The way it was: A spirit which must not die

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Can man ever regain his lost heaven on earth? Marx unequivocally asserts that yes, he can and rejoins that in any case, in making the effort, man has nothing to lose but his chains. Today men scoff at all this as clichés, but there was a time when it warmed the hearts of millions. Today, belief in an ideology is like having lice in the head

Planting a tree, painting, writing or even mending a broken fence can be spiritually cleansing. Charity, as opposed to sharing, is based on self-deception — seems as though a person is trying to make a deal with his lord, for a five-star board and lodging. Charity is investment in the future. Creative endeavour is an end in itself. Philanthropists are often smug, aglow with self-satisfaction. Most creative persons are angry and at odds with themselves. Inwardly challenged each day they find the world and its values unbearable. A philanthropist is fortunate to have his conscience at rest and if ever anything ugly or unpalatable intrudes upon his sensibilities, he can readily suppress it by throwing a coin in its direction.

In their time all prophets spearheaded radical movements, in the philosophical as well as in the political sense, against tyrants and exploiters. The great religions, that were supposed to change the world, were soon transformed into reformist movements, which advocated charity and piety in the personal sphere, obedience and surrender in the social sphere. They sermonised about evils of drinking wine and fornication but never once mentioned the wealth misappropriated from the labour of slaves and workers, which was the real cause of evil and decadence.

The Quran is quite explicit in stating that all great bounties of earth were created equally for all humans and not for any one person or class. When man lived as member of a group or a tribe gathering food and hunting wild animals, he was indeed free. He survived and developed because he shared whatever he hunted or gathered and believed in social togetherness. Subsequently, discovery of agriculture led to settlements and private ownership of land and property. This ushered in an era of human conflict, depriving him of his freedom and his heaven on earth. Altaf Javed (Revolution of Mecca) observes that the Koran explains this stage by narrating the story of Habeel (Abel) and Kabeel (Cane), two sons of Adam. In the story it is told that Kabeel, after murdering his brother Habeel forcibly takes his wife and possessions. According to Altaf Javed, Habeel is the symbol of the early period of hunters and gatherers, because on his arrival at the place of sacrifice, Habeel comes with a camel or some other animal, Kabeel on the other hand comes carrying seeds of grain. These grains were the symbols of the agrarian period, which marks the beginning of wheat cultivation. The murder of Habeel thus marks the end of the hunters and beginning of Habeel’s era, based on private ownership of the means of production.

In the first phase man conflicted with nature, in the second phase his principle adversary became man himself which persists to this day. The question is, can man ever regain his lost heaven on earth? Marx unequivocally asserts that yes, he can and rejoins that in any case, in making the effort, man has nothing to lose but his chains. Today men scoff at all this as clichés, but there was a time when it warmed the hearts of millions. Today, belief in an ideology is like having lice in the head. In fact having a philosophical predilection, commitment to a cause, faith in ideas and dreams has all become suspect. Loyalty and love, which were once two of the Top Ten values, have been laughed out of court. Holding an opinion is considered as bad as expressing one. Ideologues build barriers and are divisive by their very nature. Let there be no separating walls so that ideas, nay capital can flow across the world without hindrance or protest.

Upholding a value system where sharing and common human welfare comes first and personal profit third is indeed an ideological issue. But logically speaking, and in all fairness, if profit was better shared, there would be no need for anyone to forge ideologies. In fact there would be no need even for art and literature, which tries to bridge the yawning gap between, “what is” and “what should be”, between existence and fulfilment, between transient and transcendent.

There is a well-established pedigree of intellectuals and conservative mullahs who address common humans from transcendental podiums. Both advocate that all ideas come from above. There cannot be anything more trivial and false than this. Neither aesthetic nor conceptual ideas will ever descend if a person sits in an ivory tower. Man has evolved not by passively speculating and deducing knowledge, but by gleaning it through perception and interaction with life, nature and fellow human beings. That is why the Quran has laid emphasis on knowledge by the “pen”, based on experimentation and perception. I think what limits the creative potential of artists and writers and the knowledge of our religious scholars is their denial of the endless source of inspiration, ideas and knowledge by the “pen”. Sophocles says, “Heaven never helps the men who will not act”. In Urdu we say “Himmat e mardan, maddad e khuda”.

Man has become man through his actions. Ironically, by becoming man he has also acquired consciousness, which has condemned him to make choices, forge ideologies; suffer pain and trials for commitment to others. The modern man is more than ever before ripped apart by social and spiritual conflicts. Hamlet, who in a sense was one of the first moderns after Oedipus, is a thinking person, but more than that he reflects on his thoughts. So does Oedipus in a different context. Hamlet and Oedipus could both have kept their silence and lived happy personal lives. But both had to do what had to be done. In the end their personal suffering seems small in comparison with their struggle to right the irrevocable wrong. Oedipus relentlessly investigates the past, which leads him to his own undoing. He blinds himself by gouging out his eyes and is not sorry for it. “What I have done here was best done — don’t tell me otherwise, do not give me further council.” Marcellus in Hamlet observes, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Hamlet without hesitation states, “O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.” A spirit that condemns you to search for truth and accept responsibility against all odds must never be allowed to die.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist