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.


  1. As some of our greatest sages & prophets have indicated, perhaps the greatest service we can offer humanity is our own inner transformation/self-realization, etc. and perhaps that goes as well for our various collective groupings, nations, religions, causes, organizations, etc.?

    I have yet to find the history which this recent question addresses...yet this topic is a keenly significant one for our day...perhaps this may (or may not) shed light?

    I offer here one man's thoughts who IF he were to be a particular religion, would probably come closest to Buddhism.

    Although I am not thoroughly satisfied by what I understand of Tolle's conception of Allah - and there would appear to be sometimes a leaving out of Holy Spirit...still I have found in some of Tolle's work a glorious, layered, perceptive understanding of the Ego, of Collective Pain/Suffering and of self-realization & healing for common humanity:

    Thursday, January 24, 2008
    Eckhart Tolle on THE COLLECTIVE EGO


    How hard it is to live with yourself! One of the ways in which the ego attempts to escape the unsatisfactoriness of personal selfhood is to enlarge and strengthen its sense of self by identifying with a group--a nation, political party, corporation, institution, sect, club, gang, football team.

    In some cases the personal ego seems to dissolve completely as someone dedicates his or her life to working selflessly for the greater good of the collective without demanding personal rewards, recognition, or aggrandizement. What a relief to be freed of the dreadful burden of personal self. The members of the collective feel happy and fulfilled, no matter how hard they work, how many sacrifices they make. They appear to have gone beyond ego. The question is: Have they truly become free, or has the ego simply shifted from the personal to the collective?

    A collective ego manifests the same characteristics as the personal ego, such as the need for conflict and enemies, the need for more, the need to be right against others who are wrong, and so on.

    Sooner or later, the collective will come into conflict with other collectives, because it unconsciously seeks conflict and it needs opposition to define its boundary and thus its identity.

    Its members will then experience the suffering that inevitably comes in the wake of any ego-motivated action. At that point, they may wake up and realize that their collective has a strong element of insanity.

    It can be painful at first to suddenly wake up and realize that the collective you had identified with and worked for is actually insane. Some people at that point become cynical or bitter and henceforth deny all values, all worth. This means that they quickly adopted another belief system when the previous one was recognized as illusory and therefore collapsed. They didn't face the death of their ego but ran away and reincarnated into a new one.

    A collective ego is usually more unconscious than the individuals that make up that ego. For example, crowds (which are temporary collective egoic entities) are capable of committing atrocities that the individual away from the crowd would not be. Nations not infrequently engage in behavior that would be immediately recognizable as psychopathic in an individual.

    As the new consciousness emerges, some people will feel called upon to form groups that reflect the enlightened consciousness. These groups will not be collective egos. The individuals who make up these groups will have no need to define their identity through them. They no longer look to any form to define who they are. Even if the members that make up those groups are not totally free of ego yet, there will be enough awareness in them to recognize the ego in themselves or in others as soon as it appears. However, constant alertness is required since the ego will try to take over and reassert itself in any way it can. Dissolving the human ego by bringing it into the light of awareness-this will be one of the main purposes of these groups, whether they be enlightened businesses, charitable organizations, schools, or communities of people living together.

    Enlightened collectives will fulfill an important function in the arising of the new consciousness. Just as egoic collectives pull you into unconsciousness and suffering, the enlightened collective can be a vortex for consciousness that will accelerate the planetary shift.
    ---Excerpt from A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle

  2. Connie, thanks for posting this very useful excerpt and also your insightful comment. I completely agree with you. Also, with the spirit of what Tolle is saying here although he is using "ego" in a meaning different from what is given in my discussion. If ego is perceived as selfishness, and collective ego as enslavement to the collective good of one group at the cost of another group then indeed that is the evil we need to overcome within ourselves (and your observation about the Holy Spirit being left out of Tolle's perception of God is quite candid and pertinent).