Posts Tagged ‘Islam’

Awareness of History

November 29, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I was reading an interview about philosophy when I came across some tangential remarks I felt would be useful to reproduce on this blog in this time of rising fundamentalism in the Indian subcontinent.

The interview is between 3:AM Magazine and the  philosopher Jonardon Ganeri (one of whose latest books is Identity as Reasoned Choice: A South Asian Perspective on the Reach and Resources of Public and Practical Reason in Shaping Individual Identities).

The tangential remarks pertain to the evolution of intellectual history in India.

The bottom line for JG emerging from his detailed research in the history of Indian philosophy is the following: “In India what Navadvīpa demonstrates is how wrong-headed are Hindu fundamentalist histories of Indian Islam.”

This fundamentalist history is very familiar and repeated in countless comments on innumerable blogs: Muslim invaders imposed Persian, oppressed Hindus, destroyed temples, decimated Indian scholarship, etc., etc.

Instead, what JG discovered was a surprise to him: “What I discovered was that at the same time Europe was undergoing a transformation from a mediaeval to a modern world-view, analogous processes were under way in India, and, even more surprisingly, that this was taking place among Sanskrit intellectuals at the height of the Islamic Mughal age.”

This is the reason JG advises people to learn from history, avoid locking themselves “into boxes” and “to be less dogmatic and categorical in their thinking.” He concludes with a recommendation that is eminently sensible but surprisingly hard for people to accept: those who desire knowledge should cultivate the intellectual virtues of keeping an open mind and seeing what turns up.”

The selected excerpts below speak for themselves. Key sentences are highlighted. The complete interview can be read here:

3:AM: The world’s in a mess and it’s partly because people are ignorant of their own histories…

JG: Intractable conflicts arise when people think themselves into boxes from which they can’t escape…

3:AM: Last year you published ‘The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India.’ Certainly for me it was a revelation. The names were new to me and probably were to most philosophers working in the philosophical mainstream. Can you say something about these key figures and why they are significant? So the Bengali Raghunātha Śiromai was the inventor of the ‘new reason’ philosophy and shaped metaphysical enquiry through the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Can you say what this ‘new reason’ philosophy was and why Śiromai was so important?

JG: The names were new to me too before I started laboriously trawling through manuscript catalogues in India and Nepal. I gradually began to notice that something very exciting had been going on in this period, something never mentioned in the standard histories of Indian philosophy which generally try to reinforce a picture of India as an ancient civilization.

What I discovered was that at the same time Europe was undergoing a transformation from a mediaeval to a modern world-view, analogous processes were under way in India, and, even more surprisingly, that this was taking place among Sanskrit intellectuals at the height of the Islamic Mughal age.

Early modernity, I discovered, was not an exclusively European affair after all, but, rather, different forms and varieties of modernity were emerging concurrently in many places. In trying to give some context to the rise of these new philosophers, I found that they were mostly concentrated in two cities where there was a lot of interaction between Muslim and Sanskrit intellectuals, namely Benares, or Varanasi, and a smaller place in Bengal called Navadvīpa, or Nadia in its latinized form

3:AM: Given recent contemporary history, it is fascinating to read about the complex Muslim-Hindu interaction of Navadvīpa at this time…

JG: Navadvīpa was one of the great powerhouses of philosophy in the seventeenth century, and had been for three or four centuries. Before that, Buddhists had set up monastery-universities in Nalanda and elsewhere, but Navadvīpa was organised around a more traditional South Asian model, and was more like an extended intellectual community. One could get an extremely good education in the techniques of philosophical reasoning there, and students would come from all India for it, whatever their religious background. It seems quite likely that there was even an exchange with the flourishing intellectual culture in Tibet.

One thing which became clear to me is that the philosophers here enjoyed an enormous amount of intellectual liberty, and pursued a whole range of very innovative research programmes into all manner of topics in pure philosophy, especially semantics, epistemology, metaphysics, but also into the philosophy of law, and areas of social and political philosophy. I wondered what explained this unparalleled level of intellectual autonomy. The most evident fact about Navadvīpa was the strong ties it had with the larger world of Persianate and Islamicate scholarship, as a result of an enlightened history of Muslim governance.

I don’t think that it is any coincidence that one of the great religious reformers of the time, Caitanya, came out of Navadvīpa at this time. My primary interest is in the astonishingly modern, and yes basically secular, philosophy that was created, but I do think that Navadvīpa is great example of the tremendously progressive impact that Muslim attitudes towards intellectual inquiry have had on the world. In India what Navadvīpa demonstrates is how wrong-headed are Hindu fundamentalist histories of Indian Islam…

3:AM: You regret the historical facts that brought the new reason philosophy to a standstill. This was the collapse of the Mughal power and the new British imposition of fiscal arrangements and educational policies that funded colonial universities and colleges and down-graded the poorer, traditional networks in which the new reason philosophy had thrived. So we Brits were the bad guys here! Can you say something about this?

JG: Yes, Richard, I’m afraid we were. Britain did a lot, at the end of empire, to destroy the evidence, but on 18 April 2012 a large cache of Foreign Office documents whose very existence had been kept secret was forced into the public domain through a legal action taken by the Mau Mau. They paint a picture of atrocity and inhumanity that the British have worked hard to erase from the collective psyche.

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Understanding Communalism: The Past is No Guide to the Present

October 14, 2012

By Anjum Altaf

The present in South Asia is messy, gruesome and unpleasant; no wonder we keep referring back to the past to make sense of it. Most of the time, however, we end up distorting the past to craft seamless narratives that accord with our current sensibilities. I will argue in this essay that there is no such continuity to be crafted and enter a plea for the past to be left alone. (more…)

Theater and Social Change in Pakistan: The Plays of Shahid Nadeem

July 1, 2012

By Kabir Altaf

Art does not exist in a vacuum. The artist lives in a particular social context and his or her work reflects the era in which it was created. Artists have long been concerned with exploitation and injustice. Rather than have their work simply reflect the society around them, many artists wish to use their work to change conditions on the ground. For example, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) believed that plays should not cause spectators to identify emotionally with the characters on stage but should rather provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the onstage action. Thus, Brecht used techniques that would remind the audience that the play was a reflection of reality and not reality itself. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate to the audience that their reality was equally constructed, and thus changeable.

Two of Brecht’s most famous plays are The Threepenny Opera and The Good Person of Szechwan. Both these works reflect Brecht’s concerns with the exploitative nature of capitalism. (more…)

‘Craving Middleness’: A Critique

April 25, 2012

By Anjum Altaf

I have not read a piece as often in recent days as Craving Middleness. It identifies a problem that is central to the Pakistani predicament – the widening divide between those who consider religion a matter of private belief and those who consider it central to public life. And it recommends the eminently sensible need for a dialogue between the two if an impending confrontation is to be avoided.

While its two end points are so correctly located, the intervening argument seems entangled in claims that are contradicted by observable evidence. It is with reference to this middle that I hope to begin my conversation with the author for whom I have the utmost admiration. (more…)

Craving Middleness

April 8, 2012

By Maryam Sakeenah

I travel across two worlds in my 20-minute commuting distance between both my workplaces: a modern religious school and a private grammar school where scions of Pakistan’s moneyed elite are privileged with quality education in tune with modern needs. The mindsets I deal with, the attitudes I encounter make for interesting comparison. At the religious school, the concepts of the sacred and the profane as defined by absolute religious morality are the framework for all thought-patterns and behaviour. Fidelity to the sacred is the highest value promoted and readily accepted – at least ostensibly – in an environment designed to actively encourage it. At the grammar school, the central value is free thinking and critical inquiry rigorously promoted by the administration. The curriculum is built around and disseminates post Enlightenment Western perspectives and metanarratives, with the fundamental premise being that of morality being relative, and of individual liberty being the highest value to be protected and safeguarded. Students are taught to invariably seek answers and explanations through logic, and question where the logical basis for an assumption seems unsatisfactory. (more…)

M J Akbar’s Tinderbox: The Book in Images

August 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I was asked to review M J Akbar’s new book Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan and have done so; the review appeared in the May 2011 issue of Himal Southasian magazine. Here I wish to attempt something different – to convey to the reader a sense of the book through the images that came to mind as I read it.


Tinderbox is a particularly apt metaphor for present-day Pakistan. I reached for the book with a sense of excitement and anticipation at the prospect of learning whether the tinderbox would explode or somehow be defused. The issue had been on many minds and the focus of many talks for some time. A member of the family had put it thus after attending one the talks: (more…)

God, Music and Food for Thought

July 14, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

In a discussion of the arts, it was mentioned that middle-class families in India encouraged children to learn classical music because it was a mark of high culture; it made one special in one’s esteem and in that of others. It was then asked why classical music was not healthy in Pakistan given that much the same considerations should be applicable across the border. It is my sense that the question was less an expression of belief and more an opening for a discussion and I am going to exploit that to speculate on some topics of interest.

The one-word, and not altogether flippant, answer to the question is God. Hindu deities (Krishna and Saraswati, to mention just two) not only approve of but delight in music. Whether Allah approves or disapproves is still in doubt with no resolution in sight while the camp of disapprovers continues to add adherents. (more…)

Explaining Pakistan’s Drift to the Right

July 8, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I wish to explain Pakistan’s long drift to the religious right while going beyond the argument that Islamism is at the root of all the country’s problems, a formulation that begs many questions: Why was Pakistan amenable to Islamism? Why this particular form of Islamism? Why with seemingly so little resistance?

My focus will be on the structural factors that opened the political space first for Islam and then for Islamism while remaining cognizant of the fact that an explanation is not intended to be an excuse. Nor is it an attempt to shift blame, distinctions many are too impatient to make. The blame rests squarely on Pakistanis but that does not obviate the need for an alternative but coherent explanation of the events of the past sixty years. (more…)

Testing the Hypothesis of Sexual Repression in Pakistan

June 29, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

My response to Christopher Hitchens’ article in Vanity Fair was not well written because it got hijacked into areas that I did not intend to stress. In this post I will try and refocus the discussion on what I consider germane to the objectives of this blog, i.e., to examine a hypothesis critically in order to establish its validity.

The task therefore is to describe the hypotheses proffered by Hitchens and suggest how they may be fairly tested. As part of this exercise, I am not concerned with disputing or establishing the truth of facts; the emphasis is solely on the exercise of reasoning through the arguments assuming the facts to be true.

The central concern for Hitchens is the situation in Pakistan. This concern is well placed and thoroughly justified. The challenge that Hitchens assumes is to identify the most fundamental cause that explains this situation. (more…)

Pakistan Unhitches Hitchens

June 26, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan is like the spouse who makes one froth at the mouth and take leave of one’s senses. In the ensuing rant, it is possible to get almost all the facts right while getting the big picture almost entirely wrong, leaving one feeling, the next day, sheepish and deeply embarrassed – the real damage done, in any such fight, being to oneself. Pakistan’s latest enraged ex is Christopher Hitchens, who could not have done himself any worse damage than what he has accomplished with his ironically titled Vanity Fair blowup, “From Abbottabad to Worse.”

Hitchens delivers his verdict right off the bat: (more…)