Thursday, 16 November 2017

In Defense of Tradition: Revisiting G K Chesterton

He disarms popular critiques of religion from all kinds of modern Western critics.
Chesterton is arguably amongst the most brilliant spokespersons and stylists of Tradition-centric worldview. If we want to see how every view that scoffs at God and religion is an abuse of intelligence, or misreading of their object, or failure hardly worth our consideration, read G.K Chesterton. Chesterton (along with C.S Lewis and Peter Kreeft whom he influenced) disarms popular critiques of  religion from all kinds of modern Western critics. While recognizing the antidolatrous function of certain insightful critiques in modern readings of religion, one may also read Shaykh Abdul Wahid Yahya, Shaykh Isa and Huston Smith to puncture the balloon of secularist critique and dismissal of world religions on scientific or philosophical grounds.
      Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is arguably the most forceful, lucid and articulate expression of a host of beliefs mostly shared by major world religions and disputed in the modern secular West. Read along with Shaykh Isa’s “Orthodoxy and Intellectuality” one appreciates how the question of right doctrines in religion and theology is a question of serious thinking or intellectuality (Chesterton put it as “theology is only thought applied to religion”). Chesterton “never used a useless word and avoided what was trite" and summoned the best witnesses from the dead and the living to defend the case of an aspect of Tradition (not his case). You are with the millennial intuitions of prophets and discoveries of sages (as represented by Chesterton) or against them. Our task is to understand him and not to agree or disagree with his key statements that embody the Tradition.
      Here is Chesterton on the need to believe in God or better Absolute, the Alpha and Omega of man’s destiny: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”  Atheists in this view should be taken to task – we can’t agree more – if they could be accused of abusing intelligence or failure to keep first things first or properly  caring for their “ultimate concern.” Those who have vainly talked about presuppositionless philosophy and unreasonableness of belief in the absence of sufficient evidence Chestrton thus chastises: “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” For certain relativists miscalled liberals there is nothing solid. Why Tradition can’t be ignored or circumvented? Chesterton explains: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”
        What Chesterton most brilliantly batted for include such irritating and “superstitious” things for antitraditional moderns as learning to wonder and living with a sense of mystery, miracles, myths, fables, fairy tales, magic, metaphysical and spiritual significance of poetry and play. “We should always endeavor to wonder at the permanent thing, not at the mere exception. We should be startled by the sun, and not by the eclipse. We should wonder less at the earthquake, and wonder more at the earth.”  “Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.”  “The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.”  “Nothing is poetical if plain daylight is not poetical; and no monster should amaze us if the normal man does not amaze.” “If I can put one touch of rosy sunset into the life of any man or woman, I shall feel that I have worked with God.”“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.” Reading Chesterton one sees how religion reveals usually concealed garden of love, laughter, mystery, play and joy – a blooming life of mind and spirit.
      The most fundamental attitude of religion Chasterton identifies as gratitude to the author of life and ground of mystery recalls the Quranic approach of characterizing faith and disbelief in terms of reverence/gratitude and irreverence/ingratitude towards the gift and mystery of life and its bounties. “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” And “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”  “The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things.” We know that the first demand of God in the first chapter of the Quran is for hamd or praise (that follows appreciation).
      Chesterton wrote: “The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” He would have laughed away his friend GBS’s remark that “Cricket is a game played by 22 fools and watched by 22,000 fools” by pointing out how play is worship, a ritual, a play of the Spirit. Spiritual significance of play may be recalled by considering a reading by Dreyfus and Kelley of David Foster Wallace’s view  of sports in the backdrop of quest for transcendence in the secular age. Few of us know that play invokes and evokes the Sacred. Fewer know why we play and why children are so close to God by virtue of their passion for play. “Happy is he who still loves something he loved in the nursery: He has not been broken in two by time; he is not two men, but one, and he has saved not only his soul but his life.”
      As fresh air and clean water are to healthy body, right views/beliefs bequeathed by Tradition are to healthy mind and soul. Although ultimately “the right view is no view,” this is learnt by taking seriously right views/aqa’id in the first place.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Iqbal and Colonial Legacy

Iqbal thought that the West is a development of Islam.

Willy nilly, we live in the Eupropeanized world – our political institutions, our education, our economy, our sciences, our technology and our largely secularized post-theological world in which metaphysics as traditionally understood has been displaced from the centre stage – all testify to it. In Heideggerian terms one could say that modern man’s relation to Being is marked by encounter with Europe, its science and technology. In this technologized world, the world seen as a resource, God withdraws. Man is forced to live in a world where faith as it traditionally used to be is not available. In Iqbalian terms it might be rendered as a long night of waiting for God since the world has its own uses for destinies to be shaped(“Kare jehan daraz hae ab mera intizar ker”).
      We are in the world indelibly marked by colonial legacy and are paying for the choices we have made. We have adopted colonizer’s designed development project, technological culture, most of philosophical and scientific thought currents, addiction to a life style that is at odds with renunciatory ethic of world religions including Islam, large scale indifference to the world of the Sacred in education, politics, and culture. We have been, in Eliot’s words, coming closer to the dust and farther from God as we chose to be the race for information and knowledge at the cost of wisdom. Poets have no longer a prized place in our culture and one of the important tools for resisting alien domination has been left behind. Folklore, myths, rhymes, serials, films, novels, sign boards, art, architecture everywhere we see bear colonial legacy. Who knows or takes seriously likes of Askari and Saran in Pakistan or India respectively? Iqbal’s plea for “a spiritual interpretation of the universe, spiritual emancipation of the individual, and basic principles of a universal import directing the evolution of human society on a spiritual basis” has been heard but not to an extent of making very noticeable impact. Iqbal the poet and the sage could be a possible resource for helping us out of the abyss we have pulled ourselves into. In an age where the ghost of nihilism is haunting us we have to turn to poets – or better sage poets – to show us the path of return to the Sacred. Iqbal is one such resource whom even Heidegger would have considered it worthy to explicate. The job of a philosopher is to explicate great poetry according to Heidegger and he benefitted from. We have many Iqbals to choose from or appropriate today and I propose looking at Iqbal’s wisdom poetry primarily as something that has so far been largely ignored resource for fighting the negative impact of colonizer’s legacy and not shirking from appropriating its best that could be harmonized with spirit centric orientation of traditional or Islamic culture.
      How do we look at the global domination of secularizing thought currents and the reign of instrumental rationality as seen in technologization of the world? Iqbal thought that the West is a development of Islam. Iqbal says – and even Dr Israr notes it emphatically – that the core of the Western civilization is Islamic. Iqbal appropriated most of the defining features of Western modes of thinking in his work without breaking from traditional Islamic heritage. The kind of intellectual Ijtihad he exercised has yet to be fully appreciated. Without delving in more detail on what Heidegger meant when he called attention to irreversible Europeanization of earth and how J.L. Mehta appropriates the same thesis from a more faith or tradition centric Indian perspective and how Iqbal in his own way has engaged with the same in an idiom that is still fresh, let us note what Iqbal, in the backdrop of colonial legacy he confronted, was pleading for in his poetry and prose. Iqbal pointed out how so many things we often construe as indigenous to our tradition are importations from elsewhere and what appears as western in certain cases is really development of Islamic spirit itself.
      For Iqbal the sectarian debate on fiqh schools, on illegitimacy of Sufism, prevalence of  negative attitude to the world, to reason, to science in the name of Islam/Sufism, fossilization of Madrasah curriculum, eluctance for absolute Ijtihad, suspicion of egalitarian democratic spirit are all legacies of imperialism, Western and others. Education in the sense Iqbal conceived it is almost absent today in Indian subcontinent, both in religious and secular schools. What the poets conceived and built in his dream has been ruined by the politician as he himself had feared.
      As Iqbal has observed: “I am no longer concerned about the crescent and the cross; For the womb of time carries an ordeal of a different kind.” I think this is the central point in colonial legacy Iqbal seeks to address. And he addresses it in a way that some Muslims are suspicious of. Iqbal despite his Theocentrism fundamentally affirms affirmative transcendence, a more open embracing of what is the world of senses or nature and religious/cultural other.
      Iqbal gives us enough arsenal against colonialism but we are hardly capable to use those arms. He requires becoming aarifi khudi and “razi kun fakan.”. And here we can question identification of colonialism with Western domination. Western domination is Islamic domination in disguise, Iqbal would dare to say. Let us note with Hamid Dabashi in Resisting the Empire that East and West as identifiable structures of a binary are already gone (“Mashriq sae na magrib sae hazr ker” “Daleeli kem nazri qisayi qadeem-o-jadeed.”) We have now a world which is more Chinese (Eastern) than American, which has the likes of Rumi and Ibn Arabi as informal guides for millions of seekers, which seems to have been disenchanted with materialism. Plato and Aristotle, Ghazzali and Hallaj, Soharwardi and Mulla Sadra, Sankara and Nagarjuna, Confuicius and Lao Tzu  are again at the focus of attention of academic, spiritual and intellectual elite. More people are now concerned about fighting pernicious influence of Colonialism in loosening of Tradition, forgetfulness of symbolism, disappearance of love from relationships, raping of the environment,  and loss of traditional economies. Colonial attitude is we forget  the dignity due to man by virtue of his being created in divine image – we no longer know why turban is worn and has designated folds. Colonial legacy is so attractive in some of its manifestations that we no longer ask if the given attitude is basically colonial. Bureaucracy and its paraphernalia is colonial. Sir Sir culture means head and its dignity it owes due to intelligence is no longer there. “Khudi kae aarifoo ka maqam hae badshahi.”  And kings don’t behave like civil servants or their customers in Secretariats/Armies/Media Houses.
      For Iqbal, “Islam is itself destiny and will not suffer destiny.” “There is no life for him who doesn’t adhere to a religion.” Iqbal observed about Bedil that, he, along with Ghalib, taught him “how to remain oriental in spirit and expression after having assimilated foreign ideals of poetry.” I argue that what appears to be alien postmodern orientation of currently dominant cultural formation can be appropriated today with the help of resources provided by Bedil and some other representative figures in sabk-i-hindi tradition including Iqbal. We could have far more meaningful engagement with major modern thinkers - likes of Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Focault, Derrida and Levinas – than is currently the case by focusing particularly on wisdom poetry of likes of Bedil and Iqbal. I argue that, living as we are, willy nilly, in the postmodern world struggling to overcome pervasive condition of nihilism, Bedil’s “romantic”- mystical orientation that echoes great figures in German Romanticism (Holderlin and Rilke) and American Transcendetalism and Blake amongst English Romantics can be appropriated to evolve a more informed and nuanced response to nihilism.
      I am pleading for taking Iqbal and his contemporary Heidegger who outlived him by half a century seriously to help evolve a more comprehensive response to nihilism. It is no longer the problem of cross and crescent or even atheism and theism or usual binary of transcendence vs. immanence that man is asked to address. The question is of certain withdrawal of Being/Sacred to which not only Heidegger but even Schuon testify due to movement of history  or what is implied in doctrine of cycles or what our theology deals under the heading of end of times ordeal forcing “Descent into Hell” of which theologians such as Altizer talk about. Our saviours today are, according to many moderns including some theologians like Altizer, sage writers. If art has partially substituted religion in the modern world, and there are great difficulties with saving people with traditionally received idiom of religious narratives, the poets like Holderlin and Iqbal have much to help saving many of the stranded people in the post-theological and post-secular world.
      Iqbal has been accused of complicity with colonial values for choosing Western style in appearance, in rearing his children, in his failure to practise Islam’s form in the standard or orthodox sense. Here I need to clarify that Iqbal has provided enough hints to meet these accusations in his Reconstruction and poetry. He had some reservations on classical compendiums of fiqh. I feel he would have supported much of the work of Ghamidi in the field of jurisprudence though not on Sufism and metaphysics. He would  also support most reformist agendas that Muslim feminists and more traditionally rooted modern scholars like Fazlur Rahman  have proposed.
Qalander Iqbal is too sublime a station to be appreciated by most mainstream Ulama and Fuqaha.  Sages are not to be judged in terms we find in fiqh and theology manuals as the author of Abaqat grants. One needs to be something (rather than merely see something from an academic viewpoint), to get an idea about grandeur of that which made Iqbal Iqbal. He was probably one and only Ali gunaeh as Shariati observed, one “genius” or better danayi raaz for a century who seems to have been patronized by the King himself. If one wants to appreciate the station of Iqbal consider reading opening gazals of Bal-i Jibriel and closing lines of Javid Nama. Reading Iqbal one reads much of the best in Islamic tradition to which Sufis, philosophers, poets and best minds in other streams from theology to jurisprudence to philosophy of history have contributed.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Islam and its Other

Our religious scholars generally choose not to be well informed on the troubling questions that modernity has raised.

How do we engage with “Neo-Salafi”/“Wahabi” Islam, “Sufi” Islam, Revivalist/“Political” Islam and in fact endless debates amongst various juristic and theological schools; and also consequent divisive interpretations of such important issues as Caliphate/State, women’s/minority’ rights, interfaith dialogue? We find fundamentalists on the one hand and aggressive secularists on the other. From antinomian pseudo-Sufis to politically hyperactive class of religionists we find other extremes failing to understand demands of either religion or contemporaneity. Our religious scholars generally choose not to be well informed on the troubling questions that modernity has raised.
      It seems Muslims have been divided in their response to modernism, modern science and philosophy. From Mawlana Thanvi’s Answer to Modernism and his translator cum disciple Hasan Askari’s deadly attack against fallacies of modernism to Iqbal, Azad, Shibli Nomani, Ali Shariati, Maududi, Fazlur Rahman, Muhammad Arkuon and Abu Nasr Zayd, we find many different and contradictory responses. On every major issue we have quite divided views. There are both advocates and critics of modern democracy and certain Enlightenment values defended by modern secular modernity, of veiling and unveiling, of triple divorce, of music, of Sufi practices, of intolerance of other religions, of historical criticism or higher criticism, of evolution, of Quranic inspiration for modern science, of theocracy, of capital and market centric economy, of current banking system, of warrant of esoteric/philosophical approach to religion, of current development model and technological culture, of birth control, of traditional laws of inheritance and punishment, of what is called Islamization of sciences, of place of native elements of culture or custom in religious practice, of jihad against the religious/political other, of (in)validity of taqleed in matters juristic and theological.
      Given the case that the Muslim response to problems within and without seems far from coherent or comprehensive, what options do we have today negotiating difficult choices that seem to involve both our eternal destiny and temporal welfare? For me there is a way out of contesting perceptions about Islam vis-à-vis its internal and external Other. Since these questions have been raised by what may be broadly called philosophers and scientists, they  could best be addressed in their idiom and this in turn requires Quranic call for wisdom/thinking seriously.  And thus it requires taking Muslim and some modern philosophers seriously. It is not simply the question of return to what is called the Quran and Sunnah in popular parlance that needs to be rehearsed. It is the question of contested interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah. Some points one gathers from reading Muslim sages are in order for consideration in dealing with divisive issues. 

  • The Quran requires us to recall what has been called its pre-text, Abrahamic tradition and even other revelations in non-Semitic milieu. Sunnah grounds itself on the Sunnah of earlier prophets and thus can best be appreciated by taking note of well established paths that various traditions have been foregrounding. The Quran calls for taking note of common points of various traditions it found in the environment of its immediate addressees. The Quran doesn’t promulgate new truths but advocates already known truths (revealed truths) – intellection, potentially or theoretically available or accessible to anyone who takes required trouble, verifies the most basic claims of revealed truth – besides an openness to wisdom/truth in any experience/narrative. All these points imply we have to enquire about religious/philosophical other rather than come up with this or that claim made beforehand in the name of Islam or so-called Islamic ideology or belief system. It is partly an empirical enquiry in which contemporary scholars of diverse religions and traditional ideas have to be taken on board. We may have things to learn rather than teach. The Quran teaches the significance of investigation, learning, questioning our inherited biases/forefathers. What has so far been written about other religions in the classic works of such masters as Ghazzali, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Hazm, Sharistani and Al-Biruni is quite valuable but, retrospectively, we see them fraught with certain interpretative, methodological and empirical problems that scholars are busy investigating. Muslim world has had a legacy of mostly approaching the question of the other from what has been called imperialistic theological lenses. Quite early in our history, Islam came to be seen as another revelation/religion more than as unifying/underlying/confirming Religion and accordingly a battery of concepts were woven to prove the exclusivist claims and otherness of the othered aspects of its own pre-text. Islam’s universalism got restricted to certain Sufis and philosophers whose influence was restricted to certain sections while the masses were tutored by scholars who didn’t take into account richness, complexity and nuances of various key ideas/terms in the Islamic sources that have been better attended today by scholars of world religions, mysticisms and wisdom traditions. Read Ibn Hazm’s treatment of the definition/characterization of the essence of religion/belief/ritual in Islam and other religions in the light of the treatment of the same by such contemporary scholars as Huston Smith, Mircea Eliade and W. C. Smith or appreciate divergence in approaches to myth in him and Joseph Campbell and one finds much water has flown down the ages. Or, to take more recent example of two divergent approaches to religious other, compare Harun Yahya’s text on Islam and Buddhism with Reza Shah Kazmi’s on the same. The problem is not merely of choosing this or that interpretation here but of choosing or not choosing to take note of enormous development in scholarship of religious other. One often laughs at certain old texts on Islam written by Orientalists as biases are now evident to even an elementary student of Islam but the same applies to many texts written by Muslims about other traditions the biases of which are evident to elementary students of world religions. It no longer comes to us a surprise that Vedas can be read as emphasizing oneness of God though previously more dominant approach was to emphasize their polytheism. Muslims have read other scriptures literally and found it easy to find enormous problems in them from historical, philosophical and theological perspectives and the same could be asserted about many Christian and Hindu critics of Islam. It has increasingly been recognized that secularizing age has cornered all religions and it would be better to take on common challenge confronting all religions with the resources common to all Absolute/Spirit centric traditions than emphasizing admittedly real theological differences amongst them. Philosophers today, in the face of globalization that bridged geographical and communicative barriers between various traditions, often work with concepts and methods that unearth deeper underlying ideas or affinities and they are more ready than exclusivist apologists of various religions to take note of wisdom wherever it is found. Al-Farabi reconciled the Prophet-Imam figure with the Philosopher, Ghazzali reconciled Sufism with orthodoxy of the day, Soharwardi reconciled Iranian-Zoroastrian and Islamic philosophies, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd reconciled science/philosophy and religion, Shah Waliullah reconciled two major Sufi schools and most importantly the paths of saints and the path of prophets, Iqbal reconciled the diverse portfolios of a philosopher, a theologian, a mystic and a poet in himself as did  many sages preceding him. These attempts may need refinement now and newer paths need to be charted in the face of ever evolving nature of challenges posed by sciences and philosophies.
  • The kernel of revealed truths is universally believed by people of traditional cultures and wisdom traditions and, arguably, finds receptive audience amongst the best of modern thinkers as well. The Quran’s emphasis is – as everyone can readily agree –  more on orthopraxy (right action) than on right details of dogmas and as such the problem to be settled is who has a better claim to virtue/competes better in good deeds or is more God fearing.
  • Right understanding can’t, by definition, come from any inherently limiting exotericist theological/legalistic approaches or other ideological appropriations. It demands discipline of senses and purification of the mirror called heart as all scriptures and saints of diverse traditions and generality of traditional philosophers agree.
  • Most comprehensive interpretation/understanding involving existential, metaphysical, religious, aesthetic, intellectual, social and psychological dimensions of oneself/world could be found in its most penetrating and forceful and authentic form in the greatest of the sages whose names are well known.
  • That interpretation is to be preferred that preserves the spirit and embraces/includes/transcends rather than negates/excludes other interpretations that ordinary believers have traditionally lived by and whose fruit has been sanctity or taqwa. Literal sense has to be honoured and not trivialized. However, as we move higher or deeper, analogical, anagogical and symbolic interpretations have to be taken note of. That interpretation which best furthers the most basic tenets – love of God/attachment to the Absolute or the Real and love of neighbor – has traditionally been accepted as the best.
  • Juristic opinions that do find support in primary sources or universal principles informing primary sources can’t be vetoed especially if we keep in mind their ultimate rationale in helping our salvation/felicity. Here modernists can rub shoulder with conservatives in most cases as God/Spirit remains indifferent to their divergent practices. Where traditional authorities have differed thanks to divine mercy who are we to impose uniform codes?
  • Some debates have been going on/may go on for millennia or centuries because what is at stake is not truth claim of either positions but different starting points, definitions and necessarily divergent perceptions regarding appropriate judgment in given cases. Since judges or jurists have differed and arguably should differ in many cases, let us enjoy this difference. What is one’s view with respect to such issues as identifying riba (usury) with bank interest, many modern financial institutions, music, veil, Islamic State or understanding of divine sovereignty where authorities best qualified to interpret primary sources have disagreed should not be allowed to divide us or condemn other people who choose other arguably valid views. We may condemn other views but not upholders of other views as traditions have taught us to condemn the sin (if divergent view is indeed sin in the first place) and not the sinner.