MUST WE PUNISH THE CHILD FOR THE FATHER’S SINS?

It all began on September 14, 2021, when ‘@Settler Scholar’ launched a 22 Tweets thread, titled ‘Settler Scholarship,’ describing itself in the final Tweet as ‘a group of Kashmiri activists, students & researchers who are concerned about these issues. We are angry & also scared. The only way we could raise these issues publicly is by being anonymous.’ The target of the tweets was the young anthropologist, Saiba Varma, who is presently an Associate Professor at the University of California, San Diego, and the reason was her book, The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir, published by the Duke University Press.  Published in 2020, the book had been a dozen years in the making, being Varma’s PhD dissertation at Cornell (2013). 

The twenty-one Tweets do not comment on the contents of Varma’s book except once, in Tweet #16, claiming that Varma ‘forc[ed] people to seek medical treatment in a language that isn’t their own.’ They probably mean the one occasion mentioned at the beginning of the book where a Kashmiri doctor asks his Kashmiri patient to continue in Urdu their conversation, done in Kashmiri until that moment, for Varma’s benefit. Clearly, that was the doctor’s decision not Varma’s, and the doctor would not have done so had he felt that would be a hardship for the patient. Kashmir is the only state in the Indian Union where Urdu has an official status and a tradition of regular instruction. 

The other twenty Tweets basically repeat one charge, claiming that Saiba Varma did not disclose to everyone she interacted with in Kashmir during her research work—the Kashmiri doctors/psychiatrists and their Kashmiri patients, male and female—the fact that she was the daughter of one Krishan Varma, who had been a senior officer in India’s Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), and who in that capacity had spent some years in Kashmir in the 1990s. The long series of angry assertions ends with the following: ‘Given her compromised family connections, why should SV continue researching/writing/speaking on Kashmir?’ Indeed, why shouldn’t we, instead, punish the daughter for the father’s presumed sins, and disregard what the daughter strove for and accomplished on her own?  

I placed ‘presumed’ before ‘sins,’ not because I possess some special knowledge of the late Mr. Varma’s official work but because I read the following in The Hindustan Times of September 17, 2021.


Krishan Varma retired from R&AW eight years ago, and according to two retired officers that HT spoke to, was not completely identified with his work in Kashmir. He retired as special secretary and used to head the Aviation Research Centre or ARC in the agency. ‘He is a China expert and was also staff officer to two chiefs, Vikram Sood and CD Sahay,’ said one of the officers, who didn’t wish to be quoted….(Emphasis added.)

Former R&AW secretary AS Dulat [said of the accusation], ‘It’s a lot of bunkum. Krishan is a good friend… He was there ages ago and she has done her thesis there. Krishan doesn’t know half of what his daughter knows about Kashmir.’ 

While some may never put any faith in what a former Secretary of  R&AW says, I am willing to accept Dulat’s assessment of Krishan Varma, who passed away recently, for it is confirmed by what others have said about the contents of book. 

The same day, Saiba Varma put out some Tweets that I have not seen but which apparently sought to explain to the group, ‘@Settler Scholar,’ her acts of commission and omission. Her Tweets brought forth, two days later, on September 19, a short but cogent note from a group of ‘Kashmir scholars’ that was the more compelling with its sober tone. 

For all anthropologists, the primary ethical responsibility is to be honest and transparent with the people who they study. We are disturbed by the ethical choices Varma has made in her research, especially regarding lack of disclosure of her father’s career in the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s premiere intelligence agency with a long history of operations in Kashmir. While the question of whether she revealed her background to her research subjects remains to be clarified by Varma, we can confirm that this information was not disclosed to us despite our professional relationships with her over the years through various forms of scholarly interaction and professional engagement, including scholarly networks, advocacy forums, fieldwork, conferences, and joint publications. 

We do not believe that “the daughter should be punished for the sins of the father.” The revelations, however, raise key questions about the ethical obligations of all scholars who do ethnographic and archival research in Kashmir, with particular relevance for scholars who are committed to supporting the Kashmiri political struggle. It is a clear breach of ethical responsibility for the researcher to not disclose, or to misrepresent, intimate family links with the colonial state. We are concerned that trust and accountability across the wider community of Kashmir scholars have been violated. Most importantly, we are concerned about the possible breach of ethics towards the vulnerable communities in which Varma has conducted her research, amidst Kashmiri patients seeking psychiatric care. 

This urgent note demanded a proper response, and perhaps one was made by Varma privately and individually. Nevertheless, on September 28, 2021, a very different group launched on the internet an ‘open letter’ to the Duke University Press. Crafted and signed by six professors at different institutions, it laid out why they were against any further dissemination of the book, and asked their readers to add their names to the demand. 

Roughly speaking, the document consists of three parts. The first lays out their case against Varma, the second makes an appeal to the publishers, and the third is a preemptive response to any charge of ‘cancel culture.’ The opening section is solidly and almost exclusively based on the Tweets launched by @Settler Scholar, and repeatedly accuses Varma of not disclosing to his interlocutors the name and professional identity of her father. 

Like the Tweets, the open letter contains no evaluation of the book’s contents, not a single sentence challenging her analysis and conclusions. Only a constant claim is made that Varma  deliberately and insidiously hid the fact of her being the daughter of a former R&AW official. Astonishingly, they also draw such baldly stated conclusions as that her work ‘was enabled by her connections to the Indian state,’ or that her actions should be characterized as ‘decades (sic) of hiding facts.’ In their fervor of certitude, they tell us, without even a ‘perhaps,’ what they believe motivated her: ‘What seems clear then is that she chose to hide her personal history of proximity to and complicity in colonial occupation in order to facilitate access and complete her research.’ The slide from ‘proximity’ to ‘complicity’, while pleasantly alliterative, is nothing but slanderous. 

The professors’ own contribution to what they call ‘the threads’ work’ amounts only to a quotation from Varma’s dissertation—not from the published book, mind you—as an evidence against her. 

In her dissertation, Dr. Varma thanked her father ‘for opening up both Kashmir and the world of documents to me’ (p. vii). Despite this veiled admission of how he enabled her access to Kashmir, she does not explicitly note or account for what it means to access Kashmir and “the world of documents” on Kashmiris through a member of the Indian intelligence, even though RAW is a primary force of counter-insurgency in the region. 

But what if these words only expressed the gratefulness of a daughter for the childhood years she spent in Kashmir when her father was posted there in the ‘90s, and ‘opening … the world of documents’ does not mean handing over a drawerful of secret documents on Kashmir but merely refers to a father’s success in inculcating in his young daughter a lasting interest in non-fiction documentary texts that later led to her growth into a research scholar? Here is how Varma thanks her parents in the published book: ‘My parents, Manju and Krishan, have showered me with boundless love. Thank you for teaching me how to love fiercely and openly, giving me plenty of space to flourish, for nurturing a love of reading and writing, and for showing me how to struggle with grace.’ I see no reason to doubt her word when she claims she was given ‘plenty of space to flourish’ on her own, for it is evident even in the little I have read in her book. 

Intriguingly, the Indian signatories of the letter made a point of describing themselves as ‘dominant caste Indian scholars;’ additionally, they called Varma an ‘upper caste Indian anthropologist.’ Why they did so is hard to fathom. Surely, caste and parentage are not chosen by the progeny? Is it then some kind of academic one-upmanship, an idle attempt to underscore their own careful observance of professional ethics? It can’t be. Varma began her research work in 2009; the book came out in 2020. That would make a total of 12 years at most, but the six scholars wrote in high dudgeon: ‘While everyone can mistakes, Dr. Varma’s actions need to be characterized as decades of hiding facts about her father’s position in the Indian state…’ (Emphasis added.) Another equally fierce accusation goes like this: ‘[The] upper caste Indian anthropologist who conducted research in Kashmiri clinics, demanded they speak in Urdu/Hindi (colonizers’ languages) for their trauma to be translated in ways she could understand and then cultivated their stories of trauma from occupation for her book.’ Demanded? They could have given an example from the book but they did not, for they were only repeating what they had read in the Tweets.  

In all the noise and fury of the Tweeter thread and the ‘open letter’ one thing stands out: neither makes any mention of the book’s contents. Not one word of critique concerning Varma’s descriptions, analyses, and conclusions can be found in the two documents. Not a single line is quoted from the book itself. The latter was particularly bothersome in the ‘open letter’ of the six scholars, who were not restricted to 143 characters. Are the contents of Varma’s book really so trivial that they need not be taken into account at all? Or do the professors believe that a person whose father worked for R&AW must never be believed, even if she distinctly stands in opposition to the aims and methods of that agency? 

I have not read the book, nor do I plan to read it. My knowledge of English language is basic, and words like ‘positionality’, ‘processuality’, ‘futurity’ leave me gasping for breath. But when a kind friend sent me some pages, I took the time to read them. Here is a brief excerpt; it made clear to me the politics of Varma’s book. Writing about the day the Modi government abolished Kashmir’s statehood, Varma writes (in the form of a letter to a friend, who is named ‘No-thing’:

“On television, we watched the government’s PR machine churn. The decisions were sold to the Indian public as necessary for Kashmir’s greater integration with India, to end terrorism, facilitate economic development, and invigorate the tourism industry. Though the decision was articulated in the language of care and development, those most affected by it were not consulted. The 8 million residents of the state were put under a total, indefinite communication blackout and curfew. To prevent any untoward incident, an amphibious bureaucrat croaked on tv. In the days that followed, the tv, now our only connection to the outside world, became a funhouse mirror. We watched as distorted images of the reality on the ground were fed back to us….

“After the first month, which people only survived thanks to their premonition, careful planning, and execution, the catastrophes cascaded. As the blackout stretched on, I was haunted by your words. Back in the summer of 2014, after the Hindu supremacist BJP government led by Narendra Modi had first swept to national victory, you had said, ‘Modi has come to finish us. He has come to destroy Kashmir.’ I had dismissed your words as hyperbolic. But now I understood. You did not mean genocide in a spectacular sense, although, as you know, Modi has that, too, in hisstory. Rather, the game now was slow violence in the form of demographic changes and settlements, the influx of financial capital, from whose spoils Kashmiris will be excluded, changes to land ownership laws, the detention and criminalization of young people, the prohibition of expression and dissent, weaponizing all aspects of civilian life.” (p. xvi)

**

This has grown longer than I wished, but a few more things need to said, even if briefly. Firstly, Saiba Varma did respond in some detail to the comments of the @Settler Scholar and the members of the ‘Research Ethics in Kashmir’ collective. Dated October 1, 2021, it runs to 8 or 9 pages. People should give it some thought before they make up their minds about its writer.

Secondly, the issue—the right of a scholar to make an attempt to rise above and beyond any conditions forced upon him or her by familial ties, caste or creed—is not trivial. In fact, one brave and convincing exploration of the issue was made right after the furor began. The writer, Samhita Arni, is  herself a daughter of a former R&AW officer, and has actually read Varma’s book, which she found to be ‘a brilliant, well-researched analysis of the care that is afforded to the mentally ill in Kashmir.’ She then adds, ‘In her work, Varma notes that the ‘clinic has become part of the battlefield’, that the very medical tools, locations of clinics, and understanding of care, can also create violence ‘through medicine’, and that these serve to advance the aims of the Indian security establishment in Kashmir.’ This is how she concludes the  piece: 

Intimacy and empathy are created by what we disclose, but also what we choose to conceal. I have been in situations where I know that if I had revealed that my father worked in the Indian security establishment, the other person may have not engaged with me in the same manner. While I might want relatedness and see myself as an ally, the other would not. I do understand that there may be those who feel betrayed by such a lack of disclosure, and this can create a sense of rupture, a loss of relatedness and trust. 

These feelings are real and must be engaged with in a way that moves us forward, not back. There is a great opportunity in this. It is of value to hear from Varma herself, and from those she observed, patients and medical practitioners both. To ask them to speak for themselves and their own experiences — rather than us deciding for them how they must feel or what serves their interests best. Lived experience is much more complex, and ambiguous than the categories and binaries we see from afar, from our perch atop ivory towers. Varma’s experience testifies to this, as do the accounts of the doctors and patients she writes about, and the dilemmas they face.

These are wise words. Lived experience is indeed much more complex and ambiguous. Judgements should be made with some self-doubt and humility. Varma’s book should first be judged by that primary rule: what did it set out to do and did the effort succeed? That simple but obligatory effort, made without prejudice, will also provide answer to the question: does the book serve the cause of the victims or does it seek to enhance the legitimacy and control of the victimizer? So far, those who bothered to make the effort have all said: the book stands by the victims. 

Rest in Peace, Ram Bhai

From left, CM Naim, historian Saleem Kidwai (standing), Ram Advani and book collector Aslam Mahmud. Photo: Unknown waiter at Lucknow golf course, February 2015, via CM Naim.

(CM Naim,  Saleem Kidwai (standing), Ram Advani and  Aslam Mahmud).

 

When I first visited it in the final months of 1949, the shop that would go on to become an iconic landmark occupied a small area within the vast and mostly empty Gandhi Bhandar in the heart of Lucknow’s Hazratgunj. And the sign proudly said “Ram Advani Bookseller”. The use of the singular made it clear, I suppose, that besides the wares on display you were also going to encounter an individual. I had gone there with a relative, and I doubt if I exchanged more than a formal greeting on that occasion with its handsome and urbane owner.

With time, I became more familiar with the wares of the shop – by then it had moved into the Mayfair Building and acquired two signs, the old red one outside the building and a new “wrong” sign, “Ram Advani Booksellers” above its doors – but I don’t think I bought a single book there during those four years. So in those years too, Mr Advani remained a distant figure, from whom one received a nod of recognition but whose eyes one tried to avoid – needlessly, it must be added – as one stepped out without making any purchase. My meagre pocket money was better spent on a movie at the Mayfair Theatre next door.

I mention all this to underscore what made that shop so unique – it allowed cash-starved booklovers like me to browse. And to enjoy the almost erotic frisson of having access to so many temptations. To pick up a book, flip its pages, admire the cover and illustrations, read the blurb, then move on to the next alluring title. One might not have the money to buy even one book, but so what, one at least knew that they were there for the taking some other time.

Before this man, who himself loved books and knew how booklovers feel – even the cash-starved kind – opened his doors, the practice among the booksellers in Lucknow was as follows. The books were put on high shelves, with a number of counters before them. You went and scoured the shelves and then asked the man at the counter to show you the book you wanted. You had then a few minutes to examine it, with the counter-man watching and judging if you were a likely customer. You could then ask for a couple of more books but if by then you had not decided to buy something, you received a subtle hint to not waste their time any further. The counter man would take away all the books and go to some other customer or start doing something else.

Incidentally, the situation at Urdu bookstores was much worse. There, you had to tell the owner what you wanted – a particular book; the works by a particular author; books in some specific genre – who then asked certain numbered bundles to be brought. He would pull out the specific items and show them to you. A transaction had to be made within 10 minutes or so, otherwise the bundles would again disappear in the loft above. There was no way to know what was available for sale, except by flipping the pages of a published catalogue.

Interestingly, just as Ram Advani changed all that with his browse-able shop for the Anglophone readers, around the same time the late Nasim Ahmad made all Urduwalas happy with his famous “Danish Mahal” in Aminabad, where one could browse without fear. I don’t know if the two ever met but I do know they held each other in much respect.

I’m quite sure I never bought a book from Ram Bhai’s shop until 1966, when I spent a year away from Chicago in Barabanki, my hometown. My relationship with him in the beginning was formal – he was a pretty formal person in most ways, and may have even appeared as somewhat severe to some people. The big difference in age – he was 14 years senior to me – made me feel diffident while talking to him. But over the years, like for so many others before me and after, our relationship turned into a friendship that I cherished then and will always cherish. He became Ram Bhai to me, and I became Naim to him – in his letters he would now use “My dear Naim” instead of “Dear Mr Naim.” Then, some 10 or so years back, he took to calling me “Naim Bhai”. I protested, but he did not stop. I finally explained it to myself as a curious expression of his misplaced sense of propriety in view of my shiny pate and white beard.

As Lucknow changed, it became a place less and less familiar or comfortable for me. Besides depressing physical changes, people’s behaviour in public spaces became radically different. One could not walk safely where once it was possible to stroll. By 1990, Ram Bhai’s shop became an oasis in what had become, for an old fogey like me, a desert, a place with no civility though displaying much opulence. With Ram Bhai I knew where I stood and could never be disappointed in my expectations. With him I could also share memories of an earlier, more civil Lucknow. His shop became the place where I could ask people to come and meet me, and if they were of the “right” kind I would take them upstairs to Ram Bhai’s cool dark mezzanine floor office. We would then have a cup of tea with him – it was always rather weak to my taste though plentiful. Inevitably, the visitors would soon join the ranks of Ram Bhai’s countless admirers across the world.

Buying books at Ram Bhai’s shop was always a problem for me. Too many interesting books on display, too many equally interesting books that he knew would interest me and he could obtain in a few days from the publishers. The most fabulous thing for me and for any visitor from abroad was the fact that the books one bought could be made into perfect parcels and sent homeward abroad through postal service by Ram Bhai’s most capable staff. And for a nominal charge one could even have one’s own other acquisitions mailed similarly. The other thing that made him special for so many was his ability to remember what one liked or was interested in. Every few months, it was normal to receive from him a note, first by postal service then by email, describing the new acquisitions of the shop that should be of interest to the particular recipient.

The same happened when you visited the shop, coming from abroad. After a few minutes of personal chitchat, he immediately started informing you of the new books that should interest you, often giving his own brief but candid view of some particular book. Often there would be several visitors in the shop at the same time, and more than one conversation would be going on as dear old Raju would make more tea and offer biscuits or go out to get samosas for the few who shamelessly asked for them. Ram Bhai would sit and listen and add his two bits once in a while. But he never gossiped. Many of us did, but he would only listen, and only with a look of tired indulgence on his face.

Though he spoke Sindhi and Hindi-Urdu – I doubt if he read them too – Ram Bhai was basically an Anglophone. Nevertheless, in social discourse and manners, he was a quintessential old-time “Lakhnavi”. (That reminds me of the beautifully embroidered chikan kurtas bought for him by Darshi Bhabhi, an epitome of ageless beauty and elegance herself, that he wore with great aplomb – I longed to don the same but knew how false they would look on me.) Whatever he had seen and heard and read about Lucknow was safe and ready in his memory to share with others. And in the limited confines of his shop he had created the aura of courtesy and civility that he believed he had experienced once in Lucknow’s public spaces, as if to impress upon his younger visitors: Yes, this is how it used to be once and could be again if you only tried.

Rest in peace, Ram Bhai, you were a dear and cherished friend to countless people and also a forlorn reminder of a Lucknow that is now gone forever.

 

First published in Scroll.in on March 14, 2016.

Let Sonu Nigam Sleep, Please!

 

When I was growing up in the small town of Barabanki in the 1940s, the mosques had no loudspeakers. Those abominations would appear at the political rallies, and then disappear. Even in our Eidgah, where hundreds of people came from all parts of the town to pray together on the two Eid festivals, no loudspeakers were used to summon them. Not only that, even during the prayers, no microphone was used by the imam. In fact, when the idea was suggested by some individuals, it was quickly rejected by most of the so-called notables, who organised the special prayers, as well as the clergy. The imams of the neighborhood mosques, at the time, would proclaim the azaan themselves, or had some young man with a loud voice do the honors from the roof of the mosque. The human sound, often quite melodic, that emerged from his throat had enough reach to bring the nearby faithful to the mosque. And it did so no less efficiently than the electronically engorged aberration that now resounds over Barabanki. Actually, I should use the plural, for what we now have are scores of aberrations.

Last year, when I made a determined effort over several days, I discovered that the fajr or dawn prayer azaan came barging into my room in Barabanki from eight different mosques – mind you, only one of them was within walking distance from my home – and the whole thing, the calls from those eight different mosques, lasted nearly 30 minutes, as each mosque made its separate contribution. At moments, what one heard was an ugly cacophony. Far from providing the aesthetic pleasure that a single human voice produced for most listeners in my boyhood days, the effect of what came over the air now was intolerable even to my deeply devout sisters.

Undistorted and un-amplified, an ordinary human’s voice was perfectly able to do the task in the days when few people had alarm clocks or, for that matter, even a wristwatch. But now, even the tiny mosque in my neighborhood that can accommodate no more than 50 or 60 people has two loudspeakers tied to its minaret, and a sound system that sends its call out to a body of people 50 times larger than its capacity. But one cannot suggest a change. Apparently, the people who attend the neighborhood mosque can do perfectly well without an amplified alarm in all aspects of their daily lives except when it comes to reaching the mosque to form a congregation. Their grandfathers could do without loudspeakers but not these stalwarts of the 21st century.

Given the recent controversy over Sonu Nigam, I totally believe that no use of inappropriate amplification should be allowed in open spaces. Period. Not at akhand paths, not at jagrans, not at wedding celebrations, not at political meetings, not at anything. Not within a mile of any hospital. Not close to any school. And most definitely not during the hours of 10 pm and 7 am. Needless to say, the required laws are there on the books, what does not exist is the will to enforce them.

There are, however, a couple of things that Indian Muslims should themselves be concerned about that are related to the matter of electronically amplified sounds emerging from mosques. The idea of praying together in a congregation is quite important in Islam, hence the need to construct mosques. And that leads to the immediately relevant question: how far away should one mosque be from another? The rule is clear: mosques should be so built that the call from one must not reach another. The worshippers should not be confused, nor should there be an appearance of discord or disunity. If you don’t believe me, ask the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. They will confirm the above, even if reluctantly. For the size and numbers of mosques has now become a matter of honor.

Then there is the second, perhaps even more critical, issue. Everyone is aware of the quantum increase in sectarian thought and practice among the Muslims of South Asia. The evil that started in Pakistan, particularly during the Zia-ul-Haq regime, has now well established itself in India too. Thankfully, the murder and mayhem that are now routine in Pakistan have not yet happened in India. Indian Sunnis are not killing Indian Shi’ahs, nor have the Indian Barelavis gone gunning after Indian Wahhabis. But anyone who reads Urdu journals knows that sectarian intolerance has increased, and no effort to curb it is in sight.

I first visited Pakistan in 1980, and well recall what some friends in Lahore told me was happening in the Old City. After the ‘isha (late evening) prayers, they said, the Barelavis and the Deobandis regularly engaged in denouncing each other, using their azaan amplification systems, and filling the air with choice imprecations. My friend had said that with a smile. Now, of course, that smile is long gone. In fact, when I was in Lahore last year, and staying with a friend in an affluent neighborhood, I heard an azaan that I had never heard before. Later I found out that the Barelavis in Pakistan now have their own special azaan, and the additional material was put in basically to annoy the Deobandis. Probably the same is now happening in Bareli and Mumbai, too, but until last year it had not reached Barabanki.

Public display of religiosity is now common place. Piety that used to be expressed privately or through public humanitarian acts has now been replaced by a religiosity that is much more about pomp and glory, about self-exaltation, than humility and service. The cry one hears is of shaukat-e Islam (Glory of Islam). Anything that detracts from that presumed glory becomes “intolerable”. Sonu Nigam’s complaint against the use of loudspeakers was turned into an attack on Islam’s “honor”, and had to be retaliated against by demanding that he should be denuded of his “honor”. “Shave his head off,” brayed one savior of Islam. “Put a garland of shoes around his neck.” Now I only wish Sonu Nigam had saved the hair clippings and mailed them to his detractor.

More seriously, it is about time administrators across the country began to enforce the existing laws. Put strict limits on amplification. Enforce hours. Punish those who break the laws. And the so-called leaders – political and religious – should also make sure that the presumed piety of one party does not put undue burden on the rest of the citizens of the country.

 

First published at Scroll.in on April 21, 2017.

God Bless A. R. Rahman

In 2017 we shall celebrate the 200th birthday of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the Indian Muslim who was declared a kafir by the mullahs of India on more counts than any other person before him or after. Here is a partial list of the reasons why some mullah or other thought Sir Syed was beyond the pale of Islam. He does not believe that wearing Western clothes is against the Shari’a. He believes that Angels and Satan are not real beings and instead believes them to be human powers, as endowed by God, to do good or bad. He believes that the Quran does not mention any miracle attributable to the Prophet Muhammad. He believes that Islam ended slavery forever even during the Prophet’s life. He eats at a table, while sitting on a chair, and uses a knife and a fork. He shares his table with Christians, and also eats at their homes. As countable in his biography by Altaf Husain Hali, the list runs to more than fifty similar accusations.

One of Sir Syed’s most persistent detractors was a Maulvi Ali Bakhsh Khan, a Subordinate Judge in the colonial administration. When Ali Bakhsh Khan went on Hajj he spent more time in obtaining fatwas against Sir Syed and publishing them back in India. Sir Syed’s response was something to this effect: I’m proud of my kufr because it made possible my friend Ali Bakhsh Khan to obtain the blessings of a Hajj. On another occasion, when his detractors fell silent for a while, Sir Syed wrote in his journal, Tahzib-al-Akhlaq, “I feel like that old biddy who was regularly teased by market urchins, and if any day it didn’t occur she would say, ‘What happened to the boys? Has some plague taken them?’”

Until now they used to be my examples of how best to respond to the fatwas that are headlined every other Thursday in the press—issued by some obscure entity eager to seek some easy publicity and written-up by some perfervid newsperson anxious to get into print that day. Now I have a third example, the statement issued by A R Rahman in response to the fatwa issued by Mufti Mahmood Akhtarul Qadri, the imam of Haji Alig Dargah Masjid, in response to a request made by Saeed Noori of the Raza Academy, Bombay. And what a classy response it is!

“What, and if, I had the good fortune of facing Allah, and He were to ask me on Judgement Day: ‘I gave you faith, talent, money, fame and health… why did you not do music for my beloved Muhammad (Peace be upon him) film? A film whose intention is to unite humanity, clear misconceptions and spread my message that life is kindness, about uplifting the poor, an and living in the service of humanity and not mercilessly killing innocents in my name.”

Read it in full; see how a genuine man of faith speaks, bearing witness to the faith that feeds his spirit and the talent he earns his living from, and considering both as gifts from the Divine and thus fully in tune with each other.

The trouble with people like Qadri and Noori is that they have split personalities and have as much stuff to hide as they profess to strut before us. And the news-writers go along out of ignorance—but also due to a lack of genuine curiosity. Qadri earns his living at a mosque attached to a dargah. Now if we went to a Deobandi mufti, he would be happy to issue a fatwa against anyone whose source of income is a dargah, for that is not what the Deobandis allow. For them: no dargahs; no grave-worship; no belief in any miracle-making saint. And the same savant would happily declare Noori a mushrik—one who shares his belief in God with a belief in another god—for Noori, when he goes to his ‘Bareli Sharif,’ bows before the grave of Ahmad Raza Khan, and touches his forehead to it. Likewise, God help the Deobandi who attends a meeting to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet but fails to stand up and sing along with the congregation when the preacher announces the Prophet’s birth. So it goes, and it gets worse every day. This rising sectarianism is to be blamed as much on the silence of the liberals in India, Muslims and non-Muslims—as on the belligerent vociferousness of the mullahs.

I am old enough to remember the time when the same kind of mullahs objected to the use of sound amplification in mosques. Even its use during the sermon part of the service on Fridays and the two Eids was considered an abominable innovation— a bid’a. Now even the tiniest mosque has two loudspeakers on its roof. One of the joys of my childhood in Barabanki was to wake up in the morning and listen to the music of the azaan as it came wafting over the air—in human dimensions. Now the same words turn into a painful cacophony as they blast into the air from at least eight different sets of loudspeakers. So here is a request to the newsperson who next goes to get the details of some fatwa from one of the savants from Bareli, Deoband, Nadva, Firangi Mahal, and so forth: please ask the savant what he thinks of the loudspeakers on his mosque; also ask him if there is not a ruling in several religious texts that no mosque should be built so close to another that its azaan—unamplified, of course—be heard in the other mosque? Then, if the mullah convinces you of the religious sanctity of his two loudspeakers, please move next door to his mosque, but please spare us his blathering calling it a fatwa. Please remember that a fatwa is not an edict; it is not binding on anyone; it can be countered by another fatwa; it dies with the death of the person who issues it; and it is never issued against some specific person. And please always tell us who might expect to gain some money or power from that fatwa.

 

Originally appeared in Scroll.in on September 17, 2015.

Islamophobia and Blasphemy

I have huge respect for Javed Anand and the work he has been doing (with Teesta Setalvad) for a few decades. But I would like to raise some caveats concerning his piece ‘On the other side of fear‘ (IE, September 29).

His essay chiefly consists of three parts. In the first, he rightly condemns the manner in which Muslims in some countries have protested against the notorious anti-Islam video. Next, he asserts that something new is taking place now: a “reiteration… by a growing number of Muslim scholars that Islam too rests on the freedom bedrock and the very notion of blasphemy is ‘un-Islamic’.” In support of this claim, Anand refers us to unnamed editorial-writers and religious leaders in the Urdu press, and in particular draws our attention to a “boxed” letter from a Saudi Arabia-based Indian Muslim, Abdul Rehman Mohammed Yahya, that simultaneously appeared on September 24 in three Urdu journals, Sahafat, Inqilab and Rashtriya Sahara. To quote Anand: “The gist of the long letter is a rhetorical question addressed to fellow Muslims: ‘What did Prophet Muhammad do in the face of repeated insults heaped on him during his lifetime?’ The answer: he forgave them.”

Surely, the present Muslim definition of “blasphemy” is not limited to “any insult to the Prophet of Islam”? Even in India, there are at least two prominent anti-”blasphemy” movements at play among the Muslims under the guise of Tahaffuz (Protection): Tahaffuz-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwat (Protection of the Finality of Prophethood), accusing the Ahmadis of “blasphemy”; and Tahaffuz-i-Namus-i-Sahaba (Protection of the Honour of the Companions of the Prophet), accusing the Shias of “blasphemy”. Not to mention the accusations of “blasphemy” against Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin. Second, while Anand is right in stating that it “is a universal Muslim belief that the Prophet never retaliated to repeated insults to him, through either word or deed”— and, indeed, the vast majority of Muslims live by that belief, and many may even try to emulate it in their own lives — it is also true that a few enemies of the Prophet were ordered by him to be mortally punished, including one or two who verbally abused him. A devout Muslim, therefore, may claim a right to follow whichever tradition suits his own inclination.

The issue should not be what the Prophet did or did not do, for once we raise it we only fall into an easy trap. It becomes a conflict between only apparently equal claims of righteousness; quickly, it becomes another instance, at best, of sectarianism, and, at worst, of “blasphemy”. In any case, a devout Muslim may aspire to emulate the Prophet’s actions but by the same token can never claim to have done so. Yahya’s letter is a good sign, but so are also a few other articles. These are acts of personal piety, and one must be thankful for them. But the same boxed space — actually there is nothing special or prominent about it — in Sahafat (Delhi) that carried Yahya’s letter contained on September 29 a letter on the same subject of the video from a Muhammad Ziaur Rahman, department of Urdu, Delhi University, under the title: “Yahud wa Nasara Musalmanon ke Khullamkhulla Dushman” (Jews and Christians are blatant enemies of the Muslims). Rahman claims, among other things, that on September 11 this year, the film “Innocence of Muslims” was shown in cinemas across the United States, and that the United States rained missiles on Iraq when a woman in Baghdad named Laila Al-Attar drew a cartoon of President George Bush [in 2003].

In the final part of his essay, Anand highlights “Islamophobia” in Western countries, using as his chief source a recent book, The Islamophobia Industry, by Nathan Lean. I confess I have only read about the book, and not the book itself. Its significance seems to lie in what its subtitle describes: “How the right manufactures fear of Muslims.” It is the political right in the US that Lean is concerned with, and “Islamophobia” is not what describes it. The American right has its own political agenda; its domestic dimension, in fact, is its chief driving force. “Islamophobia” is only one of its many tactics — similar, to my mind, to the fear-mongering of the right in India, as also of the right among Indian Muslims. Vis-à-vis the latter, it mainly takes the form of “anti-Jewism” and anti-Ahmadism, together with the cry of an exceptional and absolute “victimhood”. From the perspective of the health and security of any democratic polity or its civic society, however, the two slogans—“Islam is a cancer” and “Islam is in danger”—are equally pernicious and corrosive.

Anand closes his comments by asking a rhetorical question: “Are Muslims being made the “new Jews” in post-Holocaust West?” The influence and success of the Israel lobby in American politics should not mean that anti-Semitism has disappeared in the US. It is as much present now as is racism, though not in the blatant manner it used to be before World War II, and, judged by what appears in the Urdu journals of India and Pakistan, still is among much of the Muslim population in South Asia.

——-

Originally published in The Indian Express (New Delhi), October 2, 2012.

Sheet Diplomacy?

Did you hear that the American Ambassador in Rome went and lit seven candles before the case containing the Shroud of Turin on behalf of President Barack Obama? Or, that the Secretary of State, John Kerry, ordered a diplomat from the American Consulate at Chennai to go and place flowers on the deity in the holiest temple at Thanjavur? I’m sure you did not. And for a very good reason—neither incident actually happened. I made them up just now to catch your attention. Now consider the following news as reported today (April 21, 2015) in some Urdu newspapers in India:

American President sent a chador [a ceremonial sheet of cloth] to the annual observation at the shrine of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti at Ajmer.

All papers also published images to complement the news. Here is one report in the Sahafat (Lucknow). Chador at Ajmer 4:21

The caption reads: “Ajmer: At the occasion of the 803rd ‘Urs of Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti people are carrying the chador sent for presentation by the American President Barack Obama.” The same image appeared the same day in the Aag, another daily published from Lucknow, with some additional details:

report in Aag 4:21

Ajmer: A special chador was presented on behalf of the American President  Barack Obama at the 803rd ‘Urs of Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti.  Today was the first day of the six-day commemoration. Richard Verma, the American Ambassador to India had given this red sheet to Salman Chishti, an attendant at the shrine, on Thursday in Delhi. And today he, [i.e. Chishti], offered that sheet at the shrine and read out the message sent by the American President in which the latter had said that no matter what our beliefs and traditions we must strive to make Peace a certainty, and that we must spread light where there was darkness and love where there was hatred.

A different image was published in the daily Sahara in its New Delhi edition.

Sahara image

The headline reads, “American President sent a chador for the ‘urs of Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti.” The report mentions that it was given by the American Ambassador to an attendant of the shrine and was carried to the sacred grave by some “officials from the Embassy.”

Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti (d. 1236) was the founding saint of the Chishti Sufi order in India, and is popularly regarded as the “Head” of all Sufis in India. His ‘urs or the annual commemoration of “the day he joined his Beloved”—God—is celebrated in a grand manner. Over the years it has become common to read in the news about Bollywood stars of any age and Indian politicians of every hue visiting the shrine, and further displaying their devotion by offering elaborate chadors. These are usually draped over the grave of the saint for a while and then shared by the attendants or resold to another devout visitor.

Not having come across any previous indication of President Obama’s devotion to saints and shrines even of the Christian kind, I was quite intrigued by these reports. Bollywood celebrities and Indian politicians go to Ajmer to ensure success in their enterprises, both business and electoral. Ordinary folks visit the shrine hoping to get the saint to intercede with God on their behalf and let them have a child (preferably male), be ridden of some possessing spiri (male or female), escape conviction in some court case, succeed in examinations and interviews, get a job in Dubai or a visa to the United States, and so forth. But why, I wondered, should the President of the world’s greatest power and its most exceptional nation send a gaudy satin sheet to have it draped over the grave of a 13th century saint in a remote town in Rajasthan, India?

Then other questions came up. Did he pay for it personally, or did the Embassy buy it? And if it was the Embassy in New Delhi, then under what account did they list the expenditure to satisfy the General Accounting Office nitpickers? The last question revealed the whole story, for it was, as young people say, a “no brainer.” The money for that gaudy red satin sheet must have come from the funds earmarked “War on Terror; sub-category: Islamic Extremism.”

Obviously either the White House or the Embassy in India—probably both—has swallowed the latest snake oil being peddled by the experts on “Islamic Terror.” Turn all Sunni Muslims into Sufis, the latter declare, and the world will become safe from all the Wahhabis, Salafis, Deobandis, Ikhwan, Jama’atis, and other baddies. An attractive solution for many reasons. Just compare the price of a satin sheet with the cost of a missile fired from a drone. There is no collateral damage either. And it offers much better photo opportunities.

Curiously, only just recently, similar “experts” in New Delhi brought a bunch of Imams and Sufi shrine-keepers, led—you guessed it—by another caretaker from Ajmer, to meet with Prime Minister Modi. The worthies offered their “Sufi Islam” in the service of the new government. Here is an image of that historical meeting on April 6, 2015 as reported in Sahafat in its Delhi edition of April 8

. Ulama and Modi copy

Could it be that it was not some hapless junior officer at the Embassy but Prime Minster Modi, who recommended this low cost-high gain “sheet diplomacy” to his friend, admirer, and biographer in the White House? And that it was the Defender of the First Amendment who chose to go along just to humor his new-found soulmate in New Delhi? We will never find out.

Meanwhile let us hope that the caretakers of the Shroud of Turin and the priests at the temples of Thanjavur do not come across this blog and start demanding similar displays of faith and devotion from nearby American diplomatic missions.

***

P.S. Today’s (April 22, 2015) Sahara (New Delhi) brings the news that Sonia Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpeyi, and Narendra Modi have also offered chadors at the shrine. The chador sent by by the President of the Indian National Congress, as seen in the picture below, could be the grandest—it is definitely larger and more elaborate than that sent by the President of the United States. As always, the State Department chooses to economize where it shouldn’t. A chador being brought from Pakistan is reported to be a mile long. Now that is some sheet.

Sonia's chador

 

 

Our Ungenerous Little World of Urdu Studies

 

Our Ungenerous Little World of Urdu Studies

 

The final issue of The Annual of Urdu Studies came out last week. When I got my subscription copy I put it aside after glancing through the table of contents. There was nothing that demanded immediate reading. But some hours later came an anguished email from an old friend: ‘Did you see the lead article in the current AUS by Tehsin Firaqi? I’m not qualified to judge many of the details (as far as I can tell, Fran’s choices were mostly justifiable), but it is written with incredible, hurtful animus, not only against Fran but also against any “non-native” who might dare to intrude upon the study of Urdu. What do you make of it? Why is the little world of Urdu studies so ungenerous?’

I had to stop what I was doing and read the article. It is titled: ‘The English Translation of Ab-e Hayat: A Review Article.’ Its author, Dr. Tehsin Firaqi, is a senior Pakistani scholar. After a distinguished career at the University of the Punjab he is currently the Director of the Majlis-e Taraqqi-e Adab, Lahore, an institution preeminent in publishing carefully prepared editions of Urdu’s canonical literary texts. I soon discovered that my friend’s anguish was not misplaced. It was not an academic essay but a nasty hatchet job. The author’s vehemently aggressive tone shocked me, for having met him twice and read a few of his writings I had always considered him a reasonable person. Equally shocking was the fact of its publication in the final issue of a cherished journal, thirteen years after the book came out. My friend was right: the article was a shrill tirade exclusively directed against Prof. Frances Pritchett, the principal author of the book under discussion, even though she had done both the editing and translation in association with Mr. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. And why does Firaqi so privilege her? Because she happens to be a ‘non-native.’

Firaqi begins with a bald statement: ‘Though the translation was made and edited “in association with Shamsur Rahman Faruqi,” a distinguished Urdu critic, I tend to think that he played only a minor role in the enterprise….”[1] He then states his intention to substantiate that claim with examples that follow. However, he first gives two examples of what he considers to be perspicuous and superb translations, adding that similar passages are ‘liberally sprinkled’ throughout the book. He then makes another bald assertion: ‘These sections may indeed have benefited enormously from Faruqi’s extensive linguistic knowledge, his extraordinary translation skills, and his profound cultural insights. It is highly unlikely that Faruqi could in any way be responsible for some of the glaring errors found in other parts, where the translation lapses into sheer travesty and seriously damages its literary value.’

Now if that were indeed the case, and if that is all that bothers Firaqi, he should at least lay a charge of negligence, deliberate or otherwise, against Faruqi, the man with ‘extraordinary translation skill.’ Apparently, some days, he just didn’t do his job and let Pritchett get away with ‘travesty.’ Firaqi does not offer any explanation why an arguably reasonable person like Faruqi would be so callously irresponsible. He is more eager to make a third claim. ‘Pritchett cannot be expected,’ Firaqi declares, ‘to fully comprehend the cultural context of Urdu in a wider semantic perspective and to properly evaluate the linguistic complexities and stylistic innovations native to it. As a result, some specific Urdu cultural devices, linguistic niceties and idiomatic turns of phrase seem to evade her. Her reach is necessarily limited, while the arcane civilization of the Subcontinent and the essence of its poetic language are too lofty to be fully grasped by a non-native.’

In other words: every success goes to the credit of the ‘native,’ but all failures accrue to the ‘non-.’
Continue reading “Our Ungenerous Little World of Urdu Studies”

Two Verses of Ghalib

 

 

Two Verses of Ghalib

(for Fran Pritchett)

There is a Persian couplet by Ghalib that has long fascinated me. It is quite unusual, even for Ghalib, for it employs a theme that to my belief was never so clearly expressed by any other South Asian poet be it in Persian or in Urdu.

با من میاویز اے پدر فرزند آذر را نگر
هر کس که شد صاحب نظر دين بزرگاں خوش نكرد

The two lines may roughly be translated as follows:

Do not quarrel with me, father; look, instead, at Ázar’s son—

He who gains a discerning eye never favors ancestral ways.

Ghalib is, of course, alluding here to Ibrahim/Abraham, Prophet or Patriarch, whose father, according to the Qur’an, was named Ázar. He was, we are further told, the high priest to an idolatrous king, and wished to raise his son in the same faith. The boy Ibrahim, however, refused, since he had gained a radically different certitude—as much through his own deductive powers as through God’s guidance. This is how the Qur’an (6:74–79) tells the story:[1]

“(74) Lo! Abraham said to his father Azar: ‘Takest thou idols for gods? For I see thee and thy people in manifest error.’ (75) So also did We show Abraham the power and the laws of the heavens and the earth, that he might (with understanding) have certitude. (76) When the night covered him over, he saw a star; he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he said: ‘I love not those that set.’ (77) When he saw the moon rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when the moon set, he said: ‘Unless my lord guide me, I shall surely be among those who go astray.’ (78) When he saw the sun rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord; this is the greatest (of all).’ But when the sun set, he said: ‘O my people! I am indeed free from your (guilt) of giving partners to God. (79) For me, I have set my face, firmly and truly, towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to God.’”

On another occasion, the young Ibrahim secretly broke all the idols in the temple except the biggest. When accused of vandalism the next day he confounded the accusers by retorting that they should instead ask the big idol since they considered it god.

It is this questioning, independently thinking, iconoclastic Ibrahim that Ghalib celebrates in that verse—an Ibrahim who put his faith in a unique and transcendent God but only after fully employing his God-given intellect.

This young Ibrahim, as we also know, is very different from the older prophet and patriarch of the Bible and the Qur’an. The patriarch readily abandons a wife and a son in a wilderness to please another wife, and only a miraculous intervention by God saves the two. Another time, the same patriarch hastens to sacrifice his son on account of a dream that reminds him of a reckless and uncalled for promise he had made long ago. Once again, God has to directly intervene to avert the calamity. In other words, the patriarch Ibrahim/Abraham unquestioningly submits to what he only too readily takes to be God’s wish, and fails to employ the questioning intellect he had used as a boy. And that habit of unquestioning submission seems to be his believing sons habit too.
Continue reading “Two Verses of Ghalib”

A Must See Film: The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall

It was sheer chance that I watched Rowan Joffe’s powerful film, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall, at home the same night when Oscars were being awarded. In fact, my watching it was also by chance, since I knew nothing about it. I had seen it listed in the Netflix catalog, and since the director’s surname seemed familiar had sent for it. Only later did I discover that I had confused the son with the father. Roland Joffe is the maker of such acclaimed films as The Killing Fields and The Mission. Rowan Joffe is his son, and a filmmaker in his own right. The two apparently share the same concern and passion for justice.

Thomas Hurndall was a young British photographer and activist who was volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement in occupied Palestine in 2003. On April 11, 2003, he was shot in the head in Gaza by an Israeli army sniper from one of the army watchtowers. Left in a coma, Hurndall eventually died in January 2004. He was barely 23. The man who killed him was 20.

The film (available on the internet) is as much about Hurndall and his family as about the trained sniper, Sgt. Taysir Hayb, who happened to be an Arab Beduin, . Most emphatically it is about the ordeal the two families underwent at the hands of the callously ruthless state of Israel and its army. Hurndall’s story did not make any headline in the United States, where even the story of its own Rachel Corrie—a tragedy of a similar nature—has not received any artistic tribute. But both Corrie and Hurndall received due attention in U.K, and in the latter’s case also some strong responses from its political establishment, the like of which was scant here in the United States concerning Corrie. Of course the most disgraceful example of the pusillanimous attitude of those who most whoop up ‘Triumphant America’ in the United States concerns the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in which 34 American sailors were killed in the line of duty. Hollywood is yet to spend a penny or a moment on that dastardly incident. Its shame lies not in ignoring the plight of the Palestinian victims of Israeli occupation but in its utter neglect of even its American victims. Again,  BBC has an hour-long film, “Death in the Water,” about it on the Internet.

Incidentally, this year’s Oscars race featured two ‘Triumphant America’ films. One of them got the top prize. Israel had two finalists in the Documentary category. Both were denied the honor of an award. The great Israeli journalist Uri Avnery explains why in his admirable way.

“Be crazy with God. . . .”

C. M. Naim

 

Be Crazy with God . . .

 

 

            Bā Khudā Dīwāna Bāsh o Bā Muhammad Hoshiyār

            Be crazy with God, and be careful with Muhammad

 

I have long known this Persian hemistich. Recently, while thinking about this essay, I discovered it had variants, with Mustafā (lit. Chosen; an epithet of the Prophet) or Payambar (Prophet) instead of Muhammad. In one form or another, the saying is several centuries old, perhaps a millennium. The earliest reference two kind Iranian scholars provided goes back to the book Tamhīdāt by ‘Ainul Quzat Hamadani, one of the martyrs of Sufism who was executed at Baghdad in 1132 and whose writings, according to the late Prof. Annemarie Schimmel, were very popular with the Chishti sufis of India. I have, however, no knowledge of the origins of this binary. The hemistich I have known most likely originated as a piece of prose, and only later someone altered into a line of verse. Was there ever a companion line? I don’t know. Only this one line was what I infrequently heard as I was growing up.

 

Most likely it was our Uncle Fareed who brought it up. He was the most well-read among the male elders in our extended family; he also had a gift of gab. I loved his visits and his winding comments on whatever took his fancy that day. He was wont to quote the above verse whenever the subject of the Ahmadis came up in his digressions. “Bā Muhammad Hoshiyār,” he would reiterate, underscoring his displeasure at the Ahmadi belief that there were several kinds of “prophets,” including the lesser kind that could come to mankind even after Muhammad, “the Final Prophet.”

 

Frequently I also came across the verse in books or articles relating the aftermath of the Khilafat Movement. Many would mention the notorious book Rangīlā Rasūl (The Libertine Prophet) and the assassination of its publisher Rajpal at the hands of a Muslim who couldn’t bear any insult to someone he so revered. The authors would quote the line as an admonition to remember: “Be careful with Muhammad.”

 

Needless to say, the verse made an appearance again in the months after Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, hit the news. It was repeatedly quoted in Urdu columns and editorials that condemned the author and the book and supported the edict issued by Imam Khomeini. It made an appearance in English too. Shabbir Akhtar used its second half for the title of his book on the scandal, calling it Be Careful with Muhammed (1989).

 

What never came up in those writings or in Uncle Fareed’s digressions was the fact that the emphatic admonition in the second half, “Be careful with Muhammad,” was preceded by an equally forceful command: “Be crazy with God.” In fact, the two statements shared a single imperative: bāsh (Be!). You might say, one balanced the other, having—as a cultural imperative—one and the same force.

 

*

The idea of “being crazy with God” has been around for a long time, particularly among Sufis and poets in Muslims lands. South Asia is no exception. Here is an example of such “craziness” as narrated—admiringly—by the poet Mir Muhammad Taqi “Mir” (d. 1810) in his autobiography, Zikr-e Mīr:

 

[Once there was a severe drought in Moses’ time.] When people began to die, they came to him and said, “Moses, please tell God that it has not rained and that no creature alive can bear such extreme hardship.” … Moses went up Mt. Sinai and made the petition. The divine response was: “There is a destitute man of confused speech lying in the ashes at a certain bath—his crazy words used to give me much pleasure. But for some days now he has not raised his head skyward and uttered those words. The coming down of rains depends on his loosening his tongue again.”

 

Moses immediately hurried to the bath, where he found the man—that Bearer of Love’s Burden—lying in the ashes, wrapped in a dark blanket. … When their eyes met, the man asked, “What brings you, Moses, to this dunghill?” … “There has been no rain,” Moses replied, “And no prayer seems to have any effect. All life is threatened. When I petitioned God, I was told that it was your falling silent that had caused the drought. Now winds wouldn’t bring clouds, nor would clouds shed any rain, until you speak again in the manner you did before.” . . . The man replied, “Moses, you don’t know that trickster. You have not given him your heart the way I have. … His smallest gesture can totally confuse you. I never let him lead me down that path. On the other hand, I now risk becoming an infidel if I do not obey his prophet. For it is said: ‘Be crazy with God, but be careful with a prophet.’”

 

Then that Prisoner of Absolute Love … turned his face heavenward, and spoke in his special manner: “O Embodiment of deceit! O Enemy of my heart’s peace! Till yesterday, the clouds, winds, and rain obeyed your command—now suddenly they have become my slaves? And it is I now who orders the clouds to gather, and the rain to fall? But then, you are always right, aren’t you? … Come, come—stop your tricks. Take pity on your creatures.” He continued in that manner only a few moments when suddenly a strong wind brought piles of dark clouds, and a torrential rain started.

 

Another, more well-known story of that nature comes from Rumi (d. 1273), several centuries before Mir, in his great Mathnawi. It too involves Moses, the first lawgiver in the Abrahamic tradition of religions. Here is an abbreviated version:

 

Once, in his wanderings, Moses came upon a shepherd, and heard him saying: “Where are you God? I cry to be your servant so that I may mend your shoes and comb your hair. So that I may clean your clothes, rid them of lice, and bring you a bowl of milk to drink. So that I may press your tired feet when you lie down to rest, and look after you if you ever fall ill. If I only knew where you reside I would bring you milk and butter mornings and evenings, together with some cheese and bread.” …

 

Hearing these words, Moses was horrified. “What blasphemy!” he thundered, “Is it any way to address God? Stuff your mouth with cotton. You think you are talking to one of your uncles? God is beyond any need, and no place or corporeal body bounds him. Do you realize your blasphemy could have enraged him? A woman might be pleased if you called her ‘Fatima,’ but address a man in that manner and you might get stabbed.”

 

The shepherd was devastated. “Moses,” he cried out, “you have sewed up my erring mouth. I now burn in shame.” Then, tearing off his clothes, he fled into the wilderness.

 

Immediately a revelation came to Moses: “Why did you separate my servant from me? I sent you to bring my creatures closer to me, not to distance them further. Do not create distances. I gave each creature its own nature, and its own way to communicate. What sounded evil to your ears was praiseworthy coming from his lips. You thought it was poison, but to me it was the sweetest honey.”

 

So what do the two stories teach? For one, they direct one’s attention to a God who created all creatures great and small, and whose favors were not exclusive to any particular cohort of human beings. But much more importantly, they instruct us to appreciate the mystery—the mystery of profound paradoxes, even contradictions—that perforce must surround any human conception of God. Remove that mystery, and there would not be ample scope for the incalculably diverse humanity to find its place and express its diversity in any scheme of things involving God. And if in the process of discovering his or her place the greater scheme of things, an individual human being appears to be imprudent—nay, impudent—vis-à-vis God, so be it.

 

Consider the story narrated about Rabi’ah of Basra (d.801), the first and foremost woman Sufi, who was one day seen in the streets carrying a burning brand in one hand and a jug of water in the other. When asked what she was up to, she replied, “I shall set fire to the delights of Paradise and pour water on the fires of Hell, so that human beings may love God for his sake, and not out of fear or greed.” More than a thousand years later, Ghalib (d. 1869) repeated the same sentiment to improve God’s scheme of things as found in the prevalent faith:

 

Tā’at meñ tā rahe na May-o-Angbīñ kī Lāg

Dozakh meñ le ke āl do ko’ī Bihisht ko

Will someone please throw Paradise into Hell?

Obedience shouldn’t be for wine and honey.

 

He also boldly corrected us about the meaning of Faith:

wafādārī ba-shart-i ustawārī asl-i īmāñ hai

mare butkhāne meñ to ka’be meñ gāo birahman ko

Consistent fidelity is the core of Faith, and so

If a Brahmin breathes his last in a temple, bury him at Ka’ba.

 

Altaf Husain Hali (d. 1914) lovingly tells a delightful anecdote concerning Ghalib. “One night the Mirza was lying on his cot in the open, looking up at a sky full of stars. Noticing their apparent disarray, he remarked, “Anything done willfully (khudrā’ī se) is often ungainly. Just look at the stars. They are scattered haphazardly. There is no design or pattern. But who can object? The King is His own Authority (khudmukhtār).” A century or more later, Jaun Eliya (d. 2002) echoed the same, but more bitterly:

 

Haasil-i-Kun hai ye Jahān-i-Kharāb

            Yahī mumkin thā itnī ‘Ujlat meñ

You said “Be!” and the Wasteworld appeared.

What else could such haste produce?

 

It is little recognized but among all Urdu poets, Iqbal (d. 1938) was the perhaps the most avid practitioner of the “Be crazy with God” sentiment. Apart from his famous “Shikwa” (Complaint)—it brought him severe denunciations when it was first published in 1909; available in a fine translation by Khushwant Singh (Oxford, 1981)—Iqbal has many other remarkable poems where he seemingly takes liberties with God, and acts, in his own words, like an “impudent slave” (banda-i-gustākh). Consider the many poems in which Satan appears as the major protagonist. The most elegant and eloquent of these is titled, “Gabriel and Satan” (Jibrīl-o-Iblīs), in which Satan, cast out from the heavens, still claims superiority over angels. Iqbal’s Satan makes the claim by declaring that it was his blood that added color to Adam’s otherwise monochromatic tale, and that it was he who set in motion the chain of events we now call History. Satan concludes by declaring that he continues to prick in God’s side like a thorn, while Gabriel and other angels do nothing except endlessly repeat: “He is God. God is He.”

 

Maiñ khaaktā huñ dil-i-Yazdāñ meñ Kāñe kī tarah

Tū faqat Allāh Hū, Allāh Hū, Allāh Hū

 

In another Urdu poem titled “The Mullah and the Paradise” (Mullā aur Bihisht), Iqbal opens, “I was there and couldn’t restrain myself // when God ordered the Mullah to Paradise;” he then goes on to point out how Paradise could not possibly suit the Mullah, for it was a place free of conflict and argumentation while the Mullah relished only discord and strife. The poem does not tell us God’s final decision, but we can guess what Iqbal had in mind. Then there is a short Persian poem, conceived as an exchange between God and Man, which lays out in no uncertain terms the almost coequal creative role Iqbal conceives Man to play in God’s world. He also gives Man the last word.

God

I made the world from one dust and water;

You turned it into endless separate nations.

I gave dirt the strength of the purest steel;

You forged it into swords, guns, and spears.

You took your axe to the tree in the garden,

And constructed a cage for the singing bird.

 

Man

You created night; I made the lamp.

You created clay, but I the bowl.

You made deserts, mountains, and wild spaces;

I filled them with gardens, orchards, and parks.

It was I, who ground rocks into mirrors,

And converted poisons into sweet elixirs.

 

Perhaps the most audacious of Iqbal’s poems of that nature is a three-poem sequence, in which Vladimir Ilyich Lenin arrives, posthumously, before God. After briefly acknowledging the error of his disbelief while still alive and the truth of what he was finally faced with, Lenin asks God a question that had always bothered him on earth:[1]

 

Oh, of what mortal race art Thou the God?

Those creatures formed of dust beneath these heavens?

 

He then explains his dilemma:

 

Europe’s pale cheeks are Asia’s pantheon,

And Europe’s pantheon her glittering metals.

In high-reared grace, in glory and grandeur,

The towering Bank out-tops the cathedral roof.

What they call commerce is a game of dice:

For one, profit, for millions swooping death.

 

After more in the same vein, Lenin concludes:

Omnipotent, righteous, Thou; but bitter the hours,

Bitter the labourer’s chained hours in Thy world!

When shall this galley of gold’s dominion founder?

Thy world Thy day of wrath, Lord, stands and waits.

 

Apparently God had not been aware of all that had happened to His creation. But the angels had been, for they immediately sing out, unasked, and basically confirm Lenin’s observations. At which, God commands them into action:

 

Rise, and from their slumber wake the poor ones of My world!

Shake the walls and windows of the mansions of the great!

Kindle with the fire of faith the slow blood of the slaves!

Make the fearful sparrow bold to meet the falcon’s hate!

Find the field whose harvest is no peasant’s daily bread—

Garner in the furnace every ripening ear of wheat.

Banish from the house of God the mumbling priest whose prayers

Like a veil creation from Creator separate!

 

God concludes by describing the new world as a place of deceptions (kārgah-i-shīsha-garāñ, lit. a glassmakers’ workshop), for which the angels must prepare the Eastern poet—they must teach him the “Protocols of Madness” (ādāb-i-junūñ).

 

These poems by Iqbal are now seldom included in prescribed textbooks. Nor do his votaries among the Urdu journalists of Pakistan and India quote from these poems in their columns, not even when they enshrine Iqbal as “the Poet of the East.” To my mind, these poems are now anathema not so much because they mention Lenin or Satan but because they assert that one could imagine a relationship with God that could be playful, soulful, or just plain confused—as long as it led to an ethical realization of the individual self vis-à-vis God and the Society.

 

A strange time has now come not only upon Iqbal’s poetry but also on “Allah,” who is now contested over the way brand names are disputed by business corporations. Not too long ago, some Muslims in Malaysia claimed an exclusive right over “Allah,” and would not allow their Christian compatriots to use the word in their religious texts—even though the name predates Islam, and has long been used by Arabic-speaking Christians. Other Muslims in South Asia have demanded that the Almighty must be invoked by one name alone: “Allah.” They consider it un-Islamic for any Muslim to place a loved-one in God’s protection by bidding him or her, “Khudā Hāfiz.” For them, only “Allah Hāfiz” would do. (We don’t know what they might say to “Rahmān Hāfiz.”) Some, one hears, denounce the use of the expression Allah Miyān by Urdu-speaking women and children, though the habit of adding Miyān—lit. Master, but also a term of endearment—developed over a few centuries only out of a sincere desire to use the “polite” verbal forms of Urdu with reference to God. According to these champions of God’s singularity, even grammatically required linguistic plurality can amount to blasphemy. To them, Allah dekhtā hai (Allah sees) is Islamic, but Allah Miyāñ dekhte haiñ a grave sin.  And then there are those votaries of “Allah” who cannot even wait for Him to act in His wisdom, who have usurped to themselves all powers to judge and punish, and whose ruthless self-righteousness brings horrific death to so many so frequently.

 

In this din it may be hard to remember that not too long ago Allah had 99 names, and of them only two invoked fear. The rest reminded humankind of its own better aspirations, such as Mercy, Justice, Generosity, and Kindness. In that time, it was also possible for many to follow the old dictum in its fullest sense: be “careful” with the Prophet, and be, or at least let others be, “crazy” with God—to engage with Him in all His mystery—each in his or her separate, though ultimately meager, way. Even so, human imagination could soar and cast its net over God, ignoring angels as unworthy prey.

 

dar dasht-i-junūn-i-man jibrīil zubūñ saide

            yazdāñ ba-kamand āwur ai himmat-i-mardāna

            In my crazy realm Gabriel is not worth the bother.

Rise, Manly ambition; cast your net on God.             (Iqbal)

 

Iqbal. Ghalib. Rumi. Are we not the richer for their managing to soar so high? Should we not make sure that others are able to do the same?

 

(December 21, 2012)

Published in Outlookindia.com


[1] All excerpts from this particular series of poems are from V. G. Kiernan’s, Poems from Iqbal (Oxford, 1999), pp. 114–121. Kiernan, sadly, left out the “Angels’ Song.”