Among the believers

Upon Junaid Akram’s recommendation, I ended up watching the documentary, “Among the Believers” on Netflix.

The film had a lot to offer and a lot to reflect upon. It offered an insightful glimpse into the Pakistani mindset and paved way to some interesting thoughts. It’s a story of multiple conflicting narratives that quintessentially define the life in Pakistan. You see the two sides of Pakistan. A fundamentalist side that has its own tragic tale to tell about a state-sponsored massacre. And the apparently progressive side, which is heavily suffering at the hands of fundamentalists. Pakistan is truly a land of contradictions.

Screen-shot from the film: Maulana Aziz with a student. Courtesy:

One thought that I particularly mulled over long was about the nature of the Madrassah system. Following is a statement made by a Red Mosque Madrassah employee regarding the enrolled students:

Most are from poor and rural areas in Kashmir. We take care of their food, housing, clothes, and medical bills. Free of charge.

Now the aforementioned can only be achieved, if an institution has no shortage of money. And cashflow required to provide such a level of sustenance can only come from faith based donations. That is, donate in the name of Allah. That’s the basic politico-economics of Pakistan.

It is but natural for the Madrassah system to not only survive but flourish. The Madrassah system will undoubtedly stay at Pakistan, come what may. The problem, of course, lies in what is being taught at the Madrassah and the kind of religious intolerance and violence that is being perpetuated.

Introducing a modern, secular curriculum at Madrassah system can partly help but will not be a long lasting solution. The solution, in my opinion, has to be more organic and needs to spring from the fundamentals of Islam itself. 

The fundamental way to combat the fundamentalists of Madrassah is to offer an educational system like them. Open a Khanqah: Donate in the name of Allah but educate your child along mystical lines. Show that there is a fundamental unity of humanity and all religions, in their respective ways, offer some modicum of truth. The Truth, with a capital T, is, however, far greater than what the human mind can comprehend.

The only way to combat the evil in the name of Allah is through the good in the name of Allah. Salafism is to be combated with Sufism. That’s the only panacea. It cannot be combated with scientific rationalism or militant atheism. The human urge is to gravitate towards something more meaningful than the sum of its experiences. The human urge seeks something greater than itself.

This innate urge is, in my opinion, one of the reasons why religion cannot be completely eradicated from Pakistan, much to the chagrin of people like Richard Dawkins. However, attempts can be made at reforming Islam. Such attempts cannot come without the endorsement of and support from the State. Until that happens, Pakistan will continue to be a breeding ground for fundamentalists like Maualana Aziz of Red Mosque and films like “Among the Believers” will continue to resonate with the world.

Writer’s Block

I’m suffering from a writer’s block and don’t know what to blog. To extol the virtues of science and reason or to bash the vices of religion and superstition. To write about the problems of Islam or to lament the status quo in Pakistan. It’s a tough time and a rough patch.

How do I overcome the difficulty of effective communication? In fact, the inability to communicate. How can I once again flow in a creative flow? To experience the Current, which Merrell-Wolff calls the “Soma”, “Nectar”, the “Ambrosia of the Gods”, the “Water of Life”, and the “Baptism of the Spirit”?

A representation of writer’s block by Leonid Pasternak (1862 – 1945). Source: Wikipedia

One way out of this state might just be to write. Write whatever that comes to my mind. Whatever words that pop to my mind. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes it’s just emptiness. Sometimes it’s all jumbled up jargon; incoherent thoughts and incomplete sentences. It’s pure nonsense…

I want to experience what I call the “State of Qalandar.” I will write more about it in a future blog post. I see the State of Qalandar as something similar to the Current of Merrell-Wolf. I am yet to complete the reading of Pathways Through to Space. I have been occupied with other things but I hope I get to finish before the end of the year. Let’s see what happens.

I profess Merrell-Wolffism. There is no God save for the Current and Merrell-Wolff is Its Prophet. Amen!

There you go. I’ve let out a heretical thought. A proclamation that can potentially get me brutally murdered like Mashal Khan. What can I say? I am a heretic of highest orders from the standpoint of orthodox Muslims. But I’m also a seeker of the Current. My quest is not unique and many individuals before me have tried to tread this path of agony and isolation. The reward, in my opinion, is greater than any imaginable or unimaginable wealth. Let’s see how far I fare.

I sign off for now. Farewell until the next post!

Muhammad Merrell-Wolff

I recently ordered this book from Amazon called “Pathways Through To Space: An Experiential Journal.” It’s written by Franklin Merrell-Wolff, who was an American mystic and esoteric philosopher. I don’t intend to write a detailed review of the book in this blog-post since I have to read and digest it first. I’ll rather speak about an interesting passage that I came across while reading the book.

Wolff was educated and trained in philosophy and mathematics at Harvard and Stanford. I don’t know what turn of events led him to abandon academia and enter in esotericism. In any case, he ended up dedicating his life to transcendental philosophy and mysticism and sharing his knowledge and experiences with the rest of the world.


As I started reading his book, I came across a particularly interesting passage that completely resonated with me. Following is the passage:

Today, I find that in a deep sense I understand Walt Whitman, for I, too, have Awakened. But heretofore Whitman was not at all clear to me, and his words have not helped me to the Awakening. In contrast, the writings of Shankara have proved of the highest potency, while among Western writers it is Immanuel Kant who did most to prepare the Way for me. This is clearly a matter related to individual temperament. Whitman’s Recognition is unquestionably genuine, but for me his words did not clarify but served, rather, to obscure the Way. Of Mohammed’s expression this would have been even truer had I tried to make serious use of it. Yet Mohammed did attain some degree of mystical insight. It seems clear that no man can effectively illumine the Way for all men. There is more than one main Road and a great number of sub-roads. On all these, men who can serve as beacons are needed.

It’s very interesting to note his thoughts on Muhammad. In one of my earlier blog posts, I made a similar comment of how I found it difficult to adulate and emulate the life of Prophet Muhammad. He seemed too distant, too alien for me to have some form of affinity. I do, however, believe that Prophet Muhammad experienced something similar to what, perhaps, Shankara, Whitman and even Merrell-Wolff experienced.

I also think that it might not be possible for one human being to define the Sirat-al-Mustaqim for all men, of all times and ages. In this sense, perhaps, Prophet Muhammad was no different than Shankara or Walt Whitman. He was a product of his time and culture. He wanted to correct the wrongs of his society and addressed the ailments through whatever creative insights he got.

Prophet Muhammad was, perhaps, one of the beacons on one of the roads that lead to the “Awakening”. He cannot, however, in my opinion, illumine the Way for all men, as Merrell-Wolff stated. The same can be said about Merrell-Wolff and Shankara. They are all individual beacons serving to the guide the way for seekers on their own individual roads to the Truth, with a capital T.

In the coming days, I hope I can get to write a review of Pathways Through to Space on my blog.

The Murder of Mashal Khan

And so it happened! The brutal murder of a University student in Pakistan, Mashal Khan, over allegations of posting blasphemous content online.

Mashal Khan was student of journalism at Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, Pakistan. He was accused of running a Facebook page that posted apparently blasphemous content. On April 13, 2017, Khan was violently murdered by a student mob on the university campus. Reports suggest that there were at least 25 policemen present when he was killed.

Mashal Khan

Last month, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, showed his support to crackdown on blasphemous content on social media. According to a tweet made by the official Twitter account of Nawaz Sharif’s political party, blasphemy is an “unpardonable offence“.

At this point in time, I literally don’t have anything to say. My mind is completely blank at the senseless violence that is happening in the name of Islam in Pakistan and that is supported by the Pakistani state itself.

I do, in the strongest of terms, condemn in the inhumane murder of Mashal Khan. I don’t know if he posted blasphemous content on social media but even if he did, killing someone so mercilessly is simply unjustifiable.

I have been maintaining this blog for almost two and half years now and a lot of what I write can clearly be considered blasphemous by Pakistani standards. I will continue to write and support Mashal and everyone who is putting up a valiant fight against the cancerous sore of fundamentalist Islam in Pakistan. Mashal, you live forever!

No Escape from Pakistan

No news from Pakistan is surprising when it comes to suppression of freedom of expression. A few days ago, I found that a Pakistani judge at Islamabad High Court (IHC) has ‘called for a ban on social media sites in Pakistan, due to the spread of ‘blasphemous’ images online’.

Not only that, he wants the names of the people, who are responsible for making such blasphemous content, to be put on the Exit Control List (ECL). This will prevent such individuals from leaving Pakistan.

The decision of this judge in Islamabad is a clear reflection of the kind of thinking prevalent in Pakistan. The thinking that people should be tried and executed for freely expressing their opinions. The thinking that all efforts should be made get hold of such individuals.

Sometime back, I blogged about an incident in which the then-premier of Pakistan made a rather inappropriate statement that those who are unhappy in Pakistan should leave Pakistan. However, with judgements such as these, it seems that it’s not even possible to escape Pakistan. Things aren’t getting any better.

Missing Bloggers of Pakistan

Recently, it came to my attention that a number of social media activists and bloggers went missing in Pakistan. The identity and the motives of the abductors are still unknown. However, what’s common between all these activists is their vocal opposition of ‘religious extremism and the Pakistani authorities’ abuse of opposition activists.’

Protest to recover missing blogger, Salman Haider.

Jibran Nasir, a vocal activist, held a conference to discuss about the missing people. In turn, Aamir Liaquat Hussain, televangelist numero uno, launched a smear campaign against the bloggers, Nasir and Jang Media Group in Pakistan. The smear campaign was launched as part of a TV show called ‘Aisay Nahin Chalega’, which is aired on a controversial channel called Bol TV.

What’s unique about this situation is that for the first time, to the best of my knowledge, voices critiquing the status quo of Pakistan on blogs were tried to be silenced. This is an unprecedented event that is very scary. People criticizing extremist Islam on the Internet are abducted.

Although abduction related to e-proclamations is something new, it doesn’t come as a complete surprise given the conditions in Pakistan. Time and again, grave human rights violations are perpetuated in Pakistan. To quote an article published on this incident on Al-Jazeera:

Dissent or critique of state policy is not only not tolerated but snubbed in a way that an example is set for others. It has been happening to outspoken voices against religious conservatism, state’s appeasement of clergy or the military establishment for years.

It’s really a sorry state of affairs in Pakistan. There’s no room for freedom of expression, even on the Internet. The madness of religious extremism is growing stronger day by day and there seems to end in sight…

The Spirit of Qalandar

I have a confession to make. Even though I am deeply troubled by the metaphysical claims of Islam along with the growing religious extremism in Pakistan and elsewhere, I do have this strange affinity for the mystical aspect of Islam. It’s hard to talk about it in public and it’s equally difficult to rationalize it internally. Nonetheless, I find something rather intriguing about Sufism, which I cannot exactly pinpoint at this juncture of my life.

There is a particular Sufi saint, who has been an object of my fascination since 2013. His actual name is purported to be Usman Marwandi but he is more famously known as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. I like to call him LSQ for short. Time and again, I find myself gravitated to this saint and end up doing some online research related to him.

As his name suggests, he was a Qalandar. Qalandars were wandering Sufi dervishes. According to one online source, Some Qalandars practiced asceticism and often used hashish, alcohol, and other intoxicants… Particular to the Qalandar genre of poetry are terms that refer to gambling, games, intoxicants and Nazar ila’l-murd – themes commonly referred to as kufriyyat or kharabat. The writings of Qalandars were not a mere celebration of libertinism, but antinomial practices of affirmation from negative action.’

The Qalandar in contemplation and in the movement of dancing poster. © Museum of Ethnology, Munich

For the last few days, I have been venturing once again into the world of Qalandariyat. In my latest search, I came across an online article titled ‘The Holy Fool in Medieval Islam.’ Following is a passage from the online article:

As a social phenomenon, the origin of the qalandar is yet undetermined, but the concept made its entrance into Persian literature in the early eleventh century as a paragon of spiritual virtue. In contrast to mainstream Islamic mysticism, the qalandars never established a closely reasoned doctrinal scheme but their teachings was centered around a common esoteric orientation emphasizing inner contentment, tranquility of the heart and prevention of self-conceit. Notorious for their coarse behavior, the qalandars attempted to destroy all customs by committing wicked acts, not as an exit out of society, but in order to conceal the sincerity of their actions from the public view. By overturning conventions they strove to expose the hypocrisy of the established order and question its values. For the qalandar, holy foolishness was not primarily an attempt at moral instruction but an ingenious way to fight spiritual pride.

This in turn, naturally, led me to Google the term ‘Holy Fool’ which I found quite unique and equally interesting. I landed up on a book chapter titled The Holy Fool. The chapter was from a book called Majnūn: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society by Michael W. Dols.

It was but natural for me to come across a description of the Qalandars, while reading this chapter. Following is what I found on Qalandars while reading the chapter:

In later centuries, some Muslims invited reproach and disapproval by behaviour that was offensive to others. This intentional transgression of social mores became the hallmark of the Qalandars, who adopted many of the teachings of the Malāmatīs. The Qalandarīya were eclectic, also being influenced by other religious traditions, notably Buddhism and Hinduism. They were usually quietists and antinomians, who wandered across the Islamic world, like modern-day hippies, outraging public opinion. Although attempts were made during the Middle Ages to distinguish between the true and false Malāmatī, the Qalandars came to predominate and to usurp the term.

In Muslim India, such a Qalandar was known as a malang, who sought complete dissociation with the external world. These mendicants were remarkable for their use of narcotics, their clothing and hair-styles, their personal ornamentation, and their laxity in adhering to obligatory Islamic precepts.

It seems that Qalandars took the beliefs of Malamatis to an extreme. The logical step for me was to next understand the beliefs of Malamatis. Following is what I found in the same chapter:

According to the teaching of the Malāmatīya, a Muslim should similarly conceal his chaste inner life, thereby avoiding the danger of hypocrisy that the conventionally pious encountered. The recorded teachings of this group of mystics ‘is not a closely reasoned internally consistent system, but rather a number of tenets which centre around the basic Malāmatī doctrine that all outward appearance of piety or religiosity, including good deeds, is ostentation. … In accordance with these tenets, the Malāmatī has to struggle continuously against his desire for divine reward and for approval by man.’ Consequently, the Malāmatī did not participate in the obligatory devotional exercises or those of the sufi orders but prayed and fasted in secret. He did not dress differently from other Muslims or follow a solitary life; he adopted a despised vocation and refused a prestigious one; and he concealed his poverty, so as not to attract communal charity. The elimination of the conventional signs of piety from an individual’s life often left the impression that he was disreputable or impious and, therefore, the object of malām, blame or reproach

A painting by artist Ali Abbas depicting malangs. Courtesy: dawn.come/news/1047734

After reading all this, I believe I might have realized my fascination with the Qalandars. The reason I am sharing all these passages is to represent the kind of inner struggle I am facing as a secular human being who, thanks to the onslaught of science and philosophy, has lost faith in Islam. I am equally disturbed by the kind of hypocrisy that characterizes Muslims especially the ones living in Pakistan. They would do a lot in the name of Islam that supposedly has nothing to do with the classical understanding of Islam.

The inner struggle is either to come to terms with the vast nothingness of the cosmos or to find some semblance of sanity and meaning that is so desperately yearned for. This quest of mine can be viewed as “spiritual” by some though I would refrain from using the term spiritual to describe my searching. In some sense then, perhaps, I am a Qalandar. I am a Qalandar insofar as I ridicule outward piety and religiosity and partake in Islamically forbidden activities such as drinking alcohol and eating pork.

As I have blogged before, my apparent heresy is a function of the overt piety and extreme religiosity characteristic of Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular. I am a heretic out of contempt for what Islam has become. I am also in some way an antinomian. I reject socially established Islamic morality since it hinders personal growth and self expression. For an antinomian, faith alone is needed for salvation. For a Sufi, love of God is what truly matters. For a searching agnostic such as myself, self expression is important. It is through self-expression that the inner potential of one’s self is actualized, which, in turn, creates further possibilities of creative unfolding.

I write in the spirit of a foolish Qalandar and will continue doing so. Dama Dam Mast Qalandar!