By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
18 May 2017
Whom One Reads Indicates What One Is.
We are born with a love for perfection and it is against human dignity to settle for mediocrity and not to pursue the best – the most beautiful. Ihsan – doing everything in a style – is the universally acknowledged human prerogative. Let us ask today how we apply this in approaching religion and literature. Thanks to modern education there are now many people who want to understand and create the best to satisfy their intellectual and creative yearnings but few are ready to pass through the ordeal of mastering the required sciences. This doesn’t necessarily mean formal learning but requires what the Quran calls Tafakkur – thinking. And what is called thinking? It is philosophers like Ibn Sina and Heidegger who are needed to explain it. The Quran's charge against most humans is they don’t think. Do we care to know what is called thinking? Who can claim access to required disciplining of attention?
Whom one reads determines or indicates what one is. In traditional cultures it is divine teachers or prophets and those who continue their Book/Knowledge centric, Tazkiyah centric and Hikmah centric legacy – in more popular parlance Ulema-i- Haqq /sages – that constitute the best guides.
In Islamic tradition the best teachers of the Book of Wisdom (Quran-i-Hakeem) are to be sought if one doesn’t want to stoop low and get infection from inferior minds. There are few colossal intellects in every tradition which constitute the nerve centre of respective traditions. Not that they are infallible but they are rooted in Tradition and creatively add to it in meeting newer challenges. These figures are key to the Tajdeed project that has divine approval in Islamic tradition.
Major figures in Islamic intellectual tradition are distinguished by their comprehensive review of existing state of art affairs, ability to invoke the First Principles, keen insight on zeitgeist of their age and great moral-spiritual credentials. They are ultimately valued not in themselves but in leading us or connecting us to the Fountainhead of Ilm/gnosis. Popular writers/preachers may often suffer from certain ideological prejudices and don’t command requisite qualifications to make accessible the best of the legacy of Elders. It is sin against intelligence to debate and regurgitate what is cheaply or popularly available. Likes of Ibn Sina, Mulla Sadra, Anwar Shah, Heidegger, Whitehead are not/can’t be popular. The challenge of climbing Everest attracts few. It has been remarked that in a century there are one or two geniuses and the rest have only talent. The task is to catch hold these exceptional minds whom God has chosen to safeguard and disseminate the Tradition. The Tradition has been defined as what connects one to Revelation.
Let us probe psychological and other factors that contribute to our horror of the truly sublime or the best and temptation to mediocrity. Upton Sinclair, himself a writer of considerable prowess, wrote: “It’s hard to make a man understand something when his job depends on him not understanding it.” Victor Hugo, one of the greatest French writers, explains another reason for the rule of mediocrity: “There is a sacred horror about everything grand. It is easy to admire mediocrity and hills; but whatever is too lofty, a genius as well as a mountain, an assembly as well as a masterpiece, seen too near, is appalling.”
Learning the art of Fana Fil Ilm allows us to receive. The test of how far one is straying from the best is how self effacing one is in presence of the Masters. For Traditional cultures including the Islamic one the Truth has been said and well said and all that is required is to unearth it, recall it and express it in the idiom of the times one lives in or in language people can understand. That is what Mujaddids do.
Great artists are people “who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike,” as Margot Fonteyn has noted. It is life’s task to overcome ego’s trap of pretension and it requires humility to learn and say, with the Masters, that God is the only Guide or they have let the Muse write through them. Our task is to give our best in learning to receive. Lonergen, a great theologian/philosopher has noted: “To learn thoroughly is a vast undertaking that calls for relentless perseverance. To strike out on a new line and become more than a week-end celebrity calls for years in which one's living is more or less constantly absorbed in the effort to understand.
Another reason that the best or classics are not heeded is perception of difficulty. Whitehead, one of the greatest figures in the twentieth century science and philosophy, has rightly pointed out “Whenever a text-book is written of real educational worth, you may be quite certain that some reviewer will say that it will be difficult to teach from it. Of course it will be difficult to teach from it. If it were easy, the book ought to be burned.” And “...the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity to be found on the far side of complexity.”
Marcel Proust, another giant of world literature, has noted: “To allow only the kind of art that the average man understands is the worst small-mindedness and the murder of mind and spirit. It is my conviction that the intellect can be certain that in doing what most disconcerts the crowd, in pursuing the most daring, unconventional advances and explorations, it will in some highly indirect fashion serve man - and in the long run, all men.”
Goethe says in his letters:"When one thinks differently from great minds, it generally is a sign of a small mind...." Voltaire was not able to do any harm to Shakespeare: no smaller spirit will vanquish a greater. Of great men no one should speak but one who is as great as they, so as to be able to see all round them. A small man. if he stands too near, sees single portions well, but nothing of the whole, and if he will survey the whole must stand too far off, where his eyes do not reach to details.”
Today the most important writers of traditional authorities are, generally speaking, not easy reads. Who can claim that the Scriptures are easy reads for all and sundry? Mushkilat ul Quran constitutes a great subject where our best minds keep struggling. The Quran has layers and layers of meaning that are inexhaustible and one must say after trying one’s best to approach it, God knows best. Similarly Hadees study demands the best minds and one can see in the pages of Ibn Hajr and Anwar Shah Kashmiri, for instance, how comprehensive must be one’s understanding to authoritatively explicate the sayings of the one whose objective was to teach Hikmah. Logic and its connection to First Principles demand exceptional skills to master. A really sound scholar trained in Madrasa must have an aptitude for Hikmah and Mantiq and it is rare to find due attention given to them.
If one has to choose between a Master who has great intellectual and one who has great spiritual prowess selects the first, explicitly recommends a sage. Islamic tradition has also greatly emphasized dangers of half knowledgeable and thus of those who aren’t intellectually that much gifted as Satan can trap them easily.
Islamic tradition has emphasized intelligence so much so that one’s otherworldly prospects are linked to its use. Over every Aalim is another Aalim, says the Quran implying greater the scholar, lesser the pretension and self bragging. The best don’t seek to be popular though they would try to avoid needless obscurity. Read any great sage/poet/philosopher/commentator and you find an elevated style that isn’t the cup of all and sundry. They don’t compromise with language as they know the Adab of God who taught Bayan and expressed Himself through a language. Grammatical errors are normally unimaginable in their case.
For the best minds “A clash of doctrine is not a disaster, it is an opportunity.” They aren’t slaves of rationalistic dialectical framework that can’t transcend apparent contradictions. One can dissolve problems created by this dialectical method of exoteric theologians by asking for need to open eyes, getting better informed about history and about basic terms used by Masters in very specific or technical sense.
A writer’s or critic’s role isn’t to express himself or invite people to his own private realm of truth but, by being open to the Muse or mirror of the Real, to connect the reader to the Teachers/Masters. Ultimately God is the only Teacher. Prophets and saints embody the Logos and our act of understanding is a participation in that Logos. At the deepest level you see the pure light (Noor) that is God and not the divergent colours. Traditions can’t enter into a proper dialogue at rational theological or human plane but at intellectual transcendent divine plane where it is God who sees and not man with his limiting egoity.