Friday, 30 December 2016

Reading Shahab Ahmad

Reorienting certain debates on the meaning and constructions of Islam today.
Sectarianism in Muslims is mostly a product of ignorance and vested interests. How far it is a product of ignorance is documented by Shahab Ahmed in his What is Islam, one of  the really great works on Islam that is destined to be influential and help reorient certain debates on the meaning and constructions of Islam today. First a few remarks on the author and the book.
      Shahab Ahmad knew 15 languages including the most important classical languages in which Islamic tradition is expressed. He is extremely careful with regard to sources he quotes and usually deals with original sources and classical authorities to build his arguments. There is little by way of his own interpretation and much by way of letting authorities and little noticed scholars speak in their own words. He asks questions after piling huge mass of facts and marginalized scholars. Let us read him, as he reads others, respectfully and critically. Some of his interpretative manoeuvres can be questioned without, however, failing to derive benefit from his massive eye-opening scholarship.
      I think it is best to let author and the sources he quotes or appropriates speak on the question.
      He quotes preeminent expert on religions, W. C. Smith, “It is a mistake to think of the Islamic as one of the several ways of being religious. Rather, for fourteen centuries the Islamic has been one of the salient ways of being human.”
      He asks a question that Muslim scholars usually identified with jurists or Molvis/Mawlanas of well defined contours must take cognizance: “What, for example, is there, on this accounting, to prevent the classification of philosophy, Sufism, and art as Muslim—that is, “bad” or “one step removed from ideal Islam,” and of law and theology as (authentically) Islamic” He refers to the Brethren of Purity for the forgotten description of ideal Muslim: “the learned, worthy, intelligent, pious, insightful man, a Persian in origin, an Arab in dīn [the Arabic word usually translated as “religion”], a Ḥanīfī in Islam, an ʿIrāqī in education, a Hebrew in astuteness, a disciple of Christ in conduct, a Damascene in piety, a Greek in the sciences, an Indian in expressiveness, a Sufi in subtleties.” (“Ḥanīfī” refers to the pre-Muḥammadan state of being Muslim ascribed by the Qur’ān to the Prophet Ibrāhīm). How Muslims have been tackling diversity is stated thus: "Muslims have, in other words, been dealing with difference, diversity and disagreement for fourteen centuries. Muslims have long been well aware that they are not all the same; they have long been aware that their identity as components of universal Islam includes diverse experiences, agreement, disagreement, problems, dilemmas, and predicaments; that they mostly agree to disagree and to be different. One might say that the community of Islam is a community of disagreement— or rather, it is the community of a particular disagreement; it is a community that constitutes and is constituted by its disagreement over the question What is Islam.” He refers to John Walbridge’s “The Islamic Art of Asking Questions: ʿIlm al-ikhtilāf and the Institutionalization of Disagreement,” about  “the institutionalization of disagreement” in Islam, although he confines his treatment to scholarly discourses; see John Walbridge, Abdul Wahab Shirani, a great jurist cum Sufi, Ibn Rushd, a great jurist cum philosopher and Ibn Arabi a great metaphysician who insightfully wrote on fiqh as well, besides Tusi and other authorities on Maslaeh of sharia could be today invoked to help develop a new understanding that could tackle many problems that modernity has posed with regard to uunderstanding and application of Islam. Shahab refers to another brilliant modern scholar Ebrahim Moosa who has observed in this regard: “Each one of us . . . articulates a version of ‘Islam.’...In other words what we really have are multiple representations of being Muslim, embodied by concrete individuals and communities.”
      Antidotes to sectarianism have been philosophers, poets and mystics and Shahab tries to show how they have been central to the self understanding of Islamic culture throughout centuries. He asks six questions to all readers who would reduce Islam to their sectarian understanding that excludes them in principle in the name of return to pristine Islam of classical age. He shows how naive it is to invoke such catagorization while claiming to represent Islam in all its depth and breadth. One of these question he phrases as “In other words, mainstream Islamic theology (Sunnī and Shīʿī) in the millennium- long age of the madrasah conceptualized God on a philosophical foundation whose logic and epistemology had led its acknowledged progenitor, the philosopher, Ibn Sina—whom we can legitimately call “the man who effectively defined God for Muslims”—to conclusions that were condemned as exemplary Unbelief. How is this Islamic?”
      He quotes Mulla Sadra “This art of ḥikmah is that sought and requested by the Master of the Messengers—preservation and peace be upon him and his family—in his supplication ‘O My Lord, show us things as they are!" and quotes another passage from a different source and  then proceeds to build  his case for philosophy in Islam. “This passage highlights the philosophers’ conception of their project as directly related to Prophethood and to knowledge of God: the Prophet himself seeks from God precisely the art of ḥikmah... In other words, a prophet is an über- philosopher—which, in turn, implies that all philosophers are, for all conceptual and practical purposes, engaged in the same project as are prophets: that of ḥikmah, or seeking to know universal truth- as- it- Really- is through the perfection of pure reason (on these terms, one might almost say, upon beholding a great philosopher: “There, but for grace of God, goes a prophet!”).

      Sectarianism is linked to such premises as Islam we know about is Truth as such and not an interpretation of Truth (as if history, language, culture and other factors affecting hermeneutics could be bypassed in any attempt to invoke authority of Islam), this particular sect alone will go to heaven ( ignoring salvation or felicity is explicitly linked to use of intellect, moral development and faith rather than elaborate creedal structures or belief systems in the Quran), we represent the prophet and Companions best and guidance is located there (this ignores that there are multiple understandings of the guidance Prophet and Companions stood for or embodied). Poets, philosophers, mystics bring something from the infinite riches of divine wisdom and we are better off taking note of them. After reading Rumi, Hafiz, Ibn Sina, Suharwardi, Bedil, Mulla Sadra, Ghalib, Iqbal – to name only few of mystics, philosophers and poets – one emerges transformed, more humble and more respectful towards the theological other. After reading Shahab Ahmed one wonders how poor have been our conceptual theological lenses with which to measure or judge the whole world – other schools, traditions, sects – as other. Taking Mansoor’s cross as jurist’s rival is poverty of imagination and absorbing the whole universe of possibilities or diversities is the mark of a real Muslim (as Iqbal said) who submits to Truth and acknowledges that this Truth has infinite faces and can always evade and is ceaselessly involved in newer and newer manifestations or works. The world is a dark alley and prophets are fundamentally interested in the first and last points of our journey and their work is complemented by poets, scientists, mystics and philosophers who lighten up our path to certain extent.

      However let us not, for the sake of pseudo-tolerance, forget that there is such thing as heresy (zandaqa) and orthodoxy and that the Quran is also furqan which differentiates truth
from falsehood. And self-righteousness, tendency to think mine is the best, holier than thou attitude are all unanimously condemned in Islamic tradition and we find “God knows best” (“wallahu aalmau bissawab”) as a qualifying clause to all exegetical/interpretative endeavours. It is not an abstract idea or truth but the extent to which it is realized in us that saves and it requires moral qualifications and who can claim that he has acquired such and such a degree in moral development? In line with Quranic spirit, philosophy, art and poetry and mysticism all exhort us to be humble towards the Real or Truth in order to receive it (Truth can’t be possessed but received and this needs opening up and removing obstructions that ego creates), to eschew stubborn dogmatic attitude, to listen more and speak less, to let the Other or Love dictate terms rather than dictate to them, to forego attempt to solve problem of religious divergence here and leave it to God there, to resist attempts at meaning closure or finality of interpretation, to attend to life with all its mystery, uncertainty, inexhaustible richness and beauty. To identify a sectarian ideologue one can apply a golden test “Empty vessels make much noise.” Truth overpowers us and makes one dumb. “Ripeness is all.” “The rest is silence."

Critique of Popular Religion

Man has been made a slave instead of true worshipper and he has lost self confidence.

There is something terribly wrong with religions as ordinarily understood and practiced, and appropriated for political ends. There is a truckload of guilt associated with non-issues, a fear psychosis promoted in the name of God understood as cosmic policeman, exploitation and oppression against women, minorities and religious other in their name. Many an unfounded superstition and distrust of reason and science has also been associated with religions. Man has been made a slave instead of true worshipper and he has lost self confidence. People have been divided, hated, killed is its name. It is no wonder that modern man who is deeply religious has found it difficult to concede what has been sold in the name of religion. Failing to find deeply fulfilling rational, moral and spiritual theory and practice of religion, he seems to have chosen agnosticism or atheism or some sort of heresy. The choice now is between real religion that we find in certain philosophers, Sufis and artists and very few believers and distrust of religion as such. Leaving anti-religious atheists aside who seem to be very few and deny Homo religiosus or religious self of man or positive significance of God shaped hole in human consciousness or sacred as an inalienable dimension of human consciousness, we focus on essentially religious minds who have strongly criticized popular or exotericist understanding of religion and sought to direct our attention to more fulfilling spiritual, esoteric, intellectual and aesthetically oriented understanding.
Emily Dickinson, a deeply religious and mystical soul, said "faith is doubt.”  Max Muller, that great pioneer in the study of sacred texts, said something similar. Graham Greene has said that what is too easily labeled as heresy is “only another word for freedom of thought.”  “The Religion that is afraid of science dishonours God & commits suicide” said Emerson. Here we find people disturbed by successful weather predictions and sonographic reports about fetal sex.
      We have seen many people who suffer from unwilling disbelief and, as Montaigne said, some “make themselves believe that they believe.”  When we understand that belief must be transformed into discovery and ibadah into ma’rifa or ilm-al-yaqeen into haqq-al-yaqeen and “God is not a concept but a precept,” the perceiver who really perceives what we perceive, the Light of the heavens and the earth, looking through the face of the other, throbbing vitality, “I am that I am” or the the One who really says “I” when one says “I” one is delivered of this strange predicament.
      Proust, one of the most brilliant and influential writers of the twentieth century who emphasized mystical conception of art or importance of art in seeking transcendence has said that the highest praise of God is to be found in the denial of Him by the atheist, who considers creation to be perfect enough to dispense with a Creator.  Shelley, more a mystic than an atheist  said in a similar vein  about God, “If he is infinitely good, what reason should we have to fear him? If he is infinitely wise, why should we have doubts concerning our future? If he knows all, why warn him of our needs and fatigue him with our prayers? If he is everywhere, why erect temples to him?”
      Dalai Lama who is a deeply religious mind but not in theistic framework has remarked: “This is my simple religion. .. No need for complicated philosophy. Your own mind, your own heart, is the temple; your philosophy is simple kindness.” Any Sufi could have said this.
      Love is the force that moves everything in Sufi understanding. Keats expressed in his own way what Sufis have been saying and Iqbal said in his verse “Yeh shahdat gah-i-ulfat mein qadam rekhna hae/Loag aasan samajtae haen musalman hona".  “I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion—I have shudder’d at it—I shudder no more—I could be martyr’d for my Religion—Love is my religion— I could die for that.”
      Religions have ultimately pointed to heaven here and now and underscored how God is sarereul hisab – swift in taking account – and every moment we are crossing straight bridge (pul-i-siraat). “Pointing to another world will never stop vice among us; shedding light over this world can alone help us.”  Virtue is its own reward. Coleridge who was no atheist but a great believer said, “Not one man in ten thousand has goodness of heart or strength of mind to be an atheist.” Saying no or la is the first step and those who don’t know negation we ordinarily associate with atheism know little of depths of faith either.
      Failing to understand essential holiness of desire and passion that Islam has especially emphasized  in its world and body affirming worldview, is behind the discomfort of those who have been forced to approach religion in too ascetic terms. “When I was a young boy,” said Fidel Castro who died just recently, “my father taught me that to be a good Catholic, I had to confess at church if I ever had impure thoughts about a girl. That very evening I had to rush to confess my sin. And the next night, and the next. After a week, I decided religion wasn’t for me.” It was William Blake, the great mystic or perennialist who made a similar point when he said: “As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.”
Art has been essential to integral view of traditions and kindred to religious dimension of self. Nietzsche’s complaint  that “Art raises its head where religions decline.” is true about periods when we lose integral view of religion. Art has been a support and even an expression of religious consciousness. Almost all great names in traditional religion have had something to do with art as well. Today we don’t find centrality of art for religions because we don’t know true religion. Arts are supposedly banned in the name of religion, an attitude that Abul Kalam Azad magisterially dismissed in his last paragraph of Gubair-i- Khatir.  How can we discount Taj Mahal, Mosque of Cordova, Sufi poetry and music, men like Khusrov and Al-Farabi when we neglect artistic dimension of Islamic tradition?  GBS expressed art’s essential spirituality when he said “I believe in Michael Angelo, Velasquez, and Rembrandt; in the might of design, the mystery of color, the redemption of all things by Beauty everlasting, and the message of Art that has made these hands blessed.” Those who know Corbin’ s work on  creative imagination in Sufism (Alone with the Alone) and Harold Bloom’s foreword to the same would easily appreciate orthodoxy of Keatsian statement “My Imagination is a Monastery and I am its Monk.” There is a poet in almost all of us. Who can escape God who has determined that we worship Him as The Greatest Master would understand it  even if we think we have escaped his gaze or Al-Wadood’s attractive power. Perhaps Vincent van Gogh  was asserting holiness of our creative self or imagination when he said “I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life—the power to create.”
      It is essentially religious view of karma yogi that is expressed in the statement “Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer.” When we find in Shakespeare “Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise”  let us note that this is not corrosive despairing doubt but healthy note of skepticism that  is an antidote to fundamentalism.
      Gandhi expressed in his own way essentially Quranic understanding of God as Al-Haqq or Truth when he said “‘The concepts of truth may differ. But all admit and respect truth. That truth I call God. For sometime I was saying, “God is Truth,” but that did not satisfy me. So now I say, “Truth is God.”

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

I Accuse

An open letter to the Chief Minister of J & K on Wild Management Plan for Vandalization of Historical Heritage Farm at Dachigam.

Dedicated to the dumb sheep and their reportedly deaf shepherds, and the oppressed Hangul.

Hon’ble Madam,

“As they have dared, so shall I dare. Dare to tell the truth, as I have pledged to tell it, in full, since the normal channels of justice have failed to do so. My duty is to speak out; I do not wish to be an accomplice in this travesty. My nights would otherwise be haunted by the spectre of the innocent” sheep farm suffering for a crime it did not commit.  “I defy decent men to read it without a stir of indignation in their hearts and a cry of revulsion, at the thought of the undeserved punishment being meted out.” Compelled by my professional obligations wedded to Hippocratic oath and thanks to my long standing interest in environmental movements and thinking, I, based on close reading of much of communication between sheep husbandry and wildlife departments  and especially on the  study of reports from expert committee constituted by previous CM, seek your kind attention to a grave moral, legal, economic and administrative issue with far reaching repercussions to State and its people.  Since there is a widespread apprehension amongst many members of scientist fraternity that in this State experts aren’t heard or heard and unheard, people and their interests are sold cheap,  especially if they are caretakers of the dumb creatures and even CM’s authority is circumvented by oversmart lobbyists in connivance with certain people, I thought it might be worthwhile to have your few minutes of attention that later judiciary or other fora would take months or years to settle at huge cost to the State and stakeholders. Another objective of mine is, to recall Dr. Rieux at the end of Camus’ The Plague,  to write the chronicle of those events so that some record be left of the injustice and violence that had been done in the name of Hangul  against the meek sheep. This will also be our answer to God who will take us to the task for keeping silent or not fighting on all possible legal fronts that influence decision making. And now the ball is in the court of collective conscience of the State whom you officially represent. I begin by accusing:

  • Those who oversaw “desecration” of  Salim Ali National Park and in order to legitimize the same paved way for ransom of sheep farm. A strange qurbani of sheep along with the families associated with them.
  • Those who kept silent on the floor of the house as the  proposal  for shifting sheep farm got approved in a jiffy. How informed were our honourable members who didn’t seek to be better informed and just nodded their heads for clearing the same as if nothing had been done – formatting memory and heritage and playing with ecology, jobs, livelihoods etc.  Selling sheep farm for nothing on a premise that is contestable.
  • Those who keep rehearsing and regurgitating Cabinet decision invoking archaic laws based on outdated science and who invoke law as if it itself is beyond criticism or new formulation."Letter killeth and spirit giveth life.”
  • Those environmentalists who keep silent knowing fully well what is ailing Hangul and how the whole discourse of national parks and state animal is used against people and against legitimate uses of national park, and against Hangul ultimately.
  • Those Kashmir experts who talk Kashmir but don’t notice how extensive and of far reaching consequences is any misinterpretation of national parks discourse on Kashmir economy and culture. We have  around 6000 km2 area under national parks and destinies of huge number of people are linked with  them. If we keep invoking archaic laws and soul denying legalism, we end up injuring people’s economy and wildlife both as exclusionary models have proved counterproductive for both.

To explain why of all these points a few remarks:

  • What has been popularly seen as a dispute between two departments but is really an issue between science and pseudoscience, law and legalism, poor farming community and “green terrorism,” commitment to preservation of scientific and cultural heritage and iconoclastic mindset, civilized discourse and wild bulldozing, members of expert committee and Chairman who, invoking archaic legalism, bulldozes their recommendations. It is an issue that reflects the state of wild governance, dishounuring letter and spirit of cabinet decisions and circumventing CM’s intention to  explore the possibility of coexisting of sheep farm and national park.
  • To cut the long story short, the latest development in decades old “conflict” story of hangulism vs sheep, following Cabinet decision 2005 (taken in the background of Wildlife Department’s sustained misinformation campaign implicating sheep eats Hangul and one of the wildest proposals in ransom politics that stated that National Board for wildlife requires, as a precondition for denotifying certain portion of Salim Ali National Park in which the State authorities had constructed golf course, among other things, removal of historical sheep farm  that has been so central to Kashmiri scientist fraternity and scientific heritage and economy, from another National Park. How the two are connected and how rational or ethical is the proposal is anybody’s guess.  It is like India asking Pakistan to give some land in Lahore (in or around Mazari iqbal) in exchange for some territory on border with Kashmir.
  • Imagine the grounds on which farm is targeted. In the words of Dr. M. K. Ranjitsinh presenting the viewpoint  of National Board for Wildlife “in view the threat to Hangul – the State Animal from the diseases as well as to provide adequate shelter to them in winter when they come down to lower Dachigam.” Relevant experts appointed by government have rubbished both accusations as groundless. The only “ground” now is cut and dry archaic legalism. If we apply the law in the manner interpreted by wildlife authorities, we would require evicting thousands of families along with livestock from the boundaries of many national parks in the State. It would liquidate thousands of jobs sustained by mutual coexistence of people, their livestock and Park resources in and around different State Parks including Hemmis National Park in Ladakh. It would mean, in effect, a war against poor people, farming community, industrial/entrepreneur community and newer inclusive (where people are not alienated but co-opted for/with National Park management) ideas that have emerged following increasing abandonment of exclusionary model in the world.  Invoking 1978 legislation or other decade old views is legalistic archaism. Invoking more than a decade old Cabinet decision in 2016 when the science and world has changed and national park management worldwide is abandoning exclusionary model and adopting inclusive participatory model, especially in periphery of parks and legislations are reviewed in light of expert scientific opinion, is turning clock back. We need laws supported by latest scientific and technical feedback for best management of national parks.
  • The final report submitted by Chairman expert Committee, ex-Forest Secretary has no signatures of other members of expert committee, no reference to minutes of meeting, little consideration of key arguments against the very premise of threat and ransom discourse. All this is to circumvent very explicit expert recommendations for coexistence.
  • The sheep breeding and research farm is one of the greatest heritage buildings of the State post 1947 representing one of the great success stories of State scientists and has hardly a counterpart in the whole of country.  What is Assembly Complex or Civil Secretariat building for democracy is what sheep farm Dachigam is for scientist community and history/heritage conscious community of the State, a shrine of a sort which can’t be desecrated if we honour science and indigenous contribution to science.  Through engineering a new breed Kashmir Merino that has around three times  the key production parameters compared to local sheep it has been foundation stone for the billions of dollar State sheep sector that has been contributing more than 1/3rd of total local requirements and creating many and sustaining thousands of jobs annually. Every State would be proud of it and the country did recognize it by conferring Padamshri to its pioneer Dr G. A. Banday. 
  • Hangul discourse has been needlessly, misleadingly and deliberately linked to sheep farm for facilitating ransom for irregularities in management of Salim Ali National Park (now read as Royal Spring Golf Course) and people too easily think hangul is more important and dismiss sheep without hearing. Sheep is seen by biologists and environmentalists as an ally of Hangul, reduces predation pressure on Hangul by being alternate prey for Hangul predators, different eating physiology and generally speaking more complementary than competitive  behavoiur.
  • International environmental regulations prohibit disturbing animals/new breeds from their original habitat and evicting new breed of sheep from its original habitat which is the farm premises would amount to  breaching the spirit of international laws and treaties to which India is a signatory. 
  • Your Education Minister has been attempting to think about education and heritage. How do you think this laudable attempt gels with the  presence of JCBs and other demolition machinery directed at the prime heritage farm? Don’t you think whether the Farm remains there or not, these buildings and fences should stand as symbols of great achievement of indigenous scientist community. I suggest you consider making it a special spot for educational tourism through an alternate entry point that totally bypasses “ boundaries” of national park. You might consider converting these buildings into G A Banday Memorial Centre for Ruminant Research that could serve hangul conservation in more obvious ways as well though they already do this to certain extent.
  • For  Kashmiri scientist community silence of CM at this stage when historical heritage farm is being vandalized by wildlife authorities will mean that anything goes in Kashmir, even what is against all logic, reason, common sense, science, decency, professional ethics, expert opinions, cabinet decision, CMs orders. This is a test case. If the farm is vandalized to satisfy the collective conscience of some Wildlife officials or as a ransom for denotifying certain portions of Salim Ali National Park (it is golf course that was carved out of National Park) – the State exercises the right to denotify the same but not the area under sheep farm because some Shylock wants a piece of flesh, this time from relative’s body! – it would be a mockery of governance and conservation ethic and science as followed in civilized nations and  a permanent blot on PDP-BJP govt and betrayal of faith in constitution and political system.
  • If we insist on applying Wildlife Act 1978 (it hasn’t been comprehensively reviewed in light of changing realities and challenges and newer scientific  data showing how obsolete is the thinking of the concerned authorities), we are turning clock back.
  • Please recall that Omar Abdullah impressed a big delegation of SKUAST-K and Kashmir university scientists and officers by his appreciation of our plea that a decade old Cabinet decision should be reviewed in light of established scientific and technical data now available. He constituted an expert committee. And if the Forest Secretary who was also Chairman who is no expert himself either of pathology or environmental philosophy or even law as clearly appears in his signed documents (one can see, between the lines, how well meaning efforts of CM could be disingenuously defeated by distorting the system)  has brushed aside explicit recommendations of members of expert committee, one can only conclude that CM should personally revisit the whole issue again.
  • There are many villages with huge livestock populations even in the core areas, not to speak of amputable peripheries of many  national parks inside India. Old policy of exclusion has been practically given up and why we insist it apply in one particular park whose final notification is still pending and that too where heritage farm fully compatible with larger objectives of national parks is situated is beyond question an issue that needs to be reexamined by CM.
  • I am sure, Kashmir will not be this Kashmir always where JCBs attack heritage sites and expert opinion is thrown into dustbin and archaic laws and decades old scientific data are quoted in official communications. We have a will to move forward and one day true accountability will be there that will show us how and why huge amount of money in the name of hangul conservation hasn’t yielded desired results, why primary focus is on fighting imagined ghosts like sheep farm than on predation and other factors that have been  demonstrably responsible for the same. This will judge all those who have been instrumental in misinformation campaign that might lead the State to lose sheep farm along with hangul. That will ask , as Prof. M. M. Willayat said, where was the guarantee that if sheep farm goes, Hangul will come again. That will ask how come we were made to accept the ransom of heritage sheep farm for denotifying parts of another national Park or we can say golf course. That will ask how informed were those who took decisions and chaired meetings on behalf of environment and poor people and  demanded that it is no problem spending 250 crores for relocation that was not needed in the first place according to experts. It will postmortem  every move in  the vandalization of the farm – its forced eviction or destruction by way of adjusting its livestock in other farms as if genetics, new ongoing experimental studies, habitat impact, stress over other farms and changing dynamics of around 56 years of farm management don’t matter.


It is requested you implement what experts say, as against what rival departments say, and review Cabinet decision 2005.  Laws are formulated, renewed, reinterpreted in accordance with evolving dynamics of a host of factors and they aren’t eternal edicts that needn’t be periodically reviewed. It is suggested that Wildlife Laws be made in tune with the realities of 2016.  For the sake of wildlife and hangul in particular, ask your wildlife authorities to be updated and suggest how to revise theory so that practical realities aren’t denied but  accommodated and Utopian legalism – or legalistic fundamentalism – doesn’t  enslave us and ransom politics doesn’t overpower us.

 I wish I had the power of Zola’s pen (and you were French President) whose letter to the French President for reviewing the case against an innocent army official, Dreyfus,  who had been given life sentence against whom whole French army was standing,  overturned the might of the later and Dreyfus was released. Let whole Kashmir debate the case of wildlife against sheep which is in many ways symbolic of powerful Capitalist forces against whole of poor dumb meek people and see dozens – yes dozens – of flaws in the whole case against the farm.

Lasting Despite Terror

Reading Nayeema Mehjoor’s Lost in Terror

It is undeniable that Kashmiri resistance movement has been weakened by its (mis)association with puritanical Islamist ideology, unbearable – and some inadequately documented – human costs, violence against minorities, women and imagined/projected other. It needs rare courage to report from ground zero, to direct gaze to the problematic within, to avoid mincing words and call spade a spade. To attempt to write without imposed or imagined blinkers and threats, to write back to the Empire of oppression and violence, to speak on taboo issues and take strong positions outside the comfort  zone of hypocrisy or neutrality is what a writer-journalist can aim at and to succeed to a significant extent in this endeavour is indeed an achievement.This success story deserves our attention this week.
      A Kashmiri woman stranding between tradition and modernity, Kashmir and London, and caught up in transition that requires dealing with tensions of class and gender and calls for severe moral questioning of key choices is the subject of the novel that reads almost like a memoir and thinly disguised autobiography. It speaks a language of its own – passionate, dreamy, rebellious and affirmative – and poses difficult questions that every informed and vulnerable Kashmiri would ask now to resistance leadership, to religious and intellectual elite and to himself/herself. Although it doesn’t go too deep into the issue of discourse formation about terror, state oppression and azadi and mostly evades the question of the moral vs. political that awkwardly and embarrassingly poses itself, and  sometimes seems to rehearse or rest content with hearsay or street gossip  and relegates to background or inadequately  cognizes certain contradictions in now popular positions on violence, democracy and conflict management and inevitably pays the cost of certain “distortion” by its almost exclusive focus on particular ideological formation (pursuing a career in a globalized world and asserting a particular class and gender identity in the face of complex forces and other marginalized choices), it succeeds in putting the tragic case of terrorized women of Kashmir caught up in a whirlpool of contradictory pulls and pressures admirably well. In largely male dominated Kashmir fiction that has lately been a presence to contend with, her Kashmir does present a panoramic view  and captures even some hardly visible sore spots for the first time. Eschewing newer – and more confusing – narrative techniques in more influential craft of postmodern novel, her old fashioned historical fiction reverberates powerfully in collective consciousness of Kashmir, especially Kashmiri women. Lost in Terror is a provocative and disturbingly painful reading but in the end it succeeds in being cathartic as well.
      Dedicated to “those women who lost everything – from their dignity to their relations – but never lost hope for a better tomorrow” it juxtaposes some inspiring and some heart rending stories most of us have witnessed and seeks to show resilient Kashmiri women outbraving the violence within and without, the violence that is State sponsored and  self sponsored or “other” sponsored or sold with popular ideologies disguised as religion and nationalism. Its subject is militancy and  savage reactions to suppress it and pathological responses (selling it, sanctifying it, framing it in religious or regional lenses) and forces it unwittingly unleashed. It judges Kashmir after late 1980s through the eyes of a woman who wants to be herself. It exposes unholy alliance of capital, State, violence and patriarchy. Its heroine is a modern Kashmiri woman who aspires for freedom but finds the costs – human cost – and “other sorrows” too much for her. She doesn’t lose hope and moves on and makes her mark in the world. She is Nayeema Mehjoor.
      Literature describes life as if heart mattered and its premise is, as Tolstoy put it, “put reason into life and life is gone.” There is an ideological or political angle to issues and there is a human angle as well and literature is generally or classically interested in this human angle and defies easy pigeonholing in certain political or dominant narrative. Mehjoor has converted news about Kashmir into the news that would stay (a classic definition of literature that distinguishes it from journalism) though one feels less sure about success of transformation into her new incarnation of reporter of Kashmiri soul in all its depths and multiple, even seemingly contradictory,  manifestations.
      It is tale, told in first person, almost like a running commentary on every significant event in early militancy as far as it has impacted on a sensitive, informed, vocal, ambitious, idealistic azadi loving protagonist who is, almost like Dr Pangloss in Candide, made to taste the seamy side of militant struggle and the State that engenders and counters it that is nihilistic in its cool calculated technological rationality that uses people as means and thus denies their freedom  and dignity, marks them,  judges them, humiliates them and even kills them. Although it has much predictable and familiar stuff for Kashmiri readers, it educates and in the end uplifts – we relive a tragedy in a manner that ultimately ennobles the protagonist and the reader. Resilience despite betrayals by kith and ken and people with guns and unnoticed moral costs in the task of “winning hearts and minds” for the heartless State denying the basic aspiration of the protagonist, is what makes it a tragic tale. The protagonist is frustrated, framed and appropriated although she thinks she has an agency of her own. Facing the terror machine launched by the State and the militants, the protagonist doesn’t lose heart though fails to fully overcome bitterness that it has occasioned. Her mad heart outbraves many a tough moment and scripts her own history although the title of the book seems to deny heroic transformation and redemption (dedication to hope, however, makes it clear). The human spirit has the last word – and is not lost even in concentration camps or Papa2 – even if the time is out of joint. That is what great art bears witness to.
      If one insists on reading it politically, its “message” is simple and now common sense. The beautiful dream of azadi that moves and haunts Kashmir has been turned into a nightmare thanks to violence on almost every front by almost all important actors or “stakeholders.” And as more material or concrete problems are to be engaged with by the characters, the political goes into the background. It is unfortunate, as has been pointed out by that in our times our destiny is expressed mainly in political terms as if man, in his emotional and spiritual depths, doesn’t transcend history and politics. Deep down we love life and live by virtue of relationships and not politics although the later can poison everything in these troubled times.
      One misses deeper engagement with or deployment of myth and symbolism. The writer who  is, by definition, essentially or ideally a poet or a “thinker” is haunted by the journalist who reports and disposes the issues off, almost juristically, in the allotted time. One is impressed by language and style that is as effective in communication as her popular radio presentations in Saerbeen and Sheherbeen.
      Short chapters, some of which can be independently read as well, are weaved with some exquisite meditative stuff here and there and a few insightful and candid essays such as “veil.”
      A few snippets  from the book:
  • Commenting about Saira who choose to leave the valley after attacks on women in burqa compaign : “If she had seen Shiasta’s mutilated body or known Fareeda’s nightmares she would not have dared to leave her house, job or motherland behind. Rather, she would have become resilient like the rest of us women.”
  • Shaista, believed to be an informer, was murdered and “The war for liberation was sacred,s o it had the sanction of God to kill anybody if declared guilty of anti-movement activities” read a line in one of the leading newspapers, under Shiasta’s photo. And here is the comment by the protagonist: “The freedom movement was doomed on the day an innocent girl was tortured to death. It was buried on the day the gunmen blew up into pieces a clueless passer-by labeled a spy…The cause perished on the day it got shrouded under a religious cloak.”
  •  Sisyphean punishment  for Sadia following disappearance of her son Aziz and her transformation into Sadimech is thus described: “Leaving the house at dawn had become her daily routine, and to find Aziz had become her sole purpose in life.”
  • The book talks about social and familial pathologies that were only worsened and not created during militancy. The protogonist tortured and terrorized evokes not only middle class women but almost every Kashmiri women’s predicament. “ Asad was one of those people who hadn’t learnt to say to his relatives, no matter how demanding or imposing they were …I was forced to leave home in order to make home for uncle’s family. How I felt didn’t matter to Asad at all.”
  • How Ikhwanies who concentrated in certain locality  made life hell for women “  Most of the girls were confined to their houses due to increasing incidents of teasing, extortion, bullying and even sexual abuse…Girls from this area, earlier considered amongst the finest in the valley, were now being turned down by suitors for marriage.”
  • Here and there, we find illuminating observations. For instance, about a miraculous reunion of lost son with his mother  to whom people attributed divine power. “Everybody believed in her divine power, but I believed in the divine power of a mother.”
  • About masochism of a sort: “Fortunately or unfortunately, the violence developed some resilience in me. I kept waiting for another crackdown, another beating, more humiliation and another dead body.”
  • Commenting about the newspaper report that  50% Kashmiri women were suffering from mental ailments including depression, that this report “didn’t mention those women who had become  statues, those who had turned into a stone from the inside. These women never laughed or wept, sighed or whispered.
  • To become a stone had helped them in a way, for they hardly felt pain any more, despite the relentless killings.” (Isn’t it the case that most Kashmiris preserve sanity and life through this way today in 2016?)
  • Finally, despondency that threatens even the heroes: “Why am I alive, why don’t I die. So many people die every day in Kashmir, why am I not among them?”
Attempting to represent (one wishes one could, truly, speak for the other, unsuccessful unsung, more homely souls or “subaltern”) those mute Kashmiris who identify with the resistance movement – or who can’t be weaned away from it – but can’t buy the nihilistic logic of violence with which it has been informed  by its ideologues and greeted by the State, Nayeema Mehjoor’ timely work concludes with a tribute to the “tiger ladies of my motherland – their love, endurance, pain and pride.” A fitting conclusion. Terror consumes bodies and wounds souls but to be human is to resist and endure. Kashmiri women zindabad.

A Kashmiri woman stranding between tradition and modernity, Kashmir and London, and caught up in transition that requires dealing with tensions of class and gender and calls for severe moral questioning of key choices is the subject of the novel that reads almost like a memoir and thinly disguised autobiography.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Reading Ibn Arabi and Ibn Taymiyyah

We need to read these thinkers first in historical context and proper perspective, and then judge.

The question of our attitude to Sufism has divided modern Muslims. ISIS, and even some revivalists who don't share ISIS politics, share significant part of their theology, premised on certain negative reading of Sufism. Should we side with Ibn Taymiyyah perceived as staunch opponent of Unitarian Sufism or Ibn Arabi who is perceived to be its greatest exponent? For some analysts Salafis are playing into hands of Imperialists and dividing Ummah.
      So how do we tackle these accusations and counter-accusations? I propose to say a few words on Ibn Arabi to clarify the issue and ask if Ibn Taymiyyah can be considered his real opponent notwithstanding his takfeer of him. (Against Ibn Taymiyyah, some great Ahle-Hadees scholars, from the Indian subcontinent especially,  have been highly praising Ibn Arabi.) I don’t claim to understand Ibn Arabi better than his seeming opponent but only to point out that as an expositor of traditional metaphysics he can’t be criticized by any theological critic as this is a category mistake.
      We hardly serve Islam or Muslim cause by focusing on only divergence between two camps: anti-Ibn Arabi Salafis vs. pro-Sufi schools. There are only minor differences between the two camps as far as legal/ethical rulings (that Sharia centric position is anxious to guard) is concerned. Differences in theology and metaphysics need to be acknowledged and “settled” through what is shared by both parties – use of logical or rational arguments) I see exemplary Sufi ethics in Jamaat leaders ( who hold onto Taymiyyah position)  such as Syed Maududi while I see many self styled Sufi teachers or scholars not even qualifying for being mureeds. Belief in Tawhid unites all Muslims and interpretation of it can never be final or one only. We must have humility to say Walahu aalamu bisawwab when it comes to expounding our interpretation of Tawhid. For Ibn Arabi the greatest station to feel bewildered and not to claim final knowledge regarding truth. “Excesses” or misuse of Ibn Arabi’s views invites Ibn Taymiyyah or Sirhindi to correct and vice versa.  And then we have Shah Waliullah and others who are able to reconcile both camps. Modern Western thinkers and most of Muslim scholars who know both theology and philosophy and modern science are closer to Ibn Arabi than to his critics. Like it or not, it is an age of Ibn Arabi and it is through his direct or indirect influence that most of the most sophisticated Western scholars have come closer to Islam in its most universal or metaphysical understanding. Ibn Taymiyyah is a great soldier seeking to guard one of the lofty peaks of Islamic sciences from “stupid friends” while Ibn Arabi guards its most sensitive frontiers from the most accomplished enemies.
      We need to learn to read Ibn Arabi’s Fusoos and Futuhaat before rejecting him or regurgitating what Ibn Taymiyyah said of him. But we can’t read him unless we master key terminology used by him. And that needs hard discipline of learning metaphysics and upholding lofty ethical standards. About intellectual qualifications some of us can stake a claim but regarding ethical qualifications required I think lesser mortals like us can hardly claim.
      The fact I propose taking Ibn Arabi seriously is because dilemmas of modern and postmodern thought can be best tackled by turning to his exegeses of Islam. He is the spokesperson of genuine Salafi position if we take our great saints and sages from Hasan Basri to Shaikh Alawi to be representatives of Islamic Tradition.  For those who ignore last few centuries of human thought or don’t understand fundamental thrust of  spiritually oriented Islamic intellectual tradition or wish to campaign for their own sects Ibn Arabi may have no relevance.
      We must not forget that it is so easy to misunderstand him or misread him and great thinkers have misread him. Regarding Ibn Taymiyyah  it has been shown that he didn’t have access to the right or whole corpus of Ibn Arabi (so we can partly understand his differences) and we must not forget that he was quite probably Qadri Sufi and Ibn Arabi’s chain of Masters includes the founder of Qadri Order.  If I sound too technical or scholarly here it can’t be helped as Ibn Arabi and his critics have used this technical jargon and appreciating this controversy needs some familiarity with it and correct use of terms. Ibn Arabi and Ibn Taymiyyah are colossal intellects. Reading them demands humility to be educated and commitment to understanding.
      Hardy any student of comparative religion can deny that Unitarianism wrongly associated with so-called wahdatul wajud is the metaphysical as compared to dualistic theological interpretation of religion and is the esoteric core of Islamic and all other authentic traditions. The problem with most discussions on Sufism is that they confound theological and metaphysical planes and mostly approach metaphysical issues from theological background resulting in confusing the whole matter. We are bombarded with fatwas against some of the great  Sufis from certain theologically minded Sufis and legists. The campaign against wahdatul wajudi doctrine and its chief expounder Ibn Arabi shows the pervasive influence of this key confusion and category mistake in the history of Islam. When some of my anti Ibn Arabi friends talk about him they use legalist-theological language and meaningful dialogue fails to go forward. So I don’t debate. But I respect their commitment to what they consider to be the unalloyed truth upheld by the Prophet (SAW) and Companions. I wish things were so simple and access to pure Islamic position unmediated by history or language and immune to all political influence possible.  I don’t wish to take cudgels with those who think that Sheikh Sirhindi has debunked Ibn Arabi and wahdatu-shuhood is a more authentic interpretation of Sufism. Those who think this way make some assumptions that I, along with traditionalists, don’t condone. Schuon, Chittick, Nasr and others have conclusively shown that these assumptions (that form key to Ibn Taymiyyah’s/Sirhindhi’s critique) are not correct. These assumptions include, among others the following:

  • Ibn Arabi and wujudi Sufism compromise Creator-creature distinction. (This impression arises if we refuse to use Absolute-relative binary and illegitimately transpose Lord-servant or Creator-creature binary too far into metaphysical domain.)
  • He implicitly downplays certain recognized tenets of law. (This is flatly contradicted by practice of great wujudi Sufis including Ibn Arabi who have been respectful of law, to its last details.)
  • He is positing a unity based on subjective state and more advanced Sufis travel further and come to again affirm distinctness of the world/man and God. (Nothing is more fundamental than objectivity of the Real and focus on eliminating merely psychological or subjective influences in metaphysical realization.)
  • He implicates transcendence of good/evil binary leading to suspension of central doctrine of Islam. (More profound defence of central doctrines has never been written than in the pages of Futoohat.)

      Failing to read Ibn Arabi is to miss a life’s treasure and turn a blind eye to the Taj Mahal of Islamic spirituality. It is not the question of liking or disliking a person but our attitude towards Metaphysics and Symbolism or heart’s way to Truth that is at stake in having a view for or against ibn Arabi. Neither Reshis nor great Shah-i-Hamdan nor Kashmiri Sufi poets can be perfectly understood without understanding Ibn Arabi. Even the great Iqbal is only a development of a footnote on Ibn Arabi. Ibn Taymiyah should – and could – be seen as an ally of Ibn Arabi’s mission to spread the message of divine mercy and great self-transcending ethics. They differ only in focusing on legal or spiritual-metaphysical dimensions of the same revelation they uphold to be the final message for humanity.
PostScript: In search for a consistent and genuine Sufi, or Salafi,  one wonders if they are mirror images  and recalls Jibran’s parable of two sisters - beauty and ugliness - who, after taking a bath, misidentified and thus exchanged clothes and people mistake one for the other till date.

Friday, 16 December 2016

The Book and School of Suffering

Life as experienced in all its hues is what books seek to discuss.

Life with all its weal and woe is the book which we need to learn to correctly read. Nature, the Quran-i-takweeni, is the book of books. Life as experienced in all its hues is what books seek to discuss. Now some lessons are so crucial for us mortals that God bypasses the need of earthly teachers or ink and pen to teach us. God sometimes needs to directly speak to each one of us and he does speak in many ways including suffering. We have suffered; all of us may have stories to tell that can rip apart hearts and minds. But do we know how to read the symbolic message of all kinds of sufferings that are inflicted on us or invited by us. (In one sense all suffering is invited, invited by our own souls for their progress. Even our time of birth and death are chosen by that higher principle in us). Experiences of suffering are like events of a dream which need to be interpreted. Suffering is not only to be endured but interpreted. Eckhart, the great Master who teaches the art of reading the book of suffering comes handy here. Reading him we can well judge and grade ourselves regarding our qualification or degree in the great school of suffering. Willy nilly all of us are schooled in the school of suffering. We learn from the traditionalists critics that the task of a critic to present the best that has been thought or said. Reading great masters is what a critic can recommend. He need not comment. What Arnold called touchstone lines with which to judge other writings I present today such lines from Meister Eckhart without comment. For me the essence of Islamic ideal of surrender to God is conveyed in these lines with such force and lucidity that I wish if we could only remember them and teach them to our children we hardly need any other precept while spending few loaned days on earth. Let us not forget that, as a proverb goes, if God had some other means of perfecting humans he would have used them instead of suffering.
      One of Eckhart’s stories needs to be recalled whenever our mood is off or feel like complaining for something.
      A great teacher once told a story in his preaching about a man who for eight years besought God to show him a man who would make known to him the way of truth. While he was in this state of anxiety there came a voice from God and spake to him: Go in front of the church, and there shalt thou find a man who will make known to thee the way of truth. He went, and found a poor man whose feet were chapped and full of dirt, and all his clothes were hardly worth two pence-half penny. He greeted this poor man and said to him, God give thee a good morning. The poor man answered, I never had a bad morning. The other said, God give thee happiness. How answerest thou that? The poor man answered, I was never unhappy. The first then said, God send thee blessedness. How answerest thou that? I was never unblessed, was the answer. Lastly the questioner said, God give thee health! Now enlighten me, for I cannot understand it. And the poor man replied, When thou saidst to me, may God give thee a good morning, I said I never had a bad morning. If I am hungry, I praise God for it; if I am cold, I praise God for it; if I am distressful and despised, I praise God for it; and that is why I never had a bad morning. When thou askedst God to give me happiness, I answered that I had never been unhappy; for what God gives or ordains for me, whether it be His love or suffering, sour or sweet, I take it all from God as being the best, and that is why I was never unhappy. Thou saidst further, May God make thee blessed, and I said, I was never unblessed, for I have given up my will so entirely to God's will, that what God wills, that I also will, and that is why I was never unblessed, because I willed alone God's will. Ah! dear fellow, replied the man; but if God should will to throw thee into hell, what wouldst thou say then? He replied, Throw me into hell! Then I would resist Him. But even if He threw me into hell, I should still have two arms wherewith to embrace Him. One arm is true humility, which I should place under Him, and with the arm of love I should embrace Him. And he concluded, I would rather be in hell and possess God, than in the kingdom of heaven without Him.
      A few quotes that emphasize the points made here are in order.
  • “All that a man bears for God's sake, God makes light and sweet for him.” “If all was right with you, your sufferings would no longer be suffering, but love and comfort.” “The quickest means to bring us to perfection is suffering…Nothing is sharper than suffering, nothing is sweeter than to have suffered. The surest foundation in which this perfection may rest is humility; whatever here crawls in the deepest abjectness, that the Spirit lifts to the very heights of God, for love brings suffering and suffering brings love.”
      The Prophet of Islam (S.A.W) said that prophets suffer the most and in decreasing order saints and those below them. The sweetest songs recount the saddest thoughts as has been said. Watching suffering in a tragedy is also a joy. All great heroes have a measure of their suffering. What makes Imam Hussain(A.s) inimitable? Why do we honour our mothers the most? Because they suffer for us as Bodhisatva does and don’t complain. John Donne called suffering God’s megaphone and Imam Ghazzali God’s lasso. We need no mantra or wazifa if we learn the art and virtue of suffering for God’s sake. What makes reading Dostovesky so important? Lessons in the art of suffering. We need no other book if we can let God lacerate and decimate us – our sense of ham haen or separate autonomous self – through suffering. To be truly humble is to be enlightened. How many genuinely humble people you know? How many you can drag on ground or abuse unprovoked or defame and they don’t feel the agony of insult? The Man of God can’t be insulted because he has no ego that can feel the pain of insult. Do you ever think that the other should have taken a lead in greeting you? Then beware of ego the devil. Remember the secret: God is or is in the other. God alone deserves kibriyayi, real honour.
      The concluding Eckhart quote here recalls the prayer of Hazrat Ayub (AS) who said “God I am afflicted with illness and you are the best amongst the merciful.” The man who abides in the will of God wills nothing else than what God is, and what He wills. If he were ill he would not wish to be well. If he really abides in God's will, all pain is to him a joy, all complication, simple: yea, even the pains of hell would be a joy to him. He is free and gone out from himself, and from all that he receives, he must be free. If my eye is to discern colour, it must itself be free from all colour.

The Argument of Love

Reading Iqbal on the Beloved Prophet (SAW)

Who was Iqbal? The best description is by his son that he is a lover of the Prophet (SAW). The rest is a corollary or an exemplification. And who is the Prophet he loved? Ideal pole of man, the Meaning of everything, the Alpha and the Omega of all human endeavours. “Since Muslims love you, you should let beard grow” a Molvi advised Iqbal. He replied, somewhat humorously, “You have shaved it from inside and displayed from outside and I have shaved it from outside but let it grow inside.”  One reason for his failure to go to Hajj, opines Mr Ghulam Beigh Neerang – and one feels agreeing – could be providential as he couldn’t afford to see the Prophet’s place and still live. Iqbal was seen to be occupying splendid place in the hierarchy of Prophet’s beloved by a Kashmiri who didn’t know him and he rushed to Lahore to inform him. He refused a job that required his wife to be part of the parties he had to attend. Asked if you have had deedar of his Prophet, he replied that such questions aren’t asked. He, like Ghazzali, regretted his failure to devote all his energies to study the Prophet’s life and work. Iqbal considered it indecent to live more years than were granted to the Prophet. He believed that the Prophet is alive and we can benefit today from him the way Companions benefitted. Iqbal slept a whole night in bathroom and ignored the cozy bed meant for him as he suddenly recalled the Prophet’s simple lifestyle. He was always accessible and down to earth and lived in a simple unadorned house. Inwardly he was a qalander, a faqeer who had been consumed by the love of his Prophet. Although Iqbal wasn’t a regular nimazi in mosques, appeared Englishman in dress and appearance, yet loved the Prophet and upheld and preached, if read between the lines, nothing except this love. All these points, among others, have been deftly treated in Dr Mushtaq’s new book Hubbi Rasool (SAW) aur Fikri-Iqbal published by Kitab Mahal. Building on some clues from Dr Mushtaq’s work and in line with Sufi metaphysics Iqbal largely upholds, let me present the core of Iqbal’s philosophy of love of Muhammad(SAW).
      Arnold in his famous meditation on the crisis of faith in “Dover Beach” sees love as the last resort or boat that takes one out of despairing tumult that modern life is. In the face of the absurd, relationships continue to be meaningful and signposts of eternity. All said and done, we live for love (of families, beauty, life) and can die for it. And love indeed is the meaning of life. And when all philosophical or academic debates on existence of God seem to be rather too abstract and don’t convince many amongst us, there remains a proof that is inscribed in the very substance of our being. And Kierkegaard calls it Love. And the Gospel calls God love. And one can’t love abstract or unmanifest God but the principle of ceaseless creativity or in theological language Messengers of God or that which unveils or manifests God. And this principle is called Muhammad in Sufi view. People don’t differ about this “God”; they are ever seeking to perfect their love of “Him.” We are all lovers, slaves of the beauty that wells up in all things we seek or cherish. How the Prophet unveils God – by way of religious experience, world shaking vision, great transformation of history and consciousness and inspiration for artists, poets, saints, philosophers, many a science – is the subject of Iqbal the philosopher and the poet. Haunting beauty of his verse, depth of his passion, sublime heights of his moral universe all speak of this love.
      Imagine all the beautiful and glorious moments you have enjoyed or cherish in your life – walks and smiles and best dinners with your family member/friends  in the best of gardens, the most enchanting conversations and the most electrifying and intoxicating encounters with nature, with saints and scientists and with all things under the sun that you can’t forget. Imagine the most fulfilling sleep, sounds and colours that this life has been offering you and imagine all that liberates you from yourself because of its supernal beauty and loveliness. Drink deep from the founts of imagination that can summon all the powers in the heavens and the earth and help you forget time and yourself. All the joys in these depths and heights that man cherishes are a glimpse from the eternal fount of joy and beauty that is Muhammad for Sufis and our qalander Iqbal .
      What was Iqbal’s proof of God? Muhammad’s life and work. What was Iqbal’s greatest love? Muhammad (SAW). Those who find Iqbal’s poetry deviating from Ghazzal tradition that celebrated love of women may note that higher or more intense love can transcend or overcome lesser objects of it.
      In Iqbalian or Sufi universe, one can take liberty with God but not with Muhammad. Don’t accuse Iqbal of shirk. In his nigahi ishq o masti the world is transformed into another one where Muhammad (SAW) is the light with which we see. He is the Friend who dissolves all selfish games. When the sun rises and moon smiles and morning breeze blows and flowers bloom it is Muhammad dispersed in sifaat who is before you and around you lightning up the world. How come we can talk about Muhammad (SAW)?
      Muhammad  lives in each of us – or we are dead. A believer is one who  loves Muhammad above everything else and why shouldn’t one love him above everything else because he is being or life in everything . As Principle of Manifestation – superbly presented in zoaq-o-shouq – Muhammad is Life and all its treasures we hold dear (SAW).
      Who is Muhammad – talk to Majzoobs and they will tell you why all the attractions of this world are nothing before his face of which they are enamoured. Ask all the lovers who, consumed by the vision, see Layla everywhere. Ask poets and Sufis and all those devoted believers who have their own way of expressing their love of Muhammad. For all our weaknesses, Muslims everywhere, regardless of sectarian affiliations, seek to love Muhammad above everything. And that is the sanad azad honay ki. May God grant us this freedom! All Muslims including those whom self righteous people would judge as falling short of living by Muhammad’s example – the sinners of all hues – are in tears when it is Muhammad who is named. They will not hesitate for a moment to sacrifice their lives if they hear a blasphemous remark. All Kashmiris including those accused to be religiously lax were on the roads when his hair was stolen. Aes karew jami chak… No not only their  clothes but their very souls they would turn asunder.
      The book is written passionately, lucidly and didactically and not academically. It succeeds in its aim –approaching Iqbal as an aashiq-i-rasool – pretty well. The book deals with most of the questions often raised regarding Iqbal’s claim as a lover of Prophet and the author seeks to show Iqbal’s distance from what has been called the school of love (mazhabi ishq). However, this school as developed in the works of its great traditional exponents is Iqbalian in essence. It is love – and freedom – that saves and Muhammad is Being under all beautiful aspects that one can imagine including love, freedom, joy and gratitude. ( SAW)

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Islamic State or Virtuous City?

Revisiting Plato and Al-Farabi today

Witnessing calls for violence, God’s Rule, juxtaposition/confounding of political and religious slogans, use of Islam for and against particular ideological thought current, one wonders how to understand and differentiate what is truly divine and what is sold as divine. So much counterfeit currency might be in the market that we need a touchstone to judge. Let us explore if we have this touchstone with the help of Plato, “second Master” Al-Farabi and “modern Plato” Voegelin.
      Plato argued for orienting man and his communal institutions toward God/the Good and need for true constitution we can call divine or revealed constitution and dangers of those constitutions in which one part dominates against others and society is no longer an integrated whole governed by Justice that is God, although one can always see its ideal character in the sense that it will only be approximated and never fully the case. as Derrida would note justice is yet to come and justice can never be done. The question is why the academic world has not duly appreciated this Platonic echo in any argument for Islamic State? Isn’t it the case that so far ideologues of Islamic State have adopted a theological language that seems alienating or intimidating to many? In fact the dogma of separation of Church and State that has been enshrined in secular political theory has prevented appreciation of the argument put forth across traditional cultures and echoed in Plato, Evola and Voegelin, among others, in modern times in case of the Western world and among others Al-Farabi in case of the Muslim world. Voegelin’s following lines succinctly sum up the essence of the argument for a theocratic State:

  • “The Republic is written under the assumption that the ruling stratum of the polis will consist of persons in whose souls the order of the idea can become reality so fully that they, by their very existence, will be the permanent source of order in the polis; the Laws is written under the assumption that the free citizenry will consist of persons who can be habituated to the life of Arete under proper guidance, but who are unable to develop the source of order existentially in themselves and, therefore, need the constant persuasion of the prooemia as well as the sanctions of the law, in order to keep them on the narrow path
  • The political form is designed to serve the actualization of the spirit in the life of the community. The spirit lives in the laws.”
      Plato’s standing challenge to secular history and politics is calling attention to the point that the order of the community can’t be achieved unless there is harmony with the divine Measure. Political Islam has a point and that is restating this thesis. However it is thinkers like Al-Farabi and not well known ideologues of political Islam who are better able to translate this insight in the language that modern man would better understand. What constitutes the Divine Measure has been almost forgotten by Modernity. And this contributes, among other things, to tremendous ugliness of the modern city, its art and architecture. What it does in the political and social sphere is  known to everyone who has cared to read the history of twentieth century totalitarianism, holocaust, countless ethnic, communal and other sectarian conflicts and wars, genocides,  broken families and enormous growth in the number of all kinds of social and psychological pathologies. Alienation that is everywhere and so poignantly described in twentieth century literature is to a great extent traceable to this loss of Divine Measure. All those who call for Islam today or return to Tradition or to philosophy in the traditional sense of the terms are responding this mess occurring from the loss of Divine Measure. What needs to be debated is whether one is called to a merely human interpretation or ideology in the name of return to the Divine Measure.
      A few remarks about Al-Farabi’s thesis of compulsion to virtue in his ideal City are in order. Given the point that “Political rule and religion are inseparable because the many cannot grasp the good as noble apart from religious authority; virtue must be enforced through religion” and explicit engagement in both Plato and Al-Farabi with the question of coercion for ensuring establishment of virtuous city in which people cooperate for virtue thanks to his theocratic state, Al-Farabi would like to have compulsion to virtue – not conformity to law. His key terms are virtue, happiness, intellection rather than terms from juristic lore. It is perhaps not accidental that he has not written any book on juristic science. Despite the centrality of Prophet or Imam in his “system” he isn’t keen to impose a religious order. He focuses on transforming people from within and it is only in such a transformed elite that one can find a ruler he demands.
      Al-Farabi has a conception of virtuous city not what is ordinarily called Muslim or Islamic city; he divides the world into virtuous and non-virtuous cities rather than dar-al-islam and dar-al-harb. The compulsion to virtue thesis would hardly have anything resembling the fundamentalist State that are wedded to the necessity of sha’ria imposition identified with historical legal construction rather than a transhistorical quest for fundamental values of Ad-Din that evolving sha’ria formulations seek to approximate and this quest can never fully succeed or must fail in some sense as Justice can never be done and evil never fully wished away. Plato’s Laws or Muslim Law both are attempts to capture the Ideal and can never be absolutized in themselves. Modern philosophical attempts by Muslims to formulate increasingly sophisticated theories of justice in the face of so many totalitarian and other perversions that have marred modern social and political institutions are, generally speaking,  attempts to theorize Shariah for contemporary times.
      According to Voegelin Socrates maintains openness to the experience and eschews readymade answers that he sees revelation or faith forcing on us. Voegelin points out that revelation is best understood as approaching in all humility and seriousness the Quest/Question or “as man’s loving and open-ended reply to an experience of transcendence.” Revelation centric socio-cultural order is what philosophers from Plato to Voegelin have defended though Sayyid Qutb or Sayyid Moududi wouldn’t  consider them as fellow thinkers. Muslim philosophers and Sufis have especially guarded against  the tendency to belittle the Law and fully participating in public religious life. Sufis have been intimate with the masses and guarded against elitism by emphasizing humility as key virtue. Ibn Arabi famously said that sha’ria is haqiqa and any esotericism that rejects literal sense of scripture is heresy. Esotericism transcends rather than rejects literalist exoteric understanding. Masses have not been ridiculed but their limited and more or less literalist or mythological/anthrpomorphic understanding respected. It is true that masses can’t entertain pure truth that esotericism discovers or philosophers preach but that doesn’t imply they are denied entry into heaven for that matter. Even the most literalist of believers in ensured a share in beatitude. Faith alone is enough for salvation. Schuon clarifies the question of revelation versus “philosophy”/mysticism/metaphysics binary in these words in an interview. “The religious, dogmatic or theological perspective is based on revelation; its main purpose is, not to explain the nature of things or the universal principles, but to save man from sin and damnation, and also, to establish a realistic social equilibrium.” Although religion is enough for saving people, “metaphysics satisfies the needs of intellectually gifted men.”
      If we closely attend to the following key passage from Al-Farabi’s Political Regime we find

that elite vs. masses distinction breaks down and philosophy’s privilege appears hardly of
significant value in comparison with religion as the task before man is felicity or salvation and it is virtues that help on this way and all people are alike in need of felicity. “The end of human actions is happiness. Happiness is something all men desire. The voluntary actions by which man attains the end of his existence are called good, and from them proceed the habits of doing good, known as virtues; while the voluntary actions which prevent man from attaining his end are called evil, and from them flow the habits of doing evil, known as vices. Good actions deserve reward, whereas bad actions deserve punishment.”
      To conclude we do need a State that acknowledges sovereignty of God but this isn’t to be understood in narrow legalistic-theological sense but broader philosophical sense that all can appreciate. It is poets who celebrate God’s sovereignty as Love’s dominion. It is so-called secular states, activists and many well meaning NGOs who help realize God’s sovereignty as Justice and Welfare or Happiness index. Man qua man is working, in some sense, for upholding God’s Rule and all great critics are ultimately invoking Divine Measure. ISIS and other forces that speak of God’s rule invoke some kind of Divine Measure are aren’t this Divine Measure. They must be open to criticism and open to experience, to “revelations” of higher reason and sensitive to the march of history that itself reveals God in some way.