Sunday, 26 April 2015

Al-Farabi and the question of political Islam

The world of Islam is bleeding. Neocolonialist interventions don’t explain the whole story. Does the Muslim world need to introspect? Is political Islam part of a problem or a solution? Let us ask great Muslim political thinker Al-Farabi whom all revivalist ideologues have ignored.
Political Islam as a reaction to onslaught of colonization and aggressive secularization sought to fight a political battle in the name of Islam. How far is this project intellectually sustainable and integrally orthodox or rooted in the Islamic tradition? It’s rather depressing record so far at either political or other cultural fronts in achieving the objective of establishing the ideal or Islamic state with all its cultural vibrancy and widespread apprehensions within the Islamic intellectual elite or Muslim communities as such call for questioning both the construction of the project of political Islam and its reading of Islamic tradition. One way of clarifying the issue is considering how great thinkers of medieval Islam conceived the political project of ideal state in Islam and how they encountered the philosophical and theological other in this connection. As it is certain dismissive reading of modernity or contradictory attitudes toward its key notions like technology and democracy and an advocacy of what has been seen as essentialist monolithic fossilized view of religion implicating a strong rejection of both religious and political other (liberal democracy) in the ideologues of political Islam, we need to see if we can get some insights into the genesis and evolution and ideological stakes in the phenomenon by revisiting parallel process of engaging with the intellectual and political challenge during the Middle Ages. I think the Muslim world torn by Shia Sunni conflict, fundamentalism and other sectarian ideologies, needs to revisit Al-Farabi, the great medieval Muslim philosopher, for better grasping the question of Islamic view of state, of religious other, of culture, of tolerance of “less virtuous” cities. First we list a few assumptions of the ideology of political Islam.
Political Islam is premised on certain assumptions:
• That sovereignty belongs to a transcendent God whose will has been received through the last revelation that overrides previous revelations.
• That there is a world of Islam and a world of Jahilliya. Philosophy, mysticism, modernity all are rejected as complicit with the latter.
• That religious other is to be subjugated politically and it represents a degeneration rather than a possibly valid mode of responding to the Divine Call.
• That states need to be Islamized either by democratic or violent means.
• That it is the laws of Islam rather than the principles underlying them that need to be implemented because it is the divine commandment.
The whole notion of divine sovereignty as constructed in political Islam primarily rests on an interpolation or manipulation of a verse (Al-Hukmu lillah..) taken out of context and subject to philological trampling as cogently argued by many scholars including Meddeb in ‘The Malady of Islam’. Al-Farabi’s primary condition for virtuous city is knowledge of God in the subjects. Now the very idea of God presupposed in ideologues of political Islam would be far from the idea of the same in the Muslim intellectual and spiritual tradition defended by Muslim philosophers and Sufis and most of the well-known theologians.
Al-Farabi has a conception of virtuous city not Muslim or Islamic city, he divides the world into virtuous and non-virtuous cities rather than dar-ul islam and dar-ul harb. He is no partisan of Islam as the supreme truth or best of religions of which other religions are bad images. In his theocratic state, instead of Islamic state, music will not be prohibited; there would be institutes for promoting it. There would be no ban on philosophy or any of the sciences that Al-Farabi’s complex classification lists in his famous classification of sciences. The compulsion to virtue thesis that he advocates would hardly have anything resembling the fundamentalist state that are wedded to the necessity of sharia imposition identified with historical legal construction rather than a trans-historical quest for fundamental values of Ad-Din that evolving sharia formulations seek to approximate and this quest can never fully succeed or must fail in some sense as justice can never be done and evil never fully wished away. Plato’s laws or Muslim law both are attempts to capture the ideal and can never be absolutised in themselves. Al-Farabi requires philosophers to have a decisive role in interpreting scripture, an argument that is later elaborated by Ibn Rushd. And this fact crucially modifies the character of Islamic state. Modern philosophical attempts to formulate increasingly sophisticated theories of justice in the face of so many totalitarian and other perversions that have marred modern social and political institutions are, generally speaking, all attempts to theorize sharia that is grounded in transcendental notions of justice, human dignity and ethical relation to the other.
Thanks to his essentially theocratic state that Plato’s Rupublic advocated and Al-Farabi appropriated in Islamic idiom, he would like to have compulsion to virtue–not conformity to law. His key terms are virtue, happiness, intellection rather than terms from juristic lore. It is perhaps not accidental that he has not written any book on juristic science. Despite the centrality of Prophet or Imam in his “system” he isn’t a Syed Hamdani who is keen to impose a religious order. He focuses on transforming people from within and it is only in such a transformed elite that one can find a ruler he demands.

Articulating the Pain

There is a pain that can’t be normally articulated, it needs art to do it!
We are living in the midst of a war against women’s rights – even today less than 20% girls are really free to choose their partners, and their “choice” is subtly constrained, and sold at the altar of social conventions. We are so unkind to women that I have no doubt, none of us will stand the scrutiny in the other world if our spouses, our sisters, our mothers, our in-laws relationships tell their stories before God.
The sad, brutal, heart breaking stories of women’s lives, to which we are all witness but mostly chose to ignore, are eloquently brought to the fore by our versatile Rahim Rahbar who has dozens of works to his credit as documentary maker, serial writer and fiction writer. A life dedicated to art is what sums up his career so far. 
Hell is where opinions rule, where social ego dictates our choices, and kills the individual in us. Hell is the home where girls live in exile pining for new home where they imagine they will find love and fulfillment. Hell is the beauty that dies for the sake of a mirror of contemplation. The following paragraph sums up the essence of the stories the author thinks are his best. 
A mother losing her son, loses sanity, and is asking everyone about his whereabouts, tossing his clothes up and down and cursing the earth for taking him away and crying maeni mahraozo mouj lejyo. A beautiful Bakarwal girl falls in love with the narrator also loses sanity as she is not allowed to transgress tribal mores and denied marriage with the beloved, goes wild and is injured by a wild animal, and gets her leg damaged, meets her lover and dies with a sigh. (Wan-i haer) Another story is of a woman named Faezi who is everyday madly going to and fro on the road and curses this road on which his beloved has been killed. When asked why she keeps disturbing every passerby, she cries “Everything is here out of joints. Faith is gone, belief is gone, relationships are gone, days are disturbed as are nights, thoughts, dreams, aspirations, words, titles, mates, all are in disarray.” Another, titled Shaheed, portrays a historian writing history of his people, lest the suffering goes undocumented, is caught in a crackdown and asked to choose between his work and life. He chooses the work so that posterity has a document and is killed in cold blood, and his corpse is for days unattended on a local chooraha. There is another story in which the hero, Ahmud, identifies himself with Abraha who destroyed Kaaba and is convicted by local clergy for this heresy. Before getting executed he laughs away the verdict against him and says : “I was that Mansoor who uttered Anal Haqq..” And he dies muttering: “Hata paan-i bi kus goas, panaey oas bi bahaney” Another story told by the first person who is identified explicitly as Rahim Rahbar himself mourns failure of love affair to consummate, destroying him, and he finds refuge in art giving expression to the pain he has suffered 
Rahim Rahbar is a creative writer who is broadcasting his pain on wild paths. Rahbar gives voice to the feminine pain that has not been so extensively documented till date by any Kashmiri short story writer. Documenting the suffering of the muted, marginalized class, and gender is what distinguishes Rahbar’s art. Rahbar deftly explores social, political and religious themes and his horizon extends to amazing variety of ideas. 
One must be have the extra zeal to write so much despite professional and family engagements. In this sense Rahbar belongs to the select few writers who have devoted whole life to literature. We must be thankful to such soldiers of pen. However, so much writing comes at a cost and that cost is quality of writing itself. One can write only a book or two in a lifetime that we can present with the confidence of a Mantoo whose one epitaph reads “he wonders still: Who is the greater writer, God or he?” and another one reads that he “believes his name was not to be written twice on the cosmic stone.” 
Many stories though failing as pieces of art succeed in communicating the pain that makes him restless. As effortlessly as we can talk or gossip he can weave a short story. Writing hundreds of stories, some of which appear more journalistic pieces and personal impressions rather than well finished works of art, one can nevertheless focus on the best he has to offer and be thankful to him for giving voice to the voiceless even risking the reputation of woman centric or woman obsessed writer. That goes to his credit and one can identify, in the history of the tradition he has inherited, great names who have highlighted the plight of woman in a patriarchal culture to the chagrin of their contemporaries. 
Despite problematic conception of the tragic that notices unredeemed suffering or tragic waste mostly, some hackneyed phrases and run of the mill plots, and occasionally overdone metaphors and other rhetorical devices, Rahbar’s economy of expression, his absorbing narratives, his wide canvas that leaves almost nothing untouched redeem his corpus of short stories.

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Question of Kashmiri Sufi Poetry

Our new generation is alienated from both traditional culture and religion. It means the idea of Kashmir, of pir waer, of the land of spirit, of the land of (transcendent) knowledge is in the danger of becoming incomprehensible. It has forgotten even names of certain artistic and cultural forms of traditional Kashmir. Now what is it that can help speak of the First Principles, of Divine Things, of wellsprings of culture and spirituality to restore to us faith and confidence in our culture, our tradition.
One thing that can be done is to have a better connect with Sufi poetry. In a secular age, art is said to be the alternative to help man find meaning in life. Here poetry and spirituality have been so juxtaposed that perhaps they can’t be separated. Poetry here has been a spiritual activity and it continues to be religiously invoked in Sufi gatherings. So even if we take secular age as given, Sufi poetry is there to stay and we need it for salvation of those who find theological language alienating.
We needn’t bother about relevance of Sufi poetry today–this can never be in question if we grant that love, relationships, beauty, mystery, ecstasy are never outdated and are able to show how these notions are linked to certain understanding of transcendence or implied in any serious conception of art or poetry. Sufi poetry is in almost every sense apogee of Kashmiri poetry and constitutes a part of our great tradition. The choice is only to creatively adapt it today and not to write it off as only historically important. If art is theology, Sufi poetry is a version of mystical theology that we need to better understand. So far we have only heard Sufi poetry; the challenge is to respond to it. If art alone can convert most people to seek transcendence that redeems in a post-theological world as is claimed by many thinkers in the West, we have to take resort to Sufi poetry in a big way. Kashmiri criticism is only beginning to take shape and our important critics are far from satisfied over the situation. This is particularly true about criticism of Kashmiri Sufi poetry. We need sound scholarship in religious, mystical and philosophical aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam to do justice to Kashmiri Sufi poetry. Failing this, there would be lamentable confusions in interpreting such notions as nirvana, kaenih, personal God, fana and we find them in abundance in our critics. And if we are engaging contemporary audience a familiarity with continental philosophy and major mystically inclined poets like Holderlin and Rilke is very important. Without knowing something of Heidegger and Derrida and of course great figures in Sophia Perennis our critical expositions would appear rather unsophisticated or out of date for postmodern audience.
 Dante can’t be profitably studied as mere “literature” as Coomaraswamy argued. It means Sufi poetry can’t be approached as a literature and formal criticism is hardly a criticism of it. Not even elementary Sufi terms such as Haq, zikr, pas-i-anfaas, zulf etc. can be understood from outside by academic critics. Big questions and controversies such as Rasul Mir as Sufi or romantic poet, folk narrative regarding Habba Khatoon’s mysticism, deeper meaning of folk tales as traditionalists or esotericism centric critics would emphasize, remain thus showing poverty of modern Kashmiri criticism of Sufi poetry. One needs to understand why Sufi poets like Ahad Zargar refused to easily give interviews or attend functions or talk to our modernist critics. Is this refusal comparable to refusal of Schuon to accept delivering lectures in universities? Schuon himself referred to Plato’s refusal to publicly speak for uninitiated or profane audience on the Good. In a traditional culture like ours (where revelation/metaphysics informs all cultural manifestations) the poet is a sort of sage. Poetry is a species of sacred activity akin to prayer. Poetry achieves something similar to what religion achieves. Our greatest poets have been mystics and even in the twentieth century the most beautiful poetry that has mass appeal is also mystical poetry sung by people at urs functions and regular functions associated with Pirs.
When asked how does he take the Sufi claim of being bestowed with a light of gnosis or breaking up of the wall of subjective prison that doesn’t seem to be in the lap of the transcendent principle that illuminates existential darkness, Rahi, our greatest living poet, once told me that he was not given the light of which the Sufis speak. But if we cleanse the doors of perception, the light that illuminates or transfuses everything and the perception of the infinitude of everything, metaphysical transparency of phenomena do follow according to saints, prophets and countless traditional thinkers from different cultures. There is a consensus amongst recognized adventures of Spirit or consciousness regarding accessibility of the Sacred or what Holderlin called “gleaming light.” If we discipline the senses and overcome laziness or lassitude that habitually rules us and prevents adventures into the higher realms of consciousness, the Spirit does get unveiled. And for artists this process is made simpler or less difficult.

Art, God and Sin: Reading Meri Zaat Zarai Bay Nishan

I discuss today a great book of fiction that has become popular, thanks to brilliant adaptation as a serial.
Call her an angel, in sweetness, in grace, in beauty, a saint, who loves unconditionally, a martyr of love and faith, who decimates her life lest God’s name or the Quran be taken lightly, a folk philosopher, gems of wisdom she speaks are distilled from great philosophers or theosophers, Saba Kareem of Umera Ahmed’s Meri Zaat Zarai Baynishaan, must be ranked amongst the finest characters, worth emulating, ever drawn in the history of Urdu fiction. She is one of the most beautiful souls gifted with such grace, such dignity, such nobility, such serenity of spirit that one can easily identify her as heavenly hoor who is not made for this earth to which perfection doesn’t belong. Her story is a classic ordeal of love – almost Heer Ranjha incarnated –that fails to consummate on earth but does transform all the major characters resulting in their rebirth in the Realm of Spirit. No regrets, no complaints by the end of the story as we see alchemy of love doing the magic – purifying and uplifting people into the empyreal realms after clearing their debts incurred by short sightedness and intemperance. It is a classic work both on the part of the author and the director. Saba Kareem is indeed merciful morning breeze that blows to deepen and embellish lives of many people. Reading this book one learns what catharsis is, what great tragic works are, what lofty ethics can be preached without sermonizing, by works of art. 
Saba’s passion is to see the Unseen, to see God in things, not just seek Him. See Him in everything, every experience, in stones and also perhaps in stone hearted people. She is not merely saintly; she is educated, poetic, conscious modern Muslim girl whose own negotiation of conflict between tradition and modernity show her moral and intellectual brilliance. Resisting vulgar dressing, make up that define so many heroines in Urdu fiction and popular serial culture, she is able to stand firm for her convictions and chooses not to wear conventional veil. Her literary language, her philosophical musings, her spiritual aspirations and her exemplary struggle to live with dignity and her great work ethic, all combine to make her an immortal character. 
Most of serials that bombard our homes day in and day out need to be banned for being cheap, vulgar, demeaning entertainment instead of being works of art. But there are some serials, especially from Pakistan, that can be appreciated as works of art though there are elements even in them that would constitute sin against culture. Pakistan has given us great pieces of Urdu literature that have, at least in the realm of imagination, conquered the whole subcontinent, not to speak of Kashmir. 
The work drives home soul shattering lessons regarding the operation of Moral Law. Those who doubt the reality of sin and guilt and hell – implications of moral law – should watch Greek tragedies, Macbeth, Meri Zaat… to be convinced. Saba reminds us of great heroines in Western literature and simultaneously has characteristically Islamic cast. Painting the name of Allah as there is nothing left in her own psyche to fume or fret about or show off, I see Saba as an example of almost perfect renunciation. She has arrived at the other shore – Nirvana in Buddhist and Baqa in Islamic Sufi terminology. She lives a spotless life, accepts blame and lets Destiny or God to prove her innocence. Meanwhile she suffers horrendously at the hands of this apparently merciless world. 
Drenched in Sufi symbolism – the title constitutes the crux of Sufi doctrine. The ego has melted. And what has replaced is saintly ethic we attribute to higher self. 
One might ask a question why such tragedies should happen in the first instance. The answer is to wean us away from all attachments, to show transitory or illusory nature of all things under the sun, to take us to the One thing Everlasting. 
All the important lessons one learns in wisdom traditions, in religion and mysticism are illustrated by the heroine Saba. Her story is a story of leaving everything to God – to judge, to show the way when all appears dark, to console, to uplift, to let truth prove itself. The work’s title is deeply mystical. It illustrates the doctrine that one has to be nothing and this is accomplished by surrendering our self will. The heroine takes a sort of sanyas or renunciation as she learns the bitter lesson that all earthly relations are ultimately untrustworthy or can’t last till eternity. Saints are characterized by patience and humility. No job – even the most menial – is beneath their dignity if they wish to live with dignity. Some statements made by the heroine can be mantras for spiritual transformation. 
Allah sae mohbat karnae walae kisi ko takleef nahi dae saktae sirf ibadat karne wale day sekte hai.
Allah kae gar nahi, Allah kae pass jana chati hu (on being asked to accept sponsorship of Haj) 
Dunya ka ihsan nahi laeti, kisi ka toa ahsan hi ashan hae.
Zindagi sae khwab nikalae to baqi kya rahta hai.

While refusing help in the form of lift, “Dunya ka ihsan nahi laeti , kisi ka ahsan hi ahsan hae muj per.” Lastly the refrain song that also constitutes a prayer and wisdom that can be rarely found in modern poetry:
Magar ek pal hae umeed ka
Hae mujae khuda ka jo aasira
Nahi mai nay koi gila kiya
Na hi mae nay di hae duhaayeyaan,
Meri zaat zarai baynishaan
batowoon kya mujae kya milae
Mujae sabr ha ka sila milae
Kisi yad ki rida milae
Kisi dard ka sila milae

Silent suffering and letting God judge has transformed Saba into a saintly figure and it is no wonder that her prayers work wonders for her neighbours. 

Her inability to conceal her sadness shows she is also human and not that she is not angelic. Consumed by love she can’t propose – in fact she doesn’t propose anything to anyone – she is all ears, all acceptance, all love of fate, all radical innocence, passivity of the feminine. 
We are all guilty, said Dostoevsky and philosophically showed Levinas. All of us fall short of perfection demanded by human state as mirror of the Divine. It is because we have sinned against our higher self we need to atone by selfless service, by patiently suffering humiliation in the cause of love and truth. It is in this background that we find Meri Zaat so moving. Saba Kareem carries her cross, keeps on reading great works, works under the most trying and humiliating circumstances, fights her way with rare dignity and heroism and dies a saint whose will is in absolute conformity to the divine will. Stationed on maqam-i- raza (station of acceptance) Saba Kareem shows how God is a great Teacher, how experience is a message from the Pir and how life if properly understood constitutes a perfect ordeal to lead us to presence of God or Heaven. 
Syed Moududi argued we can’t ban or wish away cinema but can and do need to “Islamize” it. If the same argument applies to serials, there can be a strong case for considering Meri Zaat… from the author of Pir-i-Kamil as an attempt to re-orient serial culture and fiction along the lines our tradition would require. 

Although theology and fiqh of modern fiction industry (Marxist fatwa that eloquently dismisses much of it, its ideological underpinning, is stated in “Culture Industry” by Adorno and Horkheimer), especially novel and its adaptation in such art forms as serials needs serious thought, we can agree with Iqbal that the ideal of art Islam would endorses is yet to be given shape (in modern fiction and serial culture).

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Power of Ideology in Education

We don’t and perhaps can’t afford to talk on many issues that are of capital importance. We are deceived and can’t talk about deception. But at least we should be conscious that we are getting deceived and play Mulla Nasrudin’s fools who know that we have to feign being fools, play our little games or roles as fools and move on. Let me illustrate.
Our environment is at the brink of a major disaster. Floods can visit us any time. Class divisions are getting sharper. Corruption is incarnating in newer modes. Education is so thoroughly ideological that we don’t even suspect it being so. All kinds of ideological state apparatus including schools, policing institutions, social institutions like marriage functions are operating with everyone’s full consent including their “critics.” Let me analyse how ideology shapes educational discourse.
Who doesn’t believe that school going age, nursery, pre and post nursery classes, KGs, are a must? And famous private schools should be preferably sought for better career of children. Who doesn’t pursue careerism? Who is not opting for aggressive private tuition of his or her children during winter and even after school timing? Who believes in possibility of community schools? Who is against torturing kids in crèches so that they become better eligible for securing admission in quality schools? Who doesn’t think students need value education and think this can be done by including it in syllabus? Who doesn’t force children to get better grades and ideally be the first in the class?  Who doubts the value of universalization of school education? Who cares for what Ivan Illych has called deschooling society? Who is bothered about the costs of current episteme that require super-specialization? Who is asking education for what? Who is getting education that teaches resistance to status quo, to dominant discourse? Who isn’t envious of investment value of education as business? Who doesn’t seek admission in professional courses that perpetuate reign ideology of better careers, more profit centric careers, white collar jobs, service sector that are more parasitic than productive for economy as a whole? Who doubts the logic of all kinds of insurance schemes for here and hereafter as if life isn’t an adventure into the unknown and death can be averted or trials evaded or first class births in train to heaven secured by doing business with God? Isn’t here pervasive sawab calculus mindset as a counterpart of profit calculus calculating number of umras done, rams sacrificed, mosques furnished with luxury matting governing behaviour as if the care for the neighbour or loving God for no other reason than love or His pure pleasure that requires doing with the very ego that brags about taqwa or investments for the otherworld?  Education as ideology implies student are indoctrinated with the reigning discourse on consumer economy so that a quest for better mobile, better car, better house, better earthly hoor, eradicating poverty, increasing standard of living and pursuing development with all that it implies for both economy and environment and social capital?
Now the question is: are we even ready to debate our choice?
Wai matayi caravan jaata raha
Karawaan kay dil sae ahsai ziyaan jata raha.

Postmodern Urdu Literary Criticism

I think we have a good future for Urdu criticism in Kashmir if we continue our current zeal and keep ourselves updated
Literature, understood as criticism of life, and criticism as refusal of any attempt to write off alternative possibilities of meaning are central to the current postmodern project of understanding the world. We need good critical works to document the mess we are passing through and the book we discuss today is an attempt to show that Urdu literature and literary criticism has insights for all of us to consider how we live in a pluralistic, open ended world of texts and contexts. 
Postmodernism is many things for scholars and critics of it. We can’t avoid engaging with it as we are living in the postmodern age. I think we can agree that it is among other things, avoidance of extremes of binary polarities that define language based discourse or ideologies, skepticism regarding any claim of finality in interpretation, distrusting all narratives of progress, emancipation and salvation preached from various quarters as far as they are wedded to the regime of texts and disguised ideologies and power interests, cultivation of humility towards the Real primarily approachable in textual or linguistic terms only as the fruits of the claims of ilmi ludnni, intuition and revelation – too are received primarily in language by the masses and turning to art and literature rather than to conventional philosophy for understanding and “salvation.” Our author refuses to engage with more nihilistic interpretation of postmodernism and focuses primarily on literary uses one can make of it. After having heard upcoming scholars like Mushtaq Haider, and read Dr Altaf Anjum’s text, we discuss today Urdu Mai Mabaad Jadeed Tanqeed (Postmodern Criticism in Urdu). I think we have good future for Urdu criticism in Kashmir if they continue their current zeal and keep themselves updated. 
Willy nilly, in the post-Goedel world, in the world made unsafe by emergence and clash of fundamentalisms, in the world where we see Fascist binary logic of “you are with us or against us” operate with full force, in a world where the colour of truth changes with the ever changing alliances of parties, corporate, dictators, and it is power that is shaping the version of truth drilled into us through advertizing or other marketing campaigns, we need postmodern tools to help question and articulate the darkness and untruth masquerading as truth and ideology masquerading as faith. 
Although Urdu criticism had woken up to the challenge of postmodern criticism and sensibility, there is still a lack of works that situate the whole discourse in proper perspective. Despite such influential voices as Gopi Chand Narang and newer emerging voices like Nasir Abbas Nair taking the task in their hands, one finds almost everything connected with postmodernism and its reception foggy. And there is an acute shortage of comprehensive works in Urdu that review the state of affairs till date. Dr Altaf’s work promises to be good introduction in this regard. 
Dr Altaf begins his case for applying postmodern criticism on Urdu literature from the very epigraph of the book by bringing Iqbal’s analogous argument for taking modern Western criticism seriously and quoting Ghalib couplet that states the need for guarding against meaning closure by advocating the case for radical innocence to the revelations of Being in all experiences. In fact Persian poets and mystic poets have been employing a range of concepts and metaphors that find strong echoes in the postmodern project though we find little engagement with this rich source that would have added richness to the thesis. The author succeeds in arguing the case very well showing familiarity with relevant secondary and tertiary if not primary sources of postmodern criticism. Access to primary sources like Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Lacan etc. that is required for quality work in postmodern criticism of Urdu literature is somewhat hampered by the current policy of veto to philosophy that underlies the theory our scholar seeks to engage with in Kashmir University and literature departments of the subcontinent. Our scholars are forced to read much of tertiary material for the sake of using it in their works to avoid difficult process of translation of non-Urdu sources. 
What impresses the reader is accessible and lucid prose and the balancing act or ceaseless crossing of the opposites that the author, in true postmodern vein, employs to adjudicate amongst divergent voices in criticism. 
Nothing is easier to misunderstand or distort than postmodern thinkers like Derrida. The author has succeeded in “correctly” reading some standard “misreadings” and steer clear of countless philosophical quibbles over the finer points in Derrida corpus. But this comes at a cost. We don’t get any profound engagement with postmodern theory but we do get a neat summary of certain essential debates for a beginner and here and there provocative and insightful statements if not well argued theses for the general reader and specialist Urdu critic on the mess that postmodern thought seeks to articulate and the bigger mess postmodern Urdu criticism is. 
The book’s strength is very useful review of emerging but proliferating mass of writings on structuralist and poststructuralist postmodern critical writings in Urdu criticism. It generally avoids stock and hackneyed judgments regarding them and seeks to situate them in the developing (anti)episteme of anti-theory discourse without seeking to impose his own views that one could identify as ideological. The author focuses more on description and paraphrase of preceding scholarship than inventing new theses or interpretations. He has enough command over the material he handles to do fine balancing acts here and there and give informed judgments on major debates while forcefully seeking to refute the views of opponents. 
I hope our scholar more critically engages with the teachers and recognized scholars in the field who have done more of an archival or documentation and translation work of postmodern texts or ideas so far. 
Despite some missing quotation marks and faulty paraphrasing here and there and some laxity in properly acknowledging previous scholarship and sometimes obscuring sources of his ideas or judgments, very occasional wrong translations like absurdism for abstractionism, gross misunderstandings like construing metaphorical use of the term God for belief statement of the critic Eagleton, reliance on 2004 work on feminist criticism for giving an impression of review of 2014 scenario, the book does draw attention to itself and will be helpful to students of contemporary Urdu criticism. Scholarly though brief appraisals of some major and minor contributors (though all are called significant!) to the debate on theory in Urdu criticism in the last chapter shows our author’s individuality and forceful voice that one can anticipate could prove a good addition to the extremely small number of competent scholars in literary criticism in Urdu. 
A dozens or so names are shortlisted as critics making important contributions to postmodern Urdu criticism. I am wondering what to make of Harold Bloom’s statement to the effect that only five or so critics exist today in the whole world. Perhaps we forget the great adage “Don’t consider inferior thinkers.” I hope the question of Tradition that has hardly been engaged with in the work, is given due attention in the future work of the author.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Questions on Religion we often don’t ask

It is important to have a serious discussion about religion because on this hinges our life and death, our future, our prospects for better life in this world. Much of the problems at political, social and individual levels that have bedevilled the Muslim world are attributable to our failure to think about religion. Religious fundamentalism is pathology according to the best of thinkers both inside and outside religion. Religion costs us guilt – hell in this world – if it is wrongly understood. I know many people, especially the young struggling to understand the call of religion and live upto its perceived ideals and failure on their part to make sense of certain things and the result is disaster. A life lived under the burden of guilt. Religion helps us to orient life to a noble ideal and if we fail to understand religion our whole life may get disoriented. Religion is a glad tiding and a warning. We mostly fail to read it in former terms. God-servant relationship is perceived more in Hakim-mahkoom than in Raoub-marbood or Beloved-lover terms. In fact political Islam is a project that has ignored or marginalized equally central aspects in understanding God-servant relationship. A few more points about how we debate religion and harbour a bagful of notions that prove counterproductive for both religion and its adherents.
Many people who have little idea of sacred texts, canon, great thinkers in the tradition or Aslaaf, who have contributed to the understanding of it, have no access to sources but read only commentaries and those too by popular than orthodox or serious scholars, make many generalizations and jump to conclusions on a host of vital and sensitive issues that one can easily show are mistaken. They think they know about Islam, about kufr, about the fate of people who belong to other religions. They think that their mandate is ideally proselytizing the whole world to Islam and cite examples of this or that scholar who has converted so many people. They spend energy in preaching what they think is pristine or pure Islam, a Tawhid centric Islam shorn of shirk. They think that Islam requires rejection of the religious other and salvation is restricted to their school or sect. Now what is the problem? Let me explain in the form of questions I ask.
Is Islam just saying kalima or assimilating it, realizing it? Is it parun (reciting) or sarun (realizing) that is required? Doesn’t it require conversion of heart, mind and will? Is it easy to submit the will? Have we ever wondered that despite our knowledge of what should be done we fail to do the same? We fail to accept what God wishes in our day-to-day dealings? Karl Jaspers points out the problem of trivialization we all face, which implies our failure to take life and the spiritual opportunities it offers seriously, and thus trivializes life. Do we really love our neighbours? Don’t we have thousand and one grudges against fate or what God willed regarding almost everything? What is to be submitted if not the will? Are we ready to renounce our preferences even in small matters? Submission and faith in the Prophet (SAW) implies loving Prophet (SAW) above everyone.  Who can say that he indeed loves the Prophet (SAW) more than he loves himself? Only saints seem to fill the criterion. How do we understand this love?
Now who rejects the prophethood of Muhammad (SAW)? Other religious communities? I analysed it? Are Ahl-i-Kitab written off or acknowledged in their own terms? Is there a blanket rejection of them or a more nuanced critique and acknowledgment at the same time? Is Islam a new religion or Religion as such? If the latter is the case how come Islam is identified with a separate religion?
Discussions, I have carried with a cross section of people including educated elite, have convinced me that so much confusion prevails regarding the very notion of faith, distinction of faith and belief, notion of metaphysics, religion, esotericism and theology all confounded in the popular discourse, the task of interfaith dialogue and what it means to be saved and who gets entry ticket to heaven. So what can be done? Taking religion seriously. Meditating on its meaning. Studying the religious other. Take note of philosophy and science that help to put in perspective the currently confounded discourse on religion.

Seeking Answers in Silence

Mystics find the world as a Question. This is to be contemplated and not answered.
‘I said to the almond tree, “Friend, speak to me of God,” and the almond tree blossomed.' Nikos Kazanzakis 
In Kashmir today we find many people posing as mystics selling spurious things in the name of knowledge of God/Secret/Higher things. So many simple minded get trapped and fooled. One is bombarded by such clichés – leave all the books and get new knowledge. One is, in the name of higher knowledge led in the dark alleys of occult mysteries, jinn control, future prediction, spiritual power politics. Questioning and criticism and intellectual tests and qualifications are scorned. One wonders how come in the golden age of mysticism we had great thinkers and scientists in the camp of mysticism. One needed to complete knowledge of sharia or religious sciences before being allowed to get initiated. Let us read Tagore and some Sufi verses to better appraise any claimant of higher knowledge. 

Mysticism is often taken to be some sort of knowledge that is not available to most people ordinarily. It is taken to be an answer to life’s questions that resist answers at rational plane. A mystic knows, for instance, what happens after death and has some occult knowledge regarding constitution of things. A mystic poet is said to be one who has had some special ecstatic experiences and given special knowledge and key to the secret of existence. He is some extraordinary person who employs some weird techniques to arrive at a knowledge that is denied to non-mystics. 

Mystics find the world as a Question. This is to be contemplated and not answered. Mystery that everything is at its heart is inscrutable and as Umer Khayaam would put it: 

Myself when young did eagerly frequent 
Doctor and saint, and heard great argument 
About it and about; but evermore 
Came out by the same door as I went 

Hafiz made a similar point in his famous verse that states that none has been able to unlock the mystery at the heart of existence. 

Tagore in a poem makes a similar point implying that fundamental questions regarding subjectivity and identity are not answerable. Man himself is the big question. There is no logical route to solving this problem:

The first day’s sun 
The world’s first emergence: 
Who are you? 
There was no answer. 

Years passed. 
The last day’s sun 
Asked a final question 
Near the shores of the western sea 
Amidst the silence of dusk: 
Who are you? 
There was no answer. 

In Stray Birds the theme of mystery crops up time and again. A few quotes will suffice: 

"What language is thine, O sea?" 
"The language of eternal question." 
"What language is thy answer, O sky? 
"The language of eternal silence." 

The mystery of creation is like the darkness of night--it is great. Delusions of knowledge are like the fog of 

the morning. 
That I exist is a perpetual surprise which is life. 
What is this unseen flame of darkness whose sparks are the stars? 

For Tagore joy and peace rather than conceptual clarity or logical understanding of truth are great values to be sought by him. It is truth as beauty that primarily interests him and in the domain of beauty and love there are no questions. Life is to be lived well, lived intensely, lived joyously, tasted in its depths rather than clarified. Alienation is man’s chief problem and mystic union and dissolving in the Great Beauty are his solutions. No questions arise. We should not see failure to answer them as something to be lamented. These questions don’t arise in a different conceptual universe that Tagore posits. “Put reason into life and life is gone,” remarked Tolstoy in epilogue to War and Peace. Eastern approach to reality is more aesthetic than cognitive. For it the supreme purpose of life is happiness and not certain logical decoding of the Sphinx puzzle. 

Tagore celebrates the virtue of negative capability – the ability to live with the doubts rather than be frustrated by them – a typical mystical virtue well advocated by Keats, and that makes Shakespeare great. Exoteric theologians and rationalist philosophers have answers. Mystics and poets have none. Their only offering is their songs, their smiles and tears. Do boal pyar kae is all that a poet has to offer as “answer” to life’s innocent looking questions. Zindagi terae masoom sae sawaloo sae pareshaan hu mein is what he has to say on the questions of life and death. He has no answers but a heart that empathizes, eyes that weep and a sensibility that identifies with the other and can participate in Life’s sacred though sorrowful dance. 
The mystic is an “extraordinarily ordinary person.” Enlightenment, explain great mystical thinkers, is dropping of all seeking, all future oriented enterprises. It is simply to be as one is in pristine innocence. It is just to be oneself without all conditionings. Ecstasies, great vivid dreams, power to predict future or read thoughts of others are incidental, sometimes may even prove dangerous so need not be sought. Experiencing God is experiencing world with open eyes, the eyes unburdened by the past memories or future dreams. It is like looking at the world with fresh eyes of the child. It is seeing with a still mind. Meditation or vision of beauty or contemplation of a work of art help to achieve such a cleansing of perception, a still mind, a vision without ego. It is simply seeing things as they are and not as they appear to manipulating analytical desiring mind. It is pure seeing or better witnessing. It is not seeing the Beyond but a state of receptivity to other, a state that allows the other to destroy you, to possess you so that you are no longer there to worry about the problem of the immediate and the ultimate or immanence and transcendence or the Beyond. `Vain is this seeking! unbroken perfection is over all!' as Tagore says. It is what traditions call as seeing through God’s eyes or disinterested seeing. It is “choiceless awareness.” It is seeing what is as Augustine would put it. It is, in one Kashmiri mystic’s words, seeing the world with an eye on which certain surmah has been applied. We can call it as a surmah of love. Rusul Mir, the mystic disguised as romantic, sold no ideology or maintained no shop of amulets or black magic but had opened the shop of love where he invited lovers. What distinguishes mystics like Tagore from other people is increased openness to experience, a heart that easily melts and can afford unconditional love. The fruit of such a sensibility is a certain kind of joy and peace and not more information or knowledge as ordinarily conceived. It gives wisdom which is not knowledge but something that transcends the knowledge accessible to scientists and logicians or profane thinkers. It may not yield answers sought at a dualistic plane by philosophers or theologians. It makes one more humble and teaches silence. It makes one sensitive and respectful towards the sacred mystery of existence which is the essence of all great religions and art. Tagore’s religion is a religion of an artist who knows nothing but that beauty is truth and truth beauty. The truth and beauty of Mystery that Life is moves and silences him. And in silence are all questions “answered” or dissolved. Fundamentalism, secular or religious, has dogmatic answers that it sells or propagates or seeks wide acceptance, even through overt or covert force. Mystics, in contrast, leave preaching to preachers and themselves dance, as Rumi says. Life and its joy is all that we seek, that knowledge or virtue reveal and heaven symbolizes. Those who know love have no inquiry or anxiety left (Ishq Falatoon-o-Jalenoos ma – Rumi) and have no business of debating questions or sectarian quarrels. And God is Love as Jesus tells and Love is God as Kierkegaard explains.
And “Jis phool ko soangta houn bu teri hae” Kazanzakis’ almond tree blossomed when asked regarding God. Can we radiate more freshness, joy, beauty, love and smiles when asked about God or go on arguing, debating, advocating our views of Him and even quarrel over that what is best contemplated, lived, tasted, shared in silence, in humility, in receptive mode?