Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Who Is Not A Sinner?

Expositions From The Hasidic Tradition
I reproduce a few excerpts from one of the greatest moral and spiritual classics of the Judaic tradition. There is the Quranic dictum for taking note of ancient stories that have lessons for us. The Quran itself narrates some stories. Prophetic traditions also are replete with such references to traditional lore, including the Biblical. One prophetic tradition states that God doesn’t tolerate men who don’t sin and vows to replace them with those who sin and then seek forgiveness. Man’s sojourn on earth is coloured by sin.  Adam’s first conscious act was an act of rebellion, or sin, and that is linked to the birth of self-consciousness, as Iqbal noted. We have been directed not to hate sinners but the sin. But who doesn’t judge or condemn sinners? All gossip, media talk shows, and street talk are full of such condemnation. By meditating on the following Questions and Answers from Martin Buber’s Ten Rungs: Collected Hasidic Sayings, let us try to understand how to be human is to sin – implying that we need to pity rather than condemn sinners – and also see that God has a use for sinners as well: 
Question: The Talmud teaches that: “Those who are perfect in righteousness cannot stand in that place where they stand who turn to God.” According to this, one who has been free of sin from youth comes after one who has transgressed against God many times, and cannot attain the latter’s rung.
 He who sees a new light every day, light he did not see the day before, if he wishes truly to serve, must condemn his imperfect service of yesterday, atone for it, and start again. The person who is free of sin, who believes he has done perfect service and persists in that belief, does not accept the light, and comes after him who is ever turning again.
      When you accuse a sinner and pronounce judgment upon him, saying that he deserves such and such a misfortune, you are pronouncing judgment upon yourself. Though the trespass of the other may be alien to your soul, you must have trespassed in some such way yourself. If you accuse him of idol worship, for example, you have probably been guilty of pride, and that is just as if you yourself had served an idol. And your guilt may even be greater. For you are subject to sterner judgment. But if you justify the sinner and point to the fact that he is still prisoned in his flesh and cannot govern his urges, then you are justifying yourself.
      Rabbi Mikhal gave this command to his sons: “Pray for your enemies that all may be well with them. And should you think this is not serving God, rest assured that, more than all our prayers, this love is indeed the service of God.” We should also pray for the wicked among the peoples of the world; we should love them too. As long as we do not pray in this way, as long as we do not love in this way, the Messiah will not come. 
Question: We are commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves. How can I do this if my neighbour has wronged me?
 You must understand these words rightly. Love your neighbour as something which you yourself are. For all souls are one. Each is a spark from the original soul, and this soul is inherent in all souls, just as your soul is inherent in all the members of your body. It may come to pass that your hand will make a mistake and strike you. But would you then take a stick and chastise your hand because it lacked understanding, and so increase your pain? It is the same if your neighbour, who is of one soul with you, wrongs you because of his lack of understanding. If you punish him, you only hurt yourself. 
Question: But if I see a man who is wicked before God, how can I love him?
: Don’t you know that the primordial soul came out of the essence of God, and that every human soul is a part of God? And will you have no mercy on man, when you see that one of his holy sparks has been lost in a maze and is almost stifled? The Divine Presence governs from top to bottom and to the verge of all rungs. That is the secret hidden in the words: “And Thou preservest them all.” Even when a man sins, his sin is encompassed by the Presence because without it he would not have the power to move a limb. And that is the exile of the Divine Presence.
It is life’s task to contemplate these sayings and we would be rewarded by a less judging and more human and humane perspective on things.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Learning to Read the Book

An Invitation to read the book of books
There are some books that need not be read once or twice but scores of times. There are books that simply decimate you, that don’t need our recommendation but that judge us. There are books that one would not like to part with even in grave. There are books that need certain moral and spiritual qualifications to be understood, or we would fail to drink from the fount of wisdom. There are books that must be in the curriculum of life’s education. What is the book that is most urgent reading for anyone  who cares about higher things of life including wisdom and ethics? I argue it is, first of all,  a divine book. Let us try to read one today.
      Imagine any reason for praising a work or at least paying attention to it and one may find that the Quran illustrates the case. If impact of a work counts, the Quran we know created history and new civilization. If readership or recitation counts, it is amongst the most read, most memorized, most recited works. If inherent linguistic and literary excellence counts, it is, by almost universal consensus amongst the best scholars of Arabic language and the Quran, a feat that we ordinarily describe as miraculous. If loftiness of themes, polyphony and polysemy count, it impresses in the same way that other sacred scriptures impress. Countless commentaries have been written and keep coming. The best minds from philosophers to Sufis to poets to scientists have been struck dumb by it and they have joined in the great tradition of commenting on it. Some of the most influential modern minds  including psychologists like Jung have also joined in this group by commenting on certain verses or chapters. From Nietzsche to Derrida we see glowing tribute paid to the aspects of legal, mystical and philosophical culture inspired by the Quran. Heidegger,  arguably the greatest figure in twentieth century philosophy, deemed himself a philosopher in the Arab tradition of philosophers. In previous centuries literary giants from Carlyle to Goethe have been struck by the Quran.  If speaking to – rather shaking –  depths of our being is a criterion, its power is too well known to need a comment.  If inimitability is the criterion,  we find that from its contemporary Arab poets to James Joyce in Finnegan Wake, attempts to dilute the force of the claim of inimitability have patently failed.
      How come some of the greatest Orientalists and those who approached the Quran from purely academic reasons become its for good? How come volumes have been devoted to apparently as simple things of the Quran as orthography of letters by the best minds? The Quran inspired art, poetry, philosophy and number of traditional science constitute a significant part of cultural heritage of mankind. The Quran has stayed and will stay.
      The Quran consumes the reader or the reader fails to read it. It transforms, it devastates as a great beauty devastates. Man’s salvation lies in getting ready for such a transformation. Great tragedy or poetry seeks to accomplish something similar.
         There are books that one should pray for getting access to them. The sacred scriptures and writings of saints are such books. If one isn’t able to enjoy the Quran despite linguistic and other resources at one’s command, one needs to investigate why. Perhaps some notions bequeathed by shallow education or misinterpretations need to be addressed. I seek to argue that the key claims of the Quran are self evident and none can find them problematic. Let us try to see how we can appreciate the Quran as an open invitation to all of us including the Muslims (usually Muslims think they know the Quran  and it is other communities that need to be invited to it.)
      Who can refuse invitation to explore the science of the self or psyche (anfus) and the cosmos (aafaq) to which Al-Quran invites all? The Quran invites us to pay attention to ontological Quran, the text of flesh, blood, matter and soul  that constitutes anfus and aafaaq. Who can finish exploring them? Who can finish reading the Quran this sense? Who can’t entertain Quranic invitation to take sensory experience, reason and history seriously as sources of knowledge? Who can have issues with the invitation to see all religions from Adam to Muhammad (PBUH) received through prophets as explicating one DeenAl-Islam i.e., submission to Truth/Reality? Does Truth need any other certificate to claim our assent? The Quran doesn’t give a view or interpretation of truth that one could subject to certain ideological critique but asks man to submit to Truth not its particular truth but Truth as such wherever one finds it. Kufr is concealing the truth and who can approve of it?
      La Illaha Illallah, read with the help of illumined reason, contains the whole essence of metaphysics as Schuon has noted.  Read with the help of metaphysical, spiritual and esoteric commentaries the Quran is perfectly seen as the deeper voice of both our hearts and minds. Nothing that is revolting to reason or ethics can be in the Quran.
      The Quran convinces or saves by virtue of its appeal to Signs of God that are for everyone to contemplate in virgin nature, in rhythms of cosmos, in the music of our souls, in perfections we find everywhere getting embodied in life and universe. The best use of aql leads to a state that the Quran calls heaven. Only the knowledgeable fear God, the Quran declares? Now who can vote against these things?
      The Prophet’s mandate is to teach the Book  (all books that are worthy of attention are in a sense in the Mother of Books, Ummul Kitab that is the epithet of the Quran) and love of wisdom (hikmah) and purify the souls. Aren’t all great teachers revered because we think they help us in achieving these three objectives? 
      What the Quran calls faith in Al-Gayyib is understandable as respect for what Marcel calls mystery that is existence or life and  what Stace foregrounds as depth dimension of things that refuses access to rationalist’s tools. Who is the fool to claim to have demystified the world or emptied it of wonder?
      Two of the greatest Muslim scholars of the twentieth century including Allama Anwar Shah Kashmiri once tried to experiment with changing or substituting a verse, a word, a letter in the Quran and investigate if it would change the overall sense and structure. Needless to say, the experiment failed. A good review of major points regarding the literary excellence of the Quran is in Hamza Andreas Tzortzis’ “An Introduction to the Literary and Linguistic Excellence of the Quran.” There are numerous books on Aijaz-i-Quran that cumulatively do make a strong case for engaging with the Quran for modern man. 

One of our greatest calamities is that we are disconnected from the Arabic language. Teach children Arabic and the Arabic Quran will, most probably, hook them for ever to its miraculous form and content. Hardly any preaching needed. Teaching the Arabic language is the antidote to alienation from religion we currently see in new generation. Ask schools you pay handsomely, for arranging for Arabic teaching. Most of us need to better our Arabic if for no reason than at least enjoying the Quran aesthetically. Faith will take care of itself.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Silence of God: Understanding Kafka’s Dark Universe

Some writers (including most writers of popular fiction and tele-serials that bombard us) merely distract and entertain, some provide a certain delight as well and some useful instruction, but some destroy our ordinary consciousness and bring us face to face with something truly terrible or grand or too important to be ignored. They ask questions from us and subject us to a trial of conscience. For them “writing is a prayer,” and (their books) are considered classics. Kafka belongs to this group. We need to be jolted out of the complacent and cozy distracting entertainment and daydreaming we indulge in in newspapers, cheap serials or most popular films.
Let us read Kafka straightaway.
      First, one of his parables on the inaccessibility of Law/Justice/God/Meaning of which modern man complains. “He called on God, but received no answer” is a common complaint today. Most of us, at least occasionally, have felt abandoned and heard no answers from God to our prayers. Kafka explores this supposed silence of God. Simone Weil helps resolve the problem but Kafka presents it in the first instance with great force.
      Let us read one of his stories, Before the Law, to see, bearing in mind that Kafka, as Updike notes, didn’t find God but didn’t blame Him:
Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later.
“It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.”
Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: “If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.”
      These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter.
      The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet.
      The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark: “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything.”
      During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his years-long contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper’s mind.
      At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law.
      Now he has not very long to live.
      Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage.
“What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper. “You are insatiable.”
“Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?”
The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”
      Let us admit, there are no easy answers to questions Kafka raises. I think we can take him on face value, live the questions, and with Simone Weil and postmodern theologians, learn to see how Christ on the cross, how injured Muhammad (SAW) surrounded by the opposing army in Uhad, how Hussain in Karbala seeking water and addressing God as he sees himself deprived of family and companions, constitute great examples of responding, through waiting and acceptance, to the seemingly absent God, and conclude with a story from Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber:
“A man who was afflicted with a terrible disease complained to Rabbi Israel that his suffering interfered with his learning and praying. The rabbi put his hand on his shoulder and said: “How do you know, friend, what is more pleasing to God, your studying or your suffering?’”
      God’s silence is heart-breaking, but it is a part of purgatory’s gifts that helps fight the last bastions of the ego and the imagined idolatrous images of God. The road to Light runs through the dark night of the soul which is black because of God’s silence or felt absence.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

The Book Of Self

"Whenever I hear the Quran chanted, it is as though I am listening to Music, underneath the flowing melody there is sounding… insistent beat of a drum, it is like the beating of my heart." _________Arberry
Today we begin our new series on books by attempting to read the First Book, the Mother of Books, the Book of our Souls or Self (what Ahad Zargar calls manich sipar).
      Scriptures constitute the First Books mankind knows because it is God who taught speech, and the knowledge of names of things – their archetypes, their essence, their face facing God, their meaning – ultimately required for salvation. The first man was also a prophet to whom God spoke. Culture, especially in the traditional sense of the term as understood in all great cultures we know of across ages and regions, is ultimately linked to Revelation, to Metaphysics. Its symbols, its rituals, its art, its deepest connotations can’t be comprehended in absence of reference to the Sacred.  In order to read the Quran we need to be convinced why education about the Quran matters. It is a matter of life and death, and not merely better education or knowledge about an aspect of one’s culture. Let us meditate on the chapter The Quran in Frithjof Schuon’s great book (arguably the best for the better-educated, especially the modern-educated and Western readers) on Islam Understanding Islam. I quote only three sentences from it and then make some remarks that will help to illustrate or comprehend the sentence:
  • “Revelation is the objectivation of the transcendent Intellect and to one degree or another awakens the latent knowledge – or elements of knowledge – we bear within ourselves.”     
  • “Revelation is as it were the intellection – or the intellect – of the collectivity, in the sense that it compensates for the absence of intellectual intuition, not in an individual, but in a human collectivity subject to given conditions.”                                                                                 
  • “A sacred Scripture . . . is a totality, a diversified image of Being, diversified and transfigured for the sake of the human receptacle; it is a light that wills to make itself visible to clay…”
(To understand Schuon’s point we need to recall the distinction between reason and intellect. Intellect (nous) grounds reason (ratio), and is a transcendent faculty we all potentially have, and has direct access to truth without mediation of concepts or other tools that reason applies in comprehending. This leads us to appreciate another point: that that Archangel Gabriel “ personification of a function of the Spirit” or Intellect, and thus the question of who reveals the Quran is resolved. Revelation isn’t something that we can’t conceive of or imagine in any way. It is, as Iqbal has emphasized in his study of the Quran, a property of all life. We need to remind ourselves of great efforts by Muslim philosophers, including Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi, to develop a theory of revelation. Fazlur Rahman has a book devoted to explicating the idea of prophecy as understood in Muslim intellectual history. Al-Farabi’s understanding of prophecy is remarkable in various senses, including the sense that it brilliantly reconciles philosophical and prophetic approaches in the quest of the ultimate reality.
      What Schuon says here also follows from considering such verses as God unveiling himself in Signs. The Quranic verses are called Ayaat – Signs. Virgin nature as the cosmic rhythms we experience are also called signs. Signs within (anfus), and Signs without (aafaq) are what we are invited to contemplate by the Quran. The Prophet (PBUH) doesn’t invite us to believe in him or some occult or secret lore to which he alone has access. He invites us to contemplate the Signs of God scattered everywhere. That is why the Quran declares that only the knowledgeable people fear God, and that is the right use of intelligence or intellect that saves. Belief should ideally fructify in gnosis, in realizational knowledge. Those who are bestowed with this know the Quran as their own story or history and what transcends temporality and history in our spirit. The Quran needs to be revealed on each of us if we are to understand it properly, as Iqbal told his son.
      If the Quran doesn’t tell our story, whose story does it tell? The Story of God or the past people?  But those who know that God is (that is,God  exists), or that theology (science about God) is really autology (science of the Self), and those who are able to identify prophets with aspects of developed human consciousness and verify in their own selves the “stories” about other people or prophets told in the Quran, tell us that the Quran is not alien discourse. Ahad Zargar’s "mei zaav Muhammad, mei von Quran, as Iqbal’s “tere zameer pa jab tak na ho nuzool-e-kitab/girah kusha hai na razi na sahib-e-kashshaf and Iqbal’s tujhe kitab se mumkin nahin faragh ke tu/ kitab-khwan hai magar sahib-e-kitab nahin is perfectly comprehensible for those who know what intellect is, who know the metaphysical-esoteric meaning of Jibra’eel, who know scripture as Monologue of the Self. Those who thus know the Quran have no questions that trouble them about the genesis of revelation and the inherent limitations of its human receptacle, or about the seemingly exclusive language of various scriptures.
      The Quran has everything, not because you read it and find secret correspondences to or echoes of this and that science but because it makes you free of the chains constituted by blind authority and passions that veil the truth. It gives you eyes, or asks you to sharpen your own vision to see the reality of things. And that really constitutes the knowable aspect of God we are required to take note of as humans. 

Friday, 11 September 2015

Testing Time For Education Reforms

How many houses need to be burnt in order to force Fire Service Department to rush its extinguishing machinery? How many cries from how many rooftops from stranded people in flood will be needed to have rescue operation in action?
      These analogies apply to education where we see all burning or stinking on ground and people resigned to leave houses burning or flooded and move on to beg for other spaces. None asks why not reclaim our lost territory.  If Naem Akhter attempts this task and succeeds that would be history. He has to embark on the task if he is true to his stated goal of making govt. schools attractive. “Akhteization of education” faces a crucial test. The public will screen its sophisticated logic and moralistic tone through this test. Naem Akhter is on trial. Will he muster courage to take note of countless dreams, cries and sighs of children and their parents denied right to free quality education? Or should we expect suo motto action from Judiciary? Let anyone begin and all fight for rescue work.
      Would any reasonable person choose to pay more for the same quality available at lower price? Now the question is: Isn't it the case that quality is not available?  Yes is the answer. But why isn’t quality available? We are told that it is because children from lower strata of society are in govt. schools or there isn’t good infrastructure, or teachers don’t take pains.  Now who is ultimately responsible for all these things? The State, of course. And who can and must take the remedial measures? The  onus lies on the State. By asking its servants to send children to govt. schools it addresses first concern and it enormously helps in building prestige of govt. schools and thus confidence of people in general in them. It will make accountability a public issue which has so far been disinterested in this key sector. It will help implement measures for improving both infrastructure and upgrading skills of human resource. It will lead, inevitably, to cure of the cancer. On what ground should one resist such a golden solution? Should one be part of the problem or solution?  We have little to worry about infrastructure as what is available in good shape is underutilized and we can accommodate all children from govt. servants in schools with quality infrastructure. A small percentage of students might have to seek admission in a schools that aren’t nearby. That is a very small price to pay.
      The whole State is suffering because private schools have been a bad choice as, generally speaking and granting honourable exceptions, they don’t give quality education, they loot people, they aren’t accountable to anyone for any of their decisions including fee hike. They exploit teachers, deprive students of sleep, damage tender minds with exam fever, homework mania and information overload, don’t have requisite infrastructure and library and other resources, they are no longer trusts as their papers indicate, and don’t qualify as public schools as their nomenclature would suggest, but are private schools. Not schools that treat education as sacred thing but as business enterprises. And as business enterprizes also they don’t seem to be doing it in proper manner as Ajaz ul Haque, Fazl Illahi  and many others have argued so convincingly. Children need to be saved. Privatization saves – If it indeed saves really – only a class; an elite class.

Some questions one may ask our Minister:

      “Are you going to close a sizeable number of govt school as the policy of rationalization requiring merger already seems to be leading logically to it?” “Are you ready to bury the large percentage of defunct schools, needless staff and surrender a budget of thousands of crores? If not, what prevents you from reclaiming lost or compromized spaces of govt. schools?” “Would teachers find themselves like employees of erstwhile corporations who were offered golden handshake or even evicted?” “Isn’t closing the schools yielding to privatization loin’s share that is incompatible with the Constitution?”  “Isn’t it only a tiny fraction of bureaucratic and political elite and few business tycoons that will not be happy with the decision of sending children to govt. schools while over 97% population will vote positive if a referendum is conducted on the issue?”
      A few question for every govt. servant. “Do you trust govt. or not?”  “Do you think you have a role in helping building trust in government?” “Do you think govt. schools will be enormously helped by involving all govt. servants intimately?” If yes is the answer to all these questions how come there seems some anxiety regarding the idea of rescuing govt. schools through govt. servants?” “If schools are not your schools and their current disrepute not your disrepute – to whom is paam directed to, if not to every individual govt. servant?” “Isn’t it a height of hypocrisy to take salary from govt. while keep deserting its bastions?
      Some questions for all of us as citizens: “If institutions and public spaces we have nurtured are deserted, aren’t we heading towards a disaster where private schools will be ruling the roost and choke us as privatization follows inherent logic of maximization of profit?”  We might survive food crisis but can’t survive disaster that is education today. Our children are no longer educated and they can’t receive one in existing structure. Education can’t be a private affair, a business deal. We are losing children thanks to current ideology. Education is linked to Iman; it is part of soul making. We all need to be involved with our souls and minds to make it worth its name. When houses of neighbours are burning one doesn’t emphasize right to choose a special house (right to choose which school one may send children) but obligation to save the burning ones. During disasters some rights get suspended. The bulk of private schools haven’t come up after fair competition but mostly when scandals were given free reign that destroyed credibility of govt. schools and parents had no option but to desert their houses for rented ones. It is flood water that needs draining; let normal Jehlum flow. We had houses that we deserted during flood and didn’t worry about returning after the flood subsided. We seem to be resigned to the idea that we let our houses go and even welcome and facilitate new brand of people who have meanwhile occupied them. Govt. schools were deserted especially during last two decades thanks to circumstances that can only be described as flood like. We let them rot as administration seemed to be hand in gloves with growing force of privatization and made great fortune by helping desert govt. schools and invest in private schools.
      Lastly a question for teachers associations. “Why not agitate for restoring lost spaces of govt. schools?” “What better tool for repopulating them with students from almost all sections of society than requiring children of govt. servants to lead?” If this done all problems of teachers would be solved as they would occupy central stage.

      There need not be any scare in the community or even in private school management. Govt. servants constitute around 4% of population and a great fraction of them is already in rural areas where still a respectable percentage of children that go to govt schools are from the employees. Private schools are already burdened with too many recommendation letters and ques. They will get some respite and they will in the long run be better off as they will be less influenced by vested interests of Babus and other influential govt. servants who have otherwise a greater stake. It is to be lauded that private schools representatives have welcomed recent Naem Akhter’s response to Allahabad court order that indicated government will take a cue from it.