When Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) received his first revelation in the Cave of Hira’ through the angel Jibril (Gabriel), he was asked to read (iqra’). However, since he was an ordinary person, who could not judge things and events except by conventional earthly standards, he was astounded, replying both with fear and astonishment: “I am not literate (I cannot read)”. He was asked two more times to read, but after each time he answered that he was not literate and so, couldn’t read. After that, the angel conveyed the intended first revelation: “Read in the name of your Lord Who created; created man from a clinging substance. Read, and your Lord is the most Generous Who taught by the pen; taught man that which he knew not” (al-‘Alaq, 1-5).
In the above incident, there was an encounter between — or a convergence of — two types of reading. The first type was a conventional one that stood for a process of decoding symbols so as to construct or derive meaning, which was represented by Muhammad (pbuh) who was yet to be appointed the prophet.
The second type of reading was put forth, and was represented, by the angel Jibril. It was a new heavenly reading paradigm, which was hitherto unknown. It was a divine gift from the Creator to His creation.
On account of this, it is understandable why both the Prophet (pbuh) and Jibril persisted in their respective ways. To the Prophet (pbuh), it was strange to be asked to read, for he was unread. Thus, he could not say anything except that he was illiterate.
But to Jibril, such by no means was a bizarre act, for he was laying down a ground-breaking vision of reading that transcended everything man had previously known. That Jibril asked the Prophet (pbuh) three times to read, before giving him the first revelation, every time seizing the Prophet (pbuh) and pressing him so hard that he could hardly bear it, could connote waking him completely up from the worldliness of his being, thought and experience, and preparing him fully for the import and weight of the words that were to follow – and of the prophethood mission in general.
The new reading paradigm was summed up in the given revelation.
The Prophet (pbuh) was asked first and foremost to read and recite the Qur’an which was revealed directly upon his heart (al-Shu’ara’, 194). He thus always felt as though the Qur’an had been engraved on his heart. His reading and reciting of the Qur’an was coming from the heart and was targeting people’s hearts as well before anything else. Such was happening effortlessly and naturally. No even slightest reading mistakes, hesitation, stuttering, messing up, or failing to remember was ever recorded about the Prophet (pbuh), irrespective of the oscillating general circumstances and the psychological as well as physical conditions of the Prophet (pbuh).
The Qur’an is a book of signs (ayat), guidance, clear proofs and criterion, the ultimate objective of which is to be applied in everyday life. However, life with its multitiered realities is also made replete with signs (ayat), guidance and clear proofs, which are as manifest in the slightest and most modest as in the grandest and most sophisticated.
Hence, implementing and living the Qur’an signify an amalgamation of its ayat, guidance and clear proofs with the same, entailed in the life phenomena, in order that the purpose and objective of existence are achieved. Reading the Qur’an, it follows, means also reading and exploring life as a locus of the implementation of the former. It likewise denotes reading life’s infinite portents and signs (ayat), serving as an indispensable supplement to the proper reading, comprehending and applying of the signs (ayat) and messages of the Qur’an.
No reading of the Qur’an is complete without reading life, and no reading of life is appropriate without reading the Qur’an, because the Qur’an is meant for life, and life, in turn, is steered and sustained by the Qur’an. The only solution for man, therefore, is the combination of two readings. The solution is about quality, rather than quantity. It is about devising most effective methods and most productive outcomes for real life and its gripping challenges, rather than excessive rhetoric, idealism and abstract theorizing. It is perhaps no coincidence that iqra’ as an imperative is derived from the verb qara’, which means not only to read, but also to combine, integrate and bring things together.
This spirit is implied in Almighty Allah’s words that reading should be done only in the name of “your Lord Who created; created man from a clinging substance”. This means that reading should be done solely for the divine — not personal or any other – goals, and for the realization of a higher order of things and their meanings, for such is the implication of the concepts of lordship (rububiyyah) and servitude (‘ubudiyyah) that stand at the core of the Islamic message.
Similarly, it means that Allah’s creation is to be read as much and as fervently as His revelation, as both are His and have originated from Him. Their objectives are identical: to reveal and disseminate the truth at all planes of the life phenomenon. Thus, the “read” injunction and Allah’s attribute as the Creator are communicated together.
This is further accentuated by the subsequent words that Allah is “the most Generous Who taught by the pen; taught man that which he knew not”. Granting man the Qur’an as a revealed book, as well as an ontological “qur’an” or the “book” of creation (al-qur’an al-takwini) is a sign of Almighty Allah being most Kind and Generous to man in his capacity as Allah’s vicegerent on earth. Allah further granted man every means and opportunity to succeed in his projected task. Failure is not an option and can never be justified.
The new reading paradigm brought by the angel Jibril in the cave Hira’ was about the reading of revelation (the Qur’an), life with all its dimensions, and the self. It was as comprehensive and holistic as the Prophet’s mission itself. The new reading was at once physical, cerebral and spiritual, corresponding to the character of its aim: man and life, as well as the heavens and the earth. A person, it goes without saying, may be illiterate, but a good, insightful and knowledgeable reader. In the same vein, a person may be educated and literate, but ignorant and unwise. True knowledge is identified with light and guidance. It is a guarantee of success and happiness in both worlds. Hence, though illiterate, the Prophet (pbuh) was the most knowledgeable, most enlightened and wisest man that ever lived.
No wonder this awareness led to the creation of a powerful Islamic civilization whose most conspicuous characteristics revolved around the notions of knowledge, education, wisdom and science. It was a civilization of learning (reading), which was caused and sustained by learning and learned (reading) generations. Such was an engine of Muslim civilizational growth and cultural enrichment through centuries. It was only when such a spirit was lost that Islamic civilization started declining, and the Muslim community started losing ground to other nations and their less adequate patterns of civilizational progress.
Today in the age of globalization, as Muslims grow more and more desperate in their quest to restore their cultural and civilizational identity and respect from others, they should know that the only way forward is the revivification of the universal concept of iqra’ (read!), as revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the Hira’ Cave, and everything such concept entails. That endeavour would bring an end to many alien, inept and outright useless alternatives Muslims have adopted in recent times in order to fill the void left by their gradual abandoning of the original iqra’ scheme.
If revived, the authentic iqra’ process would minimize memorization – unfortunately often associated with little or no understanding whatsoever – replacing it with a combination of better comprehension and practical application of knowledge. In passing, memorization in the past, when there was no technology and books were either rare or extremely expensive, was something, and memorization today, in the era of technology and when books are both easily available and affordable, is something else. Today almost every Muslim has downloaded on his smartphone – a gadget without which, in actual fact, life is unimaginable — the Qur’an with its translations and numerous commentaries, anthologies of the Prophet’s sunnah, encyclopaedic works on fiqh, sirah, Muslim history, etc. Every aspect of Islamic knowledge is constantly with a person and is available at his fingertips. Everyone is a walking encyclopaedia, so to speak, in the sense that practically everyone has limitless access to limitless knowledge at all times.
Indeed, it is high time that Muslims stop embracing and practicing virtual illiteracy in the name of education and cultural development.
INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI
By Shabbir Aariz
This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,
“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..
OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….
ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY
(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..
burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.
His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….
YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.
His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.
John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.
As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,
“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..
HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.
Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.
John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.
(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])
Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer
By Naveed Hussain
I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.
I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.
“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.
Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.
Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.
But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.
Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.
For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.
I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.
Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”
Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.
Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.
Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”
Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.
Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest
By Asheesh Mamgain
If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.
“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”
“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.
Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.
Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.
“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”
So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.
The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.
“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.
“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”
There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.
“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”
Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.
Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”
More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”
A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.
Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.
Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.
But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”