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Abstractions and obstructions

A stimulating conversation about Pakistani nation caught up in ‘abstractions’

Abstractions and obstructions

In my College, I once exclaimed to a friend out of sheer desperation that we Pakistanis are a nation caught up in abstractions and clichés. This drew from my friend Mirza Yousaf Baig the interrogative riposte, “But is there any nation that you think is completely without abstractions and clichés?”

This left me pondering about the hollowness of my exclamation.

Yousaf was spot on. Every nation, community or faction has part of its bearing in abstract ideas of one kind or the other. The very idea of ‘nationalism’ is essentially an abstraction, as is the set of values by which we identify any human collectivity or grouping. Thus there is no escape from abstraction.

“Then why do you people make so much fuss over the ideological moorings that Pakistanis claims to have?” Yousaf continued. Obviously he was referring to ideology of Pakistan which is also an abstraction. Why do such notions as the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ or ‘Islam as a complete code of life’ bother ‘pseudo’ liberals like me?

The clichés pointing to Pakistani xenophobia leading to the invention of conspiracy theories were totally left out of the discussion. I contested his views on abstractions because I strongly felt that abstract notions, if accepted as they have been in Pakistan, cease to be within the pale of history. These notions will then be supra-historical epistemic entities whose relationship with humans becomes highly contentious. For me, history is important because among its myriad functions, one is to represent everything that concerns humans.

From here another niggling point that came to the surface pertained to the relationship between ‘abstractions’ and ‘History’.

My contention was predicated on the dictionary definition of abstraction as “the quality of dealing with ideas rather than events”. According to another definition, abstraction is “the process of considering something independently of its associations or attributes” implying that any occurrence, event or notion cannot be considered in abstraction from the historical context in which it was raised. These definitions obviously suggest a clear divergence between abstraction and history. Abstraction therefore is independent of history, which also connotes that it is frozen in time because anything subjected to the course of history will be liable to change with time.

Thus any notion or concept has to be brought down to the ambit of history in order it to be made acceptable.

But the notions behind the ideology of Pakistan were made into sacrosanct ideational formulations, used by conservative sections of Pakistani society to arrest the inexorability of change. For example, Quaid-e-Azam and Allama Iqbal, two historical-modernist figures, have been continuously projected as living examples of these notions that I designate as abstractions. By doing so, both of them too are de-historicised.

This is one reason why the drawing of new thought from Iqbal’s writings is happening outside Pakistan, whereas within the country his poetry and prose are deemed an end in itself.

However, the definition of ‘abstraction’ furnished above runs counter to another, in which abstraction is defined as a process of formulating generalised ideas or concepts by extracting common qualities from specific examples. Put in general terms, this definition defines abstractions as emanating from within a historical context.

Looking at this definition, Yousaf while citing one of my writings, reminded me that Pakistan as a nation-state, by definition a modernist project, was conceived and created historically and that the idea of a separate Muslim state was no different. That indeed was quite a perceptive line of reasoning. I concurred with Yousaf that Pakistan was the outcome of a historical process, which means that Pakistan was brought into being for political and economic reasons. However the process of the de-historicisation of the rationale for Pakistan’s existence was set in motion only after its creation.

The All-India Muslim League went through various phases from 1906 to 1947, eventually reaching a decision in favour of a separate state. From 1911-12 to 1922, Muslim League enjoyed bonhomie with the Indian National Congress against the British, a period which still needs proper theoretical investigation. Those 11 years hardly fit in with the ideological contours configured under the very rubric of the ‘ideology of Pakistan’.

The same holds for the Khilafat Movement, spearheaded by the Ulema, on whose behest Gandhi even went to a mosque to deliver a sermon from the pulpit, quite a unique and unusual event in the history of the subcontinent. My qualm therefore is that while formulating such supra-historical notions, contingencies which are inalienably bound to figure in the course of history are conveniently abandoned.

The inferences drawn out through these ‘anomalous’ historical events vindicate the first two definitions of abstractions whereby they exist, particularly in the case of Pakistan, independent of history.

While unravelling the notion of whether “Islam is a complete code of life” falls within the ambit of history or transcends it, Yousaf was understandably very cautious, even while sitting in the liberal ambience of a Cambridge College. The foundational texts of the Islamic faith, he averred, transcend history because the Quran is the Word of Allah and therefore immutable. But, in order for the people to understand it, it needs to be interpreted temporally, and thus it becomes historical. With a Derridian touch, he underscored that the interpretation is important in the present, even though the original text is universally accepted as a word of Allah.

Here I caught him again. If the ideology of Pakistan is in its entirety predicated on the Foundational Text, The Quran and Sunnah, which are brought into the ambit of history through exegesis, then the former must change as well. Yousaf in turn argued that historians always come up with obfuscated formulations to lead common folks astray.

On this note we closed the discussion but the entire conversation was quite stimulating and thought-provoking I would say.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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