On Hope and Other Chic Ideals

Literally squeezing last drops of socio-political, historical, scientific and literary analysis coming out of global cyber industry since last decade now, I am pushed to share one humble bit of my personal lay-reader’s critical viewpoint on US Elections 2016.

Liberals in the USA, who are weeping as if a valuable ideal has lost, always have a way of rationalizing blood on their beloved African-American, or in fact any president’s hands; these are interesting times when we have even movies coming out of Hollywood rationalizing or at least problematizing the paradox of a drone operator’s choice; alien immigrants, who are in the long queues of naturalization and now chest-thumping for an allegedly lost compassionate ideal, have a way of forgetting how they support puritans, religious bigots and radical xenophobes back home; in short, all of us, somehow, ultimately end up settling over a subjective resolution of choice-paradox staring at our face.

There may be more humanistic exceptions but a closer inspection would certainly reveal deep crevices.

We must, at least, accept this double-standard as an apriori fact but unfortunately, it won’t happen since it has never happened in the past. It is what you call an outlier habit of mind, not even closer to the mean value, not within any standard deviation. Its fragments are scattered all over the pages of history of ideas.

Now, when the fun part seems finally over, Pakistani conservatives would start selling the same bull-crap aimed at rationalizing totalitarianism, secular or religious nationalism verging on the boundaries of soft-fascism, or at least, selectively biased populism. Understandably so, since Conservative right-wingers don’t need to be original; after all, they derive their lifeblood from an age-old xenophobic impulse with diverse manifestations. Social, religious or philosophical theories merely presume this impulse as a fact and try to channelize it.

Pakistani liberals will have nothing original to say as always. They are merely a manifestation of phantasmagorical reactive attitude that sparks off in response to an equally phantasmagorical conservative psychology rooted in the above mentioned fundamental impulse. There is no original Pakistani liberalism, as such, which really belongs to its own milieu. There are fragments of it but now they are considered a shade of conservatism since the liberal mean is shifted ahead, and will soon be completely lost with the coming generation.

So where do we go from here?

In fact, history has a way of reminding us incessantly that there is a lot of randomness that cannot be predicted in historical process. By lot of randomness, I mean so much that is beyond any rational models yet developed by human beings.

We must realize that ultimately, human beings are doomed to choose with every reconfiguration of a spatio-temporal continuum, and all such choices are justified as logically ‘reasonable’. As Camus said, it is always easy to be logical but it is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. I think he was too gracious to put that qualifier ‘almost’. It is perhaps simply impossible.

All the dialectics that arrive after the forced moment of choice just aim to pronounce one rationalization or the other. All religious, philosophical, or political views against an absolute justification of necessary relativisation of all values are merely an ameliorated bull-crap. The smell coming out of the rot underneath ideological paradigms of reason is too much to miss. Let us not fool ourselves with short bursts of one ideology or the other.

In a nutshell, our best analyses must aim to describe, again describe and continue completing the sketch, while always stopping just short of prediction. Prediction gives a false illusion of control. Prediction gives us more hope than is necessary. Hope is a drug that should be imbibed in infinitesimally small doses. Too much hope has a way of transforming itself into ideology.

All of us do have our socio-political sensibilities, religious or quasi-religious notions of morality, and plans to arrive in time at our Utopian destinations. We are doomed to travel toward the idealized terminus. But while doing so, we must not forget that we are collectively adrift within a chaotic flow of history, and there is no way to know whether this chaotic flow looks deterministic from some higher plane or not. As I said, any notion of control is merely an illusion.

If there is any least common idealistic denominator, it is flowing as close together as possible. Applying any conditions on this ideal of spatial close proximity would ultimately negate that ideal from within. This ideal seems necessary since we have an impulse to live and not kill ourselves.

But all of it, that is, realization of the flow, this strange presence we call life, is nevertheless very interesting; its so sedative and at the same time so tragicomic. As Vonnegut put it so bravely, life is no way to treat an animal.

Once looking back from somewhere ahead on the flow, all of it, the complexity of the process, the multitude of variable space seems so mesmerizing. Its sheer grandeur, beauty or nefariousness cannot be missed. Just like when you this 1987 flashback of Donald Trump interviewed by Larry King.

Certainly, there are more surprises awaiting the pundits still bent on predicting eventualities, one way or the other.

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An Open Letter to a Private English-Medium School’s CEO

Dear Sir, assalamu alay’kum

It has been a while since I wanted to engage with you regarding an extremely important issue of both immediate as well as long-term importance. In fact, I carried fragments of this concern since I admitted my eldest children in your school a little more than eight years ago; however, I somehow kept procrastinating to indulge with you formally. This reasonably long period and my continuing diverse academic indulgences in philosophy, literature, social sciences and engineering gave me enough time to reflect incessantly and frame this problem in a somewhat befitting manner.

The issue at hand is complete disregard of pedagogical significance of Urdu language by your esteemed institution, and how it not only reduces functional capacity of a child’s imagination but also endangers its creative capacity to model complex spatio-temporal problems related to science and engineering, as well as humanities.

Guided by my experiences as an academician and a social critic of sorts, I have reasons to believe that in all good faith, you tend to fall prey to various post-colonial pedagogical sensibilities where not realizing the subtle distinctions between “learning a language” and “learning in a language” have already reduced the whole industry of education to a grim duality, that is, English medium vs Urdu medium. I do not wish to digress towards the adverse social effects of ascribing to such dualities in this space, however, you would perhaps agree that by promoting (read ‘enforcing’) English in school premises in such a manner that children and teachers are administratively discouraged to communicate in vernacular, negatively transforms young psychologies to consciously or subconsciously reduce Urdu to a so-called subaltern language in an otherwise supposedly anglicized atmosphere. However, this largely artificial Anglicization in a school which imparts education to predominantly middle-class strata of society cannot promise much except a generation feigning false elitist appearances with stilted pronunciations.

But I apologize for digressing into some unwarranted social criticism—since I understand the competitive marketing concerns for the contemporary private-sector education market which promises a constant supply of the so-called quality human resource to the modern world—in order to supply additional grounds for a point I am about to make. My primary concern is with the pedagogical and didactic compromises which need to be made in order to achieve objectives which are rooted in above mentioned sensibilities.

Find-XThat language is the key in elementary school class room scene is a fact far better known to you than me, since I am faced with a comparatively less difficult pedagogical challenge of teaching graduate and post-graduate students. Language, being the only mental tool to shape pointers for conceptualizing both abstract and concrete aspects of reality, is always firmly rooted in a complex and intricately rich milieu, the so-called Weltanschauung. It is certainly possible (and desirable) to acquire a foreign language, rather as many languages for utilitarian as well as aesthetical concerns, but it is impossible to train a mind to transform its mental habits according to a totally different milieu; and younger the mind, greater the degree of this  impossibility. In fact, there is a plethora of research supporting this claim, but since I do not intend to present my views as a technical paper, only drawing your attention to one of the recommendations (quoted here) of a British Council study titled, ‘Language in Education in Pakistan: Recommendations for Policy and Practice’ coauthored Hywel Coleman and Tony Capstick in 2010 should suffice:

“Early years’ education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels … poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long-term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalization leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities.’’

Since my submittal may be construed as drawing you needlessly to a broad-spectrum ongoing debate in Pakistan in the wake of recent Supreme Court decision in favor of Urdu, I would like to clarify that I have no such intention to make a case for a sweeping shift to Urdu since it is your institutional prerogative as a private entity and I respect your right and judgment. Moreover, I fully understand that not all children in your school are native Urdu speakers belonging to various regional communities; in any case, it is not unreasonable to assume that a native young speaker of Pushto or Punjabi is still far more mentally accustomed to Urdu as compared to English.

This private engagement, therefore, is not from the perspective of an Urdu promoter or a literary enthusiast, but simply as a concerned parent and an academician. Take for instance, an extremely simple example from a 6th grade Mathematics textbook (Oxford D-1), I was just discussing the other evening with my son.

David was trying to sleep one night but there was too much noise around him. His clock ticked every 5 seconds; a tap was dripping every 7 seconds and his pet dog snored every 12 seconds. He noticed on his clock that all three things happened together on the stroke of midnight.

  • After how many seconds would all three things happen together again?

  • How many times would all three things happen together again between midnight and one o’clock?

I want to put a disclaimer that this problem is deliberately picked as the one with least degree of linguistic complexity in the problem narrative. The aim is to show how an ostensibly simplest narrative like this one carries various challenges for the student as well as teacher in the class room environment which is not conducive for a bilingual (or trilingual) interaction, rather forced against the native vernacular of speakers. I assume that the point being consistently ignored here while informing your decisions of enforcing English as instructional language is the whole image-creating nature of language in the mind of the young student who is trying to map an abstract concept—Least Common Multiple in this case—to a concrete problem situated in real world. A simple and direct utterance by a teacher in class room that,

ایک رات ڈیوڈ  سو نے کی کوشش کر رہا تھا لیکن اس کے آس پاس بہت  شور تھا۔ اس کی گھڑی   ہر پانچ سیکنڈ بعد ٹک ٹک کرتی تھی، پانی کا نلکا  سات سیکنڈ بعد ٹپ ٹپ کرتا تھا اوراس کا کتا بارہ سیکنڈ  بعد  خراٹے لیتا تھا۔  اس نے اپنی گھڑی پر دیکھا کہ رات  کے ٹھیک بارہ بجے  شور کی  یہ تینوں آوازیں اکٹھی آئیں۔ اب دوبارہ  یہ  تینوں آوازیں کب  ایک ساتھ آئیں گی؟ اور  بارہ سے ایک کے درمیان یعنی اگلے ایک گھنٹے میں ایسا کتنی بار  اکٹھے ہو گا؟

considerably reduces the burden of mind’s effort to make a mental picture corresponding to the problem at hand. Regardless of the question whether all the children in classroom are perfectly at ease with pictures of a ‘dripping tap’, ‘snoring dog’ and ‘ticking clock’, the real challenge faced by the teacher is linking the problem statement to the particular mathematical concept. Here the teacher is faced with the challenge of pushing students to discover that using the concept of Least Common Multiple solves an otherwise laborious real problem. As I see it, restricting the class room interaction to English language hampers the whole instructive process in two ways: one, it adds a completely needless extra layer in creating an adequate mental picture of the problem and two, it forces teacher to somehow resort to instructive approach—as far as imparting knowledge of a particular mathematical concept is concerned—rather than working with the young minds to discover the concepts themselves. The latter impediment to learning is simply introduced by unavoidably linking phrases such as together again to the concept of Least Common Multiple. We must understand that making these linkages are indeed widely accepted as an admissible pedagogical tool, but one that works differently for native speakers of a language than those who are already studying a text book in a foreign language that is English in this case. Even in case of native speakers these verbal-conceptual linkages work in collaboration with experimental or pictorial approaches, and employed diversely by teachers who are far well trained in advanced countries as compared to developing third world.

Concluding this missive, I would just reiterate that mandating the use of English as instructive and interactive language in class room for scientific subjects such as Mathematics or Physics is obviously at the cost of one additional layer of translation. Moreover a decision like this, motivated from some unfathomable slanted considerations, completely disregards the nature of language as a tool for learning, thereby rendering the whole instructive activity counter-productive. Lastly it adds complex, unpredictable and unique distortions in the whole instructive process since neither all the teachers, nor all the students share the same cognitive models when it comes to medium of class room communication. One can easily imagine the difficulty by reconstructing the famous TV show “Mind Your Language” in a class room for elementary mathematics, as a theoretical experiment.

I wish and pray that you take this criticism in positive spirit and can only hope that you end up agreeing with me after due reflection. I assure you that it would immensely improve the standard of comprehension as far as scientific subjects involving abstract thinking is concerned. By leaving the instructive atmosphere of the class room to the ease of students as well as teachers by not mandating the use of English language, you would not only help shedding the needlessly accrued mental burden but also gain benefits of a rich bilingual atmosphere, where both languages would augment the limitations of each other.

Yours sincerely,

Aasem D. Bakhshi

Among Dogmatic Slumberers (III): Quranic Contemplation into Universe, A Universally Communicable Experience of Ultimate Reality or Insistence on an Esoteric Mystic Consciousness?

A modified Urdu version of this essay is published in Al-Shariah (Aug, 2014), and can be accessed here

When a supposedly well-crafted exposition sets about by throwing a classical ad hominem, it defies the whole aura of academic critique. Besides adding a tinge of offensive posture, otherwise customary for social media brawls, it also lays bare the hidden biases which deform even a good and otherwise well-intended argument. This is what can be called a first reaction to Abdullah Shariq’s essay in a recent issue of Al-Shariah; needless to mention that his concern is well-intended and his argument is a reasonable representation of a complete strata of classical modern Islamic thought. Some readers might be amazed by my use of the word ‘modern’ but there are well grounded reasons to read these simplistic trends as modernist; since unlike the classical periods of theory-making, positions are taken here which are ostensibly oblivious to underlying philosophical standpoints regarding theory of knowledge, its cosmological underpinnings, and conception of God and human being. Or else, if these omissions are advertently intended, then the whole exposition can be labelled as a reductionist tirade.

To recapitulate, here is the crux of the argument: The kind of contemplation Quran, and therefore God, requires an individual to do regarding the universe is not ‘scientific contemplation‘ rather a ‘spiritual‘ one. Because the scientific contemplation is centered on materialistic, empirical enquiry, it cannot instill the desired religious experience bordering on an esoteric spiritual recognition of the majestic glory and presence of Allah Almighty. Scientific activity, even if an individual engages in it, is legally categorized by the author as Mubah. Simply speaking, God is indifferent if one undertakes scientific contemplation in the nature and working of universe. Consequently, as the desired religious experience is essentially a spiritual one, it is poles apart from any scientific enterprise in the name of exploring religious truth. Moreover, a pressing leading question, appealing to historicism from early generations of formative period of Islam, is raised: If scientific contemplation and an attitude of materialistic enquiry is appropriate, why wouldn’t Prophet encouraged it, and companions engaged themselves actively in it? As a corollary to this question, why would it took a century after first four caliphs before the so called translation movement from Greeks set off in the Abbasid dynasty? Why didn’t earlier Muslim invasion of Sassanian or Byzantium empire trigger the translation movement?

Interjecting it as a disclaimer, I must begin by appreciating that from the perspective of ongoing tussle between modern scientific materialism and classical religious spiritualism, the views expressed by the author have an element of genuine concern. The ‘scientific‘ education rooted in modern capitalist knowledge-based economy is giving way to epistemic attitudes, where a modern man’s thinking patterns are essentially dualistic, if not totally tilted on the side of various forms of materialism. It must also be noted that we are talking about a religious man since that is a necessary assumption of the whole dialogue. However, with all the good intention of reviving this balance in favor of transcendental spiritual element, the whole argument is questionable on number of accounts. Since the whole phenomenology of engaging with a text, which is in our case claimed to be Divine, is not the central issue of the dialogue we must proceed from a necessary presupposition, that is, the act of deliberation over Quran cannot situate itself extraneous to the individual who is engaging with the Divine text. In other words, we must agree from the onset that this act of contemplation, or to employ the exact Quranic terminology Tadabbur, is not orthogonal to the human experience, since we cannot possibly speak of an individual engaged with Quranic text without assuming something about his experience. Therefore, in order to move forward, we must agree that the enterprise of Tadabbur would necessarily vary from individual to individual, but the underlying aim is to guide towards a common transcendental Truth or Ultimate Reality.

Moving from this necessary agreement, various questions automatically pose themselves to a scientific temperament engaged with Divine truths. For instance, in the Quranic semantics, what constitutes an enterprise of contemplation into the universe? Is Quran indifferent to the questions regarding the ultimate nature and functioning of universe? What is the exact nomenclature of human experience of the external world? How is this experience related to the internal world of innumerable inspirations, attitudes, psychologies and temperaments? Is this internal psychology and external sensory experience closely entangled as a unified monolithic whole or can we necessarily identify one that triggers the other? Is it possible to speak of some psychological models that can characterize all individuals in terms of their experiences of transcendental truths asserted by the revelation forcefully and unequivocally, and the resulting fulfillment? What is the relationship between human knowledge and experience, in other words the perennial question of knowledge and being?

Most importantly, since the whole premise is basically the necessity of inward and outward contemplation to access the Ultimate Truth, is Quran only interested in making case for a higher-poetic experience, a kind of mystic union so to speak, or modern man’s concrete habits of thought can also result in the kind of knowledge which can make such a union possible?

The purpose obviously is not to supply exhaustive, satisfying answers to all these questions; since minds far better than us, belonging to diverse religious, scientific or philosophical domains, have been tackling these since the age of great sages and prophets of antiquity. However, the human consciousness and experience is continuously undergoing a process of enrichment and creativity, thereby supplying new answers and looking at the past in the light of new knowledge. Therefore, the present motivation is only to question the presented classical discourse and help framing questions which are meaningful to a mind of modernist as well as traditional bent.

Unlike the ostensible classical perception insinuated from the referred piece, the truth of Quran is essentially a monolith, the Ultimate Reality being essentially singular. The categories of knowledge such as physical, biological or psychological sciences are in fact meant to guide us towards exploring that singularity. A largely prevailing modern view in philosophy of science – one that is motivating research since almost last few centuries – that the whole universe is governed by a singular identifiable law [1] echoes reasonably well with the overall Quranic spirit. Moreover, since the cosmos also encompasses the world within, the singularity of its governing principle also entail singularity of human experience. Therefore, it becomes obvious that the same mind which is engaged with knowing the external world around him is capable of knowing the Ultimate Reality. In this regard, arguing for a mystic experience as something essentially in contrast with the more concrete intellectual, and thus scientific, experience may not be such a plausible idea. Here we can see this peculiar atomistic tendency of classical viewpoint in the central argument of the referred exposition. In an almost poetic prose with some mystic element, the author sets about explaining what Quran means by contemplation in universe,

It means contemplation which draws attention towards the creator of the universe and produces an attitude of attention towards God, the kind of contemplation which provokes him to see the light of God in each and every particle of the universe, and he finds himself completely immersed in this light; the kind of contemplative process, during which the individual finds himself absorbed in the Being of God, finds himself overpowered with the Divine power and glory, and attitude of closeness to God is instilled into him. [2]

The problem here is not the pattern of thinking where sensory experience of the universe is giving way to a kind of religious experience of transcendental reality, or existence of Divine presence in the macrocosm. That is obviously a given from any reading of the Quran including the one shared above, may it be scientific or otherwise. Rather the problem is the classical thought almost inadvertently pitting a mystic experience against a more concrete, so called scientific experience of reality. As I read it, this view is provoked by a largely mystic-pietistical understanding of human fulfillment through religious experience.

In one of the most original studies regarding nature of religious experience in modern times, William James shed some light on the nature of it varieties [3], and Iqbal discussed it in depth in his first lecture [4], explaining significance of Islamic doctrine, and placing its metaphysical element in the context of concrete rather than esoteric experience,

No doubt, religious beliefs and dogmas have a metaphysical significance; but it is obvious that they are not interpretations of those data of experience which are the subject of the science of Nature. Religion is not physics or chemistry seeking an explanation of Nature in terms of causation; it really aims at interpreting a totally different region of human experience – religious experience – the data of which cannot be reduced to the data of any other science. In fact, it must be said in justice to religion that it insisted on the necessity of concrete experience in religious life long before science learnt to do so. The conflict between the two is due not to the fact that the one is, and the other is not, based on concrete experience. Both seek concrete experience as a point of departure. Their conflict is due to the misapprehension that both interpret the same data of experience. We forget that religion aims at reaching the real significance of a special variety of human experience.

What does it mean therefore to say that contemplation in the universe, which is essentially a sensory experience interpreting some data immediately available to it, can guide me towards a higher reality?

It isn’t merely a spiritual catastrophe that doesn’t instigate a rich experience of highest truth, in other words an attention towards the glory of God almighty, in most modern temperaments. Of course, it has a lot to do with distorted modern human condition, regarding actual place of human self in the cosmic scheme, yet it will not be reversed simply by appealing to moral and practical aptitudes, since it has a lot to with transformation of human experience that has taken place since the so called age of enlightenment [5]. Such a reversal is only possible through studying the nature and historical context of cultural and philosophical factors that shaped such an experience and suggesting means to enrich it in modern settings. Indeed, the means of enrichment and the enrichment itself must only come about from a single source, that is, revelation.

The question about the nature of contemplation automatically presumes something about the object of contemplation. The Quran obviously presents the whole cosmos as an indirect pointer towards the Divine creativity. This teleological appeal contains in itself an inherent demand to know. The problem, therefore, boils down to the classical problem of knowledge, and this is the area where the intellect and the object it wishes to perceive necessarily interact.

We are not interested here in the epidemiological dimensions but a more simpler question, namely, how does the object of knowledge presents itself to a knower? Even a cursory reader of Quran would agree that revelation primarily addresses our intuitive capacities and then invites our ordinary sensory-experience to vindicate that intuition; after all, its the ordinary sensory-experience that is our sole universal possession. Besides breaking away from the classical esoteric traditions of perceiving higher reality, this novel aspect of Quran is also not contradictory to modern science. From a scientific perspective, Quran simply provides intuitive symbols towards an higher reality to an engaging mind, and motivates him to know the intricacies in the universe. For instance, when a reader is told that God sends rain (Luqman: 34), it is simply an intuitive knowledge to provoke further exploration for environmental regulatory mechanisms bringing about rain; when Quran says that man is created from a quintessence of clay (Al-Muminoon: 12), it provides the bare minimum knowledge serving intuitive thrust and motivating a biological academic quest; and when it contends that Kuffar are worst than animals (Al-Airaaf: 179), it doesn’t set about on a detailed theory of human nature and belief, thereby providing intuitive pointers for development of moral philosophy and psychology.

In this manner, since it moves forward from an assumption of Divine revelation from the mouth of Prophet, Quran suffices itself with more or less intuitive aspects of knowledge. To maintain that these intuitive aspects of knowledge are something distinct from Quranic contemplation is not only based on erroneous, insufficient or biased readings of Quran but also based on simplistic philosophical or scientific foundations. It is true that there are academic currents denying or questioning them, but from a sheer religious perspective the ultimate cornerstone of separating truth from falsehood is again revelation. Therefore, for a curious religious reader it is merely a preservation of faith in revelation that these intuitive and imaginative aspects, as well as metaphysical foundations, underlying scientific enterprise are being exhaustively explored by philosophers of science, for instance, Edwin Burtt [6] and Gerald Holten [7].

Consequently, if religious solace of recognizing a higher truth can just come about from staring at heavens, and feeling glory of God showering upon us, there is nothing objectionable in it, per se. However, its a kind of religious experience that cannot be concretely communicated as a universal truth statement, in other words, its a personal intuitive version of truth still demanding to be verified or falsified.

It is also correct that any such experience does not depend upon a particular academic position regarding the state of universe, such as earth being flat or universe being heliocentric. However, it is also a fact that besides inviting a reader to look up towards the skies and peep inwards into his heart, revelation continuously frames arguments which implicitly or explicitly force a reader towards envisioning a particular version of physical reality. As mentioned above, this aspect of revelation, however, is not an scientific-empirical judgement but necessarily an intuition about aspect of physical, or psychological reality – that is, signs in the outer as well as the inner world which are meant to be deciphered by the consciousness. Faith in an Ultimate Reality has therefore a necessary cognitive element to it. Being a byproduct of ethical, aesthetical and religious elements of consciousness, each of us, in at least some sense, do experience higher-reality in a unique way. Since immediacy of this experience lies in an individual’s interaction with the text, what we understand as expressions of knowledge or truth would greatly expand with the kind of meanings are intellects are capable of creating, being function of our present state of knowledge. Thus the appropriate Quranic promise: Soon will We show them our Signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth), and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth. Is it not enough that thy Lord doth witness all things? (Fussilat: 53)

For what is faith but our possession of truth, what kind of force it has if it cannot be expressed outside ourselves? If you insist that contemplating signs such as “He surrounds (all the mysteries) that are with them, and takes account of every single thing (Al-Jinn 28)” gives you a kind of overwhelming psychological feeling regarding presence of Lord and “there is not a thing but its treasures are with Us; but We only send down thereof in due and ascertainable measures (Al-Hijr 21)” gives you a taste of showering glory, I have a respect and reverence for your faith, and have no motivation to doubt its psychological element, but there is no way to express it beyond yourself as a sound knowledge because there are no universals principles that can judge its general relationship with all human beings. On the other hand, a logician, mathematician or scientist, while interacting with same components of text, would obviously get an intuitive motivation to explore the nature of infinities since he decipher those signs as assertive judgement regarding cosmic truths. Hence, to reduce the complex nomenclature of human consciousness to a mere psychological element is an ironical error of judgment. What is more ironical is to insist, to borrow words from Iqbal, that a purely psychological method can fully explain religious passion as a form of knowledge.

To reiterate, it can certainly give you a sense of individual fulfillment but its not a knowledge upon which you can insist with conviction and certainty outside yourself. On a generalized scale, this is complex and problematic since regardless of scientific, social or psychological dimensions, ultimate unison of knowledge and being is primarily a religious demand and a fundamental prerequisite for any possibility of arriving at a sustainable meta-theory.

We are now in a position to analyze the assumption regarding the early Prophetic community not engaging in a sustained empirical enquiry in a scientific contemplative fashion. Disregarding the socio-historical and cultural aspects, and what ‘scientific contemplation‘ may mean in the pre-medieval tribal societies, we can at least argue from the perspective of placing response of immediate Prophetic community to revelation and how they understood truth in relation to it. In this respect, Dr Muhammad Rafiuddin, a really imaginative philosopher and an interpreter of Iqbal, had some really interesting ideas to offer regarding putting the Prophetic mission in philosophical perspective. According to Rafiuddin, since human beings naturally have variety of intuitive ideas due to their different dispositions, Prophets are God’s way of intervening to sift right intuitions from the wrong ones [8]. We have already discussed above how revelation primarily serves with emphatic truth statements, leaving the aspects of rationalization or theory-construction to the intellects. In this regards, its the natural mode of perception which is first receptor of revelation before the subsequent take over by the somewhat artificial intellectual self. The immediate Prophetic community, by virtue of its interaction with the Prophet living among them, did not naturally have the need of enterprises like theory-formation, truth-construction and knowledge-production. Moreover, the challenge presented to their claim of truth was not primarily rational or intellectual but more of a skeptic bent, per se, regarding truthfulness of Prophet, who was essentially a person like them claiming to be sent from God and having unequivocal possession of truth. As soon as this early, enclosed society expanded and interacted with other rich cultures and scientific-philosophical traditions, the nature of challenges exponentially diversified. The culmination of creative potentiality of human intellect can be inferred directly from the fact Quran is the the last word of God and Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet. That creative potential, however, is still in the process of actualization and text of Quran subsequently has the potential to incessantly create new meanings and rich vocabularies of expressing truth.

Lastly, arguing for scientific or philosophical contemplation in universe to picture reality, is not in any way meant to down play the spiritual or psychological aspects of reality. Truth and consciousness do have a certain esoteric relation but insisting on a transcendental pattern without understanding that relationship is a dangerous tendency. Human beings, by virtue of diverse conscious make-ups would continue to envision and understand truth in innumerable fashions. But an inward possession and sustenance of truth does not automatically entail a meaningful, consistent expression. Since the time of Pythagorean tradition, human beings have tried to produce consistent, rigorous pictures of higher-reality employing abstract mathematical concepts. There have been many historical troughs later, yet it has been undoubtedly established that scientific exclamation and description of truth is one of the most cogent and sustainable approaches out there. On the other hand, spiritual and psychological aspects of the faith are related to our aesthetical selves. In that domain too, we have rich poetical and mystical traditions of the past, for instance the Greek tragedy.

Considering modern extension of scientific methods to linguistics, psychology and even theory-making in aesthetic creative disciplines, religion is being increasingly commented upon using scientific vocabularies. Religious temperament, being the proud possessor of Divinely sanctioned truth propositions, must naturally come out with universally convincing synthesis of knowledge and being. Rather than strictly reducing scientific enterprise to utilitarianism, and finding flimsy foundations in history, a religious mind must possess the right combination of intellect and spirituality, or materialistic and the ineffable. The act of contemplation is a deliberate intended activity desired out of any addressee of the Quran, regardless of her apriori leanings; however, only that manner of propounding truth would be considered universally meaningful and fulfilling which can claim to come from a universal body of principles and agreed upon methodologies of discourse. Otherwise, our insistence on possession of truth would not be more than a mere personal statement having no universal value whatsoever.

___________________________

Bibliography

  1. Edwin. A. Burtt, Religion In An Age Of Science (1930)
  2. Muhammad Abdullah Shariq, Tadabbur-e-Kainat Kay Qurani Fazail: Roohani Tadabbur Murad Hey Ya Sciencey, Al-Shariah (June, 2014)
  3. Muhammad Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930)
  4. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902),
  5. John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1919)
  6. Edwin. A. Burtt,  The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science. A Historical and Critical Essay (1924)
  7. Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought (1973) and The Scientific Imagination: Case Studies (1978)
  8. Muhammad Rafiuddin, Ideology of the Future (1946)

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.

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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.

TranslationGreek
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.

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.

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.

Among ‘Unliberated’ Liberals (I): Bogus critics unpack the so-called baloney of Pakistan’s literary ‘Babas’

It was not perhaps a coincidence that there was a tirade of criticism last week  directed against a popular literary genre among Pakistan’s Urdu readership. First it was Viewpoint Online, who calls itself a progressive dissenting voice, dedicated a whole issue [1] to the thread; then I came across this article in the Opinion pages of The News. Later, as it usually happens these days, the links, quotes and banners got viral on Twitter and Facebook pages.

Right from the onset, I must put it as a disclaimer that I have never been a great fan of this largely indigenous genre which we can loosely term as a quasi-spiritual commentary or conversation centered on social issues or self-critique. I have myself criticized radical as well as dogmatic conservatism in the land of the pure, its cultural narcissist as well as ahistorical tendencies, and thought patterns drawing on exclusivist and authoritative narratives. Therefore, my motivation is not to present an apologetic on behalf of these spiritual/ mystic romanticists but rather to question the nature of extended criticism from voices that portray themselves as liberal progressive.

Even if one ignores the platitudes, baseless generalizations and ad hominem remarks of these so-called social activists and freelance writers, its really difficult to even remotely access it as a social or literary critique. Some of these critics come out as not more than stubborn angry children, employing flimsy arguments to insist on some hazy desires. Some of them employ vague categories to verbalize obscure point of views, and ironically, do not seem to have a clue what they should actually contend in order to present a meaningful critique intended to ultimately evolve into a dialogue.

Ashfaq AhmedOne Arshad Mehmood hilariously embarks upon an Aristotelian tone, from a supposedly higher intellectual pedestal, where he speaks about a stringently homogeneous entity in Pakistan called ‘common man’ . While apprising us in an assertive tone not less than Toynbee or Ibn Khaldun, he shares his theories of civilizational progress and gives us a verdict that the this ‘common man’ wrongly considers Iqbal as philosopher and Dr. Abdul Qadir as scientist. Another one throws around a commonplace assumption that ‘We‘ are an ‘emotional‘ nation and therefore lack the ability to critical analyze and decipher truth, and then takes on the regressive and allegedly hypocritical attitudes of Sufi bureaucrats. Yet another one criticizes the minimalist reading indulgences of masses and the shrinking book world ruled by best-selling Babas.

But while all these critics prattle about change, lament the so-called regressive attitudes, beats their chest over the intellectual stagnation of common man, they never take their reader even one step closer to the characterization of the original problem – of course, from their standpoint – and therefore, the overall critique comes out to be too bogus for any serious attention. In a nutshell, it is nothing more than some noisy claptrap.

While trying to distinctly characterize Russian attitudes to life and art as opposed to French ones, Sir Isaiah Berlin once enquired [2] whether it would upset the French people if someone proves that Honoré de Balzac was serving as a spy for French government or that Stendhal indulged in illegal operations at Stock Exchange. It is not the place to relate the profound characterization of Berlin, but just suffice to mention that, according to him, there are at least two diametrically opposite attitudes to life and art, that is, 1) to primarily understand writers as individuals responsible for all their fictitious, public or private utterances, or 2) to understand them instead as ‘purveyors’ with a foremost duty to provide as good an object as possible.

In this backdrop, isn’t it too obvious even to a cursory reader that all these so-called Babas ultimately tried to provide the best possible product in the most captivating ways, according to their respective degrees of creativity. Therefore, for instance, Mumtaz Mufti’s passionate adventures sometimes on the boundaries of soft eroticism to his later platonic romanticism with higher-truths, Qudrutullah Shahab’s autobiographical sketches relating relationships with politicians, dictators and his alleged supernatural mentors, or Ashfaq Ahmed’s conversations on radio or TV are merely products of some really good purveyors. All of them were creative craftsmen who experimented with various literary art-forms and also explored truth as any other common individual who has ever walked on earth.

Why must we judge them rather than their art, especially when the former endeavour is not likely to transform into an objective discourse, since the artist is no more available to speak as an individual? Is it essential, rather fruitful, that an artist must be projected as a public property to testify for his self-deceptions, allegedly wicked twists and turns or ascribed versions of truths? Are all the artists, and other individuals in general, fully aware of all the historical forces of their times?

Would these so-called liberal voices take it as fair critique, if their conservative interlocutors, for instance, call Ghalib an opportunist toady of British Raj for composing panegyrics eulogizing Queen Victoria? Must we all resort to ridicule each others’ sensibilities and desecrate each others’ cherished ideals and respective world-views? Must we make strong cases for burning books and effigies?

But this is about understanding, and then objectively criticizing art and how it interacts with life in supplying the most essential humanistic truths, and whether such a demand is somehow intrinsically embedded in the art. There is more to it, in other more intricate dimensions related to collective conscience of our imagined community. And as it is meaningful, with usual allowances for exceptions, to talk about Russian, French, German or Chinese attitudes to life and art, is it also meaningful to speak about a Pakistani conscience in a more or less same fashion?

Coming back to Russian attitudes, our enlightened critics taking on fake scholars may benefit immensely from the Belinsky’s celebrated letter to Gogol criticizing publication of a treatise in which the latter called back Russian people to ancient patriarchal ways and find Nikolai Gogolspiritual awakening in serfdom. Belinsky’s letter, besides being a literary masterpiece, is a marvel of social critique challenging the truth supplied by Gogol’s literary tract. Here is a popular quote from the letter describing the nomenclature of Russian individual according to Belinsky:

Take a closer look and you will see that it is by nature a profoundly atheistic people. It still retains a good deal of superstition, but not a trace of religiousness. Superstition passes with the advances of civilization, but religiousness often keeps company with them too; we have a living example of this in France, where even today there are many sincere Catholics among enlightened and educated men, and where many people who have rejected Christianity still cling stubbornly to some sort of god. The Russian people is different; mystic exaltation is not in its nature; it has too much common sense, a too lucid and positive mind, and therein, perhaps, lies the vastness of its historic destinies in the future. Religiousness has not even taken root among the clergy in it, since a few isolated and exceptional personalities distinguished for such cold ascetic contemplation prove nothing. But the majority of our clergy has always been distinguished for their fat bellies, scholastic pedantry, and savage ignorance. It is a shame to accuse it of religious intolerance and fanaticism; instead it could be praised for exemplary indifference in matters of faith. Religiosity among us appeared only in the schismatic sects who formed such a contrast in spirit to the mass of the people and who were numerically so insignificant in comparison with it.[3]

Of course, my purpose is not to extend a social commentary on our particular attitudes to life, art, religion and truth, and whether there are any possible comparisons or contrasts with the Russians, but just to showcase the essential literary traits of incisive, albeit objective, criticism. Its merely a Dummy’s Guide for people like Arshad Mehmood, who are supposedly content in throwing away terms like ‘scientific attitudes‘ and ‘progressive thinking‘ without trying to describe an iota of what these categories actually entail and how they can shape up an alternative world-view in contrast to an allegedly misplaced religious and spiritual outlook.

I do not claim to be a judge of art or literature, but one can always smell intellectual naivety when it is due to lack of enough reading. Perhaps in the view of these so-called leftist liberal critics, a sound critique essentially means to speak from a romantic point of view where an artist is ultimately judged in terms of degree of conformance to a superficial integrity and a kind of commitment to some vague moral ideals which are only in the mind of some critics with a specific bent.

Unfortunately in the end, when we cannot even begin to portray a prototype Pakistani individual in any social or philosophical sense at this point of our short history, these liberal progressive products can neither be understood as an objective social commentary nor an erudite literary critique.

In my humble view, if Pakistani conservatives ascribe to religiously romantic and narcissist world-view, the malady of Pakistani liberalism lies in plagiarized and simplistic thought-structures. If we want to ascribe to an ideal of compassion and create meaningful discourse, we have to create spaces allowing diversity to flourish. Rather than absurd generalizations, there have to sound critiques based on accurate archetypal characterization from contrasting standpoints.

And lastly, if some liberal voices in Pakistan hold a world-view of extreme scientific materialism in which human being is merely understood as an animal of his desires, they should boldly come out in the intellectual arena and make an effort to create a meaningful discourse rather than ridiculing sensibilities of common man through flimsy twaddles. Like that remarkable decade in Russia from 1838 to 1848, we desperately need the birth of an indigenous and diverse intelligentsia, which can invent new and fresh forms of objective criticism and evolve productive discourses.
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  1. ViewPoint Online Issue 148.
  2. Isaiah Berlin, The Birth of the Russian Intelligentsia (Russian Thinkers).
  3. In Vissarion G. Belinsky, Selected Philosophical Works (Letter to Nikolai V. Gogol). It is the same letter, reading which in a circle of Petrashevsky adherents, Dostoyevsky was condemned to death, a punishment which was later commuted to penal servitude.