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Aesthetics and literature

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By Amir Suhail Wani

Nobody knows the whereabouts of a person who for the first time conceived of this bipolar division of poetry and prose. Nor are literary historians unanimous on the origin of poetic meters or the science of prosody. But man has continued to write both poetry and prose in due measures. The Greek dramas, Arabic Sab’ae Mu’allaqat, Persian Shahnamas and Mathnavis, Japanese Haikus, Shakespearian Plays and Urdu ghazal as they stand like the emerald hills in the city of art both inspire us and earn our respect and love on their own versatile merit. They continue to cast their splendour and never fail to mirror the socio cultural matrix in which these works of art were conceived. More importantly they continue to maintain their transpersonal and trans-historic character. Man has been assertive in one way or the other and has conquered nature both through science and art. Those realms where man failed to export his body, he exported his mind and this mental export always found its earliest expression in works of art. Nobody will maintain that the conquest of moon occurred on the basis of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” or Ibn-I-Arabi’s “Fatoohat-I-Makkiyah”, for both these works deal with celestial spheres. But we can discern the fact that both these works conceived artistically something that was going to be translated into reality by science and technology centuries later.

The primary task of literature is thus to beautify world and this beautification comes not merely by lyrical subtleties and musical notes intrinsic to literature but by the incorporation and exploration of beautiful ideas that literature sets before itself. One may disagree with the primacy of beauty for literature – aestheticism as it is called, but one can’t wholly do away from such a perennial notion. In the river of time art and beauty have existed like twins quite inseparable from one another and literature has been a primary vernacular for expressing this artistic beauty. The structural beauty, rhythmic flow and metric notion that is so essential to almost all sacred texts derives its essence from the same notion of aesthetics. But beauty is not that literature is all about and also given the fact that aesthetics is an aspect of subjectivity, the proposition of aestheticism is susceptible to criticism from various camps. The assumption that literature thrives on beauty and beauty only may not be a concept of so much importance in modern parlance, particularly at a time when borders between sacred and profane, beauty and ugliness are being redrawn at every instant. Thus the task of literature is not only to throw man in trajectories of abstraction and to let his mind wander in Infinity of imagination but importantly literature has to concern itself with man and his life here on earth too. True literature discovers and defines ideals that have been hitherto unheard of, but these ideals shall not be so far removed from human pragmatism that they turn out to be untenable in totality. Thus a literary work has to strike a balance between literary ideals and living ideals. By demanding from literature the discovery of ideals tenable to human efforts I don’t imply nor do I favour that literature shall be used as handmaid to an ideology, as has been done time and again. What I intend from such a statement is the precarious ability of literature to transform mundane into sublime and vice versa. This statement holds much value in contemporary literary landscape where one can no longer work with mythological narrations but has rather to center his work around human aspirations.

 

Being the product of human individual psyche shaped by a matrix of socio cultural factors a literary work is expected to preserve the ideals of space time in which it is conceived. This assigns a sublime historical to literature. If history is the chronology of events and individuals, then literature is the chronology of ideas and ideals. Historian captures human evolution like a photographer but a writer captures it like a painter.

Our times which are also witnessing a growing trend alienation from the tradition have witnessed a quasi-mystical genre of poetry, the typical representatives of which are Amrita Pritam, Nida Fazili and possibly Khalil Gibran too. This genre of literature has done a great service in humanising the divine and thereby enabling all of us to maintain our loyalty to tradition, sacred and religious in the face of growing challenges from unchecked scientism with its repercussions on all aspects of human existence. Rudolf Panwitz while deliberating upon the role of literature remarked that the function of literature is to envision future while one is still in the womb of present. This literature has often been paralleled to the Holy task of prophet hood by many scholars of art and sacred.

Man is a creation and partakes God in his creative activity. This is what a leading Pakistani scholar Dr. Shahzad Qaisar describes as the metaphysical ontology of all art, poetry included. Thus, man writes, despite many of us know very well that we are suffering from “pseudo pregnancy of art”, but that doesn’t bow our courage –“the courage to be” and the courage to express this being in whatever way we can. Poetry is an opening of being into the infinite ocean of becoming and is one of the ways of overcoming our finitude imposed on us by our physicality. All poetry in its own frame of reference is great poetry, but seen from a universal frame, the poetry that “awakens the poet within us” is to be deemed as the greatest poetry. Any poetry that fossilizes thinking in a specific mould falls short of poetic caliber and falls down to the category of sermon and we need to beware that there is a possibility for sermon to be poetic but no possibility for poetry to be sermonic , for this process in its realization deprives poetry of its very essence. I maintain that if prose is actuality then poetry is possibility and any poetic attempt that fails to unveil further possibilities is incredulous and decays of its own, but great poetry (art in general) besides immortalizing itself confers immortality to the mind which conceived it first and makes an artist exclaim:-

“Sabbt ast bar jareeda-e-aalam dawaami ma”

(The author is a freelance columnist with bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a student of comparative studies with special interests in Iqbaliyat & mystic thought. He contributes a weekly column for this newspaper that appears every Monday. He can be reached at: [email protected])


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Opinion

Prophet Muhammad’s Lessons in Leadership

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By John Adair

Trust being lost, all the social intercourse of men is brought to naught – Livy (Roman Historian)

During his hidden years in Mecca working with merchant-caravans, probably as a caravan leader, Muhammad acquired a new name: al-Amin, the Trustworthy One. The same root, incidentally, gives the English word amen, often used at the end of prayers, an expression of hearty approval. We can only guess What it was about the character or conduct of Muhammad that gave rise to this attractive sobriquet, but there is a clue. In 622 CE, while making ready for his migration from Mecca, Muhammad – in danger of his life – delayed long enough to dispose of some moneys that had been deposited at his house.

 

For centuries the whole life of Mecca centered on its caravan trade. Everyone in Mecca, rich and poor alike, including women landholders (of whom there were a number), was anxious to have a stake in this lucrative business. The powerful families grew richer and more in?uential with each annual expedition; and the poorer families saved every available dinar in order to share in these commercial ventures. The merchants of Mecca formed themselves into a syndicate, pooling their capital to equip the caravan, and then shared proportionately in the returns from their joint enterprise. Usually a single person would be asked to constitute himself the banker for the occasion, receiving deposits from everyone interested in a particular expedition, and then administer the funds as economically as possible. Most probably it was Muhammad’s consistency and scrupulous honesty in this role that earned him his reputation for trustworthiness.

A young widow in Mecca by the name of Khadija bint Khuwaylid more than once entrusted her investment money interest in a caravan into the keeping of one of her cousins – Muhammad. She was so impressed by him professionally, and attracted to him personally, that following a custom allowed among the Arabs – the sexes were much more equal than in other societies – she sent him a proposal of marriage which included the words: ‘0 son of my uncle’ [Arabic has no word for cousin], she wrote in her letter, ‘I like you because of our relationship and your high reputation among your people, your trustworthiness and good character and truthfulness.’

Muhammad accepted her proposal. It was one of the wisest decisions he made. She was his only wife for 25 years until her death (620 CE), she bore him Fatima and sons (none survived) and other daughters. And she was the ?rst person to believe in Muhammad’s prophethood.

No man is a prophet in his own land, said a proverb already ancient in Muhammad’s day. He would know the truth of it, for he had to endure years of rejection and even hostility from most of his fellow townsfolk. Through all these trials and tribulations in Mecca, Khadija was Muhammad’s chief stay and support. She knew her man and believed him as only a woman in love can. Perhaps these words of the French historian and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville about his wife may well express what Muhammad felt about his wife: ‘She softens, calms and strengthens me in difficulties which disturb me but leave her serene.’

Clearly, then, Muhammad was a man with a reputation for integrity. That word, from the Latin integer whole, is especially appropriate for Muhammad as far as Muslims are concerned, for in its primary meaning integrity implies unity that indicates interdependence of the parts and completeness and perfection of the whole. Human beings are like stones, some Muslims say, and Muhammad is as the only ruby among them.

Honesty means a refusal to lie, steal or cheat in any way. Integrity goes a mile beyond honesty: it implies trustworthiness and incorruptibility to a degree that one is incapable of being false to a trust, responsibility or pledge. A leader with integrity is like the English poet William Wordsworth’s ‘Happy Warrior’:

Who comprehends his trust, and to the same
Keeps faithful, with singleness of aim;
And therefore does not stop, nor lie in wait
For wealth or honour, or for worldly state.

This integrity extends through the entireness or wholeness of the character. It is found in small matters as well as great, for allegiance to truth is tested as much by small things as by those that are more important.

Notice the centrality of the value of truth, as evidenced by a ?rm adherence to truth in all things – in the concept of integrity. Khadija, you recall, mentioned Muhammad’s ‘truthfulness’ – that he habitually spoke the truth – as well as his ‘trustworthiness’, but in fact these two virtues go hand in hand. If you tell the truth, people will trust you; if you lie and the other person ?nds out, then trust will be diminished if not lost for ever.

Why does truth or veracity, honesty and high principle, matter in a leader? The reason is simple. Leaders who are true, and always speak the truth, create trust. And trust is vital in all human relations, professional or private.

You can see why Muhammad insisted upon integrity in those who were chosen to be leaders in the Umma, the growing Muslim community. There was to be no place for any form of bribery or corruption: not that this prohibition was – or is – easy, for man is ‘Violent… in his love of wealth’ (Quran 100:8).

I will stand surety for Paradise if you save yourself from six things: telling untruths, violating promises, dishonouring trust, being unchaste in thought and act, striking the ?rst blow, taking what is bad and unlawful. Prophet Muhammad (s)

Perhaps of all Muhammad’s successors it was the second caliph, Umar, who is the chief exemplar of integrity in Islam. Although he lacked Muhammad’s humour and charm, Umar matched him in scrupulous honesty and uprightness in matters ?nancial, his passion for impartial justice and his adherence to the simple, open and approachable Bedouin style of leadership. Numani, the authoritative biographer of Umar, emphasizes his unbending integrity:

Here, we must note that all the Caliph’s efforts in this regard would have counted for little if he had not himself led by example. He stressed repeatedly that, as regards the Law, he stood on an equal footing with any other individual. He claimed no special privileges or exemptions as caliph. He proclaimed, instead, that his powers were limited and his exercise of them subject to scrutiny and criticism.

Regarding public funds, Umar said: ‘I have no greater right on your money [ie public funds] than the guardian of an orphan has on that orphan’s property. If I am wealthy, I shall not take anything. If I am needy, I shall take for my maintenance according to usage. You people – you have many rights on me which you should demand of me. One of those rights is that I should not collect revenues and spoils of war unlawfully; the second is that the revenues and spoils of war that come into my possession should not be spent unlawfully; another is that I should increase your salaries and protect the frontiers, and that I should not cast you into unnecessary perils.’

For believers, God has self-evidently many qualities or attributes, or ‘names’ as they are called in the Islamic tradition. Encouraged by the Quran (Q7:180; Q17:110; Q20:8), Muslims selected 99 of these attributes of God describing this perfection, from the Quran and traditions. Referred to as ‘the most beautiful names of God’, they describe a range of characteristics that balance the power of God (the Creator, the Sovereign and the All- Knowing) with His love and mercy (the All-Loving, the Most Gracious and the All-Forgiving). The names are frequently memorized and used in prayers. One name that has been hidden by God is Ism Allah al-a’zam, ‘The Greatest Name of Allah’. Yet all this unfathomably rich diversity is encompassed in an essential unity: ‘Say: He is Allah, the One…’

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Opinion

The Pleasures of Seeking Knowledge

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By Ibrahim Bijli Syed

The rise of Muslims to the zenith of civilization in a period of four decades was based on lslam’semphasis on learning. This is obvious when one takes a look at the Qur’an and the traditions of Prophet Muhammad which are filled with references to learning, education, observation, and the use of reason. The very first verse of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet of Islam on the night of 27th of Ramadan in 611 AD reads:

“Recite: In the name of thy Lord who created man from a clot. Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Generous Who taught by the pen, taught man that which he knew not.” (Quran, 96:1-5)

 

“And they shall say had we but listened or used reason, we would not be among the inmates of the burning fire.” (Quran, 67:10)

“Are those who have knowledge and those who have no knowledge alike? Only the men of understanding are mindful. ” (Quran, 39:9)

The Qur’an encourages people towards scientific research:.

“And whoso brings the truth and believes therein such are the dutiful.” (Quran, 39:33)
Every Muslim man’s and every Muslim woman’s prayer should be:

“My Lord! Enrich me with knowledge..” (Quran, 20:114)
The pursuit of knowledge and the use of reason, based on sense and observation is made obligatory on all believers.

The following traditions of the Prophet supplement the foregoing teachings of the Qur’an in the following way:

Seek knowledge “even though it be in China.”
“The acquisition of knowledge is compulsory for every Muslim, whether male or female.”

“The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.”
“Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.”

“God has revealed to me, ‘Whoever walks in the pursuit of knowledge I facilitate for him the way to heaven.’
“The best form of worship is the pursuit of knowledge.”

“Scholars should endeavour to spread knowledge and provide education to people who have been deprived of it. For, where knowledge is hidden it disappears.”
Someone asked the Prophet: “Who is the biggest scholar?” He replied: “He who is constantly trying to learn from others, for a scholar is ever hungry for more knowledge.”

“Seek knowledge and wisdom, or whatever the vessel from which it flows, you will never be the loser.”
“Contemplating deeply for one hour (with sincerity) is better than 70 years of (mechanical) worship.”

“To listen to the words of the learned and to instill unto others the lessons of science is better than religious exercises.”

“Acquire knowledge: it enables its possessor to distinguish right from the wrong, it lights the way to heaven; it is our friend in the desert, our society in solitude, our companion when friendless – it guides us to happiness; it sustains us in misery; it is an ornament among friends and an armor against enemies.”

The Islamic Empire for more than 1,000 years remained the most advanced civilization in the world. The main reasons for this was that Islam stressed the importance and respect of learning, forbade destruction, cultivated a respect for authority, discipline, and tolerance for other religions. The teachings of Qur’an and Sunnah inspired many Muslims to their accomplishments in science and medicine.

By the tenth century their zeal and enthusiasms for learning resulted in all essential Greek medical and scientific writings being translated into Arabic in Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad. Arabic became the international language of learning and diplomacy. The center of scientific knowledge and activity shifted eastward, and Baghdad emerged as the capitol of the scientific world. The Muslims became scientific innovators with originality and productivity.

For example Islamic medicine is one of the most famous and best known facets of Islamic civilization in which the Muslims excelled. The Muslims were the great torchbearers of international scientific research. Some of the best and most eloquent praises of science came from the pens of Muslim scientists who considered their work to be acts of worship. The same motives led to the establishment of Al-Azhar (800 AD) the first university in the world. They hit the “source ball of knowledge” over the fence to Europe. In the words of Campbell, “The European medical system is Arabian not only in origin but also in its structure. The Arabs are the intellectual forbearers of the Europeans.”

Learning is a natural pleasure. This pleasure is inborn and instinctive. The pleasure of learning is one of the essential pleasures of the human race. Without learning, survival itself is threatened.

The process of learning starts right after birth. It is true that babies who can barely talk investigate problems with all the zeal and excitement of explorers, make discoveries with the passion and absorption of dedicated scientists. At the end of each successful investigation, one can see on the tiny face an expression of innocent and pure heartfelt pleasure. The process of physical growth stops when a boy or girl reaches puberty that is with the onset of menarche in the girls and with the change in the voice and growth of moustache and beard in boys. After puberty it is impossible to increase the height both in boys and girls.

On the other hand the mental faculties grow from birth until death. At some point in our lifetime, the physical body becomes sick or ill and gradually dies; even the emotions become duller. But the mind continues to live, and even grows more lively and active, enjoys itself more, works and plays with more expansion and delight. I have seen grandparents obtaining Bachelors, Masters and Ph. D. degrees at the ages of 70, 80 or 90.

There are many examples in the history of Art, Music and Science, of both men and women who significantly contributed and lead mentally productive lives at their ripe old ages. Learning extends our lives into new dimensions. It is cumulative. Instead of diminishing in time, like health and strength, its dividends go on increasing, provided one continues to learn throughout life and integrate the thoughts and make learning harmonious. One should make it a point to learn at least one piece of new information each day.

The pleasure of learning is not confined to learning from textbooks, which are too often tedious. But it does include learning from book magazines (periodicals), newspapers, movies, television, radio and traveling.

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Opinion

The Importance of Understanding Attributes of Allah

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By Naseer Ahmed

Allah is the sole source of all knowledge of what is right and what is wrong or what is moral and what is immoral. If we wish to master this knowledge perfectly, it is essential that we orient ourselves perfectly to receive this knowledge. The orientation is by gaining a perfect understanding of the nature of Allah or of all His attributes. Misunderstanding of any attribute leads to a wrong understanding of His Book, of right and wrong, and this is the way Satan misleads and deprives us of becoming perfect Muslim. The text of the Quran is preserved and protected from corruption but not the understanding of it.

This is not about memorising the 99 names of Allah but knowing the 99 attributes of Allah or of fully comprehending the nature or zaat of Allah. The attributes of Allah are best understood by a person who has understood the Quran without a single contradiction and without treating any verse as abrogated. Such a person has completely and perfectly understood the nature of Allah.

 

Islamic scholars have no problem with the contradictions their interpretations create because they think that Allah is free to contradict Himself because “He does what He wills” and this is proof of His omnipotence that he is not bound by any rule. By creating this misunderstanding of Allah’s attribute of His Will and Omnipotence, Satan has succeeded in making people worship the attribute of ‘whimsicalness’ which is Satan’s attribute and not Allah’s.

Allah certainly does what He wills but He has willed the rule of law and the law of perfect causality and He has also willed that he will never change His ways or change His command/word once it is issued. The Sign that the Qur’an is from Allah is that it is a Book without a single contradiction and if you are given a Book saying that it is from Allah and if that Book has even a single contradiction, throw it into the face of Satan because such a Book cannot be from Allah. While the Book is from Allah, our scholars, by their misinterpretations which create contradictions, have made it into a Book from Satan!

The Quran is a simple Book, easy to understand and without crookedness. All that is required is that we take its straight forward literal meaning. It is scholarship that puts a spin on every verse and misinterprets which is why the hadith which says that the scholars will be among the foremost who will be flung into Hell sounds true. The scholars put their spin because they misunderstand the attributes of Allah.

Take the attribute of justice. Is Allah just if those born into “Muslim” families have an edge over those born into families that practice polytheism? Some of our revered scholars of the past have said that some people are predestined to go to Heaven, while others are predestined to go to Hell or Allah has created some for Heaven and others for Hell. This obviously sounds whimsical and arbitrary which they explain away by saying “Allah wills what He wills”. They get both the attributes wrong.

The answer any reasonable person will give is that justice demands that persons born into any faith should have an equal chance of gaining Heaven/Hell, but Muslims will not voice this opinion, because it is drilled into their heads that non-Muslims are Kafir and they will all go to Hell, and what they see is that people born into a faith, remain in the same faith. Those who change their faith are a small number.

Those who seek an unambiguous answer from the Quran on this question, will find an answer, but those who firmly believe otherwise, will remain blind and deaf to the clear answer. This is because we have not even learnt to trust the word of Allah and read it without our mind cluttered with pre-conceived notions. The reading therefore does not benefit us. For more on the subject, read:

The Muslims, in general, are far from correctly comprehending the most important attributes of Allah. They may worship only one God, but this God is partial to them, which is not an attribute of the Rabb-ul-Alameen who is Al ‘Adl or perfectly just, but the attribute of the gods of the polytheists. So, how can a polytheist be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis a Muslim, whose concept of his God is defective to the extent that he attributes to Allah, the same quality of partiality, which is what makes the many gods of the polytheists so very attractive to them?

If the Muslims correctly understand this attribute, they will then know that they are not in any way superior to any other people except by virtue of their good deeds. Their attitude to the ‘other’ changes dramatically for the better. We are then open to what is good in them and appreciate it.

If there was no Hell would the world have been a better place? Allah is the epitome of morality or what maximizes good. Hell is also a part of His Mercy therefore without which there would have been more oppression, injustice and misery in this world. The description of Hell Fire in the Quran is that it is a great continuous torment.

(4:56) The Kafaru, We shall soon cast into the Fire: as often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the penalty: for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.

If the warning of Punishment in Hell wasn’t a Mercy, Allah wouldn’t have said:

(55:37) When the sky is rent asunder, and it becomes red like ointment:

(38) Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?

Our capacity for both good and evil is dependent upon the autonomy or free will that Allah has granted us. Without autonomy, we would have been like animals without choice for either good or evil and lived in accordance with our instincts. There would have been no need for either Heaven or Hell then. The question then is:

Was Allah Unjust in Creating Adam and Favouring His Progeny Over All His Creation?

If the Hell had been made less painful, then the Heaven would have been made less pleasant, and our autonomy curtailed to decrease our potential for both good and evil. Allah finds the perfect balance. There is both infinite divine wisdom and mercy in the creation of Hell and making it what it is, without which there wouldn’t have been Heaven either, and the freedom to choose our path. Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?

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