29 Aug Culture Bypass: A New Paradigm – 1
From A’daab → Khuda Hafiz → Allah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed?
By Ahmed Kamran
Recent discussions on this blog regarding the version of Islam that has been adopted in Pakistan since its founding in 1947 have raised some questions that warrant a little more detailed study of the related issues surrounding the cultural history of this part of the world. This series is an attempt to examine how cultures are transformed and put on a track diverging from its past.
In modern times when motorways and bypasses are built they are usually laid passing through isolated and uninhabited lands, away from our old familiar pathways and bustling towns. Travelling on these new roads, we move fast and reach our destination mostly in isolation from stations of our human history. In a short while, we get used to these new routes, and soon forget about our old traditional highways, and our old culture.
Cultural bypasses are also built the same way. We have seen one built before our own eyes and our getting used to it in a short time, as if our traditional pathways were never there. From an Indo-Persian cultural mooring, a great Arabist shift has taken place in our orientation and perspective of Islam in the last few decades that has moved us away from our traditional cultural highways of Islam.
Islam broke open with a big bang in Arabian deserts and spread fast into Syria, Egypt, and Persia. Here a rustic Bedouin culture clashed with two powerful ancient civilizations – the Roman and Persian Empires. Islam rapidly engulfed them and fully absorbed and permeated itself into their cultural and intellectual bodies, producing a new shining synthesis. In the process, it gave these civilizations a wholly new perspective and a new dimension.
In most of the Muslim lands the conversion of local population to Islam was almost complete. There was practically no need for developing ideological bases and cultural mechanisms to meet the requirement of living peacefully together with a sizable non-Muslim minority or an overwhelming non-Muslim majority. Muslim rule in Spain and India presented a different challenge: the need for finding ways and means for peaceful co-existence with a Hindu or Christian majority while the political and military power at the top was already in the hands of a small Muslim minority. Political peace and social harmony were the practical need of the day. This need essentially provided the foundation on which the edifice of cultural fusion was built while seeking to maintain the religious freedom and the plurality of independent belief systems. Long Muslim rules in both Spain and India produced the finest examples of religious and cultural tolerance together with exemplary advancement of scientific knowledge. While the developments and subsequent failures in Muslim Spain would merit a separate study, here we can briefly examine the effects of combining of the intellectual spark created in Muslim Persia and Khurasan with the deep philosophical mind of Vedantic India.
A crude attempt to create an artificial hotchpotch in India during Mughal King Akbar’s days understandably failed. The need was obviously for a more sophisticated and carefully cultured fusion of elements that are essential for a creative cultural life and peaceful coexistence among large blocks of people. This was in due course achieved in a fusion of multiple streams of cultural consciousness in India that is sometimes literally called Ganga-Jamni culture, not necessarily restricted to a particular geographical region of Hindustan where the two rivers – Ganga and Jumna – flow but as a symbolism for fusion of two different cultural streams in the whole of India.
Indian Islam evolved as an integral part of a new cultural explosion taking place in Khurasan, Persia, and Central Asia. Armed with the ideas of egalitarianism and universal brotherhood of Islam, the rich cultural traditions of Persia and Khurasan that had strong links with equally advanced and amazingly rich Chinese civilization via Mongolistan and the Silk Road transformed themselves into a powerful force bubbling with the spread of new ideas, discovery of knowledge and applications in technology. This was the torrent of cultural consciousness and thirst for seeking knowledge that found routes to India where yet another ancient culture was established for many thousands of years.
We are successors to this about one-thousand years old Indo-Persian Muslim cultural heritage that commenced when Lahore was made the capital of Ghaznavi rulers in 1022 and it emerged as a major centre of Muslim Persian culture in India. Persian became the official language of the court and the civil administration in Punjab. It was here that Ali Usman Hajwairi, Data Gunjbakhsh (d.1077) wrote the first Persian treatise on Sufism entitled Kashful Mahjub (The Unveiling of the Hidden). It was here that religious reformism of Mujaddid Alf Sani (d.1624) and Shah Waliullah (d.1762) freely intermingled with the studies of mystic cabalism of Ibnul Arabi (d.1240) and Shahbuddin Suhrawardi, and Vedantic philosophies of India to give rise to a unique spiritual eclecticism.
This cultural pluralism had a vast palette of ideas, poetic imagery, and an extremely rich vocabulary and idiom of expressions. As with the rise and fall of ruling dynasties the political backdrop kept on changing rather quickly in the main centre of secular power, Agra, and later Delhi, the cultural and social life in the rural villages mostly continued as is, except for the intermittent increase in taxes in one form or the other. Taking sustenance from a strong spiritual undercurrent of Vedantic thoughts in India mixed with mystic Sufi Islamic traditions coming from Iraq and Khurasan, strong Sufi traditions took roots among Muslims mainly in smaller towns of Hindustan, Bengal, Deccan, Punjab, Multan, and Sindh, away from the main centres of secular political power.
The influence of the persecuted followers of Shia denominations from the Sunni Turk dominated Muslim lands in Iraq, Khurasan, and Persia trickling in to seek refuge in India also gave a strong impetus to the evolving Sufi traditions here. Unlike Sunni Islam, Shia belief system, particularly of the Isma’ili denominations, lays special focus on the esoteric study of the hidden mysteries of batin, the inner self. For years, the Sultanates of Multan and Thatta in Sindh remained under political rulers subscribing to the Qaramatis, an Ismaili offshoot that was predominant in South of Iraq in the region today known as Kuwait and Bahrain. After these independent Sultanates were later destroyed by aggressive Sunni military adventurers, many of their notables had little choice but to diffuse in other lands taking cover of Sunni or mainstream Shia identities.
The proliferation of Sufi mystics like Bulleh Shah, Sultan Bahu, Sachal Sarmast, Lal Shahbaz, Latif Bhittai, Ghulam Farid, and Amir Khusro, Guru Nanak, and Bhagat Kabir singing heart rending poetry in both local languages like Punjabi, Multani, Sindhi, and Urdu (old Hindustani) and in Persian, and eminent Sufis like Datagunj Bukhsh in Lahore, Fariduddin Gunjshakar in Pak Pattan, Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, Bahauddin Zakariya, Shah Rukne Alam, and Shah Shams Tabrez in Multan, Khawaja Baqi Billah, Nizamuddin Auliya, and Bakhtyar Kaki in Delhi preaching and practicing a highly tolerant, inclusive and peaceful Islam gave rise to a form of cultural milieu quite unique to India. Barring some academic discourses and intellectual treatment of ideological issues, most of the imagery, frames of reference, and vocabulary used by these Sufi luminaries were drawn from the local cultural stock or from Persian traditions, which had developed a considerable familiarity over many centuries of cultural interactions.
Between the 11th and 19th centuries more Persian literature was produced in India than in Persian speaking world of Persia, Khursasan, and Central Asia put together. Such was the momentum that it even survived the brutal aftermath of the Great Mutiny and establishment of the direct rule of British Crown in India in 1857. As late as the 1st quarter of the 20th century, many Persian books, newspapers and magazines continued to be published from Lahore alongside Urdu, Punjabi and English newspapers and periodicals.
Together with the rest of the Indian society at large this particularly apolitical Indo-Persian cultural Islam found itself least prepared to challenge the new European powers rising on the horizon after collapse of the Mughal Empire during the 18th century. The European powers swiftly took control of the decadent political structures of Indian society. Armed with powerful Cartesian logic, scientific knowledge, and modern technological advances, these powers soon started having a profound impact on the daily lives of the common men in British India. After scoring initial successes over local coastal rulers, the European Imperial powers engaged among themselves as to who would be the paramount power in India. With Great Britain emerging as the victorious nation, it found practically no match for its competition among local forces and succeeded in putting them in complete disarray.
To be continued in Part-2 …