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.

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)

 

The Night Kaptaan Fell

These are some hurriedly jotted thoughts from last night in no particular harmony or structure. I do not specifically want to contend anything in particular and it is merely loud thinking and should be taken as such…

No adjectives can encompass that feeling accurately. Was it shocking, or awful, or traumatically dreadful? Or for that matter appalling, as if you areImran Khan about to reach to the climax of your most cherished dream and an extremely noisy clatter jolts you; the way you momentarily want to go back to sleep again and somehow commence to that treasured expected culmination.

While all the television networks played and replayed that fall, it was indeed a crazy vision to be imprinted on one’s mind and would perhaps stay for many days to come. A kind of vision that has the capacity to haunt all the contrasting refreshing visions, for instance, the one from 92′ in which a relatively young, vibrant and smiling Imran Khan was uttering “I am proud that in the twilight of my career…“.

SohailBatBut there were other more nuanced thoughts and among them, yet another spontaneous vision – this time from 96′ – of a swaggering Amir Sohail sledging Venkatesh Prasad towards boundary, ribbing him by pointing the bat as if meant to say “go, fetch the ball“, and getting clean bowled on the next one.

Albeit its not pleasing to share, but when I saw the great Khan falling from that miserable lifter like a wooden marionette whose strings are somehow broken, I wondered whether that was nature’s way of rejoining during a “Go, Fetch the Ball” moment. After all, we have amply seen him with an angry young-man’s swag, showing his bat to the proverbial Prasads of the so-called Takht-e-Punjab, the corrupt Zardaris of Sindh and their brethren with red caps from KPK, in the last few weeks.

But it was indeed heartrending to see some of the political zealots on social networks still using tonight’s accident for petty and childish point-scoring; however, on the other hand, the compassion shown by all the politicians towards this episode is at least a positive sign that we are collectively recognizing the universal humanistic ideals.

[Speaking of more visions, this reminds me of that afternoon in 1984 when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards. We were visiting our grandparents in Lahore. When it was finally revealed on radio that she had finally succumbed to her wounds in the hospital, one of my aunts spontaneously showed signs of jubilation (I vaguely remember that she might have clapped like a child), characteristically similar to the one when India looses to Pakistan in a cricket match. I remember my grandfather rebuking her quite harshly without noticing that we, the kids, were also present, and asked her whether it is customary to rejoice when a human being dies? I always cherish it as my first lesson in empathy and respecting the core values that bind all humanity together.]

benazirIts ironic that collective memory of our nation, experiencing leadership crisis since its inception, is filled with bloody and deadly images; among them the recent ones, in which Benazir Bhutto was standing inside her vehicle amidst the procession and that gun is rising from the background, or the one in which Musharraf is showing his fist with that jingoistic and comical expressions on his face, or the innumerable killings of politicians, political workers and common people in last three months since the elections are announced.

But in all these gory visions, it is still possible to recoil from a gripping determinism by attributing the ultimate causes to some palpable agents. In the fall of Kaptaan this evening, there is very little in the domain of tangible causative enterprise.

Yes, he was tired; his workers were tired; including the 6 or 7 scheduled to happen tonight, this was the 62nd Jalsa of PTI in last 10 days; then there were looseKhanFall wooden boulders on the lifter to raise the height; there were more than required people on the lifter; and that person with black T-shirt with No.6 printed on its back didn’t realize while bending down that Imran Khan is standing right behind him completely unaware and off-balance, etc, etc.

Nevertheless, ain’t all these factors merely got accumulated to effectuate the intended course of nature?

I know I am speculating in line with a another kind of romanticism, different than the one I usually object in others, but I am forced to reflect whether we end up somewhere at some time in some manner, because there is an event pregnant with innumerable possibilities, and in order for one of those possibilities to become an actual happening, we are a necessary cause?

Or is it nature’s way of dragging us out of the other, more dangerous form of romanticism – the one I tend to object and do not subscribe to – which somehow deludes us to believe that individuals in particular are true masters of their destinies and can ultimately control or change the course of events? All of us, at some point in our lives, do tend to forget that we are perhaps not more than marionettes, who cannot even stop ourselves from falling on our heads, if the puppeteer just lets go of our strings?

God forbid, if something fatal would have happened to Khan tonight, must we go back to our original states and wait for another messiah to come and show us how to dream in next 20 years? Or must we learn to live and die by the ideals?

Moreover, in essence, while all of us have the right to be cynics, realists, idealists or romanticists and most of the times, many of us keep crisscrossing over the boundaries of these indulgences, can we in a collective sense rise above and do not psychologically deify our leaders, and the ideals they want us to ascribe to, on the cost of loosing compassion for our fellow human beings? Because, no matter how dynamic or charismatic, they are flesh and bone just like any of us; and in the greater scheme of things, may or may not prove to be the causes for some events, which are hitherto unpredictable.

KhanCould this incident be a way of providing us with an opportunity to reflect and do not confuse our social or political passions with a game of cricket? Can we, as leaders and their followers, stop supplying fallacious narratives to strengthen binary paradigms? Can we, for once, hold our breadths, rise above our egos and emphatically refuse to lampoon each other?

It was a pleasure to hear the great Khan speaking tonight from his hospital bed. One of the things he mentioned that God does not change the state of people unless they desire to change it themselves; however, we must also remember that true and sustainable change, as it has turned out many times in history, does not have a singular manifestation and does not come through one individual or a particular group of individuals. In the end, whosoever we vote for after three days, its about changing our inner selves and ultimately finding compassion in our lives by learning to love those who disagree with us. This is the only ideal that can bind us together in empathy, converging all our paths to a single most important ideal of humanism and love.

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.
_________________________________________

  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.

Reading as a Vocation: Some Francis Bacon for a Young Friend

Visiting Lahore these days to attend my convocation, I was perhaps a little over-cautious to be in time and ended up today in the university two hours earlier than the scheduled time. Rather than milling about in the university, I decide to lounge myself in the university cafeteria. It must have been ten minutes since I was sipping my orange juice and trying to lick the concluding passage of Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated essay, when I saw a seemingly blurred young boy, trying to verbalize what must have been lurking in his mind since last few minutes.

“Can I sit here for a moment, if you don’t mind”, he asked me while wearing a sheepishly reluctant disposition.
“Yes, please have a seat”, I mechanically responded, while wondering what he would going to ask next moment. “Perhaps, he would ask for my willingness to participate in a university blood donation drive or a contribution for some needy student”, I thought.
“I actually wanted to ask about the book you are reading”, he straightaway came to the point, while drawing out the chair and sitting in front me.

I wanted to start by saying that this is an essay about Tolstoy’s view of history as depicted in War and Peace but broadly speaking, it belongs to philosophy of history and some outstanding, yet distinct and at times diametrically opposite perspectives on nature of observable reality. However, guessing my interlocutor’s age and intellectual demeanour, I kept quiet for a moment and tried to figure out a more sensible and appropriate response

“It is basically an essay by Isaiah Berlin, extending some literary criticism on Russian literature”, I carefully phrased myself. “I presume you don’t know much about literary criticism”, I added to reassure him, so that he might open up for a conversation.

“Yes Sir, you are right. I am absolutely unfamiliar, but since you were too absorbed in your reading, I thought it must be something really good and interesting. I actually wanted to discuss how and what should I read, because I like to read a lot but I almost always struggle to keep myself interested in a book; and sometimes, I end up reading the same passage time and again”, he finally eased up.

And so we continued with our brief but very interesting discussion for next half an hour, which can be loosely termed as a reading-counselling session for a fledgeling young reader. [And at this point, I must interject that anyone who has crossed twenty, likes to read in English and hasn’t yet heard about Dickens, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky fulfils my criteria for seriously needing a reading counsellor.] In a moment, another young boy who was listening on a side table also joined our little conversation as a silent listener. And so I kept on talking incessantly on one of my favourite topics.

Two good listeners in a single afternoon; what more can an ardent conservationist wish for?

We reflected upon a lot of specifics but while driving back, I kept brooding over the state of reading among young educated Pakistanis, and tried to formulate the exact problem in generalized terms. In my opinion, the problem is much bigger than a mere issue with interests and indulgences of young and supposedly bright people, or the so-called lack of literary awareness.

The problem is much bigger and far more serious than that: from my standpoint, it is in fact related to completely transposed intellectual dimension of our social fabric.

Due to factors I am neither yet ready nor able to express clearly in this space, the cornerstone of the whole intellectual criteria in youngsters is not the depth of their whole personal outlook towards larger issues of life but the outer, more tangible, materialistic crust riveted in a kind of utilitarian Weltanschauung. And who else can bear the brunt of the blame, except our preceding generations and the whole Orwellian disposition of our knowledge disseminating mechanisms.

As it turned out, when three of us looked around carefully, among approximately 75 to 100 odd people in the cafe, only I was reading for leisure and only two others, who happen to sit in front of me, were presumably interested in the enterprise of reading as a vocation.

Yes I call it a vocation, as in my considered view, you need to ceaselessly train yourself to be able to grow intellectually; and also to mitigate eventualities that you don’t end up in the same preadolescent paradigm all your life.

There are books to read when we are ten to twelve because we need to be ready, in all possible ways including our ways of imagining life, to move to our teens and twenties; and there is stuff to read at forty because one needs to be equipped to move meaningfully to one’s logical terminus. This does not mean that reading solely and exclusively encompasses the whole dimension of human wisdom, but it surely is among the most important acquirable traits to attain wisdom since antiquity. Not just reading for the sake of it but reading as a vocation, to expose yourself slowly and gradually to various complexly interwoven threads of life.

I tried to help my young friend a lot, especially with regards to his two important questions, that is what and how of reading. I told him that there are books to be read in teens and texts to be indulged when one is in his thirties. There are readings so arguably insignificant to intend simple pleasure and written words fraught with a myriad of meanings that if one is just able to make some partial sense, one feels amply gratified. Of course, Francis Bacon explained this last point in far lesser words with much more meanings. I post them here in memory of this memorable afternoon.

Crafty men condemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.

Discoursing Blasphemy (I): Deconstructing the Contemporary Authoritarian Context

The materials could be used to construct either the authoritative or the authoritarian. If the authoritarian is constructed, the text is rendered subservient and submerged into its representer and reader. If authoritative is constructed, the text survives unencumbered and unlimited by its representer and reader. – Khaled Abou El Fadl in Conference of the Books

Imagine your were born into a middle or lower-middle class Christian family in Islamic Republic of Pakistan. This ironic accident of nature would automatically grant you the deplorable status among approximately one percent ignorant, disbelieving and impure inhabitants of the otherwise land of the pure. Stretch your imagination a little further and assume being grown up to become an individual with religious conviction in line with any of the mainstream Christian denominations. Needless to add that you would strongly believe in fundamentals of your religion; fundamentals, which unlike Islam, do not necessitate belief in other Prophets and the truthfulness of their message. Obviously, you would not have a smidge of reverence for Prophet Muhammad or Quran in your heart.

At this point, a number of hypothesis can be proffered; however, among worst-case scenarios, lets just assume that you truly happen to doubt the historicity of Islam and its venerated Prophet, who erroneously – or with the sheer intent of deceit – pretended to be the last Messenger of God [1]. With truthful compassion and deep sincerity, you do not, for a moment, regard Quran as a piece of literature on which “a society can be safely of sensibly based”. Furthermore, you might consider it a “crude, endless iteration” faked as God’s word, and whose reading, would be a “toilsome experience” [2].

Now, would you reckon pronouncing your belief publicly in a decent, truthful and academic manner without facing charges for the crime of blasphemy and instigating Islamist upheavals demanding your death? And if the sheer simplicity of this hypothetical proposition is not enough to demonstrate the hidden strata of ironies, lets put it this way: the accident of your birth (and what you come to believe subsequently) might leave you with a strict binary choice in the land of the pure, i.e., live dishonorably as an infidel hypocrite or die ignominiously as a profane blasphemer.

There has been plenty of discussion in print and electronic media regarding the infamous blasphemy law of Pakistan. A common supporting argument, usually initiated to evade the real question regarding the actual religious basis of the law, goes like this: there is nothing wrong with the law itself, and therefore the soundness of religious injunctive value attached to it; however, there may be flaws in its procedural implementations – as there in almost all other clauses of Pakistan Penal Code – which can be exploited to prosecute people unjustly.

I want to argue here that the above proposition is flawed for two distinct but often interactive reasons: 1) it overlooks an important lingual nuance in the framing of the law itself and 2) it supplies us with a presumably monolithic, homogeneous and historically connected Islamic definition and character of blasphemy.

Coming first to textual ambiguity in framing the language of the law (295-C), which is hard to miss even by a careless reader. It is not too difficult to understand that terms like “derogatory remarks, etc.”, “imputation”, “innuendo”, “insinuation” and “defiles the sacred name” can be misconstrued and misused easily. In fact it is so easy that a mere refusal to insert the common salutations after the name of the Prophet due to simple academic and publishing requirements can be easily misconstrued as blasphemy and can be portrayed socially to incite dangerous reactions. This mostly ignorant and reactive social milieu is tragically ironic to an extent that prestigious publishers in Pakistan, e.g., Oxford University Press, insert ‘PBUH’ after the name of the Prophet as an ‘in-house policy’ to avoid unnecessary hue and cry [3].

What is more troubling, however, is the ease with which the question regarding real definition and character of blasphemy is circumvented by the street mullahs, facebook zealots and common people who enthusiastically – and at times, inadvertently – support murderers.

Starting from the time of Greek Sophists, blasphemy has a long and vicious history in all canonical religions, especially Christianity [4]. In more than one way, Islam emphatically redefined the sacred in relation to an individual and society and placed it in its correct metaphysical and eschatological perspective. While the divine message was repetitively explained with exceptional clarity and forceful persuasion (3:85; 4:125), submission of an individual was eventually came about in Islamic theology as a matter of personal preference without any compulsions (2:256) by the society or Muslim polity; and as a human psychological condition which may have immediate and distant repercussions in this world but will be judged ultimately in hereafter. Moreover, the assertive statement in Quran (18:29) that

Say, “The truth is from your Lord”: Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it)…

tends to establish a clear contrast with the Christian dogma that thoughts can blaspheme too and therefore subject to confession [5]. Ultimately, in Islamic theological doctrine, sacredness and sanctity of the symbols of God is contingent upon submission of the individual in first place (5:2).

In this backdrop, classical Islamic jurists always considered an individual’s personal religious conviction to be a matter between him and his Creator (baynahu wa bayna rabbiy). Some of them theorized further, discussing extensively the underlying theological intricacies, and argued that the Islamic doctrine of kufr simply means non-belief in the truthfulness of the Prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh) – a psychological condition which should not be considered immoral for all worldly purposes [6].  Thus, regardless of its rare practical implementation, the classical advocacy of capital punishment for apostasy is not because of a Muslim’s intellectual subjection to a false doctrine but due to its direct and indirect sociopolitical consequences – a sense which is more in line with the modern concept of high treason against one’s government.

It is also pertinent to note that all convictions of presumed blasphemy – or heresy which is an often interrelated and sometimes indistinguishable thread – recorded in classical as well as modern Islamic heresiography had always been nuanced sociopolitically; some examples are Ibn Taymiah’s trials for his alleged anthropomorphic views [7], Ahmed Bin Hanbal’s condemnation for his views on nature of Quran [8], conviction of Mansoor Al-Hallaj for his claims of extreme mystical universalism, Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid’s exile from Egypt to Netherlands in 1994, and Hashem Aghajari’s trial and subsequent conviction in Iran in 2003.

It can be ultimately contended that the contemporary debate of blasphemy (as seen in Pakistan these days) thrives upon postmodern sensibilities of the sacred which are theologically inaccurate as well as morally ambiguous. While successfully carrying the burden of far-right Islamist politics, these sensibilities also appeal to the popular, mostly apolitical and semi-religious mindset which is easily provoked by complexity and naturally adores a simple and perfect causality. However, what still remains to be shown is that this dangerously simplistic discourse is based upon strictly radical and authoritarian readings of the scripture (both Quran and Hadith).                                                                             __________________________________________

  1. The aim is not to instigate the expected emotional response but just to bring about the moral ambiguity of the popular religious discourse insinuating complete homogeneity. For specific remarks see various publications by Ibn Warraq and Patricia Crone, for instance.
  2. For first remark see Sacred Cows by Britain’s foremost feminist Fay Weldon; for second see On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle.
  3. For the description of actual event see Riaz Hassan, Expressions of Religiosity and Blasphemy in Modern Societies, Asian Journal of Social Science, 2007 – Springer.
  4. Two very important texts in this regard are A Brief History of Blasphemy by Richard Webster and Genealogies of Religion by Talal Asad.
  5. For details and discussion on related issues see Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion and his essay Reflections on Blasphemy and Secular Criticism in Religion: Beyond a Concept.
  6. Sherman Jackson, On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abu Hamid al Ghazali’s Faysal al Tafriqa.
  7. Sherman Jackson, Ibn Taymiyyah on Trial in Damascus, Journal of Semitic Studies, 1994.
  8. See for instance, Abu Zuhra’s work on Imam Ahmed Bin Hanbal’s life, work and fiqh.

Dr Muhammad Farooq Khan (RIP)

Dr Farooq Khan The news is just coming in that Dr. Muhammad Farooq Khan, a renowned writer, columnist, religious scholar and Vice Chancellor of Swat Islamic University, has been murdered (along with his assistant) by unknown gunmen as he was coming out of his clinic in Mardan. May Allah bless his departed soul. Here is an obituary from a local TV Channel website:

Dr. Muhammad Farooq Khan is a recognized writer, columnist, and intellectual throughout the country. He is also known as a religious scholar and competent TV compare. He was born at a village, in the district of Swabi. He obtained his elementary education at his hometown. Then he joined Cadet College Hasanabdal, and later on the Cadet College Kohat. After having acquired the degree in medicine, he decided to specialize in psychiatry. He established his private practice in Mardan. Some of his works include “Pakistan and the Twenty First Century (Urdu)”, “The Struggle for Islamic Revolution”, and “What is Islam”. God has bestowed upon him the quality of presenting his propositions in simple language and clarity of style.

Dr. Khan was associated with Al-Mawrid, an Islamic research organization lead by Javed Ahmed Ghamidi . He gained media limelight and became a center of controversy for his allegedly unorthodox views on permissibility of music. Most of his works can be downloaded from his website. Clipping from the talk show where he shared his views on music is linked below:

Its one of those days when it feels really impossible to breathe in the land of the pure and sadness overcomes the desire to remain optimistic. When intellect is not tolerated, disagreements are settled through bullets, and mockery of the law becomes a convention, the society seems to be quickly approaching towards self annihilation. Our cities have indeed become worst than wildest of the jungles. Reminds me of this sad, yet beautiful Urdu poem by Zehra Nigah (a transliteration can be found here and please share any English translations if you have):