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Home > Resources > Pakistan: THE PERTURBED MUSLIM MIND


Sunday 22 August 2021, by siawi3




Harris Khalique

Published August 15, 2021 - Updated August 15, 2021 05:34am

In the early 14th century, Shaikh Mahmoud Shabistari wrote Gulshan-i-Raaz [Garden of Secrets], an epic poem in Persian. Shabistari was born near Tabriz, Iran, in 1288, 30 years after the sacking of Baghdad by Hulagu Khan and his Mongol army. Not only did this devastation end the golden age of Muslim caliphates whose rule spanned from Sindh to Spain, it also brought suffering and turmoil, decay and degeneration for many years to come. Other Muslim dynasties emerged in the successive years, but their circle of influence and contribution to knowledge remained limited.

Written in response to certain queries made to Shabistari about Sufi metaphysics, ‘Garden of Secrets’ came to be recognised as an essential mystic text across Asia and Europe. Edward Henry Winfield translated the poem into English. Look at the majesty of the opening couplet:

In the name of Him who taught the soul to think And kindled the heart’s lamp with the light of soul

Six hundred years later, Allama Muhammad Iqbal wrote a long poem in Persian ‘Gulshan-i-Raaz-i-Jadeed’ [The New Garden of Secrets], included in his collection Zabur-i-Ajam [Persian Psalms]. In it, he poses questions and then offers responses to the ills of his time faced by Muslims in particular, and humanity at large, during the colonial age. Iqbal, in his unique manner, blends the spiritual with the temporal. He calls for action against despair and inertia.

About another hundred years after Iqbal and 700 years after Shabistari, Ejaz Rahim has come up with an epic poem in English: ‘Garden of Secrets Revisited’. Rahim is both prominent and prolific among the English language poets of the country. He has published two dozen collections of verse and his literary prowess and breadth of imagination are well recognised within Pakistan and abroad. This is by far Rahim’s best work and truly an epic.

Rahim takes us on to an intellectual and spiritual journey spread across the globe and capturing diverse human experience. One can see that his own moorings are firmly grounded in the tradition of Ibn al Arabi, Mahmoud Shabistari, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi and Allama Iqbal, and he clearly expresses his devotion to the compassionate teachings of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh). But, in his view — like some of his predecessors — the inclusive and humanistic lens that Rahim uses to view the world is bestowed upon him because of his spiritual devotion to his Prophet.

From Hindu saints to Buddha, Sikh gurus and Saint Teresa of Avila, and from Sufi and Bhakti poets to English Romantics, Rahim’s poem encapsulates the teachings of spiritual leaders, poets, philosophers and thinkers. He writes about the evolution of science, the unquenchable thirst of scientists and the vacuum that science fills and the void that it creates.

In his own words, this poem is a struggle to find common ground between the secular and the sacred. Rahim regards poetry as the point of congruence between varying strands of knowledge and experience. One thing that concerns him is the growing ignorance, particularly among our youth.

Rahim comes from that tradition of Muslim thinkers and writers which started emerging as a consequence of the Muslim world’s brush with colonialism, Western imperialism and post-Enlightenment European modernity. Unlike purely Marxist thinkers or liberal apologists from the orient, this tradition held the view that the idea of development and progress of the Third World, including Muslim societies, can only be advanced if the debate around it is situated in indigenous faith, tradition and history, without fully rejecting what the occident has to offer.

However, there were multiple shades within that tradition. Iqbal, for instance, glorified the past more in his quest for evaluating the present. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan concentrated more on how the present can be improved and a better future secured.

Another important writer in the same tradition in our times is Muhammad Izharul Haq. Interestingly, like Rahim, Haq is a former civil servant and knows the system that runs Pakistan inside out. His views and his writing confirm that he is very well aware of the deficiencies in our society and polity. Therefore, he remains deeply concerned about the improvement of our lot.

Haq is a widely acclaimed Urdu poet whose verse is considered among the most insightful and aesthetically pleasant in what is being produced in Pakistan. He is also a critical writer on our social, economic and political condition, with an acute sense of human history and world civilisations.

Haq’s latest collection of 78 brief essays is called Meri Wafaat [My Death], named after his gripping fictional essay. Many of the essays in the book are realistic and closer to the genre of life-writing. Nevertheless, the book is laced with academic, historical and literary references. As mentioned before, Haq also relies on Muslim sources of spirituality and compassion to further his point.

Haq introduces us to many nondescript real individuals, besides a few luminaries, and relates their stories. These are people he met from across the world. Additionally, the book is laced with his lucid commentary on the existing human condition with a definite focus on Pakistan.

Haq wants to see Pakistan as a modern Muslim-majority country where minorities are protected and the downtrodden do not remain downtrodden. His emphasis is on cultivating values of justice and fair play which, in his view, have been eroded from our society. His piece on his father is particularly moving. Since I am engaged in investigating the causes for confusions that define the Pakistani diaspora, I found his essays on the diaspora particularly interesting. Meri Wafaat is a valuable addition to the shrinking repertoire of serious Urdu non-fiction.

In my humble opinion, perhaps it is time for those who fall in the broad spectrum that wishes to create a progressive and healthy society — from Marxist political thought to progressive Muslim ideology — to reach out to each other and begin a purposeful dialogue for the benefit of this country.

The columnist is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora.
His latest collection of verse is No Fortunes to Tell.