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.’

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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

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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!

Jinnah and Jesus

Muhammad Ali Jinnah – for those who don’t know him – was an Indian lawyer and statesman, who  is credited for creating the nation of Pakistan. He is called the Father of the Nation in Pakistan and is more commonly referred to as Quaid-e-Azam (The Great Leader).

Interestingly, Quaid-e-Azam was born on December 25, which coincides with the supposed birth of Jesus Christ. In Pakistan, December 25 is a national holiday. Yesterday night as the world celebrated Christmas, I, as a Pakistani former Muslim, ended up reflecting on the significance of Jinnah and Jesus.

I wonder what our relationship is with Jinnah and Jesus and what significance do they hold in modern times for an average Pakistani Muslim? Are there any ideals that one can learn from these two individuals and incorporate in one’s daily, post-modern life? Perhaps. But an even more fundamental question is: do I really know Jinnah and Jesus well enough?

For all I know, Jinnah was a liberal. That is, he was not a very religious, practicing Muslim. He smoke, drank, loved dogs and was very Western in his ways.

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Jinnah with dogs. 

He was a far cry from the kind of Shariah imposing clerics that dot the Pakistani political landscape these days. Some would argue that Jinnah foresaw a liberal and tolerant Pakistan while others like to portray Pakistan as a Shariah governed state inspired by the 1400 years old ideals dictated by Prophet Muhammad. The ground truth is closer to the latter claim. Whatever might have been Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan, it is surely hijacked by puritanical mullahs who are hellbent in making Pakistan the most intolerant and backward country on the face of this earth.

While Jinnah spoke of liberty, Jesus spoke of love. Jesus, in principle, should be revered and celebrated by Muslims since the Qur’an explicitly declares him to be a prophet of Allah.

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Jesus and Mary in old Persian miniature. Source: Wikipedia

In Islam, Jesus is portrayed as carrying over the same message of Allah as prophets before him and guide people to the straight path. The Qur’an is, however, replete with verses speaking about the various miracles Jesus was able to perform such as bringing food from heaven, creating birds from clay, healing the blind and the lepers and brining dead people from life. All these miracles were performed by the permission and will of Allah and Jesus is not portrayed to be divine in Islam.

Even though Islam extols the status of Jesus, it is really unfortunate that Christians in Pakistan are a persecuted minority. Somebody made a tongue-in-cheek tweet of Jinnah:

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One of the most well known parts of Jinnah’s first Presidential Address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947 is as follows:

Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal, and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus, and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

Pakistani Muslims have gone off on a tangent from this ideal of religious freedom and tolerance. This year alone, as I had blogged about previously, more than 70 people were killed and hundreds were injured during Easter celebration in Pakistan. Pakistani Muslims are not concerned about teachings of Jesus or the vision of Jinnah. I hope people learn from the lives of Jinnah and Jesus and help in creating an inclusive and tolerant society. Until then, there seems no end to this madness.

Nitpicking the verses

Qur’an is an interesting book. It makes claims which are difficult to understand for the modern mind yet is considered by Muslims, by and large, to be the final word of God until the end of time.

One of my peculiar habits has been to read the Qur’an and reflect on it with modern sensibility. More than often, I end up going down a rabbit hole of confusion and see no easy way out of it. As a case in point, there’s a particular verse in the Qur’an which goes like this:

And all things We have created by pairs, that haply ye may reflect. (Pickthall)

The is the 49th verse of Surah Adh-Dhariyat (The winnowing winds), which is the 51st chapter of the Qur’an. Many Muslims use this verse to assert that all living things have been created in pairs. That is, there is a male and female in for all living organisms. Clearly, such is claim is not scientifically accurate. For example, there is no male or female gender in bacteria. Likewise, the New Mexico whiptail is a female-only species of lizard.

The transliteration of the actual phrase used in the Qur’an to refer to all things is ‘kulli shay-in’. Kul means all and shay-in means things. The verse from Surah Adh-Dhariyat could not just mean only living things. If the Qur’an meant all living things, it would have said  ‘kulla shay-in hayyin’ as it did in Surah Al-Anbya, Chapter 21, Verse 30. The word hayyin means living. 

As far as I see, the everything of 51:49 seems to suggest everything that possibly exists or at least everything that is present in this Universe of which we can possibly know about. It, therefore, makes me wonder how on earth are mountains created in pairs, or rivers, trees and planets, for that matter.

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Image credit: Sophie James via Getty Images

This indeed appears to be a problem for someone who thinks. Again, thinking is exhorted in Qur’an as per Verse 29 of Chapter 38, which urges us to reflect on the verses of the Qur’an.

At the same time, Qur’an declares itself to be a clear book, in Arabic, full of wisdom so that people may understand, according to Verse 2-4 of Chapter 43It seems like a quagmire. If the Qur’an is indeed a clear book, then why is there ambiguity about Verse 49 of Chapter 51, which upon reflection seems to suggest that which makes little sense?

This is just one example of the complexity and obfuscation that reflection on the verses of the Qur’an entails. Some would argue that I am unnecessarily nitpicking or that I am quoting the verses out of context. I don’t have much to say to such accusations except that Qur’an is not an easy book to understand and makes little sense in light of modern methods of thinking. As I wrote in one of my earlier posts, the onus of understanding the mind of the Allah is a bit too much for mere mortals like us. In any case, the journey of reflection on Qur’anic verses continues!

Experiencing Life

One of the books that has had a profound influence on me and continues to inspire me to live my life is a novel by Hermann Hesse called Siddhartha. The novel primarily “deals with the spiritual journey of self-discovery of a man named Siddhartha during the time of the Gautama Buddha.”

siddhartha

Even though it’s a work of fiction, I found the ideas discussed in the novel to be directly applicable to one’s life. Before I read Siddhartha, I was living under the influence of existentialism. It may sound rather cocky but I had independently formulated some of the core ideas of existentialism even before knowing what the term meant or being aware of writers such as Sartre and Camus. In particular, my views were somewhat similar to absurdism, that our life and the world is inherently meaningless save for the meaning we chose to give. I felt giving any meaning to the world and life was pointless. I spent sometime thinking of some intellectual argument to counter this belief but was having a hard time. This belief ultimately impacted my behavior and attitude. I was drawn into a strange isolation and had little to no desire to do anything in and of my life.

Siddhartha changed all of that. Reading Siddhartha did not have an immediate impact. As time progressed, my experiences grew. Reflecting on Siddhartha eventually allowed for a serious transformation to come about. I apologize for the spoiler, so please don’t read further if you wish to read Siddhartha.

Towards the end of the book, Siddhartha encounters his childhood friend, Govinda, who too like Siddhartha was seeking enlightenment. After a long discussion, Siddhartha asks Govinda to kiss his forehead. As Govinda does it reluctantly, he is overcome by a powerful vision in which he sees a thousand different things.

The vision experienced by Govinda made me think about life itself. I had this sudden realization that the meaning of life can only be understood as a unity of experiences. I realized a fundamental problem with the version of absurdist position I had in my mind. Basically, any discussion about the meaning of life will be based on a limited set of experiences. Given our experiences are limited but constantly increasing, the definite conclusion that life has no inherent meaning does not sound completely accurate. As our experience grow and as we are able to organically integrate our experiences, our understanding of the meaning of life will, in all probability, evolve. Therefore, the apparent absurdity of the world and our life is only a function of our limited knowledge and experience. It’s still fairly possible that life may have no meaning at all. However, if life has a definite, objective meaning, it can only be uncovered by striving to increase our repertoire of life-affirming experiences and trying to holistically unite them.

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The Myth of Sisyphus

Siddhartha’s life was like that. He experienced different aspects of life. From being a student to being an ascetic; a lover, a father, a businessman who ended up being a hedonist only to become a sage at a later stage. It was only through experiencing life in all its richness was he able to reach his own sense of enlightenment.

I felt that one can potentially choose any path in life, in any order, to achieve enlightenment. The word enlightenment for me, basically, translates as finding the meaning of life. The meaning of life may change from person to person but this Siddharthic approach offered a real possibility to my mind of finding a meaning that might well be universal. That is, seeing life as one and continuous; as an integrated whole that is constantly growing and evolving.

However, more importantly, reflecting on Siddhartha helped me get out of the existentialist rut I was stuck in. It gave my live a whole new perspective and provided impetus to take action.

Now that I am 30 years old, married man with a child, I often reflect back on my University life. Hanging out with female friends on Valentine’s Day, playing cards in our spare time, having alcoholic drinks with my friend on his rooftop or just basking in the mild winter sun in my hometown are all unique experiences of life. In isolation, they may not represent anything significant about human life. But in moments of deep introspection, they coalesce together to form an organic unity of sorts and offer a glimpse of the ineffable we yearn for. It’s like a Govinda-experience.

But it’s also like being hit by a wave of nostalgia; a variation on the Proustian ‘episode of the madeleine’ that not only makes us vividly relive the memory but, in a Deleuzian sense, teaches us to use ‘signs’ to communicate and understand reality.

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Tea dunking that elicited involuntary memories in Marcel Proust

This is the philosophical aspect of trying to experience life in all its possible richness. The spiritual aspect is to achieve some level of sensibility and satisfaction in an otherwise tumultuous and transitory life. 

Of course, fundamentalist Muslims will clamp down on any experience that even slightly deviates from the puritanical interpretation of Islam. I strongly disagree with Islam on that front and have blogged about it in numerous posts such as ‘Be drunk’ and ‘Allergic to Halal’.

Reflecting on my experiences, beliefs and values along with the state of affairs in Pakistan, I think it’s not a safe place for a free-thinking, free-spirit such as myself. Time and again, I hear news of people being killed, who questioned (Sabeen) or challenged (QB) the prevalent norms. Much as I wish for the situation to improve, I don’t see it happening. According to the 2016 Annual Report of United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), “more people are on a death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan than in any other country in the world.”

Furthermore, USCIRF finds that Pakistan meets the IRFA’s (International Religious Freedom Act of 1998) standard for “countries of particular concern” (CPC).

I pray to myself that the God within all of us sees this madness and tries to put an end to it. Amen!

Islam is bullshit – Part 2

In a previous post, I wrote on how I find many Islamic beliefs to be bullshit just as Christopher Hitchens found them.

In the video I shared in that post, Christopher Hitchens said that Islam is nonsense in its entirety. This is something I have been thinking about since quite sometime. Is it really possible to dismiss a religion as big and as diverse as Islam in its entirety as utter hogwash? About three years ago, I had stumbled across the following video by Alain de Botton called ‘Atheism 2.0’

The central idea of the TED talk is as follows. The atheists have all agreed that the supernatural claims made by religion are clearly wrong. However, there is still something important that one can get from religion even after discarding much of it. The examples provided by Alain de Botton include things like Christmas carols, the art of Mantegna and the architecture of old churches. There are people who are, to quote Botton, ‘attracted to the ritualistic, moralistic and communal side of religion but can’t bear the doctrine.’

As someone raised in a Muslim society, there are a couple of things I’d like to add to Alain de Botton’s list. Qawwali, which is a very moving form of Sufi devotional music of South Asia, is something I thoroughly enjoy. Iftar is also a good example. It is an evening meal that Muslims have with family, friends and even strangers, to end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset. It feels really good to have food with everyone after a long day of work and share a communal space. Eid al-Fitr celebrations are yet another example of the social side of Islam that I am, personally, amenable to.

The ideas propounded by Alain de Botton seem to have some measure of similarity to the kind of ideas discussed by Sam Harris with regards to Buddhism. That is, we can gain from the philosophy of Buddhism even after throwing away all of its superstitious notions. According to Sam Harris, “the Buddhist tradition, taken as a whole, represents the richest source of contemplative wisdom that any civilization has produced.” Sam Harris continues to state that, unfortunately, Buddhists treat and practice the Buddhist tradition as a religion “in many of the naive, petitionary, and superstitious ways in which all religions are practiced”.

I think Atheism 2.0 is a positive direction for human intellectual thought. It offers us, if I may say, the best of both worlds. We can enjoy the artistic, cultural and social side of religions without really believing in or caring about the metaphysical aspects of the religion.

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Source: http://blog.goconnections.org/faith/who-needs-god-part-1-atheism-2-0-a-sermon-by-andy-stanley/

Heretic Diaries Part 1: On Allah

The first Islamic concept I plan to write about in my inaugural post is a no-brainer. It is the concept of Allah Almighty. Allah is the Alpha and the Omega. The Awal and the Akhir. Allah is the Manifest and the Hidden. The Zahir and the Batin. Allah is a paradox to begin with. Islam speaks of Allah in contradictory terms.

My heretic thoughts lead me to believe that Allah is only a reality insofar as human beings are capable of perceiving such a reality. In other words, Allah cannot be said to exist if human consciousness does not perceive Him. But do I really perceive Allah? Perhaps, only as a concept; as a figment of my imagination. Belief in Allah appears to be a psychological fact. According to one of the verses of the Qur’an, Allah is reported to be closer to man than his jugular vein (Surah Qaf).

According to another verse of the Qur’an, those who forget Allah are in turn made to forget their own-selves by Allah (Surah Al-Hashr).

Stitching together these two verses of the Qur’an, Allah appears very similar to the elusive ‘self’ that philosophy, psychology and religions speak about in their own unique terms. Belief in Allah, thus, reduces to nothing but belief in one’s own self, whatever the self means.

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Allah

Furthermore, the descriptions of Allah provided in the Qur’an clearly suggest that Allah has some type of a personality, although orthodox Muslims don’t admit it. It might not be totally wrong to, therefore, think that the notion of Allah is framed in the image of human consciousness rather than the other way round. I say so because Allah is described characteristically in terms that define human consciousness. To be compassionate, to be merciful, to be the creator, to be the nurturer, to be the subduer, to be the protector; one must first of all possess consciousness. Allah is capable of all that we, as humans, are capable of, albeit to a much higher degree of perfection.

Of course, all this discourse about Allah still begs the question about Allah’s existence. If Allah within is human consciousness, shouldn’t we focus on understanding and exploring the nature of the consciousness? Why posit the existence of a complicated being, such as Allah, within ourselves? And what about the existence of Allah without? Is Nature equal to Allah or is Nature a partial expression of Allah?

Whether we like it or not, we invariably end up treading the scientific path in order to answer these questions. Science, of course, is silent about the existence of Allah. It has no interest in designing experiments and developing technologies enabling the discovery of Allah. Allah’s fate is sealed by science and there’s no progress in uncovering Allah.

However, just for the sake of argument, let’s proceed forward. If we accept the proposition that Allah exists as a psychological dimension of human existence that provides a source of strength and positivity, we are confronted with another important question. What’s the importance of Allah in 21st century? Is He needed in any way or are we to do away with His existence all together?

I think there is very little relevance of Allah for people living in post-modern, post-industrial, technologically driven Western societies. The achievements in engineering and medicine have made new gods and money seems to be the sine qua non for sustenance. Allah is an artifact of past. An ancient relic of that is of no use.

It is true that Allah is not of much use. We can discard the concept of Allah as we wish. Yet, for some odd reason, Allah continues to be the source of strength for millions of Muslims across the globe, many of whom are well educated, liberal and progressive by modern standards. A lot of Muslims need Allah and believe that everything they have is a blessing by Allah.

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Muslims praying

I find this quite bewildering at a personal level. But this attitude of Muslims in general reinforces my conclusion that Allah is just an inner, psychological aspect of ourselves. It’s like an invisible parent that constantly watches us, consoles us and, sometimes, confides in us.

Allah is omnipresent and omniscient not in the absolute but in the relative sense. That is we, as individual human beings, are always present and aware of our own-selves. Our soliloquies are prayers.

In my opinion, this mystical attitude makes Islam much more palatable in modern times. Of course, nothing that I have said so far proves the existence of Allah or the veracity of Qur’anic claims. It just offers a somewhat unorthodox interpretation of Islam that might have some relevance.

Allah remains a living reality for believers and nonsense for non-believers. For an agnostic such as myself, Allah is an idea that oscillates between sense and non-sense allowing room for creative interpretation and re-interpretation. Allah is continuously evolving!