Monday, April 20, 2009

The end of the ancient world

I would like to share a comment which I have received on the previous post, ‘The Power of Chosen Poverty’:
“Is poverty here to be taken literally or something beyond itself…? Islam is not the religion of poverty at all. This is what has been preached for years and years as a true principle in Islam. That to be a true Muslim and an obedient and pious subject of God, one must not live for this world. I think this is exactly what has prevented the Muslim world from becoming the powerful entity that it was promised to be. To live in this world and be part of it is just as important as knowing that it is all transient and believing in the Hereafter… I do not think that Faqr here means poverty, nor Fana annihilation. On the contrary; I think Fana means integration, Faqr dissolution. I still believe that they should mean something spiritual, that to become the transcendent entity, which you call the collective ego, we would have to lose ourselves in something far greater, just like the birds, they were themselves and yet they were not. Like a drop of water which when it comes to the ocean, is dissolved only to become part of a greater whole. Faqr meaning poverty brings nothing but darkness.”

The exact translation of the Persian words faqr and fana might be controversial but apart from that I whole-heartedly agree with this comment and would request the readers to revisit the previous post in the light of this comment.

Now about fana – annihilation of the ancient world. With the advent of Islam, the ancient world came to an end in two phases:
  • 620-680 AD: Following the ‘Ascension’ of Prophet Muhammad (his well-known “nightly journey” which is interpreted by Iqbal as a unitary experience), Islam became a state which overran its opponents including many powerful kingdoms of the ancient world; when the democratic structure of the earlier Arab regimes was changed to monarchy, it was questioned by Imam Husain, the Prophet’s grandson, who got assassinated along with most of the male descendants of the Prophet at Kerbala.
  • 680-750 AD: Following the tragedy of Kerbala, the first monarchy of the Muslim world came to an end in 750 AD as a result of a ruthless uprising which claimed to avenge the blood of Husain.
Thus in the course of 130 years, we see a double ending: first the ancient world was overrun by Arab conquerors and then the ruling regime of those Arabs was itself extinguished from within.

What followed was a series of three Islamic revivals which shall be discussed in the next post – we are still living in the midst of the third of these revivals.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Power of Chosen Poverty

The seventh valley in the system of Attar is “the Valley of Chosen Poverty and Annihilation.” With the advent of Prophet Muhammad, “chosen poverty” became the guiding principle of government. The Prophet himself lived on the simplest means. The first four caliphs continued the practice (three of them got assassinated because they refused to keep bodyguards). Collectively, the first four caliphs are called “Rightly Guided” (Khulafa-i-Rashideen).

Beyond them, Muslim rulers adopted hereditary rule, pomp and luxury. Yet, two points need to be observed.

Firstly, in the world of Islam there never has been an equivalent of the Western dogma of “the Divine Right of Kings.” The highest honor for a Muslim king was to be called “the leader of the faithful” (Amirul Momineen). Many were power-hungry and some went to the extent of devicing the title “Zilli Ilahi” (The Shadow of God on Earth) but any political treatise from Islamic history, if analyzed in depth, yields a very different premise than the one suggested by the Western dogma of the Divine Right (and this might be due to the significance of the “great sacrifice” of Imam Husain, the grandson of the Prophet, and the invisible work of Sufis whose real significance is yet to be understood).

Secondly, since the advent of Prophet Muhammad, we find a tendency of comparatively more egalitarian groups overcoming comparatively less egalitarian ones. Exceptions might be there, but usually we find that power shared among more people tend to triumph over systems where power is shared by fewer. Wikipedia should be sufficient for further reading on the following randomly chosen examples:
  • Tariq Bin Ziyad versus Visigoths in Spain, 707-11
  • Mongols of Genghis and Hulagu versus Muslim empires like Khwarizm and Abbasids, 1206-58
  • The First Battle of Panipat (Babur versus Ibrahim Lodhi), 1526
  • The Battle of Plassey, 1757
  • The Battle of Waterloo, 1816
Thinkers like Iqbal would have liked to interpret this tendency of “modern history” as a manifestation of the first of the two spiritual principles associated with the seventh valley. The principle is “chosen poverty” (faqr): victory is not the prerogative of Muslims but of any group or nation who knowingly or unknowingly adopts this principle up to any extent (Iqbal made it abundantly clear in his famous poem ‘The Answer to the Complaint’ ('Jawab-i-Shikwa').

The second principle is "annihilation" (fana). In the next post, we shall see how the ancient world was rolled up at the advent of the Prophet and what pattern seems to be governing subsequent calamities is what we shall see in the next post.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Attar and Covey

In the previous post we saw that Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Zulqarnayn, Christ and Muhammad hold out seven principles which humanity accumulated in the age of prophets. The principles can be defined variously, such as the seven valleys through which birds pass in their search for collective ego in The Conference of the Birds.

Let’s consider another example which comes from a secular source. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey offers a model of self-development which is becoming quite popular these days.

I have many reservations regarding Mr. Covey but may I venture to point out that each of those habits still seem to depict special affinity with the messages of the personalities I have listed (and in the same order):
  1. Adam: Be Proactive (Principles of Personal Choice)
  2. Noah: Begin with the End in Mind (Principles of Personal Vision)
  3. Abraham: First Things First (Principles of Integrity & Execution)
  4. Moses: Think Win/Win (Principles of Mutual Benefit)
  5. Zulqarnayn: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood (Principles of Mutual Understanding)
  6. Christ: Synergize (Principles of Creative Cooperation)
  7. Muhammad: Sharpen the Saw (Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Seven Peaks of the Ancient World

The seven valleys through which the birds pass in their search for Simorgh in the classic tale of Attar are seven inevitable stages in the development of any ego (or self or soul).

If humanity is regarded as one collective ego (which is how Iqbal interprets the Quran’s conception of humanity), then Muslims can regard the development of human civilization up to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as a complete cycle which culminated in the manifestation of that collective ego in the form of one person, i.e. Prophet Muhammad, with whom prophet-hood came to end.

If the following personalities are regarded as “peaks” which divide ancient history into stages, then each stage shall reflect the characteristics of the corresponding valley of Attar’s story:
  1. Adam (Longing)
  2. Noah (Love)
  3. Abraham (Knowledge of Mysteries)
  4. Moses (Detachment)
  5. Dhul Qarnayn (Unity)
  6. Christ (Wonderment)
  7. Muhammad (Chosen Poverty and Annhilation)
Interpretations can differ and skeptics can also debate the historical existence of some of these figures, but the broad division of history would still remain the same. The personalities listed here are representative of principles through which the ancient world had to pass in order to arrive at maturity.

This explains the fundamental difference between Muslim historical thinking (represented by such thinkers as Ibn Khuldun, Shibli, Muhammad Ali Jauhar and Iqbal) and that of certain other cultures. Because it understands a major cycle to have completed, the Muslim mind is eager to move on into a golden age – an unknown world to be discovered through analogy of the past but by no means hampered by it.
Next: how this model works for a better understanding of past, present and future.

The Sixth Valley

We are living in an age when the media is bombarding us with information at such speed that it seems no longer possible to process and investigate each story. Perhaps what we need is to cut down to principles.

Disregard for law and human dignity is an ugly reality which is surfacing today at those highest levels which were previously barred to such behavior. The United States and Pakistan are two countries where this change can be gauged more easily but unfortunately in both places the symptoms are being ignored primarily because they are not being taken seriously.

My study of history has led me to accept that at this point in time, Pakistan holds the only solution for the intellectual crisis looming over the world. However, that solution cannot be discovered until the Pakistani nation finds courage to accept itself.

That was the point about the Sixth Valley of Attar. We know that the journey of birds in search of Simorgh is an allegory, but most commentaries tell us that it is about an individual’s search for God in which Simorgh is symbolic of the Ultimate Reality. This is the interpretation which Iqbal questioned.

According to Iqbal, the “Real Love” (ishq-i-haqeeqi) preached by genuine Sufis was not a quest for nothingness. It was all about connecting with the collective ego. It is shocking that in Pakistan never interpreted its literature in the light of this national ideal.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

From Unity to Bewilderment

In The Conference of the Birds by Attar, the birds pass through seven valleys on their way to their unseen king, Simorgh, which turns out to be a reflection of all thirty birds who make it to the end (“si morgh” = "thirdy birds" in Persian), and yet Simorgh is more than all of them.

While this king may represent the collective ego of the travelers (they have to arrive together), the seven valleys seem to be the stages which naturally occur in the self-development of any individual or group:
  1. Quest
  2. Love
  3. Knowledge of Mysteries
  4. Detachment
  5. Unity
  6. Bewilderment
  7. Poverty and Annihilation
Each stage is different from previous. For instance, in the Valley of Unity the birds learn to see no dichotomies. As soon as they enter the next, “that unity which got written on their soul is now gone…” Is it progress or retrogression?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Seven Stages of Pakistan

Please note: Sometime after publishing this post I simplified the dates of the "seven stages" mentioned here as respectively 1887-1906, 1907-1926, 1927-1946, 1947-1966, 1967-1986, 1987-2006 and 2007-2026. Regards, Khurram Ali Shafique, April 24, 2012.

Some time ago I introduced “The Seven Stages of Pakistan” in some of my writings on the web. Several questions were asked, of various sorts, and I would now like to resume that discussion – especially for the benefit of new readers who have joined the list.

The concept is based on the observation that every twentieth year since 1886 (with one reasonable exception), a “peak moment” occurs in Pakistan when the entire nation seems bent upon seeking a fresh mandate for the future. If each of these moments were accepted as the beginning of a new stage then our history would be divided into the following seven:
  • 1886-1905: Mohammedan Educational Conference
  • 1906-25: All-India Muslim League
  • 1926-46: Separate Electorates
  • 1947-66: The Dawn of Independence
  • 1967-86: Popular Movements
  • 1987-2006: Moderate Enlightenment
  • 2007-26: The Present Stage
These stages should have been self-evident if we had not missed the basic point about the birth of Mohammedan Educational Conference on December 27, 1886. Most histories written after 1936, including sympathetic ones, state that the Conference was founded for promoting modern education, etc. The fact is that the resolution presented on that historic day was about forming an organization which could seek and formulate consensus of the community.

Once we understand that the journey started with consensus-seeking, it becomes logical to count a new stage each time a general desire for consensus-seeking arises again in the community. This has happened seven times so far: 1886, 1906, 1926, 1946, 1967, 1987 and 2007.

Hence I am not being driven by a desire to divide history into symmetrical chunks, or anything like that. The stages which I have discovered are simply based on each new move along the purpose which was the explicitly stated aim of the journey at the very beginning.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who proposed the resolution in 1886, was a believer in “the spirit of all human beings.” To him, the collective ego was the thing to be achieved, and it could be done through recognizing and respecting the consensus. Iqbal further elaborated this concept by stating that there were three types of egos:
  1. Ultimate Ego (God)
  2. Collective ego (nation or society)
  3. Individual ego
The Seven Stages of Pakistan are basically the stages in the development of the second of these, i.e. the collective ego.

One thing which I have learnt from my extensive researches into the history is that “the collective ego” in the case of Pakistan is a real thing and seems to be passing through the same stages through which an individual would pass in the course of self-development.

It might be interesting to compare the history of Pakistan with various models of self-development – from the Seven Valleys of Shaykh Fariduddin Attar to the Seven Habits currently being preached by Mr. Stephen Covey (whether or not those habits belong to “highly effective people”).

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Message from the East (1923)

Excerpt from the preface of Iqbal's second book of poetry (translated mainly by Hadi Husain), containing probably the only reference to America in works compiled by the author himself (apart from allusions to certain American thinkers in the Reconstruction).
Europe’s Great War was a catastrophe which destroyed the old world order in almost every respect, and now out of the ashes of civilization and culture Nature is building up in the depths of life a new Adam and a new world for him to live in, of which we get a faint sketch in the writings of Einstein and Bergson. Europe has seen with its own eyes the horrible consequences of its intellectual, moral and economic objectives and has also heard from Signor Nitti (a former prime minister of Italy) the heart-rending story of the West’s decline. It is, however, a pity that Europe’s perspicacious, but conservative, statesmen have failed to make a proper assessment of that wonderful revolution which is now taking place in the human mind.

Regarded from a purely literary standpoint, the debilitation of the forces of life in Europe after the ordeal of the war is unfavourable to the development of a correct and mature literary ideal. Indeed, the fear is that the minds of the nations may be gripped by that slow-pulsed Magianism which runs away from life’s difficulties and which fails to distinguish between the emotions of the heart and the thoughts of the brain. However, America seems to be a healthy element in Western civilization, the reason for which perhaps is that it is free from the trammels of old traditions and that its collective intuition is receptive to new ideas and influences.

The East, and especially the Muslim East, has opened its eyes after a centuries-long slumber. But the nations of the East should realise that life can bring about no revolution in its surroundings until a revolution takes place in its inner depths and that no new world can take shape externally until it is formed in the minds of individuals. This ineluctable law, which has been stated by the Quran in the simple but eloquent words, “Verily, God does not change a nation until it changes itself” [xiii. 11] governs both the individual and the collective spheres of life; and it is the truth of this law that I have tried to keep in view in my Persian works.In the present-day world, and especially in Eastern countries, every effort which aims at extending the outlook of individuals and nations beyond geographical boundaries and at reviving or generating in them a healthy and strong human character is worthy of respect.

It is for this reason that I have dedicated these few pages to His Majesty the King of Afghanistan [Amir Amanullah Khan], who appears to be well aware of this fact, thanks to his natural intelligence and keen intellect, and who is specially keeping in view the education and training of the Afghans. May God help him in the fulfilment of this grand mission.


I shall refer to the “forecasts” about the next twenty years posted earlier in this newsletter. Needless to say, they are not “visions” (I consider myself to be a very unlikely candidate to any such power) but are based on my reading of history – and reading of history is all that I’ve been doing for several years now:
  • 2008-10: Disenchantment with the West
  • 2010-16: Isolation (and possibly a conflict)
  • 2017-26: Crisis of federation
  • 2026-27: Emergence of inherent unity
By “crisis of federation” I imply possibility of two things. Firstly, it seems likely that the issue of Taliban may suddenly be over for Pakistan around that time. Secondly, what we need to watch out is that this change doesn’t come in a package with break-up of Pakistan, especially the loss of Balochistan and NWFP. Such a thing, if it happens, can cause unnecessary loss of life and property – I say “unnecessary” because it is SELF-EVIDENT that even if (God forbid) Pakistan breaks up around that time, the four provinces will be reunited c.2027.

That final emergence of inherent unity 18 years from now is an INEVITABLE. I hope to be able to explain my reasoning in more detail soon, but what is more urgent and important is that whatever happens until then is in our own hands. We need to understand those factors of our society which are shaping history and which are unknown to the so-called academia and the so-called social scientist.

We need to ACCEPT; accept our mistakes as well as achievements, and that is not the same thing as accepting mistakes we didn’t commit and boasting about stuff that is the opposite of achievement. That is what we have been doing most of the time since 1953.

As suggested in the previous post, the idea of Pakistan was consensus-seeking, and consensus was needed because the collective ego – “the spirit of all human beings” – was not just a philosophical notion to our founding fathers but was something to be achieved in real. What is this collective ego and how do we achieve it? To understand that, we need to revisit four Sufi stories in the light of Iqbal’s thought:

  1. Conference of the Birds
  2. Arabian Nights
  3. Layla Majnun
  4. The Tale of Four Dervishes