Thursday, 17 May 2018

Trying to Understand Understanding

Understanding may mean giving up one’s own position.
It is a general complaint that one has been misunderstood or a particular thinker or scripture or verse has been misunderstood. Some commentators of sacred texts and poetry in general tell us that to understand is to be open to alternative understandings or newer readings. One authority has said that every time scripture is recited, new meaning should dawn on oneself and if this doesn’t happen, one has not duly understood it. Although it is quite common to accuse others of failure to understand religion or this or that concept of religion, it is quite uncommon to ask what does it mean to understand in the first place. Where we dismiss too readily on the supposed ground of deviating from Tradition – or what has been received from Pious Elders, Aslaf  –  we are reluctant to debate what is Tradition and if anyone has the right to freeze its particular formation or pose as its special spokesperson or guardian. We quarrel over truth without asking what is Truth. Our disputes are often on this or that interpretation and we fail to adequately pay attention to what is called the philosophical hermeneutics which is “an interpretation of interpretation.” How many times we have been told that this or that scholar is deviant and should be executed, exiled or dismissed or boycotted. He/She is guilty of tafsir bir-raiy or making the canon a plaything. We are also told that we can’t understand better than certain supposedly standard understanding of Pious Elders as if there could be presented a standard understanding in the first place. Understanding may require understanding the point that God/Other knows better and one seeks to understand better after every effort to understand. Apart from few verses calling for action that don’t require special effort in interpretation (muhkamat), sacred texts abound in verses that demand  an effort, a personal effort to understand or interpret and humility to acknowledge that one hasn’t got it absolutely right and thus the other needs to be heard. The “simple” basic terms – Iman, Islam, Allah, Divine Names, Divine Unity, Judgment, Heaven and Hell, falah/najah – are all far too basic or primordial or complex– involving personal existential engagement – for nice packaged standard agreed upon interpretations to be formulated or imposed. The key question in interminable narratives and counter-narratives that have flourished in history is what does it mean to understand in the first instance. And I turn to Gadamer, one of the most important philosophers who upheld the value of tradition, exposed complacency of those who assume copyright over received wisdom and illuminated what does it mean to understand. He is one of the indispensable contributors to science of interpretation (hermeneutics), a field that has remained rather inadequately theorized in the history of Islamic tradition as noted by one of the most astute scholars of Islam, Imam Anwar Shah Kashmiri (who also stated that contrary to the situation regarding hadith, the Quran has not been given attention due to it by Muslim Ummah in last 1300 years).
      Against widely prevalent fundamentalist/ Kharijite tendency that forgets that we don’t have – and can’t have – access to God’s/Prophet’s word as such but only interpreted sacred canon and interpretations of those interpretations, Gadamer explicates the point that all we have are interpretations and none can assume God’s eye view or claim to be situated outside interpretative horizons. We are all partners in dialogue and none can transcend inherent structural biases because we deal with language and not given facts or unmediated perceptions that can adjudicate amongst rival interpretations. We in dialogue constitute the tradition. Companions in dialogue with one another and later generations in dialogue with predecessors constitute living tradition. As Gadamer puts it: “The dialogical character of language, which I have tried to work out, leaves behind any starting point in the subjectivity of the subject, and especially in the meaning-directed intentions of the speaker. What we find happening in speaking is not a mere fixing of intended meaning in words; it is an endeavor that continually modifies itself… The mere presence of the other before whom we stand helps us to break up our own bias and narrowness, even before he opens his mouth to make a reply….For only in the light of interpretation does something become a fact, and only within the processes of interpretation is an observation expressible.” Gadamer explains what is wrong with those who arrogate to themselves on behalf of some particular generation/scholar unmediated access to the truth.  “Understanding, whatever else it may mean, does not entail that one agrees with whatever or whomever one “understands.” Such a meeting of the minds in understanding would be utopian. Understanding means that I am able to weigh and consider fairly what the other person thinks! It means that one recognizes that the other person could be right in what he or she says or actually wants to say.”
      In Nicholas Davey’s work Unquiet Understanding: Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics we find apt paraphrase of certain insights in philosophical hermeneutics

  1. Hermeneutic encounters reveal the “negativity of experience”: a hermeneutic experience worthy of the name disrupts the expectancies one has of an artwork or text so that one is forced to think again.
  2. Hermeneutic understanding is finite. It is limited by both its time and its horizon. The determinate historical location of any understanding prevents it from being able to claim completeness.
  3. Understanding is perspectival. It presents but one of several other logically possible points of view of its subject matter.
  4. No act of understanding is complete. No hermeneutic encounter can exhaust its subject matter.”
    These amount to rejection of any claim to be the binding interpretation on the supposition of being “whole” and complete, as it can well be “a particular expression of a more complex ‘whole’ or nexus of other understandings.”
      A reading of Chuang Zu or Nagarjuna or Ibn Arabi or Wittgenstein or great poets humbles one as we are made aware of fragility of constructions of language and the costs of fixed frames applied on what by definitions requires one to be infinitely and perpetually open to the other and the troubling fact that it is ourselves being at stake in any attempt to mean. One might say that the problem of plurality of meanings and certain inescapable paradoxicality or ambiguity is ultimately due to the texture of our very being that is constituted by the other and whose salvation is premised on being open to the other, to not-yet, to unknown, to what staggers our quest to mean this or that. One could well say that the sacred texts don’t mean; they are. They are us. Since our own being remains rather dimly available for scansion, how come sacred texts could become available? No wonder most of the Quran is mutashbihat that resists meaning closure. In fact the very quest to interpret has to be ultimately given up. One finds salvation by consenting to becoming a Question that our being is. “[W]e never know what being is . . . it always seems to be a topos, an unattainable place that never becomes (fully) accessible.”
      For Gadamer, hermeneutic philosophy does not understand itself as an “absolute” position but as “a path of experiencing. Its modesty consists in the fact that for it there is no higher principle than this: holding oneself open to the conversation. This means, however, constantly recognizing in advance the possibility that your partner may be right, even recognizing the possible superiority of your partner….the hermeneutical effort to conceive of the nature of language on the basis of dialogue—inevitable for me as a lifelong student of Plato—ultimately meant that every formulation one might make was in principle surpassable in the process of conversation.”
      In fact we are told that philosophical hermeneutics does not constitute a “philosophical position” but “a philosophical dis-position.” “It is a practice of disposing or orientating oneself toward the other and the different with the consequence of experiencing a dis-positioning of one’s initial expectancies.” “Good conversations have no end.”Understanding is the process of coming to understand that when we understand, we understand differently.”
      What needs to be kept in focus is that predecessors – pious Aslaf – are always there in any serious attempt to understand and properly question a given view. There can’t be any great thinking outside Tradition as Heidegger has noted. There is always “the hermeneutic community in which the subject participates and through which the subject is socialized. Understanding is far from being an individual achievement.” Thus there can’t be a Maududi or a Ghamidi disowning Tradition and their critics owning it – there is no one to claim Tradition; all of us are partners in a dialogic process. Who can lay claim to possess absolute measure/standard? The supreme test of one’s orthodoxy or authenticity is ability to respectfully (that needn’t be uncritically) engage with our predecessors. Mechanically, uncreatively, imitating them is to fail to be true to ourselves, our own gift of being and mandate to remain open. Bypassing them is impossible. Dialogue with the other to refine understanding is the only way. The question is not of agreeing or disagreeing with predecessors but seeking to understand with them. We are redeemed by our readiness to disown the self that claims its own right to be heard.  We can’t afford – if we truly listen to the other – to have already formulated views to sell in advance in the marketplace of ideologies or narratives. Listening is the key. Listening rather than interpreting is the task. Before inviting others to our views let us invite ourselves to understand them and not just their views. Truth happens in a dialogue that never finishes.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Celebrating Literary Heritage of J & K

It is time to recognize many new contributions to English writing in J & K.

Once a while we have some good news from Kashmir. Kashmiris have been the kings and king makers, at least in the realm of mind and heart. Providence seems to have amply compensated them in surprising ways leading them to live with head held high despite being underdogs in other realms. One way is the gift of words that is manifest in many ways including writing good poetry in English that is becoming a presence to contend with. New generation of Kashmiris, as worthy inheritors of Agha Shahid Ali, have proved worthy witnesses by converting tragic experience into works of art and thus, in a way, won the battle. The world will have to take note of Kashmir’s new generation of writers who have been its best ambassadors. Influential Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s pen has been more feared than scores of tanks echoing rare tribute paid to Abul Fazl’s pen when it was described as sharper than Akbar’s sword.
      Kashmir’s key problem is finding meaning in a world ripped apart by conflict, violence and eclipse of traditional securities and images of transcendence. How to live in a world where love, relationships, family, community, friends, priests and pirs all seem to have lost their sheen and we feel naked? Ours is fast becoming a community without heroes, without language, without folk wisdom and mythology and thus without great edifying literature and thus we can assert without beauty of the mind and the soul. Indeed, the shadow of nihilism has grown larger and haunts us and it is writers who articulate the crisis and may help us contemplating the response. J & K’s English poets constitute, generally speaking, a better educated generation better exposed to the world that have written more truly contemporary poetry than most fellow poets writing in Kashmiri or Urdu. They are better equipped to engage with the contemporary crisis of meaning.
      A host of poems in one of the volumes edited by Abid Ahmad illustrate my point on nihilism. “Insanity” from Promilla Qazi, ”A Wanton Fury” and “I and Me” “Her Soul” by Syeda Afshana, “Dark is the Night” by G. R. Malik, “Not a Ghazal” by Arshad Mushtaq “I took a Different Road and Found Myself Insane” by Nazir Wani, and “Raindrops on a Windshield” are attempts to articulate or engage with the dark, the inscrutable and what appears as tragic waste. Arif Kichloo’s poem “Snow Flakes” articulates quintessentially Kashmiri mystico-aesthetic response:

In the scheme of all things big
We are but snowflakes
Dancing delightfully midair,
Destined to land graciously
on silent grounds atop mountains
If only we knew
Snowflakes feel no shame as they fall.
They don’t tumble, they don’t flutter,
But descend with such grace.
And when they are touched,
They don’t hold their cold inside.Instead, they melt and give it up;
They give all their rigor away.

This is indeed the way to live – with gay abandon, surrendering to love, letting go – and conquer fear of death by learning to die before death as expounded by prophets, sages and great poets.
      Kashmiris, noted for aristocracy of knowledge or honouring those associated with it, have excelled in literature and philosophy of “alien” tongues and have been truly international citizens in a profound sense and have had university culture much before Oxfords and Azhars came to the fore. Kashmiris have nurtured Arabic and Persian languages and literatures and wrote some exceptionally brilliant Sufi poetry that has succeeded in establishing itself as a sort of mainstream tradition of Kashmir and thus appropriate much of what is best in indigenous literary, philosophical and religious heritage. Kashmiri genius is soft genius with refinements of its own. I recall Octavia Paz remarking that advancement of a culture may be gauged by the variety and details and refinements in its mode of cooking/dishes. Applying this criterion to Kashmir, one feels proud. Given our proverbial laziness or mastery of the art of enjoying idleness – we outsourced defense, rulers and what not in much of our history and this continues today with outsourcing of labour – we can conclude that Kashmiri genius has been more contemplative or jnanic and aesthetic.
      Jammu has the distinction of being a city of temples which implies it has historically been a special sanctuary of soul. The world is today dying for want of spiritual resources that we have in abundance. But I am afraid that like Ladakh we are losing this Jammu faster to ill-conceived pathological brand of modernization. New generation doesn’t/can’t know how to identify Jammu in terms of cultural landscape. The soul of its culture seems to be gone or not easily identifiable. And the same largely applies to Kashmir as well.
      Ladakh still remains a pir vaer – the sanctuary of spirit in a preeminent manner both by virtue of its height that by its very presence inspires one to be attuned to sublime heights of spirit and largely retrievable traditional culture. Ladakh offers one of the best (lifelong) experience of spiritual tourism. Ladakh has the distinction of being one of the last bastions of traditional culture. Ladakh converts  the whole world by its height, another order of beauty and majesty – great canopy of mountains exposed to the sky constitute virgin nature’s special treat and what the Quran calls a sign of God – that especially speaks to the secular sensibility. Proximity to Tibet and Kashmir makes it a treasured site marrying great cultures. Ladakh’s proud record as a land of culture and philosophy – nurturing one of the most intellectually oriented religions, Buddhism – suffers from certain oblivion in the memory of new generation.
      We have a literary legacy to be proud of and we haven’t entirely disowned it. We have world class poets – partly translated into many world languages – and short story writers with us and it isn’t hard to switch over to another language – English – to assimilate this tradition and excel. We have demonstrated our talent in English in memoir writing, novel, poetry and journalistic writing. We needn’t debate our talent but our ignorance regarding the Tradition and our inadequate cognizance of the times we live and thus our complicity with regard to the march of ideas and events that are fast transforming our world.
      Despite setbacks we have reasons to celebrate thanks to unpredictable genius to strike again and strike with majesty and grace. Name ten major leaders/writers/scholars of India and Pakistan in the twentieth century and we would discover some connection to Kashmir in significant percentage of them. We have had a culture and a civilization that mankind can ill afford to part with and it will be recovered and it is being recovered and these collections are part of this nostalgic and recovering process. Thanks to exposure of more and more young scholars or students to outside world and best academic institutions across the world, we have many would be philosophers, critics and scholars developing this time. Conflict sharpens imagination. There are enough stories in air awaiting young writers’ alchemical treatment to convert them into masterpieces that heal generations.
      There is a significant fraction of shy unpublished writers. Another fraction consists of lazy or less confidant writers who don’t take their own writings seriously enough to let them see the light of the day. Many are brilliant conversationalists suffering oblivion for want of Boswells. Let us note that we are answerable before people and God for failing to cultivate the writer in us or let it be known.
      Art is quintessentially human and universal language and is essentially resistance that resists getting framed in any ideological narrative. It resists politics in thousand ways. We need to thank editors such as Abid Ahmad whose special issues on Kashmiri English short story and poetry have introduced/helped better introduce many a new writer knowing whom is an honour.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Reading Scientists and Sages on Religion

Understanding Modern Science as a Problem for Religion.
Deep down many believers resent our age of science believing that it has undermined faith. But everyone would love to extol rational credentials of religion and avail many gifts of modern science at the same time. There are many who think that science can be an ally of faith. Such towering scientific minds as Darwin, Freud and Hawking, for instance, all have been critical of popular religion. Most scientists today are not believers. Many young people exposed to science turn against religion. This is a complex problem – note, for instance, heavy weights like Wallace and Darwin disagreeing on the question of including or excluding man in evolutionary account, and crucial disagreements between Freud and Jung, Russell and Whitehead, Iqbal and Nasr on the question of religion vis-a-vis modern science – and we propose to treat one aspect of it today.
      The first point to be noted is the difference between attitudes of scientists and philosophers or philosopher scientists. The best of philosopher-scientists don’t usually dismiss essential fact of religious experience (questioning certain conceptual model explaining it is another matter) and don’t naively or disrespectfully treat millennia of collective wisdom (expressed in religious terms) of all traditions and ages. They are quite conscious of the fact that science doesn’t trade truth/certainty but is primarily problem solving enterprise and its conclusions are not stable/are subject to a constantly changing "consensus." Science doesn’t claim or even seek “certainty, infallibility and complete emotional objectivity.” Instead it is based upon “wonder, adventure and hope.”  Similarly the best minds in traditions don’t assert that we have to literally defend mythological, symbolic truths. They seek to keep wonder and the Question alive. For them religion is not an answer to questions science asks or philosophers usually deal with but a method to live in a certain way that is its own reward. Religion is refusal to stay at a particular station or be content with the given seeking to move on and on and explore higher and remoter frontiers of consciousness/being. They don’t see religions telling us certain stories that we have no means to intellectually defend/testify/verify in any sense. Religions have always cultivated intellectual or philosophical dimension for their own interest. Religion doesn’t compete with science for explaining natural phenomena. Science doesn’t, in final terms, dabble in the question of meaning of life or First Principles or what transcends its jurisdiction.
      It is thus the case that the best minds from traditions and sciences would have usually good relations. Or don’t fail to appreciate one another – Tagore and Einstein had no problem understanding each other. Salam and Weinberg could pursue science and faith without confounding the two. Nagarjuna would hardly mind Hawking’s “atheism” though, along with Ibn Arabi, might invite him to consider travel in the black hole of his own being   and explore a “territory” more wonderful and worthy of our attention than the physical one at the edge or beginning of the universe. Coomaraswamy and Iqbal would have little difficulty in having a wonderful dialogue and sharing tea with Darwin. Whitehead’s collaborations with fellow scientists and philosophers were not affected by their different views on religion. Such claims as reducing man to ape with no residue, reducing intelligence/consciousness to non-intelligent material principle, excluding or exiling mystery/subjectivity/art/beauty by invoking mechanism all the way up or down the scales of being, reducing ethics to certain utilitarian calculus are not made by philosopher-scientists. The best religious minds criticize modern science for being naïve about intellectual matters. Whitehead, for instance, remarked “Science has remained an anti-intellectual movement based on naive faith”  And “When religion ceases to seek for penetration, for clarity, it is sinking back into its lower forms. The ages of faith are the ages of rationalism.” Schuon’s critique of modern science is premised on the point that science takes little note of demands of intelligence. Sages criticize reductionist rationalism that constructs religion as an Other to be discredited for the sake of the rights of intellect as distinguished from reason.
      People differ in the degree of openness to truth or love and capacity to keep wondering and seeking newer unceasing unveilings of Being, in the length of the road they have travelled and none can claim he has reached unattainable end. To be humble is a virtue of both great scientists and mystics or believers.
      What is at stake for better minds is not the fate of certain notions traditionally associated with historical religions but what becomes of culture in the age that swears by naïve faith in exclusivist science. What has been missing from students of science in general is even an elementary understanding of culture. As Whitehead noted: “Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. A merely well informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction.” Few students trained in science are today comprehensively educated or cultured. Herbert Spencer in An Autobiography has aptly remarked: “The inability of a man of science to take the poetic view simply shows his mental limitation; as the mental limitation of a poet is shown by his inability to take the scientific view. The broader mind can take both.” Religious problems that many face later in life are not traceable to any real conflict between any answers in scriptures and science but failure to keep wondering about Being or Life or Consciousness – failure to be truly philosophers, scientists and poets. “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” How quickly do we grow accustomed to wonders is lamented in Isaac Asimov story “Nightfall,” about the planet where “the stars were visible only once in a thousand years. So awesome was the sight that it drove men mad. We who can see the stars every night glance up casually at the cosmos and then quickly down again.” Indeed, as John Perry noted in Teaching of Mathematics: “A lifetime may be spent by a philosopher in discussing the truth of the simplest axiom. The simplest fact as to our existence may fill us with such wonder that our minds will remain overwhelmed with wonder all the time.”
       Since modern thought or science has problems with usually reiterated theistic model let us ask sages whether the question about theism should so sharply divide the world. Are believers of world religions including Islam theists or trans-theists? Metaphysics and esotericism allow us to avoid the trap of theism-atheism binary as it affirms God as Reality (Being) which is affirmed in certain/ limited sense by everyone – we all are and by our very being participate in the Being so to speak. The scriptures such as the Quran don’t demand belief in existence of some entity called God but affirming unity of Reality (tawhid) –  and note it isn’t numerical oneness of God but oneness of Reality that is to be affirmed. Science has been committed to this affirmation – in the limited sense – in the domain it is interested in and that grounds its practice of finding laws and equations that apply everywhere or in any possible universe and to seek repeatability of experimental findings and positing essential uniformity of behavior of natural phenomena. Nasr defends the statement that if it were possible to teach metaphysics to everyone (including Hawking and Dawkins), there would be no atheists around. Ibn Arabi by stating that God is a precept and not a concept and noting that even atheists have a degree of Tawhid makes this clearer. Eckhart by stating the other pole of the same thesis in his shocking statement “Don’t prate about God; God is not” and Boddhidharma by presenting a flower instead of any discourse about God made the better statement about what should be ideally passed over in silence as both Buddha and Wittgenstein advised in their own ways. Islam has forbidden discussion on the Essence or Zat or Suprapersonal Divine Principle and encouraged discussion only on what we could somehow relate to on the analogy of our own being or what is called Sifat that somehow manifest in the world or life made an empirical move that is so dear to the spirit of modern science. In observing and contemplating natural phenomena we are, in a sense and to a certain degree, participating in affirming the Divine. Sufi thinkers and poets have stated the doctrine regarding God in convincing terms and for this they minced no words in acknowledging that truth lies beyond the duality of belief and disbelief (kufr and Islam).
      Summing up we may state that the problem of conflict between religion and science is best dealt by their best minds and it is not scientists or (exoteric) theologians/Ulama but experts in philosophy of science and sages who are best qualified to speak on the subject. Scientists and religious scholars as such would desist from commenting on weighty issues they know little about. Sages clarify the claims of religion that philosophers of science need to take into account to question the currently fashionable polemical exchanges between literalists in religions and advocates of scientism. Surveying current scenario where top ranking scientists and philosophers of religion are polarized on the question of religion, we may agree to keep the debate open and provisionally consider Rama Coomaraswamy’s point that “If any conflict exists, it is not between science and faith properly understood, but between modern and traditional attitudes” and seek to carefully clarify divergent attitudes. If science and faith as such were in conflict we could afford clear judgments either way.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Celebrating the Beauty of Science

What shall man be doing after 10,000 years from now? Scientists tell us that we shall always have tasks ahead and will not be bored.

Science, in Kant’s famous words, is organized knowledge. Kant defined wisdom as organized life. Science is man’s great effort to know himself and the world better at many levels with or without concomitant increase in power or solving this or that problem. It has been part of comprehensive education from the earliest times. Modern science did succumb to certain Promethean and Faustian ambitions and thanks to its wedding with power or technology it has been a mixed blessing and a danger against which most of great thinkers, artists and poets have warned. In its wake many treasured traditional sciences have been a casualty and its myopia and hubris have been factors in the crisis of modern civilization. What we are concerned with today is not this scientism but science in the more general and universal sense that has been part of treasured intellectual adventure that borders on the aesthetic and the mystical. We celebrate today science in service of beauty, scientist as “a mystic in the act of prayer” and science as observation of the behavior of God as Iqbal would have it.
      Let us first take note of the ecstasy that is doing science when it becomes our wazeefa of a sort. Lavoisier, the father of chemistry, is said to have found hardly any time for taking food and enjoying mostly milk to spare time for pursuing science. Rutherford forgot his marriage function and kept guests waiting as he got lost in his work in his laboratory. Hawking was able to live and fight debilitating disease thanks partly to his zeal for science that dissolves ordinary woes. It was appreciation for irresistible beauty of certain mathematical order (that, as Plato noted, partakes of the divine) that led Dirac to his path breaking work: “A theory with mathematical beauty is more likely to be correct than an ugly one that fits some experimental data. God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe.” Pursuing beauty is its own reward. Fortunate are those who find doing science a beautiful adventure and thus a joy and move closer to the station of ihsan that constitutes man’s spiritual perfection. It is in such Masters as Leibnitz, Newton, Einstein, Whitehead and Salam, for instance, that we find how science can be spiritually and intellectually enriching pursuit.
      It was semblance of eternity in mathematical equations through which Russell found food for man’s primordial hunger for perfection or eternity. Mathematics was allied to the Sacred for the Greeks and Plato found in our knowledge of mathematics proof for our immortality. One needs to pray to be granted such an exalted station that science  becomes our sustenance, our vocation, our song. Zealous scientists are a new breed of karma yogis who are close to jnana yogic station. Zahae naseeb to be a scientist. The Prophet of Islam (S.A.W) prayed to be shown things as they are, an aspiration that goads phenomenology and science.
      What shall man be doing after, say, ten thousand years from now? Scientists tell us that we shall always have tasks ahead and will not be bored. The Mystery and the need to pursue infinite perfections would always persist. As  Sir J.J. Thomson noted in his Presidential Address to the British Association: “As we conquer peak after peak we see in front of us regions full of interest and beauty, but we do not see our goal, we do not see the horizon; in the distance tower still higher peaks, which will yield to those who ascend them still wider prospects, and deepen the feeling, the truth of which is emphasized by every advance in science, that “Great are the Works of the Lord.”
      What is the justification for continuing to teach physics, chemistry and botany in schools and colleges if vast majority of pass outs will not be employed in any industry or sector that applies or requires such knowledge? I have mostly failed to elicit good answers in my interactions with teachers and students on this question. I think the following considerations better justify salary of teachers and huge investment of time by students. Chemistry of life is beautiful as Feynman noted. Michio Kaku noted “Chemistry is the melodies you can play on vibrating strings.” “Chemistry, as an independent science, offers one of the most powerful means towards the attainment of a higher mental cultivation… it furnishes us with insight into those wonders of creation which immediately surround us, and with which our existence, life, and development, are most closely connected. (Justus von Liebig in Familiar Letters on Chemistry)  Sir Joseph Paxton made a point about botany that has not been generally taught to the students of botany: “Botany is, above every other, the science of beauty.” Physics is the food for the mind and the first step in our quest to know for the pure joy of knowing. Aristotle’s great opening sentence on Metaphysics “All men naturally desire to know” implies we are born scientists (in the wider classical sense of the term) and if we fail to maintain interest in science we deny part of ourselves. We all need to reclaim our lost right – and deliver pleasant duty – to childhood adventure of wonder driven career of a scientist as Sagan rightly noted: “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”
      A scientist is only closed to the idea of closure of mind and appreciates that “truth is a pathless land” and that implies readiness to eschew dogmatic answers and that is what constitutes faith’s essential movement of embracing uncertainty and openness to experience. A scientist can only be a submitter to truth and as truth has infinite faces and ever escapes/transcends our attempt to pin it down or encompass it fully, he/she is, by default, in an important if not comprehensive sense, a Muslim who affirms the transcendence of Truth. The Quran states that only knowledgeable people fear/take serious note of God/Truth/the Real.
      Science requires maturity on our part to part with certain notions that literalist/fundamentalist approach anxiously upholds. In fact in this task higher religion and mysticism converge with science. Iqbal found in Freud an ally for religion in so far it psychoanalysis helps to distinguish the demonic from the divine in religious experience. Freud pleaded for abandoning God as father figure, a notion that higher religion has identified as a work of idolatrous imagination. Darwin’s essential insight was, as Stephen J Gould notes, that “hope and morality cannot, and should not, be passively read in the construction of nature. Aesthetic and moral truths, as human concepts, must be shaped in human terms, not ‘discovered’ in nature.” An education in science is empowering and liberating. Einstein meant this when he remarked “One ought to be ashamed to make use of the wonders of science embodied in a radio set, while appreciating them as little as a cow appreciates the botanical marvels in the plant she munches.” Jamaluddin Afghani made a similar point about Madrasa teachers using light of oil lamp to read religious texts and not bothering to inquire mechanism of chimney. James Watson has noted the real point about science’s  attempt to  bypass the supernatural in explaining nature: “With increasing knowledge, the intellectual darkness that surrounds us is illuminated and we learn more of the beauty and wonder of the natural world.” In fact the real home of what is called the supernatural in popular religion is beauty without and wonder within. Robinson Jeffers rightly noted: “The happiest and freest man is the scientist investigating nature, or the artist admiring it; the person who is interested in things that are not human.”
      Let us not be duped by popular idolatry of modern science (one finds in Freud’s Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis and some famous new atheists) as the exclusive or royal road to truth that seeks to discredit philosophy and religion. Wittgenstein noted in his little known classic Culture and Value about dominant reductionist demystifying attitude many scientists naively take pride in: “Man has to awaken to wonder…Science is a way of sending him to sleep again.” He read Tagore’s poetry in a session of positivists who sought to dethrone metaphysics. “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists” he noted. That explains his dismissal of Frazer and others who explain away myth and religion. Science ultimately explains nothing as reflection on what constitutes scientific explanation would reveal. Science only deepens mystery and appreciation of what is. It pushes our ignorance to another level and never touches the rock bottom of things/truth/certainty. Things remain impenetrable or dense to reason, full of mystery and magic implying union with the reality of things – “the beloved” – ever remains an ideal or limit that is approximated but not fully consummated. At the quantum level the language of objects we are accustomed to fails. Familiar modes of explanation and such notions as mechanism, force and causality are not much helpful. As we move deeper in the world of psyche and spirit, we become part of the problem and thus encounter a Mystery that we are as Marcel would say. The poet, the mystic and the scientist join hands in celebrating the gift of being with eloquent silence. The task is, as Jeffers or Abhinavagupta would put it, celebration of existence or “the discovery, understanding, and expression of the Beauty of things.” Rumi would say that the task of we the non-prophets is not preaching but celebrating the joy of being or dancing the dance of the soul. The aspiration of science is to partakes in the dance of the soul and provide inputs that wisdom makes proper use of.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Are Religions One or Many?: A Session in a Parliament of World Religions

Attempting to formulate what unites and grounds world religions and allow genuine inter-religious dialogue.
Isn’t it sad and embarrassing to note that while political states, “though different in culture and competing with one another,” maintain diplomatic relations and strive for coexistence. Only religions are not on speaking terms.” The core problem that hurts their relationship is the blasphemy expressed thus: “I alone have all the truth and the grace, and all those who differ live in darkness, and are abandoned by the grace of God.”
      Despite the enduring perception that religions “disagree profoundly and are in opposition to one another on matters of doctrine” it seems possible that we can express the common statement of all delegates to an imagined international conference in the idiom of every major religion. All we need is to take the best interpreters of world religions who understand language of all or at least some religions and seek to express the same in terms of their own/other religions. Let us read one such interpreter’s (Shaykh Isa Nurudin) summary of basic points that should be appreciated as providing abiding foundation for dialogue among religions, dialogue with philosophers and mystics and probably  with many a skeptic:

“What do we need for spiritual life enjoined in every tradition?  “Three things: truth, spiritual practice, morals.”
What is Truth?  “Pure and unveiled truth coincides with metaphysics; the religious dogmas are symbols of metaphysical truths; the deep understanding of religious symbolism is esoterism. Pure metaphysics is hidden in every religion.”
What about spiritual practice?  “Spiritual practice is essentially prayer. There are three forms of prayer: first, canonical prayer…; second, personal prayer…; third, the contemplative prayer of the heart; this is mystical spirituality.”
What about morals? “Morals mean a reasonable, healthy and generous behavior; on the other hand, it means beauty of the soul, hence intrinsic nobility.”
      Missing is in the solution to find basis for dialogue from religious perspective. For instance people have tried to find – and failed naturally -  the basis to judge others on the basis of their supposedly best conception of God (as distinct from Godhead). We can’t find unity at the level of religions and it is futile to mix creeds and rituals and ask for dissolving religious boundaries. The solution to find what grounds religion itself or all religions and thus step beyond the universe of seemingly competing theologies or religions to judge all of them from a higher or more universal standpoint. And that is called the science of the Real/Supraphenomenal or Pure Being or Metaphysics. The unity if it can be found at all has necessarily to be found in that which is the end of religion  and which transcends and grounds religions and that is what we call the  Real or transpersonal Absolute that is the object of metaphysics. Pure and unveiled truth that all religions ultimately invoke to legitimize their claims “coincides with metaphysics” that unites 1,24,000 heavenly teachers from Adam to Muhammad (SAW). The question regarding legitimacy of metaphysical perspective itself doesn’t arise because it is based on “intellectual intuition, which by its very nature is infallible because it is a vision by the pure intellect, whereas profane philosophy operates only with reason, hence with logical assumptions and conclusions.” Revelation is, as noted by many Sufis and philosophers, Intellection for the masses, a point that should make even skeptics pause to consider claims of what has been called religious humanism.
      Let us now turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel whose insights on Semitic religions in general and Judaism in particular are especially noteworthy in the task of building lasting foundation for dialogue of sister faiths.
      Heschel notes the possibility of seeing other religion’s as providential opposites for letting spiritual democracy, the object of Muslim sage Iqbal, to prevail. “What if we accept the prophet's thesis that they all worship one God, even without knowing it, if we accept the principle that the majesty of God transcends the dignity of religion, should we not regard a divergent religion as His Majesty's loyal opposition? However, does not every religion maintain the claim to be true, and is not truth exclusive?”
      For Heschel “the most significant basis for meeting of men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility and contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind's reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God's commandment, while stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith.” “Our conceptions of what ails us may be different; but the anxiety is the same. The language, the imagination, the concretization of our hopes are different, but the embarrassment is the same, and so is the sign, the sorrow, and the necessity to obey.”  “We may disagree about the ways of achieving fear and trembling, but the fear and trembling are the same. The demands are different, but the conscience is the same, and so is arrogance, iniquity. The proclamations are different, the callousness is the same, and so is the challenge we face in many moments of spiritual agony.”
      Heschel provides resources to reach out to those who are usually thought outside the camp of believers in world religions and thus build a consensus of all thoughtful humans irrespective of religious commitments. “Human faith is never final, never an arrival, but rather an endless pilgrimage, a being on the way. We have no answers to all problems. Even some of our sacred answers are both emphatic and qualified, final and tentative; final within our own position in history, tentative - because we can only speak in the tentative language of man.” And ““We tend to read the Bible looking for mighty acts that God does and not seeing that all the way through the Bible God is waiting for human beings to act.”  “ None of us pretends to be God's accountant, and His design for history and redemption remains a mystery before which we must stand in awe.” And notes that the ancient Rabbis proclaim "Pious men of all nations have a share in the life to come."
      One recalls a remark by Maimonides, great Jewish thinker and commentator, that seems to be an exegesis of the first tradition recorded by Imam Bukhari: “God asks for the heart, everything depends upon the intention of the heart ... all men have a share in eternal life if they attain according to their ability knowledge of the Creator and have ennobled themselves by noble qualities.” It is instructive to recall one sentence summary of religion in practice by the Prophet of Islam (SAW) “religion is nothing but sincere counsel and seeking to spread the good” and Hillel that all scripture is golden rule stating that which is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor. Augustine  affirmed the same when he said that scripture teaches nothing but charity. One should recall Abu Dawood’s distillation of whole hadith corpus in the form of four hadiths – “Actions are by intentions,” “ “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself,”  “A sign of one's excellence in his Islam is ignoring what does not concern him.” “The lawful is clear and the unlawful is clear and what is ambiguous is better left alone/returned to God.” Sages and philosophers Eastern and Western including Confucuis and Buddha, Aristotle and Kant have also summarized essential ethics (invoked in different religious traditions) in the manner that recalls golden rule affirmed in one of the above mentioned hadiths. Who can claim to scan hearts of others and thus judge? Isn’t it indecent to speculate or dismiss before even hearing what we have not been deeply concerned about in academic or intellectual matters? (Many don’t care to read, for instance, Pannikar or AKC or Smart or Smith or their likes but feel free to offer unsolicited comments.)
      One recalls medieval Islam’s great scholar and mystic-jurist Abdul Wahab Sharani’s claim that in traditions he knew it is God/the Real that is glorified. Recognizing this we agree to see common objective of religions as glorifying/realizing the Real. Ethical/ spiritual practices they propose for accessing the Real are hardly distinguishable. Their fruits, as far as we know them in this world, taste similar. But let us note that religions don’t invite us to themselves but to God/the Real who is the real face in us – and thus to our own ground. Let us, however, agree to invite others, with “wisdom and beautiful preaching” to what we have tasted or known to be the most sublime or most beautiful aspect of the Truth that sanctifies. Let us warn our fellow seekers of dangers of idolatrous imagination and pride that “holier than thou” attitude conceals.
      So far we know many advocates of religions which usually don’t understand/want to understand one another. Sages, metaphysicians and many towering scholars of comparative religion claim to understand their deeper or common language. However, it has often been maintained that this is not the case or that translation into other languages is not possible due to absence of discernible deep structure. It often implies that religions are distant unrecognizing estranged relatives that should, like male buffaloes, fight one another to death. The Quran had proposed dialogue instead of polemical fight between them. Let us read our best scholars engaged in this dialogue that has been largely missing from much of the history of world religions. Let us not presume that there should be only one person in the dice and no chair for the President and one doesn’t need to listen to others with humility. The Chair of the sessions should be the best scholars of world religions. Taste few such sessions and one comes to know that one needs to know more of one’s own tradition to better appreciate others and vice versa.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

The Questions of Continuity and Fault lines

Ancient, Medieval and Modern Kashmir; Insights and Problems in P. K. Nehru’s Satisar to Kashmir.

Pandits are homeless in more senses than one. What is especially ignored is chosen homelessness or self exile to barren landscapes where the richness of imagination and culture one owned is disowned. Exploring one’s history, myths and literature constitute vital means to live and refuse annihilation. P.K.Nehru has done such an exploration in Satisar to Kashmir and invites Pandits to their lost selves.
      The author seems to take partly historical works rather uncritically as works of history. We know Nilmat Purana is not primarily a work of history in the sense we now understand the term. And even Rajatarangini too makes us pause and requires us sift poetry from history in various places. Just an example: In Rajatarangini, Lolar, now a small part of Kupwara district, is said to be the place where 840000 buildings were constructed.
      There is a wealth of scholarship in the first chapter that reviews existing scenario in studies on ancient archaeology and culture of Kashmir. It traces “Kashmiryat” to what has been seen by more critically minded historians as mythical “Nilmat culture” which he imaginatively reconstructs. He argues that Bhattas belong to the progeny of those early ancestors who had colonized the Valley during the early Rigvedic period. Dozens of relevant quotations besides the author’s questions about some persistent narratives make a case for demythologized history look stronger though the key problem of using myths as source and too heavy a dependence on extremely problematic work – from a purely historical perspective – Nilmat Purana leave us more aesthetically than cognitively satisfied.

      Scattered here and there are many insights illustrating the breadth of engagement with a wealth of material painstakingly sifted and interpreted. We are introduced to the beginning of the last age or kali yuga that our mytho-historical works had projected. We are led to believe about flourishing culture with unexplained gap extending over a millennium. The difficulty is that, as pointed out by more critical scholarship on ancient Kashmir, we don’t have any convincing archaeological evidences of any urban culture in Kashmir till very late – Buddhist period – in Kashmir.  We can’t uncritically take any grand narratives that have been part of the folklore of vast areas surrounding Kashmir and transpose them into Kashmir’s historical past. Myths are abused in degenerate times that are ours and we need to be conscious. It is rather tricky to make proper use of myths in historiography. If Nehru goes to the other extreme in embracing all these references in too literal terms, secular historians who have almost no use for a vast wealth of religious/psychological/spiritual data preserved in folk narratives, other orally or otherwise transmitted texts and that somehow seem too real not to shape attitudes and behaviours even today for vast majority of people.
      The present work should be seen in light of the identity issue faced by a new generation of Pandit community. Accordingly it is seeking to summon all its resources from myth to scriptures to folklore to archaeology to construct a narrative that appears credible. However, any such attempt should not be seen in light of very strict academic standards but needs to be appreciated in light of huge challenges  with which such attempts seek to cope up. These attempts kick start a debate and they aren’t to be euologized or dismissed for serving or failing to serve certain ideological construction. Communities live by and through myths and other folk beliefs. Cut and dried demythologized history that is dominant way of historiography today misses  an important dimension of what is in stake.
      If we agree to read this book as credible history, we find interesting readings/allusions here and there such as about Pouch (headdress of Kashmiri Pandit women) invoking or appropriating Naga motifs and a strongly feminist reading of Krishna’s statement about Kashmir as the land of Parviti to legitimize women’s rule 5000 years. Insightful though quite fragmentary treatment of Trika vis-a-vis Zen is suggestive. Sufism is praised but hints are dropped – problematically – to separate it from Islam which is dubbed as the religion of “invading zealots.”
      The book succeeds in avoiding a host of sentimental platitudes and accusations regarding the role of religious other that we are accustomed to hear. He acknowledges the rot in Pandit  community consciousness started “right from their return into the Valley during Badshah rule when elders of the time had socially segregated themselves into Karkuns employees and Goars Gurus/priests even though to begin with all of them were Saraswati Brahmins. Karkuns developed air of superiority over  goars.” The author also recognizes the rot in politics and decadence of cultural practices during the times preceding entry of Islam (in fact as early as 10th century when great Saivist scholars were writing their great works). It thus succeeds in appreciating the play of dialectical historical forces in great changes that were precipitated by the advent of Islam.
      However it has its own share of certain views that have been the staple diet of certain brand of historiography that has been increasingly questioned with the advent of many new approaches. It sees, for instance, in post-Islam Kashmir, only erosion in traditional Hindu culture and doesn’t notice its essential adaptation and presence in Post Sheikh-al-Alam Reshi  Kashmir. It asserts that the approach of agamas is pragmatic rather than esoteric as if the two terms can be thus  sharply contrasted . It reiterates now largely discredited  reading of early Buddhism as nihilistic and highly nuanced and complex Vedantic doctrine of maya as illusion pure and simple. It wrongly equates Ishwara with Godhead instead of personal God. It pushes Plato to the 6th century B .C. It is simply not correct to assert that “the ancient treasury was razed to the ground, faded into oblivion and remained ever since.” This ancient treasury continues to live, albeit transformed, in later Reshi culture, in Sufi poets, In Islamic metaphysics and Kashmiri art and architecture. And certain religious and cultural formations do suffer death in history and that shouldn’t be lamented. Religion in its esoteric or metaphysical core survives vicissitudes of  religions, philosophies and cultures. Kashmir has been a unit and continues to be so. In this age, it was destined or history dictated that another idiom be used to express perennial spiritual dimension of culture. Culture remains the same; it doesn’t evolve. Civilizations evolve. If some Muslims conquerors haven’t been  good to Pandits, Brahmins haven’t been even half so good to Buddhists. Why confound political and cultural questions? I searched for more academic engagement with the question of allegations against Butshikan. The author asserts that every trace of Pandit heritage has been wiped out though he has been in Kashmir that till today is studded with this heritage.
      While this books makes Pandits proud it should make Muslims proud as well who are reminded of a great heritage they are sitting on. Sheikh Nuruddin Reshi had no qualms n connecting to the Reshis of the past and showing how Islam’s own greatest figures aren’t heir rivals but belong to the same kingdom of Spirit.
      It is more an exploration to document certain aspects of culture than an academic history and it largely succeeds in its purpose illustrating richness, depth, nuances, profound symbolism and esoteric significance of various religio-mystical practices and motifs. Brilliant engagement with archeological and other evidences notwithstanding, the treatment of philosophical heritage is not either consistently rigorous or academically accurate though one can discern insights and appreciate his grasp of key elements of the discourses.
      The study is missing in certain references though one must appreciate the efforts of his son who though himself not trained in historiography or study of culture, has worked hard to supply many of them. It is to this son that we owe a work that would otherwise have been lost like so many similar ones as new generation gets increasingly disconnected or alienated and loses is language, culture and thus its very soul.

      The great question is how to reconnect to their own roots and, at least at imaginative or spiritual level, end this exile. The present work Satisar to Kashmir as an attempt to reconnect is impressive in its range and extensive reviewing of many areas of scholarship. It is an attempt to write history though it succeeds partially in the project. Its lucidity is impressive. Analytical rigour within its narrow focus can also be appreciated. What appears, on sum, is that this attempt is at times too imaginative to be credible or pass the tests of objective history. However little can be done when it concerns a hoary period about which no first hand account is there. Nilmat Purana and Rajatarangini are projected as if entirely dependable sources of history thus missing the play of myths and poetry in them. Assuming his sources to be reliable to an extent that can be granted by rigourous academic standards, it is an impressive work for which Kashmiris should be thankful to the author. However it doesn’t take ample care to consult other sources where available as during the medieval period and indulges in certain stock generalizations. It appears that it is a Pandit reconstruction of history, giving scanty attention to Buddhists and seems quite narrow and even distorting when it comes to the Muslim period. The historian partly recedes into the background in last pages focusing on contemporary Kashmir that rehearses what happens to be politically “correct” narrative. His work will stay as a contribution to culture that, however, may be missed if it is framed in political or ideological terms. We need to see Kashmir as a seamless whole and integral unit that shows no big fault lines if properly understood. Let us read Ashraf Wani’s slim volume Prehistory of Kashmir to appreciate how proper academic history is written and as a corrective to certain skewed lines drawn by P. K. Nehru.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

“I am, therefore I pray”: Science and Philosophy of Prayer

Understanding the Meaning of Prayer and how all prayers are indeed answered.
How many of our prayers have been granted? Not even one in ten thousand, to speak in general times. But we are told that every prayer is answered. And it seems that it is no longer, ordinarily, possible to pray for certain things the way our elders prayed – praying for rains tomorrow when weatherman has predicted sunny weather, praying for this or that gender or health status of newborn when tests report otherwise, and hoping that praying for solution to Kashmir will be soon answered. Once upon a time popular prayers for destruction of other communities like Jews or nations like Americans have become unpopular. Doctors rather than Pirs or special prayer sessions/prayer-food culture/khatams are more popular now. Explaining the problems with interpreting different kinds of prayers such as prayer as petition, how prayer distinguishes believer from nonbeliever and what really is prayer is what theologians and philosophers specialize in.
      Scientific criticism leaves untouched, as William James noted, the essence of prayer that consists in “every kind of inward communion or conversation with the power recognized as divine.” How can science change the fact noted by Schuon “The very fact of our existence is a prayer and compels us to prayer, so that it could be said: “I am, therefore I pray; sum ergo oro.”  “It is not enough for a man to formulate his petition, he must express also his gratitude, resignation, regret, resolution and praise.” “Resignation is the anticipated acceptance of the non-fulfillment of some request.” Prayer as request is only one department of prayer. The other and higher department is simply gratitude. Imagine any question on theory and practice of prayer and read Schuon in Prayer Fashions Man and Mawlana Thanawi’s crisp and profound remarks in diverse contexts on prayer and one, generally, finds the answer.
      Theognis said, “Do not ask God for something that you have; for God gives everyone what suffices him. You should rather ask God for something that you don’t have – that what you have may suffice you.” Heschel substantiates the same point “It is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns, the absence of self-centered thoughts, which constitute the art of prayer.”
      Why is prayer so fundamental? Even more fundamental than love in a sense, as has been noted: “We need love absolutely; but the love we need is agape, the love that only God has and is; so unless we go to God for it, we won't get it. And going to God for it means prayer. So unless we pray, we will not love.” Indeed “prayer is like love. Foreplay is, or should be, most of it.” Difficulties in life or seemingly unanswered prayers should be seen as a foreplay and waiting for a moment of touch from God that dissolves all complaints we might have had harboured. One moment in heaven or in loving embrace of the Beloved cancels  or formats for good all woes, all unfulfilled desires and one can say one finds all prayers answered.
      Making requests or petitions is not the primary purpose of prayer as noted by Heschel. “The primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song and men cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and men.” Our role in this partnership is to pray and God’s is to fulfill them though not necessarily by fulfilling them in the particular ways we seek. In Bedil we find rejection of those who believe or claim that all their prayers are granted here and now. Noah’s prayer for son and Abraham’s for father was not accepted.  We can say that all our prayers are granted if we achieve complete detachment so that what God does we own or we will what God does.
      Let us read Kierkegaard for his penetrating insights on prayer: “God possesses all good gifts, and his bounty is greater than human understanding can grasp. This is our comfort, because God answers every prayer; for either he gives what we pray for, or something far better.” “…the true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until he is the one who hears, who hears what God is asking for.” “In proportion as one becomes more and more earnest in prayer, one has less and less to say, and in the end one becomes quite silent... until the one who prays hears God.”  Prayer does not change God, it changes the one who offers it. If you complain of your enemies to God, he makes short work of it and opens a case against you, because before God you too are a guilty person. To complain against another is to complain against yourself. You think that God should take your side… If you intend to have God judge someone else, then you have made God your judge as well.” “The important thing is to be honest towards God, until he himself gives the explanation; which, whether it is the one you want or not, is always the best.”
   There are people who don’t think of themselves at all and thus are unconditionally pleased with what God/Other/Universe does. They can’t imagine advising God to do this or that or bend the universe in their favour. There are others who have taken a vow not to request God for this or that end but to seek the Kingdom of God and that alone and, as Jesus implied, all things are later added as a bonus. There are others who have special relationship to God so that their every wish is granted – their wishes are God’s wishes. One of the deepest secrets about prayer is that one has to sincerely pray for being able to truly pray in a way that God can’t afford not to grant it. This station has been reported of certain Companions and saints. All of us have, at times, witnessed the power of prayer and if we can take the witness of numerous studies by scientists on prayer as petition, it stands amply confirmed. The secret is our attention to anything we seek does the wonder and the reason is we are no longer ourselves when we are deeply concerned or attentive to some object/other. The Spirit descends when we become deeply attentive or meditative or selfless or committed that something has to be/should be done anyway. The principle that facilitates our endeavour to seek heights in any realm we are deeply committed to is called God and the way to it prayer. We need to learn the language or idiom of prayer that works as it is learning to get properly attuned to the workings of the Spirit. And the Spirit is what we all know as the power of awareness, of spontaneous zeal to work or seek, of love and joy. When we are in love, all things seem possible. All works of genius, all discoveries involving intuition of some sort, all breathtaking feats of athletes, all great poetry or art works, all that impresses us by sheer excellence involve the miracle of prayer understood as attuning to the higher intelligent world by taking leave of ourselves as ordinary imprisoned mode of consciousness and letting the Spirit take reigns. One falls in prostration or yells out of joy or looks towards heavens or bursts with tears of gratitude after achieving some great feat because one acknowledges, deep down, that one is only an instrument, and the power or grace has descended from unknown quarters or above.
      Gandhi said: “When every hope is gone, 'when helpers fail and comforts flee,' I find that help arrives somehow, from I know not where. Supplication, worship, prayer are no superstition; they are acts more real than the acts of eating, drinking, sitting or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they alone are real, all else is unreal.” If we  knew how to pray and what to pray for, there would be no complaints regarding unanswered prayers and we would choose God answering them in His own way or delaying the answer and converting our sighs or patient waiting into flowers of joy in the “other” world – learning to wait on God ‘s terms and not ours is a superhuman gift and blessing at which prayer aims at – and note that life forces us to learn waiting or perish in despair.  If we were really decent, we would hardly afford to hanker after this or that gift of God and would be content with God as the gift – that is why Eckhart said that “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” What do we really need apart from God? Nothing. And that is why things apart from God/gifts from God may be withheld for our greater glory by the All-Merciful  in finding the treasure or source of all things we should really treasure.
      The questions raised in the beginning are dissolved if we note that we are required to pray that it is not ours but God’s will that is to be done on earth as it is done in heaven. Prayer attunes us to higher intelligence that science itself seeks through another route, albeit dimly. Let us conclude with a prayer for an attitude expressed by A.W. Tozer thus:  “Sometimes I go to God and say, "God, if Thou dost never answer another prayer while I live on this earth, I will still worship Thee as long as I live and in the ages to come for what Thou hast done already. God’s already put me so far in debt that if I were to live one million millenniums I couldn’t pay Him for what He’s done for me.”

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Understanding Hawking on Religious and Spiritual Life

Exploring if Hawking may be read as an ally of genuine religion

Should Hawking’s much publicized atheism bother truly religious souls? No, because it leaves the problem that religion basically addresses – the question of suffering/ignorance/alienation or meaning or God understood as the Meaning of Life – untouched. Hawking himself advocate a sort of intellectual/spiritual life that echoes/is parasitic upon the “worldview” of Religion. God talk is ultimately more about life lived here and now than enquiring about past or future dispensation or bothering about some account of what happened at the beginning of time. The most important question for religion is not of boundaries or edges of the universe or who began the show or whether it is self sustaining or what is the precise address of the Creator if there is one (as against none or two or more as if nondual Reality that grounds every inquiry or judgment is numerical question) or the structure of His Mind. It is, instead, how one takes the gift of life – whether one is grateful for it or not (disbelief is most fundamentally ingratitude for the gift of being or life and its cost is losing hope or despair – and how far we pursue excellence in moral, intellectual and spiritual spheres and if one is truly appreciative of the grand design (for man dies “for want of appreciation”/wonder/beauty/love). The question of explaining the world with or without personal God (that interests Hawking and many other atheists) may or mayn’t interest religions and if it interest them it isn’t vital to their core project. The question and answer for both Religion and Hawking is of sustaining hope, embracing life without being in any hurry to die, of not being afraid of the unknown or dark and of recognizing limitations of finitude.
      The very fact that man is able to ask the question of Being or seeks to comprehend the world or turns himself into a question constitute irrefutable proofs of the thesis that man is intelligence that transcends him as ordinarily conceived a spatiotemporal entity or evolved monkey or computer. These also imply that man can’t evade or dissolve the understanding of God identified with transpersonal depths of being – Being – and this is how metaphysics understands God. The question or the issue every man or scientist must confront (on the pain of denying himself or denying the Question that he is) is not the theological or cosmological question of genesis of being or Being of being but the existential question of being or Being of being as such. A few moments of meditation on the term Dasein (used by Heidegger) for man is enough to unsettle the popularized perception that science has supplanted philosophy and theology and we should celebrate shallow, naïve and unthinking confidence of scientism that the task of thinking may one day come to an end. Heidegger was indeed right when he said science doesn’t think and “the most thought provoking question today is that we are still not thinking.”
      We now comment upon some less commented upon statements of Hawking to state the case why Hawking is nonpathogenic for religion except in the eyes of those whose concept of religion is indissolubly tied to certain conceptual scheme such as that of theism of a certain sort and popular view of creation ex nihilo taken as contradicting alternative account of emanation. Hawking states: “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.” Religion does invoke authority of intellect over reason, of disciplined self over wayward self, of objective order of reality over subjective whims of passion or ego, of the undisputed Book transcribed in the very heart of being or self over texts that might be disputed, of what stays over what passes away, of the sage (whose heart and brain are both developed) over the saint or philosopher, of the prophets who are, de facto suns at the centre of various cultures and it is thanks to their light that countless followers have found reason to live. Revelation is best defined as objectivization of universal intellect that is, theoretically  potentially accessible for every normal man and it is the light and fire of intellect that lights up the torch of reason that seeks to comprehend the universe. Mulla Sadra illustrating this point in the case of the Quranic revelation has thus put it: “The Quranic revelation is the light which enables one to see. It is like the sun which casts light lavishly. Philosophical intelligence is the eye that sees this light and without this light one cannot see anything. If one closes one’s eyes, that is, if one pretends to pass by philosophical intelligence, this light itself will not be seen because there will not be any eyes to see it.” (None including Hawking can veto philosophy as has been noted that philosophy is the art of reasoning or analysis that scientists are ever employing.) Religion’s invoking of authority is ultimately the authority of experience/reality over interpretations coloured by desiring self’s distorting lenses. God whose authority is invoked is the ground of being/laws/objective order/intelligible entities and is not external to things but their very life. The Universe doesn’t stand confronting Him as an object but is His behavior as Iqbal would put it. We are ever experiencing God or we, alongwith the universe aren’t there as God alone is there to be experienced. God is a percept as sages like Shaykh-i Akbar declare rather than a concept that can be dethroned. One doesn’t say about the sun or No-thing that it needs to be proved. God has been described by religions as No-thing or That what Is or That of which no analogy could be given and thus nondeconstructable Suchness or whatever is called the Origin and the End or the Meaning or the Centre or the Principle of Order. Science itself gains legitimacy by invoking the “authority” of reign of reason and laws of science and it is no charge against it. Religion’s invoked authority is similarly the authority of the that which is presupposed in every discourse – it is the authority of the Word or Vak or Primordial Speech or Logos that frames every communicative activity. This authority is paradoxically what realizes freedom that every free man affirms (and Hawking in his own way: “Although I cannot move and I have to speak through a computer, in my mind I am free.” ) This awareness of freedom (expressed through various activities including in Hawking’s case creative work) distinguishes man from every computer we know. Hawking should have appreciated that religions counsel accepting mortality and accepting that non-self/Being is underlying immortal reality whose closing and opening of eyes constitute this wondrous show of the universe. (Against the mortality of soul is to be distinguished the immortality of spirit that is not ours but in us – projection of Being – and that is co-terminus with the special gift of understanding that distinguishes humans or more precisely the fact of awareness of itself and accompanying consciousness of joy that refuses the idea of limit or boundary that life seems due to the “event” of death).
      Religion’s basic project is to save us from estrangement from ourselves here and now and its great playingfield is this world or samsara. Heaven  is to be earned here and now or never. Postulated posthumous Heaven is an afterglow of what is won here in the form of disciplined/satisfied soul and hell is the darkness of a lost soul that is terribly felt here and extends, for religions, in posthumous dimension. Hawking would take the battle ground seriously and seek excellence even if it appears purely secular one but can’t be divested of certain permanence that intellectual life has by its very definition or nature participates in.
      The fundamental claims/demands of religion are that we recognize that there is something in man that makes him special, that meaning question is vital and must be addressed, that we should be grateful for the opportunity to live and one must not lose hope and must pursue excellence or better perfection in what he does. Hawking seems to concede all these claims explicitly in his published work and interviews and one’s disagreement with him is in degree rather than kind. His is a rather impoverished vision of man’s great potential to pursue excellence in both intellectual and spiritual spheres. Compared to the heights on which sages like Aquinas, Abhinavgupta, Mulla Sadra, Sankara, Lao Tzu and others are situated, Hawking’s estimate of what he calls essentially an advanced breed of  monkey is limited. With Hawking the dialogue should be  on  anthropology/anthroposophy or what does it mean to be truly a man, what is it to know the mind of God through discursive conceptual route that he employs and how far he succeeds in understanding the significance of the alternative route of prophets/sages to such an objective. Since every disciplined pursuit of intellectual life is a species of spiritual one which essentially consists in undistracted attention or sharp unwavering awareness– and morality itself is a fruit of proper attention to the other and thus not unrelated to intellectual life – we better respect Hawking’s  mode of worship that recalls partly Spinoza’s or Einstein’s and though admittedly is of a different order compared to that of sages, we better focus on what he has to teach us – that any dualistic concept of God that imagines absolute separation from the world  is passé, that God of gaps is rather awkward for mature spiritual vision, that aesthetic contemplative attitude with regard to grand design is what is to be cultivated. Hawking’s essential take home advices that echo teachings of essential religion and great poets include, among others, the following: 

  • The universe is not pointless in the sense Weinberg would have it and that it is an ordered universe and we can say that universe and life do have meaning.
  • “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”
  • “Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist” and “Be curious.”
  • “I like physics, but I love cartoons.” (If we understand cartoons as allusion to spiritually uplifting playful, artistic activity)
  • “And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Reclaiming the legacy of Maulana Thanawi (RA)

Comprehensiveness, subtlety, psychological perspicuity and courage to chart new paths.
Mass Education and Mass Media have been accompanied by certain degeneration, and decadence in the use of language, in the level of scholarly discourse, besides general trivialization and ideological colouring; as such oblivion of, or alienation from, intellectual and spiritual elite that resist this reduction. What strikes us today in popular literature on Islam is, generally speaking, superficiality, polemical spirit, lack of serious engagement with all the facets of tradition as a whole, failure to be respectfully critical of great predecessors, reluctance to exercise ijtihad, and baneful influence of certain politicization of discourse. What equally strikes us, however, in the case of such figures as Maulana Thanawi, is profundity, comprehensiveness, subtlety, psychological perspicuity and courage to chart new paths.
      There are some gifts for the century to help countless people progress on spiritual path and clarify doubts, or perplexities. One such gift was Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi at whose feet we learn today something of what is called traditional Islam. If one were asked to choose only one writer on Islam in the 20th century to be taken as representing both the comprehensive and essential aspects of the tradition to be preserved in the face of some disaster, one could vote for Thanawi’s collected works.
      Maulana Thanawi said, the fact that Imam Anwar Shah Kashmiri is Muslim is a proof of Islam. One could transpose the same claim to him in turn with the difference that the fact Maulana Ashraf Ali is a Sufi is a proof of orthodoxy of Sufism. Any critique of Sufism in the 20th century South Asia that bypasses comprehensive restatement of Sufi doctrine and practice in many volumes in Thanawi corpus is shallow. One can judge how shallow is anti-Sufi rhetoric by noting its lack of reticence in approaching thousands of works by the best minds in all ages from early development of Islam till date that demonstrate – and not merely argue – moral, spiritual and intellectual energy of tasawwuf. Islam’s best in art, poetry, aesthetics, philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, psychology/pneumatology, symbolism, medicine and a host of other sciences can’t be understood except in light of Sufism. Sufism is the master key to understand not only ordinary Muslim life but also life and work of greatest of Ulama in general and some of the greatest Quran exegetes, hadith scholars, fuqaha, theologians, poets and metaphysicians. All these points surface up in the pages of  Thanawi whose most abiding contribution that will stay is revivification of Sufism.
      Reading Thanawi we realize lack of very serious engagement with Sufism in either modernist or so-called Salafist works. Refuting, in the name of so-called pure Islam or Aslaf, Sufism – especially as it flourished in Indian subcontinent – would require detailed engagement with such towering scholar-sages as Ashraf Ali Thanawi, whose command of exoteric science and relevant hadith corpus and theological issues is indisputable. A critique of certain peripheral practices or customs popularly associated with Sufism is an internal issue that South Asian scholars have been quite alert to as insiders. In fact we don’t find amongst the frontline mainstream scholars in South Asia including those who are classified in Ahl-e-Hadith camp anyone who is not a Sufi or who rejects the key notions of tariqa and gnosis or could be offensively disrespectful towards iconic figures in Sufism such as Ibn Arabi. Maulana Thanawi gives voice to much of the legacy of around 13 centuries of Islam.
      Maulana Thanawi helped restore theoretical and practical Sufism the vital place in the Islamic tradition it ever had throughout the last millennium. In Thanawai’s Bayan al-Quran we find, as Qasim Zaman emphasizes in his slim but illuminating volume Ashraf Ali Thanawi: Islam in Modern South Asia, that Sufism is clearly presented as part of the Qur’anic sciences, and no less so than are matters of lexicography. In “The Reality of the Path according to the [Prophet’s] Elegant Example,” Thanawi lists 330 hadith reports in terms of which he finds justification for particular Sufi beliefs and practices in the teachings of the Prophet (SAW). It is Thanawi’s monumental 24 volume work on Rumi in The Key to the Mathnawi, and less noticed work on Hafiz that show, against the popular fashion of disowning our legacy in the name of “pure” Islam, how it is possible to place classics of Persian poetry in the mainstream of Islamic artistic and spiritual tradition.
      Maulana Thanawi’s classic statement regarding Ibn Arabi’s orthodoxy that presents Deobandi standpoint succinctly needs to be noted today as we find polarization of opinions on him contributing to intellectual chaos affecting modern Islam. Thanawi noted that the “vast majority of the community’s elders” had viewed Ibn Arabi favorably and “this provided enough justification to continue doing so, without, however, turning this into an endorsement of all his views.”  More important to note is Thanawi’s able advocacy and brilliant exposition of tawhid-i-wujoodi. One recalls here Ghalib’s crisp presentation of the same that should dispel popular misperceptions and grounds for any misappropriation for antinomian cause. Iqbal’s later turn to Hallaj and Ibn Arabi and, as Yusuf Salim Chisti attempted to show, his rediscovery of significance of wujoodi tawhid, is an instructive case for those who jump to conclusions and quote medieval critics of Ibn Arabi despite centuries of scholarship that has cleared key charges from Ibn Taymiyyah and others against him. For Thanawi Ibn ‘Arabi’s view that Sufi saints (awliya) like himself were superior to God’s prophets (anbiya) in terms of their knowledge was defensible on the ground that “a distinction ought to be made between forms of knowledge that are aimed at or intended (
maqsud) for religious guidance, and other kinds of knowledge that are not. A prophet’s knowledge is of the former sort; a mystic, for his part, might be more knowledgeable, but only in the sense of having been blessed with a kind of knowledge not required for righteous living.”
      Thanawi’s disciple, Zafar Ahmad ‘Uthmani, completed a work in defense of Hallaj along the lines that  his Master had envisaged, and did so in the master’s lifetime.
      Thanawi needs to be explored by modern scholars of mysticism and philosophy of religion for his brilliant balanced and nuanced formulations of classical synthesis of fiqh-i asgar and fiqh-i awsat (tasawwuf) in the backdrop of Muslim theology – and metaphysics – (fiqh-i akbar) against majority of modern critics. It is significant to note that one of Thanawi’s works  (Answer to Modernism) was co-translated by one of the disciples of Thanawi’s disciple Mufti Muhammad Shafi, none other than South Asia’s most important and brilliant literary critic Hasan Askari.

      Some points defended by Thanawi, through enormous scholarship, for consideration of us all include:
  • Thanawi concurred with the judgment of Ibn ‘Arabi that there are two kinds of Sufi masters: those fully observant of shari‘a norms and others overwhelmed by changing mystical “states” and the latter should not be emulated though ought to be given their share of respect.
  • Although  the fact that “Sufism was, above all, a matter of discipline and practice, not mystical experience… meant that anyone with the necessary determination could successfully walk on the Sufi path” one must remember that the basic qualification for entry to heaven for a believer doesn’t include Sufism.
  • Sufism that seeks special states, relies on dreams, courts mystical powers, hankers after kashf and indulges in mystifying narratives and abstruse or wooly speculations and pursues so-called spiritual pleasures is not what is ideally required or may well prove a distraction.
  • “Where the apparently wayward practices of the Sufi masters of old could not be easily interpreted either as having been broadly in conformity with shari‘a norms or even as belonging to the category of means towards an acceptable end, they could be seen as the acts of those who had no control over what they were doing and, as such, were blameless.”
  • “Sufis might do more harm than good if they insisted that everything they did had clear warrant in the foundational texts, that it carried the same authority as did the well-established goals of the shari‘a.”
  • Rather than reform Sufism as modernists and some Ulama would suggest, the task is to appreciate that Thanawi “did not have a narrow set of criteria in terms of which to “reform” Sufism or to make it compatible with shari‘a norms. Rather, it was precisely this lack of a narrowly shari‘a-minded vision, so far as Sufism is concerned, that explains his success as a Sufi.”
  • Sufism was not to be a bridge to non-Muslims. (I think this is difficult to concede in view of weight of history and modern scholarship to the contrary. I think Thanawi was too occupied with defending and consolidating separate Muslim identity to give detailed attention to the problem of religious other and he had only – and rather problematic – medieval texts as reference points to build his opinions upon. He had no first hand – and arguably not even proper second hand – access to great works in comparative religion written in his lifetime. Thanawi’s distrust of mystical experience owes partly to his anxiety to ward off claims of mystics from other traditions, a posture that modern scholarship and some classical Sufi authorities find problematic.)
Post Script: 
The specific contours of Thanawi’s legal philosophy, psychology and theology that limit his choices for seekers (saliks) in general and fatwa seeking masses in particular to accommodate less ideal modes of living forced by modernity call for informed analysis and critique in light of great Sufi Masters and jurists who embody other less disciplinarian streams of thinking. What needs to be emphasized is that Thanawi had much more optimistic view of otherworldly prospects for sinning believers than has been usually the case amongst Ulama – he was read as mercy/basharat centric and once remarked that hell, for a believer, is like a shower in rather hot hamam that cleanses – and this makes him contributor to less strict legalistic interpretations. What is especially at stake is more a question of psychology than theology as his project has been to transform people for which he favoured more disciplinarian attitude. To illustrate, Thanawi’s Bihishti Zewar and other reformatory works that have been quite influential although modern scholarship has pointed out problematic areas including the rather outdated socio-economic and political setting presupposed in those works. Modern women can’t but feel alienated from certain opinions expressed therein. But what is important to note is attention given to comprehensive development of women’s education that outsmarts modern conception in many ways though, on certain points besides its medieval colouring, would call for rethinking by 21st century scholarship.