Ghalib – 12: On the Object of Worship

Religion was supposed to fade away in the 1960s and yet religion, radical religion, is all around us now. The fading away of religion did not take us to a more humane society and the return of religion does not seem to be doing any better.

Let us turn to Ghalib for guidance:

hai pare sarhad-e idraak se apnaa masjuud
qible ko ahl-e nazar qiblah-numaa kahte haiN

beyond the limit of the senses is the object of our worship
people of vision call the Qiblah, the ‘Qiblah-pointer’

At the very least, Ghalib is saying that we should not take the rituals of religion too literally. We should look beyond the rituals and try and envision the real purpose of worship. What should the act of worship be pointing us towards? Is it an end in itself or a means to an end? If the latter, what exactly is the end? Should one really be thinking in terms of an end?

Is Ghalib reiterating the Sufi/Bhakti recognition that god lies within us rather than in the worship of any godhead, an interpretation that would provide an answer to the problem of infinite regress (that of looking for the end beyond the end) posed in our parallel post on Mehr-e-Niimroz?

moko kahaaN dhuunde re bande main to tere paas huuN

na mandir meN na masjid meN na kaabe kailaash meN

khoji hoye turat mil jaooN ik pal kii talaash meN

kahat Kabir suno bhaii saadho main to huuN vishwaas meN

Let us now interpret Ghalib’s observation in the context of today’s Pakistan.

Every leader dashes off to Makkah to perform Umra at the drop of a hat. Yet, his or her political behavior shows no perceptible change. The same level of dishonesty continues to pervade our politics.

Many would argue that the judgment is too generous. In fact, the level of justice and honesty in Pakistani society has continued to slide just as the number of mosques and the number of people praying has mushroomed.

And the level of violence has increased in direct proportion to the increase in the number of madrassahs.

So, clearly, worship has attained some instrumental function in our lives. It has become the pathway to a material end. It has lost sight of what might be the real objective of worship.

It seems that whether religion fades away or becomes more prevalent, societies run into problems if some larger ultimate purpose of life is forgotten.

Where are the people of vision who can see beyond and through the material uses of religion in our times and ascertain the contours of that larger purpose? And what should they be doing in this situation?

  • Hafeez Jamali
    Posted at 23:10h, 16 October Reply

    Thanks to the organizers and Anjum Saheb for a thought provoking post. I think bringing up Ghalib to bear upon religion is innovative and may point to adopting a different direction. Ghaleb was someone at the margins of the official poetic circles even during his own times and people at the margins can be source of new ways of thinking and challenging the status quo. Nevertheless, that does not necessarily make his writings a good entry point into popular religious practices or the evolution of religious thought in Muslim South Asia let alone contemporary Pakistan. He was still very much part of an impoverished elite_ the Muslim Ashraf_ whose fortunes had declined with the shrinking Mughal empire but whose pride in their Turkic/Persian origins, use of court Urdu, and distinct aesthetics marked them from the common man.

    I would like to think that the rise of a certain kind of religiosity during the Zia era and later is inscribed within a state-led project of emphasizing Islamic identity for Pakistani masses as opposed to the constitutional Muslim nationalism of Jinnah and Iqbal. The immediate imperative for this in the postcolonial period was the military-bureaucracy’s attempt to derail the political process initiated under Jinnah, claim center stage for itself in the name of crisis intervention and centralize all state functions in the person of the dictator. The term “Nazaria Pakistan” was coined, I believe, during the Ayub era to legitimate this centralization of the state functions. The liberal modernization project of the 60s and the 70s failed largely because of the inability of Pakistan’s elites and dominant classes to make the kinds of compromises with oppressed ethnic groups and organized labor that would have allowed the formation of a national-popular sentiment/ consensus. This failure paved the way for the resurgence of religious identity marked by PNA opposition’s reliance on the religious right. By the time Zia came onto the scene, the socialist and secularist forces were exhausted and disillusioned by ZA Bhutto’s brutal policies viz a viz his erstwhile allies in students, labor unions, ethno-nationalists, etc. It was in this context that Zia was able to exploit Punjabi urban classes’ frustration with Bhutto and patronize fringe elements such as Jamat-e-Islami to mobilize these masses behind him under the banner of Islam.

    This is running too long so I think I should stop here 🙂

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 15:45h, 17 October Reply

    Dear Hafeez Jamali,

    Thanks for providing an explanation for why the situation was so amenable to religious orientation at the time of Zia. This is a very useful perspective because obviously social realities don’t change abruptly though they often seem to do so. It is intriguing how many of our problems can be traced back to ZAB.

    On Ghalib, the intention is to use something familiar to trigger questions about contemporary issues. Ghalib’s own life and times are of secondary interest in this project. The entry point is just an excuse for a discussion that hopefully converges to better explanations and understandings. Your contribution is an example of the process that was envisaged in starting this project.

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