Friday, 30 December 2011

Allama Iqbal: a critical perspective

Allama Iqbal: a critical perspective

“Every generation has its own dreams and vision which it wants to accomplish without interference. Not imitation but freedom is required to build a new world. Therefore, an attempt should not be made to repeat but to make new history. People should be liberated from the shadows and allowed to flourish in a free society. Great leaders should be respected but not worshipped”.
(Dr Mubarak Ali)
Ibne Khaldun, the doyen of Muslim Historians, described History as a science and not an art. He was of the view that History should be objective, not subjective to the historian’s whims or the needs of the hour. The problem with later-day Muslim historians arose when they tried to “glorify” Muslim history and “re-invented” certain personalities as shining examples for the modern Muslims. This historical revisionism was at its peak during the 19th century and early parts of the 20th century.
Dr Mubarak Ali, in his book, “Taareekh ki Daryaft” (Exploring history) provided some glaring examples of historical revisionism from sub-continental history. The most famous religious figures from 15th to 18th century are supposed to be Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi(also known as Mujaddad Alaf Sani) and Shah Waliullah. According to Dr Mubarak, the hype about  Sheikh Ahmad was propagated by Maulana Manazir Ahsan Gilani and Maulana Abul Kalaam Azad while Shah Waliullah  was “re-invented” by Obaidulah Sindhi as he was searching for someone resembling Karl Marx in the Islamic world. Sheikh Ahmad was made out to be the nemesis of Mughal Emperor Akbar. Another very important source of such revisionism was famous novelist Naseem Hijazi. This trend of bending history according to the time was continued after creation of Pakistan. An “Ideology of Pakistan” was created during the 1960s. The father of that Ideology was designated to be Allama Mohammad Iqbal, poet and philosopher. (For more on the story of creation of this so-called Ideology, I recommend reading the book “Dau Qaumi Nazriya: Aik Taareekhi Jaiza” by Professor Amjad Ali)
As a part of Historical Revisionism, Allama Iqbal’s poetry was used to stir up emotions of Nationalism and Pan-Islamism. Thousands of books have been written on Iqbal, most of them in his praise and very few in critiques. I will try to present some aspects of Iqbal’s poetry that I consider to be erratic and anachronistic.
Iqbal himself can be categorized as a historical revisionist. He remained passionate about Pan-Islamism throughout his life. While the argument that all the adherents of a religious ideology should combine and form one entity is very promising but it is utopian at best. Iqbal, of all people, would have known that since the death of Caliph Usman, Muslims have NEVER been a single entity throughout history. In fact, more Muslims have been killed by other Muslims in the last 1400 years than by people from other faiths.
Iqbal’s idea of an all conquering  “Mard-e-Momin” is not very different from the “Superman” of Neitzche. Allama Iqbal also propagated the idea of Muslim Supermacism i.e. only Muslims deserve to lead the world. This approach has led to a national cultural narcissism.
There is no place for women in Iqbal’s poetry, echoing a patriarchal approach by the esteemed poet. According to Mohammad Haneef, Iqbal wanted Muslim youth to take refuge in Mountains and that Martyrdom should be our ultimate aim. Now that the youth (TTP) has taken up all these endeavors, we can’t even stop them because we always taught them to do so. Interestingly, the most remarkable work done by Iqbal were his lectures titled “Reconstructing Islamic thought”. We do not find any reference to those lectures in mainstream media or textbooks only because they don’t teach anything about following without thinking(Taqleed) rather they slam this approach. There are also many contradictions in Iqbal’s poetry regarding structure of State. Iqbal criticized Democracy, Capitalism and Communism but did not hint at what kind of state he perceived. This issue has been highlighted by Dr Javed Iqbal, Iqbal son, in his autobiography(Apna Garebaan Chaak).Iqbal wrote most of his poetry in either Urdu or Persian, while the majority of Muslim Population communicated in Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi or Pashto. According to figures collected in 1951, 54.6% people in Pakistan spoke Bengla, 28.4% spoke Punjabi, 7.2% spoke Urdu, 7.1% spoke Pashto while 5.8% spoke Sindhi. Keith Callard, Pakistan: Political Study, George Allen & Unwin, Oxford, 1957, p. 181). We declared Iqbal as our national poet despite the fact that fewer than 8 per cent of Pakistani people spoke Urdu as a first language(1981 national census). Iqbal’s so-called plan for Pakistan(due to which we credit him as the “dreamer/thinker of Pakistan, wrongly because 64 such suggestions had been publicly presented before 1930) did not include East Pakistan which was the hub of Muslim political activity in United India.  
Due to so much diversity in the message of Iqbal, many elements have tried to use his poetry for their own agendas. Mullahs(clergymen), whom Iqbal opposed all his life and actively wrote against, blatantly used Iqbal’s message of Pan-Islamism for their own purposes. 
 In recent years, Iqbal’s poetry has been used for propaganda-mongering by Glenn Beck of Pakistan, Zaid Hamid who did two shows namely ‘Iqbal ka Pakistan’ and ‘Iqbal the Mysterious’ eulogizing the “mystic” aspects of Iqbal and attributed all kind of supernatural powers to Iqbal.    
According to Nadeem Farooq Paracha, writer and blogger, “ I sometimes feel, a non-critical stance towards Iqbal’s work in this country has actually damaged his standing. He was a product of his time and well suited to compliment what was going in the minds of Indian Muslim men in the first half of the 20th century. But was he a visionary? I don’t think so. I don’t think his work is as relevant today as it is made out to be. Certainly not in a post-modern world where the notions of universalism based on certain singular concepts of faith and progress have long crumbled and given way to a healthy respect and need for democracy, pluralism and diversity.”  
Despite all the above-stated criticism, I cannot deny the importance of Allama Iqbal as a poet and as a Philosopher. All I am saying is that we need to project a balanced image of Allama Iqbal and refrain from deification of a mortal man. We also need an objective approach towards history so that our future generations do not suffer from paranoia as we are. We should also encourage constructive criticism of Iqbal and leave behind the notion that saying anything about Iqbal is akin to blasphemy.

(also published by Pak tea house)

Sunday, 18 December 2011

A short guide to weddings in Pakistan (And Why do I hate attending them)

A short guide to weddings in Pakistan (And Why do I hate attending them)

(Disclaimer: I want to make it clear at the outset that this is NOT a tirade against the institution of marriage, just a rant about the state of weddings as they happen in Pakistan.)

I hate weddings, just hate them. I hate everything about them. From the process of bride/groom selection till the 'maklaawa'(tradition according to which groom has to stay for a day or two at brides’ home after Waleema), I hate every single aspect of weddings. Weddings in Pakistan are nothing but  exercises in pretentious-ness and hypocrisy.
For the un-initiated, I would like to give an overview of a typical Pakistani/Punjabi wedding.
 Let’s start with the 'selection' process. The standards of future mothers-in-law about their prospective daughters/sons-in-law have skyrocketed courtesy Karan Johar, Ekta Kapoor and Umera Ahmad. The scrutiny process is comparable rather tougher than the vetting done by parties for the candidates of US presidential elections. I have seen an ambitious mother visit no less than TWO HUNDRED houses and still not being able to choose a bride for her Russian-graduate doctor son.
Then there is an engagement ceremony which is quite like a practice session before a Test Match. Almost all the ingredients of weddings are present in engagement ceremonies. There is a formal date-fixing ceremony named as 'Dehaaray'(punjabi word,meaning date-fixing). There is dholki, which consists of family members gathering for 4-5 days before the wedding to play dholak,a musical instrument and sing songs. There is an 'oil' ceremony and mehndi. Mind you, the 'actual' wedding hasn't happened yet. Then is the wedding “proper” i.e. Nikah ceremony in which the two people who are “actually getting married” are wed according to Islamic way. This leads to Rukhsati(means departure) of bride from her home(mostly, from marriage halls) to Groom’s place. At groom’s place, there is a “reception” for the bride. Next day, there is Waleema, which means a party from groom(and his family) to their friends, extended families and brides’ family. Maklaawa is the last brick in the block and is followed by parties by members of both families. 
I feel that a simple, elegant, beautiful event i.e. wedding between two people is made sooooooooooooo complicated that it becomes a bloody mess. I have only mentioned the most popular ceremonies, different parts of country have additional stuff to do on weddings. Many people will accuse me of thinking like a salafist and being against the “cultural invasion”. For those people, I want to make it clear that I do not oppose all this “drama” because of any religious leanings but because I can’t stand hypocrisy and doing things JUST BECAUSE that’s the way it is done. What I have found extremely hypocritical is that most of the ultra-religious people I knew did ALL the things that they used to criticize about others’ weddings. One frequent excuse for extravagance and the ceremonies is that weddings are moments of happiness, moments to be cherished and somehow EVERYTHING is justified when you are happy. I believe that the Urdu word for wedding, “shaadi” means “happiness” and that happiness ought to be celebrated but going beyond your means and hiding your real faces is not the definition of celebrating happiness. My feelings when someone asks me to attend a wedding are summarized eloquently by Nabiha Meher,
“ I feel like I’m being asked to sacrifice MY happiness for yours for no good reason other than the fact that you want to show off your popularity. “Look at me!” these weddings scream. “I am so rich, so popular!”
I’ll now list some particular aspects that I don’t like from the weddings.

1. Photography
It seems to me that the most important person at the weddings these days is not the groom anymore, it’s the photographer. All the festivities are choreographed so that the photographer can get better 'shots'. Starting from sehra-bandi to the dance in front of the groom when he reaches the marriage hall to the photo session, the photographer is present everywhere. People wear good clothes partly because of the occasion and partly because of fascination with getting their pictures taken by a photographer. I do not blame the photographers themselves for this because they are only doing their job. I have never seen a wedding without a photographer. Why do we have to 'play to the gallery' all the time.? After the marriage, the photo albums circulate the whole neighborhood and after few years, the albums are usually lost in trash. So much for “preserving memories”.

a disturbing trend that I find is the association between weddings and food. If you ask a person going to attend a weding as to where they are going, the response of 90% of them would be, 'shaadi Khaanay jaa Rahay hain'(translation: going to eat {at} the wedding). Relatives of bride/groom from other cities come to stay at their place 1-2 day before the wedding and have to be “fed” by the hosts. Then the companions of groom, known as “Baarat” has to be served food by the brides’ family. On Walima, the roles change and grooms’ family has to serve food to the brides’ family and their own. From my personal experience, the food at weddings is of abysmal quality. It is full of spices, cheap oil and un-known ingredients. As a medical student, I would recommend to anyone willing to protect their health to refrain from eating such food. Also, food is not a problem it’s the WAY people react to food that is obnoxious. As soon as some-one announces that food has been served(or its punjabi version, “Roti Khul gayi jay”) a pandemonium takes over the marriage hall. People jump over chairs, tables, even human beings just to get to the table where food is placed. If I am given one chance to prove as why I am so disgusted by the thought of attending weddings, I will point out that moment. It is said(as satire) that at that very moment, people forget everything that they are doing and dash towards the nearby table as if their lives depend on it. No wonder gluttony was a part of the seven deadly sins.

3. Over-spending
Weddings have become a competition here and to keep your place in the “society” you have to WIN that competition. It does not matter If you have to take a massive loan to marry your son or sell your house to arrange for wedding of your daughter. You can spend the rest of your life paying loan but you are not supposed to do a simple wedding If you do not have the resources. Otherwise your nose would be cut (literal translation of “naak katt jaye gi”, a phrase meaning a loss in social status).

4. Fascination with Attending weddings
I have seen women on wheel-chairs, on crutches, barely able to walk attending weddings with beaming eyes. I do not want to criticize anyone because of the choices they make but I can’t understand this weird fascination with attending weddings at the cost of misery. On the wedding day this weirdness is manifested as the fascination with WATCHING THE BRIDE.Gimme a break. As soon as a bride enters the arena, EVERY single woman in the hall starts moving closer to have a look depicting a scene from the “Pied-Piper”. In my very honest opinion, a bride is supposed to look as the ‘lady of the evening/afternoon’ but the brutality that is done in the name of make-up makes everyone look similar to a Geisha. If this is how a woman looks at her “best”, I would like to emigrate to Canada/Scandinavia (to look for ‘dudes’ if u didn’t get the joke).

5. Dowry
Marriages are supposed to be made in Heaven; the dowry however has to be made in this very world. This is the reason why a woman starts collecting stuff and saving money the moment a daughter is born to her. Even in this so-called modern era, dowry is an important part of wedding. God Forbid If the brides’ family cannot arrange “enough” dowry, All hell would break loose. The sad fact is, NOTHING is enough.

6. Showing Off
From gifting expensive watches and jewelry to the in-laws to showing “Bari”(clothes prepared by groom’s family for the bride), from arranging an expensive marriage lawn to dowry, EVERYTHING about weddings is a show-off.

Conclusion: This post is not supposed to make you hate weddings, If you have read this, it is my request to Please notice for yourself what I have written(when you attend the next wedding) and If possible, try to change things for the better. 

Saturday, 17 December 2011

"After the Prophet" by Lesley Hazelton

"After The Prophet: The Epic Story Of The Shia Sunni Split In Islam" by Lesley Hazelton is one of the finest books written on the topic of shia-sunni problem in Islam. It is based on a neutral narrative and both the shia and sunni views about the incidents are given equal preference by the author in describing the incidents that took place after the death of Prophet Muhammad.
The book can be downloaded in PDF format from here.

Highly recommended for reading to those people who want to understand the basis of conflicts between Sunnis and Shias.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Law and Disorder

(published by Pak Tea House on 10th December,2011)

Law and Disorder: Radicalization of the legal community

Greek philosopher Aristotle famously remarked “The law is reason unaffected by desire”.                                                                                     Going by that description, lawyers should be the most logical/reasonable people in a society. In context of Pakistan, lawyers have played an important role in both creation of Pakistan and evolution of society. Founder of Pakistan Mr Muhamad Ali Jinnah and national poet Allama Iqbal were both lawyers. Lawyers are also the most politicised section of the society. Every major party in Pakistan has its legal wings. A disturbing trend of increased religious intolerance has been witnessed in the last few years. One basic reason for this has been the increasd influence of student wings of right-wing parties in law colleges across the country. Even the historic lawyers' movement was almost hi-jacked by the right wing elements among lawyers. According to Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer and partner at Ijaz Co in Lahore,
“The lawyers’ movement in 2007 started as one of the most principled revolutionary movements that this country has ever witnessed. The primary reason for its initial success was the organisational structure of the district Bar associations. Hence it was possible to mobilise the lawyers in most cities in the country, almost simultaneously. The realisation that a movement restricted to lawyers is unlikely to culminate into a movement of the masses in the true sense resulted in accepting assistance from anyone who was willing to offer it. The religious right was the first to see an opening and seize the opportunity. Initially, it was the religious political parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami but this degenerated into the appearance of members of the Sipah-i-Sahaba and other banned outfits at protests.. The not-so-subtle irony here was that groups that did not believe a constitutional form of government to be permissible and longed for “Sharia” rule were cheering on for the restoration of the Chief Justice. It was the classic example of not being ‘Hub-e-Ali’ (‘love for Ali’) but ‘Bugz-e-Muawiya’ (‘opposition to Muawiya’) and the enemy of the enemy being a friend etc. I am certain that the leadership of the lawyers’ movement smugly believed that the rational utilitarian choice at that moment was to garner support from whatever quarter it emanates to pursue the immediate objective of the restoration of the judiciary and of kicking out Musharraf. While both these aims were not only honourable but desirable, nevertheless there was definitely myopia displayed by the leadership of the lawyers’ movement. Faustian bargains once made cannot be undone”
A unique achievement on part of the increasingly radicalized lawyer community was the funeral prayers that were offered after the death of Osama bin Laden at Lahore High Court, Peshawar High Court and Rawalpindi Bar Association.(Despite the fact that 66% Pakistanis do not even believe that OBL was killed by US SEAL team Six that night) . This act is described as unique because these funeral prayers preceded those at either Mansoora or Qadsia Mosque(the fortresses of traditional sypmathizers of Osama i.e. Jamaat e Islami and Jamaat ad Dawaa). As if this was not disturbing enough, lawyers in Rawalpindi went a step further and showered rose-petals on the murderer of Governor Salman Taaseer in Rawalpindi.Those lawyers probably did not know that one of their own-Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti-was murdered on the same issue in 1997 in his chambers in Lahore or that two of the very well-esteemed members of Judiciary over the years i.e. Justice Alvin Robert Cornelius and Justice Bhagwan Das were non-muslims. The image of Qadri being showered with  rose-petals by Lawyers projected to the world how insecure our minorities are and highlighted the level of religious intolerance. Later, when Qadri was sentenced to death, the judge who gave the verdict faced threats to his life and had to flee the country. Haider Imtiaz, from the Rawalpindi Bar, wrote,      
“When the verdict[against Qadri] was given, it reminded me of the age-old phrase, ‘Let justice be done, though the heavens fall’. The heavens have indeed fallen upon the judge who had, until a few weeks ago, enjoyed a reasonably good reputation. Expecting violent reprisals, he was forced to take leave and stop performing his duties. The day after the DBA resolution was passed, the same lawyers who had attended the ‘emergency’ session vandalised his office. Keeping in view the threat to his life, he was eventually transferred by the authorities. It was indeed a sad and shameful day in the history of the District Bar Association Rawalpindi which had, only a few years ago, played the role of the vanguard in the lawyers’ movement for rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.”
Azhar siddique is the poster boy for the born-again religious lawyers. He submitted an appeal to the Lahore high court praying that Facebook be banned. In may 2010, facebook was banned for a few days by PTA. Recently, Lahore high court ordered the authorities to block blasphemous pages on facebook. He was also leading the effort by certain quarters to declare Sherry Rehman ineligible for the post of of Ambassador to the United States. According to those people, Sherry Rehman introduced a bill in the parliament to amend the infamous blasphemy law and took a courageous stand on the matter of Aasia bibi which somehow justifies her to be killed or at least be declared non-muslim.(That appeal was ultimately dismissed by the Lahore High court
The founder of Pakistan would be turning in his grave due to these “stunts” by certain sections of our legal fraternity. The only positive thing is that there still are prominent lawyers with progressive thought and all is not lost yet. Law colleges across the country should try to negate the influence of radical parties and factions upon the students. Similarly, progressive lawyers need to unite and form a bulwark against the rising tide of extremism in society in general and particularly in lawyers.
It is time for the “reason” to rise above “passion”. 

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Healer, Heal thyself

(also published by Pak Tea House)

Healer, Heal thyself

Science is supposed to inculcate rational thinking among its practitioners. The whole scientific methodology relies on definitive evidence and not just myths or fable. Paradoxically, in case of religious extremism, it has been observed that students of science have been actively involved in acts of terrorism and their scientific education failed to change their narrow-mindedness and bigotry.
Research by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog has shown that engineers are more susceptible to join Islamic Radical groups than other people. Similar data is not available about Doctors. However, based on information about the terrorist networks and terrorists themselves it is not difficult to find doctors in prominent roles. Most famous and perhaps dangerous is Dr Ayman-az-Zawahiri, a pediatrician from Egypt believed to be the second-in-command of Al Qaeda and the chief ideologue. Abu Hafiza, the master-mind of Madrid bombings, Dr Akmal Waheed, accused of having links with Al-Qaeda, attacking the convoy of the Karachi corps commander in 2004 and providing financial aid to the banned Jundullah activists, Bilal Abdulla, who attempted a terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport in 2007, Dr Nidal Malik Hassan, who killed 13 people and wounded 29 others in the worst shooting ever to take place on an American military base at Fort Hood, located just outside Killeen, Texas, Dr Ali Abdullah, who abetted terrorists in attempted murder of wounded Ahmedis in Jinnah Hospital, Lahore, Professor Dr Zafar Iqbal Chohdary, a pioneer of Lashkar e Tayba and last but not the least, Dr Afia Siddiqui(though not a practicing physician/surgeon, she did her PhD in neuroscience), who was one of six alleged al-Qaeda members who bought $19 million worth of blood in MonroviaLiberia, immediately prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks and who was married in 2003 to al-Qaeda member Ammar al-Baluchi, in Karachi. Al Baluchi is a nephew of al-Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Khaled Ahmed, veteran journalist, noted in his book that “In 2005, I was asked by the Lahore Chapter of doctors’ association to address them on current national issues. I was prepared to discuss the problem of growing religious violence, but when I saw that most of the medical specialists in the high-income bracket were sporting flowing beards and already making speeches in favour of an Islamic revolution, I changed my mind and did not broach the subject of increased religiosity among the scientists in general and doctors in particular. The meeting was finally dominated by Dr Israr Ahmad, himself a medical doctor, and Dr Amer Aziz who had been to Afghanistan to treat Osama bin Laden.”
(Khaled Ahmed, Sectarian War, Oxford University Press, Karachi; 2011; pp 173) The growing radicalization has also caused problems for doctors aspiring to get training in the United States (US being the country with most advanced training facilities).
According to Dr Saima Zafar, president-elect of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani descent in North America (APPNA), this past year 22 physicians from Pakistan who had managed to get through the rigorous process of residency interviews and were matched with residency programmes lost their spots after being refused visas.
Those already in residency programmes also found their positions precarious. One resident at a prestigious programme who had returned to get married found himself being taken off his return flight to America. His visa was revoked without explanation. His programme at Pennsylvania State University’s Hershey campus announced soon after that it would no longer be recruiting Pakistani medical graduates.
What prompts these people to turn towards extremism is hard to judge. We will examine a few theories about this phenomenon though. Hajra Mumtaz, in an article titled “The benefit of grey” opined, “Science teaches certainties that have the equivalent of a moral upper hand through being absolutely and invariably correct. In this way, we have in people the inclination to either totally accept as right, or totally reject as wrong, ideas and attitudes. And so, quite possibly, we have a society that is one step closer to allowing extreme viewpoints or ideologies to take root.
Students of the social sciences and humanities, by contrast, are taught to navigate their way through endless possibilities with no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to light the path. Philosophy, history, literature, anthropology, etc are all areas that require the student to traverse the grey areas and the ‘what ifs’, where the only moral upper hand can be logic and rational, coherent debate. These subjects ask the student to take in context and connections and search for alternatives.”
In a research report named “Red Hot Chilli Peppers Islam – Is the Youth in Elite Universities in Pakistan Radical?” It was stated that “The majority believed that madrassah reforms were being imposed by the US and  hence were a ruse to manipulate traditional institutions. Majority of respondents also viewed Islam as the right formula for governance. 62% considered Shiites as Non-Muslim. 40% of respondents didn’t believe that imposing military rule was an act of treason. 57% respondents viewed USA as the biggest threat to Muslim Ummah, 43% listed Israel and 33% considered “West” as the biggest threat to Muslim Ummah. 46% were willing to believe that the Taliban were sponsored the US.” The study concluded that, “they[students of Elite Universities] suffer from a closed mind or are prone to exclusivity rather than inclusivity. The ‘us’ versus ‘them’ divide compounded with greater insensitivity towards social and political issues has created an elite generation which may be incapable of mending fences with other groups. Being affluent these youth may have greater stakes in not turning towards active militancy. But then, cases such as Faisal  Shehzad or Afia Siddiqui can always happen. These two cases, in fact, indicate the possibility of latent radicalism transforming into radicalism and militancy. 
 This study did not find any remarkable difference between the thinking of the youth going to elite institutions. Access to better education did not necessarily produce better quality thinking” The sample for this study included 2 medical colleges as well. A worrying thought is that extremism in medical professional is increasing and not decreasing. A “radd-e-Fahashi seminar” was held in a  medical college in Lahore. In the same medical college, Hizb ut Tehrir(a banned organization) conducted many workshops and a similar organization “Sout-ul-Ummah” are quite active there. Student wings of Religio-political parties are active in medical colleges especially in Faisalabad, Multan and Bahawalpur. Doctors are considered as one of the most educated group of people. If they are treading towards the path of extremism, what hope there is for illiterate people who form the majority of Pakistan’s populace?