Saturday, July 28, 2007

In the Grip of an Insane Obsession


Maryam Sakeenah

Modernist movements like the one for gay and lesbian rights or for the banning of capital punishment reflect the culmination of modern humanist psychology in the West. All of these and the like are based on the belief that abnormal or criminal behaviour is rooted in deep-seated causes based on human experiences and hence can be understood sympathetically. This removes all basis for punishment or condemnation of anti-social behaviour.
Islam differs_ not in the understanding of human behaviour, but in the dealing with aberrations and the conclusions to be drawn. Based upon a dynamic belief in the Hereafter where the Maker Who understands will forgive and punish, it leaves the final judgement to the absolute, unfailing Divine court. However, Islam is not an other-worldly philosophy. It is about Right Here and Right Now; about creating an egalitarian, just social order upholding the Rule of law. As a social imperative, for the public good and asserting the supremacy of the law, Islam believes in the censure and punishment for a crime that sneaks out of its dark hole to corrupt the society.
The Western view of sympathetic psychological understanding has, to their own claim, made the West a tolerant, all-inclusive, free and open society. These are the secular values it prides itself in and stands for. However, on a deeper scrutiny, one begins to see Western society’s inability to universalize or indiscriminately apply these same values. It miserably failed to include the black-skinned races in the human family it recognised. The Indians, slaves, ‘niggers’ have suffered this exclusion. Over time, the West has grown out of its bias of skin and race to a great extent. But the deep-rooted inability to extend its upheld values to humanity as a whole, remains. The exclusion now has become belief-based. Whoever believes differently or has a Way different from the Western Way is second-rate, ‘naturalized’.
Islam provides a viable, veritable alternative system of life radically different from the secular system in more than one way. For one, Islam’s values, as history too would testify, have always been universally egalitarian in their application. It has had no issues with binding together into one family the slave and the master, the Arab and the Persian, the white and the black, the rich and the poor and even the Muslim and the non-Muslim in principle at least. This because Islam seeks its essence from the belief in the One Supreme Creator, the Sovereign over all, before Whom all stand equal. Secularism fails to do so as the Sublime Creator is absent from the picture who Fathers all creation, American or non-American. Secularism, based as it is on temporal values, cannot pretend to the universality of absolute values. It makes man-made ideology the supreme fountainhead of values and identity, and hence non-subscribers to the ideology cannot but be disowned, outdistanced, treated with suspicion.
The paranoia gripping the West about the ‘terrorism’ myth becomes understandable here. Without the intention to condone any acts of terror, it is important to reach into the causes from which the phenomenon stems. When the tree bears bad fruit, look to the roots. No great wisdom or sympathy is required in thinking thus. After all, why would a lad in the prime of his life blow himself and others up? The psyche is created out of the injustice, the hurt, the repression that maddens. Stripped of self-worth, he is ready to throw away his worthless life to achieve deliverance in dying; to state his defiance by refusing to live a life of muted misery. As Arundhati Roy puts it, “A terrorist is a victim who refuses to be a victim.”
In an episode of the ‘Witness’ series on Al Jazeera, the survivor in a bombing raid in Palestine that destroyed eighteen members of a single family was interviewed. The dead included a three month old baby, several minors, mothers and grandparents. As he wept uncontrollably over the corpses, he wailed out loud in the camera: “They say they are sorry. Sorry for eighteen people I loved, sorry for the babies and the children… what sorry? What does it mean? They want me to forget it all. These people I knew, I swear I will never forget them, never never forget how they died. And I will live to avenge their deaths. Forget them? No way!”
In his article ‘The West Has Bloodied Hands’, Eric Margolis writes, “What an irony it is to see U.S forces behaving with punitive ferocity_ bombing rebellious cities, arresting thousands, terrorizing innocent civilians, torturing captives and sending in tanks to crush resistance…our hands are very far from being clean.”
What is worrying, however, is the West’s refusal to look within, to soul search_what with all the modern psychology emphasizing the causes than effects, the working of the mind than the resultant obnoxious behaviour. The criminal, the animal, the homosexual… all have their share of sympathy. Why then is the ‘terrorist’ kept put, excluded, not understood?
The answer is in they myth of ‘the other’ which is perhaps part and parcel of the secular system and the ‘isms’ that stem from it. It is only in a system which has its fountainhead in the Divine, which makes it a part of faith to believe in the ‘human family’ where all are the humble creatures of a single Creator. Having dispensed with God bag and baggage, at least as far as the socio-political sphere is concerned, the vacuum is hard to fill as there is no perfect substitute in Secularism. Its utilitarian essence dictates that human values are to be used as long as they contribute to the greater public good. Morality is relative, not universal. Americans must be good citizens for each other to make America great, not because goodness is worthwhile for a higher, selfless end. So when good is not immediately and visibly useful, it is expedient to not be good.
Secularism and utilitarianism has an ‘elastic limit.’ They cannot but leave out space for the ‘other’_ the non-utility, the unfamiliar, the ‘Ishmaelite’, the un Western. The bearded and turbaned deserves no sympathy or understanding whatsoever because he does not live and love the Western Way. He is ‘the other’, whom Secularism has outlawed and cast aside. ‘The terrorists hate us’, says Bush, ‘for our way of life.’ The U.S hates the ‘terrorist’ for his rejection of a fickle, hypocritical, utilitarian, discriminative and unfair system that the West has adopted. The ‘terrorists’ are hated because they can see through into the bare bones of the system.
At this point, all psychological sympathy and understanding of anomalous behaviour breaks down. ‘The other’ is alienated as undeserving of the values meant for the adherents and loyalists of the West’s Ways. The elastic limit is reached. Secularism cannot pretend to universality.
That is why, so many times over, we get to hear of how many a handful were killed by suicide bombers, Al Qaeda or Taliban, but hardly ever do we get to hear of the hundreds of thousands of impoverished Muslim refugees killed by remote-controlled Western technology. That is also why, at home, we heard of the stick-wielding black veiled ladies chasing a couple of policemen and not the girl students beaten up and disgraced by the latter which had provoked the reaction; we heard of ‘black veils’ standing guard in the ‘heart of Islamabad’ and not about the eight mosques demolished and the sepulchral hush it was carried out in. We heard of black veiled vigilantes raiding a brothel house and taking hostage the head pimp ‘Aunty Shamim’ , and not the filth the same had spewed out since years and the complaints from the locals that had fallen on deaf ears.
It is a diabolical, ridiculously one-eyed view confining human rights to those who think and behave like a particular, select secular brand. M.A Niazi satirizes with characteristic wit: “They are violating the fundamental rights of all brothel owners, brothel professionals and brothel consumers in Islamabad. We must defend to the last drop of our blood, against vigilantes and burqa clad bamboo wielders, the fundamental rights of access to brothels, alcoholic beverages and filthy pictures. This is an Islamic Republic after all.”
It rattles one’s brain to see those who make such a big deal of their commitment to human rights, failing to see human beings in three dimensions; failing to see the elusive ‘terrorist’ as in actuality a victim refusing victimization; failing to see, (if this victim is bearded or veiled), beyond the labels that classify them as ‘the other’ which their narrow psyche cannot include.
An irony. Amal Shakeb writes, “I have met women who observe full purdah. Some of them are imparting and acquiring religious education and during my acquaintance with them, behind their veils I have seen the most kind faces and softest voices ever. All they preach is goodness and wisdom. That is where I found the beauty of Islam lies.”
‘Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.’ We cannot bear that beauty, so ugly have we become. We take the one-eyed view, the lopsided perspective. This is the onslaught of the Anti-Christ, the One-Eyed. This is the Insanity in whose relentless Grip we are held. This is the distorted vision, the twisted view; the thick-skinned self-centredness, the mass stupidity, the stone-hard insensitivity, the loathsome self-obsession and the inability to step in another’s shoes, especially when the other looks or believes differently.
A retired U.S diplomat who served his government for a couple of decades in North African and Middle Eastern countries now educates Americans about the larger, broader, fairer world-view. He said, “If we could only put on the glasses of an average refugee in Iraq or in Palestine and look at the world, a lot of what is going on which we don’t understand will begin to make sense.” The retired diplomat had the privilege of firsthand, direct experience.
The greatest paradox of the age, perhaps, is how in this ‘global village’, it has become so utterly impossible to understand the ‘other’; to set aside for a while our zombie-glasses and look beyond the suffocating trappings of skin and name.

“And mankind is but one nation. But they disagree.” (The Quran)

Maryam Jameelah


Maryam Sakeenah

“You have to read these”, my friend compelled me, giving me a couple of yellowed, printed-long-ago sort of books. That gave me my first glimpse into the fascinating life and inspiring works of Maryam Jameelah.
Born as Margaret Marcus into an American Jewish family who cared little for religion and were active believers in the American Way, it was amazing how that little girl refused to fit into that life and culture and found solace in Oriental tradition. Young Maggie Marcus’s fascination with Oriental cultures led her to meet many New York Arabs and Muslims, from where she was introduced to Islam. At a relatively young age, Maryam began to study and to read up on Islam and Muslim culture. She found in Islam what the West lacked and never could give her. She was convinced of its truth. From then on, there was no going back. After her reversion to Islam in 1961, it became clear to her that New York couldn’t be her home any more. The odds and discomforts were too many. Soon after, Maryam began regularly corresponding with Muslim leaders and scholars throughout the world including Maulana Maudoodi, in whose ideas she found a close kinship. At his invitation, Maryam shortly moved to Pakistan and settled in Lahore. Here, she lives with her husband, four children and the extended family members, spending her days reading and writing regularly on a wide range of issues and subjects related to Islam and the West, and the resurgence of Islam.
Maulana Maudoodi had once called Maryam Jameelah ‘a tropical sapling planted in the Arctic.’ Reading through the details in the biographies my friend had lent me, there was so much that truly moved one. What inspired me was how a young mind, with no Islamic influence around, grew to develop such a seasoned vision of what is right and true, such courage to enable her to resist all the tempting glamour of Western life, and such an honest, sincere search that it rested only after having achieved that which alone fulfilled. Mash Allah!
After her arrival in Pakistan, Maryam had to grapple with a totally different lifestyle and cultural milieu. She reminisces of the linguistic barrier, the climate she was totally unsuited to, the large family structure and the hygiene conditions. It could hardly be called ‘home’ for a young New Yorker. However, this cultural ‘leap’ Maryam Jameelah had undertaken was in fact also a ‘leap of faith’, making her amazingly resilient.
Some of the most beautiful passages in Maryam Jameelah’s biography which taught me much were about how the young New York girl seeks out and appreciates the beauty in the simple ways of rural and lower middle class Eastern culture. For her, eating out of a common earthenware dish is beautiful for its warm sharing; walking barefoot on a dirt floor and making ablution out of a clay pot are the simple, natural pleasures of life, the rare delights of the unsophisticated simplicity_ uncorrupted by materialism and artifice_ that is essential to Islam. She warms up to the largesse, generosity, hospitality of values engendered by Islam. The flies, the heat, the dirt, the discomfort and inconveniences fail to bring low the indomitable spirit. Surely, the eyes beholding so much beauty in something a Westernised mind would sneer at must be beautiful_ ‘wearing in the eyes the dust of Madina’, as Iqbal would have said.
Getting a fuller view of Maryam Jameelah, I ended up reading several of her works on Islam and the West, which were certainly deeply insightful, incisively critical_ the product of an analytical mind and a passionate heart.
It was around then that my friend called up, and in high pitched tones of excitement, told me of a rare discovery: she had actually traced Maryam Jameelah to her home! She had simply followed the publishers’ address given at the back of one of her books_ printed back in the 70s, and praying ardently that they hadn’t shifted since then, actually sought out the place!
Next Saturday evening we were both threading our way through the streets of Sant Nagar_ not to forget stopping at the florist’s on the way to get a bouquet of ‘Nargis’_ decidedly ‘Nargis’_ we had to be as ‘oriental’ as would suit the occasion.
On the way, observing the narrow, rugged and often dirty streets and the barefooted children playing around, I thought I could feel that beauty Maryam had sought in there too. This was so removed from the urbanized quarters_ an island within a monstrosity of ‘development.’
The car halted before an old house much like the ones around. We brightened up when a bright, cheerful and warm face appeared_ Moon Apa’s, who had facilitated the visit. She made us feel welcomed, rather, at home. I think I understood how Maryam Jameelah had so effortlessly managed to say ‘I belong.’ To my left, I saw a huge courtyard which immediately aroused the feeling of ‘dejavu’_ it clicked… I remembered the page from the biography… suddenly, the room filled up with gaily dressed women from the 70s laying out traditional sweetmeat dishes to welcome their guest from New York who had chosen to live among her companions in faith…
We said our Maghrib prayers in the drawing room where we were waiting adjacent to Maryam Apa’s room. Folding up the prayer mat, my heart thumping wildly, I couldn’t keep from looking into the room on the other side, at the head of silvery-white hair draped in a white dupatta’ (scarf), lowered on the prayer mat in sajdah. I felt the greatness, the blessdness of the moment filling up my veins. Some things are better left unsaid…
Most of what we heard Maryam Apa say, we had already read in her books. But to see it come alive in the full-throated voice which had in it the energy and vitality of her rich heart; to see that ‘undying flame’ of the unbeaten spirit in the ‘fine old eyes’, and the deep-seated gratitude and thankfulness for the life she has lived was an experience unsurpassable.
Since she settled in Lahore, Maryam Jameelah has been a prolific writer. Her work reflects a deep, incisive and analytical understanding of Western culture and civilization. Being an ‘insider’, and not having lived in a colonial, post- or neo-colonial set up, she digs deep into the very foundations of Western society and with a rare, refreshing vision and raw honesty, exposes it down to its bare bones. She feels intensely its spiritual bankruptcy and the toll materialism has taken on the life of the average American, reducing life to a struggle for material prosperity and comfort, no more. However, the deeper questions remain unanswered, unresolved, and the inner self unsatiated:
“It is this distressing evolutionary process that has today made America a slave of machines. The supremacy of the USA is accepted all over the world and its hand is seen in everything that happens anywhere. No country, Muslim or non-Mulsim, is altogether free from its control and domination. Today America has enslaved the world with its way of life but it has itself become the slave of machines. It is a prisoner of its lifestyle, of material progress, factories, laboratories and of fancy goods and gadgets. Man here has got so completely cast in the technological mould of life that his ideas and emotions have also become mechanical. The properties of rock and iron have entered into his soul. He has become narrow and selfish, cold and unfeeling. There is no warmth in his heart; no moisture in his eyes. This is the reality I have sadly observed during my stay in America.” (As quoted by Maryam Jameelah in ‘The Resurgence of Islam and Liberation from our Colonial Yoke).
It is this dissatisfaction and disappointment with the deceptive sheen of the West and all it could ever offer that makes Maryam Jameelah embark on a search for meaningful life true to the purpose we are sent with, in tune with the ebb and flow of nature, imbued with warmth and simplicity of the pure heart. She finds this fulfilment in Islam and Muslim culture, and this is where the seeker in her finds the anchor to hold on to. They say, ‘beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’. The vision that rejected the emptiness of Western culture with all its comforts and development finds and brings out the beauty of the ‘Mulsim’ Way of Life:
“The remedy for the problems of the modern world is the adoption of absolute transcendental values. The fallacy that everything must change with changing times makes life devoid of meaning and purpose since there is nothing of permanent worth. It is responsible for our ‘throw-away’ culture which considers everything disposable. The relativity of values is responsible for the unprecedented epidemic of vulgarity and obscenity in the mass media, of arts and entertainments, the generation gap, widespread alcohol and drug addiction and suicide as a leading cause of death. If everything must change with the changing times, human dignity and the nobility of character are almost impossible to achieve since these are based upon permanence and stability in the moral order.”
“Modern man desperately needs a Supreme Authority for reference to distinguish between what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, what is beautiful and what is ugly. This does not mean totalitarian dictatorship but the Rule of Law in the highest sense. Only the Divine Law of the Shariah is impartial and just; where ruler and ruled, rich and poor, young and old, celebrities and ordinary anonymous folk are equally subjected to its jurisdiction… the authority of the Shariah proceeds from Almighty Allah. Thus it is feared, esteemed, loved and obeyed simultaneously. It combines the internal sanctions of fear of Allah and His retribution in the Hereafter with severe but just punishments for violation of that law on which the health of the individual and society depend.”
“The call of Islam to modern man is the call to stability and inward peace. A society based on the precepts of fear and reverence for the Divine Law will not be troubled with crime, violence and lawlessness.”…
“Individually, Islam would bring a direction, meaning and purpose to life which materialistic cultures cannot provide; an inward serenity and peace even in the midst of external frustrations and adversity… the ugliness of our environment would be supplanted by beauty…” (Islam and Modern Man)
Again, being originally an outsider, she does not take the ways of Islam dully as a habit but delights in its refreshing differentiation from the Western artifice she has known and come to detest. Observing the contrast directly, closely and first hand, Maryam Jameelah’s later works show a seasoned understanding of the inner dynamics that make the West what it is and the influences_ direct and indirect_ it exercises on what it calls the ‘developing’ predominantly Muslim world. She studies and presents an analysis of Western philosophy and traces its evolution till the point where a secular, capitalist-materialist milieu was realized. She analyzes the motives and methods of Western imperialism, colonial rule and the state of perpetual neo-colonialism the Muslim world labours under. She is bitterly critical of modernist Muslims who believe that in the Westernization and ‘modernization’ of Islam lies its hope for viability:
“The earliest modernizers in the Muslim world were dismayed by the contrast between the material backwardness of the Muslims and the dazzling energy and concrete accomplishments of Europe. They thought that if only the Muslims could imbibe modern knowledge through modern education, their people would become just as strong, progressive and prosperous. Some, like Jamaluddin Afghani and Shaikh Muhammad Abduh sincerely believed that this was the proper road to Islamic revival in its call to modern man. The leaders of the Muslim countries accepted this advice without question. More than a century has passed since then but although all Muslim countries have adopted the Western s7stem as their own, they remain poor, weak, backward… Yet the Orientalists and the modernizers insist that the Muslims are weak because they are not Westernized thoroughly enough and prescribe another dose of the same harmful diet. Those who merely imitate and not create, those who are always passive receptors instead of active givers are defeated in the inevitable course of events because their initial position is one of failure. The call of Islam to modern man can succeed only if it proceeds from a position of strength, independence and self-confidence.”
“Why is Westernization so attractive to the Muslims as it is for everyone else? It is irresistible because it is easy. Contemporary civilization is based upon self-indulgence while that of Islam requires sacrifice, altruism, discipline, self-control and endurance which are difficult. But self-indulgence leads to decadence and decline while the opposite qualities, which Islam demands, lead to superior strength, unity and virtue. If practiced in its right spirit, Islam leads to social integration. Self-indulgent materialism leads to social disintegration an ultimately collective suicide…”
The times in which Maryam Jameelah’s writing is placed, the 1960s to 80s were when the groundwork for what we see now in the world was being laid out. Her analysis and observations therefore, help one understand the roots and implications of contemporary socio-political issues. Her work bears striking relevance to current-day dilemmas and issues_ certainly the vision of an eye gifted with foresight.
Although placed in times when the Muslim world was ravaged by modernist post-Kemalist reform movements like President Nasser’s in Egypt, Muhammad Abduh, Jamal Afghani, Shariati and others, Maryam Jameelah’s work is set apart, shunning all such influences, safely cocooned in her firm fidelity to the fundamental sources of Islam and her sensitive appreciation of Islamic tradition. She stands for it, and passionately defends this ignored treasure, showing it to the world in its unclouded, natural splendour. She believes in the eternal dynamism of Islamic tradition, its eternal relevance and utility as a means to establish a viable egalitarian, peaceful, just and welfare-oriented society in the present day, modelled on the first Muslim community in Madina. She pleads her case convincingly, passionately and irrefutably:
“It is often asserted by orientalists that the values and ideals of traditional Islamic civilization have no relevance, even for Muslims today because, like all non-European cultures, it was the product of an antiquated tradition of the pre-scientific age. They assert that only secularity is relevant to modernity, to change, to continual technological innovations, and their social consequences. Since the genuine Muslim is a traditional man, he can therefore have nothing of relevance to contribute to the daily life of the modern man. But despite the drastic environmental transformation brought about by modern technology, the basic human drives and needs remain unchanged. Therefore modern man is just as thirsty for the spiritual sustenance which alone gives life its meaning, direction and purpose as was his ancestors, even if he is not consciously aware of it.
It is the purpose of those who call modern man to Islam to awaken him to the urgent intensity of these needs, not only for the individual but for the whole of human society. Unfortunately, there remains another great obstacle in the path of a modern appreciation of Islam. Islamic civilization was not only remote from modernity in the technological sense; it seems even more remote from the modern mind in its moral ideals, which cannot be appreciated by the secular man or even regarded by him as desirable. The spiritual ideals of Islam can be understood only by truly God-fearing people, who yearn for God’s mercy and salvation in the Hereafter.
Those who wish to call modern man to Islam must make him understand and appreciate such virtue which is utterly foreign and incomprehensible to the materialist. By an effective presentation of the profound richness of Islamic culture as an historical actuality in the life of the Muslims until the recent past, he must make the modern man appalled by the spiritual poverty in which he must live and long for a better life not limited to this world.” (Islam and Modern Man)
In the context of the contemporary dilemmas of achieving ‘liberation’, ‘pluralism’, ‘moderation’ outside of Islam and moulding Muslim societies to toe the Western line and achieve the Western ideal of Secularism, Maryam Jameelah’s works have perhaps a relevance more than ever before. While Muslims debate which ‘brand’ of Islam be adopted to appease the imperious demands of the West; while we concoct the smothering labels of ‘extremist’, ‘secular’, ‘modernist’, ,moderate’, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ and seek an identity alien to our real, true essence, we need to rediscover the beauty and superiority of the pristine ‘Muslim’ way as lived by the Prophet (S) of Islam and the earliest generation; we need to take pride in that great tradition that is ours. Maryam Jameelah, in throwing overboard the Western way she was born into and wholeheartedly taking up and living by the Islamic ethos with pride and passion, has a lot to teach us as we still grope in the darkness for an identity.

History's Verdict


Maryam Sakeenah

All the King’s men sang the glories of the empire from behind a glass screen in a desperate attempt to preserve their privileged selves from some angry man’s bullet. It was a heavily funded show of power, an attempt to look good, suave, settled comfortably in their high chairs. The same day in Karachi, those of a lesser god lay writhing in pools of blood as the police and government authorities watched the mayhem. A Theatre of the Absurd.

What historians tell us sounds curiously similar. They sang and played the harp while Rome was burning. When Baghdad was ransacked by the Mongols and Tartars they were busy proving their oratory skills in religious argument. It heralded the fall, the demise of the great empires. “Or are the people of the town secure from the coming of Our wrath upon them in the daytime when they play?”(the Quran, 7:98)

Soon, in a matter of years, history shall issue its verdict. Soon, in a matter of years history shall remember them as the diminutive pygmies they are, who made merry holding their noses over the stench of corpses. Soon, in a matter of years history will strip them of their sham grandeur to expose the paltry lusts stuffing these papier-mache figurines. Soon, in a matter of years they will be like little stains on the ever-expansive canvas of Time. Soon, in a matter of years, the Truth will out, rising like the moon that the grey clouds had dimmed, persisting and rising again when the billowy shadows pass away; reigning supreme in the end. In the end…

History remembers. In the heart of the Shah’s Iran was the formidable ministry of foreign affairs, which today is a public museum displaying the dungeons and instruments of torture used on the enemies of the Shah and the enemies of the Shah’s Friends. It happened all the while the Shah insisted he did not know the whereabouts of the missing people. History unmasks the dirtiest, deadliest secrets. It is only a matter of time… Visitors at the museum today are educated in this greatest lesson of history.

History’s judgement is unvarying. Its Criterion is the universal Moral Law we all know in the deepest of our hearts, not the shifting, selfish, utilitarian compulsions we invent to justify the wrongs we do. In history’s pages, it is the Moralist who lives, not the Pragmatist. For, the Moralist unconditionally upholds the universal Ideal. He does not shift, adapt, mould, flex or switch over expediently. He does not have the temporal in view. His vision is not narrowed down to visible, achievable, immediate, selfish ends. The Pragmatist lives in the present and for the present. He thinks, plans, believes in the present and vies for the immediate and the tangible. Like the extent of his vision and aspiration, he too is temporary_ a momentary flicker in the abyss of Time. Leaving behind little else but a stain of grease. “By Time! Man is in Loss. Except those who believe and do righteous good deeds; Who exhort one another to the Truth and exhort one another to Steadfastness.” (The Quran)

It is in History that we live eternally. And history commends not these paltry shows of power. It commends not those who have as the sole end in sight their worldly power and its continuity. It commends not those who fight for an alien agenda on their own soil; who forsake the identity of a nation for a cheap image-boost; it commends not the survivors for the moment. It commends those who water the soils with their own lifeblood to let those who would come after see the Spring; those who live, struggle and die for an Ideal they believe in_ an Ideal that promises to liberate and create Peace. The richness of their vision and mission outlasts them, sanctified in the pages of History. Such are the Immortals who keep the Flame going.

Each one of us_ moralist or pragmatist_ carries this awareness, this realization within. Tony Blair knew this. He was full with the knowledge in his farewell address. He knew that it wasn’t his ‘missions’ in Iraq and Afghanistan that would be, in the final analysis, the feather in the cap. It wasn’t his mission against terror he’d be remembered by. And so, in the list of his achievements, it was his public welfare work that did him proud and that was worthy to be claimed as his legacy.

Musharraf too, in the legacy he would be accredited for, wouldn’t have his expediently engineered ‘Enlightened Moderation’, or the mayhem in Waziristan as the salient features. Rather, it would be the development of the economy and the welfare work for the people that would (if at all) write his name down with some fondness. It is not his pragmatic side, not the expedient tools and ploys leaders use to preserve and serve temporal power that history would eulogize. For the heart of mankind knows and believes it is the Moralist who rises out of History’s dust, not the Pragmatist. It is only a matter of time…

Visibly broken, Blair said that after all he did, it is his sincerity in doing it that should acquit him. “I did what I thought was right,” he said amidst uproarious applause. It may well get him forgiven as a fumbling human being, but it also makes him another one of history’s pygmies. Great leadership is not about ‘doing what one thinks is right’ (which turns out all wrong). Good leadership is about thinking right, and doing it, despite the odds. For, a leader’s error of judgement becomes the destiny of nations.

Musharraf probably would say the same, though in words of greater bravado, being an army man. So would Bush, if he had the grace. And this is where the tragedy of these dark times lies: our leaders merely do what they think is right…

In his address to the faculty and students of International Islamic University, Musharraf had ranted against ‘obscurantist elements’ dreaming of an Islamic State, wanting to go thousands of years back (to be accurate, 1428 years back), who, (ever so preposterously), ‘even talk of going back to the Khilafah’, thus taking the world backward, ‘towards regression.’

Today we need right thinkers who think what is right and then do what is right, testified by the witness of Time. Our leaders need to embody the moralist vision. They need to be visionaries, idealists matured beyond the compulsions and the tug-and-pull of power. Like Umar bin Khattab (R.A), the Conqueror of Jerusalem entering the city in coarse white robes on a single camel shared with a slave; Umar the Mighty who slept with a brick for a pillow and carried sacks of grain on his back for widows and orphans, pleading to them to pray for the forgiveness of Umar the slave of Allah for any oversight that may have caused them to go hungry a night; Umar the Magnificent who spent nights weeping and praying, trembling in fear of God’s questioning if a dog on the banks of the Euphrates died hungry; Umar the Glorious, beholding the awe-inspiring simplicity and integrity of whom the patriarch of Jerusalem had remarked: “Verily Islam has excelled all religions today.”

It is his Moralist Idealism, his principled integrity and conviction that shines through the pages of history, stirring a longing in the Muslim heart for a return to that bygone glory of the Great Khilafah. It is the ‘Shadow of Umar’, in the words of M.A Niazi, that haunts the Muslim today, so that the foreign-sponsored temporal regimes scourging Muslim lands make us restive, still seeking…

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

'Enlightened Moderation', per force


Maryam Sakeenah

Flipping through some official data presenting the achievements of the Era of Enlightened Moderation, I could not help noticing how cosmetic the ‘reforms’ talked about were. There was a sameness about all the achievements listed. Yet the booklet made such a big deal out of these cosmetic successes_ perhaps because each of these was related directly or indirectly, to the policy of Enlightened Moderation. After all, the singlemindedness with which this ‘vision’ has been implemented is the triumph of this government, its crowning glory.

The present regime has taken this nation to new heights by virtue of its ‘enlightenedly moderate’ vision in areas such as culture, media, women, showbiz, entertainment. As if to affirm what I was thinking, the pamphlet seemed to talk about particularly these as in fact this government’s major successes_ barring the usual few rhetorical exceptions.

For one, you can measure this success by the extent to which the media has been allowed ‘freedom of expression.’ Plug into any of the myriad private channels licensed by this government, and get entertained by women in skimpy dresses; get ready ‘fatwas’ on any juristic issue under the sun from the worst ignoramus on the street. Watch values you held dear all your life being lambasted by scatterbrained hardcore ‘moderates’, and keep your mouth shut_ we believe in ‘freedom of expression’ for anyone whose tongue can wag, provided he be ‘enlightenedly moderate.’

The emphasis on media and culture in the pamphlet seemed to be sending a message somewhat like this: forget the street ramblers drowning their misery in overdoses of narcotics, forget your two square meals a day: Cross-border intercultural exchanges, actresses hopping across the border for jointly-produced blockbusters and ‘Sufism’ conferences are the major government policy headways that need to be celebrated.

Back in October 1999, the General struck the right keynote in his inaugural address to the nation, talking about issues that really matter to the masses. However, becoming the U.S’s ‘major non-NATO ally’ post-9/11 has brought about a phenomenal re-alignment of priorities. Enlightened Moderation rests at Number One on our priority list, literally overhauling state policy so that cosmetic fringe concerns have assumed the forefront while central issues pertaining to public welfare stand eclipsed. And so, trivia like a hyped-up national celebration of Basant, joint Indo-Pak movie ventures, giant hi-tech cinema complexes, International Sufism conferences, mixed gender sports events have risen to the fore as major issues that matter and deserve government attention and massive financing. Why? Because they are part of a greater agenda, and fall directly in line with the government’s guiding principle of ‘Enlightened Moderation.’ The singular aim is to present a ‘soft image’ to the world around, therefore everything the government does or intends to do has to serve this aim. It is women running marathons in shorts that present that ‘soft image’_ you lump it if you don’t like it. Poverty alleviation, public welfare, health and education, lower down on the list, can wait. Rhetoric is enough to keep the simple masses silenced, waiting eternally for the Godot.

The pamphlet did reserve some space for economics as well. Privatization has been done like never before, so that owners are given the freedom to churn out profits from the poverty-stricken nation unabated. And don’t you know? The Telecommunications industry is thriving like never before. Who says this nation is poor? Even the fruit vendors carry mobile phones these days! But one just wonders_ how exactly is this going to bridge the gaping divide between the filthily rich and the miserably poor? The government may be right about economic indicators showing signs of growth. However, the fruits of that growth are not reaching the masses who are worse off than perhaps ever before. The only true indicator of the health of your economy is social conditions, which, sadly, are in no way benefiting from the ‘boom’ if there is any. If there are thousands of mobile phones in use and several more internet connections, how exactly is this going to help the proliferating sidewalk sleepers or the numerous beggars rambling in the streets with vacant eyes? Is it not a meaningless triumph, keeping in view the much graver, much more real problems that the ordinary faces? But then, I forget_ mobile phones and internet connections, and their massively financed marketing and advertisement campaigns, those huge billboards with jazzy painted smiles of pretty ladies holding cell-phones to their ears are the hallmark of an enlightened and moderate society. The rambling shabby roadside sellers in the shadows can be ignored, as we proudly commit ourselves to present a ‘soft image’ abroad.

In pursuit of Enlightened Moderation, the government is committed towards presenting a Westernised exterior for the country, doing up the frills and flounces with devotion to secure acceptance. The change in priorities it has brought about is far-reaching in its actual effects on society. Ground realities and the weeping sores of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, provision of basic civic necessities and health conditions are being grossly neglected as the government busies itself on other fronts. That is, fighting wars of another people and doing their dirty-work, crushing ‘militants’ in Waziristan, (who sometimes turn out to be women and children), cracking down on seminaries, sealing up mosques, closing down charity-based public welfare projects run by religious organizations, banning publication of Islamic literature, and flimsier still, holding marathons (that count for more than just a benign ‘sport’), financing regional T.V channels in Pushtu language in the hawkish north to ‘moderate’ and ‘enlighten’ the unruly Pathans, and building million-dollar IMAX cinema complexes on M.M Alam Road. These are the successes the government is very vocally proud of, because they help convince the world looking from without how enlightened and moderate we really are. However, the basic question keeps lingering: Whose agenda are we following? Whose interests are we serving? What is being sacrificed in the process? Sometimes, rhetoric alone to placate and silence does not do the job.

It is good to be enlightened and it is good to be moderate as a principal of personal conduct. However, when the two are tailor-made as grandiose political jargon and become ‘policy’, or as a high-sounding euphemism designed to clothe a naked reality, Enlightened Moderation becomes a cruel goddess at whose altar public welfare, civil rights, meaningful progress, values, ideology, liberty, civil security and human rights are sacrificed. Enlightened Moderation may be the President’s dream_ but it sure is this country’s worst nightmare!

Engendering Terrorism


Maryam Sakeenah

The chain of events following September Eleven “divided the Sons of Adam into the ‘civilized’ who obeyed the US orders, and the ‘barbarians’ who did not”, writes Safar Al Hawali in his vociferous Open Letter to the US President. Lines and distinctions blurred, black and white turned indistinguishable. The ‘terrorist’ as pictured by the generality of men came to be seen as a bearded, turbaned, dark-skinned fanatic of invariably Arab origin. And the Global Enemy, not very surprisingly, came to be assimilated with Islam itself. So much so that any terrorist attack around the world inevitably results in ‘Islamic terrorists’ being singled out as the real perpetrators, in most cases without so much as a shred of evidence. And the myth goes universally accepted, unquestioned. Ordinary practising Muslims too have to bear the brunt of this widespread misperception. And now we hear of painters representing the devil in characteristically Muslim attire on Cathedral walls. Unfortunately, it has come to be believed by many that extremism is somehow inherent within the Islamic doctrine.

They do not understand, however, that extremism, more than being a religious phenomenon, is a psychological one. A more judicious observation reveals that most people described as ‘religious fanatics’ are not motivated by religion at all. Because religion, particularly Islam, would never condone the activities that the so-called ‘Islamic terrorists’ indulge in. Unlike the ideology practised by the War-on-Terror frontrunners, Islam does not justify taking innocent civilian lives as ‘collateral damage.’ The oft-used expression ‘Islamic terrorist’ is erroneous through and through. The very word ‘Islam’ means peace, wholehearted submission and wilful surrender to Allah. It is disgusting to couple it with terrorism. Surrendering to the fundamentals of this great religion never creates terrorists. It creates ‘Muslims’__ those who entrust themselves, heart and soul, to their Lord who is Merciful and Just. As a result of this submission, the ‘Muslim’ rises to a higher station of existence where the essential faith within expresses itself in all its splendour in every aspect of life_ individually, socially, politically.

Violent religious fanaticism takes root due to a desperate inner urge for venting out the outrage you feel at the injustice your people suffered for their religious identity. This outrage, fuelled by frustration, fears, insecurity and anxiety, turns overwhelming enough to make the fanatic commit acts that manifest a disregard of the spirit of the very same religion that he claims, in his misdirected enthusiasm, to defend. Fanaticism, therefore, originates in minds and not in religious doctrines.

A quick glance at the history of religions indicates that in their respective periods of crisis, each religion has experienced rising trends of fanaticism in its ranks. This was at its ugliest in during the Crusades, when the Christian Papacy threw up the most hideous form of religious fanaticism and bigotry. An interesting example that comes to mind is that the use of water for cleaning was declared a crime punishable with death for the reason that it resembled the Islamic ritual of ablution before every prayer. Infact, Christianity, with its tenets of ‘forgive thine enemy’ and ‘turn the other cheek to thy oppressor’, began to glorify militarism and valour in the field. The institution of Knighthood became a holy order, and the Knight, with his sword, lance and armour, became the epitome of the ideal Christian virtues. Fanaticism infused an element of ruthlessness in the Church’s penal system. The Crusades brought about a gradual deterioration of the Church as a gruesome fundamentalism began to seep in. ‘Heresy’ became looser and wider in definition as untried, alleged ‘heretics’ were burnt at the stake in Rome. This bigotry that lodged itself in the Church’s system after the Crusades, finally brought about its own fall through the birth of the cult of ‘Rationalism’ during the Renaissance years in reaction to the fixity in the Church’s religion. We find similar examples in Jewish history too. The Zionism that has entrenched itself into the power-wielding centres all over the world is an institutionalized form of the xenophobia which was an outgrowth of the frustration and deprivation that the Semites felt throughout the course of their tumultuous history. Infact, since Herzl’s foundation of the World Zionist Organization, this freemasonic ideology, with its fanatical power, has permanently sidelined the real true Judaism that was. The Jewish religion has dwindled into an unholy religiosity. This is how fundamentalism undermines true religion. Through the ages, it has destroyed the true spirit of religions, races, nations and civilizations.

Terrorism, therefore, is engendered by deprivation, injustice, defeat, crisis and turmoil. The West has been fighting its so-called ‘War on terrorism’ for years now, yet a true understanding and judicious identification of ‘terrorism’ remains elusive. It is actually Islam which has suffered most since the ‘anti-terror’ onslaught.

And it really smells foul. All oppressed, tyrannized, exploited, subjugated nations in the world happen to be Muslims. You cannot call it a coincidence. The Muslim world is going through one of its darkest phases in history. Throughout its length and breadth oppression reigns supreme in various forms_ direct foreign occupation justified by lies; undemocratic puppet-rulers perpetuating remote-control occupation, and the weeping sores of Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir. The indifference to these very real issues shown by the ‘civilized world’, and in fact the many evidences of complicity that a dispassionate observer can see for himself is disquieting. The ‘collateral deaths’ of Afghan and Iraqi civilians during the so-called ‘War on Terror’ remained unlamented, unsung. This silence of unconcern rang loud through the ‘minutes of silence’ observed for the London bombing victims. It is very telling that the death of more than one and a half million Iraqi children was termed by US diplomats as “a number we’re not terribly interested in.”

Western analysts erroneously believe that 9/11 which triggered off the War on Terror was the cause of the West's policy-shift against Terrorism rather than an effect of some of their policies that have directly affected Muslims. Turmoil in the Middle-East_ Palestine, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir and numerous other modern-day crises have been simmering since decades. In fact, the origins of Muslims' suffering go far back since the rising of Western imperialism that swept Muslim lands, subjugating them, trading in their destinies. This phenomenon coincided with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, that sowed the seeds of resentment and deprivation that we see now. What has made this grow to a maddening degree of late is that since the end of Colonialism, Muslim lands have been oppressed under dictatorial homegrown neo-colonists whose policies reflect an outright disconnection with Muslim public opinion, a lack of sympathy for the Muslim cause and a ruthless imposition of agendas dictated from abroad. The internal disunity and the lack of a leadership truly reflective of the aspirations of the Muslims has made things worse.

In the face of all this, those who do not have a sound grasp of the essence of religion (and there is always a good round sum of such people everywhere), seek desperate means to avenge these wrongs that have a direct impact on their lives. It is then that terrorists are born. The hurt of injustice is poignant, maddening. It turns victims into perpetrators. It turns the sinned-against into sinning. It creates desperately fraught people, driven, out of their distress, into recklessness. It devastates lives, distorting precious human beings into ugly fanatics, brandishing weapons, hungering to forcibly win back what was snatched away from them, thinking themselves to be the pious devotees of a noble cause, with a God-given license to seek revenge in any irreligious, immoral way.

An outraged fanatic trying to defeat the system that made him what he is, is a mere symptom of a greater malaise that ails our planet. Terrorism is an outcome of an unjust World Order spearheaded by xenophobia, arrogance and megalomania. The following extract from Kahlil Gibran seems extremely quotable here: ‘And if anyone of you would punish and lay the axe on the evil tree, let him see to its roots. What judgement would you pronounce on him who slays in the flesh and yet is slain in the spirit? And how persecute you him who is a deceiver and oppressor and yet in himself is aggrieved and outraged?’

Western writers and analysts would do better to face the issue squarely, looking at the ground realities, rather than burying their head in the sand.

The West has played well with words, carefully drilling into the public that the ‘terrorists’ hate the West for its freedom and democracy. This twisted logic has duped most of their public who deem their maniacal ‘War on Terror’ as morally justified. But it is not these ideals that are hated. Instead, the painful lack of these same values in the West’s international policies is what the sinned-against of this world resent. And this is what creates terrorists.

Ironical that the world focuses its enthusiasm on fighting an enemy that it engendered itself through the ruthless imposition of an unjust world order. Terrorism is born out of deprivation and distress which stem from the injustice in this world. The rotten tree grows and branches out of the fears and insecurity felt by the victimized. And that tree will only fall if the axe is laid at the very roots. If the leaders of the ‘war on terrorism’ sincerely wish to pursue their professed aims, they must first revoke their own unjust policies that create terrorism. The wrongs that create terrorists and suicide bombers must be redressed in all sincerity or the poison tree will keep yielding more of its rotten fruit. The lack of sincere effort towards addressing the grievances of the outdistanced world of Islam only shows an insidious complicity of the anti-terror Coalition in engendering terrorism as a part of this ‘Great Game.’ ‘A single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent assent of the whole tree. So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong but with the secret will of you all.’ (Kahlil Gibran)

Good fences, Good Neighbours and the Culture of Islam


Maryam Sakeenah

Globalization has hardly made us one global village. Concepts of racial and national distinctions, rivalries, hatred of ‘the other’ and fanatical loyalty to your own narrow creed has only built up consistently. Tolerance, co-existence, respect for humankind are still things to be dreamt of merely. The media’s ‘global village’ is a dangerous place. It has barbed wire, minefields and war zones spread throughout its length and breadth. It is far from being a warm little community. Something has gone wrong somewhere.

All the gusto for breaking barriers has made stronger, uglier, impenetrable ones only. Internationalizing a commercial culture has ended up breaking those natural barriers that make the world beautifully diverse, and erecting those that divide into superior and inferior, great and small, black and white, civilized and uncivilized.

It is an unequal struggle, where the powerful commercial culture is bound to eliminate the weaker, not respecting the guarding barriers of identity and individuality, distorting indigenous purity and simplicity, defacing identities. McDonalds eliminates roadside local eateries, foreign brands root out local enterprise. The media fuels up the invasion, till the whole society is divided up into cola and ‘lassi’ drinkers. Thick walls cut between the English-speakers and Urdu-speakers, U.S nationality holders and mere ‘locals.’ The concept of a ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ culture, a ‘developed’ and an ‘underdeveloped’ way of living has made inter-cultural communication utterly impossible.

One wonders if an equitable co-existence of cultures is even possible; if men can ever think in human terms, beyond cultural symbols and the ideas of ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’; if ever we can respect variety and look for the singular human essence within.

And yet looking back at our origins, we are reassured, for it has been done before… 1,400 years ago, a society deeply entrenched in tribalism was unified, making it a whole, single ‘Ummah’.

Arabia, 6th century A.D, where tribalism was the way of life. Rising out of such a tribalized, fragmented social set-up, Islam achieved the Herculean task of erasing these tribal divisions forever, and making emerge out of this tribalist morass, a unified brotherhood, a fraternity, an ‘ummah’ that subverted tribal kinship to the human singularity, the ideological vision that fellow-Muslims share. It was certainly a miracle of Islam that tribalist foes were knit together as a single community. This miraculous social epoch, this revolutionary creation of a unifying culture was wholly to the credit of the Islamic belief of pure Tauhid that elevates man to absolute equity, all humble slaves of the One True God in the Presence of Whom all stand equal; Who has the creation for His ‘family’.

Islam used no imposition, no homogenization, no imperialist cultural threat; it did not rely on power to root out an arbitrarily defined ‘inferior’; The Islamic Revolution involved no such tactics. Islam simply presented itself in its pristine glory and completely overturned Jahiliyyah from its very foothold. In the radicalism of its revolution, there was no imperious imposition, no ‘colonial’ haughtiness. Islam respected ‘otherness’, valued variety and diversity, the colours Allah has spread on earth to make it warm and sunny, thriving and exuberant, in line with the Quranic verse: ‘We made you into nations and tribes so that you could identify one another.’

Bilal (R.A), being a negro slave, had no human rights in that society. After being set free, he was made the muezzin of Islam, with his characteristic Abyssinian ‘lisp’ so dear to the Prophet (SAWW). Umar (R.A) used to refer to Abu Bakr (R.A) as ‘Our master and the emancipator of our master (i.e, Bilal).’ This was something unthinkable to the Jahiliyyah mindset. After the Conquest of Makkah, it was Bilal (R.A), the negro slave of yore, who ascended the roof of the Kaabah and made the first Azan there. The tribal chiefs of Makkah were appalled at this ‘desecration’ of the Holy Place. This was the radicalism of the equality Islam brought about; the elevation it conferred upon man.

Salman the Persian (R.A) was welcomed to the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood with open arms. He was never ‘Arabised’, and never dispossessed as ‘the other.’ His distinctiveness was not only respected, but made the best of, when the Prophet (SAWW), taking his advice, ordered the digging of the trench (a Persian war strategy) to defend the city. The Islamic revolution never sought to unnaturally and forcibly harmonize, turning men into clones. It was this earliest Muslim community that had risen out of primitive tribalism that taught lessons in co-existence, in living with differences, in letting the other be, and seeking beauty in that otherness, as all come from Allah.

Yet, despite having embraced diversity with open arms as a sign of Allah, Islam never unnaturally ‘softened borders’, diluted and muddled identity, erased necessary distinctions. Even while respecting other cultures, it never got awed by them. Poised in the strength of its own, it never lost its self-pride, never lost sight of its own distinction.

This outlook is worth emulating. For we need to resist the blows of cultural colonization so that we can stand our ground firmly. Even while respecting other cultures and giving them the right to exist, we need to be able to draw the line wherever the self-proclaimed ‘superior’ culture attempts to encroach. The strength for self-preservation comes when you are convinced about what is valuable about you, so that you are prepared to defend its right to exist. Strength comes with this rare pride, this sense of belonging, of owning. Seeing a Persian-styled bow and arrow, the Prophet (SAWW) disapproved of its use by Arab-Muslim soldiers, preferring the Arabian weapon instead. The lesson here is that pride in what is one’s own and fidelity to it gives a nation the strength that makes it indomitable. Whenever a powerful culture seeks to imperialize, it capitalizes on the lack of fidelity for the indigenous among the colonized population, and replaces this with the mimetic adoption of the alien imperialist creed.

However, despite the loyalty to yourself Islam demands, it keeps a perfect balance of fidelity to one’s own and tolerance / respect for another. Therefore, nowhere does Islamic culture reek of fanatical patriotism and narrow nationalism. Most major confrontations in history have been fired by nationalism. Fanatical nationalism is a restrictive, confining, intolerant and dangerous sentiment. Islam rules it out with a bold stroke. The fact that Islam flourished and won a state for itself only after the Muslims had left their native city, renounced all tribal / filial links, creating a community knit together so wholly through the Belief they shared, is significant in this regard. The idea of Hijrah was new to the Arabs. It was inconceivable to be leaving home, family, tribe and kin for an Ideal. But that is just Islam: living and dying for an Ideal that cannot be confined within delineations.

This means that your loyalty is not to race or territory, but to a Code of Life that respects humanity in all its shades and colours, that upholds Justice and human values. When you live by this Code of Life, its balance of ‘Adl’ and ‘Ihsan’ defines your culture. Culture becomes oppressive and imbalanced when power-dynamics enter the scene and begin to dictate the norms. Islam replaces the oppressive and discriminative power-dynamic with its powerful moral imperative of Justice, giving culture a whole new orientation. The emphasis on Justice, (adl and tawazun) is immense in the Quran. The solution today lies in rediscovering that historic epoch that turned desert Bedouins world leaders, and modelling our own culture on that veritable ideal of the ‘ummatun wusata’ firmly poised in its cultural values of ‘adl’ and ‘ihsan.’

It is religion alone that sanctifies these human values and makes them inviolable. And it is Islam alone that elevates them to a veritable Code of Life so that it can direct the creation of the Ideal Culture. And it is Islam alone that gives us a practical model of an ideal community, culture and civilization created through belief and fidelity to that Code of Life. An Islamic society holds high its moral code which teaches us to distinguish not on the basis of any worldly standard. Under this code of life, the only thing that makes one different is the faith within, which none but Allah can gauge. When morality becomes a nation-building force, distinctions are dimmed away, because it is God alone who is authorised to judge on the basis of morality, not man. Morality is an equalizing force, and Islam makes the best of its potential to harmonize and make equal. Islam creates fidelity not to tribe or kin, race or nation, but to the moral code that ennobles and respects your humanity. These are the roots of a humane culture.

It is only so that inequalities of inferiority and superiority, powerful and powerless, developed and underdeveloped, strong and weak, man and woman, rich and poor will become extraneous to social life. It is then that the legendary ‘Mahmud’ and ‘Ayaz’ can become the sharers in a common culture, standing shoulder to shoulder, each a valuable link making the society whole.

“But Man has not attempted the Ascent; Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Ascent is? (It is ) to free a slave, and to feed in the day of hunger an orphan near of kin, or some poor wretch in misery; And to be of those who believe and exhort one another to perseverance, and exhort one another to piety.” (Surah Al Balad)

Into and Out of English Literature

Into and Out of English Literature

Maryam Sakeenah

“God is dead,” Nietzsche had said_ a nihilist and rebel’s outspoken exclamation. As a starry-eyed teen, I loved the sheer guts of him_ the boldness, the defiance, the rebelliousness. Notwithstanding my conceptual disagreement, secretly I admired the spirit.
I found the same spirit running through the works of a number of moderns. Too naïve to objectively analyze the ideas propounded, the streak of loudmouthed rebellion and brazenness had its own exclusive glam and glitz, a rare appeal that got me interested_ rather, hooked. One wouldn’t find ‘cool’ daredevils and rebels in any of those prosaic, fact-studded subjects. Western Literature, man, was cool.
This image was associated with anyone who had a thing for English Literature. Being a student of English Literature set you apart from the common lot. You talked the talk and walked the walk of intellectually enlightened and English-speaking ‘elite’ of the college. Here, we studied people who wrote poetry in drugged stupors, who’d rather commit suicide than ignobly succumb to Fate, drank to drown all reality and womanised unabashedly. We didn’t study those dully pious and all too straight stereotypes of Pakistan Studies and Islamiyat.
And so, I sailed into my Masters in English Literature.
I delighted in words, especially those that were high-sounding. I revelled in the passion of the Metaphysicals_ the passion of Donne, the blind trust, hope, courage and faith of Milton _ ‘justifying the ways of God to man.’
Enter Darwin and the materialists. Life is a struggle for survival in the primordial jungle, no more. Morality and society evolves. This was an age of spiritual, ideological turmoil. Industrialization, after the initial blissfulness, played havoc in society, turning it all too complex for a naïve, toothless Christian spirituality to grapple with. It didn’t figure effectively any more. Had to be dragged on, conscientiously. The Romantics defended well, but spoke of another world, a forgotten dimension that was easy to obviate and ignore in a world taken over by machines and mechanization. The slow poisoning of the spirit was reflected in the literature portraying the decadence of a society shaken at the core, where universal values and religion lived on as masques.
Nations armed to the teeth with the deadly products of Industrialization. Thriving munition industries, overblown nationalism, maniacal wrangling for territory, exploitation of the weak. The war-mongering of power-hungry nations spurred on the descent further, as nations prided themselves for material formidability: An evolution backwards, man to ape- the primordial instinct of ape-man indulging in brawls for possession of caves magnified onto the world map. Darwin, perhaps, was right. Back to the jungles went man as he killed his own kind for territory, or dollars, possession, power, wealth, national ego. Quickly, the symptoms made their presence felt_ godlessness. Despair, nihilism, agnosticism, agnostic existentialism, absurdism_ hallmarks of modern literature. It was modern to be confused about life and God, hopeless or fashionably agnostic. Confused about God and couldn’t care less. He doesn’t figure any more. God packed away in a carton and put into disuse. 
But modern literature, on a more insightful look, is an ironic protest against all that went wrong. As students of English Literature, colonized in the mind, we were never taught to think that these writers were presenting before us the horrible sepulchre of Western society, and were protesting, asking why, groping for a solution but tragically never finding it… The norm here was to admire the choice words, the images, the philosophies of agnosticism and atheistic existentialism, to admire the West’s achievement of a secular milieu, its ‘freedom’ of permissivism and ‘laissez faire’; We were not encouraged to analyze why it was that these writers wrote thus, what was going wrong that these people were showing through ironic contrast and crying out for; that in this emptiness lay hidden an irony_ a protest against the empty soul of the Western mindset, an appeal to find the way out which had eluded them. We trivialized these writers by not recognizing their immense dilemma, we sinned against their true unspoken message and their piteous appeal.
By the time we reached modern and post-modern literature, we had undergone rigorous training in literature. We fitted perfectly into the stereotype of the ideal English Literature student. The training was complete. We could appropriately nod away at words of irrefutable 'wisdom' that came with the authority of some celebrated name. It was stifling. And out of those two years, all 16 of us in the batch emerged as clones_ the triumph of our education system. A whole breed of talk-alike, act-alike young ladies with polished English. Labelled Masters in English Literature. Equipped to sweep anyone off their feet with a well-worded phrase or a wise cynicism_ all borrowed. We learned to imitate, and imitate well.
We thought that we were growing into great analysts and critics, and yet we ended up saying 'yes', and 'no' just when and where we were expected to. And it happened so insidiously that we did not even know we were brain-controlled, that our minds had become colonies of borrowed ideas. We were taught to be uncritical, to admire and appreciate all the great ideas of all the great writers with remarkable indiscrimination. The indiscrimination that Literature teaches you for whatever is English, and whatever is Literature. We don't study these writers, we learn to admire them, flatly.
I read Hardy, Brecht, Beckett, Hemingway, O’Neill and the absurdists. Modern literature_ literature evolved, chiselled, perfected to its high point_ at its most deep, philosophical, stirring, complex, rich; at its most obscure and elusive, and that lent it an even greater appeal. “I love ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf”’, meant I ain’t thick_ I know what it’s all about. So I loved Sartre, Pinter, Joyce, Woolf, Albee with that characteristic indiscrimination_had to.
To think of it, it would be interesting to be an objective observer in a class of English Literature. When you enter a world where the ‘wisdom’ of nihilism is discussed and admired, where Hedonism and Agnosticism are appreciated for the artistry with which they have been rendered, when you reject a standard of morality as uninsightful and unsympathetic, a kind of ‘group psychology’ sets to work. Conventions are overturned with recklessness, nothing holds ground_ and, encouraged by the juvenile spirit of rebellious all-embracing scepticism, it becomes pressing to give vent to the long-muffled uncertainties, doubts and confusions within, masked in the jargon of intelligent, bold questions.
Western nations with their amoral adventurism, stumbled into the World Wars, did away with a religion that had been reduced to religiosity after having been consigned to the clergy_ and ended up in an absurd, meaningless, chaotic vacuum of a world where there's 'Nothing to be done' except wait for a remote, supercilious 'Godot'.
Reading plays of the absurdist school the way we did was like being taught to close your eyes, grope in the dark and pity yourself for being a poor blindman consigned to the darkness. And the great 'enlightenment' left to us at the end was to pity ourselves, to rant about a meaningless, unfair life, to hate it and say how bad everything is, how unliveable life is. But the core message that cried out from within went entirely unheard, ‘We perverted the meaning of our lives thus… do not sin against life, discover it, live it!’ But we universalized the 'wisdom' of nihilism the postmodern world had reached after all its adventuring; we universalized the 'wisdom' of 'Nothing you can do about it', of 'The essential doesn't change', of 'No use struggling'. (quoted from Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’).
But in my honest moments I reflected_ what was amiss? I could criticize, analyze, dissect, debate_ but there was no clarity, no anchor to hold on to… “Here there was rock and no water…” (T.S Eliot). The bigwigs of literary criticism took me around labyrinths, never pointing Homewards. They had everything to offer, everything to satiate the intellect, they led you to question, to doubt, to complain, to rebel, to cry out, to search_ but never pointed towards the solution, the answer that could loosen up those knots. It was like a long, arduous travelling with nothing but a dead end for a destination. And that directionlessness made the whole journey futile, absurd, pointless. Something blocked out the way out, making the road a blind alley. With all their seasoned wisdom, these men were pitiable. Why was it that Hemingway committed suicide, Brecht couldn’t bear to get out of his drugged, drunken stupors, O’Neill couldn’t ever come to face himself, Tennessee Williams left a suffering family behind as he walked out, Nietzsche shut himself up in his room madly striking the piano keys? Despairing, shattered, groping in the dark, screaming inside, running away from the Nothingness that haunted them. Something was very, very wrong. Surah Shu’ara spoke loud in my ears: “As for poets, the erring follow them.
Hast thou not seen how they stray in every valley,
and how they say that which they do not?
Save those who believe and do good works, and remember Allah much!”
Iqbal had said that what was wrong with Nietzsche was that he had said ‘No God!’ but couldn’t take the next step to say ‘Except Allah.’ The vacuum had to be filled, hence the ‘Overman’ he invented_ the human self ruggedly individualist, unhindered by morality; deified. Chesterton was right: “When you don’t believe in God, you don’t believe in Nothing_ you believe in Anything.” But that Anything is merely a cheap substitute. It does not truly, deeply fill up the inner spaces, never satiates. Eyeless Western Literature never satiated.
My infatuation with English literature coincided with my personal discovery of my own religion. As I discovered that God_ nay, Allah_ can be befriended and loved, I developed a relationship with Him and began to hear Him in the Quran, speaking to me, about me. It was fulfilling, and worked wonders in me. I was energized, and felt untapped reserves of spirit and passion rage within.
Faith has great transforming power which I experienced then. Suddenly, Milton didn’t satisfy, Donne didn’t satiate. For what they could give was all but a little droplet of the oceanic vastness the Quran offered. It was Allah speaking, and all human voices drowned in the majesty, the grandeur. Poetry made ideas sound pretty, yes, but I think I began to realize why the Quran scoffs at the Kuffar’s allegation of it being poetry. Mere poetry. The Divine Word doesn’t depend on its charms.
What these wise men could only speak, was so meaningfully magnified in action in the Seerah… Action, they say, has a voice so much louder. Suddenly, the Metaphysical Poets did not count. Dwarfed, dimmed, stripped off all vanity. Was it not Milton who had sung the glory of the Imperialist spree? And Donne who blasphemed a man as universal an epitome of the best in humanity as the Prophet (S.A.W) of Islam?
I remember the day a friend called up and we discussed Beckett over the phone. We discovered we shared the silent sentiment about the man no one could ever say in class. ‘If he says,’ she said, ‘that he isn’t sure about God, or that we wait but He never comes, yar, he’s wrong. No matter what yar, Allah tu hai. He IS. I know it in my bones, and it’s the only thing in life I am absolutely certain about.” We laughed at the sudden self-discovery, and then cried together, for it was the first step out of the blind alley, that first scepticism that defined our real direction towards the ideal lingering in the far distance. It defined the choice we made_ Literature has no more to offer than the fleeting pleasure, the high, the refinement of the senses and the sensitivity to things around. But this sensitivity that Literature arouses seeks its answer, a panacea not to be found in Western Literature. And so, I left my lifelong passion for Literature behind. No more would I go through the mockery of sitting in the evenings reciting long verses or revelling in well-worded passages from James Joyce. It had had its time.
I began to see that modern Western Literature reflects a society’s degeneracy. There has to be something awfully wrong deep inside when your literature stops giving courage and inspiration and the zest for living on more meaningfully, when it fails to leave you with some enlightenment except through ironic contrast. We cannot see that behind the absurdism, the godlessness and despair of post-war Literature is the horrible sepulchre of a system erected on materialism and utilitarian amorality. We cannot see that the ghastly world that Literature of this time depicts is an ironic comment on what that civilization lacked, what it had done to itself as a slow suicide, and what the cost of it has been. And it has taught me to value a faith that animates the universe for us with meaning, with vitality; a faith which resonates in our soul by teaching us to live meaningfully and with courageous acceptance. I began to see with my own eyes. I began to see things from my own perspective, deriving a meaning valuable to me, recognizing through it the value of what we have been blessed with in the form of Islam. I began to put things in perspective, to put in contrast the abject fatalism of 'No use struggling' with the vital, throbbing, courageous submission of Iqbal's 'taqdeer kay paband nabaataat o jamaadaat / Momin faqat ihkaam e ilahi ka hai paband.' And the difference is Faith.
I cherished the learning my experience had afforded. I learnt that Literature and philosophy open the doors of doubt, and Science provides you with material proof_ but none can give the belief that provides certainty, conviction, clarity. The human mind cannot travel beyond a certain limit earmarked for it. Yet at the same time, the very same mind tells that the Truth and the Reality does not stop at this limit. It knows something lies beyond, which is greater. Things unattainable by the mind, if not sorted out through belief, remain a blur_ confused, unclear, dubious_ which is why it becomes subject to so many differences, interpretations and views men futilely wrangle over.
As I weaned myself away from Western Literature, I turned more to the works of Iqbal, Hali, Syed Maudoodi, Azad. The difference was refreshing, rejuvenating. And then, there was the Quran_ that standard, that ideal which had never let me settle for anything lesser than itself; anything merely of the world. It was the spark it had ignited that kept me from conversion to the creed of English Literature. It was, as Yousuf Islam had put it, “As if I were in a dark room, and suddenly the light had been turned on.” That’s the least one can really say.
Going over Abul Kalam Azad’s ‘Eeman Aur Aqal”, I paused at the following enlightening passages:
“If, in this universe, there are laws even for a single leaf in a tree, and a single rock in the mountain, will there not be a law for a man who is at the central point in all creation, its apex and its zenith? And if all being, all existence and all life exists and goes on because it is submitted to that Truth and its laws, will this submission not be essential to the existence and the elevation of the human being?”
“That final destination, in search of which the seeker of knowledge had set out, is as elusive today as it was 2,500 years ago. The closer we wish to get to it, the farther it moves away…but without a solution, we cannot attain peace in the heart… the simple truth that will get us back to the destination where everything begins to make sense is that a living power, a being exists behind the veil. As soon as this is accepted, the status quo transforms and one feels as if one has come out of darkness, into the light. Now, wherever one turns, there is light. Every question attains its answer. Every need and demand is satisfied, every thirst is quenched. Perhaps, all the tangles were a single seal which gave way at the touch of this Key.”
The darkness, futility and eternal, desperate wanting I had encountered in Western Literature, after all, had an explanation that made a perfect fit:
“If there is no purpose and Will behind it all, then there is nothing except darkness here_ but if a will and a purpose is at work, everywhere is light. In the essence of our natures, there is a need, a desire for light. We are scared of getting lost in darkness, and want to travel towards the light_ and the way towards the light is only reached through the acceptance of that one reality as the solution we need. Clear is the Pattern_ both great and sublime, as well as aesthetic… but are we to believe that this Pattern is without an Intelligence? We pretend that it is so, but in the heart, we feel that believing this to be true will be a psychological and spiritual suicide.”
I learnt that only travelling in search of the Divine, in its direction makes you progress till you reach the zenith of humanity: “To envisage Fate, all clam… that is the height of Freedom” (Keats). If the direction is not there, despite the miles you traverse, the knowledge your head is full of or the words at your command, there’s merely regression into the Black Hole of Nothingness. This, I realized, is an injustice, a crime, a sin against our own nature, our own humanity. As Azad writes:
“Within man lives an instinct that desires elevation and ascent to something higher, some uncharted territory. His vision and sight look upward in their search. The question is, what can be the goal, the target, the ideal of this sublime urge to rise limitlessly? If this Divine Ideal is removed from its goal and vision, the searching spiritual eye that wishes to attain height will have nothing to look up to but blank space. All that exists in the realm of matter is lower than man. It cannot be looked up to by the human self. In the skies are the heavenly bodies_ solid, liquid and gas_ but none among them worthy of being the Ideal and the Aim to be sought_ not the sun, not the stars, not the moon… Everywhere around him is degeneracy and lowliness that take him to a descent from his human plane into the pits of animal desire, though his soul craves to soar above…”
“God, and the need for Him is an instinctual, a natural impulse and a need. Natural needs exist only when the means for their fulfilment exist too.”
If all was matter, why does the material fulfilment of all physical desire never seem enough to truly satisfy? Why has wealth and physical pleasure never blessed the human spirit with contentment?
In my teenage search for answers and shortcuts for happiness, I had once picked up Russell’s ‘The Search for Happiness.’ A very detailed discourse, a great effort to show the way to happiness_ and yet, a failure_ ineffective, incomplete, with loud silences. Many a reader of that philosophical discourse still seeks the attainment of Peace, while the unlettered medieval Arabs of that first Muslim community so consciously relished the blessedness of Peace in their hearts, their lives. No believer in ‘isms’ attained it, or could lead his followers to it. And Islam, I am told, means ‘Peace through complete submission.’
As I turn shut the lock-key of the chest holding my cherished treasuries of English Literature, I feel overcome with a surge of emotions: mixed feelings of old association with those fingered and thumbed pages, like throwing away a childhood toy or growing out of an old habit. Also, a feeling of thankfulness and gratitude for the learning, the clarity and direction gained by throwing it all overboard. But the feeling that lingered as I closed that door shut behind me was sympathy for those lost souls, sensitive and searching, that kept languishing in the dark_ for the light was kept away from them; and a silent protest against all those barriers and facades of prejudice, preconceived notions, plain ugly lies and iron curtains tailored to obtrude the honest man’s journey to the clarifying Light of faith. 
I make a silent prayer, said first by my Prophet (Sallallaho alaihi wa alihi wasallam):
“My Lord! Show me the Truth as the Truth and help me follow it; Show me the falsehood as falsehood, and help me abstain from it.”

Do We have Freedom in the World Today?

Do We Have Freedom in the World Today?

Maryam Sakeenah

The Western world prides itself for its values of freedom and democracy, and has used the excuse of freedom and the like to justify so many of its bloody adventures. Afghanistan was humbled with bombs for the Divine Cause of Freedom. Iraq was torn apart for the same Glorious Cause. The message is clear: the U.S and its allies reserve the right to occupy and plunder as they please, to impose globally their cult and the sham values they believe in, simply because it claims to champion the cause of freedom and liberty.

A much-touted word, how does one define freedom? If the West, particularly the U.S sets the standard of freedom and if its society epitomizes human freedom and individual liberty, how must one understand its meaning? Does freedom then mean a permissive society where one is free to fornicate, do drugs, drink vodka to the seams? Is the topless woman on the dance floor entertaining the ogling onlookers the epitome of the free woman? Can the meaning of freedom be constricted into the dark hole of the free sex zone?

Or, on the political level, does freedom for you mean putting hundreds of thousands in animal cages at Guantanamo and subjecting them to inhuman atrocities without so much as a shred of evidence or proof of crime? Or does it mean occupying states to implant unpopular stooges and puppet regimes on nations reduced to war-torn rubble by U.S-made bombs?

Universal values cannot be twisted to fit narrow expedient definitions. Freedom means being free to discover and live your God-given humanity that makes you ‘The Best Creation.’ It means the freedom to choose your direction and then freely pursue it, without fear of deliberate obtrusion in the path: free of the worry of where the next meal will come from, free of the fear of someone spying on you from the CIA Headquarters, lying in wait to drop the next bomb; free of the fear that another will infringe on your rights, on what you hold dear. Freedom means being free to improve the quality of your life (not merely in material terms), to reach its meaning and purpose, and be free to pursue it. It means the freedom to attend to the needs of the spirit, it means to be free to hear clearly the voice within and not let anyone put fingers in your ears, to let that still, small voice mark out the path for you, helping you to use your God-given abilities the best way, for the best purpose. Freedom means that the whole socio-political system and its institutions conspire together to protect your humanity and to facilitate you on your freely chosen path in life; that no one limits your choices or hinders you from making the right choice by drilling prejudice and bias, or by using propaganda that makes robots of men; that the reality, God-made, would be unclouded, unhidden by guile for you to see, understand and carve out your road to it. Freedom is the freedom to be fully human.

Do we have freedom in the world today? And is the West its real upholder?

In Afro-Asian developing countries, the scars of the West’s colonialist adventures are still alive. In those colonialism-ravaged societies, the first light of real freedom is still elusive. South American societies reflect the economic exploitation, criminal neglect and indifference of the powers that be. Muslim States, having replaced Communism as Enemy Number One, are fair game_ either under direct occupation or remote-control occupation through unpopular pro-West dictators. Instead of freeing their people from poverty, hunger, illiteracy, unemployment and disease, they fight the U.S’s dirty wars on home ground. For instance, the ‘crackdown against militants’ especially on American demand in Waziristan goes on in the face of intense opposition and public disapproval. But that does not matter as long as the remote-control Occupier in the White House casts his approving glance.

Across the Great Divide, Western societies do no better. As G8 leaders meet to write the fates of nations and peoples, a few stage protests on the streets, enfeebled, ineffectualized. They don’t matter. On Western news channels, the mayhem unleashed on hundreds of innocent civilians in Palestine and Lebanon as a result of Israel’s offensive forms part of the routine news, a very normal event in the ill-fated territory. On the same channels, Hezbollah’s counter-attack killing eight is flashed across screens as ‘BREAKING NEWS.’ The viewer, safely distanced from the heart of the crisis in his comfortable apartment, is duped, brain-controlled. Predictably, public opinion in Western states is sympathetic to formidable Israel’s ‘right to self-defence.’ A telling coincidence: hundreds of thousands gather in the streets of a German city for the funeral of a dog that was killed chasing a criminal. They pay the animal rich accolades, and shed tears for it. Newspapers carry pictures of sore-eyed German fans shedding tears as their team couldn’t make it to the FIFA World Cup Final. On the other side of the page is a picture of a Paletinian girl shedding tears over the corpse of her young brother killed in an Israeli gunship attack on her village. The tears in the World Cup match, on the dog’s funeral and while watching a movie poignantly reflect God-made human sentiment steering directionless, wandering blindly. Innate human compassion and sympathy is steered cleverly away from the shocking injustice and oppression on human societies and seeks its expression in meaningless ways.

Drunken with the American Dream, starry-eyed Americans strengthen the hands of the oppressors simply because the oppression they unleash is in far-off lands and on people who_ as their leaders and their media tell them_ are subhuman ‘blacks and Islamists’. And so, it doesn’t take away their comfort. They eat, they drink, they make merry, they take their dogs to the park everyday. As the media and the lifestyle choked with the comfort of multinational brands dumbs down the nation, they lose their ability to think out of the box, to ask, to question, to discover for themselves. They have been robbed of their freedom to be their selves. Humanity today is terribly sinned-against by those who hate freedom, but pretend to be its upholders in order to play safe their ugly Great Game. It is a terrible deception_ millions of citizens of the most prosperous nations, living lives lesser than human, lesser than themselves, robbed of the freedom to choose; living plugged in to simulated reality.

‘Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains,’ said Rousseau.

Freedom will be attained when we begin to see and realize that we are gagged, blinded, deafened, dumbed down, and when we begin to identify the agents that cast all these chains in our necks. Allah makes us free by giving us a free will and the freedom to choose when we come into the world, but the treachery of those at the helm limits the choices and imposes stereotypes for expedient ends. Freedom will be attained when we turn back to that God-given, natural state, the state of ‘fitrah’ (innate natural essence) by saying ‘No!’ to these false gods who have subjected us to their oppressive rule; to the gods of the lustful Self and its animal desires fanned by permissive societies; to power, fame, money, wealthy lifestyles, the America Way… This denial of ‘La ilah’ (No god) will make us take away the ‘right’ of these false-gods to subjugate, and will make us willing submitters to the Only Rightful Owner of our lives. When the space created by the denial of ‘La ilah’ is filled up by the realization of the Only One Truth, self-discovery is possible. The soul is set free, and life begins with the acceptance of ‘il al lah’ (except Allah).