Alexander Herzen: My Past and Thoughts

Beyond doubt, the most beloved literary monument among all genres in my library. Going through this 700 page abridgement from the original four tomes can only leave you with the desire to read the original Constance Garnett translation of complete four volumes. Its so unfortunate that Dwight MacDonald decided not to include that long essay, ‘A Family Drama’ in this abridgement for editorial reasons.

70069Its very hard that something socio-politically meaningful and interesting can be uttered about Herzen’s memoirs by a South-East Asian reader in 21st century. However, from the perspective of an ardent lover of Russian literary tradition and an admirer of that peculiar milieu, Herzen, at times, comes out as deeply disquieted, hot and bothered reactionary; at other times he is a genius social critic, questioning reactionary zealousness and republicanism with the equal force. But overall, his characterization of bourgeois mentality is the strongest part of contemporary interest that protrudes out of the narrative, with capability to even hook a reader who is not that much aware of Turgenev’s Bazarov — the superfluous man —, Bakunin, Belinsky, or even Mazzini or Garibaldi.

The whole Western-Europe of middle of 19th century comes alive in these memoirs and at times, stares at your face not letting you blink your eyes. There are passages which have unsurpassable literary force in whole classic modern literature; for instance, the angst laden ones such as,

All Italy was awakening before my eyes! I saw the King of Naples tamed and the Pope humbly asking the alms of people’s love – the whirlwind, which set everything in movement carried me, too, off my feet; all Europe took up its bed and walked – in fit of somnambulism which we took for awakening. When I came to myself, it had all vanished; la Sonnambula, frightened by the police, had fallen from the roof; friends were scattered or were furiously slaughtering one another…And I found myself alone, utterly alone, among graves and cradles – their guardian, defender, avenger, and I could do nothing because I tried to do more than was usual.

have the kind of old school nihilistic tinge, which Herzen characterized more fully in his famous letters to Turgenev and the essay titled, The Superfluous and the Jaundiced (1860). However, its in the later years when Herzen developed, and displayed, his true literary and critical acumen beyond just the art of blending the personal with the historical. His musings on relationship between art and bourgeois life are so confounding, as well as accurate that one is forced to pause, reflect and perspire in the process. Here is a passage:

Decorum, that is the real word. The petit bourgeois has two talents and he has the same ones, Moderation and portrait-alexander-herzen-astafievPunctuality. The life of middle class is full of small defects and small virtues; it is self-restrained, often niggardly, and shuns what is extreme and what is superfluous. The garden is transformed into a kitchen garden; the thatched cottage into a little country-town house with an escutcheon painted on the shutters; but everyday they drink tea and eat meat in it. It is an immense step forward, but not at all artistic. Art is more at home with poverty and luxury than with crude prosperity or with comfort when it is an end in itself; if it comes to that, it is more at home with a harlot selling herself than with the respectable woman selling at three times the cost of the work of the starving seamstress. Art is not at ease in the stiff, over-neat thrifty house of the petit bourgeois, and in his house is bound to be such; art feels instinctively that in that life it is reduced to the level of external decoration such as wall paper and furniture, to the level of hurdy-gurdy; if the hurdy-gurdy man is a nuisance he is kicked out, if they want to listen they give him a halfpenny and that’s that. Art which is pre-eminently elegance of proportion cannot endure the yard-measure; a life self-satisfied with its narrow mediocrity is stigmatised in the eyes of art by the worst of blots — vulgarity.

But that does not in the least prevents the whole cultured world from passing into petit bourgeois, and the vanguard has arrived their already. Petit bourgeois is the ideal to which Europe is striving, and rising from every point on the ground. It is the ‘chicken in the cabbage soup,’ about which Henri Quatre dreamt. A little house with little windows looking into the street, a school for the son, a dress for the daughter, a servant for the hard work—all that makes up indeed a haven of refuge—Havre de Grace!

Bourgeoisie, the last word of civilisation, founded on the despotism of property, is the ‘democratisation‘ of aristocracy, the ‘aristocratisation‘ of democracy. In this environment Almaviva is the equal of Figaro—from below everything is straining up into bourgeoisie, from above everything is sinking down into it through the impossibility of maintaining itself. The American States present the spectacle of one class—the middle class—with nothing below it and nothing above it, the petit bourgeois manners and morals have remained. The German peasant is the petit bourgeois of agriculture; the working man of every country is petit bourgeois of future. Italy, the most poetical land in Europe, was not able to hold out, but at once forsook her fanatical lover, Mazzini, and betrayed her husband, the Hercules Garibaldi, as soon as Cavour, the petit bourgeois of genius, the little fat man in spectacles, offered to keep her as his mistress.

And with such kind of incessant, untiring, almost magnetic prose, he continues to take notes around the dying old world and its emerging new forms. As he himself says in a rejoinder to one of his critical interlocutors, he has no solutions to speak of. He was like a man sitting beside a patient on his death bed describing him his disease.

As Isaiah Berlin observes elsewhere, the chief reason for these memoirs being a supreme masterpiece is that the writer does not commit himself to any single thesis with a clear purpose, rejecting all general solutions of his time, may it be the optimism of Bakunin or Marx, or pessimism of Burckhardt or Tocqueville; thereby grasping,

…as very few thinkers have ever done, the crucial distinction between words that are about words, and words that are about persons or things in the real world. Nevertheless, it is as a writer that he survives. His autobiography is one of the great monuments to Russian literary and psychological genius, worthy to stand beside the great novels of Turgenev and Tolstoy.

Readings in Philosophy of Science (I): The New Scientific Spirit (Gaston Bachelard’s Critique of Cartesian method and his Philosophy of Science)

I am thankful to my friend Dr. Qaiser Shahzad for suggesting to share these reflections here for any benefit that others may draw. These write-ups are based upon our joint readings, discussions and notes into various philosophical traditions and approaches within philosophy of science. The present series is intended to serve as a placeholder to record important notes of our continued readings on this thread. The Urdu version can be read here on our Urdu blog.  

gaston-bachelard_large Of all the criticisms on Descartes (d.1650), Bachelard’s stands out, as he has selected those principles of Cartesian method which were passed on in silence by other critics, presumably for their seeming innocence. With most of the detractors of the father of modern philosophy, it has either been the principle of universal doubt, the alienated and privileged ego, some step in the logic of the Meditations, some substantive philosophical or scientific doctrine, or the very quest for foundations. For Gaston Bachelard (d. 1962), on the other hand, it was the reductive nature of Cartesian method and resulting epistemology which rendered his philosophy “too narrow to accommodate the phenomena of physics.” (New Scientific Spirit, p. 138) In more particular terms, Bachelard attacks the following rule which according to Descartes summarized his whole method:

The whole method consists entirely in ordering and arranging of the objects on which we must concentrate our eye if we are to discover some truth. We shall be following this method exactly if we first reduce complicated and obscure propositions step by step to simpler ones and then starting with the intuition  of the simplest ones of all, try to ascend through the same steps to a knowledge of  all the rest.” (Descartes, Rules for the Direction of Mind, Rule 5).

Bachelard objects on the reductive nature of Cartesian method and complains that it fails to regain the unified and synthetic reality once analyzed under the demands of method. It seems that Bachelard here has a point in view of the fact that it was this analytical tendency which lends Descartes in the unbridgeable Dualism of Mind and Body. On the Cartesian advice to reduce the complicated to the simple, Bachelard accuses Descartes of having neglected the reality of complexity and neglecting that there are certain qualities which only emerge in the wholes and are not there in the parts. Even some qualities of the parts or simple realities are not noticeable unless one first understand the complex ones. (Ibid. p. 142) This is illustrated with reference to the fact that the doubling of lines in Hydrogen atomic spectrum would not have been noticed if we had not understood the spectra of Alkaline metals first, while it had been presumed, on Cartesian lines, that the latter complex phenomena are to be understood after the pattern of hydrogen model. (Ibid. pp. 148) Taking a step even higher, Bachelard claims that “there are no simple phenomena; every phenomenon is a fabric of relations. There is no such thing as a simple nature, a simple substance; a substance is a web of attributes.” (Ibid. pp. 147-148) Thus, “no idea can be understood until it has been incorporated into a complex system of thoughts and experiences.” (Ibid.) This attack on even the existence of simple natures once again manifests Bachelard’s desire to criticize nothing less than what is  essential to Cartesian method. The concept of “ Simple natures” was introduced by Descartes in his explanation for Rule 6 which according to Descartes, contained the whole secret of his method and the most valuable insight of his treaties (i.e. Regulae). Here Descartes says: “I call ‘absolute’ whatever has within it the pure and simple nature in question” and in Rule 12 further explains the nature of simplicity of simple natures by saying: we term ‘simple’ only those things which we know so clearly and distinctly that they cannot be divided by the mind into others which are more distinctly known.” Moreover, these simple natures are directly intuited by the intellect and are thus self-evident.

This Cartesian notion of intuition is subjected to critique by Bachelard which is comparable to that made by Charles S. Peirce (d. 1914) according to whom “ we have no power of intuition but every cognition is determined logically by previous cognitions.” (“Some consequences of four incapacities” Philosophical Writings, ed. Justus Buchler p.230) Although Bachelard is not that loud in the denial of very possibility of intuition, the conditions he imposes upon it end up at the same destination: “ Intuitive ideas are made clear in a discursive manner, by progressive illumination, by illustration in a series of examples that bringone or another notion into clearer focus.” Thus according to Bachlardian philosophy of science, science does not develop by accumulation and this implication  makes Bachelard one of the heralds of contemporary trend in history and philosophy of science started by Thomas Kuhn.[i] He has quoted Dupreel with approval that “ Once an axiom is posited, a second act is always necessary to establish its application.” (ibid. p. 144) Our initial intuition is completed by clarification through induction and synthesis.  Furthermore immediacy, the basic ingredient of the concept of intuition is denied in a manner which brings Bachelard very close to Peirce: “Intuition is no longer direct and prior to understanding; rather it is preceded by extended study.”  Two more points in connection with intuition are the following. 1) we are warned against ‘positivism in the first sight’ that is assuming that the most apparent features of something are its most characteristic features. 2) the counter intuitive nature of modern science: “nothing can be more anti-Cartesian then the slow change that has been brought in our thinking by the progress of empirical science, which has revealed a wealth of information never suspected in our first intuition.” (Ibid. p. 142)

This second point draws upon the nature of modern science which tends to augment the notion of mathematical intuition with empirical intuition, if not completely replace it. Pointing towards the works of Poncelet, Chasles, Laguerre and NewScientificSpiritPoincare, Bachelard argues that modern scientific spirit, through ‘mathematization‘ of the problem, emphasizes more on discovery rather than solution, Thus what we are experiencing is an end of Cartesian thought in mathematics: “the way to rationalize the world is to complete it”. Mathematics, as Bachelard notes, has moved beyond the order of measure (as in geometry, algebra and arithmetic in Cartesian age) to a tool for progressive scientific objectification. A metaphysician, therefore, brooding over the nature of reality through primarily subjective means is now transformed into a mathematician who is actively indulged in designing controlled experiments in his laboratory. Knowing well that he is confronted with a complex reality, he proceeds by mathematically modelling the phenomenon in the light of available empirical knowledge. He may choose to move from simple models — what might have been comparable to simple natures in order not to rebel from Cartesian spirit — which are only as simple as the choice of keeping some inherent parameters constants for designing more realistic experiments, or for some specific objectives to examine partial reality. Thus, it’s a spiral involving progressive experimentation, models fitting the data, more data arriving from experimentation, and mathematically intensive fresh models best fitting these new datasets. In this sense, modern scientific belief is in discovering the trends which best depict the reality, rather than the reality itself. This is a completely novel spirit, which Bachelard terms as ‘progressive objectification‘.

In order to illustrate “Cartesian partiality in favour of subjective experience” Bachelard discusses Descartes famous wax example and shows what anti-Cartesian implication can be of using latest experimental techniques on wax. For Descartes the ball of wax was, says Bachelard, a symbol of the fleeting character of material properties.” After describing in detail how a modern physicist would conduct an experiment with the piece of wax using careful purification techniques, controlling the rate of melting and solidification by using an electric oven and even exposing the surface of the wax, he makes the following claim: “what is fleeting is not, as Descartes thought, the properties of the wax but the haphazard circumstances surrounding his observation of it.” (Ibid. 170) It is  difficult to disagree with Bachelard’s conclusion from all this discussion that “scientific work is essentially complex,” (p. 171) and that science “rather than rely on whatever clear truths happen to lie ready at hand, actively seek its complex truths by artificial means.” What is unclear is the fact that Descartes would have been impressed with all these details of new technological development and we can imagine him retorting that what is new is not the nature of things but is only a matter of degrees: he himself has pointed out the fact that the extension of the piece of wax “increases if the wax melts, increases again if it boils and greater still if heat is increased” (Second Meditation, Philosophical Works, vo. II. p. 21). What difference does it make from the point of view of Descartes if nowadays one can “regulate the temperature by adjusting the supply of power” or “precisely controlling the shape and surface composition of a wax droplet”? The whole point of the wax example was to problematize shape, surface and other empirically knowable qualities in order to show that these cannot represent reality and to argue for the existence of substance  “which is grasped solely by the faculty of judgement which is in my mind.” (Descartes. Ibid.)  Bachelard is right that modern scientific and experimental techniques do give some order to the conditions of observation which are confused as given by nature, but the question Descartes was raising through the wax example was not a scientific question but a philosophical one: can we identify the wax-in-itself with the observable qualities? This question might be rejected as absurd or answered in a different way than Descartes[ii] but we fail to see any important implication of the new technological developments for Cartesian question regarding the mutability of qualities and existence of an immutable substance knowable only by the mind. In fact Descartes has mentioned in passing another example for his purpose as well: “… if I look out of the window and see men crossing the square… I normally say that I see the men themselves, just as I say that I see wax. Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons. I judge that they are men.” (Ibid.) Has experimental science shown that qualities do not change or it has simply gained more control over the process of their change? It could have been logically relevant to the Cartesian argument only if it had done the former, which it is not clear that it has.


[i] Kuhn himself says , “I did read some Bachelard. But it was so close to my own thought that I did not feel I had to read lots and lots more.” “Paradigms of Scientific Evolutions: Thomas S. Kuhn” in The American Philosopher: Conversations, ed. Giovanna Borradori, (Chicago, 1994), p. 160.
[ii] One example of this is Pierre Gassendi who took Descartes to task on this issue: “ I am amazed at how you can say that once forms have been stripped off like clothes, you perceive more perfectly and evidently what the wax is. (Meditations, Fifth Set of Objections, pp. 190-191) Sources.

  1. Gaston Bachelard, The New Scientific Spirit (Beacon Press, 1984).
  2. Rene Descartes, Rules for the Direction of Mind; Discourse on Method; Meditations on First Philosophy  in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes Volumes 1& 2, eds. Cottingham, Stoothoff and Murdoch(Cambridge University Press, 1984).
  3. Charles Sanders Peirce, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler (Dover Publications, 1965), pp.228-251.

 For Further Reading.

  1. Mary Tiles, Bachelard:  Science and Objectivity  (Cambridge University Press, 1985)
  2. Mary Tiles, “Technology, Science and Inexact Knowledge,” in Continental Philosophy of Science  ed. Gary Gutting (Blackwell, 2005), pp. 157-176.

Orthodox Penchant for Medieval Heresiography: Biased Readings of Ghazali—Averroes Dispute

This comment is in reference to the essay by Muhammad Abdullah Shariq titled
غزالی اورابن رشد  کا  قضیہ in last two issues of Al-Shariah magazine. Both episodes can be read here and here, and my comment is already published here. The version posted on this blog includes some corrections for language.


The premise of the essay is flimsy, since the author aims to defend Ghazali against a hypothetical attack without caring to cite even one source. In fact, there is more than one way in which criticisms have been extended on Ghazali from variety of perspectives such as scientific, philosophical or religious, some of which may are given as,

  1. Less informed and reductionist criticisms by the so-called Muslim rationalists or modernists.
  2. Minimalist critical attempts by Non-Muslims (including atheists) who kind of see Ghazali-Averroes tussle as a manifestation of struggle between dogma and rationalism.
  3. Nuanced criticisms waged from the point of view of extending critique on Asharite cosmology and the nature of its causal underpinnings.
  4. Formal all-encompassing criticisms from epistemological point of views where Ghazali and Averroes seem to be coming from different paradigms as far as theory of knowledge is concerned; of course, there are also far reaching sociological implications as different Weltanschauungs are seem to be purported.

In my humble view, the author is only defending Ghazali against the first kind of criticisms but that too remains elusive to a reader who is already aware about this classical historical debate. As far as the less informed lay-reader is concerned, the whole exposition besides being misleading, presents a simplistic and distorted picture of Muslim intellectual activity in medieval period, as well as history of philosophy and science as well.

Consequently, these Muslim intellectuals are shown by the author to belong to two distinct camps, that is, those who didn’t involve themselves with ultimate metaphysical questions and those who did. Of course, this is certainly his authorial discretion; however the division presented by the author is generally superfluous. It is merely a matter of fact and interest that some of them cared to indulge in metaphysics while others restricted themselves to pure empirical disciplines. The author does not care to note the fact that it was primarily the Greek science that was passed to Arabs through the translation movement; and because the complete medieval scientific tradition was deeply rooted in Hellenistic philosophy, its metaphysical foundation could not be just overlooked. Moreover, if it is not entirely erroneous, it is at least remarkably arguable and simplistic to attribute an original compartmentalization of knowledge in physics and metaphysics within the Greek paradigm.

Therefore, when we analyse the whole intellectual tradition of medieval era, it is merely a matter of interest that Al-Farabi, Al-Jahiz, Al-Kindi, Ibn Tufail, Avicenna or Averroes indulged in humanistic disciplines and others (some of which the author mentioned) indulged in empirical disciplines. In fact, all of them were polymaths in varying degrees and were essentially multidisciplinary.

Considering for instance the case of Muhammad Bin Zakariah Razi — whom the author chooses to introduce as an example of his contributions in Chemistry — which student of Muslim medieval philosophical tradition is not aware of the infamous Rhazes, the so-called free-thinker? Hasn’t he written scores of works on metaphysical questions? Wasn’t he declared a heretic and a free-thinker by the religious zealots of his time? Or if Abbas Ibn Farnas — whom the author erroneously mentions as Muslim Ibn Faras — is better known as the first aviator (arguably), he was also a physician and musician; and if the author chooses to present Albeiruni as a representative indulgence in Geometry, he is far better known as an Indologist too.

A more realistic and plausible contention, therefore, is that all of these myriad intellectuals were multidisciplinary polymaths. As unbiased readers of Muslim tradition we must be able to rise above the medieval heresiography, try to get into the shoes of Avicenna, Averroes or Ibn Tufail, and empathetically view  them struggling with the onslaught of the challenge of Hellenistic tradition.

Considering that the author himself acknowledges the historical convergence of science and philosophy as a single Ghazali-Teachingacademic discipline, his subsequent insistence on division between utilitarian-empirical and metaphysical-philosophical seems superfluous. Of course, he is right in contending that Ghazali is targeting the arguments which affect the religious side of truth; however, he refuses to acknowledge that inquisitive human minds are seldom able to compartmentalize truth in this vulgar fashion to keep its higher dimensions and purely utilitarian sides separately. It is a feat only achieved by ordinary masses or exceptionally extraordinary minds such as Ghazali himself. It is no wonder, then, that his immediate detractors, for instance Averroes, find it hard to interweave all threads of his thought into a common fabric. Hence, it is not merely an acerbic disparaging comment, when Averroes contends that,

He was an Asharite with the Asharites, a sufi with the sufis, and a philosopher with the philosophers, so that he was like a man in the following verse:

One day you are a Yamanite, when you meet a man of Yaman

But when you meet a man of Ma´add, you assert you are from Adnan

Moreover, if Muslim culture and civilization ended up being compartmentalized and atomistic in terms of knowledge and thought, and being ostensibly proud of it too, Ghazali deserves to take a large part of the blame. That however, is fortunately arguable and in recent few decades, it has been extensively shown that there is a lot more unification of thought in Ghazali then classically perceived.

More remarkably, when seen from a philosophical and scientific standpoint, the present classical review of Ghazali – Averroes dispute ends up making a case against any possibility of finding a holistic unified trend of Ghazalian scheme. Taking for instance the author’s claim that Ghazali is not refuting ‘science‘. Can such a claim be warranted without any objective definition of science?  Authors bent on classical discourse must realize that those who criticize Ghazali are basically coming with their own definitions of science and how it attempts to answer the questions related to higher reality and ultimate fabric of the universe, its origin as well as its destiny.

Any reading of Ghazali-Averroes dispute disregarding these intricate issues, not attempting to disentangle them neatly and bordering on polemics through boisterous ridicule against supposed philosophers and scientists would prove to be simply reductionist, just like its counterparts in radical scientism and New Age militant atheism.

At the same time, it is pertinent to argue that among the two, Ghazali is perhaps more novel even in his system of natural philosophy — whatever than can be deduced from his writings such as Tahafah or Iqtisad fi al-Aitiqaad — as compared to Averroes who is primarily an interpreter indulged in Aristotelian exegesis. The comparison, however, is incomplete and unfair to both Averroes and Ghazali unless we try to see the so-called dispute from their respective standpoints.

If Ghazali, who is primarily speaking from the position of a theological defence, aims to safeguard religious belief from speculative contamination of philosophers — specifically targeting Al-Farabi and Avicenna —, Averroes takes it as an attack on the whole Peripatetic tradition and appropriately rises to its defence.

While Ghazali is justified in his objection to the notion of eternality of world as it conflicts with the omnipotent agency of God, Averroes is not entirely wrong in his notion of differentiation between temporal and eternal agents. Can we speak of qualitative aspect of time, or for that matter time itself, when ascribing action to God? Is it temporally sensible at all to utter that God suddenly created the world? Does God differentiate between this hour and next hour in terms of quality, since he is beyond a notion of temporality at first place?

averroesWhen Ghazali extends the analogy of a hungry man, sitting ambivalent in front of two similar dates, confronted with the choice, Averroes questions whether it’s truly a choice between dates or between eating and not eating since there is nothing in the qualitative domain that differentiates one date from the other; as soon as we are forced to make a qualitative difference, it would not remain a choice between two similar options. While Ghazali is creating a space in natural philosophy for God as an active agent, Averroes keeps falling back to the problem of differentiating between God’s will and His knowledge.

In the same manner, through juxtaposing their rich and intricate texts, we can visualize them debating complex issues related to agency, nominalism, contingency, causation, the nature of soul and cosmology. It is also important to note for the sake of completion that their exchange is not restricted to these two books but Averroes extensively quotes Al-Ghazali in his other works as well, sometimes questioning his theories and at other times presenting them in support of some contention. As a recent commentator on their interaction aptly notes, Ghazali gave birth to a new philosophy while criticizing philosophies of his predecessors.

Averroes, on the other hand, never projects himself as someone too sure on his convictions. If all his literature is reduced to a singular contention, it would be an unassailable belief that divinely revealed knowledge cannot be in contradiction with acquired knowledge through reflection and reason.

Lastly, in my humble opinion, if the underlying contention by religious intelligentsia is to call for submission of scientific discourse to a so-called Shar’i limits, it is not warranted, may it be through rational or theological justifications. On both these grounds, such a demand would remain questionable unless a curious soul is forced to submit in front of an ecclesiastical order, as in medieval Christianity. Quran incessantly calls man to search for truth within himself and outside in the universe. As Iqbal notes in the start of his celebrated lectures, the ultimate nature of this world, its permanence or extinction, our relationship to it and our conduct are important questions equally belonging to the domains of religion, philosophy and higher-poetry. And even though science can afford to ignore or forget the underlying metaphysics, religion can hardly function without an ultimate reconciliation of human experience with his environment.

Since the advent of modernity, most of these questions are now being increasingly thrown into the domain of science, or at least being equally commented upon from a scientific standpoint. In this respect, while a post-modern inclination towards scientism and the so-called new-age Atheism is unwarranted on purely intellectual grounds, arguing for a regulated or coerced compartmentalization of knowledge for theological considerations is equally unjustifiable.

Science does have its metaphysical foundations, and inherent in its spirit of enquiry is the resolve that it cannot simply remain indifferent to higher aspects of reality, thereby restricting itself strictly to the questions of utilitarian domains. One thing we learn from Averroes, Ghazali and other Muslim philosophers is the spirit of enquiry and the resolve to defend their faith in an unseen higher reality when challenged by science or philosophy. Liberals as well as conservatives in Muslim societies must learn to look beyond the heresiographic aspects of medieval disputes and instead of extrapolating them to our times must rephrase those questions in accordance with contemporary relevance.

Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers

Russian-Thinkers-w00“Describe, don’t explain”. Though Wittgenstein perhaps wrote those words while discussing the epistemological value of science, one has to read Isaiah Berlin in order to see their true expository demonstration. This is no ordinary achievement. In more than one way, its an indispensable text; that is, its a marvel of literary criticism, a classical description of the inner-most structures of Russian thought, introduction to some of the brilliant minds and intellectual giants of 19th century Russia, and most importantly, an exquisite commentary on the history of ideas that made the modern world.

But while achieving these goals, Berlin does not try to supply judgements, leaving reader with a lot to chew. As I said, its the description that is perhaps much more important than the explanation; the latter has the tendency to eject the enquirer out of the domain of possibility, which in a way brings the creative process to a terminus.

On a different note, would anyone believe that a collection of essays about Russian literature and thought can prove to be a page turner? Well, to tell you the truth, it might not be unless the reader is at least familiar with major trends of Russian literature. For instance, two essays included in the volume -‘The Hedgehog and the Fox‘ and ‘Fathers and Children‘ – may fail to inspire a sense of awe without a decent familiarization with Tolstoy and Turgenev and if those who have read ‘War and Peace‘ and ‘Fathers and Sons‘, its a bonus. Moreover, if you are not familiar with Herzen, Belinsky or Bakunin, Berlin makes a point to generally characterize these trends of liberal intelligentsia before taking the reader finally to the outliers of the whole liberal spectrum.

Besides lucidity of prose, the greatest aspect of Berlin’s exposition is fine categorization of social and political trends in literature, and how he supplies archetypes of thought for an informed as well as uninformed reader. His point, for instance in the starting essay, that Tolstoy could neither be characterized as a Fox or Hedgehog and his ultimate conclusion that he was a Fox trying to portray as a Hedgehog is so illuminating and potentially powerful that one is forced to place intellectuals in these relative compartments for the rest of one’s life. Then there are subtleties like Turgenev being an archetype for liberal predicament, which are expounded with such force that now we have a way to describe various ideological movements of 21st century through the models of Russian thought.

An illuminate experience, a gripping read and a force to make you fall in love with Russia as well as Isaiah Berlin’s immense literary canvas.

Archetypes of Revival (I): A 12th Century Philosophical Experiment that Gave Birth to a Civilization

Abstract idea and experienced reality are two simplistic manifestations of the classical philosophical duality involving mind and matter. While our world-view seems to be shaped up entirely by the visible forces around us, ideas play an equally important part in ineffable ways. It is impossible to construct an enriched and complete picture of the present, if it is oblivious to the history of ideas. Therefore, it is impossible to speak of a holistic or ideal world-view without resorting to a corresponding stream of ideas. The ideal human being of Quran is not disconnected from his environment and essentially explores truth in the whole macrocosm.

In this backdrop, while the specialized intelligentsia is already cognizant of the diverse ideological dimensions, it is important to expose the common Muslim populace to the core universe of ideas that shape up modernity as we experience it now. This series is an attempt to do that in a widely accessible language and a crisp informal format. The primary aim is either to introduce a largely forgotten part of the scholastic and literary tradition, a novel sublime aspect underlying a modern perception, or some original vital insight that faded away in the sands of time.


Robinson_Cruose_1719_1st_editionCan you imagine any young kid finishing high school without ever coming across The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe?  Forget young readers, forget book-worms, forget the old lovers of young-adult literature; I am speaking of anyone who has ever put his hands on English literature. Written in 1719 by Daniel Dafoe, it is among the claimants of the auspicious stature of first English novel, and widely believed as a true travelogue upon its inception.

However, there is seldom a casual reader who can trace the legend back to the 17th century roots of literary tradition with an autodidact character at its center; and few are aware about the Arab-Spanish mentor of this optimism in human reason and contemplation, Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185).

Almost six hundred years between Dafoe and him, we know very little about the life of Ibn Tufayl, except that he was a polymath, serving as a physician and adviser of Sultan Abu Yaqub Yusuf (d. 1184) of the Almohad dynasty ruling Morocco and Spain. It is unfortunate that his complete interdisciplinary work is lost, except his philosophical experiment involving an isolated autodidact, named Hayy Ibn Yaqzan; literally translated as Alive, Son of the Awake.

It is the story of a boy, the nature of whose existence is shadowy to an extent that there are two completely rivaling accounts of Ibn_Tufayl_02his origins. One account ascribes his origin to spontaneous generation from matter; the other is necessarily a legendary human drama in which a royal infant somehow grows up away from society and culture. Being isolated from all intelligent life, he gradually becomes conscious, thereby discovering shame, jealousy, aspiration, desire, eagerness to possess and practical reasoning. He experiences love through affection of his foster doe, and death, as it ultimately departs.

To know is necessarily an obligation for Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. Desperately seeking meaning, his search guides him to explore various disciplines such as anatomy, physiology, metaphysics and spirituality. He deduces the presence of God through contemplating  the unity of cosmos and its boundedness; and in his ascetic code of conduct, he seeks satisfaction and salvation.

After thirty-five years of isolation, he finally meets Absal, a hermit refugee from a land of conventional religious believers. In Absal, Ibn Tufayl modeled a religious divine who has learnt many languages to gain mastery of scriptural exegesis. Absal’s first reaction is a deep sense of fear for his faith as he encounters an exotic being. As they interact well, Absal endeavors to teach Hayy to speak and communicate, in order to make him aware of knowledge and religion.

However Absal soon discovers that Hayy is already aware of the truth, to envision which, Absal’s own intellect bears nothing except revealed symbols.

Judging Absal’s good intentions and the veracity of his message, Hayy proselytize to this religion and Absal introduces Hayy to his people. As Hayy gets familiarized with civilization, two basic questions continue to puzzle him in great deal. First, why people must need symbols to assimilate and express the knowledge of the ultimate truth; and why can’t they just experience the reality more intimately? Second, being completely oblivious to practical religion, he continued to wonder why there is an obligation to indulge oneself in rituals of prayer and purity.

He keeps on wondering why these people consume more than their body needs, possess and nurture property diligently, neglect truth by purposefully indulging in pass-times and fall an easy prey to their desires. He finally decides to accompany Absal to his land, thinking that it might be through him that people encompass the true vision and experience truth rather than believing it with their seemingly narrow vision.

What follows is a tale of a neophyte philosopher teaching ordinary people to rise above their literalism and open another eye towards reality. His interlocutors on the other hand, recoil in their apprehensions and being intellectual slaves to their prejudices, close their ears. He consequently realizes that these people are unable to go beyond their usual appetites. He also grasps that masses of the world are only capable to receive through symbols and regulatory laws rather than being receptive to unstained and plain truth. Both men eventually return back to their isolated world but this time Hayy as the teacher and Absal as his disciple. They continue searching their ecstasies until they met their ends.

CrusoeBuildingIbn Tufayl’s singularly survived legacy extends in diverse dimensions and its canvas is vast. Its theological and philosophical themes were employed and transformed throughout the various phases of European enlightenment.

It isn’t just one curious aspect that many centuries later, the metaphysically preoccupied Hayy Ibn Yaqzan is transformed into a shipwrecked sailor, predominantly occupying himself with inventions and utilitarian exploration of nature. As Malik Bennabi – an acute observer of modern condition – observes, the genius of both the narratives lies in characterizing the solitude of their respective protagonists. In this respect, time for Robinson Crusoe is essentially a concrete cyclic happening of acts, such as work, food, sleep and work again.

Nov. 4. This morning I began to order my times of work, of going out with my gun, time of diversion, viz., every morning I walked out with my gun for two or three hours, if it did not rain; then employed myself to work till about eleven o’clock; then eat what I had to live on; and from twelve to two I lay down to sleep, the weather being excessive hot; and then in the evening to work again. The working parts of this day and of the next were wholly employed in making my table; for I was yet but a complete natural mechanic soon after, as I believe it would do anyone else.[1]

This is pretty much the condition of a modern individual where the void of solitude is filled with work, each of us occupied ibn_tufayl_03mechanically with the object at the centre of our world of ideas, diligently busy in constructing our own proverbial tables.

On the other hand, what fills Hayy’s solitude is an overwhelming amazement, the adventure starting by experiencing wonder in the ultimate nature of life and death of his beloved foster-mother, the gazelle.

When she (the gazelle) grew old and feeble, he used to lead her where there was the best pasture, and pluck the sweetest fruits for her, and give her them to eat. Notwithstanding this, she grew lean and continued a while in a languishing condition, till at last she died, and then all her motions and actions ceased. When the boy perceived her in this condition, he was ready to die for grief He called her with the same voice, which she used to answer to, and made what noise he could, but there was no motion, no alteration. Then he began to peep into her ears and eyes, but could perceive no visible defect in either; in like manner he examined all the parts of her body, and found nothing amiss, but everything as it should be. He had a vehement desire to find that part where the defect was, that he may remove it, and she return to her former state. But he was altogether at a loss how to compass his design, nor could he possibly bring it about.[2]

Thus, it is ultimately in the nature of failure to identify this defective part where Ibn Tufayl tries to locate an ineffable reality beyond the material.  

Ibn Tufayl’s philosophical romance has been regarded as one of the pioneer autodidactic works surviving from medieval scholastic tradition [3]. But besides being an influential narrative   with rich literary possibilities and themes such as those transformed by a modernist like Dafoe  it was a precursor to important medieval interactions between the schools of Thomas Aquinas and Averroists, and invited modern appraisals from mathematician rationalists like Gottfried Leibniz [4].

Voltaire and Quakers admired it for its appeal to reason, and Bacon, Newton and Locke were possibly influenced by it to various degrees too. Traces of Ibn Tufayl’s original literary pointers are also found in Rousseau’s Emile, Kant’s Ground of Proof for a Demonstration of God’s Existence, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Darwin’s Origin of Species among others.

Especially in the context of Muslim tradition, its contemporary value lies in rich possibilities to bridge gaps between reason and revelation. It lays down a perpetually self evolving construct where reason and reflection are the essential keys to the doors of  timeless revelation. Ibn Tufayl’s voice still echoes loud, struggling to tell us that rejecting either would imply rejecting a part of truth.


  1. Daniel Dafoe, Robinson Crusoe, Penguin Classics 2003
  2. Lenn Evan Goodman, Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan: a philosophical tale, 1972.
  3. There have been some attributions to an earlier work involving similar but limited themes to Avicenna.
  4. Samar Attar, The Vital Roots of European Enlightenment: Ibn Tufayl’s Influence on Modern Western Thought, 2010

Among Dogmatic Slumberers (II): Failing to Read the Intended Texts

malalaBy now there would be hardly any Pakistani who haven’t witnessed the purist and self-righteous pseudo-intellectuals ripping apart their vocal cords over national media, criticizing Malala Yousafzai, the 16 year old girl who was nominated for Nobel prize earlier this month.

The sanctimonious brigade in land of the pure is known for creating a hysteria for eliminating, banning and victimizing the other by declaring him impure. Sadly, with the ever-reducing space for decent and objective intellectual discourse, it has now become impossible to even voice one’s considered opinion without being targeted by the purist camp, which has been fed persistently with fallacious and concocted ideologies.

Consequently, its pretty much futile to forward an objective critical discourse. Disagreement is simply not an option any more. To disagree, one has to keep quiet, look down and give way to stronger vocal cords; and since reason and persuasive dialogue is overpowered by the rhetoric and bellowing, there is no use extending any counter-arguments to baseless claims.

Therefore, when your fulminating interlocutors give damn to someone like Syed Ameer Ali or doesn’t consider it an enough casual rejoinder that Iqbal didn’t care to suffix salutations of peace be upon him after Prophet Muhammad’s name in his famous lectures, it is perhaps waste of time to indulge in critical discourses.

In fact, it seems like a bad dream to live in such times where we are witnessing a book being critiqued for not interjecting salutations within the script. I am sure its nature’s way of narrating a gag to let the universe have a good hearty laugh on us and throw us in the dustbin of history. It seems like we are undergoing a proverbial Copernican revolution where a minority is insisting that universe is heliocentric. 

However, we must not let hope be the casuality, and no matter how little, we must try to create a space to extend a discourse. I would request all cynical purists who are making the book controversial through over-sensationalized and misplaced religious, social or political critiques to please:

  1. Remove the lenses of bigotry and prejudice and read the book in a casual way. Its not a great book so comparisons with Anne Frank’s diary are perhaps out of proportion. However, I would hate to speculate that it might be considered a great classic if Pakistan continues on its usual disastrous course and experience a people’s tragedy comparable to holocaust. This, in my humble yet optimistic view, is impossible, God willing.
  2. Not even a very well-written work either; understandably so, since its from a young girl, take it as an ad lib commentary by a 16 year old kid which is most probably composed by Christina Lamb in readable language. To our so-called second grade media intellectuals who have issues with Lamb’s reputation: Yousafzai is not synonymous with Lamb.
  3. At least try to add a minimum possible of degree of objectivity in your criticism and don’t read the book as a contentious well thought-out academically assertive work of literature. Moreover, if your argument is that one sheds away her academic credentials if one is seen in party with some Baloch tribal chief, there can be no possible counter-argument which you should expect. This is not even an ad hominem; its simply shameful.
  4. When you quote, please do so with the purpose of discussion and critique rather than ridicule or cause agitation and shock among the masses who haven’t read the book. Please learn to read and understand the texts. They are meaningless and misleading without a context. Those who are calling it interpretation of her father’s ideas, well what, if I may ask, is wrong with that? All 16-year old kids think their fathers are cool. We, as fathers and mothers, have right to impart our version of goodness into our children. We may disagree with each others’ views but disagreeing with other’s interpretation of history, politics, religious or social issues doesn’t make one anti-Islam or anti-Pakistan.
  5. It might be a very interesting work for western audience, specially when Lamb ostensibly lets Yousafzai speak (in my view Lamb has added historical and political bits to it where necessary for coherence of discourse), but have very little for Pakistani reader in terms of engagement with the text. However, you must understand that you are reading a very brave girl who can stand eye-to-eye with adversity and horrors in conditions where most of us would end up compromising our liberty or would simply run away. She is a brave girl, mentored and taught life by an audacious father. We must be proud of her and listen her carefully since we have a young hero towards whom we can point our children to look-up to.

Lastly, lets try to read the same book which the author has intended to write; please don’t end up reading the book which you intend to criticize, apriori.

The Past is a Foreign Country; They Do Things Differently There

‘Why does an apple fall when it is ripe? Is it brought down by the force of gravity? Is it because its stalk withers? Because it is dried by the sun, because it grows too heavy, or the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing under the tree wants to eat it? ‘None of these is the cause. They only make up the combination of conditions under which every living process of organic nature fulfills itself. In the same way the historian who declares that Napoleon went to Moscow because he wanted to, and perished because Alexander desired his destruction, will be just as right and wrong as the man who says that a mass weighing thousands of tons, tottering and undetermined, fell in consequence of the last blow of the pickaxe wielded by the last navy. In historical events great men – so-called – are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free-will, is in the historical sense not free at all but is bound up with the whole course of history and preordained from all eternity.’

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace


Wouldn’t you visualize Livia Drusila  the wife of Roman emperor Augustus  as a cunning and venomous political mastermind if your sole introduction to ancient Roman history is Robert Graves’ engrossing autobiographical tale of emperor Claudius? Haven’t you always visualized the last Roman emperor of Julio-Claudian dynasty, the infamous Nero, playing fiddle while the Rome was burning in 64 AD? Can anyone have a more predominant image of Abu Sufyan’s wife Hind Bint Utbah than the one represented by Irene Papas through her revengeful eyes and blood-dripping lips in the film The Message (1976) when she was shown chewing the liver of Prophet Muhammad’s uncle Hamza after the Battle of Uhud?

After the Prophet layoutsThese are all overpowering images, sustained over time, and hard to erase from the slate of our memories. It doesn’t matter much if we argue, for instance, that it was not Hind but the black slave Wahshi who actually gouged out Hamza’s liver according to Ibn Kathir’s narrative or else that Ibn Ishaq’s recording of the incident has broken Isnaad at first place.

Similarly, does it matter that fiddles were non-existent in first-century Rome and it is probably an anciently preserved metaphor, as Nero was famous for his love of extraordinary indulgence in music and play? It would not transform these images the least if we juxtapose the contradicting accounts of Suetonius, Cassius  and Tacitus and present evidence that Nero even returned immediately from Antium and organized a great relief effort from his own funds, even opening his palaces for the survivors.

And it isn’t much fruitful to argue ― after BBC popularized Graves’ autobiographical account of Claudius by adapting it into a TV series ― that Livia might not be a such a thorough Machiavellian character, and it was not her favourite pastime to scheme political upheavals and poison every other claimant to Roman throne.

Thus after centuries of dust settling over innumerable layers of narratives, the quest for historical certainty, that is what actually happened, is overpowered by the popular images that refuse to erase themselves from collective memories of individuals.

And this, of course, is also the single most important contribution of British-American psychologist Lesley Hazleton’s narrative history of Shia-Sunni split. Refreshing and reinforcing some already held images.

That Hazleton is more interested in psychological characterization and building a juicy and well-coherent narrative, rather than objective historical analysis and criticism, is easily evident even from a cursory look through the text. And even though, the characterization and speculative psychological insights are evenly distributed all over the text, Hazleton surely has her pivotal choice of heroes and villains to build a gripping narrative.

Well-meaning heroes, who are eventually destined to be gypped, and pernicious villains, who are designed to exploit. As Hazleton’s publishers must have carefully put it in the title, it has to be marketed for the reader as an ‘Epic Story’, an epic Game of Thrones adventure intricately built around the desire for power.

Therefore, right from the beginning, the narrative essentially revolves around the struggle for accession to this proverbial throne. Therul-jus-islamic-period-09 opening part supplies images in which Prophet, who according to the author, was perhaps leading a life of celibacy after the death of his most beloved wife Khadija is dying and the community is not yet ready to grapple with his evident death. In an authorial figment of imagination, all of his wives surely did  try to get pregnant by him in order to bear a son and it was Ayesha who was specially haunted by her childlessness. Understandably so for her readers naturally having modern sensibilities, since its a medieval monarchical structure, Hazleton must logically supply reader with an image where the community is fragile enough to disintegrate in the absence of an immediate political centre. Hence, as they say, the stage is set in the opening part for the power play amidst usual chaos depicted in medieval folklore,

What did he intend to happen after his death? This is the question that will haunt the whole tragic story of the Sunni-Shia split, though by its nature, it is unanswerable. In everything that was to follow, everyone claimed to have insight into what the Prophet thought and what he wanted. Yet in the lack of a clear and unequivocal designation of his successor, nobody could prove it beyond any shadow of doubt. However convinced they may have been that they were right, there were always those who would maintain otherwise. Certainty was a matter of faith rather than fact.

Subsequently, in this narrative pivoted around power struggle, Ayesha is depicted as a charming and impudent young brat who, as she gets older, essentially acquires a Livian element with a soft Machiavellian composition, which Hazleton carefully imparts as if there is enough historical truth to substantiate her psychological make-up beyond reasonable doubt.

How could a teenage girl possibly compete against the hallowed memory of a dead woman? But then who but a teenage girl would even dream of trying?

Charming she must have been, and sassy she definitely was. Sometimes, though, the charm wears thin, at least to the modern ear. The stories Aisha later told of her marriage were intended to show her influence and spiritedness, but there is often a definite edge to them, a sense of a young woman not to be crossed or denied, of someone who could all too easily switch from spirited to mean-spirited.

Through out her narrative, this Machiavellian composition of Ayesha is carefully pitted against composed and well-balanced demeanour of Prophet’s cousin Ali, whom Hazleton portrays something closer to an Arthurian legend with Excalibur (book has a reference to Excalibur too comparing it with Ali’s famous sword Al-Zulfiqar). And because it is naturally a demand of a stronger narrative, Hazleton never fails to speculate even when there is little room to supply a tinge of any imagined political conflict between Ali and other challengers of succession to Prophet Muhammad, that is Abu Bakr and Omar

The meaning was clear: in a society where to give was more honorable than to receive, the man who gave his daughter’s hand bestowed the higher honor. While Abu Bakr and Omar honored Muhammad by marrying their daughters to him, he did not return the honor but chose Ali instead.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut if there is a true Livian character in this tale, its Muawiyah, the powerful governor of Syria whose promised reinforcements didn’t arrive to avert the assassination of third caliph Othman, according to some of Hazleton’s sources.

Certainly he was no one-dimensional villain, though it is true he looked the part. He had a protruding stomach, bulging eyes, and feet swollen by gout, but as though in compensation for his physical shortcomings, he was possessed of an extraordinary subtlety of mind [...] Eight centuries before Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Muawiya was the supreme expert in the attainment and maintenance of power, a clear-eyed pragmatist who delighted in the art and science of manipulation, whether by bribery, flattery, intelligence, or exquisitely calculated deception [...]  The famed image of Hind cramming Hamza’s liver into her mouth worked to his advantage. Any son of such a mother could inspire not just fear but respect, and Muawiya commanded both. Except from Ali [...] Poison has none of the heroics of battle. It works quietly and selectively, one might almost say discreetly. For Muawiya, it was the perfect weapon.

For an informed reader, therefore, authorial intention easily protrudes from the text, rather it is the subtext itself which lays bare the intent to give a chilling speculative quality to the whole story as it is told. Hence, it is usually through the subtext that we see Muawiyah and his associates, among them Amr Bin Al Aas, poisoning, deceiving and when it is necessary, battling their way to the throne. From the point of view of an impartial author who doesn’t have a possible conflict of interest, Hazleton carefully chooses her sources ― her chief source being the Annals of Tabari ― and claims not to prefer less authentic ones over the stronger. However, using her authorial right to choose among various versions of the same incident, she intelligently prefers the most chilling and controversial version over the casual and discreet ones.

evening_of_ashooraThis is the primary reason why the readers who are generally unacquainted with classical Muslim sources such as those of Tabari, Ibn Saad, Ibn Athir and Masudi etc would find Hazleton’s accounts of Battles of Siffin, Jam’l and subsequent events of Karbala in Yazid’s reign simply unputdownable. However, such readers must understand that the chief success of Hazleton’s work lies in its ability to create an extremely readable and gripping narrative with psychological insights of a bystander looking piercingly into her historical subjects. Moreover, if the text is read carefully, she is able to present a decent popular point of view, drawing from both sides of history as well heresiography.

What she fails to make emphatically clear is that historical certainty and objectivity must not be compromised for the flair of narrative; and from a sheer academic point of view, the text is absolutely unworthy of attention. Primarily because it doesn’t live up to its promise of linking the present Shia-Sunni conflicts in contemporary Syria and Iraq to its alleged historical roots. There is a lot more to the Shia-Sunni conflict then a supposed Game of Thrones and it certainly has as much to do with the global politics during post-formative periods of Islam, not to mention a theological meta-narrative.

Hazleton neither has the historical insight of William Dalrymple, nor she has the profundity of Orlando Figes to produce a useful narrative-history for widely informed audience.  In the absence of footnotes and textual references, it is extremely hard to trace her contentions and speculations to original sources. Furthermore, the distraught and superficially agitated nature of the narrative is generally distasteful to a serious reader, who might not be interested in an over-dramatized good vs evil story. At the most, Hazleton’s account must be read as a riveting historical novel adapting real characters and actual events. Unfortunately for a serious student of history, it has nothing much to chew.