What makes someone or something great? A work is great if it takes the civilisation a step forward (genuine, innovative work) or if it is a bestseller? If originality, innovation, and progress were the standards for greatness then Socrates wouldn’t have to drink poison hemlock, Galileo wouldn’t have been blinded, Van Gogh wouldn’t have to kill himself in anonymity, or the Muslim scientists you want to cherish today wouldn’t have been treated as pariahs by the society in their own time. Bestseller then?
And that’s the other thing about the word greatness. It forces you to believe in absolutes. Was Gandhi great? To the world he is. I like to believe he died fighting for Pakistan’s rights. He already had enough traction upon his return from South Africa to compel Tagore to give him the title of Mahatma (great soul). But did you know that the Mahatma did not subscribe to the germ theory and that is why when his wife was on her death bed stricken with pneumonia and doctors told him that a shot of penicillin could save her, he forbade them. Their children begged him to relent but instead, he asked them to be content with holy chants. Ring a bell? He, on the other hand, allowed doctors to save his life with quinine when he was suffering from malaria.
A character made great by way of demonisation is Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last governor-general of India. But when it comes to greatness he was neither here nor there. A bumbling, failing character out of PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books, with an emphasis on pride in whiteness and close association with Hitler sympathiser King Edward VIII, the uncle of the incumbent queen, who was forced to abdicate. His wife Edwina, again demonised for her romantic escapades, was a better, caring human being. In fact, she was so competent and caring that had she been the governor-general instead of her nincompoop husband probably millions would not have died during the partition. But a woman, right?
Likewise a question about Churchill. Was he great? He saved the world’s bacon from Nazis, didn’t he? So definitely great. But was he good or evil? Depends on whom you ask. The world loves him, India hates him and he and the Mahatma (two greats of history) hated each other’s guts.
Moral of the story so far: people and ideas are complicated and it is bad to approach anything with prejudice or preconceived notions. Please bear in mind that words or ideas like state, society, politics, civilisation, and economy all are constructs put together by ordinary people like this scribe, whose job it is to look for the best ideas for your consumption.
That is precisely why I have made a habit of not approaching an idea with prejudice. Nor do I judge a book by its cover. That is a courtesy usually reserved for the elements like me who at times are accused of growing cowardice with age or giving in to expediency. But that is a cross for the ahle safa, mardood-e-haram, to bear and I for one would wear it with pride while simultaneously offering to volunteer for a polygraph test to prove that I believe in what I preach.
I learned the lesson of shunning all preconceived notions from Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s book Ghubar-e-Khatir. In one letter he tells us that his father was opposed to all worldly knowledge because it could lead him astray, away from the faith. Maulana tells us that in the face of repression he did not stop and kept studying. He admits that momentarily he lost faith as a consequence, and says people choose to give up in one of these stages but he did not and eventually he regained faith, and it was his earned faith. I envy everyone who is too sure of himself or herself because I don’t think this world is made for such certainties. No, this life was meant for a never-ending quest, the journey being its own reward. That is why people who want to see meaning in history from Hegel, Marx and why the best one of them all, Habermas, all talk of exchange of ideas, dialectics so to speak.
Approaching without prejudice becomes very difficult in this day and age because everything is steeped in tribalism and you are pressured to choose sides. Renowned psychologist and writer Steven Pinker wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. While the title says it all, it was a bold assertion based on the author’s study of historical evidence. But an equally brilliant book by a noted anthropologist and a gifted archeologist titled Dawn of Everything does not just seek to pulverise the central thesis of his book that the emergence of a hierarchical society and a strong state brought peace to our world but bulldozes Rousseau’s soft justifications for a state and Hobbes’ hard ones through a unique take on history. So not just the future but the past too is in contention. When unnerved by such uncertainties I return to people whose work I know and trust. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, for instance, out with another book titled The Narrow Corridor. I love their candor when they assert that liberties are not given but won through struggles. A granular, inspiring work.
Approaching without prejudice is important because we have two instructive examples in our neck of the woods. Maududi, who never went to a seminary and approached the study of the Quran with his own preconceived political notions. Resultantly he ended up interpreting everything politically. You have to read Maulana Wahiduddin’s Tabeer ki Ghalti (just google it) to learn about the damage done here. I had to read his Tafheem, cover to cover for a fourth time to spot the issues after this. And the other, Syed Qutb, the one who went to the UK without any homework about the host country and received a cultural shock so immense that he ended up radicalising generations through his work and Ikhwan ul Muslimin. If you read Wahiduddin you may find he furnishes plenty of evidence that the approach of Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) to amr-bil-maroof-wa-nahi-anil-munkar was individual, not collective, missionary, and inspirational not primarily political. The problem with combining politics and religion through the state is that it invariably hurts religion. Because a state’s approach to everything is utilitarian. An example is of this damage is evident in the Mu’tazila crisis. If it had prevailed, the caliph of the time would have been seeking to amend the Holy Book. Also, a state’s sprawling bureaucracy usually acts as a regressive element, either carrying orders too literally or then seeking rent for selfish gain. Individuality on the other hand is proven by tradition. To seek forgiveness all a Muslim has to do is to turn to God and neither to a cleric or the state to buy indulgences, for God and God alone is the ultimate arbiter of vice and virtue. It should be a state’s job to shelter its citizen from fear, want, disease, exploitation, and ignorance. And that’s about it. It is an article of the Muslim faith that the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) was guided directly by God and today’s states are not because of the conclusion of the apostolic tradition.
That said I promise I will keep an open mind for stronger arguments and better ideas.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 22nd, 2022.