Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rumi: the Beginning (1)

The famous town of Balkh in the present-day Afghanistan was part of the Iranian Kingdom of Khwarazm in 1207 AD. Rumi was born there that year.

1. Nostalgia

Of course, he wasn’t called Rumi then. His name was Jalaluddin. His father, Bahauddin Walad, was a renowned religious scholar and brought up his son accordingly but the young boy may have had extra-curricular activities, such as reading a story written by Sheikh Fariduddin Attar about birds in search of Simorgh. Guessing from his later work, he must also have enjoyed jokes and funny stories.

The young boy may have walked amid these green fields (the picture is from Balkh.Com) but some suggest that he was born further north. Still, growing up anywhere in this region, known to the ancients as Bactria, was to breathe nostalgia about more than one civilization. It was the birthplace of Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism had also thrived here once. How to integrate the legacy of many cultures with Islam was something on which this boy would leave more than a few notes when he grew up.

These were the times of change. A year before Jalal’s birth, Mongol barbarians from Gobi Desert had unified under their leader Temujin whom they called “the Great Commander,” i.e. Genghis Khan (or Changez Khan, as Persians would later remember him painfully). Soon, Mongols took over the Chinese Empire.

Jalal was still a boy when the governor of another city in Khwarazm executed some merchants on suspicion of spying. They were under the protection of Genghis, who now asked the king of Khwarazm to hand over the governor. The king executed the envoys too. Killing an ambassador was seen as an atrocity even in those days and the news was received at the Chinese court as something like a 9/11 of the thirteenth century. Genghis decided to overrun the Muslim world.

To be continued

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ramazan 27

Tonight was the 27th of Ramazan, which is traditionally associated with Shab-i-Qadr – variously translated as the Night of Power, the Night of Predestination, the Grand Night – about which the Quran asks its readers: “And what will explain to you what the Night of Power is?”

Personally, what can explain to me is the coincidence that Rumi wrote a Masnavi as “the Quran in Persian”, his disciple Iqbal claimed about his own poetry that it contained nothing but the essence of the Quran; out of this literature a sovereign state was conceived but the British Viceroy didn’t agree with Muslims about when it should be born and for his very own reasons he thrust upon them a moment several months ahead of their preference, and, that very moment turned out be Ramazan 27.

For many spiritually inclined Pakistanis, one of the most special things about their country is that its date of birth – the midnight of August 14 and 15, 1947 – coincided with Shab-i-Qadr:

    1. Indeed We revealed this on the Night of Power:
    2. And what will explain to you what the Night of Power is?
    3. The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.
    4. Therein come down the angels and the Spirit by their Lord's permission, on every errand:
    5. Peace it is till the rising of the dawn.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Moving on from Partition

I was in Delhi in December 2007, attending a seminar at one of the leading academies of Urdu literature in India. The chief guest was a Muslim socialist leader who found it utterly necessary to look in the direction of Pakistani delegates and proclaim, “We the Muslims of India think that partition was a mistake. South Asia would have been better off without it and therefore Pakistan should not have come into being.”

Of course the right answer to that is, “Go get a life.” Unfortunately getting a life is not always easy, and the book of Jaswant Singh has given cue to the same hypocritical chest-thumping again: “Events of 1947 haunt everyone in South Asia…” In that case I must be an exceptionally lucky guy since they don’t haunt me. Maybe I should give a helping hand to others in moving on too!

In the previous post I presented excerpt from a speech delivered by Nawab Ismail Khan at Aligarh University soon after partition. It may never have been published anywhere before (except possibly in some newspapers in 1947). I got it from Mr. Asad Ismail, the grandson of Nawab Ismail Khan.

The speech is important because it shows us that according to the vision of the creators of Pakistan (one of whom was Nawab Ismail), there was going to be continuity in the history of Muslims in India: Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had shown how they could be loyal to alien rulers and still develop their national identity to the extent where it gave birth to a sovereign state. The same loyalty could be transferred to the independent state of India once it came into being.

This also shows that when Muslims of the Sub-Continent demanded Pakistan they fully realized that many of them would stay behind in India as minority. Since Pakistan was a democratic demand affirmed through fair and free election, they had the right to expect that it shouldn’t be held against them.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Nawab Ismail Khan (1884-1958)

Nawab Ismail Khan (1884-1958), one of the most prominent leaders of Muslim League and a close companion of Quaid-i-Azam, chose to stay behind in India after independence. He was soon asked to become the Vice Chancellor of Aligarh University, the institution founded by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and the birthplace of Pakistan Movement.

The following passage of his inaugural speech delivered in October 1947 is worth-reading as it tackles the complex issue of explaining how Muslims of India could reconcile with the new regime without breaking away from their recent past:

With the partition of the country, the Musalmans who regarded themselves as one have also become divided. Each dominion naturally demands from its nationals unswerving loyalty and this, it must be averred, is the unquestionable inherent right of the Governments of these dominions.

When this institution was founded some seventy years ago, the illustrious founder of the blessed memory laid down in unmistakable terms that loyalty to the Government was to be the key note of its policy. And this policy has been faithfully and scrupulously followed by his distinguished colleagues and successors.

There is, however, one fundamental difference in the conditions that obtained then and the present day conditions. At that time a foreign Government held sway on this land but today happily we have a national Government democratic and secular, headed by that fine patriot Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru who possesses breadth of vision and integrity of purpose in a remarkable degree.

I, therefore, on the assumption of this office re-affirm that policy and declare that we shall be loyal to the State and its constitution with all the implications and consequences which the word allegiance to a State involves, but let me say at the same time that it shall be the loyalty of self-respecting and free citizens.

Abul Kalam Azad

Former president of Indian National Congress and a renowned religious scholar Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) spoke to multitudes of devastated Muslims in the grand mosque of Delhi on October 23, 1947.

Unlike Nawab Ismail Khan (see Aligarh Address), Maulana Azad made no reference to recent history. He put his listeners to shame for having voted against his political party - almost declaring communal violence to be justifiable revenge of a powerful majority. Traumas can erase memory, and such messages from rulers at that time may have contributed to a sudden loss of pride among Indian Muslims in co-creating the largest Muslim state.

Do you remember? I hailed you, you cut off my tongue; I picked my pen, you severed my hand; I wanted to move forward, you broke off my legs; I tried to run, and you injured my back…

Think for one moment. What course did you adopt? Where have you reached, and where do you stand now? Haven’t your senses become torpid? Aren’t you living in a constant state of fear? This fear is your own creation, a fruit of your own deeds.

It was not long ago when I warned you that the two-nation theory was death-knell to a meaningful, dignified life; forsake it. I told you that the pillars upon which you were leaning would inevitably crumble. To all this you turned a deaf ear. You did not realize that, my brothers! I have always attempted to keep politics apart from personalities, thus avoiding those thorny valleys. That is why some of my messages are often couched in allusions. The partition of India was a fundamental mistake.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Who created Pakistan?

In the elections of 1945-46, Muslims voted almost unanimously for ‘Quaid-i-Azam’. Jinnah won all the seats reserved for Muslims in the central assembly of India. Majority of these Muslims lived in areas which were not going to be included in Pakistan.

One question which has occupied my mind for quite some time now is why and how Muslims in present day India have come to stop taking pride in the unique achievement of their ancestors who created a sovereign state, outside the borders of their own country, with the sheer power of vote?

Nor was it just any state. It was the largest Muslim state at the time of birth. To me it is the greatest tribute to the moral strength of humanity that a cart-driver in the colonial Delhi could feel that by using nothing except his right to choose, he could create a sovereign state many times bigger than Great Britain.

Therefore the question: Who has robbed the hearts of Muslims, especially the present-day Indian Muslims, from taking a just pride in the unparalleled achievement of their ancestors?
See also:
  1. Nawab Ismail Khan
  2. Moving on from Partition
  3. Abul Kalam Azad

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Maheen A. Rashdi

Maheen A. Rashdi is renowned journalist whose regular column features in the Sunday Magazine of Dawn. The following was meant for tomorrow, but since religion is not among the subjects covered in that section, it has been passed on to me. I must say that I am very much grateful for some of the things stated about me here - Khurram Ali Shafique

Becoming Holy

By Maheen A. Rashdi

The past three weeks of Ramazan have induced me to take stock of the twists that the holy month brings into the lives of us Muslims each year. While it requires us to show our better sides, it inevitably turns us into short-tempered, work shirking, lethargic individuals. While at the one hand divine proclamation intends to promote abstinence and restraint in all matters of worldly things during Ramazan, we end up fully unleashing our gluttonous desires and zero tolerance for fellow beings.

And for some, it is almost a swapped existence. I have seen confirmed alcoholics kick the bottle for precisely these thirty days, shed their tailored suits for the white, starched, shalwar kameez (not forgetting the topi on top) and frequent the mosque five times a day as opposed to their daily late-night binges in non-Ramazan days. Well, whatever makes people tick, who am I to comment on personal choices.

When a dear friend posted a beautiful commentary on the Surah Yusuf from the Quraan last week on his blogspot to ‘honour the holy month of Ramazan,’ I was surprised that the Ramazan season had had that effect on him too. For I had always stereotyped him – for no logical reason at all -- as someone who was far removed from all things pertaining to religion. And here I pride myself on being non-judgemental.

Anyway, I discovered that Khurram Shafique is not only a historian/scholar/philosopher and the only one I personally know who may be qualified to be called a genius with indefatigable mental energies, but he is also as well-versed in Quranic text and sub text.

In his commentary, Khurram captures the description of the Surah which is about Hazrat Yusuf (Joseph), his dream, his brothers’ deceit and his revelation besides the all too famous story of Zuleikha (wife of Potiphar) and her seductive overtures towards Yusuf. Retelling a tale about one of the most detailed stories from the Quraan, Khurram Shafique has structured his analysis along Aristotle’s six ‘elements of drama’.

When I marveled at his work, he confessed that he would not have expostulated on Quraanic verses as these have a magic of their own which should not be polluted by mere human descriptive, but that he was compelled to do so.

Why? “Because there’s a danger lurking on the ‘intellectual horizons’ which promotes literature that debases the human soul and runs down literature of dignity,” he explained. He feels that an esoteric school of thought now dominates the frontier of Islamic Studies and Comparative Religion which is bent on defiling all credible voices on religion.

I however, do not feel that any such threat has the power of taking over established values or eradicating worthy literature. And as far as the Quraanic words are concerned, these are the most accepted religious writings by scholars of all faiths besides Islam. No amount of loose talk from naysayers has the power to dull or negate its magic.

Allama Yousuf Ali explains in one of his many commentaries that Islam is a non-racial, non-ethnic, non-biased code of life. It simply requires undisputable faith in the Almighty; a determination to live right and to see that justice and truth prevails. It requires us to stay away from wrongdoings, to fight injustice and to stay clear of deceit. And as I see it that is the main code by which all decent humanity abides and all religions have preached just that. So where is the dispute amongst religions? Don’t they all speak the same language?

But alas, being also the most potent tool for power, religion has been twisted to become the cause for every war as well. That is also why it has been complicated and high-jacked by clerics, dogmatic preachers and political players.

It took a lot of will power for me to pick up the Quraan’s translation the first time and find out for myself what exactly are God’s words which have filtered to us in many versions – sometimes even distorted for fearful effect. And because my grade two teacher’s words of how Quraan describes the details of hell had stuck in my mind, my fear was quite tangible. She of course failed to convey the overwhelming kindness of the Almighty contained therein perhaps to maintain a perverse fear factor and her own authority. Before starting, I never knew that I would actually be reading a story book with multiple components – history, jurisprudence, health guidelines, biology, geography and rules for decent civilized living.

Islam is neither complicated, nor terrifying nor unbending and unmindful of human vulnerability, and that is my last word for my believing, practicing, non-practicing and non-believing readers and friends.

Forgive me if I have been too dogmatic, for I too have been swept by the season.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The grapes of democracy

September 11 marks two sad anniversaries. One is the death of Quaid-i-Azam who passed away in 1948, just a year after creating Pakistan with the support of the masses of Muslim India. The other is the death of those who died in the terrorist attacks on America in 2001. This post may be connected with something common to both revered memories: the sacredness of democracy.

Four men who could not understand each other’s languages were fighting over the choice of fruit they should buy with the coin they had found together. Rumi says that if there were someone who understood all languages, he or she could have realized that they were pursuing the same choice but naming it in different languages.

That should be the role of a true intellectual. Consensus exists in every society and perhaps in the entire humanity, just as there was complete consensus among those four strangers. Yet, this consensus is seldom visible, just as it wasn’t visible in that story.

A true intellectual is someone who can decipher the desires of everyone in a society and then find something which could satisfy everyone. In the words of Rumi, such a man would say, “I can fulfill the need of all of you, with one and the same piece of money. If you honestly give me your trust, your one coin will become as four; and four at odds will become as one united.”

This is what Jinnah did for us. Thanks to him, “four at odds” became “as one united.”

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How to 'extinguish' the ego

The individual ego becomes real by extinguishing itself in the collective ego or the spirit of the nation but how does one do that?

The first step is to love the common culture of our society. The last step is to allow the consensus of our society to overrule our individual judgment - and hence "courtesy is the beginning of religion and love is its end."

Today there is no dearth of people who claim to be denying the ego or even negating it, but:
  • How many of them would be willing to concede that the opinion of a purely unschooled person about the future course of society should carry the same weight as their own?
  • How many would be willing to accept that the consensus of their society can reflect Divine wisdom more than their own well-informed opinion?

True selflessness comes from seeking and respecting consensus - this is the common message of Rumi, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Iqbal.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Mysteries of selflessness

There are three kinds of egos (selves or souls) according to Iqbal:
  1. Ultimate
  2. collective
  3. individual
Ultimate ego is God. Collective ego is a mystery which reveals itself as destiny. Rumi has explained it at length in the opening passages of Volume 2 of Masnavi: “only animals have separate souls, the soul of all human beings is just one.” Saadi later stated it more bluntly as “children of Adam are limbs to one another.”

According to Iqbal, this collective ego of humanity is real. Individual ego is virtual. Hence individuals need to extinguish their egos, or selves, in the collective ego in order to become real.
A nation which adopts the Unity of God as its basic principle becomes the collective ego on earth.

Islam is one such nation, and hence for a Muslim the way to realize his or her self is by extinguishing their individual self in the collective ego of the nation. This has been explained in ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’ (1915) also but in more detail in ‘Rumooz-i-Bekhudi’ (1918) (both parts together form Asrar-o-Rumooz, the first published book of Iqbal’s poetry).

Monday, September 7, 2009

"Dare and Live": a new motto from the Quaid

The following message was issued by Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah on the occasion of celebration of Iqbal Day in Lahore on March 20, 1943. It was published in The Dawn the next day:

"Dare and Live" is Iqbal's message. Optimism, industry, faith, self-confidence and courage are the principles on which Iqbal bases his philosophy and which he believes are the essential factors for the purification of human soul and for the elevation of human character. The obstacles and setbacks in life, according to him, make the life worth living. The sacrifices and losses, made and incurred in the service of a right cause and for noble principles elevate a nation and make life more glorious and worth living.

Iqbal never believed in failure. He believed in the superiority of mankind over all the rest that God created. In fact he was convinced that man is a collection of all that is best in God's universe. Only man does not know himself. Man has but to utilize his great potentialities and to use them in the right direction for the realization of that "self" which finds itself so near to God; and Islam is the code which has prescribed easy ways and means for that realization.

Iqbal was not only a philosopher but also a practical politician. He was one of the first to conceive of the feasibility of the division of India on national lines as the only solution of India's political problem. He was one of the most powerful though tacit precursors and heralds of the modern political evolution of Muslim India.

Iqbal, therefore, rises above the average philosopher, as the essence of his teachings is a beautiful blend of thought and action. He combines in himself the idealism of a poet and the realism of a man who took practical view of things. In Iqbal this compromise is essentially Islamic. In fact it is nothing but Islam. His ideal therefore is life according to the teachings of Islam with a motto "Dare and Live."

I wholeheartedly associate myself with the efforts of the Iqbal Day Committee in celebrating the Poet's Day on his birthday and I hope and pray that every one of us may be able to live up to the ideals Iqbal preached by his beautiful national poems and which have now embedded the doctrine of Pakistan into the heart and soul of Muslim India which is now burning very brightly, never to be extinguished.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Javidnama: an introduction

Javidnama (1932) is an epic poem which Iqbal wrote in Persian from 1927 to 1932. He described it as his “life’s work”:
  • Prayer: Iqbal prays to God that this book may become easy for the youth, who are its primary audience, since Iqbal is fed up with the elder generation
  • Prologue Heavenly: a parable about heaven and earth on the day of Creation, in which a bright future for humanity is guaranteed
  • Prologue Earthly: the spirit of Rumi takes Iqbal on a journey in search of immortality after the appearance of Zurvan, the angel of Time and Space
  1. Moon (Inquiry): Rumi introduces Iqbal to (a) Vishvamitra meditating in a cave of Moon, (b) the music of Sarosh and his poetry, and (d) Yarghamid or the Valley of Prophets where tablets of Buddha, Zarathustra, Christ and Prophet Muhammad can be seen
  2. Mercury (Discovery): Rumi and Iqbal offer prayers after Jamaluddin Afghani, together with Said Halim Pasha, listening to recitation of Surah Najam, after which Rumi introduces Iqbal as “Zindah Rud” and Afghani reveals four principles of Quran through which “new worlds” may be discovered
  3. Venus (Transcendence): Rumi prevents revival of false idols by reciting a ghazal from Iqbal’s Persian Psalms, and then they witness Pharaoh and Lord Kitchener confounded in a dark and lifeless ocean where the spirit of Mahdi of Sudan sings a marching song about journey to Madinah
  4. Mars (Freedom): Rumi introduces Iqbal to an inside-out race which has attained complete liberty, equality and brotherhood after rejecting secularism
  5. Jupiter (Action): Rumi introduces Iqbal to the spirits of Hallaj, Quratul Ain Tahira and Mirza Ghalib, who were offered paradise but they refused it; a dialogue with Devil follows
  6. Saturn (Expansion): the spirit of India laments over the plight of its people as Rumi shows Iqbal two traitors, Mir Jafar and Mir Sadiq, doomed to a worse agony after being refused by hell
  7. Beyond the Spheres (Creation): passing over Nietzsche on the outskirts of the physical universe, Rumi takes Iqbal through the palaces of heaven and introduces him to noble spirits and houris, until Iqbal yearns to move on alone to meet the Creator and discuss immortality, nationhood and destiny
  • Address to Javid – a Word with the New Generation: Iqbal concludes his book with a one on one talk with you, as he prays for you from inside his tomb

The seven main chapters describe seven stations which seem to be metaphors of stages through which a soul must pass in order to attain its goal. In the end, Iqbal meets God alone. He witnesses a present moment in which past and future are merged together. The course of history is discussed with the Creator, and Iqbal gets to see a vision of Destiny. He faints, but in the ‘Address to Javid’, he tells his son (and through him he tells us) that he is still praying for us in his grave. Does this mean that Iqbal finally attained that immortality which he was seeking? Every reader gets to answer this question on their own.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New discoveries about the 'Reconstruction'

Long ago, when The Republic of Rumi Newsletter did not have many subscribers, I narrated some of my unusual observations about the works of Iqbal in a series of weekly posts:

"It was an October morning in 2006. I was staying at a friend's place in Lahore, and finishing my breakfast before going to the office of Iqbal Academy Pakistan with whom I work as research consultant. Suddenly, an idea flashed across my mind: I don't know how or why. It struck me that there were seven lectures in the Reconstruction, Iqbal's philosophical work in English prose. Incidentally, there were seven stations through which Iqbal passed in his journey across the spiritual universe in Javidnama, his greatest poetical masterpiece. Do the two sets match?"

My findings were recently presented in a paper in Iqbal Review, available on the official website of Iqbal Academy Pakistan and now also included with some illustrations on my homepage. For those who may be interested, here is an excerpt:

The outlook we adopted five years after the birth of Pakistan was not consistent with the collective ego achieved by our ancestors who had created this great country. Some of us misunderstood that the proposition of the Western modernists that “the modern times are permanent but bad but must be rejected” was a confession that the West was evil. As a free nation of the East it should concern us less whether the West is evil or not. What should concern us more is what role can we play in the future of humanity? This is where Iqbal comes in with the fundamental premise of a Romantic: “the modern times are passing but good and must be accepted.”

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"What has Pakistan given..."

There is an official fan page of the great Urdu writer Ibne Safi (1928-1980) on Facebook. Responding to the Independence Day greetings, an Indian Muslim commented on its wall, “What positive change has been engineered by Pakistan in the Muslim world after its creation, except for providing cheap labor to the Gulf?” I was cool with saying that Pakistan has given Imran Series (Jasoosi Duniya was started while Ibne Safi was still in India), but that was not all according to Sabahat Ashraf, Pakistani analyst living in America and well-known in the blogosphere as IFaqeer ( see picture above and check his blog after this post).

He posted five comments (one was not enough), which are must-read. “I went a little overboard,” he admits. “But we need to have some of these discussions frankly, if we are going to heal the wounds of the ‘batwara’ and move ahead as an Ummah.” Given below are his comments compiled into a single text.

“You really want a list? Here's a start:

  • When Muslim countries – and the wider international community – have needed soldiers and manpower, Pakistan has stepped up; just a few: Jordan (Black September might have been evil, but it was done as a favor), Somalia (the first 24 UN casualties there were not US, but Pakistani – and they did a real peacekeeping job), you name it.
  • Several new countries – Muslims and non-Muslim – from the Gulf to Zimbabwe have had their armed forces organized and trained by Pakistanis till politicsand racism kicked in.
  • Pakistani economic experts have helped everyone – including, for example South Korea (Mahboobul Haque).
  • The Algerian delegation was literally smuggled onto the floor of the UN General Assembly to declare their independence. Especially in our earlier, less-problem-ridden days, Pakistan did a lot of things like this.
  • Hosting and helping form and lead the OIC. Yes, it has taken it's lead from the Saudis and Gen. Zia was a part of that process, but leadership started with Bhutto (despite all his faults).
  • From the Indian Muslim point of view, have you heard of the Liaquat-Nehru Pact?
  • From the Indian point of view, a lot of the burdens Pakistan has carried – border dispute with Afghanistan, the unresolved issue of FATA, the fanaticism fanned by the Afghan resistance to the Russian Empire's expansion, unresolved political issues in Balochistan, just for example would – if Pakistan had not come into existence – be issues India would have to deal with.

“And what has Pakistan gotten in return from the rest of the Muslim World:

  • Racism, and exploitation of our people for cheap labor?
  • Use of our society for experimentation with fanatic projects?
  • And ask an Indian Muslim: What have Indian Muslims given us? Condemnation? Spite? Condescension? Calling us illegitimate?

“Yes, we’re in a bad place right now, but are we getting any sympathy from other Muslims? Any help with dealing with the demons we’re wrestling? Take your reaction. You ask what we’ve given, and demand what we’re going to do about it. If you consider us part of a Muslim Ummah you are talking about, shouldn't your attitude be one of sympathy and trying to figure out how to help us in our difficult time?

“Funny thing is, Pakistanis always have a sympathetic attitude to the plight of Indian Muslims and try to think about how to help solve their problems and make life better for them. Ask yourself honestly: is that the attitude of Indian Muslims towards us? And I mean that individually, because I know some Indian Muslims are coming around.

“One last point: one of the demons we are wrestling with is that of religious fanaticism, and Indian Muslims often talk down to us on that issue – “Look what they’ve done to our beautiful religion…” Our societies – Pakistani and Indian Muslim – are not very different and my personal opinion is that you are just a generation behind us on that score but are in denial. The sooner you get off your high horse and deal with the issue, the better it will be for all of us.

Because funny thing is, Indian Muslims are one of the largest and, if you ask me, one of the most important communities in the world in this regard. You have it in you to help find a solution for this issue and make the world a better place for all of us: after all, it is Muslim India that gave us Iqbal and Azad and Jauhar – and, yes, Jinnah.”