Saturday, November 28, 2009

Syed: the Birth of a Nation

On October 16, 1863, Syed Ahmad Khan addressed notable Muslims of Calcutta in Persian language. There he described his concept of nation. "Love exists at countless levels," he explained:
  1. Firstly, there is love for the whole creation, so that one feels pain even if a leaf or a stone is hurt in the universe. This highest degree of love is a gift of God and cannot be acquired on demand.
  2. Secondly, there is love for all living things.
  3. Thirdly, there is love for the entire humanity.
  4. Fourthly, there is love for one's own nation.
This was the theory of nationhood to which not only Syed but also Iqbal, Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Quaid-i-Azam and Liquat Ali Khan subscribed afterwards, and which is still alive in the hearts of the unschooled masses of Pakistan but seems to have slipped the grasp of the intelligentsia, somehow, since 1953.

In that same Calcutta Address, Syed also pointed out that the enemy of Islam was not Christianity but modern philosophy, and therefore we needed to consolidate our efforts on that front. It may be noted that he expressed this view only four years after the publication of Darwin's book, and long before Nietzsche even appeared on the scene.

For expressing these views, he was declared kafir by the conservatives, who left no stone unturned in opposing the college which he wanted to found at Aligarh for introducing quality education in the country. Returning hatred with love, Syed stayed out of the curriculum-design committee and invited Maulana Qasim Nanotvi, his foremost opponent and the founder of the Deoband seminary, to be part of it instead. Maulana took offence because Shia scholars would also be there although designing a separate syllabus for Shia students. Not bothering to reply himself, Maulana asked his deputy to write back that Syed should feel ashamed for suggesting that the Maulana or his representatives should sit in a room with Shias!

Conservative scholars were not the only enemies of Syed (and Islam). The British recognized him as the most potent threat for the Empire, at least in the long-term. On the pretext of writing sympathetic studies, Western scholars began to present him as a Westernized Muslim. The same line was towed by Indian National Congress, who was upset because Syed's concept of a nation based on love for all creation was opposed to the Western model of territorial identity which Congress tried to introduce in India twenty-two year after Syed's Calcutta Address.

Beyond his lifetime, Syed's most ardent defenders have been Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar and Iqbal. "It may be pointed out here that Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Jamal-ud-Din Afghani and hundreds of the latter’s disciples in Muslim countries were not Westernised Muslims," Iqbal wrote in an open letter to Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1935. "It is only the superficial observer of the modern world of Islam who thinks that the present crisis in the world of Islam is wholly due to the working of alien forces."

In the light of these views expressed by Iqbal, let's look into our conscience and see if we all have not been superficial observers?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Faiz: do the masses matter?

I do not think that Faiz Ahmed Faiz was an athiest. He was a simple Muslim, as I may say from what I know of his biography. He used Sufi and classical imagery in his poems more abundantly than some other contemporaries but in many ways, if not all, he opposed the basic Sufi value, Love. This makes it very difficult to bracket him with Sufi poets (and this much has also been pointed out by some other critics).

My strongest disagreement with Faiz is on his disfranchizing of the masses. Stated explicitly in some speeches and essays which most of his readers have not read, but also implied throughout his poetry, the masses are not entitled to choose their literature or to think for themselves. In his opinion, they always get "conditioned" and he advises governments to indoctrinate the people.

Hence, while Faiz speaks for the people, he does not believe in seeking mandate from them. Nor does he believe that when you claim to be speaking for others, then you are obliged to present their case, otherwise you should just say that you are speaking for yourself and exercise your freedom of expression. Instead, he imposes himself in a position where he knows what is good for others, and therefore they do not have the right to question his legitimacy as their spokesperson. The fundamental right which is denied here is "consent".

It seems to me that these ideals did not arise from any dictatorial streak in his personal makeup. Quite the contrary. It seems to me that he was rather too gentle to revolt against these dominant trends of the school of thought with whom he got associated somehow. In my opinion, an impartial study will reveal an immense worth of his poetry for the study of a very interesting mind.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Neda Agha Soltan Scholarship

Arash Hejazi is an Iranian doctor studying at Oxford University. He arrived in Iran on June 18. Two days later he was with the 27-year-old Neda Agha Soltan when she received fatal bullet shots during street protests against election results. The incident was filmed and released on the Internet, sparking outrage against the Iranian Government. The next day, the man from Oxford went back.

Conspicuous? That’s what the Iranian government says. It also says that Neda was shot on an isolated street far from protesters. The regime is investigating, and emphasizes the possibility that this could have been a set-up: those who filmed Neda and her companions for twenty minutes on that isolated street could be the ones who also shot her.

Next episode: Queen’s College announces Neda Agha Soltan Graduate Scholarship for philosophy. The college is part of the same Oxford University. While the Iranian embassy in London has voiced protest against the University's “involvement in a politically motivated campaign,” an impartial reader of this news may face a moral dilemma of another sort. Only someone who doesn’t know history would dismiss the Iranian suspicions of a Western conspiracy as baseless, but should this also mean resentment for the politically motivated scholarship?

If Neda was shot down in order to create a false flag, this doesn’t make her any less of a victim. The question is whether her own government fired the rifle, or was it someone whose identity shall be declassified in London or New York thirty years from now? Today, redefining Neda as a martyr to foreign conspiracy is difficult, but it isn’t impossible. In that case, the flamboyantly announced scholarship can end up as an on-campus reminder of Iran’s case against Britain.

Iranians are the original inventors of statecraft (Cyrus the Great was the first emperor to replace the Pharaoh’s whip with win-win diplomacy). Using the wit and ingenuity of their ancient ancestor Zulqarnayn, Iranians might be able to build a new wall against the present-day Gog and Magog. Wit and ingenuity are needed for that, and those traits usually go together with sensitivity and positive thinking. Fortunately, there is enough of all these in classical Persian literature.

Read news from Associated Press

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Time to Mourn

I regret that I didn't see this post on One Heart for Peace early enough to make a timely reference here. However, it's still worth a look to check it out, and post your comment on that blog itself (not here, since this is just a notice, and visitors won't be able to see the content as well as comment together).

It is about sharing universal feelings for peace and the unity of humankind: "A Time to Mourn".

Saturday, November 7, 2009

My appearances on Iqbal Day

I am making several appearances, electronic and live, this Iqbal Day (Monday, November 9, 2009) in Pakistan. Here is the program:

  • 8:30 am to 9:00 am: Breakfast with Dawn, on Dawn News Channel – live interview
  • 10:00 am to 12:00 am: FM 105, Radio channel in Karachi – live interview
  • 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm: Adamjee Institute, Karachi – lecture and presentation
  • 7:00 pm: Arts Council, Karachi – Launching Ceremony of my book, Iqbal: Tashkeeli Daur, 1905-1913. Ceremony will be presided over by Dr. Sahar Ansari and several distinguished speakers will include Dr. Ahmad Safi, with whom many of you must already be familiar
  • 7:00 pm: Aaj TV - special program on Iqbal Day, hosted by Rahat Kazmi. Other participants include Arshad Mahmood and Zaid Hamid (it was recorded last Wednesday).
You are most welcome to come to the ceremony at Arts Council if you live in Karachi. Just send me an email in advance, so that I may leave your passes at the entrance.

Iqbal, the first telefilm about the life of Allama Iqbal written by me, directed by Faisal Rehman and produced by Iqbal Academy Pakistan, will also be aired that day from PTV at 11 am.