Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The making of Rumi

Jalaluddin was born on September 30, 1207 AD in Balkh (Afghanistan) to a family of religious scholars. After wandering through Persia and the Middle East he settled in Konya (Turkey) and died there on December 17, 1273 AD.

Up to the age of 40 he was known mainly as a great scholar but then came Shams of Tabriz, a wandering dervish. It is said that Rumi asked him questions. The answers were simple, but so deep, that he went into trans and was transformed completely. This happened in 1247, eleven years before the fall of Baghdad. Factual accounts may not do justice to the spiritual intensity of Rumi´s experience, and it seems that for this reason some members of the inner circle came up with two parables.

The first tells us that Rumi was sitting with a heap of books and lecturing to his pupils when Shams came and irreverently questioned him about his work. Rumi replied, "These are matters of intellectual import and you won´t understand." Shams looked at the books and they got burnt, but at Rumi´s protest he pulled them from the ashes, unburnt, and said, "These are matters which you won´t understand."

The other parable places Rumi by the side of a pond. Instead of burning the books, Shams throws them into water. On Rumi´s protest he pulls them, dry and unharmed. The dialogue is almost the same as that in the first parable.

Both stories seem to be pointing at the same thing: there comes a time in the life of seekers when they must give up their knowledge in order to be alone with themselves. A source of deeper knowledge is then discovered within, just like books coming back from ashes or from water. However, the first step is to let go: burn the books or drown them, so that you may transcend your learning and be yourself.
"I say over to you the message of the Sage of Rum: Knowledge, if it lies on your skin, is a snake; knowledge, if you take it to heart, is a friend.” Read more about the meeting between Rumi and Shams Tabriz in Secrets and Mysteries (1915-17) by Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal 
More information, facts and resources about Rumi can be found at the official website of his descendants, Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The unity of life

Iqbal’s concept of ideal state depends on three unities, which he discussed in the Allahabad Address (1930):
  1. The unity of life
  2. The unity of humankind
  3. The unity of nation
The first of these, i.e. the unity of life, implies that contradictions cannot exist. Oneness of God, as expounded in the Quran, takes this philosophical notion a step further by offering opportunities to witness and experience this non-contradiction:
"In Islam God and the universe, spirit and matter, church and state, are organic to each other. Man is not the citizen of a profane world to be renounced in the interest of a world of spirit situated elsewhere. To Islam matter is spirit realizing itself in space and time." (Read complete text of the Allahabad Address)
Is this the same thing as going back to theocracy? Many Western scholars and their Pakistani followers have indeed understood it that way. However, the mainstream Pakistani scholarship (now unfortunately marginalized even in Pakistan), has always understood it to mean something else, something unknown even in the history of Islam because although this had been evolving in the conscience of the community, it required a peculiar setting such as that of modern times in order to be realized.

It is what Iqbal described as “spiritual democracy” in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (written around the same time as the Allahabad Address): rather than isolating religion from politics, the rule of democracy should be extended to include religion as well. Norms in all walks of life, such as religion, art, literature, culture and education ought to be decided by consensus of the people rather than by any priesthood, whether of the clergy or of the academics (Read Iqbal’s statement about spiritual democracy).

Hence Iqbal’s concept of the unity of life is simultaneously opposed to secularism, atheism and theocracy. To borrow a phrase from the popular discourse of the Second Wave Feminism, it means that “the personal is the political.”

Can a spiritual democracy ever ensure equality between followers of different religions? That is a valid concern but in order to address it we need to look at “the unity of humankind”...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Interpretation of stories

The twelfth chapter of the Quran, 'Joseph', deals with such diverse concepts as verse, story, actual incident, dream and other "signs" by which to recognize the Truth. As the story unfolds, we discover that language, story, real incidents, dreams and observations can all be interpreted in a similar manner. There is an organic unity between them and they are interconnected.

Quite interestingly, the word used for a verse of the Quran is ayat, which literally means a sign.

"Thus will your Lord choose you and teach you the interpretation of stories," says Joseph's father to Joseph, in the story chosen by the same Lord to teach that art to the readers. A design within design, a story within story, mise en abyme? I find it interesting and want to explore it in some more detail.
The illustrations shows detail from Surah Yusuf, ending of ayat 64, a copyrighted work by Feridun Özgören (calligraphy by Hamid Aytaç) used with permission.

The power of literature

Ideas, language and human being are interconnected. An idea may become real and take form just as a person may turn into an idea and extend into other dimensions of life little known from the outside.

Before you became, you were an idea in the mind of God. Then you turned into a soul and acquired body. That body will perish but the soul might live on. In the meanwhile you may have generated ideas which, just like you, will become entities in their own right. Hence the power of literature.

Dabbling with theories of criticism seems to be poor harvest. A more proper aim for the study of literature could be to become literature itself and experience the miracle of changing forms - from human to word, from word to idea and then getting back into one's skin.

Through this acquire the power to create, not illusions but realities unknown before.

The picture shows detail from a painting by Tabassum Khalid (2005) depicting Iqbal's encounter with the Ultimate Reality in Javidnama (1932)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Joseph as Nation and State

An analogy may be drawn between Pakistan and Joseph. In Chapter 12 of the Quran, the story begins quite dramatically with young Joseph discussing a dream with his father. He has seen the sun, moon and stars prostrating before him but it turns out to be the beginning of a long series of travails. He gets separated from his parents, is thrown into a well, sold into slavery, falsely accused of a crime, imprisoned and completely forgotten - except by his grieving father who loses his eyes weeping for him.

This idea was posted recently in The Republic of Rumi Newsletter and has brought some feedback, for instance:
Has Pakistan seen the dream about sun, moon and stars?? Joseph = Pakistan; then Father of Joseph = Iqbal?? If yes then what about his lost eyes (sight)? Including his brothers, meaning all Muslim states?? We have to interpret the "king’s" dream? Who is the king here? U.S.?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

14. Pakistan, a disciple of Shah Waliullah

In the elections of 2008, the consensus of the nation seems to be on consensus itself: the Pakistani society cannot be ruled except through a consensus government, the verdict seems to have stated.

As if miraculously, it brings us to the vision of Shah Waliullah. It seems that over the next twenty years, the "consensus" of the nation is likely to be on "itself" rather than a single towering personality.

The nation faced internal and external threats in the days of Shah Waliullah. He wrote letters to notable personalities at home and abroad, disseminated ideas about the spiritual reconstruction of society, launched ideological campaigns, and so on. Today, Pakistan faces internal and extrenal threats and increasing number of individuals are taking on the role of Shah Waliullah by sending text messages and emails, writing blogs, joining social activism or disseminating ideological messages through word of mouth.

If the idea of Pakistan is understood properly then each Pakistani is supposed to be Pakistan itself: individual and nation become the same thing, one becomes many and the many become one. In the words of the great Pakistani poet Sehba Akhtar, "Mien bhi Pakistan hoon, tou bhi Pakistan hai" (I am Pakistan, and you are Pakistan too).

13. Mustansar Husain Tarar, the disciple of Mir

In the elections of 1988, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif emerged as the two major leaders. Each of them got two turns but failed to complete either. In 1999, General Pervez Musharraf took over and his program of "enlightened moderation" remained the hallmark till 2006. On the cultural front, the personality who may be regarded as “the consensus figure” was Mustansar Hussain Tarar, whose travelogues kept inspiring a new zeal among Pakistanis for exploring the geographical beauty of their country. These twenty years were also marked with the emergence of independent channels on television and a popularity of ambitious television productions – again an area in which Tarar was among the most prominent names as a screenwriter, actor and anchorperson.

Similarities between Mir Taqi Mir and Tarar may be unsuspected but they can hardly be overlooked. To name just one: the basic ethos of Mir's poetry was the disintegration of a civilization, which is also the theme of Tarar's work (represented by the motif of a dying river in his novels).

You can read an interview of Mustansar Husain Tarar on my website or find out more about him on Wikipedia.

Next: Pakistan, a disciple of Shah Waliullah?

12. Waheed Murad: the disciple of Sachal Sarmast

In the elections of 1970, the PPP of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (formed in 1967) received a majority of votes in West Pakistan with a 3-point formula, “Socialism, Islam and Democracy”. Disagreement with East Pakistan led to the separation of two wings after much bloodshed. The next two decades, divided between Bhutto and General Zia, saw crude socialism and rigid Islam turn by turn.

On the cultural front the consensus of the nation was on Waheed Murad (1938-1983) – writer, producer, director and actor, who made films in Urdu as well as regional languages and preached integration of society through love. He was also a catalyst in turning Pakistani films and music into a modern parallel of folk culture: a true disciple of Sachal Sarmast.

For an analysis of Waheed Murad's films and writings, visit The Untold Story of Waheed Murad.

11. Ibne Safi: the disciple of Mir Amman

In the elections of 1945-46, the Muslim League's stand on the right of self-determination received a majority of Muslim votes. The result was Pakistan, a state which was voted into existence in order to fulfil the ideal of spiritual reconstruction of society. Poet, publisher and fiction-writer Ibne Safi (1928-1980) stands out as the tallest cultural figure in terms of national consensus over the next twenty years. He was popular with all segments of society. Being neither progressive nor conservative, he preached respect for law and loyalty to state. His genre was detective and spy literature but he remodeled it on the manner of dastaan.

Hence he turns out to be a disciple of Mir Amman. In the early nineteenth century, when the British were becoming the masters of India, Amman drew strength for his community by reworking a classical story according to the tastes of the conquerors. Now, in an age when Western colonialism was winding up its game, Ibne Safi reworked a Western genre according to the tastes of the Eastern masses – after all, they were the ones who had now emerged as the victors.

You can find out more about Ibne Safi at the Ibne Safi Website.

Next: Waheed Murad, disciple of Sachal Sarmast

Friday, September 12, 2008

10. Iqbal: the disciple of Ghalib

In 1926, the first general elections were held in India and they incorporated the principle of separate electorates, i.e. representation of Muslims as a separate community in the parliament. Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), already known as poet and thinker, became a political leader by getting elected. Presiding over the annual session of the Muslim League in 1930, he laid out the case for a separate Muslim state.

Similarities between Ghalib and Iqbal cannot be exagerrated. Iqbal's friend and confidante Sir Abdul Qadir wrote in the preface of one of the books of Iqbal, "Had I believed in reincarnation, I would have said that the restless soul of Ghalib came back as Iqbal..."

Just like Ghalib, Iqbal also took Rumi as his mentor. However, Iqbal was obliged to address an age when Muslims were regaining the hope of establishing a government in India (or a part of it), which was the opposite of the historical circumstances which Ghalib had addressed in his own times.

You can find out more about Iqbal and read his works and translations at the official website of Iqbal Academy Pakistan
Next: Ibne Safi, the disciple of Mir Amman

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

9. Jauhar: the disciple of Zafar?

This is a series of blogs about the creation and philosophy of Pakistan and its key actors. These accounts are based on historical facts and references are linked at the bottom.

In 1906, a representative gathering of Muslim leaders at the annual session of the Educational Conference founded the All-India Muslim League for participating in politics.

Muhammad Ali Jauhar (1878-1931), journalist, poet, political leader and promoter of patriotic songs dominated the community scene for the next twenty years. Interestingly, we find an unsuspected parallel between the careers of Jauhar and the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar.

The emperor had helped disseminate poetry through recitals held at the Red Fort and Jauhar was possessed by a desire to disseminate ideas on a much larger scale: newspapers, gramophone records and political rallies. Jauhar practically founded ideological media among the Muslims of India.

Both Zafar and Jauhar led freedom movements against the British: respectively, the first Indian War of Independence in 1857 and the Khilafat Movement in the post-WWI years. Both were tried by the British for inciting "mutiny" among the sepoys and both got buried outside their homeland: Zafar in Rangoon (now Myanmar) and Jauhar in Jerusalem.

You can find out more about Muhammad Ali Jauhar at Wikipedia.

Next: Iqbal, the disciple of Ghalib

Sunday, September 7, 2008

8. Sir Syed: an Inquiry

This is a series of blogs about the creation and philosophy of Pakistan and its key actors. These accounts are based on historical facts and references are linked at the bottom.
Nationalism as proposed by Indian National Congress formed in Calcutta in 1885 was seen as a threat by leaders of the Muslim community of India, who gathered at Aligarh in 1886 at the call of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. With consensus, they founded Mohammedan Educational Conference.

From this point onwards, we observe a strange pattern in the history of the Pakistani nation (part of the Indian Muslim community until 1947). Every twentieth year, this nation rises almost unanimously to give a fresh verdict about its future course:
  1. 1886: Mohammedan Educational Conference founded
  2. 1906: All-India Muslim League founded
  3. 1926: Elections on the basis of separate electorates
  4. 1945-46: Elections on the question of Pakistan
  5. 1967: the birth of Pakistan People's Party
  6. 1987: dissatisfaction with General Zia with Jamaat-i-Islami joing the demand for party politics
  7. 2007: the Lawyers' Movement

Despite dictators and tyrants (foreign and local), the people have kept this routine. And no other moments in between - elections, political movements or unrests - match these "peak moments" as occasions when everyone wants to give an opinion about where the nation should go.

You can find out more about Sir Syed Ahmad Khan at Wikipedia.

Next: Muhammad Ali Jauhar, a disciple of Zafar?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

7. Sir Syed: an introspection

This is a series of blogs about the creation and philosophy of Pakistan and its key actors. These accounts are based on historical facts and references are linked at the bottom

In 1867 started an unpleasant controversy about whether Hindi should replace Urdu as the common language in India.

Syed Ahmad Khan (later Sir), a former civil servant from Delhi and now an educationist and reformer, prophesied that the differences between Hindus and Muslims would keep increasing (although he wished otherwise). He sensed a risk that his community may get subverted by the British rulers and/or assimilated by the Hindu majority.

The solution which he suggested was a bit of a surprise for everyone: modern education on Western lines. Why?

It seems that Syed had realized that the last missing link in fulfilling the dream of Shah Waliullah was modern science and rational thinking, which the unwitting British had brought to the doorsteps of Islam:

Nature not only imprints upon our minds her own truth, but it also points out another principle, according to which we may direct our actions and thoughts; and as Nature is true and perfect this principle must necessarily be true and perfect, and this true and perfect principle is what we call religion… I hope that every lover of truth, while giving me credit for my conviction, will candidly and impartially investigate the truth of Islam.

The book in which Sir Syed wrote these lines was aptly called Essays on the Life of Muhammad (1870). If the Muslim nation persisted in its search for "the conclusive argument of God" then its history could become "essays on the life of Muhammad."

You can find out more about Sir Syed Ahmad Khan at Wikipedia.

Next: Sir Syed, an Inquiry