystics loot people. Mysticism is sold as a commodity for faith healing and shortcut to worldly success and its traders are not easily picked. Pseudo-mystics are everywhere contributing to decreasing reputation of mystics in the newer generations.
       Despite strong theological criticisms of certain popular beliefs and practices lately from Salafis and Jamaat-i-Islami ideologues the popularity of cult of mystics and shrine culture along with all its paraphernalia like prayer food culture, loud recitations of mystical or devotional hymns, Khatam/Niyaz parties (in which local community and some religious figures are invited to read certain chants and are served sumptuous food) has not lost its sheen. Many houses invite 11th century Sufi Abdul Qadir Jeelani on every 11th of every month by arranging a tea party.
           It is not that mystics have failed to stamp their indelible prints in cultural consciousness of people. There are countless trees and stones and springs whose special features are attributed to certain mystics. Almost every locality has some miraculous relic in the form of these things.  It seems that Hopkins’ statement that everything is charged with the grandeur of God is felt with all its terrible reality here and captures an aspect of Kashmiri perception of the world.  It is considered a life’s treasure to find a true Master in many Muslim communities and this is particularly true about Kashmir. And in almost every locality there may be someone, famous or hidden who claims or is thought to be a Master. Faith healing is a big business and is an evidence of the power of or faith in mystics.  Faith healing attributed to mystics is differentiated from the one attributed to occultists. And people wish goodbye to near and dear ones with the clause “I leave you in Pir’s (Master’s) custody.” These constitute some aspects of local narrative of mysticism in Kashmiri culture.
     The question is do we take it or leave it in toto, in parts? Stakes of fundamentalism, superstitious occultist ideologies are linked to this question. Even our political destiny isn’t unconnected to it.