Thursday, 3 March 2016

Choosing our Books

One misses so much in life if one doesn’t read books; but read the best books.
One could well say that God made man to read books. Man, a Master notes, is asked to pray only for increase in one thing and that is knowledge. The Prophet (SAW) is introduced as a teacher of the Book (and wisdom and self-fashioning – we may note that culture with its literary and philosophical resources is all about these things). To truly understand the Prophet involves culture of literacy. Prophets don’t come with religions but Ad-Deen which is a way of life, a culture so to speak. The Quran itself is a Book, and means a reading, a recitation. The cosmos is called Quran-i-takweeni. The Bible means a book. Veda means knowledge.  And knowledge is what makes man, man. The Prophet prayed to be shown things as they are and to this objective sciences and philosophies contribute. Scriptures take us beyond themselves to the world of nature and self we are required to read. Books are life; they aren’t abstractions. Life is all the more vibrant and soulful in books. Books, if we can indeed read them properly, have everything we need. One misses so much in life if one doesn’t read books. Books cure us of phantoms of ego, cocoons of exclusivist ideologies, self righteousness and shallow moralism and constitute antidote to fundamentalisms of all hues. Books make us humble. Books lead us closer to Ultimate Reality. They sensitize us to nature and beauty all around us.
      Where we err is selection of books. We need to read the classics. And it is scriptures and works of sages and philosophers and writers of the first order that constitute classics. Great books are few though demanding. We need the Master and that is the Book that exposes our weaknesses and goads us to higher, finer things (This is the answer to the question: Do we need a Pir?) Criticism of merely bookish knowledge in some great Sufis and philosophers doesn’t constitute an argument against the Books here talked about. These criticisms are mostly themselves in the books and if we find Rumi and Iqbal against book worms they advised us to read their books or become sahib-i-kitab rather than merely kitab khawn. Instead of lifeless words they ask us to contemplate the book of the self (manech sipar as Ahad Zargar calls it) and the nature, and thus we are directed from certain kind of books to another kind of them. The issue then is to choose the book for oneself and not to criticize books and pit them against life as if great books talked of anything else than life (they illuminate, beautify, rejuvenate life).
      Those who don’t read should be pitied and condoled, and if we see anyone we love, hasn’t read a new book from quite some time, get a gift of book for him or her. We might replace guiliemeuth –interest based transaction in marriages – with books if we want social and many evils to go and truly bless the couple. Teachers are teachers of books and if they don’t read new books – say one every month if not every week – they should retire or resign on moral grounds. Book reading culture is better developed in the developed world and we talk of so-called development but fail to note what has happened to book reading index. Inculcate the habit of reading good, great books in citizens and we have a cure against almost all diseases of mind and soul and many of the body as well. (Dr B M Hegde’s books would, for instance, save most of us from bills of doctors and some commonly occurring diseases that are more projected by drug companies than real. He concludes, somewhat oversimplifying, never visit a doctor for routine check up and visit him only in emergency). How much budget of education department is allotted for improving book reading culture (not just purchasing books – mostly second or third rate – for libraries)? Not a penny, it seems. And that is why we find most teachers without a book and content with regurgitating syllabus tit bits to students (most memorable teachers for all of us were not curriculum centric – I still remember Reza Saheb from Madar Bandipore  and few others whose classes were lively with references to many books), reading only newspapers and gossiping about 7th pay commission/ Mehbooba/Modi and everything except books. We find some teachers, shockingly, lobbying for evaluation and supervision of exam duties. A good teacher would examine his own life – how many of us can stand the test of Socrates who said that “an unexamined life isn’t worth living” – and a better education department  would outsource job of evaluation of papers (uncreative job if ever there is one) to unemployed people and generate thousands of jobs – we have over ten million papers to evaluate annually, almost throughout year for which services of teachers are availed currently.
      Irony is that we have an army of distinction and position holders who also don’t read books. I think those who get 100% or something near it should be disqualified for next year and requited to read new books. One must do violence to the mind to force it to remember all the crap required to answer intelligence denigrating memory centric question papers. We award those who get more marks and thus perpetuate this violence of the mind. One must be an inferior mind to consent to perfectly mug up information (that is mostly useless when it comes to real challenges of life or wholesome education) to secure over 90 % to 100%.
      Books transmit culture. We are, mostly, culture illiterates because we don’t read.
      There should be a book reading break of at least half an hour in all institutions and not just educational institutions. In police department it should be at least two hours break. This is as much important as lunch break. This will refresh minds and souls, largely cure corruption, strengthen our relationships to juniors and seniors or bosses and subordinates and make us aware what we are doing while we work. We, unknowingly, fleece or mistreat people and destroy our souls in offices that have only a mechanical routine work to do. Books teach us to see life as others see it and thus strengthen relationships.
      What is azadi? What is hell and heaven? What is shirk or associating partner with God? Which sect is more misguided? Who is the best preacher or teacher around? What are the greatest sermons delivered in history that we should expose ourselves to? How to choose between divergent legal opinions or fatawa we find on almost every topic from beard to hijab to shaping of brows to definitions of riba vis-à-vis bank interest to legitimacy of democracy or concept of Islamic State? To all these questions, reading key books, ummahat-ul-kutb is the answer. Reading lesser minds or easily readable books in market is a sin that cripples minds for life. A certain exposure to philosophy teaches us how to evaluate arguments put forth by any ideologue or jurisconsult. So readings in philosophy – which, in one definition, is rigourous application of common sense  and some attention to  logic (that figures in madrasah curriculum) constitute an insurance against being misled or forced into unwarranted guilt by less qualified minds. Life becomes indeed a joy and our burdens get lifted and we find this world more meaningful and its ways less perverse when we read. If we prepare a list of more strict and exclusivist fatawa from legal manuals and then judge Muslims of various schools and following varying practices, we would be forced to roast almost all of them in hell transgressing even 1 in 1000 formula. We have ulama who were more strict in personal practice but not so strict when it comes to issue fatwa for masses. We have various shades of opinions within traditional camp to choose from.  And we have our poets, philosophers and Sufis that, building on Islam’s own resources, temper harshness of legalistic mind to bank upon when we find something jarring to our mind and heart or call of conscience.  Let us not forget enormous heterogeneity in thought and practice of Muslims (documented so well in Shahab Ahmad’s monumental work – a must read for students of Islamic culture – What is Islam: The Importance of Being Islamic).
      If we want azadi or heaven or magnificent life, read books. Read books like Bloom’s How to Read and Why to make a choice.

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