Friday, 28 November 2014

The Entertainment called Election

Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right.  
—H.L. Mencken
I begin with the meaning or definition of modern politics in The Devil’s Dictionary: Politics, n: [Poly “many” + tics “blood-sucking parasites”]. I am terribly shocked by some confessional statements of world famous politicians. One is from the former US President Ronald Reagan who confessed that his career in politics has convinced him more and more that politics considered to be the second oldest profession has many resemblances with the first or the oldest profession. Other confessions are from de Gaulle and Jefferson, French and US Presidents respectively. “In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.”  “Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct,” are the sayings of these two presidents respectively.
Given these widely shared perceptions, given time tested disillusionment resulting from repeated rules of opposite parties, given almost universal alienation of common people, given our understanding of relationship between money power and political power, who is not convinced that elections don’t change people’s destinies, that only faces change and not policies, especially the policies of fooling people, giving the illusion of democratic process, feeding them false hopes and selling them dreams? Who believes politicians? I can bet not even politicians of opposite parties. They know what sells and how to sell that, so that somehow they gain power. Or may be we can hope they are sincere this time, that they have no motives other than serving people without any regard for political affiliation or capacity to fund later election or capacity to pay somehow for the favours rendered. But still the fact remains that even their sincerity can’t help because what they promise is contradicting interests of those that fund them, that make them leaders. The question we explore today is if all Kashmiris believe that they(politicians) serve only themselves (panyen gar-i- chi baren). Why do they vote or attend election rallies, then? I think they do this because of three things: entertainment, possibility of career/money attached and lihaz (courtesy). They don’t think real or massive change will come or any of the series of promises made in manifestos is going to be kept.
A few days back an acquaintance of mine confided to me that he has a mountain of guilt for participating in previous parliamentary elections to please an acquaintance who had been a candidate. He said he casted his vote but rejected it there to appease his conscience. He had even campaigned for the candidate though felt that it was wrong. I wanted to say a few words of consolation to apparently terribly remorseful heart and struggled a lot to choose them. I told him that for the weak, the uneducated, the sold or enslaved people votes for or against, casted or rejected, this or that party hardly makes a difference. Freedom is not the manifesto of any party. And those “separatist” parties too are not going to win freedom. People, common people, are fooled anyway, deluded anyhow. Elections don’t really matter. Let us weep over it or laugh at it. It is a tragicomedy or more accurately a farce, a spectacle, an entertainment in which different performers or actors are hired. From those who hoist flags in streets (I wonder why tenders are not advertised to hire those who can do so on lowest payment–we see, reportedly, the same people hoist flags of different parties) to those who write or deliver speeches and prepare ads for media it is a paid business. Party patrons too are paid by those who really control politics. Votes or loyalties are bought or sold, campaigns launched, propaganda against other party is the most – and according to some – only reliable thing in speeches and when we add all the points from all the speeches we find enough evidence to distrust or discredit all. One can’t deny some noble idealistic souls too are in the melting pot but that doesn’t mean one can be naïve enough to think that they will be allowed to deliver.
All this means that we can take election frenzy primarily as entertainment that neither politicians nor workers nor people participating in it really believe in. I wish this entertainment were harmless as well. And it was not associated with the question of destiny of the people.
Postscript:Let us hope one day people will be educated enough to see what divides them, why they need representatives, why they can't better govern themselves. They will see truth of ideologies of nationalism, concept of political party and majoritarianism.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Choosing politics as a career

It is beneath the dignity of any person who has self respect to beg for votes, observed Nietzsche

Living in a world where:
~ “Politics has replaced philosophy” and we find, around us, politicians rather than statesmen.
~“Politics as industry fills the airwaves with the most virulent, scurrilous, wall-to-wall character assassination of nearly every political practitioner in the country”  — and then declares itself puzzled that [people] have lost trust in its politicians.
~One is bound to be soiled by mudslinging which is “in politics, anything bad the opponent says about our candidate; in contrast, when our candidate does this, it is called 'making a good point.”
~“We'd all like to vote for the best man, but he's never a candidate.”
~Politics has been “concerned with right or left instead of right or wrong.” “There are many men of principle in both parties …but there is no party of principle.” It is the rich that fund campaigns implying justice has been sold.
Isn’t it vain to expect significant results from current sound and fury?  Better we ignore it but it is difficult to ignore dangerous and ominous voices and forces that affect us all, including the souls of politicians. While politicians are busy campaigning for principles they uphold (are there any for them in a world that is controlled by money power, by vote bank bought with money, by majority that is always servant of lower desires and defined best as consuming animals?) let us note what we, including our friends and enemies in politics all know. If these points I list below can’t be denied I wonder if we have any other choice than to choose our place in the opposition camp – not the opposition party’s camp but what is better called resistance camp, but not the separatist resistance camp we identify with certain people around but abstract category of resistance camp that always opposes, scrutinizes and helps make power more accountable – not the power of opposite party but power of politicians, of bureaucrats, of Capitalist elite or Corporates.
Granted that some politicians can be saintly, at least in intentions; not all are after money (one minister  had not enough for his coffin) and many do succeed in some ways in serving people and given our conditions one can’t expect many saintly politicians in a world rotten at core, the following points need a consideration:

1) Current secular understanding of democratic politics is against every religion or every tradition and any great ethical philosophy. From Plato to Al-Farabi to St. Augustine to Vogelin to Guenon we are told by great thinkers with one voice that ‘ king can properly order a state only so long as he has a fair knowledge of the true ordering principles.” 
2) Politics is not a career. In Plato’s famous dialogue Statesman, we find the traditional concept of statesman defined as one who looks beyond the political or what Eric Voegelin says, who is ‘meta-political’. “Statesman is involved ‘in politics’ because that is his vocation but he is not ‘of politics.’”
3) Politicians can’t be or aren’t much trusted even by fellow politicians. Politicians can be bought or sold in the market. They can change parties. They can betray own parties. And most people and almost all political thinkers would agree that they betray people. 
4) It is beneath the dignity of any person who has self respect to beg for votes, observed Nietzsche. So what about campaigns? 
5) They promise the moon they know they can never give.  An important Indian politician was asked why aren’t promises made in elections he replied that if they fulfilled they would be jobless for life as they have to keep problems alive to make possible future elections and campaigning. “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river”(Nikita Khrushchev).
6) Politicians not pained by the agony of the unemployed, mess in public transport, failing cooperatives, messy educational system, ailing health sector,  threatened environment so if they really want to serve us – all service is a sacrifice- they leave us alone and remove family raj, remove themselves from the scene.
7) Politicians covet ministership or power. Why? The best statesmen like Gandhi couldn’t  or wouldn’t accept posts in independent India; he was in Calcutta and not in Delhi when the nation was celebrating independence.”
8)  “Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.” Leaving alone understanding of intellectuals and political scientists even most commoners believe that politicians are there to serve themselves. (Panen gari baren !)
9) They trade in lies.  I am not saying that they are forced to resort to lies or routinely use lies to be in power but that “Truth is not determined by majority vote.”
10) Politician’s lot is the least enviable because he has to trade soul for things that are not worthy of human state. “What does a man gain if he gains the whole world and loses his soul.” So should one choose a career in which such divisive and idolatrous ideologies as nationalism backed by military industrial elite are dogmas, one may gain power but often at the cost of losing one’s soul 
 Postscript: It has been noted that the suffering and death of the Holocaust did not happen because a few psychopaths held ignoble ideologies; for Baum, the Holocaust happened because the vast majority of people simply did not care. Do we care about the deaths, losses, illusions, delusions, false hopes, deferred revolution we have been seeing or living through? If yes how? To vote or not to vote is not the question. There is a much deeper question that we all need to ask.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Shias and Sunnis: Convergence and Divergence

Despite efforts of individual scholars from both Sunni and Shia schools for better relations between the two across the Muslim world, the fact remains that Muslims are divided and this is making them vulnerable. And more importantly, the divide is discrediting their theological leadership in the eye of the world and among its new and educated generations.
Shia-Sunni dialogue has not been happening at the ground level. And the dialogue between intellectual and theological elite has not been very successful and so far, hardly any breakthrough on elementary methodological plane has been achieved.
The self perception of both communities is constructed on certain imagined points that have been questioned by more objective history. And a deeper meaning of theological systems is not clear to both.
Sufism or Irfan is missing in both. Brilliant studies of such scholars on symbolism, esoteric and metaphysical aspects of Shiism as Henry Corbin and Nasr and others, the sophisticated philosophical approach of likes of Mulla Sadra and exploration of the political content in the theological formulations that we find in the likes of Shraiti and Dabashi and encyclopedic scholarship of likes of Allama Tabatabai and Allama Mutaharri are there but ordinary Shias and those who control the pulpit keep on repeating certain points that fuel sectarian images. Deeper meaning of self flagellation escapes its most ardent practitioners and shallow critics, who fail to understand the connection between violence and sacred and the relevant anthropological insights.
I wonder, if we could compare sermonizing local imams and practitioners of both Shia and Sunni schools on the only basis that the Quran recognizes – Taqwa/ilm and both imply each other (The Quran states that only those who are better in knowledge fear God). This requires moral discipline. As anyone gets formally and legally admitted into the fold of Islam by declaration of Shahadah and all agree on the criterion of aml-e-soliha (good deeds) and all agree on what constitutes aml-e-soliha and we know that both imams and companions vied with one another on deeds (some would give half of wealth and some whole of wealth for God’s cause and some die to save other’s lives and some remain hungry but feed those who ask for food) how come we disagree so violently? How come we primarily privilege political and historical over ethical questions. It hardly needs to be argued who was on the right track and maintained high moral ground in early battles within Islamic groups because this is quite evident and only needs common sense and elementary knowledge of history.
When in history did a moment arise when one had to either accept Shia or Sunni creed?
Genealogical criticism blunts the sharp edges of the question. We can move forward to consider insights from mystics and philosophers according to whom to be a strict Muslim one is required to abandon all attachments to all belief systems as ordinarily understood and submit to Truth. And also understand that this truth is the truth of mystery (al-Gayyib) that we are required to affirm in the very opening pages of the Quran (2:3). To put it simply it requires one to deny absolute character of all identities, systems, ideologies, sects, schools, philosophies and be open to Truth. This truth has infinite dimensions as infinite are treasures of God. To be absolutely or unconditionally open to the Other, to Love, to Truth, to experience, to unknown is to be a Muslim. So please let me know how can one accept the trap of a particular sectarian identity (don’t we say that Islam is The Religion rather than a religion? and it is ad-Deen rather than Sha’ria that can ground this notion of The Religion or Universal Religion because Sharias have been changing with many prophets, not so the Deen), not to speak of sectarian identity to which Shia-Sunni question has been reduced today.
The Shiism is in glory only when it is not in power but identified with an element of resistance, as Hamid Dabashi argued in a compelling work, ‘Resisting the Empire’, which evokes significance of Karbala in the wake of postmodern world where Capital and its contradictions reign supreme. Let us learn to see how we respond to Imam Hussain’s (R.A) call for resisting oppression. Daily Karbalas are enacted in our midst and we don’t pay heed to the struggling Hussaini forces. Children die in thousands every day for want of safe drinking water and food. Countless labourers suffer killing, alienation and slow death at the hands of Capitalism. In fact even souls are destroyed in this inhuman world, not to speak of bodies only that were targeted in Karabala. We are called to the battleground and deep down we resist the call to martyrdom. Let us salute those who can truly claim to heed the call.

Reading Kashmir’s Iqbal Critics

We have few scholars of national or international standing in certain fields and what a tragedy if we don’t recognize them

After the death of Amin Kamil many felt that we, as a community, didn’t honour him as he deserved and we failed to make full use of his great erudition in Kashmiri literature. What use do we make of  another literary giant Rahi Sahib, arguably the greatest living Kashmiri poet and critic whose poetic and critical work we have failed to translate and introduce to international audience  and we have failed to familiarize our newer generation with him despite his being the last great link from Lalla till date in what can be called Kashmiri Tradition– for learning to read him  newer generation may profitably consult young critics as Abir Bazaz (his essay “Learning to read Rahi”  comes to mind)  except for gracing certain formal occasions and occasional talks on electronic media? We have no platform for benefiting from our best scholars after they get retired. We have few scholars of national or international standing in certain fields and what a tragedy if we don’t get facilitate them to better contribute when they are free from other concerns and could be highly productive.  All these points haunted me as we celebrated Iqbal day – I recall reading, long back, one of Rahi’s insightful essays on one of Iqbal’s great poems and wonder why we find the author as critic almost forgotten even in his life. We had such illustrious Iqbal researchers and scholars as Akbar Haideri whom we also chose to largely ignore, such renowned Urdu critics as Hamidi Kashmiri who wrote on Iqbal also and have such scholars and brilliant orators as Prof. B. A. Nahvi who would almost qualify as hafiz-i-Iqbal (it is rare aesthetic treat to listen to him on Iqbal especially as he quotes poem after poem) and we have brilliantly witted and humour inflected oratory of Justice Bashir Ahmed Kirmani that makes good use of Iqbal. However today I am especially reminded of our invaluable Iqbal critic Prof. G. R. Malik whose studies on Iqbal have been internationally appreciated but whose address seems to have been lost by us or our cultural organizations. I think new generation needs invitation to and meditation on Iqbal’s poetry – that especially is Prof. Malik’s love and strength – as a mantra for entry into riches of intellectual and spiritual culture that we have inherited. Thanks to intertextuality, reading Iqbal one reads a selection of the best of philosophers, mystics and poets – one becomes truly culture literate. Reading Prof. G.R. Malik on Iqbal we see how the latter qualifies as the conscience of the subcontinent and, in these degenerate times – what Charles Taylor brilliantly analyzes as A Secular Age – a gateway to the treasures of the Spirit he calls Ego. 
 Prof. Malik is both a scholar and a lover of Iqbal. If a critic has both these elements and is also gifted with wealth of insights into majority of the sources from which Iqbal derived inspiration, one can expect criticism of the first rank and that is exactly what Prof. Malik has produced. We have only very few Iqbal critics who wholeheartedly share Iqbal’s faith in transcendence and his evaluation of modernity, who share his doctrine of art and who are good students of the tradition both religious and artistic from which Iqbal derived everything.  
An important feature of Prof. Malik’s Iqbal criticism is his wide range and comprehensive canvass. He covers theological, philosophical, artistic, socio-political and other important aspects of Iqbal’s thought. He is able to comment upon a verse of Iqbal from almost all important aspects that may be required for thorough exegesis. However he is most comfortable with or insightful in his critical review of general aspects of Iqbal’s thought, comparing Iqbal with great masters of literature, explicating his relationship to Islam and Modernity, translating Iqbal and pointing out mistranslation from others and one can claim for him a privileged place as translator of the first rank sharing shoulder with the greatest masters of Iqbal translation. Independence and self confidence of a scholar may be gauged by his recourse to his own translations of most of the verses he has quoted in his works. His critical review of other translators of Iqbal including Nicholson, Arberry and Mathews shows credentials of him as an Iqbal critic quite clearly.
Prof. Malik is a man of strong convictions and this helps him to better appreciate and advocate Iqbal, a poet and thinker of strong convictions. Iqbal is his inspiration and in considered view he is the greatest thinker that modern Islam has produced. 
Prof. Malik largely adopts what can loosely but not strictly be called traditionalism of a sort for appraising Iqbal. Every line that he has written bears witness to this traditionalism that embraces both classicism and romanticism though is identifiable with neither and is even critical of certain aspects of either. He happens to be a vocal critic of such ideas as aestheticism, postmodernism, formalism and generally of any school of thought that defines itself in antitranscendentalist or secular terms. If by tradition we mean that which binds man to heaven as traditionalist scholar Lord Nourbourne has characterized it and involves explicit invoking of First Principles, of symbolism, of subservience/integration of art to Life, to the Good and the Beautiful we can place Prof. Malik in the traditionalist camp though with minor qualifications as his is not a full fledged traditionalism and ignores certain aspects of metaphysical or mystical presuppositions and corollaries of it. His traditionalism constitutes an important aspect of his methodology for approaching Iqbal and invaluable asset for his distinctive flavour of Iqbal criticism. 
Prof. Malik’s  method of commentary on Iqbal’s poetry, as illustrated by his commentary on  "Bazm-i-Unjum” and “Tanhai” is exemplary in many ways: He invokes almost all of Iqbal relevant to the issue. Layer by layer he peels and the layer by layer newer meanings arise the way he introduces the poem, develops the main theses, invokes other parts of Iqbal to put in perspective or elucidate, surveys relevant classics or authorities across traditions to explain parallels and contrasts, takes note of the Islamic Tradition in specific cases before proceeding to give his verdict  where required.
There are scores of passages that we find in Prof. Malik’s work that illuminate certain facets of Iqbal with great power, grace and beauty. One example is his concluding passage in his commentary on “Tanhayi.” 
As a gifted teacher and scholar of English literature Prof. Malik is additionally qualified to be an Iqbal critic of the first order. His felicity of expression and command over all the languages that Iqbal used in his works. His familiarity with almost every important debate around Iqbal make his readings valuable. He is never trite, never shallow, generally convincing and occasionally quite provocative. Generally he doesn’t take extreme positions and does the balancing or mediating act as if he is using a dialectical method. To illustrate we may consider his views on Iqbal on democracy, evolution and early Iqbal’s “pantheistic” verses. Regarding democracy he argues that Iqbal is undoubtedly pro-democracy but is critical of the present form it has taken in the modern West or political thought. Regarding evolution he states that Iqbal’s attitude towards it is ambivalent. Regarding the earlier so-called pantheistic phase Prof. Malik notes that these verses are capable of sustaining alternative interpretation as well. Thus we see Prof. Malik doing the balancing act and not pronouncing unilateral judgments. As a reader he has great humility in approaching a text and letting the text elucidate itself and he is never indulging in play with the text, a postmodern heresy he has been strongly condemning. 
As a careful reader of Iqbal Prof. Malik deplores enthusiasm for farfetched or forced comparisons with which Iqbal criticism is replete. Remarkably Prof. Malik seems to be more adept in pointing out contrasts between Iqbal and others than in seeking to show similarities. How careful a comparativist Prof. Malik is can be gleaned from his detailed studies on Iqbal and major Romantics. One can hardly put a finger on any of the scores of statements made while comparing and contrasting Iqbal with Blake, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth and Keats.
No modern poet has excelled Iqbal in writing na’t. What is distinctively noted and emphasized by Prof. Malik, however, is, his shift of na’t’s traditional focus on celebration of the Prophet’s (S.A.W) attributes to focusing on revolutionary nature of Prophet’s work and its historical impact and thus his meaning for contemporary man. Further developing this point we can read much of Iqbal’s work as an application or plea for application of Prophetic criticism of life.
Prof. Malik emerges as one of our treasured Iqbal critics who has given us a wealth of insights and well argued case for Iqbalian perspective. Though on a few points he has been too charitable to Iqbal and has assumed Iqbal’s reading of certain important elements of Islamic intellectual tradition  without much ado about its orthodoxy or warrant from a traditionalist viewpoint that he seeks to consistently apply, his advocacy of Iqbal, especially of his theory of art and his relative importance in comparison with important literary figures of the world and religious personalities of the subcontinent constitutes an important contribution to Urdu and Persian criticism in general and Iqbal criticism in particular. Although he does note idiosyncratic or unorthodox character of certain views of Iqbal, he chooses not to dwell on them. As a scholar of Islamic studies he has been able to bring insights from his theological readings to focus on distinctive contribution and place of Iqbal in modern Muslim thought. I perfectly agree with Prof. Rafiuddin Hashmi, a noted Iqbal scholar, that in terms of his range that covers all important aspects of Iqbal’s thought, keeping note of everything written by Iqbal and approaching the whole oeuvre with rare perspicuity and balance, Prof. Malik can be counted amongst the very few first order Iqbalists or Iqbal critics of the world and deserves to be read and appreciated. Though of late there has been extended certain recognition as evidenced by publication of newer editions of some of his works by Iqbal Academy Pakistan, he deserves to be better appreciated. He is Kashmir’s present to world of Iqbaliyat.

Friday, 7 November 2014


Revisiting Ibn Arabi(r.a)

Shias and Sunnis are divided over many issues, including the issue of interpreting sacred text. Both quote the Quran and the traditions in favour of their positions which are often exclusive on particular questions. Dialogue between Shias and Sunnis is thus hinged on agreeing to a theory of interpretation, or exegesis, of the sacred book. Is it possible to revisit certain great thinkers, respected by both Shias and Sunnis, or having influenced both Sunni and Shia thinkers, to help us carry out this dialogue? I think, yes. And that thinker is the master of gnosis, Ibn Arabi.
Ibn Arabi – the greatest Shaykh in the Sunni world – has been appropriated by Shia thinkers, including Mulla Sadra, the greatest Shia philosopher, and Imam Khomeini, the architect of the Iranian revolution.
Today, we try to see how Ibn Arabi advises us to approach the Quran and the question of divergent interpretations.
He repeatedly claims that he is not applying any external ideological paradigm or scheme of interpretation on the sources of Islamic tradition but only reflecting or meditating on them and internalizing deeper meanings implicit in them. He is not reading them selectively, or forcing a certain interpretation on them in order to substantiate or legitimize independently conceived philosophical positions such as monism or pantheism.
From a traditionalist perspective of Ibn Arabi, there is no need to wrangle over interpretations, no point in debating the truth or attempting to find the absolute, final interpretation. The chaos we find in modern criticism on the issue of meaning and correct reading of the text doesn’t arise at all in Ibn Arabî ’s view. As long as one approaches a text as an object and seeks for any hidden or final meaning and tries to establish his own standpoint on that basis one may not get anywhere.
Meaning is experienced or revealed to a traveler on the path. One only needs to polish the mirror of the heart and it will reflect the truth, plain and simple. Truth knowing is being the object of knowledge. Truth is not in words but in states and stations induced on contemplating these words. Ibn ‘Arabî  reiterates time and again that God is to be tasted rather than discussed and this (dis)solves the problems of interpretation for good. Ibn ‘Arabî challenges all theologians and critics to develop that higher perception he calls the unveiling (kashf).
From his perspective, the enterprise of higher criticism applied to the elucidation of sacred texts which make no reference to moral purification or polishing the mirror of the self is a laughable venture. Unless sacred text is revealed afresh to one’s heart, nothing can illumine its real meaning, according to him.
Ibn ‘Arabî says that there is not only one intention of God that we need to get to. There is not one determinate meaning only. He opens up the space for potentially infinite meanings – every new reading should disclose new meanings of the sacred text, according to him. He says that the Author of the Quran intends every meaning to be understood by every reader, and reminds us that human authors cannot have the same intention. Meaning that the closure postmodernists are so concerned about never happens. The real meaning is with God but all meanings participate in that divine meaning. All things speak of the Beloved and are portals to the Infinite. Polysemy, for him, results not from infinity of contexts but because of multiplicity of souls or addresses. All this implies that fundamentalism and theological imperialism have no warrant.
Ibn ‘Arabî thinks that the sacred text contains inexhaustible riches of meaning which can’t be deciphered through a single reading or even multiple readings.  In fact, for him, there can be no final reading, no full stop to this infinite, never-repeatable creation of God. Meanings in the three books – the book of verses, the book of the universe, the book of the soul – are never repeated, according to him. He accordingly tells us that if someone re-reads a Quranic verse and sees exactly the same meaning as before, he has not read it “properly,” that is, in keeping with the haqq of the divine speech. This is a strategy that ensures people will ever be tolerant of divergent interpretations.
There is no such thing as the unique meaning or the final interpretation or the only true interpretation for both Ibn ‘Arabî and such postmodern thinkers as Derrida. For Ibn ‘Arabî, Quran is an open inter-text that contains layers upon layers of hidden meaning. Nothing could be a better antidote to theological imperialism. About Truth he has written in the vein of Hafiz:

She has confused all the learned of Islam,

Everyone who has studied the Psalms,

Every Jewish Rabbi,

Every Christian priest.
So which is the correct interpretation, Shia or Sunni? Why should we accept to get trapped to answer the question either way? Are not all interpretations human and thus not absolute? Isn’t Truth alone the absolute and who can say he has known Truth in all its infinite faces? Islam has scores, if not hundreds, of schools of jurisprudence, theology, Sufism, exegeses. Philosophers, mystics, artists, poets and many great scholars in the Shia and Sunni camps have been cordial with one another. How come little minds clash? Isn’t it only politics that explains it? Theological differences that exist don’t imply war between communities. As humans, we are all different. So are our responses to God, our ways of expressing faith and belief. Our unique egos call for unique responses. As many souls, so many paths, runs a Sufi adage. And God judges us according to our view of Him, according to a prophetic tradition. Who can impose his view as the only true one? To think we know the truth and ours is the only (or final) meaning that God intended is to claim omniscience or infallibility.

Understanding the Divide

The question is that how do we understand its cosmic or universal essence today?

Are you a Shia or a Sunni? Would one acknowledge to be either in modern ideological sectarian sense? Or wouldn’t the best answer according to both ordinarily categorized as Sunnis and Shias be that they are Muslims – truly Muslim. Isn’t the ideal answer echoed in Salman Farsi’s (RA) answer ‘Salman bin Islam’ when he was asked who he is.
Granted that the tendency to side with Ali (RA) was latent even during the Prophet’s life and emerged to confront certain other forces – it was a hard political choice – the question is how do we understand its cosmic or universal essence today? It could be done only if it revolved around moral superiority of the family of Prophet – even Sunnis grant this – or siding with Justice or Resistance today against oppression – even secular and Marxist historians would recognize this and present Ali(a.s) and Hussain(a.s) as heroes. Shiism can never reduce Ali(a.s) to only a political ally or heir of the Prophet; it emphasizes deeper connections. Now if the deepest question or connection is existential or metaphysical – there can be no doubt about it for anyone who understands ABC of life or philosophy or just is ready to apply common sense – how on earth should I be condemned to disown existential/esoteric/metaphysical understanding of Ali(a.s) or notion of being his friend?
The notion of imamat is perfectly compatible with the notion of Caliphate when we focus on the background idea of Justice or being vicegerent of God informing both. All the traditions agree that the world is never without God’s witnesses. And with Derrida one can’t but agree that Justice is never done on earth, only approximated, ever awaited. Earth is not heaven. Utopias are only ideals, never reality. Mahdis have come only according to or for a fraction of people and this acceptance of some historical person’s claim leads to their excommunication from the mainstream which keeps waiting and waiting.

There are many paths of reconciliation between Shia-thought and Sunni-thought, including esotericism, metaphysics, philosophy and even newer better understanding of history that shows how human elements and power relations have impacted on evolution of both. If all well meaning Shia or Sunni people want dialogue with the other community, why not attempt on these planes? On exoteric theological plane divergences multiply and it is pity that so far polemical and dialogue literature is on this level primarily. The notion of Imam is best understood in light of Irfan that Sufism, a feature of Sunnism, takes care of. For those who can practice hermeneutics Sunnism and Shiism are alternative languages of the soul almost perfectly translatable in each other’s terms. Whatever differences appear irresolvable need not be resolved because human diversity requires diversity of spiritual and theological and juristic expressions and because we can never peep into the dense fog of history in which contending perceptions find support. Our tragedy is being hostage to history we can more speculate about than conclusively verify while forgetting that religion and salvation are wedded to meta-history, to symbols, to revelation which fundamentally transcend history.
The proper question to ask isn’t if one is a Shia or a Sunni but is one  conscious of Tradition. The idea of Tradition can be identified with ad-Deen  and the latter can’t be comprehensively understood except in terms of universal metaphysics inscribed in our hearts (anfus) and cosmos (aafaaq) accessible to Revelation and Intellection. Sectarianism will not be defeated as long as we don’t dissolve it from inside and produce a culture that created and heard such Sunni Shia duos as Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra, Ibn Rushd and al-Farabi,  Iqbal and Shariati who talk of God and Love instead of events and personalities  coloured by power structures of history and what Schuon calls human margin. There are no pure Shias or Sunnis in the sense sectarians would have us believe. The best historians condemn Ummayads for converting Caliphate into Mulokiyat, praise Umar ibn Abdul Aziz despite being an Ummayad, vote for Hussain (RA) instead of those who considered him a rebel, appreciate that almost all Sufi orders – and the oceans of gnosis – are traceable to Ali (RA), show almost perfect correspondence of ancient and medieval theory of kingship – of philosopher king – with the ethical ideal of imamate  and hardly question earlier office of Caliphate that was almost indistinguishable from Imamate. Ali (RA) we all know, despite his initial reservations, collaborated with Abu Bakr (RA) and then other predecessor Caliphs.  They see both Sunnism and Shiism getting fully crystallized into current hardened sectarian schools (even today the best thinkers – mystics and poets have always maintained the Religion of Love and hardly know Shia Sunni division – can hardly be called either Shia or Sunni. Nasr, arguably the greatest Muslim philosopher today, has Shia background but his works are treated as authoritative even in Sunni circles. Iqbal, with a Sunni background, confessed despite protest of scholars like Ahmed Javed, his “weakness” for Ali(a.s). Sunni poets have written elegies that rival the best of Shia poets. The great saintly figures of Rumi and Ibn Arabi though Sunni in background have been appropriated by Shia thinkers without any qualms. (Let us also put in perspective their critique of certain Sunni and Shia views respectively) Translated from theological to mystical or metaphysical terms, doctrines of Shiism that are thought to be incompatible with Sunni mainstream, lose their exclusivist marks and one can find them not only in Sunni thought but elsewhere in world traditions. Only serious students of comparative religion can place  sectarian interpretations in proper perspective and on the authority of such scholars as Coomaraswamy, Nasr, Schuon etc. have no problems in declaring both Shia and Sunni interpretations as traditional or orthodox and thus providential helping to cater to different attitudes and sensibilities of Muslim mind and heart. We can’t wish away Shia Sunni divide or convert both to one understandnig – there remains only one Islam with thousand flowers of diverse schools in exegesis, in philosophy, in jurisprudence – we are required to understand it. Interestingly Sunnis do recognize Jafri school of jurisprudence as 5th school. This implies respectful attitude towards doctrinal issues  when properly interpreted can’t be ruled out. Shia interpretation of religion (best seen in masters of gnosis and metaphysics such as Mulla Sadra, philosophers like Nasr  and such scholars as Murtaza Motehari rather than in exotericist theological fanatical polemicists) that is centred on passion or love, that has through and through an esoteric tinge is there by providence rather than by conspiracy. So is the Sunni interpretation  that has been so catholic that hundreds of juristic, theological, mystical and philosophical schools could be accommodated despite how scholars such as Rashid Shaz would construe this power of accommodation, legitimate or orthodox. Without the phenomenal contribution of Shias to Islamic culture – philosophy, poetry, art and architecture, exegeses, mysticism, traditional sciences – the world in general and Islamic world in particular would be much poor. Without Sunni contribution Islam would  not have been a world culture, a tradition with over a billion followers. There would be neither Ibn Rushd nor Rumi nor Ibn Arabi nor Shah Waliullah nor Iqbal. We need to consider again such  works as Barq’s Shia Sunni Bayi Bayi, Nasr’s Ideals and Realities of Islam (chapter on Shiism) and some points regarding purely historical genesis of modern Shia and Sunni structures raised by modern historians, by Raza Arsalan and in captivating prose for Urdu readers by Rashid Shaz ( in bulky Idraki Zawali Ummat or smaller Haqiqi Islam ki Bazyaft) to arrive at a deeper, conciliatory view that appreciates the differences in perspectives of Sunnism and Shiism without absolutizing them and reducing them to ideologies that today cost us virtually a divided Muslim world, at least politically – instability of Middle East, Arab Iran conflict, sectarian violence, and prejudices. No sectarian polemical work can overturn the verdict of history – collective community judgment, poetic and hagiographic narratives –in favour of early Caliphs and Hussain(a.s). Some questions have been raised even in the Sunni camp on certain issues – we can see scholars as diverse as Taha Hussain and Syed Moududi offering somewhat different view on political developments during Uthman’s era.  A view of history that finds only conspiracies everywhere is itself a conspiracy.