Friday, 30 October 2015

Martyrdom is the Ideal Life

 By performing the supreme sacrifice of the self one is united with the Eternal, the Infinite.

Hussain’s faith or philosophy states in simple words three points. The greatest adventure or meaning of life lies in death. Time and all its games it plays with us are meaningless except in light of the Eternal. We must die seeking justice and liberation of the Proles ( all the oppressed regardless of colour or creed). All these ideals are Socratic ideals, the greatest philosopher- matyr of history. For Socrates the purpose of philosophy is preparation for death. He refused to take allegiance of the corrupt rule or ask for pardon or even exile to escape death sentence. The spirit of his great Apology recalls the lectures delivered by Imam Hussain(a.s) to his family members and the opponent’s army. The point is that one must respect the call of the conscience. And as Socrates asks, who knows that death is a punishment? He says that he owes a cock to Heaven for the favor of taking away the burden of life. He asks poison maker to hurry up and faces death as if it is the first night with the bride. He makes a great defense of his actions – as does Hussain – and leaves no moral argument to the jury that sentences him. If purpose of life is preparation for death – death in life – so that death loses its sting and one no longer is afraid of death, why not seek martyrdom? Hussain and Socrates both died for truth and justice and freedom of conscience and constitute two great examples for mankind. Those who understand Socrates and elementary lessons of ethics appreciate Hussain’s point in defying Yazid. Yazid’s defense at the hands of certain scholars is never convincing to even any impartial secular historian and if moral and spiritual sublimity is the ground of winning an argument, then history and all great thinkers and poets have given a judgment that Hussain is their hero. I now seek to explain why death/ martyrdom is the ideal life according to both religion and traditional philosophy. We can also then understand why poets have had no difficulty in expressing our collective conscience regarding Hussain(a.s).
      What is the common problem of religion, philosophy and higher art and literature? One could well reply in the words of the Buddha that it is “ suffering and the cessation of suffering.” Why are we born and why do we die? Why have we been hurled into this vale of tears? What is the end of all human endeavors? For the sake of what do we consent to live and suffer? What great object irresistibly drives man on and on and gives direction and meaning to everything? What is that vision that the artist perceives and attempts to communicate? What constitutes man’s deliverance? Where is the final rest or the object of our love and how to seek it? All these questions are reducible to the question of suffering and its cessation. All the countless varieties of suffering and evil, darkness and despair, fret and fever, fears and anxieties and nameless horrors constitute the fact of dukkha from which man is ever attempting to escape. The search for transcendery moment from the fret and fever of life is the raison d’etre of all our endeavours from aesthetic to philosophical. The pull of the Infinite, the manifestation/ actualization or unfolding of the Spirit is what makes the grand history of man. Philosophy is contemplation on death and thus the search for the deathless, the Good, the Unborn and the Unconditioned both in Platonic as well as Indian and even all traditional philosophical traditions.
      What else is the object of religion? And to what end do our poets and artists point out ultimately? We need not answer as we all know it in the depths of our being. It is something that transcends mere life as ordinarily lived on purely animal plane. It is a sort of immortality.
Nothing in the world of becoming ever satisfies him. He is eternally restless. His salvation lies outside the world though he in vain seeks it here in this samsara, in the world of senses and desires and that constitutes his tragedy. God is the unheard melody of which all earthly melodies are a reflection. He is the dance of the spirit, the song of existence, the ideal, the unattainable ideal of all human endeavours.Man has come from God and must return to Him. But he falls too easily to the temptations of Mara and sleeps the sleep of heedlessness. But come to God he must. He must realize nothingness of the self and the Infinity of God. And death of the ego – the essence of martyrdom – is the inescapable path for all of us. We must travel on the road on which Hussain(a.s) travelled. Come what may he has to travel though slowly and painfully on the return path to God as the Quran says. And God does accomplish His ends and He can’t be defeated as the Quran makes clear.
      Even if narrow is the straightway and studded with thorns, even if steep and sharp as razor’s edge is the way of salvation as the Dhammapada says and thinner than the hair’s breadth is the bridge that needs to be crossed over to reach heaven there is no escape from it. This is the vale of soul making even though it happens to be the vale of tears for that purpose. Though created in trouble as the Quran acknowledges man must say yes to the call of the Spirit. Though man’s condition is “inconstancy, weariness, unrest” and finitude his deliverance lies only in transcendence.
      Though born in time and caught up in the whirlpool of samsara he must appropriate the Eternal, the still centre outside the world though it also resides in the depths of our being. Man’s predicament is that he is situated in the realm of Between, between earth and heaven, time and eternity, nothing and everything, beasts and angels, the world of things and the world of spirit, immanence and transcendence, good and evil. He is, as Rumi put it, “midway between, and struggling.” Were reality just the insane ignoble mystery of things as Leopardi fancied and everything reducible to dance of atoms or nothingness, were there no such thing as the good, the sacred, the beautiful and the Infinite, the beatific vision, the bliss of pure consciousness and prayer, our enquiry regarding evil would not proceed beyond a plain or perhaps bitter description of this sorry state of man and life. Men have had experience of the transcendent, the experience of unadulterated bliss. Sages and poets have always sung of the celestial songs celebrating essential goodness of life. All religions are based on the vision of goodness attainable here and now.
      Life is both true and beautiful and in fact blissful and to make this realization possible there have been revelations and messengers. Faith in the goodness and blessedness of life is the only “ dogma” of religion, a conviction born of intuition that is held by all religions. It is goodness and bliss of heaven rather than evil and misery of hell that has the last word in the worldview of all traditional civilizations. All religions are united in the belief of cessation of suffering, of temporality of evil and eternality of goodness and bliss. The absurd declaration that life is a futile passion and existence a surd is only a recent heresy. An incorrigible faith in the sacred mystery of existence and ultimate goodness and blessedness of life ( a proposition that theology expresses by its assertion of God’s goodness) and transience of evil is the universal faith of mankind although this goes along with the emphasis on evil of the desiring self and attachments and all compounded or temporal things. Everything in this world is cursed except the remembrance of God as the Quran says but we must remember that for the gnostic or the Sufi every existent exudes the perfume of the Beloved and it is the Breath of the Compassionate that has created and is sustaining everything. Nothing but God is manifested everywhere. The world becomes indeed the garden of delights, the feast of the Spirit, the primordial Edenic Garden for a unitarian consciousness of a jnani or a Sufi.
      For the consciousness that has transcended the separative and limiting principle of ego and thus time and finitude there is bliss and peace that passeth all understanding. It is the universal experience of seers and prophets ( and to a certain extent of artists) that we can escape finitude, evanescence and mortality though there are tears for misfortune and “ mortal sorrows that touch the heart.” By performing the supreme sacrifice of the self one is united with the Eternal, the Infinite. The cost is great as the self and its desires and the world are so dear to us but the prize is fair and the hope great as Plato said.

Understanding Imam Hussain (AS) in the Post-Nietzschean World

In engaging with the mystery and tragedy of Karbala, such questions as the following are asked: What was God doing when the Prophet’s (PBUH) family suffered a blood-bath? Where is the compensation for the victims? Is there no justice in this world? How can we affirm the whole tragedy without getting profoundly disturbed on moral, aesthetic and religious planes? Isn’t God fully in control and ultimately directing everything towards the Good? If yes, how? Blood, thirst, trampling human dignity – what crime was not committed in Karbala – and still we are required to see divine wisdom? Why is mourning Hussain (AS) such a catharsis if it is pain and sorrow that is relived? How come the mourning procession accomplishes what could be described as an aesthetic miracle for the participants? In order to approach to resolve these questions, let us examine how Nietzsche, one of the most influential of modern philosophers, approached the question of suffering in life, for, it is only at the heights and in the depths of experience that great philosophers contemplate that we can begin to appreciate Hussain (AS) and Karbala.
      The question, ultimately, is how one can be reconciled to life or existence justified. Seeing the harshness of the universe and the tragic character of human life, what justification is there for life? Nietzsche’s famous answer, supposedly thought out in opposition to the traditional Christian answer, is that only an aesthetic justification is possible. We can’t see any palpable meaning or design but should view at the aesthetic plane the whole picture. His Zarathustra accepts everything (the pains and the pleasures) as natural episodes of the world. He has no grudges against existence. Like an artist, he contemplates the creative activity of the cosmic will with perfect equanimity. What fascinated him in the Aeschylean tragedy was its drive beyond the tragic facts themselves to the cosmic background of the mystery. In his attempt to move beyond and conquer tragic pessimism, he thought that the dark side of our life must appear to us in a new light if we accept the inevitability of suffering. He pleads for seeing the world as it might appear to a cosmic artist who expresses himself freely and creatively, and finds joy in self-expression. Tragic myth’s power lies in bringing us to the presence of the one will expressing itself in the world and lets us share in the joy of super-abundant creation. Tragic myth convinces us that “even the ugly and the discordant are merely an aesthetic game which the will, in its utter exuberance, plays with itself.”
      For Nietzsche (as for the Greeks, according to him), transmutation of the world of suffering through the medium of art allowed him to say “yes” to the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. Through the medium of art, life triumphs over death. He championed the Dionysian attitude that triumphantly affirms and accepts existence in all its darkness and horror. Dionysian art wishes to convince us of the eternal joy of existence despite its terrors and absurdity. Existence is made into an object of beauty by rising above the mere pain-and-pleasure principle and freeing man from the terrors and tensions of existence by an ecstatic identification of the self with the source of life, the Cosmic Will. Nietzsche advocates a change in the eyes of the beholder. He envisions a view of life willing and able to take suffering upon itself. His Zarathustra laughs away all the pain that the will to live may necessitate. There is a curious echo of the Buddha’s smile in Zarathustra’s laugh at the apparent absurdity of the world. Nietzsche is well aware that this aesthetic transfiguration of the painful aspects of existence is not the prerogative of ordinary mortals.
      Nietzsche also states that life is essentially appropriation and injury. Let us face this fact besides the point that “suffering is the swiftest horse that takes one to perfection.” In Islamic doctrine, all that happens, including the most tragic or horrible, are the effects of Divine Names. Nietzsche requires from ideal man not just acceptance of the world of suffering but acceptance of a kind that one is capable of willing it to eternally recur. It implies that he accepts that Karbala and martyrdom are repeated eternally and we don’t blink or shudder. He requires love of Fate not simply to endure, but to wish for, the eternal recurrence of all events exactly as they occurred - all the pain and joy, the embarrassment and glory. This sincere love, this unconditional surrender, this superhuman faculty of attention, this absolute trust, comes by practizing the ascetic discipline that Nietzsche, borrowing from mystics, advocated. Try imagining who illustrates such a love of fate, such raza, such patience. Nietzsche himself failed to reach this limit of endurance. His failure to stand up to his own vision is evident from the following confession, as recorded in his diary:
  • “I don’t wish to live again. How have I borne life? By creating. What has made me endure? The vision of the superman, who affirms life. I have tried to affirm life myself - but ah!”
     It is Hussain (AS) who knows the ecstasy of life, of submission to the Divine Will, and martyrdom. In fact, the very perception of beauty necessitates the sacrifice of the self as it is only the object, and perception of beauty demands a serene contemplating consciousness that becomes one with the object in contemplating a beautiful object. It is not the eye of the subject or the self, but the eye of the heart, that can perceive beauty. Aesthetic justification and transfiguration of the world requires doing away with the ego and subject-object dualism. It is achieved by means of an ascetic denial of the will that defines itself in opposition to the universal will. By appropriating divine attributes (that a Muslim, for instance, is required by the Prophet (PBUH) to do: takhallaqu bi akhlaqallah i.e., cultivate the divine attributes or character, he views the world in a way that converges with the view of the cosmic artist.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Karb-o-Bala as the Meaning of Life

Reading Camus and Dostovesky in Muharram.
Albert Camus has presented an influential case for what he called metaphysical rebellion, and cited the reign of injustice, innocent suffering, and failure of reason to comprehend the absurdity of experience and slaughter house that history is as validating such a response. Imam Hussain’s encounter with death and finitude, and all the evil that life has to offer, including misery and death of innocents is exactly opposite. However, in terms of concrete action against injustice or evil, both conclude on the same note. Let us read Camus and then try to ask him, and with him the absurd heroes we find everywhere today loitering in the streets and cafes, the question of meaning of the life of martyrdom.
      Camus’ case is lucidly argued in The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel. He finds no meaning in life – not to speak of in death – and finds that this universe that includes death and suffering of innocents is indifferent or hostile to our aspiration for either comprehending it or finding it meaningful. Within the limits of reason we can’t be reconcile to it. And we shouldn’t take the leap of faith.  And we must rebel against the metaphysical order. Refusing both hope and despair, suicide and murder, resignation and raza, he lands in a position of defiance. Camus quotes Dostoevsky's Ivan in his The Rebel: "If the suffering of children serves to complete the sum of suffering necessary for the acquisition of truth, I affirm from now onwards that truth is not worth such a price." "All the knowledge in the world is not worth child’s tears." As Camus puts Ivan’s position: "He doesn’t say that there is no truth. He says that if truth does exist it can only be unacceptable. Why? Because it is unjust.” “Ivan incarnates refusal to salvation. Faith leads to immortal life, but faith presumes the acceptance of the mystery and of evil and resignation to injustice.” As part of his own Christian-mystic self, Dostoevsky presents Alyosha, a saintly brother of Ivan, whose noble ethic recalls  ethic of Hazrat Ali(a.s) and his sons. (In fact, according to one opinion, he is modeled on Ali).
      Life, for Camus, is thankless Sisyphian task. He finds reason impotent “when it hears this cry from the heart. The world itself, whose single meaning I don't understand, is but a vast irrational. If one could only say just once: 'all is clear' all would be saved."  The absurd born of the confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world must not be forgotten. Absurd must ever be kept alive. This is what dignity of man requires.
      Camus is neither reconciled to earth nor to heaven. The totality of existence he is not able to accept stoically or heroically. He is simultaneously for life and yet against it if considered in its totality because he is unable to accept death as part of life. He can laugh but he can’t accept to weep. He is sad why our desires, our grand ambitions get frustrated. 
      Religious response, as illustrated in Hussain (AS), is no simple hope that all will be well. It is developing eyes to see that all is well. It is seeing as God sees and accepting our role as slaves of God, as actors in a film directed by God. No desire, no will to dictate or advise God. No complaints. Utter gratitude for all things. Defiance against human constructions, against injustice only.
      A sense of oneness with Proletariat – all the oppressed people (Proles, the root of Proletrait, as Eagleton notes, originally means all the oppressed). Religious man isn’t resigned; he is involved in great endeavour of saying yes to the crushing burden of personality. He is the yes sayer that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is. Life of the spirit is the life of creativity, of love.The religious person accepts fate and the world as divine. He blesses existence in true Nietzschean sense.
      Camus can’t imagine what is so obvious for the mystic -- the world as his own exteriorized self. Camus only knows his self as a centre of suffering, as irreducible and undeniable subjectivity, an empirical self, an ego. Of the Self of which Socrates spoke, and to which mysticism and religions address is hardly glimpsed by him. Where Dostoevsky finds God in love and Buber in relations, Sartre, Camus’ one time friend defines hell as the other. Only in self giving, in martyrdom, in “shahadat gahi ulfat” is God or Heaven, Hussain announces. Needless to say, it is Hussain’s martyrdom that has been celebrated by mankind, by men as diverse as Gandhi and Nehru.
      Camus’ heroes die unreconciled. Hussain and his great family have no complaints. In attitude towards death is the final test of a philosophy. Visiting graveyards to contemplate death is the great wazeefa Heidegger suggests to modern man. Hussain’s mourners are ready to injure themselves and very few are ready to die in life, die to the ego. We are all required to be martyrs if we belong to Islam and its Hussains. And that martyrdom is saying no to ego and unconditional yes to other, to love.
      The important point is that the rebel doesn’t and cannot rebel against life itself. He consents to live despite logic. As Camus quotes Ivan “I live in spite of logic.” Logic demands suicide  but neither Ivan nor Camus would accept this. Ivan will live, then, and will love as well ‘without knowing why’. When the meaning of life has been suppressed, there still remains life.” The point is what does religion demand if not only life, more life, larger life, eternal life. Martyrdom is exchanging life of cowardice and cunning and beggary for life of an adventurer of Spirit. It is to let the exiled Beauty shine forth. 
      The kingdom of God is found when our will is in harmony with cosmic will or God’s will, to use theological language. Religion frees man from angst of choosing as well as from the traps of bad faith by asking him to surrender his will and thus find freedom in God’s will. Not ours but heavenly father’s will be done as Jesus put it.  Properly understood, this is the way to defeat the “absurdity” of life. Religion is innocence of becoming, and choiceless awareness as sages have always interpreted it. Faith is innocence, innocence of becoming,  a song of love, transcendence of ego and other directed ego fortifying, action. It denounces all utopianism and all heroism and all supermanism. It consents to die unheard, unnoticed. It requires no triumph, no trophies, no recognition.
      We have no choice and warrant to take arms against the cosmic or metaphysical order as we are part of that Tao and would imply denying oneself and life thereby. But it is in the name of life we defy or seek explanations. Reason itself that gives its verdict is part of this order. Tears of children are part of this order. Reason doesn’t comprehend it sure but heart, that has “its own reasons which reason doesn’t know” as Pascal said, does. A shower from Heaven erases all memory of pain one previously felt as Dostovesky’s story in The Brothers Karamazarov seeks to show. No complaints when the Beloved finally gives audience.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Unveiling the Veil

Looking at the practice of Hijab in the light of modern alternative interpretations.
Regarding the issue of veil I have been puzzled by a few questions. Here it goes:
  • Why it evokes strong responses for and against, to the extent that Muslim society is polarized on this
  • Shouldn’t a woman ask herself why a man arrogates to himself the right to advocate for veil, speak in the name of God, and use persuasion or coercion to keep a woman in line with his conception of her body?
  • Why there have hardly been any influential women exegetes, or women fuqaha in our tradition? Have women chosen silence or been silenced?
  • Is the right question today whether women should be veiled or not, or it is of identifying and fighting every symbol of gender injustice imposed in the name of religion?
  • Why particular form of dress becomes an issue impacting sometime sacred relationships like marriage or choice of mate?
Today I propose to look at certain influential modernist Muslim interpretations to state the point that there are alternative perceptions (though they need to be scrutinized, as we need to scrutinize so-called traditional view that is assumed to be closer to the scripture) and ask why this is largely unknown in popular discourse but in practice widely adopted. If practice of veil or hijab has waned due to forces of modernity that impact us all, guilt that kills remains there for many. The question is therefore does God care or it is only certain men and fewer women who care, and why? I will not review Marnia Lazreg’s passionate and eloquent text Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women (that needs to be read alongside such works as Syed Moududi’s Purdah to appreciate how polarized the sensibilities are, deconstructing almost all the key arguments of the latter but how both leave ultimately to conscience the final verdict on choosing hijab and face veil respectively) this time but only revisit arguments of some well known modern Muslim scholars.
      Muhammad Asad, noted modern Quran commentator, has argued that woman is not required to observe the veil. Murad Hoffman, another celebrated name, has eloquently put the case for so-called Westernized image of women in Islam in the 21st century. Asghar Ali Engineer quotes Asad’s interpretation “What may be apparent thereof” in detail and is reproduced below, along with his translation of verse 24:31:
  • And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof; hence let them draw their head coverings over their bosoms….” 
My interpretation of the word ‘decently’ reflects the interpretation of the phrase illa ma zahara minha by several of the earliest Islamic scholars, and particularly by Al-Qiffal (quoted by Razi) as “that which a human being may openly show in accordance with prevailing customs (al-‘adah al-jariyah)’ Although the traditional exponents of Islamic law have for centuries been inclined to restrict the definition of ‘what may [decently] be apparent thereof’ to a woman’s face, hands and feet—and sometimes even less than that—we may safely assume that the meaning of illa ma zahara minha is much wider and that the deliberate vagueness of this phrase is meant to allow for all the time bound changes that are necessary for a man’s moral and social growth. The pivotal clause in the above injunction is the demand, addressed in identical terms to men as well as to women, to ‘lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity’ and this determines the extent of what, at any given time, may legitimately—in consonance with the Quranic principles of social morality—be considered ‘decent’ or ‘indecent’ in a person’s outward appearance.
      Although Asad’s translation/interpretation has not gone uncensored from other scholars, a large number of influential scholars from Albani to Fazlur Rahman and Ghamdi have forcefully questioned usual practice in favour of face veil (in theory face veil as such is not mandatory according to traditional schools as well but the clause “in the age of fitna face veil is called for” is added by many Ulama) though Ghamidi extends the argument against absolute warrant for veiling hair. Ghamdhi’s point, however, is contested by even “moderates” amongst traditional scholars such as Qardawi who think that the debate is closed on this issue. But for the modernists the question is not closed in theory. But note the irony that, most educated Muslim women have, in practice and often with some load of guilt, adopted it! One wonders what the moving spirit of time does to one’s dearly held convictions. Thus we see some women activists and scholars have even sought to explain away traditional emphasis on head covering of women! This might look unorthodox or shocking but I wonder why the practice of abandoning hijab by otherwise religiously oriented Muslim women doesn’t raise eyebrows as it once used to. Once burqa was uncontested and now even hijab raises questions! Is it the fact that social pressure or modernity’s onslaught is too forceful to let the voice of orthodoxy prevail? The pressure of seeking a job or mate or working in modern institutions might make one deaf to all sermons. But the question of guilt must be dealt with as it is killing. If no guilt is experienced it might be because one is either consciously adopting a modernist interpretation that is not totally unwarranted or one is indifferent to religion and both the possibilities are rare.
      For Asad the Quran is primarily particular about not uncovering the breasts. This conception of veil that allows prevailing custom (and fashion) to determine limits of modesty will hardly be incompatible with highly “Westernized” Muslim women’s outlook. Traditional veil is almost liquidated out. Burqa or scarf or full sleeved dress is what is often in question but here it appears that these questions will not arise.
      Mohammed Ali discussing the issue of veil concludes: “This settles conclusively that Islam never enjoined the veil or covering of face.” Asghar Ali Engineer takes the point to logical conclusion in the following words:

  • However, it is also obvious that any scriptural text is read within one’s socio-cultural context. An almost unanimous opinion of all classical commentators indicates that in their socio-cultural context, keeping the face and hands open was considered permissible. The Prophet also advised accordingly. Keeping the hair exposed was perhaps considered sexually inviting and hence prohibited. But the Quranic verse doesn’t expressly state this. It has been deliberately left unspecified.
       All this needs to be read along with Schuon’s eloquent defense of symbolism (not necessarily form in practice) of veil that helps understand traditional position defended by mainstream Ulama better without implying warrant for taking their strong pronouncements on face value. Without passing judgment over the debate for or against veil (Let us recall Jesus saying “Judge not”) I conclude that in our tradition there is a scope for divergent views and none can claim to be the final truth or most authoritative. Let us ask how strict we are in guarding our own gaze rather than seek to impose a particular definition where things are left ambiguous by the Revelation. I conclude with a quote:
  • The politicization of the veil—its forced removal or its legal enforcement (as in Iran and Saudi Arabia)—hampers women’s capacity to make a decision freely, just as it also compels them to abide by an intrusive law at the expense of their own conscience and judgment. More important, it contributes to confounding the veil question by defining it unambiguously as religious, even when the religious texts lack clarity and determinacy in the matter.
      Isn’t it a height of indecency that decency and conscience have become political questions? Isn’t it both ignorance and arrogance that makes one claim finality for one’s interpretations of Law? Let us debate rather than call names to those who differ on issues God has chosen not to unambiguously clarify.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Hafiz And Questions

Speak of happiness and wine
And seek not the riddle of the universe,
For no one has, nor will
Unveil this mystery through wisdom

Hafiz, also known as the Lisan-ul-Ghaib, is considered the greatest poet of the Persian language. Once upon a time, Kashmir also produced great poets and scholars of Farsi, and it was our privileged language, but gradually the Persian colour of our culture has faded. The result is that our new generation is not familiar with the giants that constituted a presence on our literary horizon. In the old times, even illiterate people could quote from the Persian classics. Sa'adi was a part of the syllabus. After reading him at school, one could not afford to be mean and degenerate the way we find illustrated everywhere today. We need to revive the taste for the Persian language and its literature. It constitutes a truly treasured education that many great names across the world advocate. Some of the greatest Western poets were all praise for Hafiz. People here would take guidance related to the future (faal) from his Diwan.
      The recent polarization along Salafi-Sufi lines in Kashmir is not unconnected to the exclusion of Persian. Our older generations could quote freely from the Persian masters, and that neutralized exclusivist or intolerant ideologies. Those nurtured in the ambience of the Persian classics had an enriched life to live, and needed no sermons.
Here are a few verses from Hafiz for a glimpse into his work:
 Now is the time to know
That all that you do is sacred.
Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and God.
Now is the time to understand
That all your ideas of right and wrong
Were just a child’s training wheels
To be laid aside when you can finally live
With Veracity and Love.
Now is the time for the world to know
That every thought and action is sacred.
This is the time for you to deeply compute the impossibility
That there is anything but Grace.
Now is the season to know
That everything you do is sacred.
How do I
listen to others?
As if everyone were my Master
speaking to me his
cherished last
One needs to read Martin Buber’s I and Thou (counting among a dozen greatest books on religion and ethics written in the 20th century) to understand this point. Just a quote from him here: When a person encounters another person in total immediacy, he or she may also experience a glimpse of God.”
If God
invited you to a party
and said,

in the ballroom tonight
will be my special
How would you then treat them
when you
Indeed, indeed!
And Hafiz knows
there is no one in this world
who is not upon
His jeweled dance
Hafiz tells us the essence of ethics in one verse: don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, and then do anything, and that will be lawful in his sharia. He gives love its due and that solves all problems. Reading a ghazal from Hafiz everyday in our homes, the way some other texts are read in certain homes, would make us and our children better humans, help us fight prejudices and the evils that flow from our attachment to the ego and not heeding the call for self-transcendence or love.
      Hafiz is no Epicurean, as a literalist reading would make him appear to be. He is a mystic. From the earliest times till today, religious scholars (including, in the twentieth century, the renowned Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi) have interpreted Hafiz on mystical lines. But mystic or not, the fact remains that Hafiz is the world’s greatest exponent of the ghazal. Such is the quality of his verse that when five individuals associated with the court of Timur were commissioned to select from his Diwan to prepare a shorter collection to be published under state patronage for larger public consumption, they were unable to edit out even a single verse. Compare this to our modern-day poets, especially mushaira poets. It needs hard thinking to select just one verse the state could publish at its own expense for a general readership.
      Hafiz has melody, beauty and sublimity. He is the poet of poets. He has “answers” to all our anxieties. We can all take a faal whenever we are in doubt with regard to our existential issues. This faal isn’t for predicting the future but for helping us live in the present. The access to love that Hafiz facilitates is the elixir and solution to our problems. All problems are ultimately traceable to (our) failure to open up to love in its full sense, Dostoevsky and Iris Murdoch tell us. All events we experience are coded messages from God telling us “I love you,” Simone Weil says.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Why read Russian Literature

They probe life and come up with insights we direly need.
Name the best short story or novel in the world literature and one is most likely to answer some writing from Russian literature. By general consensus Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are the greatest novelists. To be the greatest novelist is to be the greatest teacher of life.
      We hardly live life; don’t know its beauty, glory and meaning. We are enslaved by what Schopenhauer called Will and live life as if under bondage. We have complaints and grudges against almost everyone; we keep cursing others and even ourselves at times. We come and go without having learnt the meaning of life with all its challenges, guilt, violence, tragedy, horror and countless distractions and games that ego invents to avoid facing reality of nothingness within. The question is “where is life lost in living?” – in vegetating, in complaining, in cursing, in “fret and fever,” in day dreaming, in begging for fame or recognition.
      Understanding the meaning of life, especially in these secular times when God is no longer the Centre for man, and “anarchy is let loose” and relationships seem to have lost their sheen, is a great challenge. Calling us back to God in a world that has forgotten or exiled the divine is what all the books, sermons and polemics for God fail to do as effectively as is done by our greatest writers. Some people lose faith while reading novels. To them one might recall that the greatest novelists happen to be religious or mystical in orientation. And such statements as:
  •  “Art, void of its supernatural typology, fails in its inherent artistic essence."  (Sir George Birdwood)  
  • “The Man who never in his Mind & Thought travelled  to  Heaven Is No Artist” (William Blake) 
  • "The ultimate subject of all pure or revealing art is God."  (Coomaraswamy and Stella Block)
How shall we live in a world where nothing seems to be trustworthy or faithful or worth our love? This is what our greatest novelists try to explore without judging, without prejudices, without blinkers, without conclusions. They probe life and come up with insights we direly need. 
      For Altizer our seers are novelists like Joyce and Beckett who accompany us in our “descent into hell” that is modern life and help us on our journey home. Tolstoy’s classic statement on encountering the problem of seeming absurdity of life needs to be read by anyone who is  concerned about the meaning of life. His classic exploration of life lived without considering the problem of death in The Death of Ivan Illyich is a must read for anyone who thinks he can’t escape death. Thanks to  Prof. Shoaq – our prolific scholar of Kashmiri language and literature, we have its translation in Kashmiri. Thanks to Shamshad Kralvari, we have wonderful translation, in chaste Kashmiri – at times it is close to trans-creation in Kashmiri setting – of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment the most widely read novel of the world translated into scores of languages, and courtesy Muzaffar Azim we have Kashmiri  War and Peace.  It is not easy to translate classics and how grateful we should be to our translators can only be imagined. Kashmiri language is now quite rich thanks to them and others.
      Russian literature explores, like none else, the problems of meaning of life and suffering that constitute our most important problems. How important and influential Russian literature is may be understood  by noting the fact the two of the greatest modern philosophers Nietzsche and Wittgenstein were great fans of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy respectively, that Gandhi cited Tolstoy as an important influence, that the greatest modern scientists Einstein was moved by Dostoevsky’s greatest work The Brothers Karamazov. Name any great twentieth century writer who has escaped influence of Russian Masters. The power of Dostoevsky’s pen  may be felt by reading a section “The Grand Inquisitors” or portrait of Alyosha – the saintly character if ever there is one is modern literature – or debates on evil in chapter on Ivan. Let us not forget that even Lenin’s favourite writer was Tolstoy. About Tolstoy’s work William Dean Howells wrote: "I know very well that I do not speak of Tolstoy's books in measured terms; I cannot."  "A second Shakespeare!" was Flaubert's response.
      Let us try to understand Tolstoy’s “comprehensive sympathy,” and “absolute incapacity to evaluate human beings according to station, rank or profession, or any standard but that of spiritual worth.”  The Quranic dictum that taqwa or fear of God is the only criterion for distinguishing humans is echoed in both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
      The best summary of arguments for taking Russian literature seriously is in introduction to the volume The Best Russian Short Stories  by Thomas Stelzer. Here I reproduce it:
“The Russians take literature perhaps more seriously than any other nation. To them books are not a mere diversion. They demand that fiction and poetry be a true mirror of life and be of service to life. A Russian author, to achieve the highest recognition, must be a thinker also. He need not necessarily be a finished artist.
      Everything is subordinated to two main requirements—humanitarian ideals and fidelity to life. This is the secret of the marvellous simplicity of Russian literary art. Before the supreme function of literature, the Russian writer stands awed and humbled. He knows he cannot cover up poverty of thought, poverty of spirit and lack of sincerity by rhetorical tricks or verbal cleverness. And if he possesses the two essential requirements, the simplest language will suffice.
      Conceive the joy of a lover of nature who, leaving the art galleries, wanders out among the trees and wild flowers and birds that the pictures of the galleries have sentimentalised. It is some such joy that the man who truly loves the noblest in letters feels when tasting for the first time the simple delights of Russian literature. French and English and German authors, too, occasionally, offer works of lofty, simple naturalness; but the very keynote to the whole of Russian literature is simplicity, naturalness, veraciousness. Another essentially Russian trait is the quite unaffected conception that the lowly are on a plane of equality with the so-called upper classes. When the Englishman Dickens wrote with his profound pity and understanding of the poor, there was yet a bit; of remoteness, perhaps, even, a bit of caricature, in his treatment of them. He showed their sufferings to the rest of the world with a "Behold how the other half lives!" The Russian writes of the poor, as it were, from within, as one of them, with no eye to theatrical effect upon the well-to-do. There is no insistence upon peculiar virtues or vices. The poor are portrayed just as they are, as human beings like the rest of us. A democratic spirit is reflected, breathing a broad humanity, a true universality, an unstudied generosity that proceed not from the intellectual conviction that to understand all is to forgive all, but from an instinctive feeling that no man has the right to set himself up as a judge over another, that one can only observe and record.”

Meaning of Shahadah

How primordial and universal faith’s claim is and how crucial and fundamental its invitation – and how we are all summoned to respond, willingly or unwillingly, to the call and can’t afford indifference – is seen in a deeper penetration into the meaning of Shahadah or Witnessing. One becomes Muslim by uttering shahadah. The dictum that “by living one religion fully one lives all religions” may be illustrated by noting the deeper meanings of the act of shahadah. But first, a few remarks on what witnessing means for metaphysicians and mystics:
      The point to note is that we can’t give witness of what we don’t know or have not verified for ourselves in some sense. If we haven’t known God or Unity, how can we be asked to provide witness of the same? A clue to the answer is provided by metaphysicians-Sufis who point to the fact that one of God’s names is Shahid. It is really God who witnesses His Own Glory and Beauty or Himself. We also know that God alone is truly existing, and if there is to be some witnessing of the Truth, it must be of only what truly or really is, and that is God alone. Man isn’t an independent being who exists in his own right, separate from God or Reality. In fact, all that we see is an expression of God’s Names and Attributes. Our only job is to let go of ego that imagines an illusory identity and empire of its own and a sense of agency. The Quran is categorical that God creates us and our actions. Shakespeare has expressed the great traditional truth in describing the world as a stage and humans as only actors. Our only job is to play our part well in whatever domain we are called upon to act. That implies it is God who acts through us and explains how all craftsmen are called friends of God.
      Witnessing has been read by Sufis and philosophers like Iqbal as martyrdom in the path of love. It is the overflowing of love. It is a song of love. To truly see the beauty and glory of the Real is to love it. Nothing is more difficult than selling everything in the path of love. It is laying down one’s life so that Love lives. One can imagine the difference between witnessing Beauty and sacrificing everything for it, and the ideology of martyrdom sold in the marketplace. First one must die within, and then can the martyrdom of the body be accepted.
      Islam means peace through surrender. This is the essence of all religious and mystical paths. The aim is to achieve peace. Peace which passeth all understanding, peace where sorrow is not, nor any clamour, nor agitation, as all fret and fever of becoming has passed away. It is the repose of being. In beatific vision alone is obtained that eternal peace as the Quran and prophetic traditions testify. Thereafter is no more any thirst. Beatific vision is the end of all thirst, all craving. Nirvanic peace is the same thing. The ultimate state is best characterized as peace as the records of mystical experience testify. So it is clear that Islam, like other religions, promises a state of absolute peace where evil is no more. Of course, liqa-allah or beatific vision, or what Buddhism calls parinirvana, is obtainable posthumously only when the limiting condition of body that is necessarily susceptible to certain kinds of pain is also transcended. Now Islam, in consonance with all traditions, shows the way of attaining this peace. And there is only one way, only one path which has been taught by all traditions, though they have differed in adapting it to differing times and temperaments. That path is surrender and submission. Renunciation amounts to the same thing. What has to be surrendered is creaturely will, ego, putting it in tune with the will of God or Existence or Reality or Whole or Tao, or, what amounts to the same, annihilating it. Oneness with reality, or realization of tawhid (in Sufi-metaphysical perspective) is attained by abandoning the formative will. All claims of the self over and against God or Existence have to be renounced. One has to consent to be a servant, a creature, a part of the Whole, an instrument of Existence, a hollow bamboo that echoes the sound or song of Existence. It implies raza, or absolute unconditional acceptance, or rather love of fate (amor fati). It is achievable not by all and sundry but only those who are prepared to sell their souls in exchange for heaven, who can be patient under all kinds of hardship, trials and tribulations, who can say with Job under all circumstances “God gave and He took away,”  who, acknowledging their nothingness in the face of the Absolute, have nothing to claim and nothing to seek and nothing to resist – who are faqeer in the true sense of the term and thus transcend all worry as they have nothing to worry about as nothing happens against their will as their will has merged itself with God’s will, and nothing happens except by God’s will. Man’s liability to suffering and evil ends when not his but his heavenly Father’s will is done.

Debating Sufism and Urdu Literature

Sufism might have theological critiques but literature provides its strongest support and in a way helps dissolve much of now mostly outdated theological critiques of Sufism.

Thanks to Urdu Department CUK and Sahityya Academy we had, after much time, a seminar on Sufism and Urdu Literature.
Some points that emerged in the papers and discussions may be summed up in the following propositions:
  • Urdu literature from Khusrow till date is informed by Sufi sensibility.
  • No great name in Urdu literature is anti-Sufi and all are to certain extent indebted to Sufism.
  • The world could be saved by better engagement with the mystical or Sufi and especially what is called Quranic Sufism or Ihsan centric narrative.
  • Sufism should be taken as synonymous with spirituality and that is the essence or core of religions. If Sufism becomes philosophy divested from practice and indulges in anti-social and ideologically complicit actions, it should be resisted.
  • Sufism needs to be purged of extraneous influences.
  • Sufism has been misused by pseudo Sufis and shrine management in many cases.
  • We need to be on guard regarding politics of seminars on Sufism ( there might be interest in Neocolonial powers to dilute element of resistance in Islam through such activities).
  • Kashmir’s Urdu poets too have appropriated Sufi influences.
  • We can revisit Urdu Sufi poetry to explore possibility of dialogue with postmodern thought.
A few remarks on the debate in seminar: 
      Salafi and other theologico-legalistic critiques of Sufism are best put in perspective or “dissolved” in literary writings. Almost all great poetry in Persian, Urdu, Kashmiri and many other languages and cultures written in past 700 years is informed by Ibn Arabi or wujoodi sensibility. No theological critique, no political ideology, no sermonizing campaigns can neutralize the force of such a literary heritage or make us disown its message. There are colossal minds of Islamic history that are all wujoodi or almost wujoodi . Intellectually wujoodi position is the most attractive and spiritually the most sublime. Wujoodi position is simply Being is one/ Reality is one and those who find problems with it commit the basic methodological error of misidentifying theology with Metaphysics, Personal God and Being. If we are poets in whatever tradition, we are wujoodis. Shuhudi metaphysics too doesn’t contest the statement Being/ Reality is one.
      Sufism might have theological critiques but literature provides its strongest support and in a way helps dissolve much of now mostly outdated theological critiques of Sufism. Any person with an eye for arts or poetry is bound to be pro-Sufi in a sense if one meditates on close relation between artistic or aesthetic and mystical impulses and sees how shyr and shuyoor are integrally connected and notes that all first rate names from Dard to Mir to Ghalib to Iqbal to Faiz had something to do with Sufism in theory or practice and were attracted to its worldview or at least attitude. We have poets as philosophers if not orthodox practitioners of Sufism.
      All great names in Islamic history including Ibn Taymiyyah and his illustrious students were positively disposed towards Sufism that didn’t lead itself to antinomian anti-Quranic appropriation. No great name in the history of Islam advocated lock, stock and barrel rejection of Sufis of all hues ( which include generally admired early ascetics, sober Sufis headed by Junaid and popular saintly figures such as Abdul Qadir Jeelani and Shuhudi Sufis). Who can afford to reject Islam’s spiritual and intellectual content with which Sufism claims allegiance? We are all Sufis or Sufis in the making or seekers or to striving for Ihsan ( use non controversial term) to little or greater extent. While one can criticize any particular Sufi thinker on philosophical grounds or tendency of reduction of spiritual to philosophical or certain antinomian tendencies in some Sufis, we can’t step outside the Paradigm of Ihsan and Perfection of Ethics that Sufism has been invoking. That explains why critiques of Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Qayyim and the like don’t question Sufism as an expression of Islamic spirituality or condemn all Sufis but certain perceived deviations in some of them. They too invoke “ Sufi” paradigm of a sort. There is thus no escaping from Sufism. One can at the most push for certain “ reformed” version of Sufism.
      Misuse of any idea is no argument against the idea. If Islam has been misappropriated by many sectarian and ideologically motivated Muslims that doesn’t prove any accusation against Islam per se . Politics in sponsoring seminars on Sufism granted but the possibility that anti- Sufi ideologies might constitute more sinister politics and have been more easy targets for appropriation at the hands of war mongers and those who sponsor sectarianism was not given due attention.
      What really constitutes an extraneous influence is so hard to determine. Tasbih we almost universally use today in zikr is said to be of Buddhist origin. Vedanta expresses nondualism that Sufism independently upheld. Such things as Meditation/ Muraqaba/ Mujahada/ Fasting/ Itikaaf or seclusion practices/ rituals of initiation/ wazeefa of kam khord, kam khawb, kam guftar / zikr/ mantra recitation all have been overlapping in form or spirit across traditions. If at esoteric or metaphysical plane Sufism converges with other forms of mysticism, how come we maintain too sharp a distinction between Islamic and other mysticisms or feel shy of calling Sufism Islamic mysticism. If Quran appropriates or invokes other scriptures, how come we have an anxiety to project exclusively or distinctively Quranic Sufism?
      Some comments on negative relation between postmodernism and mysticism were made although neither any postmodern philosopher or postmodern theologian or mystical philosopher had been read or referred to by the speaker. Seminars should have moderators not presidents as open ended academics is incompatible with imposed closure by any authority and pulpit like sermonizing to which most presidents are addicted as they are supposed to speak the last word. Let us do away with presidents in seminars or have presidents who are indeed authorities – or the best available scholars – on subjects.
      We have scholars here living in 1900s or 1950s as they haven’t heard that most of the debates and questions they indulge in have been settled or reframed since decades. They don’t know, for instance, that the charge of foreign origin of Sufism or foreign influences on Sufism is now considered obsolete by the best scholars in the field. They don’t know that Ibn Arabi as a spokesperson of Metaphysics can’t be refuted and can only be misunderstood. They haven’t heard of likes of Chittick, Corbin, Burckhardt and Lings who have punctured the balloon of criticism of wujoodi position containing various charges including charges of pantheism and suspension of ethics/ sha’ria attributed to Ibn Arabi. They don’t know that Iqbal’s critical remarks on Sufism don’t make him anti-Sufi as his thought is first and foremost Sufi in orientation and his mature writings including his Madras Lectures are quite close to the spirit of Mansur and Ibn Arabi. Likes of Yusuf Saleem Chisti have no difficulty in showing how later Iqbal had returned to wujoodi position. He was through and through a Sufi though his metaphysics was individualist. He called himself a Qalander. His Pir Rumi was wujoodi Sufi as were Bedil, Shah- i Hamdan and many other great names in both mysticism and philosophy he invoked. He wrote about a medieval Sufi “Khizr-o-Maseeh sae uncha maqam tera” and made it a point to visit shrines and there are incontrovertible biographical evidences to show his connection to Sufis (both living and dead). We have scholars as diverse as Maekesh Akber Abadi and Schimmel and Nicholson agreeing on his characterization in essentially Sufi terms. Almost all his important critiques of certain formulations of Sufi thought and practice have been almost conclusively shown to be either misreading or misinformation on his part ( some of which he corrected later).
      Given such a scenario one can’t expect any path breaking paper in seminars on Sufism conducted here. We don’t have a good library on Sufism despite a resourceful Awkaaf ! Nevertheless in the seminar we found good presentations that focused on close reading of Urdu texts. However we saw lot of conceptual confusions and methodological anomalies and loose usage of terms when speakers focused on either theological critiques of Sufism or history of reception of Sufism. Sufism is best approached in metaphysical instead of philosophical or theological or religious terms and attention to this aspect was almost absent. More than Urdu literature it was theology and history of Sufism and that too often in badly framed terms and repeating old and sometimes outdated scholarship or easily accessible information that received much of attention.Despite these things one can’t but thank organizers for selecting such an unfashionable theme in suffocating times and attracting noted professors from outside the State for the same.