Monday October 18, 2021

The ills of modernity

January 15, 2017

Music and poetry provide a universal language for human expression across geographies, belief systems and cultural divides. If harnessed for human welfare, they can help address the sociopolitical disparities, conflicts and sectarian cleavages in a polarised society like Pakistan. 

Music, in particular, has been used historically as a cementing force to attain solidarity and social cohesion when societies undergo transitional phases. In traditional societies of a globalising world, changes are so rapid that they surpass the evolutionary process of social behaviour, local cultural expressions and indigenous wisdom. The homogenisation of belief systems, cultural practices and social identities are the tangible outcomes of globalisation that eventually give birth to conflicts between indigenous cultural expressions and exotic worldviews. 

The conflict between tradition and modernity is not only confined to the friction of social relationship but also takes the form of institutional arrangements in defiance of the homogenising effects of globalisation. Music and poetry provide the key ingredients to bridge the gap created by diametrically opposed perspectives of tradition and modernity. In the era of globalisation, the fusion of cultures and ideologies is possible only if music and poetry are harnessed to create harmony, build peace and prompt pluralism.

At times, the conflict causes the social, cultural and religious fragmentation of societies. In remote and isolated communities, the impact of globalisation has been detrimental because it tends to impose unilateral worldviews that are not compatible with the traditional social order. For instance, in all traditional societies, religion and culture are blended as an organic way of life quite contrary to the modernity that formalises religion and culture through institutions as two separate domains of society. This religious and cultural fragmentation becomes intertwined with emerging interest groups that strive to assert their supremacy in the new world of competing interests. 

Proponents of tradition strive to organise themselves to counter the institutionalised religion and culture and, in doing so, create a space of expression for disgruntled and marginalised segments of society who are adversely impacted by globalisation and modernisation in general. These traditional groups generally obtain the patronage of aristocratic families who see modernisation as a threat to their value system and consider it an effective way to attain religious and political clout.

Modern institutions establish and impose standardised practices of religion and culture which are not inclusive and indigenous in nature. This phenomenon stifles the possibility of the co-creation of knowledge, the appreciation of critical thinking and the disruptive potential of intellect. Institutions are coercive, dispassionate and promote uniformity where wisdom and intellect has to be subservient to instrumental management.

This is exactly what has happened in the remote valley of Hunza where visible strains between institutional faith and traditional art of mystical expression — including the devotional music and vernacular religious poetry – provide a valid example of the inherent conflict of modernisation. Institutional faith provides an instrumental approach to create a community of standardised practices across cultures and geographies by dislodging the local expression. It kills the possibility of imagination, gnosis, esoteric meaning and human creativity and, hence, religion becomes a close system.

The local spaces of imagination, creation of art, music and devotional poetry are replaced by a functional system of code and constitution. While reading a news story a few days ago, titled ‘President Obama recognises Pakistani scholar, Nasir Hunzai’, I decided to write this piece to lay bare some of the key aspects of the surge in Allama Nasir’s popularity in Hunza and beyond. The popularity of his poetry, in particular, can be seen in the context of the dichotomy of institutional and traditional faith as a way of submission and expression.

Nasir Hunzai is one of the most enigmatic and controversial scholars of Pakistan. He is both admired and loathed by many, mainly because he represents a thought that does not fit into the discipline of institutionalised faith. Born in Gilgit-Baltistan exactly a century ago, Nasir Hunzai has lived a remarkable, mystical life. He started his childhood as a shepherd, never went to a formal school, and ultimately became an iconoclastic figure for his followers with an enigmatic mystical and scholastic approach to religion. To his credit, there are more than a hundred publications that mostly deal with Gnosticism and the esoteric aspects of the non-formal faith system of mystics.

In the remote valley of Hunza, as in many other regions of Pakistan, the institutional faith finds itself in clash with local musical and poetic expressions of devotion to the supreme authority. Shrouded in a polemical language, the real cause of conflict is much deeper than its outward expression through poetry and music. This is the clash of tradition and modernity, which has taken the form of a conflict between institutionalised religion and the traditional practices of religion embedded in local culture.

Traditional theosophy opens up the inquisition and interpretation of faith as an interlocution between individual and divine without recourse to an intermediary. This can be termed as Gnosticism ie a mode of search for true knowledge and meaning of divine mysteries. This, in turn, provides a great deal of freedom to invest imagination and human intellect to interpret religion as a domain of inquiry, not a set of standard practices. “The ideas propounded by Allama Nasir Hunzai give space of free thinking and unrestrained imagination of cosmic realities which runs counter to the formal system of religious interpretation through institutions,” says a devout follower of Sufism.

Notwithstanding Allama Nasir Hunzai’s theological leanings, his poetry has been a source of inspiration for an emerging class of poets and art-loving youth in Hunza. The real beauty lies in the unique mix of theosophy and cultural symbolism in a language that was otherwise on the verge of extinction. Hunzai’s services for the preservation of Brushaski are unmatched, despite the mounting opposition from institutions responsible for the interpretation of religion and its poetics.

However, Allama Nasir Hunzai’s prose is full of logical inconsistencies and is essentially founded on a mix of Neoplatonism and mysticism which do not provide a palpable counternarrative to the discourse of organised religion. The educated society of Hunza though aspires for a modern way of life. The undercurrent of reversion to traditional poetry and indigenous music outlines the ongoing conflict between modernity and tradition.

The advent of modernity in Hunza has been in the form of institutions which claim monopoly over the interpretation of faith and culture to the dismay of an emerging population of free-thinking artists, intellectuals and social activists. The institutionalisation of faith and culture has done a great disservice to social cohesion, art, culture and identity in Hunza. The impending crisis of legitimacy of institutionalised religion and the burgeoning educated groups of free thinkers is a phenomenon that dispels the impression that modernity is a desired goal for progress of human societies. The popularity of Allama Nasir lies in the inability of the institutions of faith to stay relevant to the social, cultural, psychological and spiritual dimensions of life and the imposition of exotic values which do not appeal to the collective identity of people.

In other parts of Pakistan, the monopoly of centralised institutions over the interpretation of ideology, faith and culture has created xenophobia, intolerance and extremism. Terrorism, inter alia, is the by-product of institutionalisation of faith that disenfranchises those for whom faith, culture, art and devotion in their collectivity provide the meaning of life. Music and poetry transcend the confines of institutional religion and they are the only hope to provide intercultural and sectarian harmony. Let us go back to our basics and perhaps there lies a solution to our problems.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

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