Thursday, 21 April 2016

Dialogue with Evolutionists

To oppose or not to oppose Darwin.
Religion that can’t withstand scrutiny of unbiased reason and experience must go and we should welcome Dawkins and other critics of religion from Marx to Freud to Russell  and their modern disciples for sifting the ideological, superstitious and other problematic elements that have been associated with religion by lesser minds and professionals of vested interest – Mullacracy. For those who reduce religion to an insurance deal whose premium is paid here or those who worship words and don’t taste God and those who invoke God to throttle free inquiry – who have deep down anxiety to silence philosophers, scientists, mystics and even children asking awkward questions regarding higher things they imagine at their own level, modernity has made things difficult. Religion has to offer arguments too strong to resist any criticism and must have enough humility to acknowledge that it doesn’t deal with the truth pure and simple but filtered, tailored truths that take into consideration both needs and weaknesses of its heterogeneous addressees and is more interested in living with mystery than imposing any special knowledge claims. It has to be catholic enough to accommodate every sincere seeker in its ambit. It has to be ready for debate and discussion with anyone on any issue. It has nothing to fear from any new development of thought as long as the later is in turn ready to be appraised in terms of the best available evidence. Let us state what religion’s doctrine of creation (not creationism/intelligent design promulgated as scientific hypothesis) is and see if the criticisms of creationism/intelligent design from the influential evolutionists from Dawkins to Jerry Coyne (author of Why Evolution is True) to Stephen J Gould and scores of other critics apply. Since it is the best minds – sages – who have the right to speak in the name of religion and explain its subtle symbolism and its background of penetrating metaphysics we will let them only speak and not quote from popular press and preachers who are taken to be authorities by the laity. Amongst those who were best qualified to explicate religion in an idiom that the highest academic seats would better comprehend or appreciate and the acknowledged authorities of different disciplines take seriously, is Ananda Coomaraswamy whose prodigious knowledge of scores of languages and religious, artistic, philosophical traditions across civilizations besides extremely careful and meticulous scholarship has been recognized by the academic elite. The fact that he was also trained as a geologist (and made a name in that field) – like his friend Rene Guenon (Abdul Wahid Yaha) who was a mathematician – makes his knowledge about science and especially scientific method first hand and this means he willn’t build fantastic notions that modern scientist could dismiss away without giving due consideration.
      He has been emphasizing time and again that inferior thinkers shouldn’t be heeded at all. And it isn’t difficult to identify these inferior minds when one reads the best from Plato to Nagarjuna to Sankara to Lao Tzu to Aquinas to Eckhart to  Ibn Arabi to Mulla Sadra to Shah Waliullalah.
      What world religions collectively have to teach us regarding doctrine of creation (not to be too readily contrasted with evolutionary thesis) is what Commaraswamy is able to present thanks to the masterly understanding of hermeneutical tools provided by respective traditions.  According to him, at the level of mediate causes evolutionary theses need not be questioned on religious grounds, special creation and evolution are not irreconcilable alternatives if the doctrine of special creation is metaphysically read. The two concepts of special creation and evolution are incompatible only if mythical account is historically interpreted and theologians defending special creation have usually defended it historically. We need to distinguish between the First Cause and Mediate Causes. As Coomaraswamy explains:

  • The First Cause whether philosophically absolute or ‘mythically personified,’ is the direct cause of being of things but only indirectly of the manner of their being. The manner of their being is determined by the Mediate Causes. The category of Mediate Causes doesn’t exclude any of those forces or tendencies or determining accidents on which the evolutionist relies as explanations of the observed series; if he differs from the philosopher in ignoring the First Cause it is because he is not discussing the origin of life but only its variety.
      Another lengthy passage needs to be quoted:
  • In traditional doctrine of evolution, every one of the forms, every phenomenon, represents one of the ‘possibilities of manifestation’ of an ‘ever productive nature’ which may be called either the God, the Spirit, Natura Naturans or, as in the present context, the ‘Life’ according to which we speak of the forms of life as ‘living.’ This Life is the First Cause of lives, but the forms which these lives take  is actually determined by the ‘Second’ or ‘Mediate Causes.’ That are nowadays often called ‘forces’ or ‘laws’ notably that of heredity. No difficulty is presented here by the variability of the species; the shape that appears at any given time or place in the history of a ‘genus’, ‘species’, or ‘individuals is always changing. All the definitions of these categories are really, like ‘round numbers’ indefinite, because the reference is to ‘things’ that are always becoming and never stop to be, and can only be called ‘things’ that are always becoming and never stop to be, and that can only be called ‘things’ by a generalization that ignores their variation over some longer or shorter, but always relatively short ‘present.’ 
      Another remark that “there are no delimited and monads or egos, but only one unlimited” shows how resistance to the idea of distinct species closed to further change is critiqued by him.
      The following description of the Life of Supreme Ego, to use Iqbalian expression, in relation to the world of manifestation by A.K. Coomaraswamy seems to be echoed in Iqbal’s Asrari Khudi. “‘Life’ being one of the names of God, according to his ‘ever productive nature’ seeks ‘experience.’”
      The following metaphysical claims can’t be contested by evolutionists and thus conflict is avoided. Scientists qua scientists can bypass such metaphysical roots of empirically observable entities in their investigations.
  • Every one of these transient forms of species and individuals reflects an archetypal possibility or pattern (pater, father) subsistent in what is called the ‘intelligible’ as distinguished from our ‘sensible’ world or locus (Skr. Loka) of compossibles…It is only to the extent that we can think and speak of distinct ‘species’ and ‘individuals’ that we must also speak of their separate archetypal ideas; in reality, everything that flows is represented there in all its variety, although not in a temporal succession, but so that all can be seen at once.
  • Coomaraswamy observes that what Gradation states sub species aeterntatis, the Myth relates sub species aeviternitatis, and History sub species temporis.  (For those vocal  people who want to take strong positions for and against evolution or religion’s doctrine of creation need to take a pause and meditate on these terms to understand the nuances and complexity  in traditional position that is shared by all traditional religions and traditional philosopher-sages. The beauty of Coomaraswamy and Guenon and their likes is they don’t advocate personal opinions but  attempt their best to present what has been traditionally received and affirmed by Revelation and traditional authorities of religion). Coomaraswamy approvingly quotes Prof. Keith’s statement that according to The Rig Veda “This creation cannot be regarded as a single definite act: it is regarded as ever proceeding.” And comments: “this doesn’t mean it is unfinished in principio and ex tempore, but that it is apprehended by ourselves as a temporal sequence and as if cause and effect could be separated from one another by sensible periods. The phrase “in the beginning” in the genesis is logical rather than temporal priority.”
      Let us not forget that man, traditionally, is body, soul and spirit. We need not contest evolution of body. And we must state fundamental differences with evolutionist naturalism and materialism on soul and spirit. And we can show how indefensible is the latter’s position on soul and spirit later while acknowledging problems in fundamentalist creationist account of body’s separateness and autonomy from other forms.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Encountering Dawkins on Religion

Reading The God Delusion as Delusions about Being.
Richard Dawkins is the new prophet of atheism and a great missionary of evolutionary science. He is feared by most of popular preachers whom he deconstructs in debates. He combines wit and iconoclastic zeal with brilliant oratory to popularize evolution and atheism. However his popularity owes something to simplistic generalizations about religion that attract popular imagination. In places brilliant critique of abuses of religion and shallow doctrinaire exotericism (Zaahir Parasti) and credulity of a significant faction of believing camp, is combined with ideas and constructions  that are  both misleading and shallow. Since Dawkins is now a presence and his work a new Bible for some critics of religion and atheists, we need to engage with him to understand both modern man’s alienation from religion that he understands little and misreads much if we assume that it is saints and sages and philosophers of religions that present the real face of it. We aren’t going to tame this bull in the china house of faith  but try to understand his rage.  On every page of his book is something to embarrass a Mullah or even a sophisticated religious scholar who isn’t informed about tenor of modern scientific outlook. He rubbishes familiar arguments we see advocates of religion invoking. Science has succeeded in dislodging the religion of the Mullah – we can see that Mullahs made much of  fill-in-the-blanks-argument and tried to defend none knows the sex of child in the womb or none can predict tomorrow’s weather.
      For me the best defense against him is to yield to his scathing critique on many points – let us learn to be humble and learn from him and far more sophisticated atheists than him, and then examine a few key points where he misidentifies the target or throws the baby with the bathwater. Let us note some points that may merit consideration by Dawkins admirers and critics. I focus on clarifying the grammar of religious belief or term God, and I think we can appreciate his position while stating our own and showing that it is not all or none option that we are forced to take. We can agree with Dawkins on the following key points, among others:
  • Evolution in form of different species is considered quite plausible by what closely approximates as ijma (consensus) of scientific community. It has been found to be highly useful idea that helps explain a lot and creationism as popularly taught in contradistinction to evolution in biology is purely speculative and has failed to provide a method for doing science or explaining in any better way much that evolution explains. Evolutionary science is based on certain premises and evidences that are hard to challenge though it suffers from various deficiencies. We live in a world shaped by this science. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” Dobzhansky said long ago. Now we know we are all witness to the phenomenal progress of biology. Evolution, one important definition states, is descent with modification. Evolution in some sense can’t be denied. Methodological naturalism that grounds it too is almost impossible to refute as far as doing science with this in background is the key practice today. Who can deny the animal in himself or herself? Our behavior can’t be explained if we discount any kind of relationship to animals. Darwin’s book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals needs to be read if one has any doubt. And we just need to think how many times we say about someone that he is an animal.
  • That literalist theology is scientifically or rationally indefensible. And only some Mullahs are  consistently literalist.
  • That the existence of evil in the world forces us to abandon simplistic thesis of divine goodness and power anthropomorphically conceived.
  • That we needn’t invoke miracles as constituting breach of laws of nature. We need to read the most well known spiritualist Madame Blavatsky on miracles that are done by knowing laws better rather than breaking them. One might also read Schuon on “naturally supernatural” character of intellect or his definition of Revelation as macrocosmic objectvization of the Universal Intellect to understand how problematic is division between natural and supernatural as popularly posited. 
  • That religious fundamentalism has served neither religion nor truth and we must resist baneful influence of teaching religion in a way that excludes, creates holier than thou attitude, oppresses women and feeds an imperialistic theology.
Some points that put Dawkins in perspective and critique his distortions or misapplications include, among others:
  • Religion criticizes metaphysical claims of modern evolutionism and needn’t deny evolutionary biology as far as empirical evidence implies it. Great religious thinkers contest philosophical uses of evolutionary biology and social Darwinism. Evolutionist metaphysics is riddled with too many problems to warrant serious consideration. Reductionist naturalism applied to consciousness/spirit/intelligence is laughable. 
  • It isn’t the truth but problem solving capacity of evolutionary biology that needs our attention. Science can’t fight symbolic, existential truths and in fact deeper questions it leaves out as it focuses on fallible models predicting certain results. If science deals with truth, it is not the metaphysical truth but truths we construct and keep refining.
  • Dawkins says he is interested in knowing about what is true and religion doesn’t fit the bill. Now religion is interested in saving people from suffering – and hell – and not truth itself.
  • Argument from selfish gene thesis needs to be properly appreciated rather than straightway condemned. It is parasitic on a profound truth that all life is individual and we can appreciate or experience anything only in terms of primordial experience of subjectivity or self – from Plato to Iqbal we have traditional arguments for enlightened self interest  or what Iqbal phrases as Khudi ki zed mei sari khudayi.
  • Dawkins creates a ghost out of the body and spirit of religion and then proves ghost is a figment of imagination. He doesn’t engage with any theologian properly; he quotes his own imagined definition of God or Beyond or supernatural that he pitches against the natural and empirical and then finds it easy to question.
  • Dawkins attacks (personal) God and mystics talk about Godhead, Absolute, Self, Ground of Being, Unity of Existence instead of existence of personal God taken as Absolute.
  • Dawkins attack God of heavens, a supernatural God who is to be believed without evidence. Mystics talk about God within who is to be realized or witnessed rather than believed on authority.
  • Dawkins is uncompromising champion of reason and evidence. So is Buddha, a founder of a mystical religion.
  • Michael Ruse, atheist and philosopher of science, questions Dawkins and thinks it is shameful to be an atheist if God Delusion is the standard. He accuses him of failing to engage with sophisticated religious thinkers and therefore keeps repeating simplistic notions. 
  • There are no absolute proofs for God but there are five and in fact many more ways of finding God that though not formal and indubitable proofs are very strong pointers. How convincing are they may be decided by reading their modern statement by Maritain and Kreeft’s defense in The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. If we refuse to entertain any theistic thesis, howsoever sophisticated, we have likes of Heidegger and Wittgenstein and Derrida and Levinas talking about quasidivine nature of Being (Being can’t be refuted by Dawkinian strategy). The fact that Dawkins doesn’t engage with highly sophisticated religious and secular understanding of the grammar of religious belief or God-talk or language-of-transcendence forces us to say that he knows so little about philosophical theology as Harun Yaha knows about evolution. Both utterly fail to impress us.
  • The only task that if performed would silence Dawkins and his fundamentalist theological critics is showing how theology is autology (science of Self) and translating theological terms into existential language of certain mystics or leading theology back to its source in metaphysics. Then we don’t use word God but Being and thus we can’t have a title like God Delusion.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

A Report From Hell: Understanding Samuel Beckett's Agony

He comes close to mystics but doesn’t go all the way with them.
Beckett is considered by some as the greatest writer of the twentieth century. Those who know what the hell has been modernity and especially the twentieth century and have read or watched Beckett’s work will largely agree. His work is set in hell or purgatory because he sees  them everywhere. Do you know of any person who is really happy, at home, without revenge or malice or complaint and not speaking ill of someone? Do you know anyone who can confidently say his life has been live well or he has found meaning in it? Who isn’t a creature of habit? Who doesn’t wait aimlessly and distract himself by gossiping or playing absurd games or meaningless chatting on social networks? Who has found unalloyed love that heals all wounds? Beckett describes  man’s failure, especially modern man’s failure who has lost faith in God. Anyway do you know anyone who truly believes today? Belief in manifested by virtues of acceptance, detachment, patience etc. and we find them largely absent in us.
      How many people you can absolutely trust?  Who can say or about whom one can say that he knows himself, that he knows his Master, that he knows the other as God? If we find mostly disappointing answers to these questions, we can appreciate agony and pain of Beckett. Beckett also focuses on terminally ill – old, crippled, worthless people whom life teaches humility. (Eventually almost all of us become humble as we advance in age, experience and wisdom and see “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”). We will discuss his therapy of laughter and his statement “nothing is funnier than unhappiness” some other day and today we focus on his vacillation and self doubt and his struggle to be a mystic – I will not say his failure as a mystic. It is modern man’s failure that he portrays and we all know we struggle and keep limping in the great odyssey that life is and its meaning and glory largely escapes us doubting, timid creatures of habit and slaves of passion and ego.
      Beckett explicates Buddha’s Fire sermon in all his work. To quote from it:
  • Everything is burning. How is everything burning? The eye is burning. The ear is burning. The nose is burning. The tongue is burning. The body is burning. Thought is burning. The mental impressions, made by what the senses perceive, are burning. And the sensations produced by these mental impressions, whether they are pleasant or painful, are burning.”
He deconstructs all the idols modern man has constructed to escape despair and smuggle happiness outside God. He called himself an artist of failure. He has referred to himself in specifically Nietzschean and mystical terms as “non-knower” and “non-can-er.” His art, like much of twentieth century art, is a crude and quite inadequate approximation of traditional religious or mystical ideal. He remains tied to a nihilistic vision and that blocks his way to see further into the treasures that are bestowed to those who transcend their limited self. Beckett does the purification work quite excellently but ends in no land of bliss but a sort of neutrality that though freed from the worry that characterizes ego-centred man but has not that bliss of Brahman which exceeds all things that Beckett could imagine as giving us joy.
      The greatness of Beckettt’s thought from the Eastern perspective is that this vision of evil and destruction represents not so much the conclusion (Buddha has painted similar picture) of his argument, as its starting point. Beckett gives the evidence, and his people cry out against God (though Buddha and mystics would not do this) — yet ultimately they refuse to accept the evidence that they themselves have provided, and their indictment turns out to be an appeal to a different kind of God altogether, and with that, a different kind of death, a different kind of reality, a different kind of meaning.
      Beckett quite rightly, speaking from the traditional Eastern perspective, saw the limitations of traditional religious (theistic) thesis especially as understood  by popular theology (ulamai zahir) that posits God rather than the Godhead as the Ultimate Reality or First Principle. But he doesn’t take leave of religion to opt for materialism. He opts for certain appropriation (inadequate in many respects) of mysticism. All his people in a sense are mystics as Coe points out. They are all aware of a force at work within them and about them, a force which goads them onwards towards ends which they themselves would not have envisaged, yet which can neither be analyzed nor rationally explained, which completely eludes the net of words or the realm of the known or thought (discursive intellect). They all describe God negatively which is familiar to the East in the tradition of the negative divine as Stace phrases it in his Time and Eternity.  This is Sufi’s deconstructive way of fana (Beckett describes inevitability of encountering fana but baqa is generally missing in his worldview). Beckett’s (anti) heroes possess a strong feeling of being caught up in a pattern of salvation and damnation, of sin and redemption, of guilt and punishment, although their ignorance of or their not taking cognizance of eastern ideas of karma and fate makes all these things incomprehensible or irrational and thus unaccounted for and finally not of much use ultimately. It is not clear to them why God is blasting them as Celia complains or whether the punishment of life  is brought about as the necessary consequence of some sin committed previously (such as that of being born as Vladimir suggests) or whether the laws of cause and effect in this case may not work backwards. “All here is sin” says The Unnameable. “You don’t know why, you don’t know whose, you don’t know against whom, someone says to you…” Macmann also doesn’t know what his sin was although he felt full well living was not sufficient atonement for it or that this atonement was itself a sin, calling for more atonement, and so on. Beckett’s people all realize that they can never hope to “understand” God, His purpose, still less His lack of purpose (“God” says Malone, “does not seem to need reasons for what he does, and for omitting to do what he omits to do, to the same degree as his creatures, does he?” until they have understood something of themselves, as Coe notes). And this knowledge of the self ( What is God other than the deepest self of man) though absorbing most of their energies is indeed denied to them or given them only very fragmentarily as otherwise all these questions would have been “answered.”
      Beckett tries answers that popular preachers of exoteric or literalist or “scientific” religion give and finds them wanting. He comes close to mystics but doesn’t go all the way with them. He keeps doubting but occasionally seems to smells eternity or heaven though cautions us regarding dangers or delusions on the Way.
      Final words I give to Indian mystic Ram Tirtha (whom Iqbal readers know) that show the difference between liberated mystics and struggling heroes. Ram Thirtha declared that red rays of the sun were his muscles. When anything came across his eyes, he robed it in God and then saw that there was nothing else but God. He thus addresses winds: “Blow, O breezes, mingle O winds, with these words whose purpose is the same as yours./  O laughter! laugher!/    I inextinguishable joy and laughter.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Fighting for God: Misreading Other Religions

Thanks to great strides in the discipline of comparative religion, we now know the religious other better.
Today religion can be taken seriously only if we can show it is not a divisive force. Seeing the contemporary scenario regarding understanding of religious-other in the Muslim world (and elsewhere as well) it is hard to see how we can assert that religion unites, and doesn’t divide. Isn’t it the case that, as Weinberg, the famous physicist,  puts it: “With or without religion, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion”  or as Pascal, the great religious thinker, says: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”? The question is how do we prevent fights in the name of God?  One way is that of the West that abolished such wars by becoming secular or showing religion exit. However this secularization isn’t the ideal solution for believers and many great modern thinkers. Ousting God lands us in the nihilist-absurdist-relativist world, or materialism, or secular utopianism in whose name world wars were fought and millions killed in USSR and China. There is another possible solution and that consists in taking religion seriously on what it literally connotes – binding men to God. All religions are to be construed as versions of a Single Tradition – Ad-Deen-al Qayyim – and the later is best defined as what binds man to Heaven and this includes as a means some equivalent of the concept of revelation. If this is granted – and one can easily demonstrate this as well on rational and scriptural grounds – we would be able to fight violence at all fronts including the political. Living in a globalized world one needs to know the religious other better for achieving this goal. And thanks to the great strides in the discipline of comparative religion, we now know the religious other better. However tragedy is our more popular religious leaders or preachers don’t know this science that has only recently developed. Most modern scholars of religion subscribe to a varying degree to some of the following notions, any of which if correct make interfaith dialogue almost meaningless, incoherent and academically hardly sustainable or respected enterprise:
  • That Semitic religions and non-Semitic religions advocate sharply divergent conceptions of Divinity. The former are seen as absolutizing concept of Personal God while the latter have no need of personal God or positively deny the first hypostasis of Absolute that personal God is.
  • That sacred- profane dichotomy characterizes certain religions and not others.
  • That such “Sufiana mazahib” – to use Ghamidi’s oft repeated formulation – as Buddhism and Hinduism are pantheistic which is incongruent with transcendentalist theism of Semitic religions.
  • That wahdat-al-wajood associated with Ibn Arabi and most Sufis and non-Semitic religions is pantheism that negates God outside the world.
  • That Buddhism is atheist/ agnostic  rather than trans-theist so has nothing corresponding to God of theistic religions.
  • That different scriptures make really contradictory claims and that their original message is no longer retrievable by any means.
  • That religions fundamentally differ in conceptions of after life. Concept of reincarnation or rebirth and monotheistic conception of single birth and posthumous existence have no common meeting point at any plane.
  • That religions are to be identified with theologies; metaphysics doesn’t ground them or unify them.
  • That theologies are not ultimately expressible in one another’s terms or subsumable and reconcilable under higher metaphysical and esoteric plane.
  • That essentially symbolic narratives in scriptures could be subject to literalist exegesis  or historical criticism.
  • That theology, philosophy and mysticism in traditional religious civilizations are not reconcilable or organically assimilated by the Traditions in question and one needs to explicate Deen meaningfully by first rejecting “tamaddun, tasawwuf, shariah, kalam” as alien impositions. 
  • That religions are primarily reconcilable, if at all, on ethical plane only and not the intellectual/ metaphysical one.
All these points have been forcefully challenged by many scholars of comparative religion but the most passionate advocates or preachers of different religions don’t know this. There is so much debate on God or gossiping about God and stakes associated with one’s understanding of God that clarifying this notion is one of the chief tasks of philosophy. Sects in religion are rooted in different understanding of God. Different religious movements have been fighting for different views on God or God’s relation to the world. The following points – argued by various scholars with compelling logic – need to be noted before giving judgments about world religions:
  • God is not best approached in theology or science of belief. Sectarian fights are on different creedal formulations and we find so many versions sometimes within the same larger school on a given issue. It has more to do with faith than belief and there is a whole book by W C Smith explicating the difference between the two.
  • Religious/secular binary has been invented by modernity to do away with religion. Ad-Deen is not to be reduced to religion. We shouldn’t be trapped in religion vs. secularism binary and reduce Tradition to the former.
  • Religion – and scriptural language – is not concerned with truth and nothing but truth. The fact is religion’s business is, primarily, saving people from loss or hell and not truth. It is philosophy and more precisely what Abdul Wahid Yaha and his likes have called Metaphysics that deals with Truth, pure truth. As Guenon explains, religion as theology have to take into account emotional makeup of people and their individualities and according filter Truth that Metaphysic accesses. People need to be consoled and seek this in religion and we know that Truth needn’t necessarily be consoling. 
  • We need to evaluate truth or otherwise of different religious traditions in light of certain standard of truth represented by one’s own religious tradition. This is a problematic methodology. We can have a dialogue on what is agreed by all the dialoguing parties. And there are fortunately such commonalities in different religious traditions, Semitic as well as non-Semitic religions like Buddhism (Manazir Ahsen Gilani has an insightful reading of Buddhism that corroborates Pallis and Schuon’s reading). And these are precisely those that the Quran lists (2:62)  as beliefs in 1) God as Absolute or the Transcendent Sacred, 2) other world or higher world and 3) right action and elsewhere it states common terms to be Divine Unity, shunning shirk and other lords. Can we name any scripture or traditional religion that invites us to shirk or pantheism or wrong actions or denies after life?
  • We are simply misinformed about other religions. Even the scholars who are widely read or influential. Both Zakir Naik and Javed Ghamidi, for instance, are inadequately about other religions, especially non-Semitic religions. This is primarily because they approach other religions in theological terms and appropriate them in atomistic terms quoting chapters and verses from scriptures and reiterate now questioned notions about their understanding of God, revelation and after life. They don’t take philosophical or mystical approach seriously that has been the key to self understanding of other religions. 
  • Deen, hikmah, self fashioning (tazkiyyah), law, culture are all too deeply connected  or reciprocally implicated to allow any expunging of their historical expressions in Sufism, Muslim philosophy, kalam, sha’ria and art by any purist. (Iqbal is misappropriated in search of “pure Islam” – an idea forcefully deconstructed by Hasan Askari – was himself a philosopher, a Sufi and a poet.)
  • W. T. Stace, W. C. Smith, Mircea Eleade, Otto, John Hick, Fithjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Suzuki, Huston Smith, Ken Wilber and a host of other great scholars besides such philosophers as Heidegger and Wittgenstein and the whole schools that have developed around them have drastically changed our understanding of key terms in the debate on comparative religion. 
  • Lastly, but most importantly, we can’t ignore differences in theologies of different religions and push for uniformity or syncretism but we can’t ignore the idea of transcendent unity of religion (wahdat-i-deen) implicated in the Quran but must distinguish it from misleading idea of unity of religions (wahdat-i-adyaan). Metaphysics and esotericism demonstrate transcendent unity while theology or fiqh show differences. For comprehensive view we need all of them at appropriate levels. We mustn’t confuse levels. “Only at the level of the Absolute are the teachings of the religions the same. Below that level there are correspondences of the most profound order but not identity.” As Rumi says: “When the number hundered has arrived, ninety is also present./The name of Ahmad is the name of all prophets.” 

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Reading Doctor Hegde

Fraudulent Practices in Modern Medicine

Those who care to think raise some uncomfortable questions and teach us to doubt. With one such doubting doctor who is also called poor man’s doctor, we deconstruct some reigning ideas in modern medical practice. In fact we can easily show that there have been some errors, even scandals, in modern history  that resulted in a dominance of modern allopathic system of medicine. 
      Dr B M Hegde, despite being criticized for right wing sympathies and some unsupported generalizations and  certain inconsistencies nevertheless emerges as one of the very few scientist-philosophers of modern India who needs to be widely read and debated. Passionate, informed, brilliant, witty, iconoclastic, provocative and lucid, Dr Hegde is a renowned cardiologist trained in allopathic system who has exposed, along with certain lesser known but significant scientists, fraudulent or somehow problematic nature of certain medical practices. In a nutshell he argues – or rehearses – with authority and wealth of data he memorizes so well  that one shouldn’t visit a doctor unless it is an emergency. Most of routine tests prescribed are either not needed or could result in more harm than good. For most of the common diseases including hypertension and diabetes, dominant modes of testing and treatment are deeply problematic. We have cheaper alternatives for most of treatments. The drugs you take most probably shouldn’t have been taken – you could have taken generic equivalent.
      The old WHO definition focusing on absence of disease is reductionist and is not workable except to make every one of us a patient, a good business for the industry-named disease mongering by Ray Moynihan. (All of us have “diseases.” Around 15 cancers in all of us currently. Immune system takes care of so many things on its own though tests could be positive) 
Hegde’s definition of health “enthusiasm to work and enthusiasm to be universally compassionate”  comes closer to the original definition of Sigmund Freud who defined health has “work and love.”
      Dr Medelsohan in Confessions of a Medical Heretic wrote: “Medical school does its best to turn smart students stupid, honest student corrupt and healthy students sick.”  Dr Andre Weil in Health and Healing: Conventional and Alternative Medicine, Principles and Practice wrote: “I find (modern) medicine glaringly deficient in theory and philosophy of any sort … lack of any clear concept of health leading medical doctors to pay more attention to disease.” Hegde shows how they are proved right – and “most of us hypocrites swearing by the Hippocratic Oath!” and gives us some stunning or shocking facts from his What Doctors don’t get to know in Medical School and other published works and lectures:
  • “The watch dog bodies like the WHO, FDA and others of their ilk have been shown to be receiving more than 80% of their funding from the vested interests like the drug and device lobbies.” 
  • “The thinking that doctors and hospitals are needed to keep a society healthy is plain rubbish.”
  • “The USA healthcare system is a terminal patient in the “ICU”.
  • The present medical education is “disease orientated and not patient orientated.”
  • He notes that cholestrol lowering is today7.2 trillion dollar business and it feeds on certain invented or distorted notions about cholesterol.
  • Building on David Eddy, a former professor of cardiovascular surgery at the Stanford, who left his job and got his PhD in mathematics, he writes “From heart surgery to prostate care, the medical industry knows little about which common treatments really work”Elley traced “one common practice -- preventing women from giving birth vaginally if they had previously had a cesarean -- to the recommendation of one lone doctor.” He also liked to cite a figure that only 15% of what doctors did was backed by hard evidence.
  • “As modern medicine quick fixes are absolutely necessary in emergency situations, many of the chronic illnesses and minor illness syndromes either do not benefit from the top-heavy modern medical establishment, or could do well with very inexpensive but effective alternative systems of medicine.”
  • Many procedures including bypass surgery are done more often “to fill the coffers of hospitals and surgeons, rather than to help patients. Many studies in this field are being twisted, using all sorts of statistics, to show benefit to the patient, while in essence, the procedures are only helping the doctors and the industry.”
  • “Many doctors and most lay person have a misconception that hi-tech investigations are needed for arriving at a good diagnosis. The truth, however, is otherwise. Lord Platt, wrote in 1949: ‘If you listen to your patient long enough he/she would tell you what is wrong with him/her.’”
  • Loannidis analyzed "49 of the most highly regarded research findings in medicine over the previous 13 years". And "Of the 49 articles, 45 claimed to have uncovered effective interventions. Thirty-four of these claims had been retested, and 14 of these, or 41 percent, had been convincingly shown to be wrong or 5 significantly exaggerated.”
  • Total Body Scanner checks 500 parameters at a time and if 100 people go for checkup, there will be 5x500 cases of false positive. There will not be  a  single normal person.” 
Hegde makes much use of a key distinction between normal and average, and says that above and below average are effectively treated as abnormal by doctors and cites some astonishing facts regarding historical personalities and cases that had much below and above average figures of B.P but lived without trouble. Much of discourse on BP and diabetes is invented by shifting or manipulating the threshold lines of normal range. He asks would over 5.7 or 6ft  persons be declared abnormal or above average?  Normal, he notes, is a statistical term described by Gaussian curve that treats plus two standard deviations.
      He has launched crusade against testing/treatment regimen of several commonly occurring diseases that consume our health budget and cause long queues outside clinics of doctors. There is highly provocative and deconstructive lecture by Dr Biswaroop Chowdhury on youtube “Treating Diabetes in 72 hours” that proposes treating diabetes through simple change in diet – shifting to 100% raw vegetable cum fruit based diet for 72 hours and it has been tried by many and found remarkably effective. They compare anti-diabetic drugs with sugar filled placebo capsules!
      Someone asked guru “I want peace” and he replied "leave I and want and see what remains is peace.” Building on a remark in Ayurveda he never go to a doctor when you are healthy – you have enthusiasm to work and don’t hate anyone, you don’t need a doctor.
      Who can dispute that overall our ancestors or elders lived more healthy lives when allopathic system was little heard of, and treatment didn’t cost much. Today, thanks to all kinds of things we are all ill to little or greater degree.
      “There is no science of man today” wrote Nobel Laureate Dr. Alexis Carrel in his classic – Man the Unknown. “We use the inanimate sciences of physics and chemistry in an animate, conscious human being.” 
Allopathic system has registered its success primarily because of its inherent strengths – if we let it go,  that would be turning the clock back. What is needed is to expose its unholy alliance with capital and its exclusivity, hegemony, and hubris.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Invitation to Visit Heaven

Yes, converting life into a work of art is the secret.
There is a heaven here and a heaven there, and there is some difference between the two. If we fail to cultivate the former, we fail to win the later. How seriously do we take God’s invitation to visit heaven or to create/cultivate a space called heaven? This can be known by the quality of lives we live. Very few people live life as if heaven is its constant horizon and depth dimension and thus “reserve” their seats in otherworldly heaven. All education and religion consist in learning how to experience this world as heaven. Our A grades may mean F grades in life’s examination. Our examination centres are pits of hell thanks to vices of competition and memorization of trivialities or information we hardly need in life. Heaven requires cultivating Imagination and Art that we have exiled. Our fragmented pleasure seeking, greedy, haughty, mean, depressed, complaining, lobbying, cursing – in short alienated lives in hell of our own making show how successful has been our education.
      However God provides, despite our failures,  countless means to visit heaven. Mini beatific vision (deedar) it is to see our children every evening we come back from work and relax with our spouses and get blessings from parents every time we leave in the morning. Wonderful to taste meals (remember that Heaven is full of wonder and this explains why both science and philosophy cultivating wonder have some otherworldly connection) when one is really hungry  – however sumptuous wazwaan is more evidently from the other world available only in this earthly paradise called Kashmir, and we may note that nothing, not even deaths make us renounce wazwaan – and to sip tea with kith and kin every morning, to spend time with friends,  and to watch the starry heaven and listen to the singing cosmos, to sleep well and crack jokes and laugh at folly in most of serials and those obsessed by them. Nearest things or experiences one can imagine, for instance, that evoke Heavenly joys these days would be like Afridi hitting six sixes in world cup final in final over and clinching victory against India for his Kashmiri fans.
      How do we cultivate Heaven as we are required to according to the tradition "Ad dunyau mazraitul aakhira"? One tested way is available to all – and it requires of course understanding Keat’s point that artist has no identity, no self – is what Nietzsche explains thus: experience everything with the eye of an artist. This last point is what Nietzsche suggests in The Gay Science here: “One thing is needful – To “give style” to one’s character – a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.”
|      Yes converting life into a work of art is the secret.
      In our tradition all noble things that delight the soul are said to be from heaven. Praying with all one’s heart – praying not for this or that boon but just praying for the sheer joy of it – is entry to heaven to which five times believers are routinely invited – I have seen a few devoted people in all schools (including Salafis and Tableegi-Deobandis) that keep debating theologies, praying in this way. But this mi'raj – which is essentially a glimpse into the other world of glory and beauty – is missed by most of us, even those who pray regularly. For those who know how to pray 24x7 through farzi dayim or maintaining steadfastly witnessing consciousness (one interpretation of salat-al-wusta that is especially recommended by the Quran), all things exude the perfume of the Beloved, the Other World. From ordinary experiences like sipping tea in silence to making love with spouse  to such intense experiences that take us out of body, make us dance in ecstasy (like Mewelvis), or swoon in serenity and weep tears of love and gratitude we are,  remembering nay tasting God. All life has to be lived  as if  we are seeing God  or we are seen by Him and all good things to be cherished as blessings from Him.  Doing a ritual is participating in heaven in a way. Religion is performance. It is not loan account only that God maintains; to live in virtue is to be in heaven and that is why it is said that virtue is its own reward. All virtuous people know this. One can meet a person here in almost every village who knows from experience semblance of what Surah Al-Rehman talks about as it describes feasts of heaven. Although it indeed needs the sleep of death to taste the Heaven “of which no eye has seen...” we do suffer little deaths every time we really see the world or become the experience or are consumed by beauty and love and art and sports leaving ego behind (and thus little images of heaven are vouchsafed to us).
      One way of finding Heaven in life that will be then transported to after life (we plant – or take, so to speak – both fire of hell and flowers of heaven from here to there as is implied in Ad- Dunyau mazraitul aakhira and many sayings and stories of saints) is to follow the passion or dream that is dearest to us – wherever your heart is gripped, follow that dream, says one of the greatest sages of Kashmir. “Sufism is leaving what troubles you” runs one definition. It doesn’t mean that the best way to face the temptation is to yield to it as Oscar Wilde would advise but identifying what moves us – either the path of love or what Heidegger calls thinking and other traditions call path of knowledge, or path of works – finding God in work is what makes traditional craftsman a blessed soul. In the afterlife our vision is sharper, as the Quran says, and we see what has already been, implicitly or secretly, the case.
      Heaven is available for all not only as a future state but “the desire itself is already a kind of fulfilment. The very longing for Heaven is Heaven.” Dmitri Karamazov, in Dostoyevski's novel, tells God that if he should put him in Hell, he would sing to God the hymn of joy even from Hell, "the hymn from the underground."  As Peter Kreeft comments: “That would transform Hell (or the Siberian salt mines) into Heaven. The song of love makes Heaven. Heaven does not make God's love lovely; God's love makes Heaven heavenly.”
      In loving life we are really seeking heaven. The oldest and poorest have tasted life’s joys – and continue to taste them – and that is why they aren’t ready to part with life. Aquinas in his Summa argued how the best joys life has to offer are/have to be all free. Nothing can deprive us from winning heaven or exile us from heaven if we don’t choose to be exiled ourselves.
      This world is a shadow of heaven for those who have no greed and who can love unconditionally. Lovers we know are not too anxious about the otherworld who like Heathcliff find heaven in their beloved. There are those who have experienced Heaven in the founts of their being and thus they can afford, like Bedil and Iqbal, to postpone their scheduled visit there and ask God to wait. There are poets who won’t be interested in any heaven that is not of their making. The test of one’s religion and spirituality is ability to see samsara as nirvana, this world as the Garden of Eden, heaven in a grain of sand or seeing God (Heaven) everywhere.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Ibn Rushd’s Muslim Feminism

Reading Muslim Philosophers on Women Question

Granting that the term feminism would be understood rather loosely as struggle to restore women’s legitimate dignity or rights as humans would not be objected, and rescuing it from loaded ideological content given to it in academic discourse by extremist secular and fundamentalist elements alike, one might note that there are Islamist feminists who defend what they see as rights of women given by Islam and interpreted by traditional scholars, especially medieval authorities or fuqaha (such women wear and ideally preach niqab/ hijab and believe in normativity of home or private vs. public binary as far as possible). There are secularist feminists who though may be culturally a Muslim or otherwise or even devout Muslim in their own view  say invoking historical Islam is part of a problem and struggle for women’s rights should be purely secular (they generally resist hijab) and Muslim feminists who say Islam is part of solution but has to be creatively understood in changing realities of modernity and we need restore lost spaces for women that Islam had penned but Muslims have snatched (they may or mayn’t choose hijab while insisting that it shouldn’t be used as a measure of piety or necessary  ID of good Muslimah and defend her own interpretation of modesty and wider public roles).  All Muslim women fall in these three groups and, generally speaking, hardly talk to one another despite the fact that there is hardly any anti-male, anti-family, anti-modesty feminist (Muslim or Secular) in the Muslim world – sectarianism everywhere asserts itself despite the fact that in a single family mothers and two daughters could belong to three respective camps). I refer readers to Azza Karam’s book on the issue Women, Islamisms and the State and engage with this third group that finds inspiration in Muslim philosophers like Ibn Rushd and Sufi metaphysicians like Ibn Arabi. Today Ibn Rushd only. (and hoping meanwhile Saud Hakim’s article  “Ibn Arabi’s Twofold Perception of Women” ( will be read by interested readers).
      If figures say anything regarding force of ideas, it seems Muslim feminism has won the case both in theory and practice for vast majority of both scholars and masses. Over 90% Muslim women seem in theory or practice to be in Muslim feminist camp. Around 50% Muslim women don’t wear prescribed strict hijab, over 50% of those who wear have some views that are more modern than medieval as they, for instance, accept some role in public spaces, don’t take muharram relative to accompany them to office or shopping, talk to/work with na-muharrams with little hiccups and live in families that don’t observe medieval seclusion ethic, watch tv or use social networking sites that are public spaces that medieval mind would abhor. Even many Islamist women too have little regard for medieval views as we see them debating on TV or radio for their views – thus not accepting that women’s voice too is purdah. They appropriate some modern ideas in their defence of Islamist position. They travel and participate in modern living experiences in a way that offend more strict Islamist scholars or contradicts recognized medieval practice. One text expounding the later view advises that women shouldn’t be taught writing as they would later misuse this to write love letters. It also bans reading currently read fiction for Muslim women and prescribes a burqa that should repel instead of attract as the best in contrast to attractive hijabs or abayas that Islamist women don.
      Now what I am interested in is not to offer a defence or critique of any of these three positions – I think all three positions, are, deep down, in theory, in agreement regarding the need to speak up for the women and her lost dignity  in capitalist modernity and they disagree only in reading or perception of certain inherited symbols or practices (if all the three refrain from name calling and work co collectively for the common cause (allowing Muslim woman to be truly herself) and against common enemy  (ideologies that reduce her to object and suppress expression of any of God-given faculties) – but in exploring how we better engage in dialogue with other positions within and outside Islam on women question in light of a great Muslim philosopher-jurist, Ibn Rushd. With little comment of my own I let this celebrated thinker speak.
      He says that women in his own times – considered as approximating culmination of the golden age of Islam – have been  so much mistreated that they were no longer humans:
  • “Our society allows no scope for the development of women’s talents. They seem to be destined exclusively to childbirth and the care of children, and this State of servility has destroyed their capacity for larger matters. It is thus that we see no women endowed with moral virtues; they live their lives like vegetables, devoting themselves to their husbands. From this stems the misery that pervades our cities, for women outnumber men by more than double and cannot procure the necessities of life by their own labors.” 
He says that ‘it is not impossible that there may be among them philosophers and rulers.’ She can conduct war and be a judge. While recommending modesty he does not stipulate that women cover their faces. Ibn Rushd endorses the opinion which requires that the bridegroom fulfill the demand imposed by the wife, such as not marrying another woman. (Faiz’s nikahnama stipulated this). He hits at those essentialist Islamists who overemphasize biological differences to argue the case for inequality at many levels and argues that “at the highest intellectual level there is nothing particular to distinguish humans, so there is nothing to distinguish between men and women, as they share the same intellect. The material [biological] element, which distinguishes women, has no influence at the highest intellectual level.” There do appear hints favouring women’s economic independence and the suggestion that “women should be trained to perform the same tasks as men” without disregarding her choice not to work in certain professions and her physical weakness that means certain limitations though it is compensated by better ability to do certain other tasks.
      Why Ibn Rushd is important on International Women’s Day is that a review of biological, psychological, sociological, anthropological and other researches or development in theology from diverse quarters that have a bearing on women’s role today shows Ibn Rushd’s position seems least vulnerable amongst all medieval Muslim scholars to criticism. His influence can be both inspiring and educating for women’s rights activists. Islamist, Muslim and secular feminists all have something to learn in him or engage with him. I think, along with Ibn Arabi who also wrote insightfully on legal questions and rights of women, we find two exemplary minds for modern Muslims, especially women, struggling to preserve their religious identity amidst secularizing drift of modernity. 
The question how far is Ibn Rushd Islamic is illegitimate as is the question how far are jurists from Abu Yusuf to Yusuf Qarzawi Islamic. Islam has no church and none can claim that so and so constitute official Islamic opposition of such issues as women’s rights. There have been differences amongst jurists on many important details from the earliest period and we have to analyse arguments that respectfully engage with scripture though reach conclusions that might differ from what is traditionally upheld. Ibn Rushd was also a trained jurist, a Qazi. And defended his views both philosophically (in his commentary on Plato’s Republic) and scripturally (in Bidayat al-mujtahid wa nihayat al-muqtasid or The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer)). His ijtihad on the question of women may be censured or debated but his credentials as Muslim jurist can’t be doubted. His philosophical opinions that have antagonized likes or followers of Ghazzali have no connection with his views on women which stand on their own.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Choosing our Books

One misses so much in life if one doesn’t read books; but read the best books.
One could well say that God made man to read books. Man, a Master notes, is asked to pray only for increase in one thing and that is knowledge. The Prophet (SAW) is introduced as a teacher of the Book (and wisdom and self-fashioning – we may note that culture with its literary and philosophical resources is all about these things). To truly understand the Prophet involves culture of literacy. Prophets don’t come with religions but Ad-Deen which is a way of life, a culture so to speak. The Quran itself is a Book, and means a reading, a recitation. The cosmos is called Quran-i-takweeni. The Bible means a book. Veda means knowledge.  And knowledge is what makes man, man. The Prophet prayed to be shown things as they are and to this objective sciences and philosophies contribute. Scriptures take us beyond themselves to the world of nature and self we are required to read. Books are life; they aren’t abstractions. Life is all the more vibrant and soulful in books. Books, if we can indeed read them properly, have everything we need. One misses so much in life if one doesn’t read books. Books cure us of phantoms of ego, cocoons of exclusivist ideologies, self righteousness and shallow moralism and constitute antidote to fundamentalisms of all hues. Books make us humble. Books lead us closer to Ultimate Reality. They sensitize us to nature and beauty all around us.
      Where we err is selection of books. We need to read the classics. And it is scriptures and works of sages and philosophers and writers of the first order that constitute classics. Great books are few though demanding. We need the Master and that is the Book that exposes our weaknesses and goads us to higher, finer things (This is the answer to the question: Do we need a Pir?) Criticism of merely bookish knowledge in some great Sufis and philosophers doesn’t constitute an argument against the Books here talked about. These criticisms are mostly themselves in the books and if we find Rumi and Iqbal against book worms they advised us to read their books or become sahib-i-kitab rather than merely kitab khawn. Instead of lifeless words they ask us to contemplate the book of the self (manech sipar as Ahad Zargar calls it) and the nature, and thus we are directed from certain kind of books to another kind of them. The issue then is to choose the book for oneself and not to criticize books and pit them against life as if great books talked of anything else than life (they illuminate, beautify, rejuvenate life).
      Those who don’t read should be pitied and condoled, and if we see anyone we love, hasn’t read a new book from quite some time, get a gift of book for him or her. We might replace guiliemeuth –interest based transaction in marriages – with books if we want social and many evils to go and truly bless the couple. Teachers are teachers of books and if they don’t read new books – say one every month if not every week – they should retire or resign on moral grounds. Book reading culture is better developed in the developed world and we talk of so-called development but fail to note what has happened to book reading index. Inculcate the habit of reading good, great books in citizens and we have a cure against almost all diseases of mind and soul and many of the body as well. (Dr B M Hegde’s books would, for instance, save most of us from bills of doctors and some commonly occurring diseases that are more projected by drug companies than real. He concludes, somewhat oversimplifying, never visit a doctor for routine check up and visit him only in emergency). How much budget of education department is allotted for improving book reading culture (not just purchasing books – mostly second or third rate – for libraries)? Not a penny, it seems. And that is why we find most teachers without a book and content with regurgitating syllabus tit bits to students (most memorable teachers for all of us were not curriculum centric – I still remember Reza Saheb from Madar Bandipore  and few others whose classes were lively with references to many books), reading only newspapers and gossiping about 7th pay commission/ Mehbooba/Modi and everything except books. We find some teachers, shockingly, lobbying for evaluation and supervision of exam duties. A good teacher would examine his own life – how many of us can stand the test of Socrates who said that “an unexamined life isn’t worth living” – and a better education department  would outsource job of evaluation of papers (uncreative job if ever there is one) to unemployed people and generate thousands of jobs – we have over ten million papers to evaluate annually, almost throughout year for which services of teachers are availed currently.
      Irony is that we have an army of distinction and position holders who also don’t read books. I think those who get 100% or something near it should be disqualified for next year and requited to read new books. One must do violence to the mind to force it to remember all the crap required to answer intelligence denigrating memory centric question papers. We award those who get more marks and thus perpetuate this violence of the mind. One must be an inferior mind to consent to perfectly mug up information (that is mostly useless when it comes to real challenges of life or wholesome education) to secure over 90 % to 100%.
      Books transmit culture. We are, mostly, culture illiterates because we don’t read.
      There should be a book reading break of at least half an hour in all institutions and not just educational institutions. In police department it should be at least two hours break. This is as much important as lunch break. This will refresh minds and souls, largely cure corruption, strengthen our relationships to juniors and seniors or bosses and subordinates and make us aware what we are doing while we work. We, unknowingly, fleece or mistreat people and destroy our souls in offices that have only a mechanical routine work to do. Books teach us to see life as others see it and thus strengthen relationships.
      What is azadi? What is hell and heaven? What is shirk or associating partner with God? Which sect is more misguided? Who is the best preacher or teacher around? What are the greatest sermons delivered in history that we should expose ourselves to? How to choose between divergent legal opinions or fatawa we find on almost every topic from beard to hijab to shaping of brows to definitions of riba vis-à-vis bank interest to legitimacy of democracy or concept of Islamic State? To all these questions, reading key books, ummahat-ul-kutb is the answer. Reading lesser minds or easily readable books in market is a sin that cripples minds for life. A certain exposure to philosophy teaches us how to evaluate arguments put forth by any ideologue or jurisconsult. So readings in philosophy – which, in one definition, is rigourous application of common sense  and some attention to  logic (that figures in madrasah curriculum) constitute an insurance against being misled or forced into unwarranted guilt by less qualified minds. Life becomes indeed a joy and our burdens get lifted and we find this world more meaningful and its ways less perverse when we read. If we prepare a list of more strict and exclusivist fatawa from legal manuals and then judge Muslims of various schools and following varying practices, we would be forced to roast almost all of them in hell transgressing even 1 in 1000 formula. We have ulama who were more strict in personal practice but not so strict when it comes to issue fatwa for masses. We have various shades of opinions within traditional camp to choose from.  And we have our poets, philosophers and Sufis that, building on Islam’s own resources, temper harshness of legalistic mind to bank upon when we find something jarring to our mind and heart or call of conscience.  Let us not forget enormous heterogeneity in thought and practice of Muslims (documented so well in Shahab Ahmad’s monumental work – a must read for students of Islamic culture – What is Islam: The Importance of Being Islamic).
      If we want azadi or heaven or magnificent life, read books. Read books like Bloom’s How to Read and Why to make a choice.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Debating the Canon of Shaikh-ul-Alam Studies

It could well be the most important book of the current century in research in Kashmiri literature.
G.N .Gowhar has already done so much for Sheikh-ul-Alam studies that no history of evolution of the discipline could bypass him. As he grows older his power and resolve to touch taboo areas has only increased. His magnum opus – gowhar- in this field was awaited by us from years and, despite his ill health, has come. Though bound to receive mixed and heated response, and generate debate both for and against some of his theses this Mu’taber Kulliyat-i-Shaikh-ul–Alam seems destined to reorient Sheikh ul Alam studies in a decisive way. It could well be the most important book of the current century in research in Kashmiri literature.
      So far proper historical criticism hasn’t been applied to Sheikh corpus. Even the laity and not to speak of many important scholars of the Sheikh has been uncomfortable with what goes popularly in his name. It is difficult to deny the charge of internal contradictions in the corpus and if we could attribute it to inauthentic ascriptions, we better serve the Sheikh. However I don’t think any case of seeming contradiction needs to be straightway admitted and I find many examples cited by Gowhar vulnerable to conciliatory thesis.
      Besides methodological tools of modern historiography that Kashmiri historians have yet to master or apply with courage and conviction, we ideally need to apply some key insights developed for Hadees criticism to the Sheikh corpus, especially for trying to accommodate or appropriate some seemingly problematic narratives traditionally attributed to him and reconciling seemingly divergent texts.
      Unavailability of original Shardha script and adaptation for Persian script for recording Sheikh’s poetry can’t be without costs with regard to fidelity to original Kashmiri language, especially some nuances that however make a big difference. Till date we have variant reading of certain shrukhs/vaakhs.
      Baba Nasib’s pioneering role must be appreciated and can’t be ignored or his work rashly edited but without forgetting that his style is ahistorical and allegorical. (P.13). Baba Nasib didn’t care to explicitly invoke or explain any criterion for choosing selections from the Sheikh corpus. He laments that he pigeonholed in certain preselected subjects of the whole corpus. (P.15). He has woven fictitious stories around Shaikh’s persona.
      Gowher finds all the previous compilations/selections wanting in certain important respects and one can’t but agree with his criticism part. Asrarul Abrar compiled after Rishi Nama of Nasibuddin by Baba Dawood Mishkati has unresearched narratives. Saqi receives just though somewhat harsh criticism on many accounts. Aafaqi, whom we can well call Tabari of Shaikh-al Alam studies (Tabari gathered whatever he could get from all sources without troubling himself too much about authenticity of the narratives thus transmitted and the costs of thus constructed history) receives the severest lashing, which is not underserved though it could have been, on certain points, more academic than polemical in style and more charitable. An example of less convincing criticism is Aafaqi’ s appropriation of the phrase mutafikun allaeh (agreed upon) traditionally used for common traditions of Bukhari and Muslim for what is common between Khalil Baba,  Kamal Baba, Baba Nasib and Mir Abdullah.
      Gowher pleads for rereading certain words or phrases that figure in Sheikh corpus, an endeavour he  brilliantly and incisively undertakes. He will receive more support on this account from both scholars and laity.
      While Gowher succeeds to convince almost all (except perhaps the exacting postmodern historian or myth/symbolism/metaphysics specialist) on the questions of principles and methodology he states as underlying his approach, one feels there is enough scope for debating his own application of those principles. For instance, his application of the principle that the Sheikh can’t contradict scriptural or received  Islamic lore to exclude such an expression regarding God’s seeming injustice  “na ieyes insaf na yiyes aar”  ( that figures in Hundred Shrukhs Gowher subjects to severe criticism and apparently humiliating or anti-tawhidic expression attributed to Mir Muhammad Hamdani “chi mangaan halem daerith.” Argument from  identifying unique style is more open ended than Gowher would have us believe. “Wavi meayni gravi  nitie Hazrates…” or the ghazal included in Aafaqi’s work as “Alishq sewallah ker ten saerae” have a style that doesn’t necessarily contain evidence of impossibility of attribution to the Shaikh – we find similar scholarly debates continuing for centuries in case of many ancient and medieval texts that don’t conclusively settle some contested  texts. We can point out  style of some authentic shrukhs being hardly distinguishable from 19th century mystic poetry.  While such central claims as there has been some admixture from other sources in key texts documenting Shaikh’s work is difficult to contest  though hard to digest for a traditional Kashmiri who has found reasons to be fond of seemingly most problematic legendary material including curses for certain regions  (like kouren doakh, noshen soakh) and lot of hagiographic material that appears scandalous to moral sense.
      Gowher does well not to impose titles to poems or vaakhs to avoid ideological framing or prejudices of the compiler. He doesn’t deem his work the last word but nevertheless titles it Muetber Kulliyat (Authentic Collection). He  acknowledge it requires a team work but did well to begin on his own. This will kick start attempts at more comprehensive attempts. Thank you Gowher Saheb for breaking the ice that has been gathering weight from centuries.
      Gowher doubts authenticity of often quoted texts attributed to the Shaikh including dialogue between the Shaikh and his mother. Although hagiographic part might be problematized on other grounds as well, the dialogue per se could probably be authentic. One finds somewhat corresponding examples in lives of Shaikh’s admired Buddha who leaves his wife so suddenly, and many Sufis. Moralistic arguments have limitations as pointed out by Guenon and others. It is ultimately metaphysic or esotericism that holds the key but which has received little attention from institutions devoted to editing texts of sages and saints or mystic poets.
      This path breaking book should generate debate on many accounts including how it engages with Lalla or her work. It seeks to draw radical conclusions from absence of historical documentation of her work and includes, against Lalla scholarship, such vaakhs as “Shiv chi thali thali rozan” in the current collection of Shaikh’s work.
      I wish a team of scholars who are well versed in Kashmir history and culture besides Persian language and mysticism and historiography debate this Kahvaett and move beyond it to help us have a better Criterion. It is easier to criticize Gowher but it is almost impossible to rival him by taking stock of all things that he has taken with such command.
      Although Gowher seems to be very particular about spelling his approach, he gives far less than deserved attention to hermeneutical issues that would have clarified some important problems including his own approach. He displays remarkable flexibility for interpreting or contextualizing such verses as “rindo henden henz kami travito” but doesn’t extend his charity  for ingenuously explaining some more seemingly problematic texts he excludes from the canon. Kahvyt deserves to be expanded into a book itself, like famous foreword of Ibn Khaldun to his history that constitutes a book length explanatory dissertation.
      Gowher is known for his analytical skills and linguistic virtuosity though one misses, on some important occasions, finer nuances of rigourously trained academic historian. Metahistorical-symbolic-archetypal-mythological notions aren’t to be subject to demythologizing historicist rationalist reading. Although Gowher does take care, generally speaking, while putting on trial big names and traditional reception and folk authority – he dedicates his work to Kamal Baba and Khalil Baba, he doesn’t explicitly spell out many of his assumptions that force him to drop some well known and well received  parts of the received Canon. As a Judge, he should demand more evidence to convict, at least, in few selected cases. Otherwise we have reasons to be believe in the claim of innocence and look askance at certain exclusions. For Kashmiris Shaikh-al-Alam is larger than history – almost metahistorical and symbolic figure – and lives in our collective unconscious, to use rather misleading term.
      To conclude, Gowher has, for the first time, exercized comprehensive ijtihad in Sheikh-al Alam studies and given us, though with imposed juridical slant, the book that will force us rethink the Rishi Canon. It is not a final Kahvyt but an important step towards preparing one. Although it makes some harsh and rather simplistic judgments but rightly points out the limitations of previous studies or canozing process. This is a book that will be impossible to ignore, for decades at least, until some better Kahvyt comes to be written. This book can only be improved; it can’t be wished away. And we Kashmiris owe to the author an immense gratitude and should pray for his long innings and health.