Leaving the door open
Muhammad Iqbal was always perplexed by the relationship between reason and faith. 71 years after his death, we still are
By Sarwat Ali
It is very difficult to write about Iqbal because he has been written to death. There is a whole industry in Pakistan that is busy seeking out various dimensions of Iqbal moulded to the specifications of the most prevalent and consistent point of view that the state of Pakistan wishes to espouse.
In the past few years, forces that oppose the mainstream thinking on Pakistan and call themselves ultra Islamic have criticised Iqbal and it seemed like a breath of fresh air for listening to the one-dimensionality about Iqbal. The mainstream had almost hoisted him to the position of sainthood, beyond criticism and reproach where every attempt at criticism was akin to heresy.
Iqbal was also no favourite with the ultra conservative sections of society during his own lifetime, and his interpretation on politics and epistemology were hotly contested, but with the creation of Pakistan Iqbal's differences with the ultra-right and conservative sections of the population were either overlooked or redesigned to suit the right- of-centre approach that the establishment wanted to pursue in the cold war period.
Iqbal moved on two planes which appear to contradict each other. He talked of land belonging to God and hence to entire mankind, eschewing the European political construct of nationalism which he castigated for having divided man from man, nation from nation but when he tried to locate that kingdom of God on earth he had to cling to a definite territory and not the entire world.
The dream of Iqbal in which the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent could live according to their beliefs and cultural moorings was located in territories that had Muslim majorities. He failed to even consider Bengal, one such unit and completely obscured it out of his vision only affirming the general United Provinces/ Punjab centred vision and mindset of the Indian Muslim Elite.
His second basic and fundamental idea was of democracy being the modern and contemporary face of the will of the people. The will of the people reflected the will of God as the majority of the people living in the land were Muslims. This concept is now hotly debated in certain countries where this kind of political institutionalising has been rejected.
In present day Iran, a country born out of an Islamic revolution about three decades ago, the Guardian Council, the highest decision making and legislative body, reigns over an elected Majlis. This Guardian Council or Council of the Elders according to their constitution is a nominated body of those divines who have a sound knowledge of Islamic history, religion and law. The assumption that since the majority of the country's population consists of Muslims, therefore all elected assemblies will be reflected is adequately challenged, not fully accepted on face value, and actually rejected.
Both these political localisations into the twentieth century by Iqbal have not been accepted like articles of faith. The assemblies can legislate contrary to the Islamic law with a constitutional provision in place for correction and that the religious sentiment cannot be contained with specified geographical frontiers. Obviously it cancels out or partially conditions the support that one geographical unit has with the other. If the religious sentiments are being harmed or curbed, support, both moral and physical can be justified, warranted, sanctioned and legitimised. The true test of any creative human being is whether he transcends the parameters established by his age.
Iqbal was born in the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century and died before the colonies could achieve their independence. Like most people of that era, he was more conscious and troubled by the subjugated state of the people and was finding the real source of inspiration that could sustain the struggle for freedom.
The European civilisation had ruled the world for almost five hundred years with the bedrock of their civilisation being belief like certainty about "Reason." The Greek in an earlier phase too had championed "Reason" as the true source of discovering the truth. Iqbal belonged to a civilisation that may have had something to do with "Reason" but it was conditional and not absolute. He therefore found himself at a crossroad where he had to hold on to both, and thus a new version of "Reason" based on faith or that the two being the sides of the same coin was constructed. But Iqbal being a philosopher and one who thought deeper than the hand-me-down percept saw the gaping hole of contradiction He went along the nineteenth century view that the world including the human species was in a state of evolution and probably looked forward to a time when man would achieve superhuman capability of exploiting and living up to his full potential. But of course, the true rub lay in inspiration. What unlocked the secret door that leads to a fuller realisation of the potential?
In the later half of the nineteenth century and then in the nearly four decades that Iqbal lived, the absolute faith like reliance on "Reason" was being corroded and a despondency was setting in. The absolute reliance on science was making the realisation deeper that human values have to be based on moral and ethical grounds rather than on the new discoveries that were challenging the age old beliefs and truisms.
As despondency set in the West during the interwar phase and then in the subsequence period it became a philosophical need. The colonies were going through the struggle for independence based on the concept of nationalism that had been derived from the West. Nations emerged as independent states but were lost wanting to discover the real basis of their existence, of their reason to be there, the process of discovering the source of inspiration. In countries like Pakistan the source lay in religion and the same old debate was rekindled where the medieval face of religion came into a collision course with the modern and contemporary. Iqbal had left the door open for ijtehad (intellectual endeavour to seek the solutions of contemporary problems, but obviously the process of achieving that is murky and calls for a new alignment of reason and faith in the contemporary scenario.
Fiction does not need any justifications, Nadeem Aslam demonstrates in his latest book
By Huma Imtiaz
The Wasted Vigil
By Nadeem Aslam
Publisher: Knopf, 2008
The Wasted Vigil is an ambitious novel. After his previous two works were centred on Pakistan, Nadeem Aslam's third novel is set in a post-9/11 Afghanistan. Based on the stories of four main characters, whose lives are interlinked in one way or the other, The Wasted Vigil is a tale of characters whose lives have been torn apart by the Afghan-Russian war, the Taliban and the subsequent US invasion; whether it is Marcus, whose house has rare books nailed to the ceiling and art work on the wall hidden under layers of mud in fear of the Taliban finding them or Casa, whose confusion is stereotypical of the unfortunate thousands of young men we have lost to militancy.
Aslam's writing style is based on the art of description. Everything, from the flowers in the garden to the aftermath of a bomb blast is described in vivid detail, but somehow it distracts one from the complex characters and the plot. However, it is not without its odd gems; lines like "even the air of this country has a story to tell about warfare" and questions, asked by the young Taliban member Casa that Abraham Lincoln, or for Casa "Ibraheem Lankan" was killed because he was a Muslim. Even the vines get a say in Aslam's work: "It would be no surprise if the trees and vines of Afghanistan suspended their growth one day fearful that if their roots were to lengthen they might come in contact with a landmine buried nearby."
A common theme in all three of Aslam's novels has been the pain of separation and loneliness, the embodiment of which has usually been someone of a rather old age. As in his previous works, the references to masterpieces of literature, art and culture are ever-present, and littered throughout the work. In fact, even the title The Wasted Vigil is derived from a painting by the master painter Chughtai. What stands out is Aslam's fictional representation and references to major events in history in this area now called Af-Pak. Aslam reminds the reader of the vast differences of people living in the same land. On one hand, the Taliban destroyed the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, and on the other, Marcus, the lead character, finds a Buddha head buried deep in the earth, and constructs his perfume factory around the head.
Another interesting element in the book, which resonates more to the reader now after the last few years have seen a terrifying surge in violence and extremism in Pakistan, is the depiction of the confused Taliban fighter Casa, whose indoctrination and confusion at the same times makes him appear both human and a monster. Unfortunately, despite the book's flyleaf expressly stating that The Wasted Vigil is a work of fiction, and nothing more, there have been murmurs of disapproval of the Quranic texts' translations cited in the book. In this scribe's opinion, the translations cited bring to light the fact that the training techniques, employed by terrorist networks in various countries like Pakistan to enlist thousands of cadres via indoctrination, is based on the incorrect interpretation of the Holy Quran and the teachings of Islam, something Aslam has highlighted very well through this book. Various manuals, CDs and literature retrieved from such groups are testament to the fact that the incorrect interpretations of a holy text are used in indoctrinating hundreds of thousands of young people, via an extremist version of Islam, into fighting a war they know nothing about, in the process encouraging them to resolve problems not through negotiation and diplomacy, but through violence and barbarism. While the book is a fictional representation of how Casa was indoctrinated, it is a reminder to the reader that a holy text like the Quran has been grossly misused by militants like those belonging to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, et al to further their own selfish motives. In fact, one must credit Nadeem for bringing to light not only the way in which jehadi organisations use propaganda to brainwash their recruits, but also for simultaneously offering to the reader a moderate version of Islam. All that said and done, The Wasted Vigil is a work of fiction -- nothing more, nothing less.
The Wasted Vigil is a rather moving work, its characters depiction even more so. But where the verbose description worked in his previous novel Maps for Lost Lovers, it fails to impress in this book, with one spotting the odd cliché every chapter. The book does not flow well either, chapters flowing from the past to the present are rather choppy, and the pace is slow, leaving the reader forced to either give up on the book, or struggle valiantly towards the finish line. Perhaps because Aslam spent 11 years writing Maps for Lost Lovers, and only seven months on The Wasted Vigil, one finds a world of difference in their intensity. However, one must credit Aslam's ambitiousness: he has successfully attempted, via fiction, to remind one of the horrors that extremism can wreck on a land that could have been so much more.
Huma Imtiaz works as a correspondent for Geo News and can be reached at [email protected]
The Indian Shakespeare
In one of the mini-climactical scenes from Hashr's Nek Perveen, the reprobate "hero," Afzal, having squandered all his wealth, returns to his house. His beautiful, devoted wife, Perveen -- who has been subjected to all kinds of devilish devices to force her to lose her "honour," but has withstood the test -- receives him with open arms. He confesses that under the influence of alcohol he has committed a murder.
Perveen (the embodiment of goodness) is only concerned with her husband's welfare. She begs him not to think of her wretched state, but to change his bloodstained clothes and leave the town at once to escape the long arm of the law.
The faithful old servant, on the other hand, offers an even better solution. He is three scores and upwards; he has lived long enough. What better last service can he render to the family but to confess that he, and not his young master, has committed the crime? If he were hanged, he would be happy to have laid down his worthless life in the service of those it has been his great and good fortune to serve.
Ideal ingredients of a melodrama. The scene begins with the "good" Perveen singing a song to bemoan her plight. When she ends her song, the faithful retainer, Tehseen, enters the stage and informs her that he has been unable to trace her husband. It is at this point that Afzal, the profligate husband, walks in:
Perveen: My loved one, where have you been? Where did you live for so long? Answer me. Oh God, you are trembling
Afzal: Touch me not. I am the vomit of sin, a dung heap, a cesspit… come not near me, unless you wish to sink into a mire of indignity. Fear me, for I am a hateful murderer.
Pretty trite stuff, you might think and yet, in an experimental production I conducted recently, as soon as the depraved husband waved his wife away, "Touch me not…" the audience began to listen, not with a sense of relishing the bombast of a by-gone age but attentively, savouring the language. When the repentant Afzal ended his speech with:
There was a round of applause. Verse, even prosaic verse, spoken theatrically, has always elicited a deferential response from our audiences.
The theatre for which Agha Hashr wrote was neither uncertain nor in a state of ferment. Everything was in its place. The sole purpose of a dramatic performance was, as the chorus in a Broadway musical put it:
'We hate to overtax you
We're here to relax you.'
Even if he had believed in "women's lib," Hashr could not have expressed himself in a theatre which demanded that the established order must remain intact. The dramatists too, were inclined to think that way. In Hashr's plays, kings and noblemen become dissolute, but through some last-minute dramatic stratagem, see the error of their ways; those who rise above their station meet their come-uppance; the servants stay in their place; the women remain subdued and dutiful.
Hashr's plays are not entirely devoid of rebellious women. In Shaheed-e-Naz, the cheeky house-wife, Fitna, soliloquizes:
"I cannot imagine why this rigmarole called marriage was created, unless the intention was to subjugate us and deprive us of our independence. A man may give the glad eye to whoever he wants, but if a woman were to dare to look at a man, her eyes are gouged out. Do women not have heart, desires, feelings…?
But such utterances are given only to menial characters, the saucy maid, or the side-kick of a comedian. Women of noble birth only mouthed what was expected of them: "We women cry out at tyranny, but in our hearts we admire a tyrant. Govern us, we cry to our husbands - and if you do, we moan, but our soul is at peace." I quote from a Victorian pot-boiler, Cynthia's Secret.
These sentiments delighted the playgoers no end. It must be borne in mind that an Urdu play drew an almost exclusively male audience, who wanted entertainment, amusement, and a lot of show-business, unmixed with highbrow stuff, and untainted with art.
More than anything else, they wanted to feel assured that the real place of the woman was to be at the beck and call of her husband. And so, when the penitent Afzal (in Nek Perveen) declares that he is not worthy of his good wife because he has squandered all her possessions, Perveen kneels down and says:
"No, no, no, my lord and master. I don't want money, dresses or jewels. I only want you. A woman's ornament is her husband. Not gold, not silver, but you. You alone are my wealth."
The audience responded with thunderous applause. Hashr was a past-master at crafting such show-stopping moments. Silver King urf Nek Perveen (the full title of the play) was a colossal commercial success.
Agha Hashr who rose to become the star playwright of both the Madden and the Alfred (the two most established and solvent) theatrical companies, had humble beginnings. In his younger days he had gained a strong reputation for winning Munaziras (open debates) against Christian missionaries. He used to say, not without a touch of pride that he, like Shakespeare, was a man without a degree and that degrees did not turn men into dramatists.
It is for researchers to determine when the epithet of "Indian Shakespeare" was conferred upon him and by whom. It could have been a princeling or one of his Parsi impresarios. Be that as it may, the bill-boards, and his published plays, always had the words "Indian Shakespeare," in parenthesis, underneath his name, except in one copy of Aseer-e-Hirs that I saw, in which the epithet was written above his own name.
Hashr has written somewhere that his method of writing a play is amusing, to say the least. In a preface he writes, and I translate. "Just as in a Marsya there are different sections, i.e. the serene morning, the heat of the afternoon, the eulogy of the sword, the battle scenes, the mourning, etc., so I divide my play into different sections : the romantic scenes, comic scenes, court scenes, scenes of villainous plotting and scheming -- and, of course, the songs and the musical numbers. I write each of these scenes, separately, as and when I am in the mood for writing a certain kind of a scene. Then, when it is time to get the play ready, I blend them, as required". (my italics)
The last line says a lot. It mattered not how even the great Hashr wanted to fashion his plays, he had to bow to the wishes of his impresario in matters of structure, theme, songs and the number of comic scenes.
(to be continued)