Thursday, 8 November 2018

Why not Reclaim Our Ibn Arabi?

In continuation with previous column “Why Read Ibn Arabi?” a few more points to consider for those who have problems with life/religion/Sufism or with advocacy of Ibn Arabi.

Besides/instead of looking at the world from God the King and man the subject angle as has been the case with major Muslim revivalists, (and the anxiety of this world and otherworld as has been the case with exoteric theologians and those who haven’t heard of postmodern thinkers) one may consider appreciating that God alone is there playing a game, projecting Himself in the mirror called the world/man. God is more than a King, a Lover and the Beloved playing hide and seek that constitutes the drama we call life. How thankful we should be of those who play the other – our  enemies, critics or opposite team in a contest – as they make life interesting or at least eventful. Just be a spectator (actualize the name Shahid) deep inside though outwardly one might adopt a role given situation requires, say try hitting, Afridi style high and handsome sixes and resist bullying – and the life seemingly full of sound and fury becomes a festival of lights and celestial songs.
      We have nothing to lose in any case. We indeed need to be saved from hell because we have wrongly imagined a hell in the first place. The reality is God has decreed Mercy for Himself and as such He needs no reminder to have mercy on us but we need to be reminded that we are already blessed, showered with mercy in every case. God has not prepared any hell but from the vain desires and imagined phantoms and wild thoughts we project. The fuel for hell is self-will and that explains why pride can’t be forgiven and has to be eliminated through burning. We are all actors on a stage and those who want to be directors ape God and deserve to be hurled to hell and we find them burning everywhere  as we see how self assertion/agency is punished by vain desire for revenge or rage against what can’t be cured or lamentations and regrets for defeats.
      All that Ibn Arabi wishes is we shift perspective from our chosen or given perspectives, judgmental legalistic utilitarian perspectives to that of non-judgmental aesthetic/artistic ontological one and the problems created out of binaries dissolve. Jihad, moral struggles etc. catered by shariah would remain at the levels they pertain to but, as Barbariq would see at the level of haqiqah, it is really God fighting from all sides in Mahabharata.
      Sha’riah constitutes rules of the game/authority of Umpire to be respected to help every player play natural game to perfection. Outside/after the game, we all exchange smiles and handshakes. Hell is taking winning or losing seriously and seeking to play foul or exchanging sides/roles or assuming to be In-charge of the game/Director of the whole show. Heaven is focusing on playing one’s part in the game well without an anxiety against losing. We all win, in a way. We are already winners if we knew. We just play for the sake of joy as little children do, as God does. If God creates for the joy of self-expression or observing His hidden beauty, why shouldn’t we imitate Him and not behave as shopkeepers or traders? We are heaven; we don’t go to heaven. We simply manifest our own riches as heaven and our penury as hell. This is the Akbarian insight we find developed in in the 20th century in Imam Anwar Shah Kashmiri and Imam Khomeni.
      Ibn ʿArabī  has been described by Shaykh Muḥibb Allāh  who has been called a second Ibn Arabi  as “ free of ecstasy and states.”  For him “the great Sufis avoid states at all cost, because these are passing gifts that have no ultimate significance.” This disarms those novices in Sufism who keep bragging about their secret achievements/states/ecstasies. Sufism is hard work on stations/virtues and the best key is humility while the supreme station is “the station of no-station” which means keeping wonder alive – reliving the child in us. This objective of wonder/defamiliarization/quest is also the ultimate end of philosophy, art and arguably of science.
      Some fear Ibn Arabi, some find him obscure or difficult and some think he was misguided. In order to see the merit in these assessments, we need read him in original/translations and a selection from over 100 traditional commentators and at least one or two standard biographies. For Kashmiris who revere Syed Ali Hamadani, his debt to the Greatest Master and his work on his Fusoos is important. Imam Khomeni had such a reverence for the Fusoos that he recommended that work to then USSR president Gurbachev and expressed his disagreement with Dawood Qaysari for seeking to explain away or interpret (taʾwīl) of some statements in Fusoos as the former for him is a sort of revelation as Ibn Arabi himself claimed to have received it from the Prophet (S.A.W). Izatsu in his Sufism and Taoism and Chittick in his magisterial works have done much to make him more accessible. To read him only through the eyes of a minority of theological critics is like forfeiting the opportunity to travel in the airplane on the advice of those who have primarily travelled only through land transport. To accuse him of misguidance in general involves a compliment if one reads it at ontological plane as Ibn Arabi would invite us to. However, to imply its pejorative meaning involves problematic privileging of someone who in turn may have been/may be accused of misreading the Master. It also presupposes one has a better understanding of such notions as guidance and better access to the secrets and mysteries and depths of Divine Names Al-Hadi (the Guide) and Al-Mudhill (Who leads astray). One needs to have travelled on a certain road to warn others about merits or dangers of that road. Who can claim to have travelled better on the road on which Ibn Arabi has been travelling? Who has given us another Futoohat (which is one of the only three books that Allama Anwar Shah found he can’t write better)? To avoid reading Ibn Arabi or miss him is to miss the  adventure and joy of engaging with the most provocative, the most exciting, the most influential, the most commented upon, the most brilliant, the most informed mind in the last 800 years of Islamic history. It is also to miss arguably the best argument for Islam’s universality, its most attractive aesthetic dimension, its most profound metaphysics, its deepest layers of meaning/symbolism and its love and mercy centric understanding. It is also to miss arguably the best missionary Islam has produced who, according to Muhammad Hamidullah, one of the most successful missionaries of the twentieth century, best suits for introducing Islam to the European elite. It is also to accuse the vast majority of Muslim scholars down the ages of being duped by Ibn Arabi and failure to guard the Tradition in whose name they have been speaking. For the Urdu readers, Ahmed Javed and Suheyl Umar have translated from Persian a modern classic study of Ibn Arabi. The argument that people would be misled if we advocate reading Ibn Arabi no longer holds water as there is enough material that has misled people in an age of misinformation and pseudo spirituality against which Ibn Arabi is arguably one of the best antidotes. Anyway Ibn Arabi has ample resources to ward off those not capable of breaking hard nuts. He is also an oasis in the desert of nihilistic currents in the post-Nietzschean age. Charging today Ibn Arabi with pantheism, hulool, suspension of ethic or shariah or deliberately ignoring understanding/hermeneutical tools of salaf is inexcusable given the great mass of Ibn Arabi scholarship today that has satisfactorily explained the charges. Few are informed about his "spiritual literalism": i.e., “his constant insistence on the ultimate coincidence (not simply in outward formulation) between the precise, revealed literal formulations of the Koran or hadith and their essential spiritual truth and intentions as realized and verified by the saint”  and his “usual favorable view of the unquestioning, implicit faith of the common believer, and his corresponding distrust of all contrived intellectualist "interpretations" (ta'wil).” Today he would have endorsed Qardawi’s proposal that (genuine) Sufis should become/are Salafis and (genuine) Salafis Sufis.  
Post Script:
Advocacy of Ibn Arabi is not an advocacy of his unique unprecedented opinions (tafarudat) or belittling the tradition of internal criticism of some of his views. From his disciples like Qaysari and other contemporaries who approached him with caution and had some reservations on certain points, down to Sirhindi to Allama Kashmiri one finds great tradition of internal criticism of some of his individual opinions and exegetical moves. Ibn Arabi is not to be identified with this or that view but should be seen as an attempt to unearth the view of no-view or view from nowhere and everywhere or truth in all the partial or limiting views and thus liberating graces of what is considered the deepest – metaphysical and esoteric – dimension of Islam as such. One may well transpose Gilson’s remark about Aquinas and say that it is better to say not that Ibn Arabi was right but he is right. Some of the most influential scholars in Indian subcontinent (whose legacy colours Kashmir’s spiritual landscape) – Syed Ali Hamadani, Sirhindi, Shah Waliullah, Imdadullah Mahajir Makki, stalwarts of Deoband, Beraeli and Ahl-e Hadith schools – have drawn much from Ibn Arabi/praised him greatly. Great number of most significant influential later Quran commentators, fuqaha, hadith scholars and almost all great later Sufi poets including Kashmiri Sufi poets, philosophers, poets and  political figures including anti-imperialist fighters acknowledge debt to Ibn Arabi. Not to closely engage with Ibn Arabi (or by great pioneering poets and thinkers in respective traditions) is, generally speaking, not a qualification but a disqualification. He has been considered by stalwarts the last word on the science of secrets of sha’riah. He is one of the very rare scholars who could claim that he has attempted to implement in his life every hadith/sunnah that pertained him. One can’t cease thanking God for the gift that is Ibn Arabi. He offers for anyone who can dive pearls. If one doesn’t know how to dive, he/she may better avoid him and should refrain from passing comments. Intellectual-literary elite in the Islamicate world in general has been breathing Ibn Arabi with the very the air that sustains them. Most of the great scholars today at the forefront of Islam’s dialogue with modernity and its crises, other religions, philosophies and cultures invoke Ibn Arabi. The world has already been crying to reclaim, like Imam Hussain (A.S), Ibn Arabi as its own. Reclaiming Ibn Arabi is reclaiming our share in divine mercy, love, beauty, joy, catholicity, pluralism and gender justice that have been hallmarks of Islamic Revelation and ideals of its culture/civilization. 

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Why read Ibn Arabi?

Ibn Arabi matters because he is amongst the thinkers or sages whose meditations on key questions, we all face, are arguably amongst the most comprehensive and profound.

In physical, moral, spiritual and intellectual distress one seeks relevant healers and one doesn’t ask about the colour or race of the doctor. I find everyone, regardless of creed or IQ in some distress crying for help that Ibn Arabi can offer. The distress over any issue – personal, familial, religious, metaphysical – is overcome by turning to understanding/meaning of the issues in terms that one can’t but testify. If one is in distress over some family issue or has been hurt from someone’s bad words or divorce or is suffering an existential crisis or regretting the course of events on which one had no control or asks why people go astray or why good people suffer or why people die in religions they were born into and arguably earn damnation for choices they hardly make, consider what Ibn Arabi has to say. Ibn Arabi would show you how it is Mercy wrapping us all in all circumstances and not even hell is impenetrable to It. This hermeneutic of Mercy explains diversity of religions, philosophies, styles, temperaments, habits, preferences, obstructions we meet and even the hell we choose. God and His Mercy can’t be defeated and have the last word necessitating ultimate cooling of hell and its turning to heaven and some sweetness in the terrors of hell. Consider what Ibn Arabi stands for and then ask how come one should be troubled by the above mentioned and more problems/distractions/questions.
      Ibn Arabi is advocating or better helping us to demonstrate, among other things, the following:
  • The “view” that attachment to views is to be transcended. One should not make fetish of one’s beliefs. The Perfect Man isn’t limited to/by any belief.
  • Although Allah is one but the Lord understood as an aspect of the Real that nurtures each creature in a unique way fit for the latter can’t be one. All individuals have their own unique personal Lord and are under divine tuition and are worshipping God in some sense even though they may be ignorant regarding how or fail to see how their every legitimate quest is for the Absolute and their illegitimate (declared so by revelation) searches (such as idolization of self/power/other than God) quests of the Absolute wrongly identified in the object for it is misplaced or misidentified Absolute that they are seeking.
  • The formless God is, paradoxically, manifested in every form and best revealed in the feminine face (that explains universal adoration of women, “the stars on the earth,” the fairies – pari chahra loag).
  • The world is made of the substance of mercy and love as existence is ontologically mercy. All events are love letters from God. Some know this and some are compelled to learn this by experience. Some keep doubting but don’t doubt the value of the gift called life and thus living by the mercy and countless gifts and graces that constitute life’s bounties and joys in the form of food, sunshine and rain, smiles and relationships.
  • We have never loved nor can love anything except God in disguise/for the sake of God. The fact that we love only inexistent things shows this.
  • God is not an object of knowledge but the one who knows when we know anything and all perception necessarily is perception of God and perception by God. Who can say he sees or hears when it is really God who sees and hears? How is it meaningful to prove God’s existence when God is considered the very being of everything – when one says is, one has already affirmed being or God the ground of being/wujud and one sees anything because of the Light that illuttminates it in the first place and the real perceiver is He. In fact, as Ghazzali would put it, God is the light with which we see the world.
  • Religions must necessarily differ by the very logic of what constitutes belief –uqdah/knot/a limitation or form imposed – and that atheists have a version – albeit impoverished one – of tawhid. Atheism is choosing not to travel further or closing oneself to what may come or other disclosures of the Real.
  • Era/Age is under a divine name and its secret or message is addressed to all that needs to be deciphered first rather than judged or reviled. What has manifested in the modern world has a reason/locus that needs first to be appreciated. We are all addressed through every event by the Spirit of Guidance. The Time and the spirit of times can’t be taken lightly.
  • Whatever happens to us, has been, so to speak, asked for by us. God is wujood giving/actualizing reality and the request, albeit unconscious but quite natural, is ours. This solves problems of determinism and free will.
  • We all love inexistence, in fact all love is only of the inexistent or God. We love what makes friend or spouse or beautiful object adorable. Beauty, as Plato sought to show, is a guest from the otherworld and a splendor of the Real. Beauty attracts us because God is Jameel and Wudood (the Most Loving). Muhammad is what we call the world of forms and colour – manifest face of the reality/world we seek. Things were originally inexistent (adm) and the Principle of their manifestation we call Muhammad. How come one lives and can casually speak of Muhammad (blessings and salutations on the Principle of life)? Whosever is in love with life and beauty is beholden to Muhammad, to the Light of Muhammad. Beauty is a sort of Messenger of God – in fact every event/ lowly insect has a message to convey to the Gnostic – as it is thus the sermon that interests all.
  • It is love that drives everything and mercy has the final word and hell gets cooled one day or becomes an object of bliss for its denizens. The root word for azab usually translated in terms of suffering is sweet thing. Imagine how hell has an element of sweetness. Al-Jili illustrates by noting how scratching clot gives pleasure. Hell is a torment for those who can’t face truth or consumption through love. Sorrow is distance from the real and if God/the Real is resisted, one can’t but suffer.
  • Invitation to belief in God is ultimately open invitation that one may take or decline and one is punished not by some revengeful God in some torture chamber for sinning/refusal but by the sin, by one’s own choice to be veiled from the Truth/Beauty/Love that radical innocence or openness makes accessible.
  • Ultimate stage is that of bewilderment that assimilates/builds upon various ideas like wonder, ceaseless travelling, utter novelty of everything, no bragging about one’s accomplishment or humility to acknowledge “I know that I don’t know” and surrender of will to truth, to ever-new unveilings or manifestations of the divine – that seeks to encompass, limit and manipulate.
  • Life can’t be sacrificed for belief/ideology – nothing is holier than human life as it is a divine image. Wherever sacred law allows taking life as last measure it is a means for letting greater life, social equilibrium, freedom and life of the other to bloom. 
  • Possibly infinite meanings or interpretations of scripture are all intended by the Real, the All-Possibility/Infinite and that one must receive anew the meaning with every new reading.
  • God alone is/counts in the ultimate analysis. Who brags he exists or is proud for any reason is decimated by experiences – suffering, humiliation, encounter with the sublime – or purified by hell fire until realizes one’s error and nothingness.
  • Whatever we see or happens is a play of divine attributes or effect of divine names  and as such “endorsed” at ontological plane though what has been prohibited by scriptures doesn’t please God the Guide with whom man in search of perfection/joy/heaven is concerned. One sins by virtue of God’s leave but suffers for the same by virtue of God’s other names such as al-Qahar (the Subduer). Existence/life has to be approached ultimately in aesthetic terms. Don’t worry for anything or feel like advising God for doing this or that as that implies we fail to appreciate that particular manifestation/tajalli of the Real. God is also Justice that seeks realization through those who work for justice. As such every good work done by anyone or say social activists/NGOs/right policing is worshipping/realizing God. 
  • We are here or the world is there because we desired/have accepted being as against nothing. God is That which grants the requests for being that creatures make – who is ready to die and be gone or be nothing? In fact we are not – He alone is. The world expresses plenitude of the Being whose very nature is to radiate or see itself in a mirror – get recognized by the projected other and that we are all seekers or travelers and are ultimately the projects of Being or hired actors who however also choose to act to further their own ends which are ultimately the play for the sake of playing well. 

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Meeting Khizr, our own the evergreen Master

There is no final station and if there is, it is the station of no-station. 

Khizr, has been a perennially sought presence across cultures. Who is he and is he around or is there Khizr within or in every other person if we are attentive enough? Is he alive or dead? Why was Moses asked to be his student? Despite such ever debated questions that have occupied/divided scholars, meeting him is generally considered a privilege though it is also said that few recognize him when this happens. He is around but we are heedless. In many subtle ways, we might have experienced his kind presence and help. So much confusion around him reigns because good works on him are not available. Partly filling the gap for Urdu reading world is Dr. G. Q. Lone’s Hazrat Khizr: Tehqeek ki Roshni Mei; lucid book that reviews and distills centuries of scholarship on the issue though one misses engagement with modern approaches, especially myth criticism, and certain aspects of traditional science of symbolism and detailed engagement with Sufi/metaphysical exegesis of the narrative.
      In quite a readable book that can be read by anyone including advanced researchers and general readers, Lone, known for his meticulous footnotes and care in handling traditional texts and mostly nuanced treatment of controversies, adopts a comparative method that illuminates many a dark spot in the narrative. Reviewing accounts in other traditions and deftly comparing them with Islamic account, Lone presents all important aspects before the reader and often resists giving his own view. I invite readers to read the book and can only present some important well argued conclusions and views he sifts from many other alternative views:
  • Endorses the view attributed to Ibn Abbas that Khizr is best described as a prophet (gayr mursal nabi) and not merely as a saint.
  • Evidences of his being alive are too many. Jumhoor ulama, Sufi authorities and common people believe him to be alive. Dissenting view of certain hadith scholars notwithstanding.
  • Evidence of failure to authenticate reports concerning narrations regarding Khizr or his life from Ibn Qayyim, Mulla Ali Qari and others don’t necessitate the negative conclusion regarding his long life and presence given other evidences from Salaf and Khalf.
  • The book mentions extremely interesting and for some disturbing views concerning encounters with Khizr. For instance,
    • Khizr’s presence in armies fighting against Muslims reported from respected Sufi authorities
    • Allusion to 300 hadith reports collected directly from Khizr who heard them when the Prophet (S.A.W) was alive. (One needs to note that no less a person than Ibn Arabi who had keen insights in sciences of hadith and fiqh has defended direct verification theory of many Sufis regarding certain ahadith often in debate that mainstream hadith scholars find wanting in credentials.)
    • Ibn Arabi’s report from Khizr himself that he had intended to divulge 1000 secrets to Moses but he proved impatient.
    • Number of accounts of incontrovertible interventions in lives of major figures in Islamic spirituality about whom it is absurd to imagine that they could concoct lies/get consistently deluded. Numerous accounts from people across religions and ages that they have received help/guidance/azkar/wazayif from Khizr.
  • Those who argue from narrative in Surah Al-Kahf for superiority of saints over prophets are grossly misled as Khizr himself may well be a prophet and domains of prophets and saints retain independent validity in respective spheres and should not be compared in this way. Mujadid Sirhindi’s illuminating commentary is quoted to establish distinction and complementarity of two domains – perfections of prophets and saints.
      Given absence of treatment of much of modern scholarship on Khizr in the book, one feels recommending highly useful review of the same in Irfan Omar’s “Khidr in Islamic Tradition” (in The Muslim World) besides Nigel Jaksons’ illuminating “The Mantle of Elijah” in Oriens for more comprehensive understanding of highly elusive Khizr. For more satisfactory account of allusions in Khizr’s and other narratives mentioned in the Quranic chapter “The Cave” (pioneering psychologist Jung has sought to write exegesis of key narratives in Surah Al-Kahf) one should read Sufi exegesis of relevant verses and mythologists and scholars of esoterism such as Corbin. I briefly summarize some insights in these works:
      Khizr literally means ‘The Green One', representing “freshness of spirit and eternal liveliness, green symbolizing the freshness of knowledge ‘drawn out of the living sources of life.’” Variously referred or likened to St. George, identified as the Muslim "version of Elijah" and also referred to as the eternal wanderer, wandering Jew, patron saint of sailors, one of the “afrad” and “the hidden initiator of those who walk the mystical path like some of those from the Uwaisi tariqa” Khizr sustains number of interpretations though there remain dangers in reading him either as an archetype or as real person in ordinary sense of term as with the latter “we shall no longer be able to characterize the difference in structure between Khiḍr's relationship with his disciple and the relationship that any other shaykh on this earth can have with his.”
      Fish symbolizes knowledge and water, a symbol of life, as well as the sea, symbolizes the limitless immensity of esoteric knowledge. ‘Parting of the sea', symbolizes “the meeting of the two domains of knowledge, viz., the esoteric and the exoteric. “Now this fish (wisdom) was to be Moses' breakfast, which is precisely what Moses needed before he understood the subtlety of the events which occurred while he was with Khiḍr.” [Rather than read the story as encounter of two persons, one might see “Moses' encounter with Khiḍr is actually his encounter with the aspects of the Divine in an attempt to equip him (i.e. Moses) with the infiniteness of knowledge.”
      An important lesson is appreciation for life as constituted by paradoxes. There is only mercy everywhere though disguised often as cruelty. Name one thing or event that can be conclusively said to be pointless or meaningless in retrospect or seek a flaw in God’s creation that one finds, in the cosmic non-anthropocentric terms, irredeemable.
      We often say and poets lament that the beloved doesn’t come. Even Sufis keep waiting for the Beloved to come. None of our great dreams if fully fulfilled. Is waiting for Khizr something like waiting for Godot? One can’t meet Khizr in the sense that life’s conundrum is solved for good. Khizr gives us a clue, a talisman that takes a lifetime to figure or put in practice. Lazzat-i-wasl haram, declares not only Iqbal but great number of mystics. For some souls we can say that God is encountered in a blinding way but that translates itself into greater zest for life and more intense quest for perfection. One never finds a heavenly hoor in this world; all beauties have something lacking. One encounters God or gets deedar in the full sense of the term (if ever) only after death, according to religions. In this life we have to wait, wait not for God to come or the Beloved to give us a killing embrace or kiss, but for revelations of Being that never cease. There is no final station and if there is it is the station of no-station. And that is the station of Muhammad (SAW). Literature, especially tragedy, shows our fulfillment lies in losing what we had originally sought as desirable, in unlearning what we thought we knew, in giving away, like King Lear, all the kingly robes we thought so important. Like Lear in a storm scene, we are educated by loss and humiliation. Thank God for arranging our humiliation. We meet Khizr in every meeting with our friends and foes. “Yie chu mulaqat,” says a Kashmiri mystic. Take every person one meets seriously as if a messenger of Khizr or Khizr. God comes to us, in unexpected ways, from  unexpected quarters. For Hazrat Ali he comes as resistance to our aims or intentions. Let us not forget that Khizr as guide finds us anyway. God’s special messenger whom none can afford to avoid encountering is suffering. Khizr may well be doning the unattractive robes that we flee from.
      Jackson’s following words illustrates another missing dimension – and illuminating exegesis of narratives in Surah Al-Kahf – in a work that primarily seeks exoteric-historical explanation of an essentially transcendent transhistorical “encounter.”

…in Qur’anic and Sufic lore he guides Iskhandar Dhu al-qarnayn upon the alchemical quest through the Land of Darkness, the nigredo of the Hermetic opus, to the Hyperborean realm beneath the Pole-star where is situated the glittering well-spring of the waters of the Fountain of Immortal Life which marks the supreme Centre (and in this relationship between Ilyas/Al-Khizr and Iskhandar, the Prophet and the Emperor, the Inner Sage and the Outer King, we may see the right disposition obtaining between Sacerdotium and Regnum). Elijah is the pre-eminent prophetic guide in the Primordial Tradition, the invisible Prophet who appears mysteriously (from above) to initiate the solitary elect as a liberative manifestation of God’s mercy and to restore the world in readiness for the coming of the last times. Strictly speaking, Elijah is not identical with Al-Khizr but rather he belongs to the same ‘spiritual family’ as the ‘Green Prophet.’…Rene Guenon tells us, he would be a manifestation of the ‘Angel of the Face’ as the ‘Celestial Pole’ and thus a hypostasis of the ‘King of the World’…”

       Controversies over the belief in hidden Imam in Shias may be illumined by noting that in the esoteric traditions of Shia Islam the Hidden Imam asserts: "I am he whose name in the Gospel is Elijah.”
   Against those theologians who have issued death certificates to Khizr, the weight of Islamic Tradition, its saints, sages and poets or mythographers duly recognized by Dr Lone’s work is succinctly stated by Irfan Omar, “Today Khiḍr can be found in the verses of Iqbal,in the poems of Rumi, and ‘Attar. He has immensely influenced the lives of many a mystic, ascetic and man of God throughout the history of Islam, such as 'Abd al-Karim al-Jili, Ibn ‘Arabi, Mansur al-Hallaj and so on. In the Muslim tradition Khiḍr is alive and well and continues to guide the perplexed and those who invoke his name..” 

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Reading God’s Signs and Silence

It is more correct to say that God finds us the moment we are ready.

There is a commonly repeated complaint that prayers don’t help and God’s number is unreachable. One of the characters of Fazl Ilahi’s recently published The Signs thus gives expression to this complaint: “’God doesn’t help and reward good people. Have you seen Him helping, huh? The thing that doesn’t exist, how can it come to your rescue? Now, when you feel deprived from all sides, you reflexively create the margin for God, or the signs that you talk about. It’s psychological. Blame goes to the mystery and uncertainty of this world that forces you to run for and catch shadows.’ He smiled. ‘You actually don’t need God, you need the will to believe that things can, and surely will, improve if you keep on trying, but you know, people tend to lose hope in themselves. As they get neck deep in crisis, they withdraw into inaction, and pinning hope on something beyond that will ultimately come to their help.’”
      Against this is the consensus of believers and saints and scriptures that one may state in Biblical terms as “Knock and the door shall be opened.” Fazl Illahi deftly presents this through a complex tale involving characters seeking to decipher mysterious signs or events in their lives. For the novelist there is a boat that may ferry us to home/"Mother"/God. In fact it is already ferrying in right direction as God is the boatman for those who surrender self will and duly heed the signs. Our tragedy consists in not trusting boatman or advising him to move as we will/wish.
      The keys to smooth drive/dive are faith in non-self and prayer that melts will in love. “Did you ever feel like searching God like your mother?” as Fazl’s character asks. If yes, one finds Him. In fact it is more correct to say that God finds us the moment we are ready. The very quest to seek Him is itself a sign that one has been chosen to undertake it. Our discontentment with the given state of affairs and decision to seek the deeper meaning is evidence enough that we have found the footprints that are guiding us now to the destiny. We are all seekers, including those who think they have exhausted their search and found nothing worthwhile or no sign. It might well be one’s halt in the “dark night of the soul.” How is explained by Simone Weil the detailed discussion of whom we reserve for some other occasions and here only note in passing that for her “atheism that endures the emptiness of God's absence is a purification. Doubt is not incompatible with faith, for faith is not identical with belief; it is ‘loving in the emptiness’; it is ‘fidelity to the void.’”
      The consensus of prophets, saints, traditional philosophers, believers and wisdom traditions states that there are no facts, only symbols full of meaning for those who see. From everywhere we are surrounded by hordes of angels who remove the obstacles in our path. Traditionally it is believed that our guardian angels are constantly watching us, caring for us (not for our desires but us, what is worthy of care in us). If we are caught in difficult situations, God sends special envoys in the form of angels or Green man Khizr – about which Dr G.Q. Lone has written a book length study – to help us. (Many amongst us can vouch for having received such help.) If He doesn’t, our consequent suffering may well be of use to the soul and in any case we are cared. The world of events constitute signposts/invitation cards from the Other/God/Being to keep the game on. To claim I have found is to drop out of the game. Nothing has exhaustive meaning in itself and as such can only be a sign. Herman Hesse observed “I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.” And “Meaning and reality were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them.” This is what believers and especially mystics have been witnessing and as such they don’t feel lonely in this world. Their unshakable faith in providence propels them through any storm in life. Prayers can accomplish anything and any miracle according to reports from believers. To pray is to dial a special number that unfailingly replies our queries through signs or silence that dissolves queries. In purely rational terms, none knows the secret of any event in every sense or can banish mystery from any occurrence. Faith has worked for countless people and there remains room for it. The “language game” of faith, as Wittgenstein would put it, works. The question if it really corresponds to objective state of affairs can’t/needn’t be answered in purely rational terms. Fazl’s endeavour is to show that “language game” of signs also works. And signs call for attention. Haven’t we been heedless or casual in reading them? Every event/heartache/disappointment/humiliation/trouble is a sign. Face experience in every hue squarely, as if invited by us and one finds one’s home. In fact uncertainty we encounter erases the will or interpreting self and that is finding home. But one needs to note a caveat noted by Hesse’s Dimean, that “One never reaches home, but wherever friendly paths intersect the whole world looks like home for a time.” Permanent home is nowhere and everywhere for those who cease seeking/possessing and trust being.
      Herman Hesse, one of the most influential writers exploring modern man’s spiritual quest and obstacles in the path, has noted: “Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.” Fazl Ilahi brings his wide readings to come up with such felicitous formulations: “I implored each night, kneeling and looking towards the starry firmament, seeking answers. But God chose silence. I questioned my teacher about God’s silence. He told me God spoke in the language we couldn’t hear, and to understand his language we are required to stay silent until we begin to listen. That day on, I forgot to speak even to my only friend in the orphanage, and during our class interactions. I was beaten by people around meant to manage the orphanage for not replying to urgent queries. I was harassed in my class by teachers. But I was determined to equal God’s silence and unknot his language.…My own silence, I felt, was gradually, and at once, penetrating into the silence of the universe and silence of my own self. And I understood that only silence contained the whole essence, and language only broke the essence into fragments of notion.”
      The problem is we have interiorized inadequate conceptions regarding God, providence, guidance, heaven and hell and then find ourselves burdened with unanswered questions or problems. The point is that God’s care may well consist of not caring for our whims or attachments to familiar landscapes or relationships that bind us or obstruct our encounter with the Void within where what is called God/Heaven meets us. One recalls Hesse’s Siddharta, “I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.” Or as Fazl’s character puts it: “In this world of affliction, each one of us feels to be the most afflicted, until we start cursing our stars, and then, we happen to meet our alter ego riddled with greater affliction than us, thrashing home the point that each one is burdened with what he can bear.” How is explained in The Signs: “To find Him I was told to travel from the silence of the tongue to the silence of the mind, from the silence of the mind to the silence of the soul, and from silence of the soul to the soul of the silence.” If we really understand what God stands for we will not have any complaints or even impatient petitions. We would understand how silence of the stars or “deaf” heavens may itself be part of the answer we need. The problem is the agitated mind/craving and the way to solution is nafs al-mutma’innah. As Hesse puts it “We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. It is a way of bitter suffering. But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, for our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being.”
      Fazl’s lucid prose attempts to explore universal symbols or signs in a Kashmiri setting marshaling the mystical resources of the land and people to communicate what is quintessentially human and thus universal. It is the wisdom of the East in general and Kashmir in particular that he seeks to present in contemporary idiom and as such should interest anyone struggling with the questions of faith or meaning or identity. One should not expect anything new in wisdom literature but appreciate refreshing way in which old or timeless insights of saints and sages are distilled and summoned for helping souls caught in the ambiguous world where one fails to read signs as Fazl notes or one finds with Hesse’s Dimean that it is very difficult to live in accord with the promptings which came from our true self. It is heartening to greet a new novel that we can’t circumscribe as yet another work on Kashmir or politics but treats, in line with works on wisdom literature, problems in a way and idiom that anyone, anywhere could identify or engage with. 

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Could it be avoided?

Understanding Why Good People Must Suffer.

Weil explains how the idea of seeking some comfort for Imam Hussain’s camp or temptation of advising other actors in the drama or God to redirect some of its elements in more humane or moral terms that is often indulged in by some Muslims is premised on failure to understand the basic design. “Renunciation demands that we should pass through anguish equivalent to that which would be caused in reality by the loss of all loved beings and all possession, including our faculties and attainments in the order of intelligence and character, our opinions, beliefs concerning what is good, what is stable, etc. And we must not lay these things down of ourselves but lose them—like Job…” We find true renunciation in Hussain(A.S) who offers or loses all things, relationships and the last and most dear treasure, life.
      In fact ultimately it is a childish question to ask how Hussain(A.S) could have saved himself or struck a better deal that avoided such a tragic outcome. Man as such has no choice but to embrace cross and carry it. To the question why subject to suffering Jesus or Hussain if they are sinless and what is justice in making them sort of scapegoats for community, for sinners, evidences failure of comprehension of what is sin and what is atonement and how the task is the birth of Christ/Hussain in each one of us. Hussain’s story is ours. Corbin, however, explains this insight best. “There is an Imam Husayn within each man: his intellect (Aql), whose divine splendour is a light that derives from the Imam. But this inner Imam is surrounded by enemies (Jahl), and these are all the powers of the carnal soul that issue from the shadow of the Imam's enemies. Within every man there unfolds a tragedy of Karbala. In the Karbala of his heart, it may happen that the powers of the carnal soul kill the intellect and the angelic companions who assist it, and uproot all traces of them from man's heart. Then indeed there is accomplished in each one of us, word for word (harfan bi-harfin), the ta'wil (esoteric dimension) of the tragedy of Karbala.”
      To the objection that Hussain was blameless, Simone Weil would say that he shared the blame of being. It has been rightly noted that if our being were not ultimately a scandal, there would have been no death. And one’s being innocent in ordinary sense makes one better able to carry the cross in style. Martyrdom is no punishment. How do we know, as Socrates long back pointed out, that death is a punishment? To quote Weil, “If a human being who is in a state of perfection and has through grace completely destroyed the 'I' in himself, falls into that degree of affliction which corresponds for him to the destruction of the 'I' from outside - we have there the cross in its fullness. Affliction can no longer destroy the 'I' in him for the 'I' in him no longer exists, having completely disappeared and left the place to God."
      She further notes, “If we find fullness of joy in the thought that God is, we must find the same fullness in the knowledge that we ourselves are not, for it is the same thought. And this knowledge is extended to our sensibility only through suffering and death.” “It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then to carry it every day.”
      The cosmic scale of injustice against Hussain may be appreciated by noting  Weil’s another remark  stating that what is sacred is impersonal and thus shared by us all and this implies that if it is desecrated, all are affected. Our responsibility/guilt is either cosmic or extends to whole of humanity or it is not there at all. (This is illuminated by a remark in Dostoevsky and elaborated by Levinas to the effect that for any crime anywhere by anyone we are all responsible and the one who asserts this is more responsible.) 
      Lastly we turn from moral (what ought to be) to ontological plane (what is) to illuminate more disturbing aspects of the problem of evil that arise in connection with Karbala. A few remarks follow:
  • If there is a Spirit that is to be identified with the power to say “I” or witnessing consciousness, nothing worthwhile could be destroyed in Karbala. As Weil has remarked nothing can take away our power to say “I.” The Spirit can’t be conquered, even touched in the least by anything under the sun. It is and remains incorruptible. It is the Spirit in us that makes all of us including the worst criminals worthy of redemption.
  • Our job is to resist destruction but let decreation happen. Acting our part well in the drama of life by crossing the self and embracing the other, or as Shakespeare teaches us, to live as if we are actors on the stage and thus play our role as underdogs, as those frowned upon, well. (This doesn’t mean that injustice has not to be fought for our role as activists for fighting evil is equally a role we are required to play well. And revealed laws offer us guidelines of playing our roles without allowing us to assume the role of directors, to take anything too personally. They show how God can take away the pain in our suffering).
  • Existence is ultimately justified only in aesthetic terms, noted Nietzsche. Sufi thinkers and Muslim poets in general (who are almost all Sufistically inclined in their poetry at least) concur with the primacy of the aesthetic/ontological stating that we must raise from moralistic to ontological plane to appreciate how God is ever in control in all affairs, how everything contributes to larger good (again not to be reduced to moralistic plane but to be identified with plenitude, existence) and see things from God’s viewpoint which is the view from nowhere and everywhere. Villains in the drama of life, like Satan in the cosmic drama, have a role that must be recognized. All things, save God’s Face/Being are destined to perish. There remains a terrible beauty behind every event of which Yeats talks. The cosmic dance appreciated in a Unitarian vision “justifies” all and our task remains both of contemplation of the unity/transcendence of opposites and joining the dance and siding with justice at the dualistic plane on which drama of unity unfolds. A world without Hussain and Karbala would be an impoverished world in both moral and aesthetic terms where much of the fire of love and passion and warmth of tears and the wild cry for justice would be absent. Moralism should not blind us to the element of beauty and limitations of moralistic-legalistic response. “Lives become petty and laughable to the extent that they shy away from the presence of the tragic. And to the extent that they participate in a sacred horror, they become human. It may be that this paradox is too great and to difficult to uphold: still, it is no less the truth of life than blood is.”
  • Sunni-Shia polemic over Karbala and debates over other choices offered to Imam Hussain may be put in perspective by noting that the latter tried to achieve objective of setting right time out of joint without uprising and without inviting death for anyone. But things are as they are – where ill will (“cursed spite”) has its way. And this means unavoidable tragedy. And point to be noted is Hussain thanked God for the sacrifice offered. In fact tragedies, mournings and elegies accomplish certain ends and help express certain truths of spirit and as such are found everywhere in the world. Religion is sacrifice, a point illustrated across traditions (a brilliant exposition one may find in AKC’s Hinduism and Buddhism).The world is a product of sacrifice by the Supreme Self. Violence we find in institutions of sacrifice is part of the kitty of psycho-spiritual health – one needs to review the debate on violence and the Sacred in philosophy and anthropology to appreciate how violence – of which ultimate expression is hell – accomplish purification and why should the noblest and most virtuous humans – prophets/sages – be chosen to suffer in style?
  • Karbala is only an instantiation of Karb-o-bala that constitute the very tapestry of life and as such can’t be avoided. A mother’s sacrifice in raising a family has been compared to any grand story of sacrifice. Since it happens daily and we are too familiar with it, we don’t salute mothers and sing great songs on routine basis for remembering them.
  • The debate on cursing Yazid may be illuminated by recalling the Biblical verse stating that scandals must come but woe to those through whose hands they come. It hardly matters if one formally curses those hands as God/History/the Poet anyway curse on our behalf.
  • A world without suffering would be God/Heaven/Utopia and thus impossible or not a world as we know it.
      Whether truth wins in particular historical conditions is not an issue. People often forget the distinction between divine will as expressed in scripture or revealed law and ontological will that ultimately prevails. For instance God forbids murder and injustice but these things happen in His world by His leave though He is not pleased with such acts. What is real is what prevails and that is no less divine in its roots or thingness/being than is scripture. At the root of certain difficulties arising in understanding Karbala is prior misconception regarding religion understood in nauseatingly sentimental/moral terms (‘Be good, sweet child,’ etc) invoking pleasure/pain duality and neglect of the intellectual virtues (which alone survive our death) – as noted by AKC. We must find deeper import of Karbala at another plane. 

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Some Difficult Questions

Reading Simone Weil to illuminate certain nagging questions on the meaning of Karbala.

There are some profound questions that Karbala raises that haven’t been satisfactorily addressed by Muslim scholars dominating the pulpit, or better known scholars of seminaries although Muslim poets and sages have to an extent engaged with them. As such certain inadequately theorized notions have been persisting making us oblivious of deeper issues. Depending on one’s background or prejudices, one finds certain elements or stories in transmitted accounts either unbelievable or lacking historical credence or incongruous. How come, for instance, Imam Hussain’s camp should beg for water? How come he was seeking safe exit or embraced death after he had no other option? What about attempts to exonerate Yazid or even mildly reprimand Hussain or downplaying meta-historical or mythic or cosmic significance of Karbala or asking what was God doing when little children who had not sinned against either Yazid or God were crying for water. Are required to imagine them being atoning for sins of the community? Aren’t there significant parallels with the accounts of heroes suffering cross or death and subsequent rebirth elsewhere in the world?  If things are ultimately to be judged from God’s viewpoint and all things contribute to good or can be justified in aesthetic terms isn’t the emphasis on the tragic and mourning only half truth that misses deeper or higher supra-moral ontological intellectual aesthetic viewpoint that is in a way deeper one? I think these questions are better addressed if we take note of insights of Simone Weil whose thought converges in significant manner with great sages/Sufis. 
      Weil’s statement “At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being. Every time that there arises from the depths of a human heart the childish cry which Christ himself could not restrain, 'Why am I being hurt?', then there is certainly injustice” should help settle the question of exonerating Yazid. Who doesn’t feel that justice or good has been defied under the desert sun of Karbala? Although complex trajectory of events in which much theology has been later invested can’t be incontestably reconstructed and adjudicated in legal terms in any court retrospectively, it is indeed the case that the verdict expressive of collective conscience of humanity represented best by the poets  across cultures is for Hussain and against Yazid and as such no apology on behalf of Yazid really matters when Hussain and Yazid have become symbols of good and evil in mytho-poetic space of mankind, especially Islamic world. 
      Weil further explains why to be human is to seek martyrdom: “God gave me being in order that I should give it back to him. It is like one of those traps whereby the characters are tested in fairy stories and tales on initiation. If I accept this gift it is bad and fatal; its virtue becomes apparent through my refusal of it. God allows me to exist outside himself. It is for me to refuse this authorization… Humility is the refusal to exist outside God. It is the queen of virtues. The self is only the shadow which sin and error cast by stopping the light of God, and I take this shadow for a being.” The idea of martyrdom is basically witnessing God alone or consuming oneself manifesting His glory. This may be achieved by what Simone Weil calls decreation. Decreation may be effected through horrendous evil and may involve in many cases extreme violence, extreme humiliation, deprivation and distress or forced detachment from everything that binds one to the order of creation. Affliction, as distinguished from mere suffering, is what better describes the mechanism of decreation. Understanding this point means we don’t ask for compensations to heroes of Karbala and don’t think of any filler of the void like comfort from this or that quarter to sully the innocence and dignity of spirit. It dissuades one to think that we could have been of some use to the heroes. If we weep, it is ultimately for ourselves, for what we share with our beloved heroes, for desecration of the impersonal sacred that grounds our fellowship of spirit. Let us avoid facile apologies for what happened in Karbala and face the heat and thirst and rain of arrows that wrench the attachment to flesh, to pleasure, to all what is not eternal and thus not deserving to be saved. Here is Weil’ scorching logic of grace and redemption:“I should not love my suffering because it is useful. I should love it because it is.
       To accept what is bitter. The acceptance must not be reflected back on to the bitterness so as to diminish it, otherwise the acceptance will be proportionately diminished in force and purity, for the thing to be accepted is that which is bitter in so far as it is bitter; it is that and nothing else. We have to say like Ivan Karamazov that nothing can make up for a single tear from a single child, and yet to accept all tears and the nameless horrors which are beyond tears. We have to accept these things, not in so far as they bring  compensations with them, but in themselves. We have to accept the fact that they exist simply because they do exist.” And “We should seek neither to escape suffering nor to suffer less, but to remain untainted by suffering. “We should make every effort we can to avoid affliction, so that the affliction which we meet with may be perfectly pure and perfectly bitter.” Since “to say “I’ is to lie” one can be redeemed by smashing  oneself as if “using a hammer to strike a nail with all the force one can muster, a nail whose tip rests on the self.”
      What happened in Karbala is believed to be providential (traditionally believed to be predicted in important details decades before it happened) – or has been redeemed by the result with around 70 people carrying cross (one can make exceptions of one or more children who couldn’t be imagined to freely consenting to die). Those who understand the passion of the Christ  and are abreast with the great tradition of literature on mediations on the cross (Muslims have, generally speaking, been superficially engaging with that theme as their interest has been more polemical and political disguised as theological than properly philosophical or religious in what happened before the finale of crucifixion – whether crucifixion is a crucifiction, as Ahmed Deedat would popularize the expression, doesn’t affect the significance of the fact that Jesus was persecuted, humiliated and taken to the cross and suffered so much before his ascension to heaven in Muslim account), will readily understand Karbala. Let us note why decreation is needed for each one of us and a sort of Karbala must be enacted or chosen for redemption for vast majority of mankind – God anyway makes us taste something of Karbala in many ways, detailed below. To understand how it could be providential, we may invoke Weil’s notion of decreation (equivalent of Sufi notion of fana or dying before death): “Decreation: to make something created pass into the uncreated.
      At each moment our existence is God’s love for us. But God can only love himself. His love for us is love for himself through us. Thus, he who gives us our being loves in us the acceptance of not being. Our existence is made up only of his waiting for our acceptance not to exist. He is perpetually begging from us that existence which he gives. He gives it to us in order to beg it from us.
      Relentless necessity, wretchedness, distress, the crushing burden of poverty and of labour which wears us out, cruelty, torture, violent death, constraint, disease—all these constitute divine love. It is God who in love withdraws from us so that we can love him. For if we were exposed to the direct radiance of his love, without the protection of space, of time and of matter, we should be evaporated like water in the sun; there would not be enough ‘I’ in us to make it possible to surrender the ‘I’ for love’s sake.”
      She explains further, “The contemplation of human misery wrenches us in the direction of God, and it is only in others whom we love as ourselves that we can contemplate it. We can neither contemplate it in ourselves as such nor in others as such. The extreme affliction which overtakes human beings does not create human misery, it merely reveals it.” Few know that our state in this world is worse than those who were left to mourn on that fateful night (sham-i gareeban).Our extreme poverty, wretchedness and misery is known to prophets, saints, great tragedians and such philosophers as Pascal and Weil. Modern philosophers and writers have aptly presented our penury. Our sin is our very being as Sufis and ascetics would put it and this necessitates radical operation of decreation through such mechanisms as reliving sham-i gareeban. As Weil puts it:
  • “In a sense God renounces being everything [by creating the universe. Indian scriptures’  allusion to the world or creation as sacrifice is similarly explicable]. We should renounce being something. That is our only good.
    Once we have understood we are nothing, the object of all our efforts is to become nothing. It is for this that we suffer with resignation, it is for this that we act, it is for this that we pray.
    May God grant me to become nothing.
    In so far as I become nothing, God loves himself through me.” 

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Choosing to be Nobody: (Mis)Understanding the Passion for Fame

Understanding, with Simone Weil, the pathology of being somebody and invitation to martyrdom as an offering of “I”

Arguably nine tenths of problems we face at personal, familial and social levels are due to wrong view of oneself and one’s vocation. We have not been taught or haven’t interiorized first shahadah/kalima that teaches us to give up the notion of ordinary self/ego for transpersonal Self. The passion for fame or for self aggrandizement or power or position or bossing in administrative career, awards, rewards and recognition are all aspects of the pathology of self-knowledge. Check again your deepest motivation when you choose your career. If it is for certain glamour for getting a name or becoming somebody instead of discovering nobody we truly are, one is doomed to pursue an illusion. If one is an ambitious man of career, gets readily irritated, maintains a distance from fellow people one meets in the street every day, is ever thinking about promotions, not nice to one’s family or ever complains about society that didn’t recognize oneself, one must treat the problem within as infection by the virus of ego that apes God. 
      Rene Guenon, arguably the greatest metaphysician/sage of the twentieth century and peerless expositor of Sufism whose profound works helped change intellectual trajectory of Western elite and evinced great admiration from the rector of Al-Azhar Shaykh ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmoud, lived so anonymously that “an admirer of his writings was dumb founded to discover that the venerable next door neighbor whom she had known for years as Shaykh Abdul Wahid Yahya is in reality Rene Guenon.” One can recognize a genuine Sufi Master by noting how averse he/she is to attention. Genius is anonymous, talent seeks attention. Maughm aptly remarked  that in a century there is only a couple of geniuses, the rest are talent. One of these moral, intellectual, spiritual geniuses was arguably Simone Weil. (Education or mere intelligence don’t make a genius - “A village idiot in the literal sense of the word, if he really loves truth, is infinitely superior to Aristotle in his thought” – Weil noted). Her exposition of pathologies of ego or self bragging, often noticed in average minds and writers, should constitute necessary reading for all who beg for praise or recognition in poetry sessions, in TV shows, on the pulpit or any podium. 
      Weil notes that “love of truth is always accompanied by humility. Real genius is nothing else but the supernatural virtue of humility in the domain of thought.” What Eliot noted for impersonal in art, Simone Weil extends further and states: “Gregorian chant, Romanesque architecture, the Iliad, the invention of geometry were not, for the people through whom they were brought into being and made available to us, occasions for the manifestation of personality. When science, art, literature, and philosophy are simply the manifestation of personality they are on a level where glorious and dazzling achievements are possible, which can make a man's name live for thousands of years. But above this level, far above, separated by an abyss, is the level where the highest things are achieved. These things are essentially anonymous. It is pure chance whether the names of those who reach this level are preserved or lost; even when they are remembered they have become anonymous. Their personality has vanished… 
      What is sacred in science is truth; what is sacred in art is beauty. Truth and beauty are impersonal. All this is too obvious.” “So far from its being his person, what is sacred in a human being is the impersonal in him.” 
      There are many intelligent professors, doctors, writers, bureaucrats who, due to their pride, don’t mind saying or implying to someone “You do not interest me.” Weil retorts: “No man can say these words to another without committing a cruelty and offending against justice.” “The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell”  and “the only way into truth is through one's own annihilation; through dwelling a long time in a state of extreme and total humiliation.” This is what Karbala demonstrates. The Karbala, the equivalent of the Cross and Night of Golgotha in Islam, can’t have been less horrendous. One must be stripped of everything, every support, every filler of the Void and then one qualifies for being the prince of martyrs. Read Lear.
      Richard Schain has noted, “Kant’s characterization of a person’s existence as a speck of sand in an infinity of time has been amply confirmed by the scientific study of the physical universe. It is impossible to conceive that an individual in his physical being can have any significance in the cosmos – it is absurdity to imagine otherwise. Thus the persistent attempt of individuals to develop a circle of influence and thus transcend their own miniscule being. The reality is, however, that this effort is not worth the trouble since a hundred, a thousand, a million specks of sand have little more significance than one alone. A sand castle on an endless beach in an infinity of time is soon erased by the elements.” “Srinagar and its mountains were there before I was born and would  be there after I go. I am not indispensable to the universe,” as was often emphasized by remarkably humble Kashmir University teacher and lover of anonymity G.R. Mir. Since one can be stripped of everything by chance, as Weil elsewhere noted, except the power of saying “I,” we are required to offer this “I” to God. And this is true martyrdom. Who is ready for the enduring the affliction or cross – “shahdat gah-i ulfat” – and join lovers of blessed Ali/Hussain? Islam understood not as a creedal proposition but an act of surrender of “I” and witnessing there is no reality but Reality, no “i” but “I,” constitutes, according to sages, the kalima of every authentic religious/mystical/wisdom tradition we know and this is indeed the only acceptable religion proclaimed by God to man through His Books/sages.
      “Fame enslaves the Gods and Men” is a saying attributed to Heraclitus. “Activity arising from the desire for fame is merely the extension of the animal herd instinct into the more sophisticated life evolved in civilization. There is really no difference in kind between the yearning for professional, political or artistic recognition and a wolf wishing to lead or even just be part of a pack of wolves. (And woe to the lone wolf who does not fit into the pack.)” “The only ambition that can be allowed free rein is to live the life of the mind, the bios theoretikos of antique Greek philosophy. The individual must center his ambitions on his own mind. Ambition focused elsewhere is a road map to a downward direction of life and degradation of the human potential.” One’s true dignity is measurable by noting how far he has overcome the lust for fame, “the last infirmity of the noble mind.”
      The author of The Cloud of Unknowing noted: "There can be no greater sorrow than the truly wise man can feel, than to reflect that "he" is still "someone."  Why? Because everything perishes and what stays is God’s Name or divine face (Al-Quran 28:88) – the Being in beings. Be attuned to Being. Surrender. Contemplate. See the other and witness the seer that sees. An artist is transformed by the vision and that is his reward. Fame is not his concern. Fame is an afterglow of the lamp of virtue that doesn’t interest the lamp or the virtuous. Authentic individual has no time for himself. In fact we truly live outside ourselves – the very word exist indicates this – as a great phenomenologist would often remind us. “He only can be free who is no longer anyone.” “Our end will have been attained when we are no longer anyone. That must not, of course, be confused with annihilation; the end of all becoming is in being, or rather, the source of being, richer than any being...”
Post Script:
If one is asked to cite an example from literary figures of Kashmir who have interiorized, to an extent, the ideal explicated here, my choice would be, among others, Prof. Sanuallah Mir Parvaz, Prof. Shabir Ahmed Mir (pharmacologist and self taught philosopher) and Muhammad Ahsan Ahsan, (who was for many Mr Dependable or the Dravid of cultural team of North Kashmir) from Hajin – the remarkable command post of literary culture or one of the few bastions of endangered entity called culture. What has been remarkable about all of them is enviable freedom from oneself or personality or obsession with being So and so. They have shunned publicity and didn’t prefer to occupy podium. They are not given to long speeches and imposing their  presence anywhere. About Ahsan Saheb one may specifically remark that he was arguably the most unassuming of our literary figures. He hardly ever talked about himself. He declined to publish his collection of poetry during his life. He didn’t court fame or advertisement of his achievements that in any case was impressive by any standard. Ahsan Saheb indeed understood what so many people including modern poets have not understood about life that “The real world is the one within the walls of homes; the outside world, of careers and politics and money and fame, that was the fake world, where nothing lasted, and things were real only to the extent they harmed or helped people inside their homes." He seems to have interiorized Rilke’s mantra “Make your ego porous. Will is of little importance, complaining is nothing, fame is nothing. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything.” Ahsan Saheb seems to have taken more seriously than most of his contemporaries, the ideal expressed by Hemmingway thus: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self” and W.E.B. Du Bois’ point that "The worker must work for the glory of his handiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame." 

Monday, 17 September 2018

Discussions with a remarkable Teacher

Recalling some insights of Prof. Saleem Iqbal

Kashmir keeps producing some memorable personalities who die unsung. One such personality, Prof. Saleem Iqbal, left us last year. His death was a loss to Kashmir’s intellectual and spiritual culture. He was larger than life, a man of immense energy, indefatigable adventurer of mindscape, reasonably good reader of select classics, friend of the poor and the marginalized and a scholar-scientist attentive to violence of exclusion in dominant epistemes of science and theology. He was among the very few truly educated professors who had not sold soul to specialization (viz. knowing only “more and more about less and less”) and knew a wider world and with authority. He knew more and more about his history, culture and religion and the ideologies that summon us to abstractions or utopias. He minced no words in giving strong judgments though occasionally one could feel him courting extremes. What was especially impressive was his generosity of spirit and catholicity of mind that excluded only violent exclusivism of certain men and ideologies. He was so generous with helping people, so careless with saving money, so fond of books that cost didn’t matter and so passionate about certain classics. His meticulous care for words displayed in his writings, his humour, his biting satire, his eloquence, his magnanimity and hospitality endeared him to a vast number of students. He had his critics and limitations but what is significant is he was  able to be himself – a  unique, creative personality who read less but meditated much on what he read and amazed scholars with his incisive analyses. His classes were not reduced to ritual of dictating notes but involved number of “distractions” that illuminated dark recesses of life with incisive wit and flashes of wisdom. More than a teacher who maintains certain formal decorum and can’t afford a hearty laugh and frank conversation with students, he was interested in cultivating fellowship of mind and spirit.I fail to imagine him dead. He lives on in many of his scripted stories of relationships and lives. It was such a joy to be with him. How come such a vibrant spirit whom nothing could vanquish in his life gets consigned to oblivion of death? Such spirits demand and command immortality of a sort. Consenting to live in this or another world where his boisterous company would be missing is a torture that can’t be borne except on the premise of hope that traditional eschatologies and such philosophies as those of Whitehead take into account. He lives in his small but impressive library although many books were buried with him as he had many ideas that could be developed into book length works. As a tribute to his memory I wish we had some library or regular award or annual seminar or fellowship instituted in his name. His close relationships have long association with books or education and I hope they take up the initiative. It is heartening to note that Kashmir Comparative Literary and Philosophical Foundation has decided to institute “Dr. Saleem Award for Contribution to Culture” on the eve of its proposed upcoming international seminar on the legacy of Allama Anwar Shah Kashmiri.
      Saleem Iqbal spent his life meditating on the Quran and cultural decay of the Muslim world. Political decay didn’t haunt on him as he believed that “yeh hukoomet toa aani jani hae.” He didn’t buy the idea that God’s hukoomat could be challenged and restored as he emphasized ontological or existential rather than legal or political meaning of God’s sovereignty. Saleem Iqbal grew in a Jamaat-e Islami family and his father is still proud of his association with the same. He himself was in love with Syed Moududi’s literary style and some of his works such as Khilfat wa Mulookiyat. It was destined for him to distance himself from it and from puritanical ideologies such as Neo-Salafism. One may summarize his critique of ideological movements and certain contemporary attitudes in Muslims here:
  • Jamaat e Islami scholarship takes inadequate note of the centrality of the spiritual or mystical in Islam. He shared, like most Kashmiris, scores of personally attested encounters with mystics/shrines that count indubitable evidence for sacred interventions that many secular rationalists and so-called Salafis dismiss as superstition. There are countless narratives that people vouch for that call for no other explanation than efficacy of sacred space/soul planes or other hidden bodies we all possess but saints cultivate in particular. There is enough empirical evidence for scientists who don’t subscribe to any religious or mystical tradition to begin with, that sacred spaces/blessed and blessing objects/invoking of divine names in certain manner received from saints work wonders and these need to be acknowledged and celebrated and any theology that fails to account for them and dismiss such phenomena as healing for apparently fatal diseases in shrines as mere superstition or idolatry has problems. Before one dismisses faith healing attributed to “dead” saints/shrines one may check reviews of belief by researchers and huge data base on Lord’s shrine, for instance, that support its reality though its mechanism is an open question.
  • He argued for a different, Sufi reading of the concept of tawhid that made ample room for what is called khosh aetiqadi in Kashmir. One could cite Islam’s belief in plurality of angels as corresponding to plurality of devas – literally “shining one,” “spirits of light” recalling association of angels with light, a point that Iqbal also noted in a footnote on the initial publication of his poem  based on Gayatri Mantra. Failure to understand this point  that different angels (and not multiple gods) are assigned different tasks and no task is assigned to what is called God that excludes causal relationships in ordinary course of nature leads to misreading of other “polytheistic” religions and unfounded charge of shirk against some. He passionately argued for duly recognizing Sufi wujoodi face of Syed Ali Hamdani and major Sufi poets and orthodox warrant for much of popular practices from Sufi music sessions to khatams to prayer food culture to urs celebrations – one could point out embarrassing material for the critics of Khosh aetiqad Kashmiris in Shah Waliullah’s authentic biography Al-Qaul al-Jali so little known because of politics of publishing/reading culture – to  substantiate his endorsement of common Kashmiri’s negative perception regarding Jamaat e Islami/Neo-Salafist understanding of the mystical/spiritual and methodological errors in their stray quoting of authorities from Ibn Taymiyyah to Shah Waliullah.
  • In Kashmir Islam and its great saints and sages had little difficulty in establishing because indigenous spiritual culture premised on either Buddhist emphasis on transcendence or Saivist Unitarianism was appreciated and assimilated in the Wujoodi Sufi metaphysics of  Sufis such as Syed Ali Hamdani and key figures in Kashmiri Sufism  down to Ahad Zargar. He was a fan of Ahad Bab and claimed to have been helped by him in certain crucial matters. He would often keep singing verses of great Sufi poets like Shams Faqir. He had special love for places visited by Shaykh al-Alam and had planned documenting them. According to him sacred geography of Srinagar remained unknown to Kashmiris in general. He observed that miracles attributed to saints are imprinted in history and earth in a manner that none could deny. He was not credulous but kept his eyes open and refrained to pass hasty dismissive judgments he was used to in his early life. The greatest proof of God is presence and power of spirit in saints and almost every third Kashmiri will vouch for inexplicable secrets and happenings (adim basten menz chi sir)  and attest some encounter with them and can narrate authenticated events that defy ordinary rationalist/exotericist explanation.
  • Against certain so-called Salafis (better designated Neo-Salafis to distinguish them from genuine followers of Salaf in which we must include followers/continuators of great Imams of legal schools and generality of Sha’riah conscious Sufis in whom we include, among others, Ibn Taymiyyah and his great students) who oppose mainstream tasawwuf and local elements in religion in the name of certain purism and supposed tawhid centrism, he had a series of observations based on his profound meditations on the Quran. He often referred to the Quranic allusions to the sacred space such as Maqam-e-Ibrahim (Allama Kashmiri alluded to the event of leading prayer in Bait al-lahm by the Prophet S.A.W due to the fact that Jesus was born there during his nocturnal journey as proving sacred space notion in Islam), Taboot-i Sakinah and also to traditional accounts recounting how the Companions treasured the Prophet’s hair or other associated objects. Sacred relics are in every religion, every culture and dismissing them as shirk is dismissing unanimous tradition of mankind as such. The same applies to the notion of sacred space. 
  • For him it is Islam as lived by community during last 14 centuries that accommodated/appropriated lots of indigenous cultural practices and didn’t impose any single story of some theologian or school. Sunnah understood as established path/well known practice in tradition is not to be reduced to the constructions based on ahad (solitary reports) narratives which remain, in principle, ever subject to further clarification or get filtered in legalistic manuals or codified hadith exegesis.
  • It is amazing to note how he drew one’s attention to verses or their other possible meanings one ordinarily hastily passes by. For instance he often asked whether the verse stating that the Christ’s true believers would prevail over the unbelievers till the Day of Resurrection (3:55) implied God’s endorsement of certain dominance of the Christian West and if not why not. It is true that Muslim truly follow the Christ but are they alone in thus following him? Is it possible to deny the share claimed by Christians? He would often point about the problems in dismissing clear import of the categorical Quranic endorsements – nusoos that can’t be wished away or interpreted away or overridden by resorting to certain solitary reports that are often cited to overturn the unambiguous import of the former – of scripture in circulation in the 7th century with the People of the Book (that has essentially remained unchanged since then) as Ahl-e Kitab are repeatedly told to practise what is with them and judge by their books. He argued that most exegetes of the Quran and such classic works as Ibn Hazm’s Kitab al fasl fi al-milal wa al-ahwa wa al-nihal have imposed their own notions while trying to understand such verses. Once converted to Islam, however, he noted that it made no sense to judge certain parts by previous books. He sided with the view of most of major early Muslim scholars that the charge of changing scripture against Ahl-e Kitab means tahreef-i manwi and not tahreef-i lafzi. And he further emphasized that legal injunctions get overridden with coming of new scripture and not essence of deen and hikmah. Most Muslims seem to forget that the Quranic attitude is in principle one of affirmation rather than nullification of previous revelations.
  • He expressed deep anguish at contemporary situation in Madrasahas and pleaded for Oxford style academic and research orientation in them and what Allama Anwar Shah Kashmiri called lecture style teaching that reviews current status of discourse and then moves forward with creative interventions from teachers replacing memory centric textualist and commentary upon commentary style class room teaching. He would often be lamenting poor exposure of Madrasah students to larger world and cutting edge modern debates and psychological stresses that help explaining their huge dropout rates. He lamented that Madrasah children are mostly deprived of wider rhythms of life – quality physical education or sports, extracurricular activities, creativity, use of smart rooms or modern audiovisual aids in class rooms, inadequate intellectual stimulation through anxiety against exposure to the other, widespread ignorance of globally ruling lingua franca – and with the result compromised development of healthy personality. He argued for revisiting overemphasis on hifz given the original  rationale for doing it – prevention of loss of scripture – no longer pressing. What worried him was the meager salary of Madrasah staff and failure to realize immense potential in some of them.
  • A few books that he would recom
  • 3mend, even buy for you if you showed some interest, included Kulliyat of major poets including Kashmiri Sufi poets and great biographies such as Hali’s Hayat-i Javid and Yadgar-i Galib and anti-sectarian works such as Bhai Bhai (Shia Sunni)  and some works on Jinah (he loved him as the greatest leader of Muslims in the subcontinent).
      Dr. Saleem emphasized (sometimes overemphasized) spirit over letter, Religion over religions, Sufism over philosophy and substance over form. He penetrated to the heart or genesis of the matter and gave us remarkable insights. He was not widely read but had assimilated whatever little from the classics he had access to. He emphasized danger in identifying shariah with fiqh and Islam with islam. Dr. Saleem we remember you and pray you rest in peace contemplating God whom you always sought to put first.