Wednesday, 28 April 2010

We need Goethe

Samri the magician created a golden calf which could produce sounds. Many started worshipping it and Moses asked one of them, "If it was a miracle that you required in order to believe, then I showed you so many but you defied me. Samri showed you only one and you came to believe. Why is that?"

The conversation is perhaps imaginary but it serves a purpose and Mawlana Rumi spells that out in his Masnavi. Souls tend to get impressed by what is according to their own condition.

In Pakistan, we often say that our education system has given too much importance to Western literature at the cost of our own, but saying that is rather like missing the whole point. Whether it is Western literature or our own, the educational and academic institutions have shown a tendency towards falling for the worst rather than the best - just like the worshipper of the golden calf who defied the miracles of Moses but bowed down to the magic of Samri.

One of the greatest names of the West which we have ignored is Goethe. Iqbal said about him, "It is not until I had realised the infinitude of Goethe’s mind that I discovered the narrow breadth of my own." Consequently he modelled his second book of poetry, A Message from the East (1923) after Goethe's Divan. After this, if we exclude Goethe from our sylabbuses we shall be cutting ourselves away not from German heritage but our own.

Still, we find that Goethe is not included anywhere in our syllabuses. Instead, we find the syllabuses to be filled with those degenerate Western writers who were catalysts to the fall of their own societies rather that contributors to its rise. Western writers representing trends that were described by Iqbal as "poison" for societies breathe that poison into our classrooms while those Western writers who had been strongly recommended for us by Iqbal have been ignored! So, it's not about East or West after all. It is rather about choosing good instead of bad even when the good can be more useful.

Recently, through some comments from a respected American reader of these blogs, I realized that Goethe has not been marginalized in Pakistan only. Connie L. Nash writes, "I don't remember him ever coming up as a student anytime during my many many years of study - even when I took lots of humanities, literature, philosophy and international writers as optional studies for my own interest."

I am inclined to conclude that we have been living in an age when the seats of authority in humanities and literature came to be occupied by trends that were diamterically opposed to the sense of life represented by the likes of Goethe and Iqbal. In this age, some lip service was done to these geniuses, since they had become too legendary to be ignored. However, their life and work was not approached according to how they would have liked it to be approached but instead it was interpreted from a point of view against which these benefactors had been warning the humanity.

One result was that most biographies of Goethe and Iqbal do not corroborate their works. The other result is that a modern reader does not know why to study these writers, or how. I hope to touch upon these issues in subsequent posts but perhaps at least for Pakistan it is time to rediscover that great connection with the German thinker which our own national poet established on such strong foundations and left behind for us as a lasting legacy.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Review of Shakespeare According to Iqbal

The following review of my book Shakespeare According to Iqbal: an Alternative Reading of The Tempest was published in Books & Authors, Dawn, on Sunday 25 April 2010. It is by Peerzada Salman.
The Bigger Picture

They say William Shakespeare created the most of God. The reference is to the myriad of (believable) characters that he created. Even when someone tries to criticise him, the best s/he can do is to suggest that Hamlet is an ‘artistic failure’. Notice the use of the word artistic. Shakespeare’s works can be less successful but they’re never less artistic. And art reflects life, if it isn’t life.

There must be a reason why literary giants like Allama Iqbal showered profuse praise on Shakespeare, for the playwright’s art was gleaned from life. Iqbal was no ordinary individual himself. His perceptions of, and outlook on, human existence is no secret. If Allama Iqbal praised Asadullah Ghalib, Mawlana Rumi or Shakespeare, the common thread was life. 

Shakespeare created characters that were flesh and blood, embodying all the human traits. Iqbal could see the bigger picture behind his ostensibly eccentric or plain dramatis personae. Kudos for Khurram Ali Shafique for offering an alternative reading of The Tempest, and that too according to Iqbal.

The book is divided into three parts (‘The Seven Stages of Potent Art’, ‘Twice Upon a Time’, ‘The Human Spirit’) which highlight the confluence, to a certain degree, of the Shakespearean play and the nearly two centuries’ old Persian poem Haft Payker (Seven Beauties) by the legendary poet Nezami Ganjavi. Rumi also features with his masterful Masnavi, which is the least surprising. 

The special thing about the book is the notes at the end that elaborate the allusions, references and events mentioned in the three sections. They elucidate the finer points of the text, even for those who know The Tempest (if not Shakespeare) and Iqbal (if not in entirety) like the back of their hand. 

An interesting aspect that the book highlights is the 14-line poem that the Allama wrote for William Shakespeare. The discussion in the section ‘The Human Spirit’ suggests that each couplet of the nazm traces the progress of one of The Tempest’s principal characters, and from Prospero’s art through to the major conflicts that appear in its chronological storyline of the play. It’s worth a careful read, and a cautious appraisal.

— Peerzada Salman

Shakespeare According to Iqbal: An alternative 
reading of The Tempest
By Khurram Ali Shafique
Iqbal Academy Pakistan, Lahore
ISBN 978-969-416-447-2
47pp. Rs70

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Nietzsche and Rumi

Here are two interesting comments on the German thinker Nietzsche (seen in the picture below) by Allama Iqbal that were first published in New Era (Lucknow) in 1917.

Muslim Democracy

The Democracy of Europe – overshadowed by socialistic agitation and anarchical fear – originated mainly in the economic regeneration of European societies. Nietzsche, however, abhors this ‘rule of the herd’ and, hopeless of the plebeian, he bases all higher culture on the cultivation and growth of an Aristocracy of Supermen. But is the plebeian so absolutely hopeless? The Democracy of Islam did not grow out of the extension of economic opportunity, it is a spiritual principle based on the assumption that every human being is a centre of latent power, the possibilities of which can be developed by cultivating a certain type of character. Out of the plebeian material Islam has formed men of the noblest type of life and power. Is not, then, the Democracy of early Islam an experimental refutation of the ideas of Nietzsche?

Nietzsche and Jalaluddin Rumi

Comparisons, they say, are odious. I want, however, to draw your attention to a literary comparison which is exceedingly instructive and cannot be regarded as odious. Nietzsche and Maulana Jalal-ud-Din Rumi stand at the opposite poles of thought; but in the history of thought it is the points of contact and departure which constitute centres of special interest. In spite of the enormous intellectual distance that lies between them these two great poet-philosophers seem to be in perfect agreement with regard to the practical bearing of their thought on life. Nietzsche saw the decadence of the human type around ihim, disclosed the subtle forces that have been working for it, and finally attempts to adumbrate the type of life adequate to the task of our planet, “Not how man is preserved, but how man is surpassed,” was the keynote of Nietzsche’s thought. The superb Rumi—born to the Moslem world at a time when enervating modes of life and thought, and an outwardly beautiful but inwardly devitalising literature had almost completely sucked up the blood of Moslem Asia and paved the way for an easy victory for the Tartar—was not less keenly alive than Nietzsche to the poverty of life, incompetence, inadequacy and decay of the body social, of which he formed a part and parcel…