There is confusion prevalent in society; not only in Pakistani society, but in almost all societies. And, this is not new. Confusion has led people and nations to search for clarifications, seeking truth in philosophy, religion, and science. Some explanations are enduring, others even more bewildering. Confusion and curiosity appear to go hand in hand. Young people are by nature more confused and highly curious; older people somehow tend to learn how to tame their curiosity by living with confusion. Often, youngsters pose questions that are not easy to answer.
Is the theory of evolution correct? Or, should I follow the scriptures? Was the world made within a week? Or, is it a process of billions of years? Should I memorise the verses? Or, try to understand them? Is knowledge absolute? Or, is it relative? Is there an eternal truth? Or, only fleeting ones?
Questions such as these are not uncommon. So, what do you do? Keep quiet or give answers that reinforce prevailing ideas? Probably the best option is to lead yourself — and the people you are interacting with — to read more with an open mind. But read what? Qudratullah Shahab and Mumtaz Mufti? Naseem Hijazi, Bano Qudsia and other writers of similar ilk?
Though these writers may serve the purpose of a particular school of thought, a more nuanced and critical reading can stimulate thinking. Religion itself is a personal preference and everyone should have a right to practice what they believe.
It is not religion per se, but increasing religiosity and sectarianism that frays the fabric of society. If young people are confused, they can be led to believe in all kinds of nonsense, from magic to medusa. In education, teaching only one particular creed creates self-righteousness; to counter this the best antidote is a more sociological study of religion.
Perhaps you may start with three small volumes of The Mentor Philosophers series that present the basic writings of prominent philosophers from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The Age of Reason covers basic writings of Bacon, Pascal, Hobbes, Galileo, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. The Age of Enlightenment presents Locke, Berkeley, Voltaire, Hume, Reid, Condillac, Hamann, and others, selected, with an introduction and commentary by the great scholar of the 20th century, Isiah Berlin. The Age of Ideology deals with the ideas of Kant, Fichte, Schopenhaure, Comte, Mill, Spencer, Marx, Mach, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Hegel.
If your curious mind still wants more, you may continue with Durkheim and Weber. They may not give the correct answer, but they can at least encourage to think rationally. To Emile Durkheim, religion is an integrative force in society because it has the power to shape collective beliefs. Durkheim thinks that religion may provide cohesion in the social order by promoting a sense of belonging and collective consciousness. In a way, modern academic sociology began with the study of religion in Durkheim’s 1897 The Study of Suicide in which he explored the differing suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics.
Durkheim’s 1921 book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life is based on the research he conducted studying religions, especially those of small societies. His primary interest was the Totemism, or primitive kinship system of Australian aborigines as an elementary form of religion.
Max Weber views religion in terms of how it supports other social institutions. To Weber, religious belief systems provide a cultural framework that support the development of other social institutions. Weber initiated a large scale study of religions around the globe, especially global religions with millions of believers. His particular interest lay in Ancient Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), he examined the impact of Christianity on Western thinking and culture. Weber’s fundamental purpose was to discover religion’s impact on social change.
Weber saw barriers to capitalism in the Eastern religions e.g. he thought that Hinduism’s stress on attaining higher levels of spirituality by escaping from the toils of the mundane physical work did not encourage making and spending money. One may disagree with Weber’s ideas but at least he gives us a point of departure to embark upon a journey of further exploration in the realm of religion. Similarly Karl Marx gives us another perspective by classifying religion as a tool for class oppression and conflict. Marx was more interested in history, economics, and philosophy so he did not focus on religion as much as Durkheim and Weber did.
But these three writers broaden our sociological understanding of religion.
Another important book is The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion by Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), first published in abridged form in 1922. Frazer is regarded as one of the founders of modern anthropology, and his masterpiece, The Golden Bough, appeared in twelve volumes between 1890 and 1915. He offers the thesis that humanity progresses from magic through religious belief to scientific thought.
For Urdu readers this book was translated as Shaakh-e- Zarrin by Syed Zakir Aijaz and published by Majlis-e-Taraqquie Adab, Lahore. Its third printing was done just five years back, showing its popularity among the Urdu readership.
Next, we can recommend two books by Allama Niaz Fatehpuri, Mano Yazdan (I and god), in two volumes; and Khuda Number of Nigar, a journal published under his editorship. Niaz Fatehpuri discusses the idea of god and how it evolved in various nations and regions. Both have been printed many times by various publishers and still offer a basic course in the idea of religion for Urdu readers.
Syed Sibte Hasan’s Mazi Ke Mazaar (Tombs of the Past) is another book that deals with the idea of creation in various religions. This book has been a best-seller for over forty years now and has seen multiple printings.
Ali Abbas Jalalpuri is also worth recommending to curious readers. His writings, in over a dozen books, all deserve repeated readings and offer a subtler understanding of religion and philosophy in Urdu. In the 21st century, a new Urdu book Tassawure Khuda by Arshad Mahmood has attracted attention of readers and has gone into several editions.
Bertrand Russell, the mathematician philosopher, wrote dozens of books and essays, including his voluminous History of Western Philosophy. Many of his books have been translated into Urdu by our Pakistani scholar Qazi Javed. Javed has contributed substantially with his own writings as well.
In Urdu, the writers who deserve a mention here also include Ashfaq Saleem Mirza, Ibne Haneef, and Dr Mubarak Ali. From history to philosophy, these writers have tried to link the past with the present.
Mirza’s volumes both in English and Urdu cover philosophical discourses spanning a wide range of topics. Ibne Haneef mostly focused on ancient tales prompting us to discover the link between mythology and religion. Dr Mubarak Ali’s focus is on debunking the official history taught in our textbooks. With his over 60 books – some in English but most in Urdu – he clears the spider’s web woven around history in Pakistan.
In the past few years, Dr Rifat Iqbal’s book Khirad Afrozi aur Raushan Khayali (rationality and enlightenment) offered reading delight to Urdu readers. Mustafa Karim’s Raushan Khayali ki Fikri Asaas (intellectual basis of enlightenment) is a marvellous collection of essays available in Urdu.
Mashal Foundation led by Massod Ashar and Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy has been adding to the existing literature on enlightenment and rational and scientific thinking. Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy’s book Muslims and Science has been translated into Urdu and gives an interesting account of the tussle between the thinking of Imam Ghazali and Ibne Rushd. Mashal Foundation has also published translated works of scientists and writers such as Stephen Hawkings, Richard Dawkins, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and others. This writer translated Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time as Waqt ka Safar and it has been reprinted many times. Raashid Raazi and Yasir Jawad have done some very good translations into Urdu.
Finally coming back to the readers in English, the translations of Michel Foucault (1926-84) from French to English offer a treat. Especially his Religion and Culture is a collection of essays selected and edited by Jeremy R. Carrette, first published in a book form in 1999. Foucault wrote these essays over a period of 20 years from 1962 to 1982 covering topics as diverse as madness, politics, religion, and sexuality. This discussion cannot be complete without mentioning Christopher Hitchens writings in English. Hitchens is always a pleasure to read; with his smooth prose and rational arguments he brushes the dust off your brain.
Books and essays are the real harbingers of lasting change, not memes and couplets on social media that may spark a light for a while. Remember the Arab Spring, hyperbolically dubbed as the Facebook Revolution? The role of social media was so much exaggerated as if before Facebook no revolutions had taken place. Just like stimulating poetry, social media can spur the youth for a prompt reaction, but it is not a kneejerk reaction that we need. What our society, or any society for that matter, needs is an ability and willingness of the people to engage in sustained intellectual dialogues that cannot be nurtured without good reading habits.