Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reaction against democracy in the West

Iqbal talked about “the reaction against democracy in England and France”, but the very phrase is met with great surprise whenever I mention it in my workshops:
  • When did England and France react against democracy?
  • Are those societies not the bastions of democracy?
  • Are they not the yardsticks by which we need to measure and judge our own democracy?
This is the kind of reaction I usually get, and this may show that the generation of Iqbal knew something that has not been transferred to us. The purpose of my recent posts was just to fill the gap.
Iqbal may have been referring to the following developments:
  • Democracy did not last for long in France after the famous French Revolution of 1789. Instead, Napoleon Bonaparte became “emperor” in 1804. The country did not go back to democracy even after Napoleon was ousted ten years later.
  • In 1830, a “basic” democracy was introduced in France. The king was subjected to a parliament, but the right to choose its members was restricted to a few of the wealthiest male citizens. Even this was met with sarcasm from writers like Stendhal who reportedly said something to the effect that in democracy, heads are “counted” but not weighed.
  • In 1848, most male citizens of France, including the work class, were allowed to vote. The elite reacted very strongly against this development. The poet Charles Baudelaire became their mouthpiece, with his anthology The Flowers of Evil in 1857.
  • In England too, the right to vote was restricted to the property holders. The Second Bill of Reforms, adopted in 1867, extended the voting right to almost the entire urban population, including the working class. Matthew Arnold was the most prominent intellectual to react against this with a set of lectures, Culture and Anarchy, beginning the same year.
In our times, even cigarette packs come with health warning but the works of writers like Stendhal, Baudelaire and Matthew Arnold are handed down to unsuspecting students in developing nations without the slightest clue that these writers were opposed to the basic idea of democracy and may have believed the masses to be “fit for stables”. Even the teachers in departments of literature and social sciences in our universities are often ignorant of these issues.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an English poet, critic and educationist who proposed a division between “high culture” and “popular culture” as a safety walve against democracy.

Until 1867, the right to vote was restricted to land-holders but the Second Reform Bill, passed that year, extended the franchise to practically the entire urban male population. Arnold perceived it as “anarchy” and a threat to “culture”. Hence, in a series lectures starting that year and eventually published as Culture and Anarchy, Arnold suggested practical measures to check the development of democracy. Chief among them was the proposition that the culture of the educated elite should be different from the culture of the masses – something that would have been inconceivable to the greatest poets and artists in history, including Rumi, Shakespeare and Goethe.

Iqbal was apparently making an acute observation about such emerging trends when he wrote in his private notebook, Stray Reflections, in 1910: “The imperial ambitions of the various nations of Europe indicate that the Westerners are tired of Democracy. The reaction against Democracy in England and France is a very significant phenomenon. But in order to grasp the meaning of this phenomenon the student of political sciences should not content himself merely with the investigation and discovery of the purely historical causes which have brought it about; he must go deeper and search the psychological causes of this reaction.”

In another entry in the same notebook, the difference between the egalitarian worldview of Iqbal and the elitist propositions of Arnold are highlighted more explicitly: “Matthew Arnold defines poetry as criticism of life. That life is criticism of poetry is equally true.”

Iqbal’s comment about the poetry of Arnold, originally entered in the same notebook in 1910, appeared in its revised form seven years later in the journal New Era (Lucknow): “Matthew Arnold is a very precise poet. I like, however, an element of vagueness in poetry; since the vague appears profound to the emotions.”

See also Chapter 37, 'The Mind of Europe' in The Republic of Rumi: a Novel of Reality (online revised edition)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Stendhal according to Iqbal

Before you read any further, please try answering the following question.
Who made this famous statement: “Democracy is a form of government in which heads are counted but not weighed”?
The most likely answer is, "Iqbal". Technically, that is wrong. Take a look at Iqbal's poem (posted at the bottom of this post). The statement is preceded by two verses which can be translated as, "This secret was revealed by a European man, although the wise ones do no disclose it." Iqbal's footnote indicates that the reference is to Stendhal.

So, the correct answer is that the proposition came from Stendhal, and Iqbal cited him in a satirical poem. Since the line is quoted so often, perhaps we should know a little more about this Stendhal, and why Iqbal quoted him.

Stendhal was the pen name of Marie-Henri Beyle (1783-1842), who was part of Napoleon’s administration and military. He remained skeptical about the struggle for the restoration of democracy after Napoleon. Apparently this attitude originated in an aristocratic bias and skepticism about the potential of the human being (two factors usually cited by Iqbal as the psychological reasons for the reaction against democracy in France and England).

The same skepticism seems to have prevented him from appealing to the nobler motives of his readers. Consequently, his fiction was starkly lacking in novelty, cathartic value and an appeal to imagination – elements that serve the basic purpose of all healthy stories in human society. Not surprisingly, his stories remained unpopular until a respectable word for the lack of purpose in fiction was found in the 20th Century: “realism”.

Poem by Iqbal, qouting Stendhal
With an astonishing insight, Stendhal had foreseen this at least a century earlier, predicting that he would be rediscovered in 1935 (his revival started just around that time in the West; and through Iqbal’s famous translation a year later he also became one of the authors most widely quoted in Urdu).

Despite his pessimism, Stendhal’s wit is disarming. In the final analysis he comes out as a visionary who may have been connected with his society's “reaction against democracy” at the level of collective consciousness.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Democracy, on a personal note

I could not have thought that “the Father of Hypocrisy” would evoke such strong reaction (and keen interest). From the feedback it seems that the connection between Iqbal, democracy and Pakistan has surprised some and shocked some others. Maybe a few basic points should be outlined here.

The purpose of my recent posts is not to voice my own ideas. They consist mainly of material that explains Iqbal’s point of view on various matters (and eventually it will go under the “Worldview of Iqbal” chapter in the Republic of Rumi Website.

There cannot be any ambiguity regarding Iqbal's opinion about the political ideal of Islam. “Democracy, then, is the most important aspect of Islam regarded as a political ideal,” he said in a lecture in 1909 and never changed his position on this issue. Even in his famous Reconstruction lectures, the final edition of which was published only four years before his death, he referred to a “spiritual democracy” as “the ultimate ideal of Islam”.

For the same reason he was a critic of Western democracy. His famous verses in Urdu and Persian, with which most of us are familiar, are a criticism of Western democracy – for instance, “democracy is a form of government in which heads are counted but not weighed":
جمہوریت اک طرز حکومت ہے کہ جس میں
بندوں کو گنا کرتے ہیں، تولا نہیں کرتے
[To be continued]

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Father of Hypocrisy?

In the early nineteenth century, only the wealthiest citizens were entitled to vote in most European countries. In 1848, France extended the right to males from all segments of the French society, including the workers. This disgusted the young French aristocrat Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), who was going to note in his journal:
There is no form of rational and assured government save an aristocracy. A monarchy or a republic, based upon democracy, are equally absurd and feeble. The immense nausea of advertisements. There are but three beings worthy of respect: the priest, the warrior and the poet. To know, to kill and to create. The rest of mankind may be taxed and drudged, they are born for the stable, that is to say, to practise what they call professions.
In 1857, he published his anthology, Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), and wrote in the prefatory poem, “Hypocrite reader! My mirror, my twin!”

The general public was outraged but the elite – social as well as intellectual – came out to patronize their child.

Poets and artists had usually upheld faith – Homer, Rumi, Shakespeare, Goethe and others. Some, like Hafez, Mir Taqi Mir of Delhi and the British Shelley, had celebrated unbelief but only to protest against the hypocrisy of the self-righteous. Why did Baudelaire and his elitist followers openly proclaim hypocrisy to be their literary ideal?

Iqbal seems to have answered this indirectly in his private notebook, Stray Reflections, in 1910:
The imperial ambitions of the various nations of Europe indicate that the Westerners are tired of Democracy. The reaction against Democracy in England and France is a very significant phenomenon. But in order to grasp the meaning of this phenomenon the student of political sciences should not content himself merely with the investigation and discovery of the purely historical causes which have brought it about; he must go deeper and search the psychological causes of this reaction.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Mahdi of Sudan

Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdullah, popularly known as Mahdi of Sudan (1844-1885), is one of the most problematic appearances in the works of Iqbal.

Historically, the Mahdi of Sudan was a Sufi master from North Africa who turned militant and claimed to be Mahdi, the long-awaited redeemer who would set the stage for the Second Coming of Jesus. He extended the kalima – Muslim proclamation of faith – to include, “Muhammad al-Mahdi is the Khalifa of the Prophet of God” and replaced the fifth pillar of Muslim faith, the pilgrimage to Makkah, with an obligatory jihad – mainly against fellow Muslims of Turkish and Egyptian origins – and used force for implementing a wholly uncritical vision of the past, especially in matters of law. Careful not to claim prophet-hood, he nevertheless asserted that he was inspired by Gabriel, the angel who used to bring revelation to prophets.

Since Iqbal was known to be irreverently skeptical about almost all of these ideas, readers may be shocked to find the spirit of Mahdi appearing on the Sphere of Venus in Javidnama (1932), and singing an anthem about the impending birth of Iqbal’s ideal world. However, precisely due to his famous eccentricities, Mahdi is of immense value as a focal point for an intensive study of the turmoil that exists in the heart of the Muslim world in modern times (and unlike some other modern mystics, his movement attempted to “extricate the individuals from an enervating present” rather than slavishly surrendering their souls to its dictates).

A Western counterpart, although incomparably more ignoble, is perhaps the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), who also appears in the works of Iqbal, mainly to personify a spontaneous overflow of tendencies existing in the heart of the Western society.

After taking Sudan in 1898, the British conqueror Lord Horatio Kitchener (1850-1916) opened the tomb of Mahdi and scattered his bones. In Javidnama, Kitchener’s subsequent death in a torpedoed ship is mentioned as the revenge of Mahdi’s spirit, and compared with the drowning of the Pharaoh (according to the Quran, the Pharaoh drowned during the Exodus).