Check out Professor Ebrahim Moosa’s new blog post on Brain, mind and culture: Promptings from Muslim theology
following tradition is like walking on paths travelled and tested in the past. because walking belongs to movement, following tradition pertains to the past but also regards the future. now if a tradition involves bodies, then the sense of movement therein implicates not only time but also space.إِنَّ الصَّلَاةَ كَانَتْ عَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ كِتَابًا مَوْقُوتًا فَلَنُوَلِّيَنَّكَ قِبْلَةً تَرْضَاهَا
one follows a tradition being followed by both memory and history.وَتِلْكَ الأَيَّامُ نُدَاوِلُهَا بَيْنَ النَّاسِ
within macro traditions are micro ones—precious and pernicious aberrations from the mainstream. ways of being in general and ways of being in particular. belonging to the macro but unbelonging from other micros. to each an open way and a law.لِكُلٍّ جَعَلْنَا مِنْكُمْ شِرْعَةً وَمِنْهَاجاً
traditions enable us to inhabit the structures of identity and difference in our worlds. when we move away from one tradition, we move toward another tradition. we are situated between traditions, in colors we reflect and in colors we invent. our bodies and the personas that adorn them historicize our belonging and unbelonging to traditions. we are at once stabiles and mobiles, pieces of art to be taken up by an artist, scrambled matter to be reanimated by an inventor. maybe we are all similar to the seated passengers of frida’s bus, moving across different worlds. we move when and where we dwell and vice versa. in our dwellings we ground and are degrounded by traditions.
On May 13, the Pakistani clerical figure Mawlana Muhammad Aslam Sheikhupuri was gunned down on a busy street in Karachi. His murder is only the most recent instance of what has become a commonplace in Pakistan, namely the street killing of religious figures.
Struck by polio at age 3, Sheikhupuri was handicapped for the rest of his life, using a wheelchair to get from one place to another. His parents put him in a Qur’an memorization school, where he committed the Qur’an to memory at a young age. Sheikhupuri then studied under some notable Pakistani Deobandi theologians (‘ulama’) in Gujranwala and Karachi. After graduating, he soon established himself as a leading preacher in Karachi, and became famous for his weekly lectures on the Qur’an. The people Sheikhupuri inspired expressed extreme shock over his assassination. Numerous Muslim theologians, such as Mufti Taqi Usmani, expressed remorse at the tragedy. A Youtube video has appeared depicting ’ulama‘ from Madrassa Dar al-‘Ulum Haqqaniyyah in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province holding a press conference to condemn such violent attacks. The press conference concluded with a senior theologian leading the crowd to tears while engaging in a collective act of supplication (dua’). Mufti Taqi Usmani’s mournful speech condemning the killing has also appeared on Youtube.
What happened to Sheikhupuri is certainly tragic and needs to be situated within larger socio-economic, political, ideological, and historical frameworks. Deobandi ‘ulama’ express their grief over such killings, yet no one seems to identify their own institution’s structural place within the overlapping frames in which such violent acts occur. The interpretations of such shootings put forth by Deobandi ‘ulama’ overdetermine the role of theological dissent and difference. Sheikhupuri’s assassination is more tragic because he openly spoke against religious sectarian differences and the violence that ensues in the name of religion in Pakistan.
Yet the institutions of Deobandi ‘ulama’ perpetuate a type of thinking that eludes addressing the social and economic contexts in which physical violence has become an everyday reality in Pakistan. Seeing the world in sin or virtue–through the lens of their version of theological correctness–conceals the material realities in which human life itself becomes disposable. They will also blame it on foreign powers such as India or the West, adding in bits from Islamic apocalyptic narratives about signs of the end of times. Sheikhupuri’s murder is then seen as a sign of the approaching Day of Judgment.
What is needed, however, is to move beyond mourning qua mourning and to hold oneself accountable as both an active and a passive constructor of the world in which one suffers such loss. This requires thinking beyond theological disputes as points of entering and exiting the world; thinking beyond the subjective world.
Such violence unfolds within social vectors, including:
- ethnicity clashes–differences between various linguistic groups are made into essentialist differences. Issues of electoral power, control over the city’s markets, Islamization, and labour force divide the city’s many different linguistic groups: the Sindhis (those who claim indigeneity), the muhajirs (“refugees,” i.e. those who migrated from India), and the settlers from the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
- theological battles–conflicts have escalated not only between Shi’i and Sunni organizations, but also between groups within the Sunnis (Deobandis, Barelvis, Ahl-i Hadith, and so on). There is widespread physical violence that unfolds over this vector, including the hateful crimes against the Ahmadiyyah.
- class struggles–senses of class consciousness inflected by the haunting remnants of the caste system inform divisions of neighborhoods, markets, mosques, political representation, and the sexual division of labour (Orangi Town is the largest slum of South Asia).
- failures of the state’s institutions of civic resources and law enforcement–the police overacts at some places, yet it mostly underacts. There are wide-ranging forms of corruption that preclude the working class from benefiting from the state’s institutions.
- gender and sexuality norms–these are reinforced by religious-moral and cultural ideologies; social class certainly plays a role in easing or rigidifying these norms.
- moralization of the public sphere–here the institutions of the Deobandi ‘ulama’ along with others have become very instrumental. Specific types of selves become laudable and other personality types are vilified. The standard of judgment is often related to “Islamic” norms.
We do not know the motivations behind the heinous crimes of which Sheikhupuri’s murder is only a recent example. But what can be said is that Karachi, and perhaps Pakistan in general, witnesses how society can be punctured by the perils of identity politics and the dangers of an identification-based system of intersubjective relations and communication. Here, Deobandism is more the culprit and less the victim. Deobandism, among other religious and cultural identity groups, gives symbolic capital and institutional space to a sociality in which sameness is embraced and difference is disavowed. In this respect, Deobandism is no different than the aristocratic and upper-middle class hyper-secular, liberal-minded Pakistanis who build mansions in gated neighborhoods, embodying 24/7 the signs of their class identity. In a similar fashion, Deobandism inspires those who come within its folds to embody the visible markers of their identity. This regime of visibility affects the bodies of men and women differently. By participating in Deobandi study circles, forging social networks, and imagining a particular sanitized Islamic future for Pakistan, individuals find it compelling to “act,” “show & tell,” and “wear” their signs of affiliation with Deobandism. But then every social group in Karachi, cut through by vectors of class, religious affiliation, ethnicity, and so on, cultivates its identification markers in very specific ways. What we have in the end is a tumultuous urban space in which people wear their identities and ideologies on their sleeves.
If anything is to be condemned in order to mourn the killing of Sheikhupuri, it is the identification-based practice of everyday life that has become so prevalent in post-coloniality.
Last August, I visited Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Roma (MACRO). While there were quite a few fascinating objects, things, and phenomena on display, some of them even hands-on, nothing caught me more than the work of the Italian artist Bice Lazzari (1900-1981).
The exhibit was titled “Bice Lazzari: L’equilibrio dello spazio” (Bice Lazzari: The Balance of Space). Its entry point was a small room with a few chairs. A documentary-type video was on constant play. After watching this short film, I opened the door to the exhibit. The door was lighted on all four sides and swung back and forth, putting the beam light on the floor space covered by its sway. It was almost a virtual threshold, a threshold created by light and not a strip of wood or metal. Framed on the walls of this room were numerous works by Bice Lazzari. In the middle of the hall were around two dozen drawers of unframed work by the artist.
Her work explores the relationship between line, colour, surface/depth, containment, narrative, and borders. In her work, space is always shared, touching, open to infinite categorization. Abundance of movement, dynamism, and change is expressed through a minimalist technique. At some point or another, space makes us all neighbours of one another. Perspective, gaze, and point of view are all experiences situated in space. Our relationship with space is always concealed and revealed through bodies, mass, matter, volume, density, and curves. For Lazzari, space is valid and mappable. It is the container of both chaos and order.
Ali Altaf Mian. “The Threshold.” 2012.
if space has the potential to take us beyond the evental, then perhaps no spatial category achieves this better than the threshold, a place where space-time becomes explicit as a question. thresholds mark entry and exit, but more importantly thresholds delimit identity. situated in-between inside and outside, the threshold is where space shows generosity to borders and delineations. but inasmuch as the idea of the threshold latches onto openings, real thresholds also provoke closures. there are in-between places we walk across everyday, yet their liminality remains concealed to us. then there are threshold places like the above scene–where the pacific meets the westernmost edge of the eventful city of san francisco–that deground us, compelling our sense of fascination and wonder to knock open doors on both sides. degrounding belongs to the threshold. in belonging to the threshold, degrounding is neither evental nor spatial. degrounding is grounding from base zero, once again. degrounding is the grounding of difference in the structures of identity. coming out of the basement, coming back to life. degrounding is not unboundedness of boundaries. rather, it is a certain re-organization of roots, re-orientation toward relations, re-imagining of origins. degrounding depersonalizes our cherished burrows and bunkers. throwing us up, into the air. re-introducing the element of air into our constitutions so that when we are pulled back down by gravity, difference has already entered us. degrounding is a differentiating debouching of self.
Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
I’ve become accustomed to taking hold of a novel after each semester loses its hold on me. Last December this time, I was busy appreciating the subtle lyricism and ethico-political deliberations found in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. After grading the last bunch of exams about a week ago, I took off a few days in which I started searching for a good story. Not that we don’t already live in stories, but sometimes you need to travel away from your fables and fantasies. Sometimes you just become too used to familiarizing and defamiliarizing yourself with the plots of your life. I picked up The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, sensing in it a good read with which to end 2011.
If I had to use a single word to highlight the underlying theme of The Sense of an Ending, it would be memory. The novel’s first-line introduces us to its protagonist’s relationship with memory: “I remember, in no particular order” (which is followed by a list of memories that forespeak to the content of the narration).
Remembrance is something I do. It is a mental act stroking the psychosomatic members of memory. Memory as such jostles against the threshold space between sense perception and cognition. Using various cognitive-cum-affective choreographies, remembrance cavorts in the brain membranes. Sometimes it moves fast as if eidetically imitating the cha cha or the break-lock-pop. At other times, remembrance follows a subtler pattern of movement like the waltz. But often remembrance is free-style: improvisational, instrumental, associational. This is the sort of remembrance we encounter in The Sense of an Ending. Those who have read the novel might agree with my use of dance metaphors if they remember the protagonist’s recollection of a dance scene after the passing of almost four decades.
Witnessing new scenes and sites re-presents the content of certain memories before us. At the sudden intrusion of these old acquaintances, friends, or foes, we’re sometimes surprised by ourselves. The re-arrangement of the affective field to which we stand witness does the trick. Put the right elements in place and almost any memory comes rushing forth. Sometimes we try to dig inside ourselves for hidden memories, thinking that we ought to bring out what went in. But it’s never that simple. It’s as if memory has a secret promise with non-sovereignty, unsettling the faith and trust we put in indexicality, knowledge, and mastery.
Through the narration of The Sense of an Ending, its protagonist Tony Webster teaches himself a set of lessons about the erratic itineraries of memory. We could say that a reflection is offered on how the chronological time of life gets itself undone through the durational time of memory. But realizing, by which I mean assuming in everyday behavior, ourselves as divided by chronology and duration does not place us outside either. They carry us on forward in time. Even in moments of realizing ourselves as split by chronology and duration, we dance free-style to the beats of being and time. Living implies constant narrative shifts, adjusting to the rhythms of our truths, lies, and indifferences.
“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves” (The Sense of an Ending, 104).