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Governance in Pakistan – 7: Which Islam?

The question left over from the last post was the following:

Given that it had become inevitable for Pakistan to have a religious identity (for reasons articulated by Professor Ralph Russell in the previous post) why was the tradition of Islam that was indigenous to the subcontinent ignored in favor of one imported from Saudi Arabia?

As we have mentioned, Professor Russell was not a political or religious scholar and he never sat down to explicitly address this question. However, in his essays he left behind numerous astute observations that we can use to begin crafting a plausible answer.

Our aim is not to reach a definitive conclusion but to see how the mind of a trained humanist works, how from certain observations a hypothesis is derived, and how facts are linked through a chain of reasoning to arrive at conclusions that can be tested against the outcomes of real life.

Such a process based on reasoning need not always lead to the correct explanation but it provides the reader the opportunity to identify particular links in the argument that he or she disputes or disagrees with and to offer a new explanation based on the substitutions. It is important to be clear about what one disagrees with and to be able to suggest alternatives that stand up to criticism. The ensuing dialogue forms the basis of the method of intellectual enquiry.

Let us take Professor Russell’s essay Aziz Ahmad, South Asia, Islam and Urdu and note straight away his observation in passing about the fundamentals of intellectual discourse.

Aziz Ahmad was for a while (beginning in 1957) a colleague of Professor Russell’s at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Professor Russell mentions that he had sharp and vigorously pursued disagreements with Aziz Ahmad on the methodology of teaching Urdu to foreign students:

Such disagreements were not infrequent. That being so, it surprised and puzzled him when he found that this in no way inhibited my whole-hearted praise of his talents and of his published work. (He came from a milieu where it is indeed rare for these two things to go together.)

One must admit that it remains rare even today.

Professor Russell mentions that often the best understanding of social situations is to be found in literature:

For example, the problem of Kashmir is one of the major problems of the politics of the post-1945 period. An important element in the determining of the present situation was the internal political struggle of the 1930s and the 1940s. Where can one find a vivid picture of Kashmir during those years? In Aziz Ahmad’s novel Aag. But those who (if they knew about it) would like to read it for this purpose, can’t. And those who can read it aren’t for the most part interested in doing so for this purpose.

At this point a question that naturally arises is: What about historians and social scientists in Pakistan and India who write in English but know Urdu well? Don’t they use these materials? The answer is: For the most part, no. Why not? For several reasons. First, numbers of them come in the category already described, of people who have acquired their English at the cost of letting their Urdu rust. Secondly, many of them are more English than the English, more royalist than the king.

In a society where conventions have for centuries been more rigid than in the West, English-derived conventions (for example, that a novel cannot be a worthwhile source for academic studies of this kind) are observed with a rigidity which the Western world does not apply to them. Even where non-fictional writing is concerned they think (often, but not always, rightly) that works written in Urdu lack the scholarly qualities of works written in English, and that therefore no self-respecting scholar pays any attention to them. Even if the premise were wholly correct (and it isn’t) the conclusion doesn’t follow from it. But there it is. They think that the premise is correct, and that the conclusion does follow from it; and they act accordingly.

Note Professor’s Russell’s hypothesis and the argument he is constructing: that the Pakistani ruling elite was alienated from its own traditions and often contemptuous of them. If this was its attitude towards Urdu, imagine what it must have been towards the languages of the masses and what its perception must have been of the folk wisdom and traditions of illiterate people.

When a ruling elite is alienated from its own traditions it is all the more susceptible to the presumed superiority of outside ones. As Professor Russell observed, it was more English than the English. And similarly, it was more Arab than the Arabs.

And so when Saudi Islam came backed by large amounts of money there was no resistance, intellectual or otherwise. The game was over.

This is where Professor Russell’s chain of reasoning leads us. If you have a different explanation we can build a discussion around it.

Let us end by adding a general observation of Locke about human beings to Professor Russell’s observation of the Pakistani intelligentsia:

Most men are simply too lazy or ill trained to apply themselves to the dull work of sifting through evidence and reasoning properly. They prefer pseudo-certainties, even if those are inherited from tradition and untested by experience; and once they are committed to dogmas, they enjoy imposing them on others. This is how religious superstitions are born and perpetuated. But that also means that they can be combated if human beings are given enough leisure and training to let their natural faculties develop.

The bottom line is that it is important to learn to reason; and this learning requires training; and this training can only be imparted by educational institutions, preferably early in life.

We have a challenging agenda before us.

Professor Russell’s essay is from his book How Not to Write the History of Urdu Literature and Other Essays on Urdu and Islam. The observation from Locke is to be found on page 94 in the book by Mark Lilla (The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West).

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