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Dr. Saleem Iqbal, a Scholar-Scientist, Emphasized Spirit over Letter, Religion over Religions, Sufism over Philosophy and Substance over Form

By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah

17 Sep 2018

Recalling some insights of Prof. Saleem Iqbal

Kashmir keeps producing some memorable personalities who die unsung. One such personality, Prof. Saleem Iqbal, left us last year. His death was a loss to Kashmir’s intellectual and spiritual culture. He was larger than life, a man of immense energy, indefatigable adventurer of mindscape, reasonably good reader of select classics, friend of the poor and the marginalized and a scholar-scientist attentive to violence of exclusion in dominant episteme of science and theology. He was among the very few truly educated professors who had not sold soul to specialization (viz. knowing only “more and more about less and less”) and knew a wider world and with authority. He knew more and more about his history, culture and religion and the ideologies that summon us to abstractions or utopias. He minced no words in giving strong judgments though occasionally one could feel him courting extremes.

What was especially impressive was his generosity of spirit and catholicity of mind that excluded only violent exclusivism of certain men and ideologies. He was so generous with helping people, so careless with saving money, so fond of books that cost didn’t matter and so passionate about certain classics. His meticulous care for words displayed in his writings, his humour, his biting satire, his eloquence, his magnanimity and hospitality endeared him to a vast number of students. He had his critics and limitations but what is significant is he was able to be himself – a unique, creative personality who read less but meditated much on what he read and amazed scholars with his incisive analyses. His classes were not reduced to ritual of dictating notes but involved number of “distractions” that illuminated dark recesses of life with incisive wit and flashes of wisdom.

More than a teacher who maintains certain formal decorum and can’t afford a hearty laugh and frank conversation with students, he was interested in cultivating fellowship of mind and spirit. I fail to imagine him dead. He lives on in many of his scripted stories of relationships and lives. It was such a joy to be with him. How come such a vibrant spirit whom nothing could vanquish in his life gets consigned to oblivion of death? Such spirits demand and command immortality of a sort. Consenting to live in this or another world where his boisterous company would be missing is a torture that can’t be borne except on the premise of hope that traditional eschatologies and such philosophies as those of Whitehead take into account. He lives in his small but impressive library although many books were buried with him as he had many ideas that could be developed into book length works. As a tribute to his memory I wish we had some library or regular award or annual seminar or fellowship instituted in his name. His close relationships have long association with books or education and I hope they take up the initiative. It is heartening to note that Kashmir Comparative Literary and Philosophical Foundation has decided to institute “Dr. Saleem Award for Contribution to Culture” on the eve of its proposed upcoming international seminar on the legacy of Allama Anwar Shah Kashmiri.

 Saleem Iqbal spent his life meditating on the Quran and cultural decay of the Muslim world. Political decay didn’t haunt on him as he believed that “Yeh Hukoomet Toa Aani Jani Hae.” He didn’t buy the idea that God’s Hukumat could be challenged and restored as he emphasized ontological or existential rather than legal or political meaning of God’s sovereignty.

 Saleem Iqbal grew in a Jamaat-e Islami family and his father is still proud of his association with the same. He himself was in love with Syed Maududi’s literary style and some of his works such as Khilfat wa Mulookiyat. It was destined for him to distance himself from it and from puritanical ideologies such as Neo-Salafism. One may summarize his critique of ideological movements and certain contemporary attitudes in Muslims here:

Jamaat e Islami scholarship takes inadequate note of the centrality of the spiritual or mystical in Islam. He shared, like most Kashmiris, scores of personally attested encounters with mystics/shrines that count indubitable evidence for sacred interventions that many secular rationalists and so-called Salafis dismiss as superstition.

There are countless narratives that people vouch for that call for no other explanation than efficacy of sacred space/soul planes or other hidden bodies we all possess but saints cultivate in particular. There is enough empirical evidence for scientists who don’t subscribe to any religious or mystical tradition to begin with, that sacred spaces/blessed and blessing objects/invoking of divine names in certain manner received from saints work wonders and these need to be acknowledged and celebrated and any theology that fails to account for them and dismiss such phenomena as healing for apparently fatal diseases in shrines as mere superstition or idolatry has problems.

Before one dismisses faith healing attributed to “dead” saints/shrines one may check reviews of belief by researchers and huge data base on Lord’s shrine for instance that support its reality though its mechanism is an open question.

He argued for a different, Sufi reading of the concept of Tawhid that made ample room for what is called Khosh Aetiqadi in Kashmir. One could cite Islam’s belief in plurality of angels as corresponding to plurality of Devas – literally “shining one,” “spirits of light” recalling association of angels with light, a point that Iqbal also noted in a footnote on the initial publication of his poem  based on Gayatri Mantra. Failure to understand this point  that different angels (and not multiple gods) are assigned different tasks and no task is assigned to what is called God that excludes causal relationships in ordinary course of nature leads to misreading of other “polytheistic” religions and unfounded charge of shirk against some. He passionately argued for duly recognizing Sufi Wujoodi face of Syed Ali Hamdani and major Sufi poets and orthodox warrant for much of popular practices from Sufi music sessions to Khatams to prayer food culture to Urs celebrations – one could point out embarrassing material for the critics of Khosh Aetiqad Kashmiris in Shah Waliullah’s authentic biography Al-Qaul al-Jali so little known because of politics of publishing/reading culture – to  substantiate his endorsement of common Kashmiri’s negative perception regarding Jamaat e Islami/Neo-Salafist understanding of the mystical/spiritual and methodological errors in their stray quoting of authorities from Ibn Taymiyyah to Shah Waliullah.

In Kashmir Islam and its great saints and sages had little difficulty in establishing because indigenous spiritual culture premised on either Buddhist emphasis on transcendence or Saivist Unitarianism was appreciated and assimilated in the Wujoodi Sufi metaphysics of Sufis such as Syed Ali Hamdani and key figures in Kashmiri Sufism down to Ahad Zargar. He was a fan of Ahad Bab and claimed to have been helped by him in certain crucial matters. He would often keep singing verses of great Sufi poets like Shams Faqir.

He had special love for places visited by Shaykh al-Alam and had planned documenting them. According to him sacred geography of Srinagar remained unknown to Kashmiris in general. He observed that miracles attributed to saints are imprinted in history and earth in a manner that none could deny. He was not credulous but kept his eyes open and refrained to pass hasty dismissive judgments he was used to in his early life.

The greatest proof of God is presence and power of spirit in saints and almost every third Kashmiri will vouch for inexplicable secrets and happenings (Adim Basten Menz Chi Sir) and attest some encounter with them and can narrate authenticated events that defy ordinary rationalist/exotericist explanation.

Against certain so-called Salafis (better designated Neo-Salafis to distinguish them from genuine followers of Salaf in which we must include followers/continuators of great Imams of legal schools and generality of Sha’riah conscious Sufis in whom we include, among others, Ibn Taymiyyah and his great students) who oppose mainstream Tasawwuf and local elements in religion in the name of certain purism and supposed Tawhid centrism, he had a series of observations based on his profound meditations on the Quran. He often referred to the Quranic allusions to the sacred space such as Maqam-e-Ibrahim (Allama Kashmiri alluded to the event of leading prayer in Bait Al-Lahm by the Prophet S.A.W due to the fact that Jesus was born there during his nocturnal journey as proving sacred space notion in Islam), Taboot-i Sakinah and also to traditional accounts recounting how the Companions treasured the Prophet’s hair or other associated objects. Sacred relics are in every religion, every culture and dismissing them as shirk is dismissing unanimous tradition of mankind as such. The same applies to the notion of sacred space.

For him it is Islam as lived by community during last 14 centuries that accommodated/appropriated lots of indigenous cultural practices and didn’t impose any single story of some theologian or school. Sunnah understood as established path/well known practice in tradition is not to be reduced to the constructions based on ahad (solitary reports) narratives which remain, in principle, ever subject to further clarification or get filtered in legalistic manuals or codified Hadith exegesis.

It is amazing to note how he drew one’s attention to verses or their other possible meanings one ordinarily hastily passes by. For instance he often asked whether the verse stating that the Christ’s true believers would prevail over the unbelievers till the Day of Resurrection (3:55) implied God’s endorsement of certain dominance of the Christian West and if not why not. It is true that Muslim truly follow the Christ but are they alone in thus following him? Is it possible to deny the share claimed by Christians?

He would often point about the problems in dismissing clear import of the categorical Quranic endorsements – Nusoos that can’t be wished away or interpreted away or overridden by resorting to certain solitary reports that are often cited to overturn the unambiguous import of the former – of scripture in circulation in the 7th century with the People of the Book (that has essentially remained unchanged since then) as Ahl-e Kitab are repeatedly told to practise what is with them and judge by their books. He argued that most exegetes of the Quran and such classic works as Ibn Hazm’s Kitab Al Fasl Fi Al-Milal Wa Al-Ahwa Wa Al-Nihal have imposed their own notions while trying to understand such verses. Once converted to Islam, however, he noted that it made no sense to judge certain parts by previous books. He sided with the view of most of major early Muslim scholars that the charge of changing scripture against Ahl-e Kitab means Tahreef-I Manwi and not Tahreef-I Lafzi. And he further emphasized that legal injunctions get overridden with coming of new scripture and not essence of Deen and Hikmah. Most Muslims seem to forget that the Quranic attitude is in principle one of affirmation rather than nullification of previous revelations.

He expressed deep anguish at contemporary situation in Madrasas and pleaded for Oxford style academic and research orientation in them and what Allama Anwar Shah Kashmiri called lecture style teaching that reviews current status of discourse and then moves forward with creative interventions from teachers replacing memory centric textualist and commentary upon commentary style class room teaching.

 He would often be lamenting poor exposure of Madrasa students to larger world and cutting edge modern debates and psychological stresses that help explaining their huge dropout rates. He lamented that Madrasa children are mostly deprived of wider rhythms of life – quality physical education or sports, extracurricular activities, creativity, use of smart rooms or modern audiovisual aids in class rooms, inadequate intellectual stimulation through anxiety against exposure to the other, widespread ignorance of globally ruling lingua franca – and with the result compromised development of healthy personality.

 He argued for revisiting overemphasis on Hifz given the original rationale for doing it – prevention of loss of scripture – no longer pressing. What worried him was the meagre salary of Madrasa staff and failure to realize immense potential in some of them.

A Few Books That He Would Recommend

3mend, even buy for you if you showed some interest, included Kulliyat of major poets including Kashmiri Sufi poets and great biographies such as Hali’s Hayat-i Javid and Yadgar-i Ghalib and anti-sectarian works such as Bhai Bhai (Shia Sunni)  and some works on Jinnah (he loved him as the greatest leader of Muslims in the subcontinent).

Dr. Saleem emphasized (sometimes overemphasized) spirit over letter, Religion over religions, Sufism over philosophy and substance over form. He penetrated to the heart or genesis of the matter and gave us remarkable insights. He was not widely read but had assimilated whatever little from the classics he had access to. He emphasized danger in identifying shariah with fiqh and Islam with islam. Dr. Saleem we remember you and pray you rest in peace contemplating God whom you always sought to put first.