Posts Tagged ‘Sufism’

Aditya Behl (1966-2009)

September 5, 2009

I am posting this tribute to Aditya Behl here for a reason. His work epitomizes the kind of passion and painstaking effort that are needed to understand the nature of past relations amongst the various communities inhabiting South Asia today.

I heard him read a paper only once (in 2008) and had a brief exchange after, noting in my mind that this was someone I wanted to meet again. He was a person who left a mark very quickly – with his scholarship, his sense of joy in his work, and the excitement he communicated to the audience.

I am reproducing here a tribute by someone who knew Aditya Behl well with the hope that the introduction to his work will help us in our own understanding of the past and thus fulfill a goal that was dear to him.


… Then one morning Naim saab became the bearer of unsettling news, we have lost Aditya Behl. One of the most talented young scholars in his early 40s, Aditya became known for his work in Persian and Urdu but he was at home in many languages including Sanskrit, French, Greek and Hindi. Aditya was the bearer of intimations of being Hindu and Muslim, which are perhaps lost except to a few persons/communities in our times.

Dazzling in his scholarship, repertoire and bearing, Aditya had carved out for himself an area of expertise in the genre of Sufi romances. He was one of the successors to the scholarship of an entire generation including Annemarie Schimmel, Christopher Shackle, Carl Ernst, Bruce Lawrence and Simon Digby (who accompanied him on some of his travels).

I met Aditya for the first time at the University of Chicago in the winter of 1980-81. He was deeply into Sufi studies (much before the subject had become fashionable!). I was then distant from South Asian studies, and instead immersed in European theories of state formation. He spoke to me of the patronage of Mughal and Maratha rulers of Gwalior and Indore and the creativity of sufis.

Over the last twenty years my own area of interest has developed in Muslim identities in Persian/Urdu/Rajasthani texts and the Hindu-Muslim city and I have come to deeply appreciate Aditya’s understanding of facets of Hindu-Muslim relations. I was enthralled by his translation of Mir Sayyid Manjhan Rajgiri, Madhumalati: An Indian Sufi romance, done in collaboration with Simon Weightman and published in the Oxford classics series.

In the last decade our interests grew closer. He was also mining the medieval Rajput-Charan texts that I was using. When I convened a double panel on the Universes of Indian Islam for the Conference on Indic religions, which my colleague, Madhu Kishwar, was organizing, Aditya’s was one of the first names that came to my mind. Illness -presaging perhaps the present moment – came in the way of his participation.

In September 2006 he gave a Seminar at CSDS on the Dabistān-i mazāhib, an Encyclopedia of Religion. By then he was holding the chair of South Asian Studies, at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. It had been a long day at work, but the seminar was invigorating. I have in my notes of that evening the words, “As always I like his work and the way it opens up a vista.” The Dabistān-i Mazāhib is a 17th century text, “authored” by a Zorastrian who has a surface duplex identity with two names, Zu’lfaqar Ardistani and Husaini Shah. The author identifies various groups such as Zorastrians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims. The “Hindus” refer to a geographic category and include a variety of sects, Aditya pointed out. The Zorastrian group from Azerkhaiban had suffered persecution under the Safavids and had come to practice taqiyā-using the tools of the conqueror against them. Aditya read the text in terms not of identity but as difference. My question for him had been that instead of the incommensurable difference he read, the text suggested to me numerous encounters and conversations: the reference to yogic breathing and other techniques; the Prophet being described as a disciple of Gorakhnath who taught him yoga; the description of Sarmad’s identity who is a Jew-Sufi. There is a reference to divisions, of course, that China and India will send forces that will reverse the Muslim expansion! The larger picture is of the Mughal Empire with its imperial bureaucracy in place, its agricultural productivity and considerable prosperity, and hence, the movement of holy men. I debated with him later that material prosperity alone does not explain this movement, particularly when it comes to holy men in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. What one needs to know more about is the popular support for holy men, the interaction between the village/town and these figures. I recall on the occasion Shuddhabrata’s comments that the last group of Mutazzilites was in Patna and that this was a period conducive to the writing of such “encyclopedias.”

In the last few years Aditya had become interested in the figure of Nazir Akbarabadi (1735-1830), immortalized in Habib Tanvir’s play Āgrā Bāzār. Nazir, the proponent of the language of the street and the bazaar, the poet of the carnivalesque kite flying and Holi festivals, the portrayer of vendors such as the watermelon seller, and of the sensual. He presented his work at the Delhi School of Economics and later wrote it up in, “Poet of the bazaars: Nazir Akbarabadi 1735-1830.” This was published in A wilderness of possibilities-Urdu studies in transnational perspective, edited by Kathryn Hansen and David Lelyveld. Aditya in this paper is interested in the formation of the Urdu literary canon, how Nazir’s verse was seen as vulgar by Mustafa Khan Shefta, characterized as “psychological impotence” by Shamsur-rahman Faruqi and seen as distant from the “high-minded Islamic revivalism” of Altaf Husain Hali. His interest was in Nazir’s poems on pleasure and how it requires a sensual sensibility, quite anamolous for the Urdu canon.

Aditya, I miss you already, the many conversations real and imagined that we had and could have had. You opened for the English reader a magical, miraculous world of medieval Sufi poetry, the premākhyāns notably Manjhan’s Madhumālati, Jayasi’s Padmāvat and Qutban’s Mrigavatī. A glorious Sufic contribution to Hindavi, but also to Brajbhasha and Avadhi and of thinking beyond “religion.”

You were an exceptionally talented person and explored a beautiful universe. Now you know more than any of us, what its deepest secrets are, of fanā and baqā, and the truths of wahdat ul wujūud and Alakh Niranjan!!

Shail Mayaram
Visiting Professor
Indian Institute of Advanced Study

This tribute is reproduced with thanks from Chapati Mystery.


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).

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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.

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