Thursday, 25 February 2016

Debating the Canon of Shaikh-ul-Alam Studies

It could well be the most important book of the current century in research in Kashmiri literature.
G.N .Gowhar has already done so much for Sheikh-ul-Alam studies that no history of evolution of the discipline could bypass him. As he grows older his power and resolve to touch taboo areas has only increased. His magnum opus – gowhar- in this field was awaited by us from years and, despite his ill health, has come. Though bound to receive mixed and heated response, and generate debate both for and against some of his theses this Mu’taber Kulliyat-i-Shaikh-ul–Alam seems destined to reorient Sheikh ul Alam studies in a decisive way. It could well be the most important book of the current century in research in Kashmiri literature.
      So far proper historical criticism hasn’t been applied to Sheikh corpus. Even the laity and not to speak of many important scholars of the Sheikh has been uncomfortable with what goes popularly in his name. It is difficult to deny the charge of internal contradictions in the corpus and if we could attribute it to inauthentic ascriptions, we better serve the Sheikh. However I don’t think any case of seeming contradiction needs to be straightway admitted and I find many examples cited by Gowhar vulnerable to conciliatory thesis.
      Besides methodological tools of modern historiography that Kashmiri historians have yet to master or apply with courage and conviction, we ideally need to apply some key insights developed for Hadees criticism to the Sheikh corpus, especially for trying to accommodate or appropriate some seemingly problematic narratives traditionally attributed to him and reconciling seemingly divergent texts.
      Unavailability of original Shardha script and adaptation for Persian script for recording Sheikh’s poetry can’t be without costs with regard to fidelity to original Kashmiri language, especially some nuances that however make a big difference. Till date we have variant reading of certain shrukhs/vaakhs.
      Baba Nasib’s pioneering role must be appreciated and can’t be ignored or his work rashly edited but without forgetting that his style is ahistorical and allegorical. (P.13). Baba Nasib didn’t care to explicitly invoke or explain any criterion for choosing selections from the Sheikh corpus. He laments that he pigeonholed in certain preselected subjects of the whole corpus. (P.15). He has woven fictitious stories around Shaikh’s persona.
      Gowher finds all the previous compilations/selections wanting in certain important respects and one can’t but agree with his criticism part. Asrarul Abrar compiled after Rishi Nama of Nasibuddin by Baba Dawood Mishkati has unresearched narratives. Saqi receives just though somewhat harsh criticism on many accounts. Aafaqi, whom we can well call Tabari of Shaikh-al Alam studies (Tabari gathered whatever he could get from all sources without troubling himself too much about authenticity of the narratives thus transmitted and the costs of thus constructed history) receives the severest lashing, which is not underserved though it could have been, on certain points, more academic than polemical in style and more charitable. An example of less convincing criticism is Aafaqi’ s appropriation of the phrase mutafikun allaeh (agreed upon) traditionally used for common traditions of Bukhari and Muslim for what is common between Khalil Baba,  Kamal Baba, Baba Nasib and Mir Abdullah.
      Gowher pleads for rereading certain words or phrases that figure in Sheikh corpus, an endeavour he  brilliantly and incisively undertakes. He will receive more support on this account from both scholars and laity.
      While Gowher succeeds to convince almost all (except perhaps the exacting postmodern historian or myth/symbolism/metaphysics specialist) on the questions of principles and methodology he states as underlying his approach, one feels there is enough scope for debating his own application of those principles. For instance, his application of the principle that the Sheikh can’t contradict scriptural or received  Islamic lore to exclude such an expression regarding God’s seeming injustice  “na ieyes insaf na yiyes aar”  ( that figures in Hundred Shrukhs Gowher subjects to severe criticism and apparently humiliating or anti-tawhidic expression attributed to Mir Muhammad Hamdani “chi mangaan halem daerith.” Argument from  identifying unique style is more open ended than Gowher would have us believe. “Wavi meayni gravi  nitie Hazrates…” or the ghazal included in Aafaqi’s work as “Alishq sewallah ker ten saerae” have a style that doesn’t necessarily contain evidence of impossibility of attribution to the Shaikh – we find similar scholarly debates continuing for centuries in case of many ancient and medieval texts that don’t conclusively settle some contested  texts. We can point out  style of some authentic shrukhs being hardly distinguishable from 19th century mystic poetry.  While such central claims as there has been some admixture from other sources in key texts documenting Shaikh’s work is difficult to contest  though hard to digest for a traditional Kashmiri who has found reasons to be fond of seemingly most problematic legendary material including curses for certain regions  (like kouren doakh, noshen soakh) and lot of hagiographic material that appears scandalous to moral sense.
      Gowher does well not to impose titles to poems or vaakhs to avoid ideological framing or prejudices of the compiler. He doesn’t deem his work the last word but nevertheless titles it Muetber Kulliyat (Authentic Collection). He  acknowledge it requires a team work but did well to begin on his own. This will kick start attempts at more comprehensive attempts. Thank you Gowher Saheb for breaking the ice that has been gathering weight from centuries.
      Gowher doubts authenticity of often quoted texts attributed to the Shaikh including dialogue between the Shaikh and his mother. Although hagiographic part might be problematized on other grounds as well, the dialogue per se could probably be authentic. One finds somewhat corresponding examples in lives of Shaikh’s admired Buddha who leaves his wife so suddenly, and many Sufis. Moralistic arguments have limitations as pointed out by Guenon and others. It is ultimately metaphysic or esotericism that holds the key but which has received little attention from institutions devoted to editing texts of sages and saints or mystic poets.
      This path breaking book should generate debate on many accounts including how it engages with Lalla or her work. It seeks to draw radical conclusions from absence of historical documentation of her work and includes, against Lalla scholarship, such vaakhs as “Shiv chi thali thali rozan” in the current collection of Shaikh’s work.
      I wish a team of scholars who are well versed in Kashmir history and culture besides Persian language and mysticism and historiography debate this Kahvaett and move beyond it to help us have a better Criterion. It is easier to criticize Gowher but it is almost impossible to rival him by taking stock of all things that he has taken with such command.
      Although Gowher seems to be very particular about spelling his approach, he gives far less than deserved attention to hermeneutical issues that would have clarified some important problems including his own approach. He displays remarkable flexibility for interpreting or contextualizing such verses as “rindo henden henz kami travito” but doesn’t extend his charity  for ingenuously explaining some more seemingly problematic texts he excludes from the canon. Kahvyt deserves to be expanded into a book itself, like famous foreword of Ibn Khaldun to his history that constitutes a book length explanatory dissertation.
      Gowher is known for his analytical skills and linguistic virtuosity though one misses, on some important occasions, finer nuances of rigourously trained academic historian. Metahistorical-symbolic-archetypal-mythological notions aren’t to be subject to demythologizing historicist rationalist reading. Although Gowher does take care, generally speaking, while putting on trial big names and traditional reception and folk authority – he dedicates his work to Kamal Baba and Khalil Baba, he doesn’t explicitly spell out many of his assumptions that force him to drop some well known and well received  parts of the received Canon. As a Judge, he should demand more evidence to convict, at least, in few selected cases. Otherwise we have reasons to be believe in the claim of innocence and look askance at certain exclusions. For Kashmiris Shaikh-al-Alam is larger than history – almost metahistorical and symbolic figure – and lives in our collective unconscious, to use rather misleading term.
      To conclude, Gowher has, for the first time, exercized comprehensive ijtihad in Sheikh-al Alam studies and given us, though with imposed juridical slant, the book that will force us rethink the Rishi Canon. It is not a final Kahvyt but an important step towards preparing one. Although it makes some harsh and rather simplistic judgments but rightly points out the limitations of previous studies or canozing process. This is a book that will be impossible to ignore, for decades at least, until some better Kahvyt comes to be written. This book can only be improved; it can’t be wished away. And we Kashmiris owe to the author an immense gratitude and should pray for his long innings and health.

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