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Friday, 16 December 2011

A Large White Crescent -- Review

Toheed Ahmad (ed.), A Large White Crescent: Readings in Dialogue Among Civilizations: The Pakistani Experience, Apa Publications, Lahore, 2011

At a time when Pakistan is being viewed as a rogue state bent upon a path of conflict and confrontation, we have a new book that speaks for the need for dialogue. It does so by offering a collection of readings from sources as diverse as Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Al-Beruni, Muhammad Bin Qasim and Eqbal Ahmad, Dara Shikoh and Shah Waliullah, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Amir Khusrau, M. A Jinnah and Ubaidullah Sindhi. Evidently, the book offers a potpourri of views; that it should include those who were born, in some cases, centuries before the birth of the ‘idea’ of Pakistan is illustrative. It shows, to my mind, a willingness, even need, to appropriate ideas and images that can reconstitute a legacy of thought, one that is more in tune with the exigencies of the times, and one that is more plural, more accepting of differences.

That such an approach is ‘healthy’ and ‘positive’ goes without saying. What needs to be stressed, however, is the editor’s candour. In his Introduction, Toheed Ahmad writes, ‘But all agree that the expectation explosion generated at the independence of this country in 1947, especially concerning national ideology and distributive justice, remains unfulfilled.’ His impulse in compiling these readings from across the spectrum of social, religious and political thought is to facilitate ‘cross-cultural communication’ and provide a selection of texts that will ‘serve as a profitable reading for the practitioners and theoreticians of the fast developing field of cultural diplomacy.’ Frankly, it is this last, the bit about ‘cultural diplomacy’ that piqued my curiosity. For, as we all know, it is seldom the content of such anthologies that reveals anything new; it is more the choice, the editorial voice or the intent behind a critical inclusion (or exclusion) that is far more interesting in an edited volume.

Parts of Touheed’s Ahmad’s A Large White Crescent is old wine in a new bottle, parts are not. First the old wine – full-bodied and still heady though it is; the fairly well-documented writings of Hali, Sir Syed, Iqbal fall in this category. Altaf Husain Hali’s Mussadas-Madd-o-Jazar-e-Islam (‘Story in Verse of the Ebb and Flow of Islam’) was regarded by no less a person than Sir Syed Ahmad as the harbinger of the new and the modern in Urdu literature. Hali, Deputy Nazir Ahmad, Maulvi Zakaullah and others formed a bridge between the old masters and the revivalists; they visualized a world not in terms of Islam but within the framework of a colonized world where one’s claims for survival and prosperity would be buttressed by one’s ability to come to terms with western enlightenment, all the while holding on to the staff of one’s own deep-rooted faith. The sort of optimistic Muslim response displayed by Hali in the Mussadas involved, unlike the revivalist Waliullahi tradition, not the rejection of colonial rule but its acceptance so that he arrived at a seemingly ‘subservient’ position not because he was an unquestioning admirer of British rule but because of his deep engagement with colonial rule and its manifestations. Men like Hali, Zakaullah and Nazir Ahmad – who had served the British government in one capacity or another -- saw colonialism as a necessary evil for it would, they believed most sincerely, pave the way for social re-engineering and open up prospects of growth and prosperity for all Indians, in which the Muslims too would partake.

Similarly, Sir Syed’s pamphlet Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (‘Causes of the Indian Mutiny’) is written from the point of view of a colonized person. Written in 1858, this is the closest he comes to giving a candid account of the grievances against British Rule among the common man. But this too is written from the point of view of the loyalist who is at pains to clarify the ‘misapprehensions of the intentions of the government’ where he hastens to add, ‘had there been a native of Hindustan in the Legislative Council, the people would have never fallen into such errors.’ Sir Syed, it must be remembered, was knighted by the British in 1879 and remained all through his life a loyal subject of Her Majesty’s Government. Far from a critique of British policies, the Asbab…begins thus: ‘The proclamation issued by Her Majesty contains such ample redress for every grievance, which led up to that revolt,  that a man writing on the subject feels his pen fall from his hands.’

Unlike Sir Syed, Iqbal was no unquestioning admirer In contrast to the former’s largely self-acquired wisdom of the ways of the world, Iqbal (1877-1938) drew on the best resources of a liberal Western education. Educated at the prestigious Government College, and at Trinity College, Cambridge and in Heidelberg and Munich in Germany and also a Bar-at-Law, Iqbal was eminently well placed to question western enlightenment and English materialism on philosophical and religious grounds. However, despite his trenchant criticism of the imperial government, he surprisingly enough accepted a Knighthood in 1922. In 1927 he was elected to the Punjab Legislative Council. The philosophical essence of his writings is distilled in a series of six lectures delivered during 1928-29 at the universities in Aligarh, Hyderabad and Madras entitled Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. A section on Ijtehad has been selected by Touheed: ‘the word literally means to exert. In the terminology of Islamic law, it means to exert with a view to form an independent judgment on a legal question.’ Iqbal’s Presidential address at the Allahabad session of the All-India Muslim league in 1930 is also included; it was here that he fully propounded the idea of a separate homeland for India’s Muslims as their ‘final destiny’.

Now, we come to the new wine. The Sialkot-born, Sikh-convert Ubaidullah Sindhi (1872-1944), was a particularly fiery sort of Muslim alim, given to passionate devotion to nationalism as well as high adventure and political drama. Following in the footsteps of Maulana Mahmud Hasan of Deoband, he had left India, during World War I, to seek support of the Central Powers for a Pan-Islamic revolution in India in what came to be known as the Silk Letter Conspiracy. He reached Kabul in 1915 to rally the Afghan Amir to attack India, and shortly thereafter offered his support to Raja Mahendra Pratap's plans for a revolution in India with German support. Always a firebrand, he joined the Provisional Government of India formed in Kabul in December 1915. After several years in Kabul where he met a Turko-German delegation and men like Maulvi Barkatullah, Ubaidullah left for Russia in 1922. In Moscow he observed, at first hand, how the socialist ideology was a quick tool for mobilizing people and gaining results. Subsequently, Ubaidullah Sindhi spent two years in Turkey and, passing through many countries, eventually reached Hijaz where he spent about 14 years learning and pondering over the philosophy of Islam in the light of Shah Walliullah’s teachings. Upon his return to India, he became not just a vocal anti-imperialist but more importantly, the defender of a new social order. Tauheed has done literary historians a great service by reviving his legacy, putting together his plans documenting a Hindustani University in Kabul; the great pity is that he does so with no references, no dates, no footnoting, nothing to aid the serious scholar.

The same disregard for detail mars much of the book. The editorial notes prefacing each section are frugal, to say the least. Moreover, parts of the book are about neither dialogue nor diplomacy – cultural or otherwise. The section on Sport seems to be an altogether unnecessary insertion and is more in the nature of a straight-out eulogy. It is precisely this sort of reliving past glories and resting on one’s oars that Pakistan can do without at the present moment. The section does little else but put together editorials and reports from the 1950s that eulogise Pakistan’s victories in the field of squash and cricket.

Still, A Large White Crescent deserves to be read; for, it shows how Pakistani writers and opinion-makers view themselves and their country, how they locate themselves in the cross-currents of debate and discussion within the Islamic framework and, more importantly, where they draw their inspiration and intellectual sustenance for the trajectory they wish to forge for their fellow countrymen. The inclusion of a token non-Muslim, namely Justice Cornelius is, to my mind, diluted since the learned Judge, according to Touheed, ‘followed the moral compass of Islam’ and was, apparently, more Muslim than the Muslims. It makes A Large White Crescent more a ‘monologue’ than a ‘dialogue’ as it purports to be, but that is another matter.

(This review was published in HIMAL South Asia, Dec 2011)

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