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.

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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.

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  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

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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.

Voice of the Creature Thrown Back on Itself: The Sorrows of Young Werther

Our Soul discovers itself when we come into contact with a great mind. It is not until I had realised the Infinitude of Goethe’s imagination that I discovered the narrow breadth of my own. -(Iqbal, Stray Reflections)

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Sorrows of Young Werther

The fact that so many people read it merely as a melancholic tale of unrequited love, kind of corroborates how we, in general, are unequipped to naturally reflect on the amazing complexity of our being’s existence in time. In fact, regardless of its original biographical bent, this beautiful narrative is as much about the inexplicable nature of our very existence as it is about the Goethe’s intended catharsis through his protagonist. It is a simple and strong statement regarding man’s fateful desires and seemingly blurred lines between the free-will and determination.

In other words, its Goethe’s way of asking whether a man can choose to be happy or to put it more precisely: is it possible to achieve happiness as an ideal or even pursue it, without being perturbed by nature’s innumerable dictating factors?

I thank you, Wilhelm, for your heartfelt sympathy, for your well-intentioned advice, but beg you to be quiet. Let me stick it out. Blessedly exhausted as I am, I have strength enough to carry through. I honor religion, you know that, I feel it is a staff for many weary souls, refreshment for many a one who is pining away. But–can it be, must it be, the same thing for everyone? If you look at the great world, you see thousands for whom it wasn’t, thousands for whom it will not be the same, preached or unpreached, and must it then be the same for me? Does not the son of God Himself say that those would be around Him whom the Father had given Him? But if I am not given? If the Father wants to keep me for Himself, as my heart tells me?–I beg you, do not misinterpret this, do not see mockery in these innocent words. What I am laying before you is my whole soul; otherwise I would rather have kept silent, as I do not like to lose words over things that everyone knows as little about as I do. What else is it but human destiny to suffer out one’s measure, drink up one’s cup?–And if the chalice was too bitter for the God from heaven on His human lips, why should I boast and pretend that it tastes sweet to me? And why should I be ashamed in the terrible moment when my entire being trembles between being and nothingness, since the past flashes like lightning above the dark abyss of the future and everything around me is swallowed up, and the world perishes with me?–Is that not the voice of the creature thrown back on itself, failing, trapped, lost, and inexorably tumbling downward, the voice groaning in the inner depths of its vainly upwards-struggling energies: My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me? And if I should be ashamed of the expression, should I be afraid when facing that moment, since it did not escape Him who rolls up heaven like a carpet?”

And then besides being a heartsick soliloquy of an enervating young lover, its also about those walnut trees which were cut down by the vicar’s wife, those tears in the schoolmaster’s eyes who broke that news or the little Hans who just stop existing one day.

Those of us who do not have the requisite literary skills to fully appreciate the true sorrow in Greek tragedy, would perhaps find nothing better in literature to provoke us to shed a spontaneous tear or two.

To Cultivate Hatred as a Civic Passion

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“Why are you after the Jews in particular?”

“Because in Russia there are Jews. If I were living in Turkey, I would be after the Armenians.”

“So you want the Jews to be destroyed?”

“I don’t want to destroy the Jews. I might even say the Jews are my best allies. I’m interested in the morale of the Russian people. It is my wish (and the wish of those I hope to please) that these people do not direct their discontent against the Tsar. We therefore need an enemy. There’s no point looking for an enemy among, I don’t know, the Mongols or the Tatars, as despots have done in the past. For the enemy to be recognized and feared, he has to be in your home or on your doorstep. Hence the Jews. Divine providence has given them to us, and so, by God, let us use them, and pray there’s always some Jew to fear and to hate. We need an enemy to give people hope. Someone said that patriotism is the last refuge of cowards; those without moral principles usually wrap a flag around themselves, and the bastards always talk about the purity of the race. National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal. That is why Christ was killed: he spoke against nature. You don’t love someone for your whole life — that impossible hope is the source of adultery, matricide, betrayal of friends . . . But you can hate someone for your whole life, provided he’s always there to keep your hatred alive. Hatred warms the heart.”

(Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery)

 

A Missive to My Grandfather: An Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living

Assalamu Alaykum Nana Abba,

The present engagement must not be taken as criticism or critique of any of your considered viewpoints on religion and society but just an apologetic discourse on my behalf. I found it necessary because during our engagement on social network during last year, I have found you ostensibly critical of my literary indulgences while being self-righteous yourself. I do respect your viewpoints from the core of my heart and its not my stature to teach you something; however, since your criticism divulges your moral stances, it becomes kind of morally incumbent upon me to share mine.

ThinkerTo start with, while having immense respect for your standpoints, its remarkable to see your authoritative soft-averseness and carefully veiled lack of empathy to the religious ‘other’. I fail to understand why must we speak in God’s name and why must we doubt anyone’s intentions, may it be the so-called heathen philosophers or illuminating literati whom you apparently despise? Is it a moral necessity?

It might very well be possible that all of us in Indian Subcontinent might still be Hindus, Sikhs and Jainists, if its not for multitude of intricately entangled historical causes which I cannot even begin to list here in this space. Its only Allah’s blessing that we are Muslims and have the gift of Iman; and we cannot claim to have achieved this blessing of Islam on the strength of our intellect and imagination alone. Hence, while being grateful to this blessing, we have no right to portray authoritatively that we have the sole claim to truth and everyone else is living and dying on falsehood. In my humble view, this is a highly distorted view of humanity and existence.

I wish you understand that the claim to truth and the truth itself are two different things altogether.  Or must we follow Bani Israel in proclaiming that we have the sole claim to paradise and blessings by virtue of being chosen from the God?

literatureQuran, or for that matter, any religious text, is merely ink and paper and its us which have to ultimately make sense of it. The complex dynamics of one man’s faith cannot be effectively and conclusively commented upon by another man. I would plead you to leave the final judgement to Allah who alone enjoys that ultimate prerogative, as He knows the inside of our hearts.

Our critiques, criticism and commentaries must be intelligently nuanced to disseminate self-awareness and affirmation of our own subjective attitudes. Being Muslims and having particular interpretations of religion, life and death, does not theoretically exclude the possibility that we may prove to be ultimately wrong when these mysteries will be resolved and the illusion of this mortal temporality will be no more.

This awareness must not be misconstrued as a weakness of faith, confusion or ambivalence but just the humbleness of enquiry and empathy to other people’s struggles. Ultimately, its the struggle, with intention to find truth, that is more important than the claim of truth itself.

According to a famous Hadith of Prophet, Quran will be the Hujjah for us or against us on the judgement day. Therefore, what matters is whether we have tried to access it with good intention and clarity of purpose to find the original intention of Allah Almighty. In the end, all of us, if we continue to struggle with the text, reach a considered understanding of this Divine intention; some a little early in their life and some when they approach their biological terminus. However, no one can ultimately extend his claim of discovering that truth outside himself. The best we can do is to share our understanding and leave it at that.

That is why its called understanding: its a very personal, deeply intricate and elusive cognitive condition.

For all practical purposes in this life, we essentially have multiple claims understanding God’s intention and therefore, variety of truths. And there is no absolute way of claiming any version as final. Whoever does this emphatically is doing nothing but finding himself in and out of Divine shoes. In essence, this is one way of understanding why this life is a testing ground: we have to deal with variety of truth and use our critical judgement to decipher our own. 

To reiterate from another dimension, each one of us accesses revelation from our particular standpoint and has been granted this rightQuran by none other than Allah Almighty. We approach it (the revelation) with various apriori multidimensional constructs based on knowledge, attitudes and psychologies. The phenomenological manifestation of this complex combination can be called the experience of our self; and our indulgence in Quran and Sunnah, rather the whole tradition, is ultimately dictated by our imaginative self alone. If one is a misogynist, he is liable to read Quran from a patricentric standpoint; on the other hand if one’s interest lies in political dimension, he will find the mention of Caliphate in every other Ayah or Hadith or at least, be more receptive to the textual areas which are magnified due to the locus of imagination.

You being a businessman, having interest in economics and being monetarily preoccupied for last six decades, are liable to find that part of Quranic message most interesting and gripping. On the other hand, I remain occupied in life, society, literature, science and philosophical issues and find myself engaged in that arena. Our indulgences give us essentially different outlooks to life, and therefore, it is normal that I find some of your readings simplistic; on the contrary you may find my indulgences otiose. Bottom line: we are different persons and have our own struggles.

In a nutshell, while you have reached some conclusions, I might find them crass, ineffectual, unimaginative or simply uninteresting. This, however, does not mean that I am employing a binary construct where one of us is either right or wrong. My readings of life and society tells me that our zeal to discover truth and its multiple versions (as explained above), each one of us claims to believe, are situated on a continuum with a lot of grey distributed between black and white. The black and the white is merely there in a theoretical sense to characterize the extremities, or else the spectrum would be rendered meaningless and incomplete. The wider, larger chunk consists of grey and there lies our real struggles.

I know that you wish well for me and I appreciate that being an octogenarian your flew from Karachi to Islamabad to spent a day with me and share your readings and views, however, you have to realize that this is not simply an issue of being right and wrong. Its about our respective views of life, the complexities of our milieu, the problems that bred therefrom and the possible solutions.

QuestionsI am a strong believer in the act of questioning, and my readings subsequently allow me to reflect and improve my questions. For me, its the question that has to be asked meaningfully because the act of questioning take fuller and forceful characterizations as necessary premises. I believe that at this point in our social ontogenesis its the act of questioning that matters foremost, as our intellectual arena is bombarded with responses but there are seldom any meaningful questions. Our best minds must engage in the act of characterization and finally frame the right questions. History do tell us that if we fulfil this necessity, the way would be paved for the answers almost naturally. However, whenever the time will come, these would essentially be the collective responses.

In the end, being the motes of dust, our individual answers do not matter at all in greater scheme of things. These personal claims to truth are in fact answers to non-existent or abstract enquiries, which are not important as far as the reality outside ourselves is concerned. Therefore, I keep my answers (these claims to metaphysical truths) to my innermost self and would like to die that way, In-sha-Allah. The only answers that matter  for our societal being are those effectual in the social realm and these, as I have said, are bulldozed in response to wrong questions.

Take care and May Allah give you longevity, health and blessings of both worlds. Do continue sharing your wisdom as usual and remember me in your prayers as always.

wassalamu alaykum wa rahmatullah.