By Syed Kamran Hashmi
November 22, 2013
There are a few journalists who would like to advertise themselves as philosophers. However, they are so poor in their insight and so facile in their intellect that it is hard to consider them seriously
Can you name some of the philosophers that Pakistan has produced since 1947? Most people will not be able to respond to this question, including myself. Even when asked to name just three, we would still be lost, disappointed in our inability to list as few as three or five. Out of despair, we may pronounce Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ashfaq Ahmed or Syed Abul Ala Maududi’s name, but we know well that, in reality, none of them were philosophers. They did not have formal education in the field, have not published any articles in peer-reviewed journals and they did not present any new insight into the latest theories of philosophy. There is no doubt in my mind, though, that they were all great people for which they deserve our respect.
To add further insult to injury, and our misery, there are a few journalists (honestly, I am not kidding) who would like to advertise themselves as philosophers. However, they are so poor in their insight and so facile in their intellect that it is hard to consider them seriously. At best, they are able to reproduce some famous quotes of the old sages and recite a few verses from the Quran. They may cite some names from Islamic history to impress the audience and refer to some renowned philosophers from the west. They may also allude to a handful of historical events of the subcontinent and recall a few traditions from European history to further intimidate a common Pakistani. Nevertheless, if their authority is challenged, they become so reactive and get so easily annoyed that it is hard to even think of them as intellectuals at all. Unashamedly and repeatedly, they curse their opponents and utter profanities on live television at regular intervals.
Coming back to our discussion of the failure of our society to produce philosophers and social scientists, our last renowned philosopher was Allama Muhammad Iqbal who is known as the Poet of the East in Pakistan. Being a pragmatist, he was also active in politics and served in the Legislative Assembly of Punjab after winning a seat in the elections of 1926. Along with these accolades, he encouraged the Muslims of the subcontinent to struggle for their freedom from British rule, which traditionally has been regarded as his ‘dream’ for the creation of Pakistan.
In philosophy, his message to resonate most with Muslims was his idea of khudi or the significance of self, a vague concept that is purely inspirational and unrealistic. What makes it even harder to understand from an academic point of view is the absence of any parameter that Iqbal, or later on anyone else who claims to understand it, has provided with which it can be compared to detect its validity. Can anyone claim, at any point in life, that he has found the ultimate truth about himself and his Creator? That he has uncovered all the secrets about life and death? And if he does, how can he substantiate his claim? Furthermore, the originality of his idea was questioned during his lifetime by his contemporaries because of its close resemblance with Nietzsche’s notion of superman, which the German scholar had presented in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. For me, even if it was an inspiration from the west, Iqbal was able to provide it with a new meaning, an understanding that Nietzsche, out of his own lack of religiosity, might never have contemplated.
Reading Iqbal closely would further help us realise that he was either unaware of the modern trends in philosophy — which he admits by claiming that he had not read Nietzsche before he wrote about his own idea of self — or that he was mentally living in eleventh century Baghdad when medieval Muslims were trying their best to solve philosophical, ethical and moral dilemmas through religion. That is why Iqbal, in the beginning of the 20th century, 500 years after the Christian Reformation, instead of encouraging Muslims to be part of the scientific community, tried to rekindle the Islamic fervour in their hearts and minds for their success. His claim may be true but the reality is that in the hands of illiterate clerics, the flame of hyper-religiosity has set the whole country on fire with sectarianism, extremism and terrorism. Furthermore, because of his influence as a poet, a philosopher and a politician, for most Pakistanis religion has become the only yardstick to evaluate the competence, sincerity and patriotism of their intellectuals, politicians and poets.
Iqbal does not stop at promoting the significance of self (Khudi); instead, according to some interpretations, he takes it a step further to confuse the Muslims of the subcontinent by writing against almost all the established institutions of any modern society. His critics argue he condemns the democratic process, with which a just society that safeguards the rights of the minorities can be established, and he criticises the contemporary education system with which research and innovation is made possible for future human progress. According to these critics, in Iqbal’s opinion, both these issues seem to be either trivial or, to make matters worse, they are demonic. As a result, today, Iqbal is mostly quoted by all the people who have a grudge against the people’s mandate, equal rights, and religious freedom be it a military dictator, Islamic revolutionist or a violent extremist. He is hardly present in the discourse of research-oriented scholars who only look at the data in support of or against their argument instead of relying upon a vague concept that cannot even be defined properly in 100 years.
Syed Kamran Hashmi is a US-based freelance columnist.