Values and intellect in history

November 22, 2020

The new bloc being formed is a step in the right direction; at least that is the imperative of history

Forgiveness, compassion, empathy and modesty are the attributes of the authentic nice beings, which are going extinct with every passing day. That, in fact, has resulted in a social malaise that is frighteningly rampant across the world today.

The problem with the modern/post-modern world is that it failed to create its own value system. Whenever a reference is made to the values or the system accruing therefrom, these moral categories are invoked. Thus, a dichotomy between the physical and the moral is what defines the world we inhabit. That exactly is the dilemma besetting the world in which we exist.

That was what I stated to some young thinking minds. This stirred quite a lively discussion. My audience listened to my pontification with extreme care and concentration but many of them responded with discrepant viewpoints. In the world imbued with material considerations punctuated with intense competition, anyone with all these traits is doomed to insignificance.

The post-industrial world does not afford any space to the people trying to practice ideals that were somewhat relevant in the medieval age. The modern world finds its essence in refuting these attributes. Even Iqbal does not seem agreeable despite his intensive engagement with Maulana Rumi. He seems to have gleaned more from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) than Rumi as power is what occupies Iqbal as a theoretical concern. That is the reason a preoccupation with modesty and compassion, to him, is a sign of weakness which he detests among Muslims. Islam in general is assertive and when Muslims parted with that innate feature that characterised pristine Islam, the decay set in.

Someone said that these moral/humanistic categories that I ‘so vehemently put forward’ smacked of a Christian ethos. That response was intellectually stimulating. It nudged me into writing this column.

In the study of human history, the political aspect has undergone a mutation. Sometimes these mutations are tangible, at times they are not. The same can be said about economic history which also acts as a propeller for the social evolution of societies. One aspect that remained constant throughout human history is morality. This usually has several manifestations.

The pursuit of truth is yet another constant and despite the amorphous nature of Truth human endeavor to come to grips with it has never ceased. The same can be said about Justice. My contention is that the ‘constant’ in history must forge a synthesis with the ‘mutative’ elements of history to lend stability to human society.

If the forces seeking a change are allowed to gush out, social and intellectual anarchy would go berserk. It is therefore imperative to rein them in using a few constants provided by the value system. It would be a synthesis of the two opposites. That synthesis would also be an ongoing phenomenon, which requires freedom of thought and action. The cut- throat competition and pursuit of material gain have to be tempered with compassion and empathy. Forging a synthesis between divergent intellectual currents is extremely important to carve new creative avenues in societies like Pakistan.

Ironically, the Muslims of the subcontinent accepted the influence of the Western world without a substantial demur and drew away from their own tradition. As a result there was no worthwhile intellectual/cultural synthesis. Such a synthesis is often hard to come by in colonial, even postcolonial, spaces.

That balance between the social and political, which can also be termed as the synthesis between the political and moral gave rise to the humanism that enabled Muslims to rule the subcontinent for several centuries. 

The singular, lopsided intellectual stream sanctioned by colonial authority did not allow other knowledge systems, anchored by local tradition to sustain. Social alienation and intellectual stasis were the outcome. Iqbal did strive successfully to establish convergence into various intellectual strands. He used Western poetry, German philosophy entwining with Henri Bergson, and created a fascinating blend with Rumi’s thought.

After seeing various Muslim societies, ruled by dynastic monarchies, thereby having exhausted the vitality necessary for rejuvenation, Iqbal drew in the metaphors from the mountainous terrain or from the desert pointing out that the people of these terrains had not exhausted their potential for dynamism and creativity. These people were still impervious to the subjugation that the colonial masters had established over the people of the more hospitable plains. Dynamism and freedom are two fundamental reference points in the thought and poetry of Iqbal.

The point regarding the assertiveness of Islam, indeed, makes a lot of sense. But it holds water only when it comes to politics. In the realms of the social and cultural, Islam allowed for accommodation. This can be said with a good measure of certainty while describing the essential traits of South Asian Islam.

Political assertiveness of Muslim rulers of India was always balanced by the humane character of sufis. They epitomised compassion and empathy and professed modesty. Negation of the self, the fundamental objective of all sufi Orders, was the most vivid elucidation of modesty. Besides, the sufis in most cases had a tendency to embrace differences, instead of dismissing them. Acceptance of diversity and difference is not possible without modesty and compassion which were the defining feature of the sufis.

That balance between the social and political which can also be termed as the synthesis between the political and moral gave rise to the humanism that enabled Muslims to rule the subcontinent for several centuries. Since these dispensations complemented each other inexorably their decline was also simultaneous. Muslim politics and their intellectual tradition were thus both consigned to obsolescence.

The outcome is a complete absence of the classical base of the knowledge (education system) that we are imparting in our colleges and universities. The value system is sustained by engaging with the studies in classics. The classical base on which the epistemic edifice is built is absolutely vital but, sadly, in Pakistan there is no realization of this. One wishes that every university should have a school of classical studies. But that can only be a wish in the current circumstances.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Values and intellect in history