Faiz talked about religion and society with the same conviction with which he fought for civil liberties
It is exceedingly difficult for men to be moved by ideas (unless) the idea is lived by the one who teaches it, if it is personified by the teacher, if the idea appears ‘in the flesh’
– Erich Fromm, German psychoanalyst/ socialist
During a recent meeting of expatriate Pakistani doctors in Florida, I had the opportunity to meet the celebrated Islamic scholar, Javed Ahmed Ghamidi.
At the same event, I had earlier in the day, attended a talk by Ghamidi sahib, where he had, in his characteristic style, expounded on a multitude of topics including Islam, death, the afterlife, living abroad, zakat and so on. Unlike many religious scholars, Ghamidi sahib is a strict rationalist and modernist. In addition, his soft-spoken style is in stark contrast to the fire breathing sermons of many Islamic scholars.
I began by asking him his opinion about Faiz’s religious beliefs based on what he had studied or heard. His initial answer was typical: “If a man has spent his entire life as a Muslim, has always introduced himself as a Muslim, has always observed the rituals in nikah, funerals and other occasions, who am I to questions his faith and his beliefs? I should accept what he professes. My inner self (baatin) is something that only Allah can judge me for. One should not talk this way about a person like Faiz. In his poetry and his writings, I have seen nothing that would make me doubt his faith. One should keep good expectations of others (husn-i-zan) and accept whatever they profess. I am surprised when people ask this kind of questions.”
Ghamidi sahib continued: “[If we follow a pessimistic line of reasoning] we can also question the faith of Allama Iqbal. If someone has said or written something about religion, one can subject that to analysis based on religious thought and express an opinion about that. And that is true of all knowledge (ilm) including science. But if someone does not express his inner beliefs openly, then his social identity, the way he presents him or herself to the world should be accepted. It is not for me to question that. I have always loved Faiz’s poetry and have also read his prose writings with great affection. I was delighted when I saw that he had translated many of Iqbal’s Persian verses into Urdu, [Payaam-i Mashriq, Manzoom Urdu Tarjuma, published by Sang-i- Meel Publications, Lahore]. All of Iqbal’s universal themes are there.
I feel that there is no one like Faiz who has understood and talked about our traditions, our social customs, our culture, our civilisation while remaining within the ambit of our religious beliefs. I find questions like these [about the religious beliefs of Faiz] surpassing the bounds of decency.”
Ghamidi sahib then went on to describe some of his meetings with Faiz: “He had a very sweet nature (shirin-ravaan), it was always so enjoyable talking to him. He was always so affectionate; I was just a young man at the time. I once heard him recite at a mushaira. I remember it well, Hafeez (Jullundhri) was there as well and they had some good-natured back and forth there, everyone enjoyed it”.
‘Instead of lecturing people on morality, it is far better to provide them with three square meals a day so they can stay alive and perhaps realise these things on their own.’
I then asked him what he thought about what has often been described as Faiz’s magnetic personality. “I think that among his peers, the progressive poets under the influence of communism and socialism, many were not well versed in our cultural traditions. Faiz knew Arabic, he had received a traditional religious education, and he was well conversant in our Persian tradition. So, he was intimately acquainted with the historical Muslim traditions and beliefs of our culture. In that way, he was a unique person in our time. This is why I have never met or known any religious person who felt any abhorrence to Faiz or his works. Because he always talked and wrote while standing inside our traditions and our culture; his metaphors, his allusions, it was all harmonious with our ways.”
During his earlier talk, Ghamidi sahib had tactfully deflected a question about purdah and hijaab, mindful perhaps that in a room filled with hundreds of people, an extended discussion could easily get heated. I wanted to know how a discussion about religion could be kept going, despite sharp differences of opinion without the matter descending to verbal or physical violence which often happens in Pakistan. His answer was typical: “I don’t understand the question. Why would there be anger? What is there in religion that would tempt one to anger? Religion is the name of some commands and instructions based on intellect and (human) nature. We can explain them to others based on reason and knowledge. I think the people who get angry are the ones who have not understood matters based on logical arguments. Their anger is a reflection of their lack of rational understanding.”
When I persisted with the query, Ghamidi sahib replied with a smile. “One should let others persist in their one-sided anger; you will see it dissipate quickly. I have a very simple view on this: if I can explain something logically, why should there be a need for anger? What am I trying to explain here? If I have a point of view, I must have a logical argument for it, some reasoning, isn’t it?”
His calm, affectionate demeanour, which comes through clearly in his talks, encouraged me to ask a personal question: “Were you the same way when you were younger (able to be calm and logical during heated discussions and debates) or has it gotten easier as you have gotten older?”
“Everyone learns”, Ghamidi sahib replied. “You start thinking (for yourself) as you get older. With time, one ought to learn. As you learn and reflect and understand the reasons behind things, as you continue your journey, there is no reason you cannot understand. I met Faiz sahib two or three times and never saw him angry or frustrated”.
In answer to a question about accomplishment and fame, he had this to say: “I think everyone is accomplished in their own way. But some people are associated with vocations in which they achieve more fame and renown. I know many highly accomplished people but not many people know their names. I think if you do justice to your chosen vocation and people respect you for it, that is your success. A person does not become great because of his knowledge or his skill but because of his character, his conduct, his attitude and his mastery over his chosen vocation”.
It was an instructive meeting with a scholar who has done much to popularise Islam in the West, in the process earning the ire of many in Pakistan. Coming back to Faiz, here is what he had to say about religion and society. Once, while describing the evils of an unequal, class-based social system like capitalism, Faiz pointed out: “Instead of lecturing people on morality, it is far better to provide them with three square meals a day so they can stay alive and perhaps realise these things on their own. If an empty house is a devil’s abode, how can the hungry stomach and weary mind of a poor man accommodate God’s light? There still exist economic slaves in all ‘Muslim’ countries. The real jihad is to eradicate this evil [of economic slavery] and this is what revolution aspires to as well.”
The writer is a psychiatrist and a trustee of the Faiz Foundation Trust