Sunday, December 20, 2009


In his Persian poem 'Mysteries of Selflessness' (1918), Iqbal stated that fraternity, equality and liberty were the aims of the mission of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He illustrated the last of these through the example of the sacrifice offered by the Prophet's grandson Imam Husain in Kerbala in Muharram, 61 A.H. (680 AD). The following is translation by famous British Orientalist A.J. Arberry published in 1953; it is inaccurate in parts where he misunderstands Persian words, but is a classic in its own right due to his legendary stature.
Whoever maketh compact with the One
That is, hath been delivered from the yoke
Of every idol. Unto love belongs
The true believer, and Love unto him;
Love maketh all things possible to us.
Reason is ruthless; Love is even more,
Purer, and nimbler, and more unafraid.
Lost in the maze of cause and of effect
Is Reason; Love strikes boldly in the field
Of Action. Crafty Reason sets a snare;
Love overthrows the prey with strong right arm.
Reason is rich in fear and doubt; but Love
Has firm resolve, faith indissoluble.
Reason constructs, to make a wilderness;
Love lays wide waste, to build all up anew.
Reason is cheap, and plentiful as air;
Love is most scarce to find, and of great price.
Reason stands firm upon phenomena,
But Love is naked of material robes.
Reason says, “Thrust thyself into the fore;”
Love answers, “Try thy heart, and prove thyself.”
Reason by acquisition is informed
Of other; Love is born of inward grace
And makes account with self. Reason declares,
“Be happy and be prosperous”; Love replies,
“Become a servant, that thou mayest be free.”
Freedom brings full contentment to Love’s soul,
Freedom, the driver of Love’s riding-beast.
Hast thou not heard what things in time of war
Love wrought with lustful Reason? I would speak
Of that great leader of all men who love
Truly the Lord, that upright cypress-tree
Of the Apostle’s garden, Ali’s son,
Whose father led the sacrificial feast
That he might prove a mighty offering;
And for that prince of the best race of men
The Last of the Apostles gave his back
To ride upon, a camel passing fair.
Crimsoned his blood the cheek of jealous Love
(Which theme adorns my verse in beauty bold)
Who is sublime in our community

As Say, the Lord is God exalts the Book.
Moses and Pharaoh, Shabbir and Yazid –
From Life spring these conflicting potencies;
Truth lives in Shabbir’s strength; Untruth is that
Fierce, final anguish of regretful death.
And when the Caliphate first snapped its thread
From the Quran, in Freedom’s throat was poured
A fatal poison, like a rain-charged cloud
The effulgence of the best of peoples rose
Out of the West, to spill on Kerbala,
And in that soil, that desert was before,
Sowed, as he died, a field of tulip-blood.
There, till the Resurrection, tyranny
Was evermore cut off; a garden fair
Immortalizes where his lifeblood surged.
For Truth alone his blood dripped to the dust,
Wherefore he has become the edifice
Of faith in God’s pure Unity. Indeed
Had his ambition been for earthly rule,
Not so provisioned would he have set forth
On his last journey, having enemies
Innumerable as the desert sands,
Equal his friends in number to God’s Name.
The mystery that was epitomized
In Abraham and Ishmael through his life
And death stood forth at last in full revealed.
Firm as a mountain-chain was his resolve,
Impetuous, unwavering to its goal
The Sword is for the glory of the Faith
And is unsheathed but to defend the Law.
The Muslim, servant unto God alone
Before no Pharaoh casteth down his head.
His blood interpreted these mysteries,
And waked our slumbering community.
He drew the sword There is none other god
And shed the blood of them that served the lie;
Inscribing in the wilderness save God
He wrote for all to read the exordium
Of our salvation. From Husain we learned
The riddle of the Book, and at his flame
Kindled our torches. Vanished now from ken
Damascus might, the splendour of Baghdad,
Granada’s majesty, all lost to mind;
Yet still the strings he smote within our soul
Vibrate, still ever new our faith abides
In his Allahu Akbar, Gentle breeze,
Thou messenger of them that are afar,
Bear these my tears to lave his holy dust.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

No more crusades?

Some time ago, Mauj Collective organized an event where dancers from Lyari (a neighborhood in Karachi) were going to offer Pakistani folk dance on Western tunes being broadcast live from North America through the Internet. I was quite amused to notice that actually such a thing had been envisaged by the Urdu fiction writer Ibne Safi (1928-1980) in the early 1970s. In Bamboo Castle, Ali Imran danced a Pakistani folk dance on Western pop music in an Italian disco.

As I revisited that novel, I was struck by another detail whose symbolism had escaped me earlier. Imran's host in Italy is his friend from the Oxford days, an Italian count who is now a police commissioner threatened by a local drug overlord. As part of a plan to help his friend, Imran borrows the sword with which the friend's ancestor had fought against Saladin during the Crusades. "By the will of God, I shall slay your enemy with this same sword," says Imran to his Italian friend.

I interpret this symbolism at two levels. Firstly, the work of Imran itself is symbolically about a world which is moving on from hostilities of the past, and joining hands on fighting common enemies, such as crime and drugs in this instance. As a foriegner, Imran has no business fighting Italian mafia in their homeland, and hence his using the sword of an Italian crusader becomes an act of courtesy to the host country, giving him legitimacy in a deeper sense.

Secondly, just as Imran is helping his Italian friend to get rid of local mafia, so Ibne Safi can lend a helping hand to foreigner readers in warding off those yarns of literature which glorify crime. Very interestingly, his novel came out just when Mario Puzo's Godfather had started a new cult.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Democracy Vs. Democracy

A few days ago, I conducted a workshop with some teacher educators on the subject of history. One of the activities included a comparison between two models of democracy. The analysis offered by participants was an eye-opener for me, and I learnt something new. I am offering the same activity here. What differences do you find between these two models according to the highlights given here? Please post your answers as comments below.

Democracy Model A
  • We… admire those who fight for their convictions… But in the older democracies we have learned that sometimes we bow to the will of the majority. In doing that, we do not give up our convictions. We continue sometimes to persuade, and eventually we may be successful. But we know that we have to work together and we have to progress. So, we believe that when we have made a good fight, and the majority is against us, it is perhaps better tactics to try to cooperate.
  • Come back to break my heart again, if you are still upset. Come, come back to leave me again later.
  • The minds of the masses become used to what you offer them, and it produces a certain kind of conditioning which in return leads to a corresponding reaction.
  • Well, in my view, political activists make demands not because they think it's plausible to meet in the near future or in current situation, but mainly because they are making a statement.
Democracy Model B
  • “I’m the spirit of all human beings,” said the bride. “Therefore, whoever would desire to win me, should strive for the common good of all human beings, and especially for the good of his nation.”
  • The purpose of these gatherings will be to learn about each other, and from each other, so that whatever errors might be there in the opinions of some may get corrected through others, and the course of action which seems pleasing to everyone should be adopted.
  • Why cannot you who, as a people, can well claim to be the first practical exponent of this superb conception of humanity, live and move and have your being as a single individual?
  • Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.
  • Every human being knows at least one thing which I don’t know. By this estimate, I know very little.
  • The making and breaking of relationships is in the hand of God. Our desires don’t count.