Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Russell’

Governance in Pakistan – 7: Which Islam?

March 18, 2009

The question left over from the last post was the following:

Given that it had become inevitable for Pakistan to have a religious identity (for reasons articulated by Professor Ralph Russell in the previous post) why was the tradition of Islam that was indigenous to the subcontinent ignored in favor of one imported from Saudi Arabia?

As we have mentioned, Professor Russell was not a political or religious scholar and he never sat down to explicitly address this question. However, in his essays he left behind numerous astute observations that we can use to begin crafting a plausible answer.

Our aim is not to reach a definitive conclusion but to see how the mind of a trained humanist works, how from certain observations a hypothesis is derived, and how facts are linked through a chain of reasoning to arrive at conclusions that can be tested against the outcomes of real life.

Such a process based on reasoning need not always lead to the correct explanation but it provides the reader the opportunity to identify particular links in the argument that he or she disputes or disagrees with and to offer a new explanation based on the substitutions. It is important to be clear about what one disagrees with and to be able to suggest alternatives that stand up to criticism. The ensuing dialogue forms the basis of the method of intellectual enquiry.

Let us take Professor Russell’s essay Aziz Ahmad, South Asia, Islam and Urdu and note straight away his observation in passing about the fundamentals of intellectual discourse.

Aziz Ahmad was for a while (beginning in 1957) a colleague of Professor Russell’s at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Professor Russell mentions that he had sharp and vigorously pursued disagreements with Aziz Ahmad on the methodology of teaching Urdu to foreign students:

Such disagreements were not infrequent. That being so, it surprised and puzzled him when he found that this in no way inhibited my whole-hearted praise of his talents and of his published work. (He came from a milieu where it is indeed rare for these two things to go together.)

One must admit that it remains rare even today.

Professor Russell mentions that often the best understanding of social situations is to be found in literature:

For example, the problem of Kashmir is one of the major problems of the politics of the post-1945 period. An important element in the determining of the present situation was the internal political struggle of the 1930s and the 1940s. Where can one find a vivid picture of Kashmir during those years? In Aziz Ahmad’s novel Aag. But those who (if they knew about it) would like to read it for this purpose, can’t. And those who can read it aren’t for the most part interested in doing so for this purpose.

At this point a question that naturally arises is: What about historians and social scientists in Pakistan and India who write in English but know Urdu well? Don’t they use these materials? The answer is: For the most part, no. Why not? For several reasons. First, numbers of them come in the category already described, of people who have acquired their English at the cost of letting their Urdu rust. Secondly, many of them are more English than the English, more royalist than the king.

In a society where conventions have for centuries been more rigid than in the West, English-derived conventions (for example, that a novel cannot be a worthwhile source for academic studies of this kind) are observed with a rigidity which the Western world does not apply to them. Even where non-fictional writing is concerned they think (often, but not always, rightly) that works written in Urdu lack the scholarly qualities of works written in English, and that therefore no self-respecting scholar pays any attention to them. Even if the premise were wholly correct (and it isn’t) the conclusion doesn’t follow from it. But there it is. They think that the premise is correct, and that the conclusion does follow from it; and they act accordingly.

Note Professor’s Russell’s hypothesis and the argument he is constructing: that the Pakistani ruling elite was alienated from its own traditions and often contemptuous of them. If this was its attitude towards Urdu, imagine what it must have been towards the languages of the masses and what its perception must have been of the folk wisdom and traditions of illiterate people.

When a ruling elite is alienated from its own traditions it is all the more susceptible to the presumed superiority of outside ones. As Professor Russell observed, it was more English than the English. And similarly, it was more Arab than the Arabs.

And so when Saudi Islam came backed by large amounts of money there was no resistance, intellectual or otherwise. The game was over.

This is where Professor Russell’s chain of reasoning leads us. If you have a different explanation we can build a discussion around it.

Let us end by adding a general observation of Locke about human beings to Professor Russell’s observation of the Pakistani intelligentsia:

Most men are simply too lazy or ill trained to apply themselves to the dull work of sifting through evidence and reasoning properly. They prefer pseudo-certainties, even if those are inherited from tradition and untested by experience; and once they are committed to dogmas, they enjoy imposing them on others. This is how religious superstitions are born and perpetuated. But that also means that they can be combated if human beings are given enough leisure and training to let their natural faculties develop.

The bottom line is that it is important to learn to reason; and this learning requires training; and this training can only be imparted by educational institutions, preferably early in life.

We have a challenging agenda before us.

Professor Russell’s essay is from his book How Not to Write the History of Urdu Literature and Other Essays on Urdu and Islam. The observation from Locke is to be found on page 94 in the book by Mark Lilla (The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West).

Back to Main Page


Governance in Pakistan – 6: Advantages of Good Analysis

March 15, 2009

In the last post we used material from an essay by Professor Ralph Russell to illustrate what we consider a good analysis. Let us continue using that example to convince the reader of the advantages of good analysis.

Resting one’s future on hopes does provide solace but is self-defeating because it provides no direction for the future. What happens when the hopes are dashed? More hopes? No wonder things continue to deteriorate as they have in Pakistan over the years so that we have now reached the stage where the unimaginable is peering in through the windows of our homes.

A good analysis, on the other hand, provides a roadmap for the future because it is based on an understanding of the forces that are operating in society and it is possible to shape and mould societal forces with intelligent public policy. Not that the intelligence emerges out of a vacuum. On the contrary, it is good analysis that helps inform public opinion of what is happening and mobilizes it behind the demand for intelligent responses.

We can see now a critical dimension of the systemic problem in Pakistan more serious than all the other seemingly more immediate problems. Without good analysis mobilizing public opinion on a continuous basis all there is are misplaced hopes and prayers for miracles. I too wish for a miracle but I would not count on it. As we have mentioned before, it is fine to trust in fate but it is wise to tie your camel.

So, let us go back to Professor Ralph Russell who explained the rise of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan by referring back to the tactics that were used to mobilize Muslim support for separation in the 1930s and 1940s. We ended with Professor Russell’s conclusion:

It hardly needs to be said that if appeal to sentiments of this kind helped to mobilize the mass support without which Pakistan could not have been won, it also strengthened the religious (or pseudo-religious) fanaticism which Jinnah had opposed.

When we read this analysis we can easily understand why Mr. Jinnah’s famous appeal on the founding of Pakistan was such an abject failure:

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.

This appeal failed not because Mr. Jinnah’s deputies were pygmies as is commonly argued. It failed because the emotional forces that had been let loose to achieve Pakistan were too powerful to be easily controlled even by a personality with the charisma of Mr. Jinnah.

Professor Russell picks up this thread:

Once Pakistan had come into being, this force, which the new country’s rulers had themselves done so much to foster, confronted them with a challenge. It has done so ever since.

Professor Russell’s argument is worth reading in detail but let me just summarize his bottom line. A situation had been created in which there was no getting away from the fact that Islam had to be a key element in the identity of Pakistan to weld the people together.

To Professor Russell it was clear that the answer was not to be found in conventional Islam. And based on his analysis he both asks the question and suggests a possible answer: If an Islamic identity was inevitable, why did it have to be the obscurantist one of Maududi when an alternative was available?

It seems to me that Islam in the subcontinent possesses a still living tradition which is at once authentically and recognizably Islamic, intelligible to the mass of the people and a more than adequate sanction for policies ‘workable in the light of the requirements of modern life.’

This is the tradition of Sufism, of Muslim mysticism, which finds such powerful expression in the poetry both of Urdu and of the regional languages such as Punjabi and Sindhi, and which is as familiar to the illiterate peasants as it is to the sophisticated Urdu-speaking literati. It proclaims values which are no less authentically Islamic than those proclaimed by Maududi and his supporters, but have little else in common with them.

Among these values are a cordial, and bluntly declared, hatred and contempt for religious bigotry, and a passionate dedication to humanist ideals which inculcates, among other things, a proper respect for the rights of ALL men, whether they be Muslim or not…

One may perhaps point to this last-named strand in Muslim consciousness as one which could provide even the most modern and progressive of Pakistani politicians with the authentically Islamic sanction for their policies which they seem to feel that they need.

It is easy to forget that Professor Russell was writing this in the 1980s and it was only his analysis that could make him see the writing on the wall so far ahead of time and to propose a feasible alternative that could have changed the trajectory of the future.

So, a new question arises here: Why was this Islamic tradition that was so deeply rooted in the everyday life of the majority of Pakistanis not made an integral part of the school curricula? Why was it displaced by an alien tradition imported from Saudi Arabia?

This requires an analysis of its own and Professor Russell hints at some of the reasons. We shall take up this discussion in a subsequent post.

Back to Main Page

Governance in Pakistan – 5: An Example of a Good Analysis

March 15, 2009

Professor Ralph Russell died on September 14, 2008 at the age on ninety. Known as the British Baba-e-Urdu, he was a leading scholar of the language and was awarded the Sitara-e-Imtiaz for a lifetime of notable contributions.

Professor Russell was a scholar of language and literature and never thought of himself as a political analyst. But his training in the humanities endowed him with the ability needed for good analysis.

Here I take an extract from his essay (Strands of Muslim Identity in South Asia – first published in the 1980s) to illustrate the attributes of good analysis.

It is quite likely that Muslims and Pakistani readers were upset by this analysis. But Professor Russell, a great friend of Urdu, Islam and Pakistan, never let that keep him from saying what he felt needed to be said. It is from him that I picked up the line: Do you want me to say what I think or what you want to hear?

In another of his essays, Professor Russell says “I sometimes have the impression that in the field of Islamic studies more than most, scholars feel a need to be ‘diplomatic’ (which, let us face it, is only a polite way of saying ‘less than completely honest’) so that influential people will not be offended. And then he refers to Hardy in the Explanatory Note to Tess—that ‘if an offence comes out of the truth, better it is that the offence come out than that the truth be concealed.’ 

So here is Professor Russell not trying to be analytical but making an observation based on the analytical process. Follow the logic of the argument as Professor Russell tries to explain the rise of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan:

The sophisticated Muslim case underlying the separatist demands that ultimately became the demand for Pakistan rested on the secular or quasi-secular concept of the Muslims of the subcontinent as a separate nationality; in the years preceding independence it was this concept that was always stressed by the authoritative spokesmen of the movement for the creation of Pakistan. To such a concept religious orthodoxy was irrelevant. ‘Muslim’ meant anyone who called himself a Muslim, anyone who was born into the Muslim community, even if he were a militant atheist. Jinnah himself, the Qaid e Azam (Great Leader) of the Muslim League, was anything but an orthodox Muslim of the old-fashioned kind. For him, the concept of a Muslim nationhood implied even an onslaught on the conservative Muslin divines, and an effort, as he wrote in 1942, ‘to free our people from the most undesirable reactionary elements.’

But such sophisticated concepts could not arouse the mass Muslim enthusiasm which the leadership needed if acceptance of its demands were to be enforced. With the illiterate and half-literate Muslim masses, what carried weight was precisely the ideas of the ‘most undesirable reactionary elements’—the prejudices which told them: ‘One Muslim is worth ten Hindus. We Muslims ruled over these people for centuries. We are a fine, manly people: the Hindus are slaves and cowards. Our type is the warrior, bold and generous: theirs is the banya, the cowardly, extortionate, hypocritical moneylender. Islam is a fine faith, the acme of all religious development: Hinduism is an inhuman and revolting system which sanctifies human degradation.’

And so on and so forth. An appeal to the Muslim masses to come into the political arena could, in the late 1930s and 1940s, hardly have had any other result than to fan this sort of Muslim chauvinism. The response to Jinnah’s call in December 1939, to celebrate a ‘Day of Deliverance’ when Congress ministries resigned, already showed this; still more horrifying was the response to his Direct Action Day of 16 August 1946.

It hardly needs to be said that if appeal to sentiments of this kind helped to mobilize the mass support without which Pakistan could not have been won, it also strengthened the religious (or pseudo-religious) fanaticism which Jinnah had opposed.

I am not saying that this is necessarily the correct diagnosis. What I am pointing out is the process by which Professor Russell explains the present through a link to the past and traces the consequences of actions taken and forces let loose a long time back to the conditions that exist at present.

If you feel Professor Russell is wrong, the field is wide open to present a better analysis. There would be little point, however, in the common response of merely accusing Professor Russell of being an agent of the enemy.

For those who consider Professor Russell’s description of the nature of the appeal to Muslim masses far-fetched, it would be salutary to read through the modern public school curriculum in Pakistan today (Here and Here).

Back to Main Page