Blood, Tears and Silence: The Infinite Loop

It is at the time of devastating existential tragedies that the question about the true nature of sympathy and empathy always comes up, and the emotional triggers that evoke responses based on them; the question of national cohesion and societal being, the communal, racial, geographical ‘other’; the question whether national boundaries do or do not overlap the ancient sociological boundaries.

In times such as these, this ‘other’ no more lurks in the timeworn verbal tunnels of sociological vocabularies but personifies itself, stands up and stare in your face.

What is wrong when you realize that the mere knowledge of the loss of two hundred odd lives is not enough to spark off the plumbing apparatus that produces the lachrymal secretions we otherwise call tears in the tradition of our remnant poetic state? Or has the relation between social events and wholesale collective emotive been permanently broken? The collective psychology no more drives the collective biology, or vice versa.

What is the mystery of feeling — or not-feeling — the extreme, heart-breaking pain in the suffering of ‘others’? Is it just another unsolved Darwinian riddle waiting for new anthropological paradigms, the paradigms of pain and suffering which only work in classrooms?

True that images and words, elegies and panegyrics can work wonders with collective emotional states since times immemorial but are these the necessary conditions to experience suffering? Why must we need images of pain and stories of suffering to evoke allegedly empathetic emotional outbursts? Isn’t the perennial discussion about priorities of media already become trite with repeated overuse? Why can’t we just reach out to the nearest person in the street and find a shoulder to cry on; or for that matter offer ours?

Can the difference between true absolute empathy and artificially induced one can be quantified concretely?

Doesn’t weeping just need solitude with oneself in the memory of those distant ones whom one has never met and there is no chance to meet? Isn’t it just enough to see the face of one’s own child and feel the pain of the one in a distant land who has just lost his parent?

So you look up and see a little innocent face who is super excited for the football match that is going to be telecast in a little more than 24 hours, while another leviathan going by the name of ISIS continues to knock the door outside, and would presumably keep doing so for the next decade. You ask yourself whether you are any different than this child and feel unable to gauge the exact degree of your nonchalance with respect to his innocence. Listlessly switching on the television, you scroll through social media in search of images of suffering and solemness, but instead find battlegrounds where factions of society are engaged in self-defeating duels and endless diatribes, labs where the ideals of virtue and justice are transformed into vengeance and nemesis, and markets where sociopolitical hatred is bought and sold as a civic passion.

You look around and ultimately realize that despite all the taxonomic transformations, there is still a hint of sorrow lurking deep inside many of your animal-kind; but then you skeptically revisit and wonder if it is really pain, that is, the heartache, the true primordial grief that binds us in what it means to be human, and at least reduces the distance of ‘this-self’ and the ‘other’, if not diminishes it completely?

You reflect on, go on round after round, and neither the ambivalence, nor the listlessness and nonchalance give the slightest hint to go away. Dreadfully, you ask yourself if you are still human and there is a deafening silence; not as much as a driblet drops inside you.

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Borges and I, and Quite Possibly You

Reading Borges is a very strange loopy business; loopy in the sense of running over on an Escherian stairwell; over and over again.

The thing is that if you somehow share his dreamer’s soul, his magic would inevitably possess your imagination. Here is how it happens.

You start reading him as any other ordinary reader and your very first experience would be sheer amazement; it is not any ordinary sense of wonder which is usual with mystical, magical realism; it is rather an utterly  life-size astonishment, a sense of everything being taken up to another imaginative frame of reference. In other words, right from the onset, he overpowers you by drawing you into an imaginative labyrinth, a maze so to speak.

You immediately realize that he is unlike Gabriel Garcia; in a different league than Julio Cartazar; not like Philip Dick, jorge-luis-borges.jpgNeil Gaiman, Paul Auster either; not even Umberto Eco or Ryunosuke Akutagawa. But you can’t stop asking  yourself what kind of a writer he is?

Your reader’s proclivity for tagging desperately try to compartmentalize him in various traditions; you ask yourself if he is modern, post-modern, mystic-metaphysical, magical realist, detective classical, satirist and so on, but you miserably fail.

The question arises whether he is a writer at all, that is, writer in the sense of formally communicating authorial intention to a reader’s mind through a written word?

alephAt this point, you have to make an important decision, that is, do you want to find your way through this maze or turn back? The problem is that before even starting, right at the first step into the maze, your reader’s hunch tells you that it is probably a life-long journey. But if you are a constant-reader, you would brush aside this hunch; after all, you have seen many writers, your constant wayfaring has taken you through many other fantastic la la lands.

So you decide to stick with him and because of very short nature of his literary pieces, you would inevitably imbibe him not as a whole lot but in a more or less scattered fashion, just as if you are a cave-trooper or bird-watcher.

A little time passes and you finally realize that you are deep down into the maze; you look at your feet and wonder about that moment in the distant past when you have stopped walking and started running.

You would realize this eerie fact only if you are his soul-mate: all this time you are not craft of versereading a Writer, per se; you are, in fact, literally, reading a Reader. Can you ever finish reading a reader?

A reader, unlike a writer, has nothing to do with the so-called authorial landscapes of semiotics; the whole pragmatics are not only turned upside down, it is essentially transformed; or is it disfigured, in the popular literary sense? Not if you are his soul-mate, that is, you are truly a Borgesian reader. And that is what all this maze-running, path-finding, is about: it is all about finding our whether you are a true Borgesian reader, whether you belong to the Borgesian universe.

And herein lies the key question: are you a Borgesian reader? It is not about being ‘true’ Borgesian reader. There is no semblance to being a semi, pseudo or incomplete Borgesian reader. You simply are or you are not.

But what about Borges himself? Who is he in this reader’s universe? Does he really exist or is he — by his own standard of fiction being the ultimately precise description of reality — is a fictional by product of his own imagination? If you are a true Borgesian maze-runner, at some point of time while catching your breath, you are bound to wonder whether he exists at all. 

dream tigersHe is a magician who sees through his blindness and makes immortality as reasonable a fact as the very next moment after this one. Running hours and hours through his fictional labyrinths, you would later pass your days and nights carrying his non-fictional maps through these labyrinths. Read his fiction and you would desperately want to know the man, the illusionist supplying this sublime experience, you would wonder about the method behind this madness. Read his non-fiction and you would still want to know him; or you would ask if there is a method at all? After all, the question of method presumes an organisation, a concrete elaboration, a layout, innit?

You would wonder about this unique literary philosophy of taking innumerable metaphysical perplexities and just ordering them physically into tangible, readable, almost touchable words. Is there a name for it?

His short non-fictional pieces, like everything else he has written, are glimpses of his total library.jpginner dialogues. At times, the reader is forced to ask himself if these are monologues, mere soliloquies! But then one ultimately realizes that here is a definitive reader who is trying to speak during the gaps between his silent readings, a reader trying to write through his way into the wonderful universe of readings.

In the process, Borges would teach you a lot, and guide you towards many unknown places; places where he is almost sure that you would get lost. But then you realize that his ultimate aim is to let yourself loose into the darkness of mind and psyche, where the only illuminating lamps are those of myths.

Often he would make a subtle point by blending the world of here and now, and the world of there and then to such an extent that the blend is just enough; enough in a sense that he must not let you agree or disagree with him. At other times, you can agree or disagree but then when you are through with your own introspection, you are bound to come back to him and whisper very close to his ever-listening ear that you have finally realized; you have realized that agreements and disagreements do not matter for wayfarers of these mysterious worlds.

To pinpoint his philosophy is to try to delimit him into the same archetypal compartments which are reserved for Writers; but if it is still necessary, the only possible characterization of him would be a metaphysical trickster.  His metaphysical tricks are too diverse and complex to be understood in their totality; he refutes time, apply classical paradoxes of motion and space in amazing new ways, creates geometric and numeral puzzles, and supplies fresh perspectives to ways of questioning the objective reality. We can call him a prankster who likes to play practical jokes with the world around and within us, our spatio-temporal and atomistic conceptions of it, and finally our notions of destiny, life and death. Not a philosopher in any academic sense of the world, he seems like an idealist who finally decides to create a whole new world to play the biggest practical joke on nominalism in the history of philosophy.

All the usual border-lines belonging to our conceptual worlds eventually blur in his universe; he merges dream and reality;  he merges life and death; he merges the microcosm and macrocosm; and in the process his fiction and nonfiction. 

last interview borgesRunning through the maze, you finally reckon that the terminus is finally approaching. You almost completely finish his fictional, poetical and non fictional works, a sip at a time, not big gulps; you may take three to five years if you remain true to your wanderer’s self, belonging to many diverse textual universes at the same time. In these years, you would come across many keys to his labyrinths, his peculiar logico-mathematical indulgences, his diverse and at times, archaic sources, foreign unknown mythologies, words and terminologies whose meanings are not even turned up through wikipedia and google searches, Borgesian dictionaries patched up enthusiasts and much more. You would go through scores of movie reviews and prologues he has written, small fragments, interviews, conversations, lectures and even pick up and smell his posthumously translated course on English literature. If you are a translator, you would certainly feel compelled to translate him into your own local color and listen yourself loudly reading him in your own language.

But where do you end up after all this? Is there a way to get out of the maze with the mathematics babelintention of never looking back? To finally claim that you have finished reading Borges? The way you probably claim that you have read Kafka, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or scores of any other life-size writers for that matter!

No, you simply cannot. You must remember that this figure of language is only reserved for the writers. You can not just part with the only writing-reader in the whole world of textual adventure; you can’t just get of the maze which has pretty much become a part of you in all those years or incessant running.

You must remember that there is a reader’s universe, and there is a writer’s universe and then there is a hybrid, complexly intertwined, loopy universe where boundaries between reader and the writer blur, and finally diminish.

You must realize that all this time, you were not just running through the maze, you were, in fact, taking part in creating, procreating, extending it inwards as well as outwards.

You must realize that if you are a Borgesian reader (and there are not many), you would certainly reread, and reread, and keep on reading Borges in an infinite regression-progression; and hence, this Escherian loopy business. Remember that if you finally discover yourself as a Borgesian reader, rereading Borges is your ultimate yoga if you want to be immortal.

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________________________

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

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.

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.

Wooing the Quran (3): Countering the Grand Delusion (Al Kahf, the Cave)

أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ   مَنْ حَفِظَ عَشْرَ آيَاتٍ مِنْ أَوَّلِ سُورَةِ الْكَهْفِ عُصِمَ مِنَ الدَّجَّالِ

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Whosoever memorizes the first ten verses of Surah Al-Kahf will be saved from (the trial of) Dajjal.”

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The above Hadith recorded by Muslim in his Sahih, though seemingly straightforward, has always dragged me towards its various nuances since I first became aware of it. There are of course some other versions of it; for instance, the one recorded by Abu Daud also relaters a narrator mentioning the last ten verses as well. There is yet another version which associates the word Fitnah with Dajjal thus rendering an associative phrase, meaning the trial of Dajjal (فتنة الدجال). Then there is always a great anthropomorphic baggage in the classical literature dealing with various descriptions of  End of Times and descriptions of anti-Christ.

However, it is needless to say that there is no way to corroborate or deny the specifics of doomsday predictions. As always, there have been conflicting attempts to amplify the applied domain of these accounts and on the other hand, the outright rejection as well.

So moving from an apriori assumption that the above prescription (in the Hadith) has been truly ascribed to the Prophet – and I do believe so – my readings of  this Surah  have always been overshadowed by the meta-narratives provided by this Hadith. As evident, its an extremely concise text and there are just three interlaced textual elements, that demand an interpretive exercise: 1) the nature and reality of Dajjal, 2) the contents of first and last ten verses of this Surah and 3) how memorizing these verses can guarantee protection against the trial of Dajjal, whatever that phrase means.

KahfSurah Al-Kahf (the Cave), the eighteenth chapter of the Quran, is an extended narrative with usual Quranic blend of interconnected thematic elements and an interactive dialogue while shifting its addressees. From the perspective of original addressees, it does not seem that the whole chapter is revealed in one big chunk, an observation that is also vindicated by the traditional accounts [1], reporting contexts of revelation for various components of texts. There are also subtexts, directly or indirectly intending to reassure Prophet’s psychological state (18:6), which was obviously stressed due to persistent denial of his community, as well as challenges and counter-questions in response to the supposedly extraordinary claims of revelation.

However, besides these context-dependant momentary digressions, the whole Surah is well-knitted in a singular recurring theme related to ontological dimension of this life, and what a particular ontic standpoint entails. Two interlinked, yet seemingly contrasting, facets of this theme are related to natural human responses to respective ontological perceptions, that is, the complete abandonment of this world or its outright embracement.

The former response is generally rooted in a perception, where the reality of this world is necessarily negated and therefore gives it a kind of meaningless or existential/ nihilistic outlook, and the latter is followed when all reality beyond this world is essentially denied.

In the narrative of people of the cave (18:9-26), Quran not only puts world-renunciation in its correct perspective, as an option to preserve one’s religious liberty and life, but also introduces the reader to the correct world-view, where life, death and resurrection is a necessary temporal cycle. An important subtextual peculiarity is how a lay-reader in general and the original recipients in particular are invited to see the bigger picture (18:22), rather than indulging in the usual mythological gossip crystallized due to burden of history [2].

On the other hand, in the story of Dhul-Qarnain (18:83-98), its the worldly power which has been rightly attributed to the mercy and blessings of Allah Almighty (18:98) rather than one’s own inherent capability and endeavours.

However, in my humble view, its the parable of two men (18:32:43) that elegantly presents the epic of this Surah’s thematic discourse. All subtle linguistic references help to draw attention of a receptive interlocutor towards various psychologies usually confronting ultimate questions regarding nature’s ultimate truths. The self-assured materialistic arrogance of the first man (18:34:36) rooted in a careful sceptic demeanour, as he soliloquises while entering his garden is aptly countered by the simple and direct rejoinder of his interlocutor (18:37-41), drawing him to a more plausible explanation of ultimate reality. The simile concluding the parable outlines the final ontological perspective, comparing the life of this world to the rain which is absorbed by the ‘earth’s vegetation’, which soon becomes the ‘dry stubble’, ultimately to be scattered away by the wind (18:45). 

To me, the most intriguing aspect of this Surah is how the ontological enquiry is essentially interwoven with the ethical enquiry, using the story of Moses and the wise man, popularly known as Khidr in Islamic tradition (18:60-82). What can be called a Quranic version of Euthyphro’s dilemma, the most essential question disturbing the most intelligent minds since antiquity is asked, that is, are there any moral standards independent of God’s will ? As far as I can dare to comment, the Quranic answer is an emphatic No [3].

Coming back to the so-called meta-narrative, the Hadith cited in the beginning renders itself to some interesting hermeneutics. For instance, since the root د ج ل  of the noun دجال means to dupe, deceive or cheat, we can speculate that the Prophetic guidance, no matter how vague (due to associated eschatology), is at least referring to a kind of illusory substantive.

The deceptive enterprise of this grand delusion is complex and multidimensional, that is, it is at once related to self-deception, the perpetual desire of this world and an inherent skepticism that has the power to sway one’s belief over the whole spectrum. The word حفظ, it seems,  is not merely memorizing as it is usually believed, rather more aptly connotative of preservation, safekeeping or compliance.

Therefore, as per Prophet’s advice, this beautiful chapter of Quran is our most reliable guard against the grandest of all delusions, that is, the life of this world (18:7, 18:104). Not only it limns this illusive enterprise but also provides the necessary armour to guard against it it.

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  1. The accounts of occasions of revelation can be seen in any traditional exegesis, for instance, Tabari or Ibn Kathir.
  2. For a very good survey of all these linguistic as well as historical intricacies, see Abul Kalam Azad’s Ashab-e-Kahf Aur Yajooj Majooj, which is not yet translated into English as per my knowledge.
  3. However, objectively speaking, the question has merely rendered itself to an epistemic enquiry, because, after all, the answer is only valid if one holds Quran to disseminate the ultimate truth. But this is not the space to discuss the epistemic validity of Quran, from a philosophical, and to some extent, historical perspective.

On Plight of Modern Man (I): Spaces for Self-Annihilation

The most intelligent minds of our age do not find theism as a reasonable choice and many smart people have a tendency to willingly or inadvertently destroy what is seemingly good for them. These are two simple contentions that came up during exchanges with two different friends this week. Given the room to disagree with both the contentions, there is indeed a lot of underlying truth. In my view, from a contemporary perspective, even though both the contentions seem different at first glance, they are in fact two different aspects of the same modern phenomenon.

Needless to argue that there are no stringent universal principles that define the most basic human disposition, just as there are no universal definitions of notions like reason and and objectivity. All of us have our share of craziness, irrationality and subjectivity all the time, albeit in varying degrees. Speaking about the extremity of this spectrum, insanity, madness and nihilistic tendencies are also manifestations of an allegedly darker or twisted side of human nature.

Regardless of its expression, one characteristic of this disposition is persistent denial of norm; any kind of norm, may it be the social, moral, ethnic or religious. Since antiquity, from the time of great Greek sophists, highly intellectual people, including sages, philosophers and prophets, have been consistently depicting this tendency to grapple with this urge for denial, as opposed to those who are perhaps seemingly a little low on the intellectual curve, and thus not equipped to challenge the established norm through reason. In any case, this urge to deny has always been supported with diverse rational grounds, such as spiritual dictates of the self, desired social good against an existing tyranny or revelation of new religion.

With the advent of modernity, however, this same urge to deny has transformed itself into two novel dimensions, that is, 1) the ontic dimension wherein the modern individual has gone to the extent of denying his own existence and 2) the epistemic dimension wherein the denial is manifested in the form of absolute disregard of any modes of knowledge beyond empiricism. The first part of this exposition deals with the former dimension, that is, nihilism.

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I have failed not only to become spiteful – but to become anything else for that matter: vicious or kind, scoundrel or honest man, hero or insect. And now I am living out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the vicious and useless consolation that an intelligent man of the nineteenth century can’t seriously make himself into anything and that only a fool can succeed in making himself into something. Yes, sir, an intelligent man of the nineteenth century must be – indeed is morally bound to be – essentially a creature without character. – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground [1]

Isn’t it interesting that when a layman like me tries to recall any notable suicidal accounts of antiquity, the only names that immediately come to mind are the peculiarly motivated instances such as Marcus Antonius and  Cleopatra; or, the ones which are committed under duress, such as drinking of hemlock by Socrates; or what is sociologically termed as an egoistic suicide, such as the one committed by Cato the Younger or Hannibal?

Indeed there are many more such accounts for more or less similar reasons. However, regardless of the specific data throwing some light on the socio-psychological motives from the ancient as well as pre-modern times, I want to contend that if it was not for French (and later Russian) obsession with popularizing, what has been regarded as a social deviance during antiquity and middle ages, we might not have been introduced to the notion of plausibility of suicide as a valid moral choice. Therefore it is not startling that every child of modernity is kind of awed (if not completely obsessed) by the suicides of highly enlightened and extraordinary gifted intellectuals such as Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf or David Foster Wallace.

It was perhaps Durkheim’s 1897 masterpiece [2], which brought the phenomenon of suicide from the accidental, emotive and provocative domains to a more formal ambit of statistical sociology and therapeutic domains. According to Ian Hacking, who tries to put various modern and post-modern in the statistical context [3], the earliest recorded English and French instances of the word occur somewhere around 1651 and 1734, respectively. But even before Voltaire’s first usage of the word in 1739, enlightenment gave way to a kind of ‘anticlerical’ tradition which exerted peculiar thematic influences, which not only created spaces for viewing the phenomenon from new moral and rational standpoints, but also vaguely defended it as a moral choice, albeit a radical one.

Therefore, it is no wonder that since the formative period of the so-called age of enlightenment, there is no dearth of expression of awe in the literature. Hence, whether it is Voltaire’s defence of Cato the Younger and his suicide [4], Thomas More’s recommendation of voluntary suicide in his Utopia [5], Montaigne’s reference to Roman reverence for their heroes who committed suicide [6] or Hume’s strong challenge to classical Thomistic arguments [7], an individual’s choice for self-annihilation is a recurring theme in the whole enlightenment literature.

But post-formative literary movements of 19th and 20th century, supplied two fresh perspectives to whole moral and rational enquiry around existential nihilism.

One, that there is inherently no universal meaning in life except that the ultimately authority providing the essential basis of meaning rests with the individual. Consequently, man is essentially and incessantly confronting the absurd. Due to this sheer meaninglessness, the concepts like good, bad, love or hate are merely the abstract manifestations of the universal ‘absurd’ and therefore, nothing but ludicrous. Hence, whether its the underground man of Dostoevsky, the new man – the essential rejecter of Turgenev or the ‘condemned’ hero of Sartre or Albert Camus, all are perplexed between their being and nothingness [8].

Two, that this meaninglessness of  life is not just an inherent absurd characteristic but there is also an underlying element of rationality to it. Therefore, we see, for instance as in the case of Dostoevsky’s man under the floorboards, that the absurdity is not only provoking perplexity but also a kind of natural response to celebrate the very acknowledgement of this psychological condition. Hence, we see that the nihilist – the ‘new man’ – is not only emerging as a self-annihilating idol but also as a supra-intelligent agent which rises above the ordinary intelligence of his so-called social interlocutors and denies the whole existence of the cosmos with full force.

What is important to note that both these dimensions of nihilism are not just the logical imports from philosophies of enlightenment but are quickly being backed by a more scientific post-modern discourse.  Therefore, it should not be surprising for an observant reader aware with modern scientific developments that modern human being is increasingly being studied through the lens, which have been primarily used to study the animals in pre-modern societies. Modern evolutionary psychology is quickly transforming itself into a religion, giving way to a cult of self-worship [9].

A logical import of these scientific developments combined with the existentialist/ nihilistic philosophies is that the modern man is essentially born to be pleased [10], unlike the pre-modern man who was essentially born to be good and consequently, saved. Just like Dostoevsky or Sartre’s hero, a modern man is always trapped between social-alienation and a kind of lethal narcissism. His ultimate aim is to somehow find a way to tackle his perennial confrontation with boredom. In the words of David Foster Wallace,

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish [11].

The following part of this exposition would attempt to study the same original question from the second perspective, that is, how post-modern sensibilities have given way to agnosticism and atheism as a completely rational and valid moral choice.

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  1. The translation is from Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, the version published by Oneworld Classics.
  2.  Émile Durkheim (1897), Suicide.
  3. Ian Hacking (1990), The Taming of Chance.
  4. Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, Part IICato. On Suicide, and the Abbe St. Cyran’s Book Legitimating Suicide.
  5. Thomas More, Utopia.
  6. Michel De Montaigne, The Complete Essays. It is interesting to note that the word for ‘suicide’ did not exist in French in 1580. For an interesting analysis, please refer to Patrick Henry, The Dialectic of Suicide in Montaigne’s “Coustume de l’Isle de Cea”, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 278-289.
  7. David Hume (1783), Of Suicide.
  8. The existentialist/ nihilist themes are continuously explored by the mentioned writers. Some representative fictional works are for instance, Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground; Turgenev, Fathers and Sons;  Jean-Paul Sartre,  Nausea; and  Albert Camus, The Stranger.
  9. Paul C. Vitz (1979), Psychology as Religion: The 

    Cult of Self-Worship.

  10. Philip Rieff (1987), The Triumph of the Thera

    peutic.

     

  11. David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.