Thursday, 25 September 2014

Floods Fury: Natural or Supernatural

All this is not in anyway absolving those who are guilty of massive planning blunders in designing our urbanizatioin, housing, roads, and flood control measures
It can never be asserted that a given suffering has been imposed because of victim’s sins. The Biblical account of the Book of Job clearly states that even righteous people can suffer and suffering could well be a trial or result of laws that constitute the world defined in terms of disequilibrium. The thesis that all suffering is necessarily because of sin is refuted by the existence of suffering of innocent children. Flood washed away children as well. However it is to be noted that evils that befall us are in a sense invited or deserved because God attributes goodness to Himself and evil to our nafs.
The current flood can be in principle attributed to such collective sins as destruction of environment, love of vanity, wrong planning etc. and the widespread perception that it was targeted operation of flood mokals, a warning or retribution can’t be dismissed on the naturalist rationalist grounds. Huxley exemplifies this modern prejudice thus: “if events have natural causes, they don’t have supernatural causes.” Traditions assert that everything is first decided in heavens. Amr belongs to God. Naturalist thesis is refuted by eyewitness accounts and strange pattern of flood waters that seems more targeted than random sparing some lives, some properties and damaging some more than others. Although it would be absurd to judge people on the basis of extent of flood fury inflicted on them – none knows for whom it is a trial and for whom a punishment and in any case children of even the sinners are innocent – all of us can agree that a merely naturalist account that takes no consideration of moral and spiritual factors is hard to maintain. The Prophet used to hurry to mosque on seeing impending natural calamity. Here we make some sadaqa after seeing fearful dreams to counter their ill effects. There are many reports of dreams much before flood date that clearly saw Srinagar etc submerging.  It means things had been decided much before in the higher world. There are no accidents, no mere coincidences in nature according to the best of thinkers. We have great number of accounts of rescue and that people best describe as miraculous. The Quran has a supernatural genesis for even such routine occurrences as meteors. Every event is a message for those who can read it. Everything is a symbol. There are no merely natural things or events according to every religion.  Our tradition narrates that with every drop of rain is accompanied by an angel and everything is sent in a measured quantity. All this is not in anyway absolving those who are guilty of massive planning blunders in designing our urbanizatioin, housing, roads, flood control measures etc.

The fact that collectively (and usually individually as well) we are guilty of transgressions against moral law, against divine order can be shown by analyzing how people responded to threat of imminent death.  People cried and screamed not just for help for rescue but also from fear of death. Death must be welcome with dignity, calm and composure. The way Socrates died and the way he has argued why death has to be welcome and we need to celebrate it in some sense rather than only mourn it in Apology needed to be considered by every person who has suffered close encounter with death. We believe death has an appointed time and still could not sleep for nights while being stranded and possibly facing death – Ghalib lamented this.
About thefts I wish to make one point only. Isn’t a system that allows so much disparity in wealth, that creates an elite culture distinguished by among other things pride, possessive spirit, hoarding, vain glory of bigger and bigger and lavish houses, that tolerates so much unemployment, so much deprivation, so much squalor and rat race for getting higher standard of living worth drowning?  Without legitimizing theft let us not forget that much of private property constitutes a theft according to most economists.It is only by looting community resources that a lavish wazwaan can be served or a house costing many millions of rupees constructed or decorated. This can be understood by analyzing capitalism and vestiges of feudalism that have created it in the first place. “ No man is willfully bad” said Socrates and we can add no culture is. Kashmiris are capable of greatest heroism, nobility and compassion. If there are some stinking reports about exploitation of fellows we must blame the system and not the people en masse. We have failed to educate people despite mushrooming of elite schools. We have failed to give fundamental rights to people. We have not done enough to dent class divisions that have wrecked havoc on social moral fabric of our society. As humans made in divine image we still love justice, goodness and truth. If we see some perversion it is mostly because of faulty system – sponsored corruption and political and economic disaster that constitutes our destiny today. We love Good above everything and that alone explains sacrifices of volunteers.
Modern Srinagar has fast buried time honoured traditions and looks like any other sinful city like those of the West and not a pir waer. Scholars of city culture and urbanization report about moral and spiritual costs of modern developments that we as a community hardly care about. The land of Shah Hamdaan and Makhdoom Sahib is not just like any other land. It has a sanctity of its own that can’t be allowed to be desecrated.
A few points that may help some of us including flood victims to better face the losses we incurred. Meister Eckhart, one of the greatest saints about whom it has been remarked that God hid nothing from him, says that we suffer because we invite it. To quote him: “if I am sad for passing things, not loving God with all my heart nor even giving him the love he might justly expect to meet in me, what wonder if God ordained that I should still suffer loss and pain”. Eckhart’s argument is simple and straight forward that if one is good and believes God to be good and in control there is absolutely no ground for getting sad and troubled. By definition there can be no good man who doesn’t want what God wants, “because it is not possible that God should not want anything but goodness, and just because of this, when God does want something, it must be not only for the good but for the best.” We have been taught to pray that God’s will be done. From this it follows that we have no ground for complaint for whatever happens by the will of God. Seneca when asked what comfort might be best for those in misery has expressed this Christian-Islamic insight thus: “It is for man to take everything that comes as if he had asked for it, nay, as if he had prayed for it.” Those who have truly surrendered or submitted to the will of Allah seek only to glorify, to please God. Their prayer is ‘God! Grant us the will to will whatsoever You will.’ This is a corollary of the station of raza that Sufis seek. Eckhart has quoted a prayer from a non-Christian authority in this connection: “Lord, supreme Father and only Master of high heaven, I am ready for anything you will; only give me the will to want what you will.” One can quote dozens of Sufi sayings in this connection. Just one will suffice from Ba Yazid: “I only will not to will.”

University of Kashmir: Debating the Future

Today KU is not the dream destination of above average students, not to speak of the best!

Every institution becomes compromised in a war zone. No wonder KU has been decaying in many respects especially in terms of quality human resource, top leadership, publications and seminar culture.  UGC also has had a negative role in planning certain issues that impacted.  When Vice Chancellors are increasingly perceived as failures compared to erstwhile illustrious ones especially prior to 1989; what can be expected from academicians or administrators down the scale? Where a perception remains that academics is subservient to political expediency and excellence perceived as threat to status quo, how can we expect things to be different in future? Huge expectations from our own university are currently focused on next VC’s credentials and let us hope we will not be disappointed. We have many reasons for current state of alienation and one reason is sick educational system epitomized by KU. 
Although developments in infrastructure, library network, some individual success stories of faculty or departments are quite impressive, none denies need for thorough examination of sickness that has been especially manifested after 90s.  Admitting NAAC grades we, however, can’t dismiss people’s accrediting system that ultimately reflects truer picture and must prepare to engage with a host of challenges.
The first challenge is proving attractive to best students. Today KU is not first or dream destination of above average students, not to speak of the best. According to many insiders it is one’s misfortune that a great talent is caught up in KU either as a student or a teacher. If we survey either teachers' or students' satisfaction with current scenario and views of teachers about one another, one can get a good idea of real index or health of the institution. We need not quarrel over perceptions or speculate regarding health of this institution – that is no secret.
The second challenge is to make classes interesting so that students would pine for them ( currently teachers pine for student attendance and need to resort to wasteful and terrorizing actions to ensure the same), record them or even upload them on Youtube for benefit of wider international audience and their later reference in life.
The third challenge is to produce think tanks, to produce intellectual leadership. We wouldn’t have leadership accused of almost all kinds of charges if the university had played its role. Kashmir badly needs its own Arundhatis and Chomskys and where else can they be produced? Although we know about inherent structural limitations of State institutions with regard to production of its critics but people need them. I imagine one day people will be able to run bigger institutions on their own outside sarkari system – I would argue for delinking waqf from political control (Islamic Univeristy at Awantipura can’t be called people’s university) and evolution of mechanisms that people could utilize its sources for academics. That is required for a society to be conscious of itself, to escape reign of Ideological State Apparatus. 
The fourth challenge is to downsize KU scholars’ or teachers’ book manufacturing industry. Barring few books that can be counted on fingers, we don’t see quality stuff being produced. It would be better if the very idea of linking more books to promotions is dropped. Often it is quality papers that constitute real contribution. One can write a great book in a life time. However it requires likes of Toynbee and Will Durant to write world class multivolume books or good number of books that are all worth the business. Currently we have books produced mostly from poorly written theses that  are full of errors, typographical, grammatical and factual or interpretational, more googled than written, tissues of quotations than author’s original statements or understanding.
I would suggest replacing, as far as possible, traditional method of lecturing or note dictating by carefully supervised e-content based classes in which every topic has been thoroughly researched and attractively presented by the concerned teacher or ideally the best teacher available nationally or internationally. In fact quality work is being done by EMMRC in this connection and it needs to  be applied to every subject on every topic presented in any class in the university. For further improvement and for satisfying parents or civil society which has been raising questions, live or prerecorded private television coverage of any class at any time so that teachers could shun complacency and students be assured of better quality. Student feedback must be made absolutely mandatory for promotions/release of increment of teachers as we see otherwise brilliant academics may fail to take sufficient interest in classes. Current examination system be scrapped and replaced by more creative alternatives like assignments, group discussions etc. that depend less and less on memory. 
I think one important step that nobody considers seriously is introducing philosophy not just as a separate department but as part of curriculum in every department.  Why has KU so far vetoed philosophy department? Even so-called visionary VCs have been exemplary in their blindness to this issue. Philosophy teaches no abstractions, no opinions, no logic chopping, no abstruse doctrines, but how  and why to think, to doubt, to search, to test, to deconstruct. And we are not ready for all this. None of the subjects in arts or humanities is really mastered without clarifying philosophical foundations of these disciplines. It means KU can’t excel in arts or humanities. Even sciences are not complete without teaching in depth scientific method which is what constitutes subject matter of philosophy. Critical intelligence is key to moral and intellectual integrity. And  if we corrupt this faculty we corrupt everything. Thus introducing some dose of philosophy in general curriculum at all levels for all students including those for professional courses in all schools, colleges and departments of universities will help sharpen critical intelligence and every ill we are suffering (from corruption to inefficiency to no accountability to lobbyism to leg pulling or building empires of ego) could be addressed.  Without some dose of philosophy in a world ruled by academic elite that mostly uses the idiom of philosophy we can’t be called properly educated. In the case of Kashmir that was once the land of great philosophy and is today remembered as a land of seers (who appropriate traditional philosopher’s role) we can say that philosophy education is vital component of identity of educated Kashmiri.  Philosophy is part of our cultural history, our heritage, our shared traditional spaces, our claim to recognition in the world as a great vibrant culture which contributed so much top world culture of philosophy and aesthetics. In fact such things that we are proud of, such as mystic poetry, can’t be understood except by having some understanding of background philosophy.  Will present authorities in KU take steps  for introducing philosophy? This is one question that will determine future of KU.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Disowning or Rediscovering Sufism?

As we see the world of Islam shaken to its foundations by rising fundamentalism, one wonders if it is forgetting its Sufi tradition that we need to think about as a counter. However, the rise of fundamentalism has been linked to doubts about Sufism, and towering figures who have been coopted by fundamentalists have also seconded some of these doubts. Some suspect Sufism to be a politically complacent ideology that helps dilute resistance to oppression. Some think it is sponsored to serve the interests of a particular nationalist discourse. Some say it is simply business. Some emerging schools, both Salafi and modernist, have been successful in spreading the notion that Sufism is a deviation from pristine Islam. Advocates of Sufism can’t dismiss these criticisms without conceding abuses of Sufism throughout history.
Let us note that critics (though not rejectors of its spirit) of institutional Sufism include in recent history such important names as Iqbal, Shariati, Syed Moududi, Syed Qutb, G A Pervez, Dr Israr, Fazlur Rahman, Javed Ahmed Ghamedhi etc. All of them have a point, and that can be stated in these words: Institutional Sufism today suffers from serious problems. Mizaj-e-Khanqahi has done great damage. Quietism, recourse to abstractions and philosophization  in place of living experience of God, beggary in shrines, loss of faith in oneself, degenerate occultism, faith healing business instead of healing souls by faith, fatalism, political servitude are, among others, elements of a syndrome somehow legitimized from Sufism, that is eating the vitals of the Muslim world.
None of these charges can be ignored and none of them can be shown to be integral to Sufism and all of them can be shown to be abuse of it. We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
A few comments to clarify the charge sheet against Sufism:
It is no secret that Sufism has been part of the establishment in certain places in history. It is also no secret that colonialism has been attempting to co-opt Sufism to further its agenda. It is also easily demonstrable that Sufism has mostly been misused or misappropriated especially in later times in its history – so much so that a Sufi went to the extent of saying Sufism existed only in name, without there being any reality or spirit of it. And incidentally, this remark has been made many centuries ago, when Sufism was far more productive for Islamic culture than it is today. Today, when everything traditional is in decadence, how could Sufism escape this effect of time?
Let us not forget that just as we can’t relinquish Islam because it has been, or is being, abused, we can’t relinquish Sufism for the same reasons, as, without it, we can’t understand Islam’s deeper spiritual or metaphysical ground and the glorious heritage of traditional sciences, arts, crafts (try to imagine history of  Islam minus Persian mystical poetry, minus Ghalib and Iqbal, minus the Taj and the Mosque of Cordova)  and in fact the beauty that has been the hallmark of Islam as a civilizational force. Nothing in Islam makes sense except in light of this spiritual dimension. Anti-Sufi rhetoric is modernist heresy. It is good to censure excesses and perversions and misuses of Sufism in Kashmir but to reject the esoteric in the name of literalism and supposed fidelity to scripture is quite unacceptable. Sufism is the metaphysical face, or even the basis, of Islam. The history of Islam is largely the history of its saints and philosophers and mystically oriented ulama. The most illustrious thinkers of Islam have been influenced by Sufism. Islamic art and architecture is incomprehensible without the knowledge of Sufi symbolism.
Sufism is the best antidote to communalism and sectarianism. Communal violence does flare up occasionally. But it is ironic to note that the religious group playing the card of mysticism (Barelvis) is also the most dogmatic in certain issues and highly rejectionist and exclusivist.
Mysticism is a million dollar industry, according to critics. Of course, abuse of mysticism is a huge industry in itself, but we need to note that mysticism contributes significantly to the Muslim world’s, including Kashmir’s, economy. Shrines are amongst the most visited tourist spots. Local tourism is largely concentrated on shrines. Much donation money is with the Awqaf. The Awqaf has other resources as well. It could finance thousands of welfare projects if steps are taken in this direction. Prayer food culture is a huge industry in Kashmir that contributes to cohesion of social bonds as well.
There is a pir class, an occultist class and the class of so-called majzoobs that largely exploit the name of mysticism and contribute to discrediting it in the eyes of many. A large number of social drop-outs and parasites support their living by masquerading as mystics. The Salafi onslaught against the abuses of mysticism is not quite unwarranted. Illiteracy and gullibility of local people contributes to their exploitation at the hands of many dabblers in the spirit business, black magic and the like.
We may conclude that a lot of issues are muddled up in dismissing Sufism (and in dismissing Islam by its critics). We need to distinguish, in Socratic fashion, between opinion and truth to clearly see the issue.

In the Name of Religion

Syed Abul A’la Moududi was once asked by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto why he indulged in politics, generally considered to be a dirty game. He answered in his characteristic style:  ’Do you think it should be left to dirty people alone or not be cleaned?’ I think the argument can be invoked to apply in every sphere. Religion is a territory of saints and today it has been appropriated for more murky games such as dividing communities, creating new nations. Philosophers of religion ask some hard questions from those who deem themselves to be the advocates of God. We know that the Quran explicitly says that God has hired no advocate.   The moment man becomes judgmental one might suspect something fishy. “Judge not,” said the Christ(Hazrat Eesa A.S).
What is religion? Why is it too important to let a certain class usurp the role of its sole interpreter? How come religion is monopolized and, even against its tenets, people fight over trivial legal issues? How come in the name of religion we find competition between moizzins or among loudspeakers of neighbouring mosques? Ego games drive out angels from our worship places. Religion has degenerated into ‘sawaab’ calculus. The fact that it is ecstasy, it is God- consciousness, it is ihsaan, it is self- negation, it is contemplation, it is joy of the highest order,  is forgotten. Let us keep the ideal set before us by prophets, saints or mystics and traditional scholars or thinkers and judge what we see around in its name.
Religion is what binds people. It is what binds us to God as the ground of everything. Religion is what we do with our solitude as Whitehead said. And ideally religion would be the greatest business in a classless society. Capitalism smothers human spirit and man will bloom only and god will be born in him (God is the ideal pole of man in Sufism and other mystical traditions), when he is free to pursue his higher needs that Maslow has so well classified. A classless society, it is hoped, will allow man to pursue this dream better. We are all mystics, rather privileged (or condemned) to be mystics. “The tragedy of life is not so much what men suffer, but rather what they miss” as Carlyle said. And the only reason that I think that religion to be respectfully heard by a humanist or secular Marxist is that we miss much if we miss God and that is tragic. Hell is not physical fire but painful realization that we have missed so much. Religion is only an invitation, an open invitation to all of us to Freedom, to Heaven here and now, to Eternity of this Moment. If these things are illusions we must remember that mankind in all climes and ages has entertained these illusions and we owe some of the most beautiful things to these illusions. The greatest thinkers, artists, philosophers, sages and prophets of all civilizations have been cherishing these delusions and have attributed everything grand and noble to them. If delusions, the products of “false” consciousness can be so fruitful for the betterment of man, why opt for reality that produces nausea, despair and horror (which mark modern literature)?   Life resists all attempts at its devaluation and negation by those who deem it to be futile and without any significance or meaning. Did Jesus(Eesa A.S) ask for anything more than choosing life and are religions commandments amounting to anything more than not harming life? Esoteric commentaries of scriptural commandments show that in the last analysis all these boil down to affirming and celebrating life. Man is condemned to choose life. Choosing death is relinquishing human status.  And man is not prepared to be a stone as otherwise he would not proceed to scan God and judge his creation as absurd.
Men will continue as they have been ever doing to find meaning and fulfillment in love. In a world without illusions, without props, without consolations, there is still the still small voice of love in the depths of our being that allows us to say yes to life with all its disappointments and tragedies, not all of which can be attributed to the misdeeds of capitalism. Even the absurdist Camus lives by this faith in love, the love of relationships. The proposition that ‘love is eternal’ will hardly be questioned by people who have experienced it and fortunately most people have experienced though to most only a few glimpses of it have been given.
So taking religion as pyar kae do boal, as mantra for beautifying life, for connecting people (tu barayi wasl kerdem aamdi) let us contest theologies of killing, of despair and exclusion.