Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Aligarh Movement

In the previous issue we discussed the concept of “Simorgh” as presented by Sheikh Fariduddin Attar in The Conference of the Birds, how the concept represents the collective ego of societies (and perhaps the humankind), and how Sir Syed Ahmad personified it as a beautiful houri who says, “I am the spirit of all human beings.”

In 1875, Syed took a practical step towards the realization of this collective ego by opening Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental school at Aligarh (India), which became a college two year later. Three misconceptions need to be clarified:
  • The purpose of the Aligarh College was not to introduce modern education, since that was already being done through so many schools run by the British; the purpose was to include religious instruction in a modern curriculum in order to attract Muslim elite who had remained aloof so far
  • The purpose of ‘English’ education was only material progress which was necessary if Indian Muslims were to survive as a community; the purpose was not enlightenment, since Syed believed that true enlightenment could come only through a holistic interpretation of Islam itself
  • Since the elite was bonded with conservative scholars of religion, who were opposed to Syed’s interpretation of religion (including his idea of “the collective ego”), Syed agreed to exclude these from the curriculum of the college
This is what went wrong. Aligarh offered a concoction of secular modern education of the highest standard possible in India in those days along with basic religious instruction as advised by conservative religious scholars. This conservative version of religion was insufficient to hold its ground before the glamour of new ideas – just as Syed had suspected.

Consequently, many among the next generation of the educated youth failed to appreciate Islam as a source of enlightenment and came to regard Western learning as synonymous with enlightenment - whether they opposed it or embraced it. After the First World War (1914-18), when Western arts and literature became pessimistic and decadent (as explained by A.J.P. Taylor so succinctly), our “new intellectuals” followed the pessimism of the West faithfully and downward into the valleys of fascism, communism, existentialism and any other “ism” that they could lay their hands on.

There were exceptions – trend-setting journalist Muhammad Ali Jauhar (1878-1931), poet-philosopher Iqbal (1877-1938) and dramatist Agha Hashr Kashmiri (1879-1935), to name just a few. These thinkers did not severe their connections with the masses of their society. While they produced work which was “modern” in many ways, they accepted the consensus of their own community to be the final judge and arbiter on their art rather than the opinion of any Orientalist or the glamour of any Nobel or “Ig”-Nobel Prize (When Iqbal’s first English translation appeared in 1920, the novelist E.M. Forster wrote, “Tagore was little noticed outside Bengal until he went to Europe and gained the Nobel Prize, whereas Iqbal has won his vast kingdom without help from the West”).

Consequently, the tradition of Jauhar, Hashr and Iqbal has lived in the popular culture of India and Pakistan – countless films from the mainstream cinema of the two countries, their songs and stereotypes can be quoted as evidence while detective writers like Ibne Safi also put the lines of Iqbal into the mouth of their heroes. The so-called “high culture” in India and Pakistan – include art, media and letters – never failed to offer lip service to Iqbal, sarcasm to Jauhar and outright insults to Hashr but on the whole it tried to remain indifferent to this common legacy.

Invariably, we find that all these thinkers allude to “the collective ego” or they build up on its explanation until it finds the most concrete expression in the last paragraph of the Presidential Address delivered by Iqbal in Allahabad on December 30, 1930 (the same year when Hashr wrote his last play and Jauhar delievered his last public speech):
“I do not mystify anybody when I say that things in India are not what they appear to be. The meaning of this, however, will dawn upon you only when you have achieved a real collective ego to look at them.”
Why did it happen that artists like Iqbal, Jauhar and Hashr who remained close to the heart of their society ended up alluding to the collective ego involuntarily despite being self-acclaimed champions of Islam? Perhaps the answer lies in the significance of a small incident that occurred in Aligarh on December 27, 1886.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Simorgh: the Collective Ego of Humanity

The birds set out to seek their king, who was called Simorgh but whom none had seen. They passed through seven valleys, and only thirty survived till the end where, when the curtains were at last lifted, they saw thirty mirrors placed in front of them. Since si means thirty in Persian, and morgh means bird, Simorgh was practically each one of them seeing a reflection of themselves at the same time. However, the whole was more than the sum of its parts – “I am from you but still I am more than you,” said Simorgh and the voice came from each bird simultaneously. They united with the whole.

This is the gist of The Conference of the Birds by the twelfth century Sufi poet Sheikh Fariddun Attar, who became an inspiration for Rumi in the next generation.

Precisely what did he mean by Simorgh? Interpretations differ. It is quite evident that the seven valleys were symbolic and profound descriptions of the seven states available to an ego in the course of its development. However, it can be disputed whether Attar meant Simorgh to represent the Ultimate Ego, i.e. God, as was understood by most commentators in the subsequent centuries.

The great nineteenth century thinker Sir Syed Ahmad Khan seemed to be offering an alternate interpretation when he wrote ‘Time Bygone’ (‘Guzra Hua Zamana’) in 1873. In that short story, an old man reviews his past life with remorse as he observes that all his good deeds appear wasted – mosques, wells, soup kitchens which he helped to be built all lie in ruins. A houri, surrounded by a halo, descends from the night sky and tells him, “I am the spirit of all human beings. I am the virtue that never dies. Therefore, whoever wishes to win me should work for the common good of humanity, or at least for the benefit of his nation.”

The old man despairs of winning her, and faints. It turns out to be a dream: he is a mere boy who was dreaming about old age. Rather than being the last night of the year, as in the dream, it was the New Year morning. His mother advises him to do as his “bride” had told him.

The concept of “the spirit of all human beings” was not unknown to Sufis. They had written about it at great length, often calling it “the Perfect Human Being”, or Insaan-i-Kamil. However, to personify it as something which an entire society, or perhaps the whole humankind, can achieve collectively was an ingenuous interpretation brought by Sir Syed a little before Nietzsche started dreaming about Superman.

Syed did more than just describing it. It seems that he believed that the apparition presented in his fantasy was in fact a real being: the collective ego of humankind might be existing in reality, or could be in the making. Syed took two practical steps for achieving it.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

7 Principles of Pakistan

These are principles which I have discovered from the history of Pakistan since 1886:
  1. Seek consensus (Sir Syed)
  2. Plan long-term (Jauhar)
  3. Transcend yourself (Iqbal)
  4. Respect law (Ibne Safi)
  5. Unite (Waheed Murad)
  6. Learn through experience (Tarar)
  7. Accept ("I'm Pakistan")

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Lawyers’ Movement According to Muhammad Ali Jauhar

People’s victory over the “People’s Party” is being celebrated, and rightly so. However, the best celebration of this historic achievement would be to understand its true significance. For that we may have to turn back a few pages in the book of history.

Muhammad Ali Jauhar (1878-1931) is our forgotten hero. The man, who fought for the freedom of press, orchestrated mass movements, defied colonialism, braved the risk of gallows with persistent laughter and died in a manner which was “prophetic” in more ways than one, was arguably also the first modern historian of what would later become Pakistan. In 1927 he wrote:

“The average span of a generation is usually considered to be thirty years although marriages happen in India much before that age and life expectancy among Indians is also comparatively lower. Yet, just as the Indian National Congress came into being thirty years after the establishment of the universities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, precisely in that same manner a new educated generation of Muslims came up to become the founder of [All India] Muslim League in 1906, thirty years after the foundation of the Aligarh College, and Muslims entered politics as a nation.”
This seminal passage from Jauhar ingeniously upgrades the famous theory of Ibn Khuldun about royal dynasties and makes it useable in the age of democracy. The principle of historiography offered here is, however, quite different from approaches prevalent in the Western academia at that time or even now and elsewhere in his writings, Jauhar was also keeping in mind other factors which often get overlooked in academic writings. Based on these, he seems to be suggesting here that the impact of education is inevitable but bears fruit almost a generation after the seed is sown.

We know that in our history there are certain peak moments which could be regarded to have had as deep an impact on the minds of generations as any degree in formal education – if not more. Jauhar’s thesis is indeed vindicated when we compare the chronology of such moments with significant turning points of our history:
  • 1886: Foundation of Mohammedan Educational Congress (later Conference). Thirty year later: Lucknow Pact certifying the principle of Muslim nationhood in 1916.
  • 1926: First elections on the basis of separate electorates but limited franchise. Thirty year later: Pakistan’s first constitution in 1956, followed by an era of “basic democracy”
  • 1946-47: Elections and direct action for the making of Pakistan. Thirty year later: “Pakistan National Alliance” for Islamization of the state in 1977
  • 1967: Birth of progressive movements in West Pakistan and East Pakistan. Thirty year later: What would eventually mature into “enlightened moderation” begins with the reversion of weekly holiday to Sunday in 1997.
  • 1987: Demand for elections on party basis becomes unanimous, as supporters of Islamization also join the chorus. Thirty year later: Wait till 2017, or try to make your own guess now.
  • 2007: Lawyers’ Movement. Thirty year later: Wait till 2037, or try to make your own guess now.
I would like to make a guess about the last one at least. If the Lawyers’ Movement, especially with the victory of March 16, 2009, is to regarded as a seed sown in the fertile minds of the generation who is young today, then it is likely that this generation will grow up with a mindset corresponding to the ideals of justice and impartiality. The best thing, at least according to Jauhar’s theory about social change, is that the outcome is inevitable and cannot be reversed by any setbacks which the movement may suffer in the near future. In fact, setbacks can only aggravate the long-term impact by providing extra fuel to the passions implanted in the minds of the youth at this time.

According to what we may call the "Jauhar formula” for calculating mass outcome, the impact can be expected to become visible by 2037. If that sounds bleak because it involves a distant future, then we ought to think a bit more deeply. Things we do with an aim of seeing their impact in our own lifetime are more like business than love even if those things are done for a common cause. True love for others is far more manifest in trees we plant for the future generations without hoping to partake of the fruits ourselves. Patience and hope is the essence of all true love – whether of an individual or of society – and as Shakespeare very rightly set it down for our benefit, “Love is not love which alters when alteration finds.”

Especially significant is the fact that Pakistan is currently having a “population bonus”. Just a few months ago I heard a leading educationist talking remorsefully that we are not tapping it sufficiently. Now I feel like saying: “Good that we are not. Given our existing trends, education could at best have inculcated more hypocrisy, snobbery and deceit among the impressionable youth. This peak moment provided by the inner impulse of the nation’s life might provide them with something better.” (Perhaps what we need to do in the field of education is to learn from the masses before presuming that we are fit to teach them – perhaps education can become more meaningful if our teachers start learning something from their pupils in the bargain).
At least we need to incorporate the ideals of the Lawyers’ Movement into the syllabi of formal education so that kids growing up in comfortable classrooms do not lag behind in that learning which our “collective ego” seems to be imparting to the poorer ones, like a caring mother who hasn’t forgotten her less privileged children after all. However, the biggest youth program is being carried out under the banner of our late beloved leader Benazir Bhutto whose Pakistan People’s Party, unfortunately, not only holds the dubious position of being late in joining the Movement and early in leaving it but has also ended up as the major adversary against whom the recent – perhaps the final – round had to be fought. Also, professional guidance for the youth program is coming from the British Council which, despite its proven competence, is unlikely to be as much in touch with the soul of the nation as a vernacular institution could be (incidentally, the “leadership” component of the program is being led almost entirely by foreign experts at its highest level).
In fact, the biggest friction against which we need to watch out in the long-term could occur due to the unschooled youth of today growing up with deeper emotional attachment to the cause of justice than their properly schooled counterparts.

“Patience and hope,” writes Layla to Qais in the famous love poem by Nizami Ganjavi (whose 800th death anniversary falls this year, incidentally). “Do not look at the sower casting seed, but remember what will grow from it. If today thorns block your way, tomorrow you will harvest dates, and the bud still closed and hidden holds the promise of a blossoming rose.” That is what Pakistan seems to be saying to its citizens, and the principles of Muhammad Ali Jauhar are the best explanation of why it should be heard.

We should celebrate the victory of the long march without being hampered by any fears of setbacks in the near future. The inevitable has been invoked. Amid the present doubts, let’s offer a toast to the certainty of tomorrow.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pakistan 2007-2026

This is an explanation of the original post about the next 20 years of Pakistan. I am neither being swayed by pessimism, nor by optimism because I don't believe in either: just like Iqbal I am a meliorist (look up "meliorism" on Wikipedia if you haven't heard about it before).

In other words, no matter what discord and devastation the provinces of Pakistan may witness between 2010 and 2026, they seem destined to discover a profound working unity in 2027. It might turn out to be a unity unlike any other in theworld, and a ready source of formidable moral force.

By no means am I suggesting that the road is going to be easy - for all we know, many of us might not survive to see that day if we do not make the right choices now. "Where there is no vision, people perish," Iqbal used to quote from the prophet Solomon.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Forecasting the Future

On October 3, I posted my forecasts of the next 20 years on my blog. Many friends thought them unlikely to happen.

I had stated that Pakistan will become increasingly distanced from the world, especially the West, and from 2010 will begin a period of isolation. Even that seemed unlikely to some in those days amid all the hype about the forthcoming Obama, and so on. Five months later, sadly, it doesn’t seem very far-fetched (Read what everyone is saying after the tragic attack on Sri Lankan players in Lahore yesterday).

I was asked to explain what I meant by isolation, and I referred to Shikral, an imaginary landscape in the works of Ibne Safi (arguably the greatest Pakistani novelist). A dear friend commented that Shikral was modeled after the tribal regions of Pakistan and hence it is unlikely that the rest of Pakistan could ever come even closer to that sort of thing. Well, we now have our democratic government sanctioning the enforcement of rigid Shariah laws in Swat, the tourist haven once considered to be a mini-Switzerland in Pakistan.

I am not a soothsayer, nor clairvoyant. Yet in this newsletter I have been bringing up the issue of forecasting because, odd as it might sound, Pakistan came with a roadmap. Its destiny was foretold in the writings of Iqbal, and in the speeches of Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan.

Forecasting is not only to fulfill your curiosity. It is about preventing disasters and steering your ship in the correct direction (“The future isn’t the same once you’ve seen it,” Nicholas Cage says something to that effect in Next, a movie I recommend strongly if you haven’t watched it already).

I have now done enough research to become bold about things which so far I have only suggested as hints (that’s why I was away). I shall begin by saying that one of the key themes in the works of Iqbal was forecasting the destiny of one’s nation, and ultimately the destiny of the humankind.

The theme is so dear to Iqbal that when he meets God “face to face” at the highest point in his journey, his single request to the Almighty is, “Let me see the destiny of the humankind.” There are quite a few methods for forecasting the future, and most of them are nothing more than pleasant pastimes. What I am talking about (and Iqbal was talking about) is different.

It is a kind of intimacy with God. It is “interpretation of stories and events”, which God describes as His special boon to Joseph in the Quran. It is to develop our thought to such perfection that we can analyze history and Nature to see not only what is visible but also what lies beneath: the current of Life which is ever flowing through our lives, sweet and low, singing a song so faint that we need to shut off so many noises in order to hear it.

“Listen to the flute,” says Rumi. “How it complains and narrates the story of its separation.” So far you’ve wondered if Time is a dimension of space. I am inclined to perceive space as a dimension of Time.