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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among Dogmatic Slumberers (II): Failing to Read the Intended Texts

malalaBy now there would be hardly any Pakistani who haven’t witnessed the purist and self-righteous pseudo-intellectuals ripping apart their vocal cords over national media, criticizing Malala Yousafzai, the 16 year old girl who was nominated for Nobel prize earlier this month.

The sanctimonious brigade in land of the pure is known for creating a hysteria for eliminating, banning and victimizing the other by declaring him impure. Sadly, with the ever-reducing space for decent and objective intellectual discourse, it has now become impossible to even voice one’s considered opinion without being targeted by the purist camp, which has been fed persistently with fallacious and concocted ideologies.

Consequently, its pretty much futile to forward an objective critical discourse. Disagreement is simply not an option any more. To disagree, one has to keep quiet, look down and give way to stronger vocal cords; and since reason and persuasive dialogue is overpowered by the rhetoric and bellowing, there is no use extending any counter-arguments to baseless claims.

Therefore, when your fulminating interlocutors give damn to someone like Syed Ameer Ali or doesn’t consider it an enough casual rejoinder that Iqbal didn’t care to suffix salutations of peace be upon him after Prophet Muhammad’s name in his famous lectures, it is perhaps waste of time to indulge in critical discourses.

In fact, it seems like a bad dream to live in such times where we are witnessing a book being critiqued for not interjecting salutations within the script. I am sure its nature’s way of narrating a gag to let the universe have a good hearty laugh on us and throw us in the dustbin of history. It seems like we are undergoing a proverbial Copernican revolution where a minority is insisting that universe is heliocentric. 

However, we must not let hope be the casuality, and no matter how little, we must try to create a space to extend a discourse. I would request all cynical purists who are making the book controversial through over-sensationalized and misplaced religious, social or political critiques to please:

  1. Remove the lenses of bigotry and prejudice and read the book in a casual way. Its not a great book so comparisons with Anne Frank’s diary are perhaps out of proportion. However, I would hate to speculate that it might be considered a great classic if Pakistan continues on its usual disastrous course and experience a people’s tragedy comparable to holocaust. This, in my humble yet optimistic view, is impossible, God willing.
  2. Not even a very well-written work either; understandably so, since its from a young girl, take it as an ad lib commentary by a 16 year old kid which is most probably composed by Christina Lamb in readable language. To our so-called second grade media intellectuals who have issues with Lamb’s reputation: Yousafzai is not synonymous with Lamb.
  3. At least try to add a minimum possible of degree of objectivity in your criticism and don’t read the book as a contentious well thought-out academically assertive work of literature. Moreover, if your argument is that one sheds away her academic credentials if one is seen in party with some Baloch tribal chief, there can be no possible counter-argument which you should expect. This is not even an ad hominem; its simply shameful.
  4. When you quote, please do so with the purpose of discussion and critique rather than ridicule or cause agitation and shock among the masses who haven’t read the book. Please learn to read and understand the texts. They are meaningless and misleading without a context. Those who are calling it interpretation of her father’s ideas, well what, if I may ask, is wrong with that? All 16-year old kids think their fathers are cool. We, as fathers and mothers, have right to impart our version of goodness into our children. We may disagree with each others’ views but disagreeing with other’s interpretation of history, politics, religious or social issues doesn’t make one anti-Islam or anti-Pakistan.
  5. It might be a very interesting work for western audience, specially when Lamb ostensibly lets Yousafzai speak (in my view Lamb has added historical and political bits to it where necessary for coherence of discourse), but have very little for Pakistani reader in terms of engagement with the text. However, you must understand that you are reading a very brave girl who can stand eye-to-eye with adversity and horrors in conditions where most of us would end up compromising our liberty or would simply run away. She is a brave girl, mentored and taught life by an audacious father. We must be proud of her and listen her carefully since we have a young hero towards whom we can point our children to look-up to.

Lastly, lets try to read the same book which the author has intended to write; please don’t end up reading the book which you intend to criticize, apriori.

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

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

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Sorrows of Young Werther

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

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

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

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

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

To Cultivate Hatred as a Civic Passion

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“Why are you after the Jews in particular?”

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

“So you want the Jews to be destroyed?”

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

(Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery)

 

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

Assalamu Alaykum Nana Abba,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wassalamu alaykum wa rahmatullah.

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.
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  1. ViewPoint Online Issue 148.
  2. Isaiah Berlin, The Birth of the Russian Intelligentsia (Russian Thinkers).
  3. In Vissarion G. Belinsky, Selected Philosophical Works (Letter to Nikolai V. Gogol). It is the same letter, reading which in a circle of Petrashevsky adherents, Dostoyevsky was condemned to death, a punishment which was later commuted to penal servitude.