Saturday, September 15, 2012

If Words Could Kill

© Rex Features / Jeff Blackle
Recently, I was interviewed for BBC Radio Urdu Service. One of the questions asked to me was about the role of literature in society. The answer I gave there was restricted by the limited time of the interview but I would like to share a few details through this blog.

Principles of literature

Should it not be ironic that despite hundreds of books written about Iqbal, it is still very difficult to come across a clear statement about how he envisaged the role of literature in society? As far as I understand, the basic principles which Iqbal offers us on this issue are three:
  1. Societies prosper when their poets, writers and artists portray beauty, love and hope, and when they offer an idealistic picture of the world - giving us a virtual experience of the world as it should be.
  2. Societies suffer and may perish when their posts, writers and artists portray ugliness and despair, and deny the centrality of love.
  3. Pessimism in literature cannot be justified by arguing that it is a depiction of the real world, because the purpose of art and literature is to paint a picture of the world as it should be, and not just as it  appears to be.
The first two of these principles were stated in a chapter on literary reform in Secrets and Mysteries (1915-22). The third was elaborated in 'The Book of Servitude' in Persian Psalms (1927). Both those works are in Persian, but the principles were later summarized altogether in English in the preface to Muraqqa-i-Chughtai. 


The overall conclusion to be drawn from these three principles is that literature is the main factor in determining the destinies of nations. Other variables also play their roles, such as politics, religious thought, science, education and so on. However, even the impact of those factors is eventually moderated by literature.

In other words, if a society - or the whole world - is facing problems today, we first need to look at the kind of literature it has been patronizing. Did it place pessimist writers on the pedestal of high literature? Did it assign importance to literature which portrayed the world as it appeared to be?

if the answer is yes, the primary cause of all the evils of a society - or the world - are rooted in its veneration of pessimistic and naturalistic literature. No matter what political course it adopts, or how religious and God-fearing it becomes, the society - or the world - is doomed to fail, and crash, unless it changes its literary preferences.

Redefining a society

Today the world seems to be on the brink of catastrophe, and the symptoms might be visible most clearly in Pakistan. What is the cause of these evil?

Politics, religion, science and education may also have played a role but the primary cause must be sought in the kind of literature which has been venerated by academies and patronized by universities.

Just as expected, we find that not only in the world in general but also in Pakistan, the only type of literature that has been held in praise is exactly the type which, according to Iqbal, is poison. Drink it and you die. We drank it and we are dying.