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History and the sublime truth of religion

“What are your views on Islam and Muslims, considering their history which is replete with ...

History and the sublime truth of religion

“What are your views on Islam and Muslims, considering their history which is replete with mutual distrust, intrigue and chicanery”? This was rather a pointed question that I once put to Prof. Ashfaque Sarwar many years ago. Prof. Sarwar was then teaching English literature at GCU, Lahore, after his retirement from F.C. College. While jotting down notes for his next lecture, he, left me open-mouthed with the provocative nature of his answers. ‘It is not history that determines the philosophical (you may read it ideological if you like) foundations of Islam, the key is the revelation/intuition instead of history.’ For a student of history who reposed firm belief in all all-encompassing spectrum and scope of the discipline of history, such a verdict was not easy to swallow. Since Hegel has made history the main subject of his philosophical formulations, to me and many of my colleagues, the inevitability of history is an undeniable fact. Even theologically, history’s seminality has been clearly ascertained. When I pointed out that even in the Quran three sources of knowledge i.e. revelation, history and the study of nature are explicitly mentioned, therefore making it difficult to dismiss. The Quran itself has invoked history as an important instrument for humanity to learn from its past and plan for its present and future. More so, the traditions of the Prophet (Hadith) apart from their role of interpreting the Quran reveal to us various aspects of the Prophet’s life, thus they work as a source of history. Prof. Sahib kept listening to me with rapt attention, in between he was taking an occasional drag at a cigarette, he at last chipped in, when I halted for a pause, and said to my astonishment, ‘History is far to ‘material’ a process to deal with the sublime truth’. Truth with all its sublime essence, is supra-historical, it is neither produced through history nor can truth be captured through that branch of knowledge. At best history can interpret truth for humans because it is subsumed under temporality whereas truth-reality transcends time and space. History becomes relevant, Prof. Sarwar continued, when it comes to the relationship between two individuals because such a relationship is historically constructed. Similarly, the relations of an individual with collectivity are also the phenomena that are historically forged and fostered. In these cases, history is very important rather indispensable. However, the relationship between humans and their creator can neither be forged nor can it be explained through history. Such an experience is inherently subjective which in most cases cannot be articulated through the sources available to humans probably because human capacity to express such an experience is very limited. He went on to say that poetry is a mode whereby the sublime truth can find expression even if partially. That is the reason all the revealed books have poetic diction. The fact that history and poetry are strangers to each other is not a revelation. History at times is used for the interpretation of poetry. Thus, to him history had just an exegetical role. On that Aristotelian note, Prof. Sarwar paused to light a new cigarette that afforded me a chance to hurl another question. Can any situation be possible without a context? If your answer is in the affirmative, then history is not only important but mandatory. After ruminating for a while, he resumed the discourse in his typically deep voice.

Context and memory are great privileges that humans enjoy over other species. Undoubtedly these two characteristics distinguish humans from animals and signify the former’s limitations too. Any entity which is omnipotent or omniscient does not need any context because even the context falls within that entity (like God, if one likes to call it). Same holds for the edicts and injunctions from that entity. That is the reason religious codes have universal claims. Religion and literature hold each other in a tight embrace therefore literature has a visible universal ring to it. History’s principal characteristic is its being finite and its dealing with finite entities. As if it was not enough, Prof. Sarwar went on to relegate the discipline of history further by saying that before the Marxist turn in history brought ‘social’ into focus, that discipline catered to the interests of the ruling elites, leaving literature and folklore to speak for the ordinary people. That’s the reason novel and drama are more legitimate sources of social history. But then Prof. Sarwar had to concede the expanding frontiers of history. Two radical epistemic strands were made into a formidable part of public discourse in Europe, which were seminal in formulating the sensibility of the 20th century: the first was the quite dense and complex theories of Darwin, Genesis and natural selection whereas second being Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalysis and interpretation of Dreams which impacted even a general average literate person in the West. When I asked about the ideas of these luminaries being quite consistent with intellectual trends embedded in history and simultaneously these ideas having been to a great extent if not fully undermined by religions and the ideologies they subscribe to, his answer yet again was quite provocative. He contended that these ideas were germinated in the context of religion. All the secular ideologies that have presumably swept the intellectual world in the past couple of centuries, essentially sprouted from religious epistemology. The modern world with all its materiality cannot be conceived without the concept of universal good that is steeped in religious ethos. The spheres of education and medical sciences have their moral underpinnings which are Christian, and that morality is what keeps these professions going. The question of context recurred here to the irritation of Prof. Sahib. Despite his insistence that context and thereby history are mundane formulations which have no consistence with higher truth remained contested. That contestation will be taken up in the next column. 

Tahir Kamran

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

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