In a three day event organised at LUMS by the university’s literary and religious societies, Basit Bilal Koshul eloquently interprets Iqbal’s poem, Lenin in the Presence of God (Lenin Khuda key huzoor mein).
The poem is not only unique in its setting but also rich in its content. It sets an imaginary monologue in which Lenin asks God about some of his unresolved queries. Now that he is able to affirm the Ultimate Reality directly through his conscience, he explains why his reasoning led him to commit that intellectual folly; a reason which was not blind and completely devoid of any rationale. Iqbal, through Lenin, presents his intriguing questions to God; questions that are not related to metaphysical beliefs but related to complex problems of this world. I reproduce below the translation of this poem by V. G. Kiernan:
All space and all that breathes bear witness; truth
It is indeed; Thou art, and dost remain.
How could I know that God was or was not,
Where Reason’s reckonings shifted hour by hour?
The peerer at planets, the counter-up of plants,
Heard nothing there of Nature’s infinite music;
To-day I witnessing acknowledge realms
That I once thought the mummery of the Church.
We, manacled in the chains of day and night!
Thou, moulder of all time’s atoms, builder of aeons
Let me have leave to ask this question, one
Not answered by the subtleties of the schools,
That while I lived under the sky-tent’s roof
Like a thorn rankled in my heart, and made
Such chaos in my soul of all its thoughts
I could not keep my tumbling words in bounds.
Oh, of what mortal race art Thou the God?
Those creatures formed of dust beneath these heavens?
Europe’s pale checks are Asia’s pantheon,
And Europe’s pantheon her glittering metals.
A blaze of art and science lights the West
With darkness that no Fountain of Life dispels;
In high-reared grace, in glory and in grandeur,
The towering Bank out-tops the cathedral roof;
What they call commerce is a game of dice
For one, profit, for millions swooping death.
There science, philosophy, scholarship, government,
Preach man’s equality and drink men’s blood;
Naked debauch, and want, and unemployment
Are these mean triumphs of the Frankish arts
Denied celestial grace a nation goes
No further than electricity or steam
Death to the heart, machines stand sovereign,
Engines that crush all sense of human kindness.
-Yet signs are counted here and there that Fate,
The chess-player has check-mated all their cunning.
The Tavern shakes, its warped foundations crack,
The Old Men of Europe sit there numb with fear;
What twilight flush is left those faces now
Is paint and powder, or lent by flask and cup.
Omnipotent, righteous, Thou; but bitter the hours,
Bitter the labourer’s chained hours in Thy world!
When shall this galley of gold’s dominion founder?
Thy world Thy day of wrath, Lord, stands and waits.
Dr. Basit Bilal Koshul is no ordinary sociologist-philosopher. Albeit exceptional, his qualifications cannot depict the true reach of his intellect as well as his interdisciplinary acumen. Like a good teacher and trained philosopher, he deliberately stayed away from making any value judgments and just raised some very important and thoughtful questions in the course of three days.
Marxist ideal, according to Dr. Koshul, is against the scientific study of matter; therefore the claim it makes cannot be justified through the categories of the framework in which it is firmly placed. While questioning the origins of this idea, Koshul argued that it is either a spiritual revelation from heaven or a formative process catalyzed by the secularization of a spiritual ideal; the ideal which is blind in a strictly spiritual sense. First few lines of the poem, in which Lenin accepts his worldly shortcomings as he now acknowledges the Ultimate Reality in front of his eyes, point toward this blindness . Koshul’s claim at this point was that:
All values lead to certain realities in this world. Any discussion of spiritual reality without a reference to material reality is nonsense and will lead to degenerate materialism.
I asked Dr. Koshul, if it is possible to give a universal description of Ultimate Reality (I had the metaphysical metalanguage of Perennialists in my mind with their physical counterpart, i.e. Grand Unification Theory of theoretical physicists). He responded that it is difficult, as we still do not even have a universal language for describing all the realities of this world.
Iqbal then raises the issue of civilizations and and alludes to the so-called clash between East and West. Dr. Koshul said that Iqbal’s claim of West being in utter darkness is a provocative claim. “Where can we find civilization?” is the exact question he phrased; especially in today’s world where groups of intellectuals in the west are claiming that their civilization is under attack by barbarians.
In this part of the discourse, Koshul’s content was extremely rich. He pointed towards the European history, right from the French revolution to the Nazi death camps, referring texts like the Cunning of History by Richard Rubenstein. There were subtle pointers in Dr. Koshul’s presentation towards the prevailing western art and architecture, finer nuances of economic activity like parallels between speculation in stock market and gambling, a culture of entertainment that ‘amuses one’s self to death‘ and claims that it is a human right to caricature and blaspheme God. According to Koshul, the question of civilization is still an open-ended question if one prefers to remain objective.
The final problem that the poem points towards is regarding religion vs secularism; a question that Iqbal has also asked (in a different way) in the last lecture of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam and a search in which Kant precedes him from his own perspective. Koshul was par excellence in this concluding part of the presentation. Trying not to lose objectivity, he did not ask whether religion is in crisis or not; rather, he asserted that if religion is in crisis, secularism is in as much crisis. “Where lies the hope for truth: In religion or secularism?” is the only objective question that can be asked. Koshul contended that science cannot affirm or negate the claims of metaphysics. If we believe that science can give us all the answers concerning our self and the Ultimate Reality, its a noble lie on which we are relying upon.
I asked Dr. Koshul if it is important at all to ponder over the question of Absolute Truth in the universe and Reality that surrounds and contains us (I had the philosophy of Pragmatism in my mind and I remember making a reference to it also, asking him for his comments). He replied that one may live meaningfully without any notion of Absolute Truth, keeping oneself within the ethical and moral bounds dictated by the society; however one cannot die a meaningful death. He added that his affiliations with Pragmatism are more in line with the likes of William James and Josiah Royce and he does not have a very high regard for Richard Rorty’s school.
It was an enlightening and educating experience. In my opinion, LUMS is lucky to have a scholar like Dr. Basit Bilal Koshul and Pakistan is fortunate to have him back.